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Cautioning against ‘letting up,’ Baker extends business closures, stay-at-home advisory to May 18

"Letting up too early on things we know are working [is] not the right way to finish this fight,'' said Governor Charlie Baker during a press briefing.
"Letting up too early on things we know are working [is] not the right way to finish this fight,'' said Governor Charlie Baker during a press briefing.Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

Governor Charlie Baker on Tuesday ordered thousands of Massachusetts businesses to remain closed and urged people to remain home until at least May 18, extending by two weeks directives designed to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Baker’s decision to continue his dual order and advisory, both of which had been slated to expire Monday, surprised few in the business and health communities amid the daily churn of grim data.

State officials reported 1,840 new cases Tuesday, the first time in five days the daily tally didn’t decline, pushing confirmed cases to date to 58,302. And with 150 new fatalities, the state’s death toll reached 3,153, trailing only that of New York, New Jersey, and Michigan.

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“Letting up too early on things we know are working,” Baker said, is “not the right way to finish this fight.”

Mass. remains closed through May 18
Governor Charlie Baker announced Tuesday that he is extending his order closing nonessential businesses and his stay-at-home advisory for residents until May 18. (Photo: Chris Van Buskirk/Pool, Video: Handout)

Baker has for days urged caution amid questions about how, and when, he’d begin to reopen a local economy where small businesses from florists to salons to bookstores have remained shuttered since March 24 and, for some bars and restaurants, even longer.

The Republican governor on Tuesday did not change the criteria for which businesses are considered essential and promised what he called a “phased” return to some semblance of normalcy. He said his plans will be guided in part by a 17-member advisory board of business leaders, health officials, and government leaders who will recommend standards for reopening.

The economic toll of the virus and the ramifications of various restrictions states have put in place have reached into countless homes, businesses, and organizations around the country. More than 650,000 people in Massachusetts alone have filed new jobless claims in the past five weeks, a tally that doesn’t even include hundreds of thousands of filings made by newly eligible recipients such as self-employed and gig workers.

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School buildings have been closed statewide since March 17, and Baker last week said they would not reopen this academic year.

Baker stressed that public health data will ultimately determine the timing of a return of many businesses. Hospitalizations, for example, have flattened, but there’s been no prolonged decline indicating the disease’s grip is loosening.

“There’s literally no one in the health care world or the public health world or the infectious disease world who thinks you can open the door . . . if you haven’t seen any negative downward trend on any of those key measures,” said Baker.

Limits on gatherings over 10 will also remain in effect until May 18 under Baker’s new order. And even when restrictions begin to loosen, Baker said "it’s not going to be everybody all at once.”

“Remember, this is a phased opening. Phased,” Baker said, repeating for emphasis.

Baker’s decision Tuesday means the end date for Massachusetts’s stay-at-home advisory stands among the latest in the country, though it’s far from an outlier.

At least seven states, including New York and Vermont, currently plan to end similar directives by May 15, while others in Connecticut (May 20), Wisconsin (May 26), Illinois (May 30), and Hawaii and Maine (May 31) extend further.

A handful of other states, including California and New Jersey, have indefinite stay-at-home orders.

But some of those states have also begun loosening other restrictions on businesses, including Wisconsin, which this week allowed dog groomers and other nonessential businesses to reopen.

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Vermont Governor Phil Scott is allowing farmers’ markets to open Friday for mask-wearing customers, and Governor Gina Raimondo outlined plans on Monday to tentatively begin reopening Rhode Island’s economy in phases starting on May 9.

Maine Governor Janet Mills on Tuesday announced her own step-by-step plan to begin returning the state to normalcy starting Friday, when barber shops, hair salons, car washes, and “drive-in, stay-in-your-vehicle” religious services, and more can reopen should they meet certain standards.

But the scope of the virus in Massachusetts stands in stark contrast to that of states such as Vermont and Maine, where 47 and 51 people have died amid the pandemic, respectively. Massachusetts, home to nearly 7 million people, has reported more deaths each day since April 5 than those states’ overall counts — and experts say the official death toll has probably missed earlier cases.

“You need to see sustained declines — sustained irrefutable declines — in cases, deaths” before you can begin reopening, said Dr. Howard Koh, a Harvard professor of public health leadership who was Massachusetts’s public health commissioner on 9/11.

“He is being very careful and following the data very closely,” Koh said of Baker. “The data and science are clearly helping him make that decision.”

Baker said he doesn’t envision ultimately lifting restrictions by region of the state, though he indicated it’s possible the state can be flexible on other fronts. The advisory board, for example, would consider whether child care programs, currently slated to stay closed until June 29, could reopen sooner, Baker said.

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Senate President Karen E. Spilka told business leaders Tuesday that she believes any phased-in reopening plan “must start with preschools,” to allow parents with young children to again tap child care options so they can return to work.

That didn’t ease the frustration of some business leaders. Jon Hurst, of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, said he recognizes the need to keep restrictions in place but said he was hoping Baker would make adjustments to allow some businesses to reopen, such as florists or gift shops, while so-called essential businesses, including supermarkets and convenience stores, sell many of the same things.

“It doesn’t make sense health care wise or economic fairness wise,” Hurst said. “We’ve learned some best practices from grocers, from hardware stores, restaurants that do curbside [pickup]. We have some best practices on social distancing that can certainly apply to any type of retailer beyond the essential ones.”

But it also didn’t surprise others. With little shifting in the public health data, many businesses need not just clearance from Baker to reopen, but guidance about how to do it.

“Even if in a perfect world the governor got up today and said, ‘We’re open,’ for employers there’s a lot of uncertainty,” said Christopher Geehern, a spokesman for the Associated Industries of Massachusetts. What is the standard going to be for allowing people to come back to work? Are these companies going to set up temperature scanning stations [for employees]? Are they going to require an antibody test? They just don’t know.”

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Mayor Martin J. Walsh, whose chief of staff sits on Baker’s advisory board, said Tuesday “we still have some work to do here” before the city can reopen nonessential businesses and loosen restrictions around public gatherings.

Appearing on CNN, the mayor said city officials over the next two to three weeks will be “looking at the data" to determine next steps.

“I do think it’s important for us to err on the side of caution," Walsh said.

Martin Finucane, Travis Andersen, and Jaclyn Reiss of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


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