Massachusetts effectively closed its doors to tourists and many travelers Friday, as Governor Charlie Baker urged anyone arriving from out-of-state to self-quarantine for two weeks — the latest attempt to curb the spread of a pandemic that has now killed nearly three dozen people here.
In normal times, Massachusetts’ vibrant tourism industry thrives on out-of-state visitors. But these are not normal times. The state’s number of confirmed cases of COVID-19, the severe respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus, surged 34 percent to 3,240 on Friday. The 823 new cases represent the largest single-day total to date. The state also announced 10 new deaths, mostly among people in their 80s and 90s.
The increase in confirmed cases comes as the state continues to ramp up testing: The number of patients whose COVID-19 tests had been completed as of midday Friday surpassed 29,000, up from 23,621 a day earlier.
State Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel announced Friday night that she had tested positive for the virus. "My symptoms so far have been mild. I have notified my appropriate close contacts and will rest and recuperate at home, while continuing to carry out my work responsibilities remotely,'' she said in a statement.
Meanwhile, coronavirus infections continue their alarming rise among staff at major hospitals in the state, with Massachusetts General Hospital Friday reporting 89 workers sickened, more than double the day before.
Beth Israel Lahey, a 12-hospital system, had previously not released to the Globe any numbers on the degree of infections within its workforce, but Friday reported 109 staffers affected by the pandemic. Brigham and Women’s Hospital reported 58 — seven more than the previous day, according to data updated daily by the Globe.
The infections raise alarms about the ability of the hospitals to meet the challenge of a possible deluge of patients. When a staff member is infected, it has a ripple effect on close colleagues, who must be quarantined, and could spread the virus to others within the institutions.
As state officials scrambled to respond on multiple fronts, the travel advisory announced Friday is the sort of step — hard to imagine just three weeks ago — that Baker said is essential to contain the spread of the highly contagious disease that has sickened thousands and quickly shut down so much of life here.
The advisory exempts health care, public safety, and other state-designated essential workers who commute into Massachusetts from neighboring states, and there are no penalties for those who visit despite the request.
“The health and safety of Massachusetts is our top priority, and we’ll continue to take whatever steps we need to make that happen,” he said. “We’re asking folks considering coming to Massachusetts, for whatever reason, please do not travel to our community. Especially if you have symptoms.”
On Friday, staff at Logan International Airport, South Station, and other transportation hubs began handing out fliers with guidance about the quarantines. Electronic road signs were placed along the Massachusetts Turnpike, Interstate 84, and other major highways, especially toward the south, where New York has emerged as the national epicenter of the coronavirus. Epidemiologists have warned cases could easily spread from New York to Boston given the close ties between the two states.
Amtrak has suspended its Acela service between Boston and Washington, D.C., and is running regular trains on a reduced schedule.
Commuters who cross into Massachusetts for work will still be allowed to come, Baker said. He noted that most non-essential businesses here have closed their physical locations and anyone working in an essential business should know what precautions to take by now.
“If you’re working in Massachusetts, that means you’re doing something that’s essential,” he said. “And so you’re getting a ton of guidance from us and from the people you work for about what you should be doing.”
Asked whether there’d be any legal penalty for people who flout the travel restrictions, Baker said that wasn’t likely at this point. Nor is the state planning to take more aggressive steps, like taking people’s temperature or asking for identification at the state line.
On Thursday, Rhode Island Governor Gina M. Raimondo issued a similar order that said anyone traveling to Rhode Island from New York should stay quarantined for 14 days. She also said the Rhode Island State Police would stop cars with New York license plates to help halt the spread of coronavirus.
There are both legal and public health questions about the effectiveness of those sort of policies, Baker said. But, he said, the state would be wise, and well within its rights, to discourage visitors for awhile.
“Instructing people who come back to Massachusetts from someplace else to self-quarantine for 14 days is a perfectly reasonable and logical thing,” he said. While it might be unwelcoming, pretty much every state in the Northeast is now urging its residents to stay at home anyway, Baker noted.
The state has already ordered non-essential businesses to close, so the travel advisory would not affect many Rhode Island or New Hampshire commuters who work in Massachusetts.
Robert Plante of Cumberland, R.I., manages an auto shop in Franklin. Auto repair work is still considered essential, and Plante expects to continue traveling to the shop. But he wondered about non-work travel, especially for people like him who live so close to the Massachusetts border.
“It’s literally like a mile from my house. So I spend more time in Massachusetts than I do in Rhode Island,” he said.
The order may also affect the legions of retirees who spend their winters in Florida and come home to Massachusetts in the spring. Diane Terry and her husband, Arthur Fasciane, were unsure whether to return home to Scituate in the coming weeks or stay south. Now, they will likely just stay put until further notice, Terry said.
"I think it's not a stretch to say a lot of snowbirds are hunkering down," Terry said.
Others are coming home and expect to self-quarantine. Joan Dunfey of Jamaica Plain arrived back from Florida yesterday; her husband is expected home tomorrow. Both plan to stay at home and will find ways to get groceries and other essential items delivered. They’d been avoiding most contact in Florida already, Dunfey said, but it felt safer to be in Massachusetts.
“The difficulty with Florida is that if it hits Florida, it’s going to be devastating. Everybody’s over 70,” she said.
Also Friday, Baker announced that the state income tax filing deadline had been extended to July 15, following a similar action by the federal government.
Baker said he disagreed with the suggestion by President Trump that the country could reopen by Easter, April 12. “Yeah, no, we’re not going to be up and running by Easter,” he said.
In an op-ed published Friday by The New York Times, Baker and New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy urged the federal government to help states acquire personal protection equipment and ventilators for hospitals that are in short supply.
“Our current state resources have not only been stretched to their limits; with our economies currently at a standstill, there are no new revenues coming in to support their continuation,” the governors wrote.
Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, speaking at City Hall, continued to urge residents to maintain social distancing practices, saying that they are crucial to curbing the pandemic.
He said he had learned that “large numbers of people” in the city were not practicing social distancing, including group sports at some places.
"If this doesn’t change, I’m going to start naming locations in the city of Boston so people know that you shouldn’t be there,” he said.
In an interview on MSNBC-TV, Walsh said he was still considering tighter restrictions on residents beyond the current stay-at-home advisory issued earlier this week by Baker.
"If we have to do that here, we will,” Walsh said of a possible shelter-in-place order. “What we’re looking at now is we’re working on how we would carry that out here in Boston.”
As of Thursday, there were 477 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the city of Boston. Two people had died.
On Friday, the family of Larry Rasky, a top Boston public relations executive who died Sunday at the age of 69, confirmed he had tested positive for coronavirus.
“Not being able to gather with family and friends has made mourning Larry’s death all the more difficult, so the impact of the pandemic was already felt,” his son, Will Rasky, said in a statement. "That said, Larry’s spirit and legacy have kept us all tied together.”