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Governor Baker has declared a state of emergency. What does that mean?

Governor Charlie Baker held a press conference at the State House to give an update on the coronavirus.
Governor Charlie Baker held a press conference at the State House to give an update on the coronavirus.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

The state of emergency declared Tuesday by Governor Charlie Baker gives him special powers, under a Cold War-era state law, to protect the public. Such declarations have mainly been used in recent years to keep people safe from major storms that have hammered the state.

A state of emergency can be declared by the governor if a natural or manmade disaster is happening or about to happen, according to the state website. A declaration can cover one community, multiple communities, or the entire state.

Under a state of emergency, the governor can issue executive orders, which must be treated as law and may override existing law for the course of the disaster, the website said.

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At a State House news conference Tuesday, Baker said his statewide declaration would give his administration more flexibility in dealing with the coronavirus outbreak.

Gov. Baker declares state of emergency over coronavirus
Governor Charlie Baker on Tuesday declared a state of emergency as the number of coronavirus cases in Massachusetts more than doubled to 92.

“It basically means that we have the ability, if we need to, to do a variety of things that, under just standard operating procedure, we can’t,” he said. One possible example of the need for a declaration, he suggested, would be if the state needed to order the cancellation of large events

“When you start talking about stuff like that, we need a different level of emergency declaration," he said.

The emergency declaration itself says it is intended to “facilitate and expedite the use of Commonwealth resources and deployment of federal and interstate resources to protect persons from the impacts of the spread" of coronavirus.

“I shall from time to time issue recommendations, directives, and orders as circumstances may require,” it also says.

The authorizing law, Chapter 639 of the Acts of 1950, reflects Cold War nightmares, providing that the governor can, among other things, “employ every agency and all members of every department and division of the government of the commonwealth to protect the lives and property of its citizens and to enforce the law.”

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The governor, under the law, can also “take possession (1) of any land or building, machinery or equipment; (2) of any horses, vehicles, motor vehicles, aircraft, ships, boats or any other means of conveyance, rolling stock of steam, diesel, electric railroads or of street railways; (3) of any cattle, poultry and any provisions for man or beast, and any fuel, gasoline or other means of propulsion which may be necessary or convenient for the use of the military or naval forces of the commonwealth or of the United States, or for the better protection or welfare of the commonwealth or its inhabitants.”

But the hellish scenario of a nuclear attack on the United States, which loomed over the country at the time, has never materialized. Instead states of emergency have been utilized typically in recent years to take less dramatic measures to respond to the winds, waves, and flooding of intense storms.

In 1978, then-governor Michael S. Dukakis declared an emergency because of that year’s epic blizzard. The Globe observed in a news analysis at the time that Dukakis had been given “the power of a medieval monarch” because of Chapter 639.

“In other words, Michael Dukakis, who campaigned on improving MBTA vehicles, now, in effect owns them, and a few live chickens as well,” the Globe writers quipped.

Dukakis ordered a travel ban in that storm, and then-governor Deval Patrick followed suit in the Blizzard of 2013.

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The state website lists nearly a dozen emergencies declared since January 2011, almost all of them related to keeping people safe from the region’s most memorable storms.

In September and October 2018, departing from the norm, Baker declared, and then renewed, a state of emergency because of the outbreak of gas-fueled fires and explosions in Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover.

A growing number of states, including Rhode Island, have declared emergencies. Governor Gina M. Raimondo said Monday the declaration “gives us more tools in our toolbox.” In New York, where Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a state of emergency on Saturday, schools, houses of worship and large gathering places will be shuttered for two weeks in a “containment area” centered on suburban New Rochelle, Cuomo said Tuesday.

Jeremiah Manion of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Martin finucane can be reached at martin.finucane@globe.com