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Baker aims for some business to start reopening May 18, but coronavirus numbers are still fluctuating

Governor Charlie Baker.
Governor Charlie Baker.Angela Rowlings

If encouraging downward trends in key coronavirus indicators continue, state officials hope to allow some businesses to reopen when a shutdown order expires May 18, Governor Charlie Baker said Wednesday.

But for the first time in about a week, the daily statistics released by the state Department of Public Health appeared to leave little room for optimism.

The state reported 208 new deaths attributed to COVID-19, the highest daily tally since late April and the third-largest single-day increase since the outbreak began, raising the total death toll to 4,420.

The number of confirmed cases climbed by 1,754, reaching 72,025. The new cases emerged from only 6,290 tests, resulting in a spike in the percentage of tests that came back positive after days of decline. The seven-day average of positive test rates, a number closely watched by public health experts, showed a slight increase to 17 percent.

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But Baker and public health experts have consistently cautioned against reading too much into a single day’s data, and the number of people hospitalized with coronavirus infections — another key indicator — continued to hover below 3,600.

“Our goal, starting on May 18, is to begin reopening certain types of businesses in a limited fashion where it can be done more safely than under normal operations,” Baker said. “But this phased-in process can’t begin until we see sustained downward trends in many of the data elements that we talk about every day.”

Pressure to begin reopening swaths of the state economy that were shut to slow the spread of the virus appears to be mounting. The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday urged Baker to quickly set reopening guidelines, so businesses can prepare.

The chamber pressed Baker to provide details by May 18 on how it will move toward universal coronavirus testing. It urged the state to reopen child care centers by June 1, and to explain how the MBTA will implement social distancing policies and the impact that will have on capacity.

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Baker, who delivered his daily media briefing at Gillette Stadium, where a new class of State Police troopers was sworn in, used a football metaphor to emphasize that the state cannot ease up.

“We should certainly not let up now,” Baker said. “No one quits, no one stops, no one slows down in the fourth quarter.”

In the places hit hardest by the virus, the final whistle does not feel particularly near.

The state’s weekly release of town-by-town data showed that the number of cases in Chelsea once again rose, though more slowly than in previous weeks, to 2,244 — increasing the city’s highest-in-the-state rate to 5,958 per 100,000 people. Brockton, Lynn, Everett, Lawrence, Randolph, Revere, Danvers, Stoughton, and Lowell rounded out the top 10 highest per capita rates of cases.

Baker, whose order requiring people to wear masks in public when they can’t socially distance took effect Wednesday, said it’s not time to let up on social distancing and other protocols.

Face coverings “will be expected at all times in grocery stores, retail stores, and on public transportation,” Baker said.

Noting that asymptomatic people can unwittingly transmit the virus to others, Baker said donning a mask is “one of the primary ways we can stop the spread of COVID-19 from one person to another.”

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"We're cautiously optimistic," says Baker
Governor Baker urged residents to remain vigilant against the spread of coronavirus amid encouraging signs that key data points are trending downard. (Photo: Angela Rowlings/Pool, Video: Handout)

Baker said he had “mixed feelings” about whether to hold a large swearing-in ceremony for the new troopers Wednesday, adding that they needed to be sworn in as soon as possible. He said it was the agency’s largest new class in 25 years. No family or friends attended the ceremony.

“We are in desperate need of more State Police troopers,” Baker said. “We need every single one of these people to be out there working.”

In Boston, where state data showed 10,729 cases reported through Tuesday, by far the most in the state, Mayor Martin J. Walsh announced a plan to increase testing of residents by more than a third in coming weeks, targeting 1,500 tests per day.

Currently, about 1,100 tests are being conducted per day, a figure that has increased from the previous week’s average of 680 per day, authorities said.

Additional testing, Walsh said in a statement, is essential as the city begins to move toward recovery. On Tuesday, the city circulated a memo that outlined a plan to resume essential construction projects, such as large housing developments, that have been on hold since mid-March.

But Walsh, speaking outside City Hall, echoed Baker’s words of caution. “The curve is slowly bending,” Walsh said, “we’re only beginning toward where we need to be. . . . We still have a long way to go before we can safely launch a recovery plan,” he said.


Walsh: The curve is slowly bending
Boston Mayor Marty Walsh gives an update on the city's coronavirus numbers and plans for reopening. (Photo: Nancy Lane/Pool, Video: Handout)

The mayor added that the Boston Resiliency Fund for coronavirus relief has raised over $29 million for a variety of causes including testing, food access, and support for first responders.

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Asked during the briefing about Monday’s protest outside the State House, when hundreds of demonstrators called for officials to reopen the state’s economy, Walsh said he respected their right to voice their opinions.

However, he said, “I think my job, and the governor’s job . . . is to protect them and to make sure that as we think about reopening, it’s done thoughtfully with proven metrics and data.”

Walsh said he hopes protesters realize that “many people have lost their lives here due to COVID-19 and many more people are going to lose their lives.”

The Massachusetts death tally, the third highest in the country, is likely an undercount, since the disease arrived stealthily, before officials realized it, experts and Baker have said.

The state appears to be moving past a plateau of cases, but thousands of people remain in the hospital and more than 900 are in intensive care units statewide.

Analysts differ on the ultimate death toll in Massachusetts. And their own models have been generating different numbers as the pandemic progresses. The latest estimate from a closely watched University of Washington model suggests that by August nearly 7,700 residents will have died from the disease. Specialists are also concerned about the virus possibly making a deadly comeback in the coming months.

Danny McDonald, Tim Logan, and Larry Edelman of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe. Martin finucane can be reached at martin.finucane@globe.com Jaclyn Reiss can be reached at jaclyn.reiss@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter: @JaclynReiss