Governor Charlie Baker on Sunday night took drastic steps to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, which has at least 164 cases in Massachusetts as of Sunday evening, with more cases expected as the state ramps up testing.
The steps are major: Classes will not be in session in the state’s public and private schools for three weeks. Restaurants and bars will only offer takeout for customers to eat at home. Gatherings of 25 or more are largely banned.
Here’s a look at the key points Baker announced on Sunday.
- There is no shelter-in-place order being considered. That was a drastic measure the state took in 2013, as law enforcement officers went door to door in Watertown searching for one of the brothers responsible for the Boston Marathon bombing. But despite rumors, Baker said, the state is not considering it right now. People are allowed to go outside, so long as they practice social distancing. “People still need to go, obviously, to supermarkets and pharmacies and a variety of other places like that,” Baker said.
- K-12 schools will be closed from Tuesday until April 6. Baker said cities and towns can still use school buildings for things like food distribution, but classes will be out. He emphasized that this should not be treated like an early summer vacation — having kids in large groups defeats the purpose of the school shutdown. “We will not be doing our part to prevent the spread if there are a ton of kids hanging out playing video games and sharing snacks, every day from one house to the next," Baker said. "We’re urging parents and caretakers to use the next three weeks to truly practice social distancing. This means maintaining a safe separation of at least six feet from others. This means no free-for-all playdates and more time at home with only immediate family for the next three weeks.” Baker also noted that individual districts could close schools longer than the state’s parameters.
- Daycare programs can stay open. “We are not ordering the closure of childcare programs at this time,” Baker said. The state will prioritize childcare for kids of healthcare workers and first responders who still have to go to work. If anyone at a childcare program had direct or indirect contact with someone who has COVID-19, Baker said, the business should follow guidelines by the Department of Early Education and Care and the Department of Public Health and temporarily close. Residential schools for special needs students and group homes may also stay open.
- Colleges will be encouraged to go online-only. Baker said the state will “strongly recommend” remote classes for higher education students.
- More than 25 people cannot gather in one place until the virus’ spread is contained. This applies to schools, places of worship, gyms, any sporting events that have not been completely canceled, retail stores and civic events like town meetings. It does not, however, apply to hospitals, grocery stores, and pharmacies, which can let in more people so long as they practice proper social distancing.
- Restaurants and bars will only be open for take-out and delivery until April 6. No dining in. This order doesn’t apply to grocery stores or pharmacies, which can remain open as usual. Retail stores can stay open too, but they cannot have more than 25 people in the space at a time.
- Employees of affected businesses can apply for unemployment — and the state will try to streamline the process. The state will waive the one-week waiting period for unemployment benefits, expand eligibility for people impacted by virus-related closures, and is “relaxing some of the requirements around current unemployment claims,” Baker said. He did not offer many specifics, but said the legislation will be filed Monday morning.
- Hospitals will reschedule non-essential elective surgeries and procedures. “This is to ensure that medical supplies and resources are available for treatment of individuals who have COVID-19, should they require medical attention or hospitalization,” said Marylou Sudders, the state’s secretary of health and human services. “It also further conserves personal protective equipment, such as masks, gowns and gloves for use by healthcare professionals.” If you have a medical procedure scheduled, contact your doctor or healthcare provider to see if it meets the Department of Public Health’s criteria for moving forward.
- Medical insurance companies in Massachusetts must cover telehealth services. These phone or video-based appointments will be covered by insurance, and the insurance provider will pay your doctor the same rate it would for an in-person visit, Sudders said. This is another example of social distancing — people should be able to talk to a doctor and get prescriptions written without having to sit in an ER or waiting room, she said. The state will also prohibit cost sharing and prior authorization for telehealth services for the treatment of COVID-19, Sudders said.
- Hospitals will limit outside visitors to patients, and nursing homes will ban them. There will be exceptions for end-of-life and hospice care, Sudders said. Hospitals will have to screen visitors before they allow them to visit their loved ones.
- The state is ramping up its testing capacity. As of Saturday, the Massachusetts State Public Health laboratory had tested samples from 475 people for the novel coronavirus. On Sunday that number jumped to 799 — plus another 170 from federally-approved labs, said Monica Bharel, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. She estimated that the state’s lab will be able to test samples from about 400 people a day, and that doctors have to submit only a nasal swab for their patients. “This is good news,” Bharel said. “With more clinical labs in Massachusetts working to get FDA approval, even more capacity will be coming online soon.”
- Check on your friends and neighbors. “A check in can go a long way right now to helping someone through their day,” Baker said.
Gal Tziperman Lotan can be reached at email@example.com or at 617-929-2043.