As the number of coronavirus cases continued to spike in Massachusetts, Governor Charlie Baker on Wednesday ordered most early education and child care centers in the state to close beginning Monday.
Baker’s announcement came as the state Department of Public Health reported 256 confirmed cases of the infectious disease, a 17 percent increase since Tuesday. Department officials also said that 1,168 Massachusetts residents remained in quarantine as potential coronavirus carriers.
Baker said that a limited network of child-care providers would remain open to "provide priority access for families of emergency personnel, medical staff, and others critical to fighting the COVID-19 outbreak,” as the virus is known.
“Vulnerable children will also receive priority,” Baker said. “We’ll work hard to make space for people who must go to work but aren’t necessarily emergency personnel.”
The order to close most day care centers Monday will create even more challenges for families struggling to balance health, work, and family needs during a crisis that has touched nearly all aspects of everyday life.
A nationwide shortage of swabs and other medical supplies is forcing Massachusetts hospitals to ration testing and limit screening to the most severe cases. More new unemployment claims were filed Monday than the state had received in all of February. And an employee of the House of Representatives has tested positive for the virus, apparently the first case involving a State House worker.
The shock to Massachusetts businesses, shaken by the mandatory closings of restaurants and bars announced Sunday, has resulted in a flash flood of unemployment claims. The state received 19,884 new claims on Monday, compared with 17,382 last month.
The order to close most child care facilities came after nearly 24,000 child care workers signed a petition urging the state to shut them down, and marked the latest in a series of aggressive moves to combat the virus.
“There’s much to do, but we’re grateful for everybody’s commitment to their fellow citizens," Baker said. “And we give everyone our word that we will devote everything we’ve got to defeating this.”
Earlier in the day, Bright Horizons, the Massachusetts-based chain of day care centers, announced plans to close about 50 of its 60 day care centers in the state and open “hubs” to accommodate clients who are central to the fight against the virus, such as hospital health care workers, and pharmaceutical, biotech, and emergency personnel.
The state asked day care providers to register online if they are willing to continue operations aimed at critical employees. Dorothy Williams, who runs Dottie’s Family Child Care out of her Dorchester home, said she could help meet that need.
“I have some children here whose parents work on the front line, in hospitals,” Williams said. "And then I have children who are at-risk kids.”
Williams said she is not worried about contracting the coronavirus because she practices safety measures, bleaching and disinfecting on a regular basis. But she is worried about keeping her business running for the long term.
On Tuesday, only three of 10 enrolled children came to Williams’s program, she said.
“I do have a viable business that I want to maintain and run, and that’s going to be difficult to do without children,” she said.
As restrictions mount on daily life and routines, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh said Wednesday afternoon that the city currently has no plans to issue a shelter-in-place order. But that could change, he added.
“I’m not saying that [sheltering in place] will never be a potential option,” Walsh said, pointing to the unpredictable nature of the pandemic. “We could be standing here in four hours having a very different conversation.”
To ease the economic pain on households, Baker has filed legislation that would allow some workers to begin immediately collecting unemployment benefits and avoid the current one-week waiting period. State officials encouraged residents to apply for benefits online.
The state Department of Unemployment Assistance can pay benefits to workers who are quarantined due to an order by a civil authority or medical professional, or are unemployed because of “reasonable risk of exposure or infection or to care for a family member,” according to state officials.
A worker does not need to provide medical documentation, according to a new site the state launched to provide information on benefits during the pandemic.
On the MBTA, morning commuters voiced frustration about shoulder-to-shoulder crowds on Blue Line trains and questioned the logic of reducing service at a time when people are supposed to practice “social distancing."
After receiving some initial complaints, the T had pledged to provide more service on the heavily traveled route, compared with lighter service on other lines that have been reduced to a Saturday schedule.
Elsewhere, travel to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket spiked as part-time residents, many with Connecticut and New York license plates and some with private planes, decamped to their second homes on the islands in search of greater isolation.
Year-rounders, however, expressed concern that the sudden, early influx of seasonal residents would strain the ability of stores to stock essentials.
The state’s robust medical community also is under strain, as health workers plead for more medical and protective supplies. In Worcester, UMass Memorial Health Care has such a shortage of swabs and personal protective equipment that coronavirus tests have been limited to those who are already hospitalized and suspected of having the disease, dialysis patients, and any health workers who show symptoms of the illness.
In addition, US immigration offices across the country were ordered closed Wednesday through the rest of the month. But the government faced sharp criticism for failing to close most of its immigration courts, including Boston’s.
Mahsa Khanbabai, head of the New England chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said the government is putting people at risk by keeping immigration courts open to dispose of cases involving suspects in custody.
At the State House, House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo sent an e-mail to legislators and staff Wednesday that an unnamed employee had “received a presumptive positive test” after going on sick leave last Thursday.
Offices that the employee visited have been notified and “will receive a comprehensive environmental cleaning before members and employees will be permitted to return to those spaces," the notice stated.
Travis Andersen, Dugan Arnett, Martin Finucane, Shelley Murphy, Matt Rocheleau, and Matt Stout of the Globe staff contributed to this report.