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Mass. coronavirus numbers return to recent downward trend, but Baker says state ‘still has a lot of work to do’ before reopening

Governor Charlie Baker.
Governor Charlie Baker.Angela Rowlings

The state’s modest first steps toward resuming everyday life came on the tees and greens of golf courses on Thursday, even as Governor Charlie Baker, in the wake of a troubling uptick of coronavirus cases and COVID-19 deaths the day before, said the state “still has a lot of work to do” before life returns to anything resembling normal.

The move to allow golf courses to reopen, with stringent restrictions on carts, tee times, and social contact, is in line with policies with other Northeastern states, Baker said, and addressed the state’s concerns about allowing golfers back on the links.

But Baker reiterated that one thing will be guiding the gradual reopening of the economy: "Data,” he said. “Data. Data is going to drive most of the decisions around when these things happen.”

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One of those decisions was taken out of Baker’s hands Thursday. Citing the Second Amendment, a federal judge ordered Massachusetts to allow gun shops to reopen, albeit with some restrictions. The stores had been closed since March, along with other businesses deemed nonessential; the court order permits them to reopen Saturday.

Baker said he would discuss the ruling with Attorney General Maura Healey, but indicated the state would comply with the order.

The halting steps toward reopening came in the shadow of dispiriting statistics released a day earlier, when Wednesday’s batch of numbers showed 208 new deaths attributed to COVID-19, the highest daily tally since late April.

“Yesterday’s numbers are evidence that, despite some signs of trending in the right direction, we still have a lot of work to do when it comes to getting to the point where we feel like we have our hands and our arms around this virus,” Baker said.

“I do believe that in the end, what happens here will look a lot like what happens in other places,” Baker said. “But the timing associated with this stuff is going to be driven by where we are in Massachusetts relative to the same data points.”

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Daily data released later Thursday were more in line with encouraging trends from recent weeks, though taken together the numbers still show a state hit hard by the pandemic.

The death toll in Massachusetts rose by 132 cases to 4,552. The number of confirmed coronavirus cases climbed by 1,696 to 73,721. The Department of Public Health also reported 11,993 new tests had been conducted, marking a total of 351,632 in the state.

One key indicator, the rate of positive test results, returned to 14 percent, more in line with previous days after spiking to 28 percent on Wednesday.

The seven-day average for positive test rates, a number closely watched by public health experts, declined slightly to 16 percent. That’s among the trends Baker and state officials will watch as they decide how and when to allow some businesses to open their doors again.

“As we see the curve flatten, we can begin thinking about permitting some businesses to resume operations, and we want to reinforce that by increasing the importance of testing and contact tracing,” Baker said.

Baker appointed a board last week to develop back-to-work protocols for the state by May 18, when his stay-at-home advisory is due to expire.

He urged residents to take calls from the state’s contact tracing team, which is tasked with calling people infected with the virus and their close contacts, to try to slow transmission.

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Contact tracing, the governor said, is a “key element toward not only stopping the spread but also understanding where the virus is, who’s infected” and where to “invest in hot-spotting.”


Baker: Contact tracing is crucial
Governor Baker on Thursday said the state “still has a lot of work to do” in battling the coronavirus pandemic after a spike Wednesday in positive cases. (Photo: Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff, Video: Handout)

Baker said contact tracers have connected with nearly 14,000 confirmed cases and reached out to more than 7,500 of their contacts. More than 1,600 people are making calls. Calls come from an 833 or 857 number and come up as “MA Covid Team” on caller ID.

“If you see MA Covid Team, please pick up the phone,” Baker said.

State Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders also spoke to the importance of the contact tracing effort.

“Contact tracing is that human-to-human connection that includes virtual check-ins with individuals who are COVID-positive, asking them how they are, what they need, and asking them who they have had close contact with,” Sudders said.

Baker urged the public to continue with measures including social distancing and wearing masks in public when that’s not possible, pointing to the success that South Korea and its capital city, Seoul, have had fighting the virus.

South Korea, Baker said, has had virtually no new cases in May due largely to “testing, tracing, and isolation and a joint commitment on the part of the people in that city and that country to stand up against this virus” by embracing the public health measures.

Matt Stout and Michael Silverman 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