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Time of reckoning for New England Aquarium, Museum of Science

THE NEW ENGLAND AQUARIUM and the Museum of Science are back on their heels right now, but the leaders of the two institutions say they hope to reopen in July with different business models and agendas.

Both institutions shut down in mid-March in response to the coronavirus. The aquarium relies on ticket sales and events for 80 percent of its revenue, and all of that income disappeared. At the Museum of Science, the number is 55 percent. The aquarium, which still has 20,000 animals to take care of, laid off or furloughed half its staff while the Museum of Science furloughed or laid off two-thirds of its staff.

Tim Ritchie, who took over as president of the Museum of Science in February, said on the Codcast that the closing was a huge shock to the institution. But he said it was also a wakeup call, bringing issues to the fore that had not been addressed adequately before.

Ritchie said he took the job at the Museum of Science knowing the institution was too reliant on earned revenue, but COVID-19 has driven home that overdependence and the need to make a case for greater philanthropic support. Ritchie said COVID-19 has also provided the storyline for making the case for philanthropic support.

“Strangely, this is a public science moment like we haven’t had in my entire lifetime,” Ritchie said. “So as bad as it is, it’s still our moment to step into it and to say science has become public and participatory like never before. Everyone who wears a mask is a citizen scientist. Everyone who maintains social distancing is a citizen scientist. Where but these cultural institutions can we have a conversation with the values that can build a science-literate society?”

Walsh says governing has become about ‘life and death’

MARTY WALSH IS THE FIRST to admit that dealing with a global pandemic was never among the challenges he imagined facing as Boston mayor. “The last thought in my mind — it wasn’t even a thought in my mind — was that we were going to be dealing with a worldwide pandemic,” he says on this week’s Codcast.

But he’s been doing just that for more than 10 weeks, freezing construction work in Boston, standing up a rental relief program, and overseeing a set of city initiatives aimed at ensuring  care for the homeless and other vulnerable groups amidst the coronavirus crisis.

“It’s life and death, and the decisions we make have to be quick,” says Walsh. “They have to be precise and you can’t second guess it and worry about what people are going to say.”

The state is beginning a phased reopening, but Walsh is not particularly sanguine that we’re past the worst of the outbreak. “I do not think the worst is behind us. I still think it’s in front of us,” he says. “Listening to the experts, they’re all telling us that there’s going to be a resurgence in the fall.”

Senator says nursing home industry collapsing

THE SENATE’S LEAD PERSON on health care issues says the skilled nursing home industry in Massachusetts is struggling to stay afloat amid a virus that has claimed 3,534 lives at the facilities.

“What we are seeing is an industry that was on or near the verge of collapse and it is collapsing,” said Sen. Cindy Friedman of Arlington. Friedman was speaking on the Health or Consequences Codcast with John McDonough of the TH Chan School of Public Health at Harvard University and Paul Hattis of the Tufts University Medical School.

Friedman, the Senate chair of the Health Care Financing Committee, said the Baker administration was right to pump $130 million of Medicaid funding into the industry and launch audits of each nursing home to check compliance with a 28-point checklist for infection control.

“You can argue that it didn’t happen fast enough or it isn’t enough, but what they’re doing right now is what needs to happen. It is a huge issue and it is extremely complicated. What we’re seeing is years of, you know, big companies coming in and buying nursing homes,” she said. “Nursing homes used to be all mom and pop local. Now they’re run by people in places like New Jersey and Texas. They don’t know from Massachusetts.”

Poftak wary of taking hard policy stances at T

GOV. CHARLIE BAKER’S order requiring all passengers on the MBTA to wear face masks or face coverings took effect last week, but don’t expect strict enforcement by the state’s transit authority.

Steve Poftak, the T’s general manager, said the order exempts people who are unable to wear a face covering because they have a medical condition. He also noted that the order doesn’t require someone claiming a medical condition to provide proof of the condition.

“We won’t be refusing rides to people who are not wearing face masks,” Poftak said, quickly adding that “obviously we want the wearing of face masks to be the normative.”

Making his first appearance on the Codcast, Poftak said the T is facing a time of great uncertainty, with fare revenue currently 10 percent of its pre-COVID level and not expected to reach 60 percent until June 2021. Budgeting over the next two years won’t be easy, and polls suggest convincing riders to return to the system will be difficult. Befitting someone who has the governor, the secretary of transportation, and an oversight board looking over his shoulder, Poftak is very cautious about adopting sharp policy stances.

Sweden’s coronavirus gamble

SWEDISH CULTURE AND the country’s national psyche are often described using the word lagom, which defies simple translation, but is defined variously as “just the right amount,” “in balance,” or “moderation.” It describes generally the even-keeled ways of Scandinavia’s most populous country, but it now also extends to Sweden’s controversial approach to the coronavirus pandemic.

While virtually every country being hit by the virus has raced to institute near lockdowns of society, with the enormous disruption and economic convulsions that come with it, Sweden has followed a much more measured path.

Government authorities strongly urge social distancing, visitors to nursing homes — which have been hit hard by the virus  — are banned, and high schools and universities have closed and moved to remote learning. But younger grade schools are still in session, stores, bars and restaurants are open, and virtually no one is wearing a mask. People are encouraged to work from home if they can, but there has been no blanket shutdown of businesses.

