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As Mass. surges past 3,000 coronavirus deaths, Governor Baker weighing when, and how, to reopen the state

“We have flattened the curve,” Governor Charlie Baker said.
“We have flattened the curve,” Governor Charlie Baker said.Chris Van Buskirk/Pool

As the state’s COVID-19 death toll hit a distressing milestone, Governor Charlie Baker on Monday urged caution about lifting the heavy restrictions designed to limit the virus’s spread and warned against comparing Massachusetts to other, less-ravaged states now loosening their own restraints.

Baker’s stay-at-home advisory and order shuttering thousands of businesses are scheduled to end May 4, but at a State House news conference, the governor said an announcement about whether the shutdown gets extended would come later this week. Less than two hours after Baker spoke, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh said firmly that the city “will not reopen” next week.

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The questions of when to begin lifting the restrictions came as officials released a glimmer of good news: a relatively small number of new hospitalizations, just 13 patients, were reported — further evidence that the trend seems to be leveling. Baker said he also believes social distancing and other orders he’s instituted are working.

“We have flattened the curve,” Baker said at the news conference.

The 104 deaths reported Monday pushed the number of Massachusetts residents who have died of the virus past the 3,000. There are now 56,400 confirmed cases, a jump of 1,524 from the previous day.

More than half of the fatalities have occurred in long-term-care facilities, underlining the virus’s “lethal grip” on homes for the elderly, said Baker, whose administration made available another $130 million in funding for nursing homes Monday. The money would go toward staffing, purchasing protective equipment, and other measures to fight the virus.

Baker announces new aid for nursing homes
The Governor said funding will support hiring, cleaning, and other initiatives at the facilities, which have accounted for more than half the state’s deaths. (Photo: Jim Mahoney/Pool, Video: Handout)

In preaching vigilance, Baker described a reality of two Americas: First, the dozen or so states hit hardest by the virus, including New York, New Jersey, Michigan, and Massachusetts. Those four account for more than 50 percent of the 55,000 deaths reported nationwide.

Then, he said, there are nearly 40 others that make up 15 to 20 percent of the country’s death toll, including where governors are now rethinking how life can resume — and, in some cases, acting to make it happen.

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In Montana, where 14 people have died, bars can begin serving next week as the state awakens from a stay-at-home order. Georgia restaurants and movie theaters were allowed to reopen Monday, the same day state officials reported the death toll reached 971. Eateries are also opening their doors again in Tennessee, where nearly 170 died as of Friday.

“I’m not surprised that they’re starting to think pretty hard about reopening, OK,” said Baker, speaking generally of states rethinking their own orders. “For them, the surge was nothing like it was in the Northeast.”

Even in Rhode Island, Governor Gina Raimondo began outlining steps to reopen the state’s economy in phases starting May 9, including slightly adjusting the limit on gatherings. But she cautioned that it would be “slow, pinpointed, and gradual,” including what she described as a pilot project on the reopening of restaurants.

Baker has hinted that his own approach would likely place less emphasis on segregating so-called essential and nonessential businesses, the latter of which have been ordered to shutter their doors for weeks.

But exactly what that would look like has been unclear. “Obviously whatever decision we make,” Baker said, “needs to come with a little thought and a plan behind it.”

Few other parts of the state have shown indications they’ll begin to soon unthaw their frozen operations.

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The Supreme Judicial Court announced Monday that courthouses statewide will stay closed to the public until at least June 1, though officials are beginning to identify which “non-emergency matters” they can address through virtual hearings. In Somerville, officials said they’ll begin requiring people to wear masks in both indoor and outdoor public spaces, with the threat of fines of up to $300 for scofflaws. So, too, in Cambridge, where face coverings will be mandated in all public places, businesses, and common areas of residential buildings.

And at least in Boston, the state and region’s economic hub, Walsh was unequivocal that restrictions would not ease by next week.

“Boston will not reopen on May 4,” he said, adding that questions about appropriate benchmarks for reopening can “only be answered when we have a chance to look at the information, look at the data” on the virus.

“There is no question that May 4 is too early,” he said.

Boston officials are also launching an antibody testing initiative with Massachusetts General Hospital, with plans to test about 1,000 residents, focusing on East Boston, Roslindale, and parts of Dorchester.

But any such move on a statewide level seems far off. Baker said he is wary of launching a program without more guidance from the Food and Drug Administration, warning that false test results can range anywhere from 5 percent to 35 percent.

“I think a test, that up to a third of the time is wrong, is not very helpful,” said Baker, who stressed the state is still focused on ramping up the number of “traditional” tests for COVID-19. On Monday, the state reported performing 8,787 more, pushing the total to nearly 245,000.

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“All the antibody testing is really going to tell you is who had it,” he said. “That’s nice to know and it’s good to start a baseline . . . but it’s not going to answer the question of whether someone today has it or not.”

Elsewhere on Beacon Hill, House lawmakers began taking steps toward remote voting, a first for the chamber since the pandemic forced many lawmakers to shutter their offices last month.

According to an 11-page order released Monday night, the House will allow remote participation by “telephone, teleconference, video conference or other means,” though House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo will determine ahead of a vote which “mode of participation [is] to be used."

Lawmakers could pass the new rules Wednesday in an informal session, the usually sparsely attended gathering where a single “no” vote can block a bill. Should the new rules be put in place, the House would then vote Thursday on a bill that allows the state to borrow more money in case it runs short on funds this fiscal year after shifting the income tax filing deadline to July.

The move comes after some lawmakers publicly urged the Legislature to move more quickly, including in adopting different ways to vote remotely — something lawmakers in at least 13 different states have already done.

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The Senate, too, has been examining how it could return to formal voting, though whether it will differ from the House, and when it would launch, is unclear. Senate President Karen E. Spilka said Monday senators are “finalizing our own plan to meet in a formal session in the near future.”

Travis Andersen, Edward Fitzpatrick, Martin Finucane, and Christina Prignano of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


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