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Mass. issues stay-at-home advisory, closes nonessential businesses, as coronavirus death toll rises to nine

On most pre-virus days, hundreds may traverse Boston Common; at 1 p.m. Monday, a solitary person walked from Brewer Fountain.
On most pre-virus days, hundreds may traverse Boston Common; at 1 p.m. Monday, a solitary person walked from Brewer Fountain.Blake Nissen/for the Boston Globe

In the sharpest restriction on daily life yet, Governor Charlie Baker ordered all nonessential businesses in Massachusetts to close their doors by midday Tuesday and urged the state’s nearly 7 million people to stay home in the face of the novel coronavirus’s rapidly growing, and increasingly deadly, spread.

At least nine people in the state have died due to COVID-19 as of Monday, four more than previously reported, according to state figures. The number of confirmed cases in Massachusetts spiked by 20 percent in a single day to 777 Monday.

Infections are touching virtually every part of Massachusetts, and COVID-19 is reaching across generations, too: Of confirmed cases, 134 include people under the age of 30; 107 involve those 70 or older.

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Baker’s business closure order, which goes into effect Tuesday at noon and will remain in place until at least April 7, will not affect grocery stores, pharmacies, medical facilities, or gas stations, among a variety of other businesses that can remain open.

Those required to close, such as movie theaters, barber shops, and bookstores, must shutter their physical locations but, where possible, companies are encouraged to operate remotely.

Massachusetts joins at least 12 other states with formal orders or advisories urging citizens to stay inside amid the pandemic. In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday ordered people to remain in their homes aside from getting food or medicine.

Under growing pressure from some lawmakers and public health officials to ratchet up the state’s restrictions, Baker stressed that people should “limit all unnecessary activities” in Massachusetts but that he was not seeking to mandate that residents remain indoors under the stay-at-home advisory.

“We’re asking everyone to use their common sense, think about the impact this virus is having on the sick and elderly, and to limit their interactions with other people," Baker said at a State House news conference.

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But, he added: “I do not believe I can or should order US citizens to keep confined to their homes for days on end. It doesn’t make sense from a public health point of view, and it’s not realistic."

Governor Baker orders closure of all nonessential businesses
Baker orders nonessential businesses to close Tuesday, "stay-at-home" advisory put in place for citizens until April 7. (Photo: David L. Ryan/Globe Staff, Video: Handout)

Travel is not barred, but people over the age of 70 or with underlying health conditions are “strongly” advised to stay home and limit interactions with others as much as possible, Baker said. Baker’s order Monday also included a ban on gatherings of more than 10 people, further restricting what had been a limit of 25 or more.

Baker emphasized that buses and trains will continue to operate, but that public transit should only be used for essential travel. “That doesn’t mean we think it’s a good idea to take the train downtown” to visit friends, he said.

Baker announced the order hours before the state revealed that the death toll attributed to the virus had increased. The six men and three women who died ranged from their 50s to their 90s, and hailed from seven different counties, from Berkshire to Essex, according to the Department of Public Health. Three of the men were from Suffolk County, the most fatalities of a single county to date.

Of the four new fatalities reported Monday, two were women, both in their 70s and from Essex and Worcester counties, and two men. One was in his 60s from Suffolk County and the other was in his 80s from Norfolk County, according to officials.

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More than 8,900 tests have been conducted by state and private labs as of Monday, state officials said.

The order to shutter businesses and start remote operations quickly set off a scramble.

Christopher Geehern, a spokesman for the 3,500-member Associated Industries of Massachusetts, said the group received more than 100 calls in the span of six hours from businesses seeking guidance, largely on what’s considered essential.. “Overall, the tone is: It’s an unfortunate, but probably a necessary, step as the state tries to get its arms around this pandemic,” Geehern said.

The Baker administration released a nine-page list of the types of businesses that could stay open, which also includes banks, liquor stores, hardware stores, auto repair shops, and pet supply stores. Restaurants can also continue to provide takeout or delivery service, Baker said. A Walmart that sells food or Home Depot locations can also remain open.

Medical marijuana dispensaries are also considered essential businesses, but dispensaries will not be allowed to sell recreational marijuana. The 14 approved to sell only recreational, adult-use marijuana, including Boston’s first and only dispensary, will have to close, if they have opened.

Baker said that local officials will largely enforce the order through a graduated set of penalties that includes a civil fine up to $300 but the possibility of criminal charges as well.

It’s also likely the closures will drive up unemployment claims in the state, which already had soared following Baker’s decision on March 15 to ban in-person service in restaurants and bars.

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Jon Hurst, of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, said many of his 4,000 members fall into camps of businesses swamped by people looking to stock up on some supplies and those struggling to keep social distancing-conscious customers coming through the door.

“It’s either feast or famine,” Hurst said.

The race to control the virus continued on a variety of fronts.

The number of hospitalized patients confirmed to have the coronavirus in Massachusetts continues a steady climb, though there is a general reduction or flattening in the number of unconfirmed cases under investigation. Those changes have occurred, at least in part, because test results have come back more quickly, with most testing negative.

Baker said Monday that the state, which is moving to secure medical supplies to address the coming wave of cases, has “confirmed orders” for millions of masks and swabs, but that “we need to see them actually get delivered.”

State Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said the state is also putting together a corps of people, including public health students, medical students, and public health nurses, to augment the number of people who can do “contact tracing” of people who have confirmed cases of the virus, in an attempt to track where they got it from or spread it.

Also on Monday, Mayor Martin J. Walsh said the city is hiring a consulting firm headed by Stanley McChrystal, the retired four-star Army general, to review the city’s emergency plans amid the coronavirus pandemic.

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Baker’s order is due to expire on April 7, the same date as his order to close schools statewide and ban in-person service. But he indicated that the date is fluid and open to being extended.

Some school districts, including Boston, already have scheduled closures beyond that date. And others across the country have begun adjusting original timelines: School closures in Los Angeles, for example, were originally slated to last two weeks, but have since been extended to May 1.

“We’re constantly reconsidering virtually everything we do,” Baker said.

Marc Lipsitch, a specialist in disease spread at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, applauded the tightening of social distancing measures — but cautioned that there will be a three-week lag before the new rules can ease the strain on intensive care units.

“We will continue to see growth in the rate at which people have bad outcomes in Massachusetts because I believe the epidemic is probably still going strong right now,” Lipsitch said Monday.

“In that sense, yes, it’s too late,” he said of Baker’s latest move, adding that he doesn’t envy public officials who have to balance preventing disease transmission against the severe effects of such measures on people’s lives and livelihoods.

Those who had been pressing Baker to shut down more parts of daily life largely applauded his move.

“This is a necessary step in the right direction and will help prevent unnecessary loss of life several weeks from now,” said state Representative Mike Connolly, a Cambridge Democrat.

Martin Finucane, Travis Anderson, Andy Rosen, Patty Wen, Felice Freyer, and Felicia Gans of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout.