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Key to reopening Mass. is not May 4 deadline, Baker says; Mass. coronavirus deaths rise to 2,730

Governor Charlie Baker gave a press conference at the Cartamundi plant on Shaker Road in East Longmeadow.
Governor Charlie Baker gave a press conference at the Cartamundi plant on Shaker Road in East Longmeadow.Douglas Hook

Massachusetts won’t begin to reopen businesses until the pace of new hospitalizations for coronavirus declines and state officials have put “the rules of engagement in place,” Governor Charlie Baker said Saturday.

The state’s stay-at-home advisory and shutdown of all non-essential businesses, drastic measures to control the spread of the contagion, are slated to end May 4. But Baker signaled that the restrictions, which have caused vast economic and social disruption, are likely to remain in effect until the recent wave of cases subsides.

“May 4 was based on our assumption that we were going to be in the surge at some point in early April,” Baker said at a news conference. “The surge has been a little bit later than that."

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On Saturday, the number of coronavirus deaths in Massachusetts climbed by 174, bringing the total to 2,730, the state’s Department of Public Health reported. More than half of those deaths, 1,530, occurred in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, state officials said.

More than 53,000 people have tested positive for coronavirus, up 2,379 from Friday. As of Friday, 3,847 people were hospitalized with COVID-19.

Baker said any decision made about reopening businesses will require a drop in people being hospitalized for the disease “and some evidence that we are in fact over the hump ... with respect to the surge."

”Then the second is, putting the rules for engagement and reopening in place, which we’ll have a lot more to say about next week," Baker said.

On Tuesday, Baker ordered all public and private schools to remain closed for the rest of the academic year and for most day care centers to remain closed until the end of June.

As Baker considers how and when to allow Massachusetts businesses to reopen, governors in states like Georgia, Oklahoma, and Alaska have begun to relax rules on businesses while maintaining social distancing measures, the Associated Press reported.

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The move is sparking debate between local leaders who are concerned about the economic impact of the shutdown and health experts who warn it is too soon to resume normal operations.

On Saturday, the global death toll from the coronavirus pandemic surpassed 200,000, according to Johns Hopkins University, including more than 53,000 in the United States. The actual death toll is believed to be much higher.

In Massachusetts, Baker spoke to reporters at the Cartamundi games manufacturing plant in East Longmeadow, where the facility is now making 50,000 plastic face shields each week to donate to local hospitals. Appearing with Baker were Hasbro Inc. president John Frascotti, Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito, and US Representative Richard Neal, the chairman of the House’s Ways and Means Committee.

On Thursday, Congress approved almost $500 billion in coronavirus spending, with about half earmarked as financial help for small and medium-sized businesses through the Payroll Protection Program, and $100 billion for hospitals and a nationwide testing program. Another $60 billion is meant for loans and grants administered by the Small Business Administration.

Neal, who supported the package, said lawmakers have also been working on another financial aid package that will include help for states, cities, and towns.

“When you look at the exhaustion of state revenue, it’s amplified by the fact that this is still going to be with us for a while, so that expenditure is a wise use of the public purse,” Neal said. “And we believe we will have a proposal in the next 10 days that we intend to put out.”

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At the news conference, Baker declined to say when the investigation into the handling of a deadly outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, a state-run elderly care facility, will be complete.

As of Saturday, 65 residents have died from the coronavirus, and 83 other residents have tested positive for the disease. Baker has tapped Mark Pearlstein, a former federal prosecutor, to conduct the investigation; federal prosecutors and Attorney General Maura Healey have also launched similar reviews.

Baker said he and Polito speak to Pearlstein regularly and pledged to remove “any roadblocks” in the investigation.

“We have made clear to him he has free rein to conduct the investigation, and obviously we would like to have it sooner than later,” Baker said. “But we also want him to make it as complete and thorough as he believes it needs to be.”


John Hilliard can be reached at john.hilliard@globe.com.