The approach has drawn sharp criticism from some public health experts who say the country is recklessly endangering lives. But we may not be able to offer a full appraisal of Sweden’s approach for a couple of years. The broad truth offered by Soren Kierkegaard, the philosopher from neighboring Denmark, captures well the particular challenge of decision-making in the middle of a pandemic with a previously unknown virus: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

For now, it seems most in Sweden are comfortable living forward under the more modulated approach devised by public health authorities there.

Coronavirus spotlights unease about end-of-life issues

THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC has brought inspired scenes of heroic health care providers engaged in an all-out effort to save lives. But what about helping those at the end of life have a good death?

Many of those dying from COVID-19 are elderly patients in hospital intensive care units, connected to ventilators and other life-support technology. It’s become a grim ending for many who have fallen victim to this horrible disease.

It also raises a lot of very difficult questions about death and dying in America, a subject we are not very good at dealing with, said Dr. David Duong on this week’s Codcast.

“I think that we as a society have been quite resistant and quite hesitant to have conversations around death and dying because of our cultural context around it and how it’s the end. It’s the final, it’s a defeat,” said Duong, a primary care physician and internist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “In our medical care system, it is giving up. I think we need a reframe or a reshift of that to [the idea] that dying is really the next stage of life and it’s the next chapter, and how do we want to be in control of how that next stage happens.”

Duong wrote poignantly about end of life issues in a 2016 essay in the Huffington Post. He says the coronavirus pandemic, in which fatalities are heavily weighted toward the oldest patients, is casting our ambivalence over the topic in sharp relief.

Baker accused of misplaced COVID-19 priorities

TWO LEADING OFFICIALS in the state’s nursing home industry said on The Codcast that the Baker administration focused too much attention in the early stages of the COVID-19 crisis on hospitals and not enough on long-term care facilities.

“The state has done a tremendous job of focusing on hospital surge and doing all we can through social distancing and tracing methods to really try to protect our communities, but where the virus is most severe is in our long-term care facilities,” said Tara Gregorio, president of the Massachusetts Senior Care Association. “Clearly we do need to redouble our focus relative to the crisis in nursing facilities.”

Rich Bane, the president of BaneCare Management, which operates 11 nursing homes and two assisted living facilities in Massachusetts, echoed that sentiment. “There’s a sports metaphor here,” he said. “The state was guarding the wrong man early on.”

One possible sign of the state’s slow grasp of the nursing home situation was its data gathering. It wasn’t until April 2, when the total number of COVID-19 cases reached 8,966 and the total number of deaths hit 154 that the state started to report on the situation at nursing homes. Initially, the state only released information on the number of positive tests at long-term care facilities and the number of facilities with at least one COVID-19 case.

We have a problem in aisle 5

EVERYONE KNOWS WHAT IT’S LIKE these days to be inside a supermarket, but few people know what it’s like to be in the shoes of the essential workers who keep those stores running.

On the Codcast, Boston-based Stop and Shop employee Jose Lopes and Whole Foods worker Dan offered their assessment of the risks they face these days working at grocery stores during the coronavirus pandemic. (Dan has asked that his last name not be used.)

Lopes unloads groceries from trucks, and spends the second part of his shift on the floor. “It’s extremely hectic. I wouldn’t imagine in the 38 years I’ve worked at Stop and Shop that I’d be seeing this,” he said.

Stop and Shop has provided its workers with gloves and a N95 mask, which must be reused several times since they are in short supply. Lopes said he’s concerned about wearing the mask so many times when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends only wearing it once.

“I go in with the mask and gloves. I try not to take them off, to take a break, or eat anything,” he said. “Keep the mask on until you go home.”

Dan, a shelf stocker, said it’s almost impossible to not come in contact with customers who pass by in aisles and come up close to workers to ask questions. Whole Foods has tape on the floor spacing people out, but besides the six-foot distance from whomever is checking out at the cash register, customers don’t always respect that spacing.

Do we still need transportation legislation?

State lawmakers are starting over from scratch this week with the state budget, and many are wondering whether issues such as education and transportation that seemed so urgent just a month ago are still high priorities amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

A big education funding package was signed into law earlier this year but now comes with a big price tag. Can the state still afford it?

The House passed a nearly $600 million transportation funding package in early March, but now our roads and subways are empty, the economy is in the tank, and state tax revenues are expected to fall pretty dramatically. Is transportation still a top priority, or is it something that can wait until later?

Keeping the faith in coronavirus era

WHILE HEROIC HEALTH CARE PROVIDERS are on the front lines, putting themselves at risk as they care for patients being ravaged by the novel coronavirus, faith leaders and their congregations are playing an indispensable role providing spiritual healing and comfort, while also helping to care for the physical needs of many.

The cruel irony of the COVID-19 pandemic is that the need to maintain community and hold each other close is colliding with the imperative that we stay apart from one another physically. Pastor Day McCallister of First Church Somerville and Rabbi Wes Gardenswartz of Temple Emanuel in Newton offer vivid testimony on this week’s Codcast to all the ways that faith communities are overcoming that barrier.

Gardenswartz said the temple’s daily prayer service usually drew 15 to 20 people to the synagogue. “Now that we’re streaming it online, we get more than 200 people following it,” he says. “The ironic impact is that more people are connected spiritually in this age of physical distancing than were connected spiritually before because it fulfills human needs for meaning and purpose, especially at a hard time.”