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Mass. coronavirus cases rise to 123; Baker issues ban on large gatherings

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

As President Trump declared a national emergency Friday to combat the coronavirus pandemic, unlocking $50 billion in emergency funding, Governor Charlie Baker prohibited gatherings of more than 250 people in the state, the latest act in a growing effort to reduce public interaction.

The move came as state health officials announced that coronavirus cases in Massachusetts had jumped to 123, an increase from 108 on Thursday. Meanwhile, the scope of the crisis became clearer and more surreal, punctuated by another rash of cancellations, public school closings, runs on supermarket shelves, half-empty trains, and even the postponement to September of the storied Boston Marathon, which will not be held in April for the first time in its 124-year history.

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“It won’t look right on the calendar,” Baker said. “But it is certainly the right thing to do.”

At a time of mounting worry and isolation, even more churches were forced to close. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston announced that all daily and Sunday Masses and religious services, beginning at 4 p.m. Saturday, would be suspended until further notice.

Cardinal Sean O’Malley said the decision "is motivated by an abundance of caution and concern for those most vulnerable and the need to do our part to help limit and mitigate the spread of the illness.”

Speaking from the White House Rose Garden, Trump said the emergency declaration would free up as much as $50 billion for state and local governments to respond to the outbreak. He also waived interest on federally held student loans and directed the US Department of Energy to buy oil and fill the strategic petroleum reserve “to the top.”

On Wall Street, the Dow Jones industrial average rocketed upward by 9.3 percent, or 1,985 points, after dropping dramatically the day before. Meanwhile, dire warnings and predictions continued to emerge from health experts in the United States and around the world that the impact of the virus had not abated.

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In Massachusetts, Baker’s ban on large crowds extends to community, civic, public, and leisure gatherings, faith-based events, sporting events with spectators, concerts, conventions, fund-raisers, parades, fairs, festivals, and any similar activity that brings together 250 or more people in a single room or space.

"Everybody needs to do their part on this for us to be successful,” Baker said of the ban.

Baker said the order does not apply to normal operations at airports, bus and train stations, medical facilities, libraries, shopping malls and centers, polling locations, grocery and retail stores, or other spaces where 250 or more people might be in transit.

The prohibition also does not apply to restaurants that provide for social distancing, or to offices, government buildings, or factories where it is unusual for people to be within arm’s length of one another.

The state, Baker said, is in "a pivotal moment on what we do” to contain the virus.

However, public health officials are not recommending that schools be closed across Massachusetts.

That decision is being left to the state’s 351 individual communities, despite a letter signed by 22 mayors and city managers who urged that schools be shut statewide.

“We feel strongly that if each municipality is left to respond to the crisis on their own, this ad hoc response will generate panic and confusion among our residents," read the letter, whose co-signers included Mayors Carlo DeMaria of Everett and Joe Curtatone of Somerville.

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Friday night, Mayor Martin J. Walsh ordered Boston public schools closed until April 27, joining some other districts around the region.

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston announced Friday that all Boston parish schools and archdiocesan elementary and high schools will be closed for two weeks from Monday through March 27 and could remain closed beyond that.

Thomas W. Carroll, schools superintendent for the archdiocese, urged all the closed Catholic schools “to make their best effort to provide ongoing learning and provide meals to any students eligible for free or reduced priced lunch."

Amid the flurry of changes and cancellations, the state continued to face questions and frustration about the pace of its testing for the coronavirus, a critical step in determining the scope of the disease and plans to limit it.

Marylou Sudders, the state health and human services secretary, said Friday that testing is about to expand quickly and significantly, and that Massachusetts next week will double its testing capacity, from 200 a day to 400.

However, Sudders and Baker repeatedly declined to say how many tests the state public health lab has completed.

“We are putting that together right now,” said Sudders, who added that the state will begin publishing data each Wednesday on the number of tests performed.

That timetable did not satisfy Attorney General Maura Healey, who assailed the Baker administration for waiting until next week to release the figure.

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“This is not good enough," Healey wrote on Twitter.

Baker, in turn, said the pace of federal approval for testing by private labs has been “enormously frustrating.”

Those labs “will make a big difference” in gauging the spread of the disease, he said. However, he cautioned that the state should not preempt the US Food and Drug Administration and expand testing without federal approval.

"I don’t think the feds are moving quickly enough. But the idea that I would put our entire testing regime or our health care delivery system at risk by literally violating federal law, I’m not going there,” he said.

Baker found common ground with Walsh in an unprecedented agreement to postpone the Marathon, which has been held in April every year since 1897. The prospect of hosting 30,000 runners from around the globe, streaming in close quarters from Hopkinton to Boston before 1 million spectators, made the move seem inevitable.

The race now is scheduled for Sept. 14 as part of a three-day weekend that state, city, and local officials hope will recoup much of the economic benefit of the yearly Patriots Day event.

The implication: that the region, and the rest of the world, will return to some semblance of normalcy by September.

“This date jumped around like a pinball" during discussions about when to hold the race, Walsh said in a news conference. “It’s complicated.”

Walsh said no serious thought had been given to holding the Marathon in April without spectators or limiting it to elite runners. "The Marathon is for everybody,” he added.

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"The metaphor here writes itself,” Baker said. “Today, we’re on the first leg of a marathon of our own as we battle this very serious disease.”

That battle also enveloped Representative Joseph P. Kennedy III, who announced he was suspending his Senate campaign for at least a week due to the “growing threat” of the virus, a delay that includes seeking to reschedule a debate with his primary opponent, incumbent Senator Edward J. Markey.

The fight extended to law enforcement and Massachusetts courthouses, as the state’s high court Friday ordered a halt to new jury trials until April 21. Meanwhile, some police departments announced they would end non-emergency visits by the public to their station houses for the immediate future.

Historic sites such as the Old North Church, Paul Revere House, and the Old State House, among others, announced they would close to public programming and tours until at least March 31.

In addition, the Boston Housing Authority announced it would stop pursuing all “nonessential” evictions while the public health emergency is ongoing.

Travis Andersen, Martin, Finucane, Victoria McGrane, Deanna Pan, and Andrew Ryan of the Globe staff contributed to this report.



Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com. Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout Tim Logan can be reached at timothy.logan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bytimlogan.