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Coronavirus deaths continue downward trend; Baker requests $1 billion to fight pandemic

"You want to do this in a way where you can sustain the opening when you go forward.” Governor Charlie Baker said.
"You want to do this in a way where you can sustain the opening when you go forward.” Governor Charlie Baker said.Blake Nissen for the Boston Globe

Governor Charlie Baker offered few new details Tuesday on his plans for a carefully managed reopening of Massachusetts, saying residents and businesses will likely have to wait for specifics until Monday despite a growing clamor for more detail on the path ahead.

Baker acknowledged the urgency many businesses and residents feel for restrictions on daily life to be loosened, as the economic fallout mounts and neighboring states take steps toward normalcy. But he warned that going too fast risks a resurgence of the virus that could force the state to backtrack.

Baker files $1B coronavirus budget bill
Governor Baker announced that his office had filed a supplemental budget bill to authorize $1 billion in spending on the fight against the coronavirus. (Photo: Blake Nissen/For The Boston Globe, Video: Handout)

“I get the fact that everybody would like everything to be open sooner," Baker said during a midday news conference in Ashland on Tuesday. But "you want to do this in a way where you can sustain the opening when you go forward.”

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Later in the day, the state announced the death toll had risen by 33 to 5,141. It was the lowest daily increase in more than a month, though the state noted that because of a later reporting deadline some deaths that might have been included in Tuesday’s report were instead in Monday’s report.

The two-day average of deaths was 81, still a decline from the highest tally, 252, in late April.

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases climbed by 870 to 79,332, as the number of new tests lagged by several thousand the average from recent weeks.

Overall, the data continue to show a general decline in positive tests from mid-April highs, when more than 30 percent of tests came back positive. The seven-day average for positive test rates, a number closely watched by public health experts, stayed stable at 14 percent, but overall continued a downward trend.

On Monday, Baker announced a bare-bones outline for a four-phase reopening plan for the state. Nonessential workplaces have been shut in Massachusetts since late March, an order set to expire on May 18.

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Speaking Tuesday following a tour of MatTek Corp., an Ashland life sciences company that makes equipment to aid in testing, Baker also pointed to the declining hospitalization rate as a positive development, but cautioned that “we are not yet out of the woods, and we should all remember that.”

Baker’s continued emphasis on proceeding deliberately and cautiously, based on the trends in COVID-related data, was echoed at the federal level Tuesday by Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert. Testifying by video during a Senate hearing, Fauci warned that states that reopen without meeting public health benchmarks risk “really serious” consequences.

Opening too soon, he said, “could turn the clock back,” and that not only would cause “some suffering and death that could be avoided, but could even set you back on the road to try to get economic recovery.”

Still, various Massachusetts constituencies are getting antsy after six weeks of statewide lockdown — and with Baker declining to offer a detailed look at the road back.

Asked Tuesday when businesses in the first phase of reopening will know they’re in that group, Baker said, “I think it’ll probably be on the 18th.”

But many industries are preparing.

Restaurateurs are gearing up by contacting employees, securing personal protective equipment, and redesigning their dining areas to ensure more social distancing, said Bob Luz, president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association. However, he said they’ll still need more specifics before they can welcome the public.

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Luz said in an ideal scenario, a restaurant manager would know all the safety protocols they will have to follow at least seven to 10 days in advance of an opening. “So that’s apparently not going to happen, if we’re going to open on May 19,” Luz said.

Those that are already open for takeout, he said, have a head start.

“Just like every other industry, we’re looking forward with bated breath to May 18, with restaurants gearing up to reopen hopefully as soon as possible after that,” Luz said. “Restaurants are flexible and adaptable [but] I don’t think a lot will be open on May 19″ if they don’t have more advance notice.

The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce had publicly pushed the administration for more guidance ahead of May 18, and many of the business group’s big questions about child care, transportation, and testing remain largely unanswered.

Nonetheless, chamber chief executive Jim Rooney said he is “reasonably satisfied” by the framework the Baker administration has provided, while he is anxious to hear more details.

That framework includes “mandatory” safety standards, such as requiring face coverings for all employees and regular disinfection of common surfaces.

“Much of it was what we asked for,” Rooney said.

Chamber members had been worried that some of these regulations would be “one size fits all” as opposed to allowing flexibility for employers. In particular, there was concern that employers might face mandatory occupancy reductions of their office space occupancy limits — like, say, by 50 percent — until the virus is controlled. But Rooney said he is encouraged by the tone Baker has taken so far.

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A trio of Republican state lawmakers, who are among the most conservative on Beacon Hill, urged Baker to accelerate opening the economy.

“It’s time to open Massachusetts without delay,” said Representative Marc Lombardo, a Billerica Republican who wore a red “Make America Great Again” cap on a Tuesday video press conference. “My fear is we’re not opening fast enough and we’re not bringing clarity to the rules businesses should use to reopen."

Baker is facing criticism on the other side as well.

“I’m concerned that we’re moving too fast,” said state Representative Mike Connolly, a Democrat from Cambridge, in an interview.

Massachusetts is experiencing one of the most severe outbreaks in the entire country, he said. “While we’ve seen a welcome improvement in the numbers, these numbers that we are hearing every day are still serious and very grave,” and represent a “completely unacceptable level of death and disease."

Separately, Baker on Tuesday filed a supplemental budget bill that would give his administration $1 billion to spend toward COVID-related costs, providing a rough sense of the scale of the pandemic’s cost to the state.

Baker stressed, however, that he expects the federal government to pick up the entirety of that $1 billion tab, via reimbursements provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other sources.

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“It’s actually a net zero to the state,” Baker said at the news conference. For Massachusetts to access resources the federal government made available by declaring a national emergency, “we need to spend first to get them to reimburse us,” he said.

Baker said the money would cover a range of expenses including purchasing protective gear, higher pay for human services workers, temporary field hospitals and shelters, and the statewide contact tracing program his administration launched.

Material from the Associated Press and State House News Service was used in this report. Martin Finucane and Travis Andersen of the Globe staff, and Globe correspondent Matt Berg contributed to this report.


Victoria McGrane can be reached at victoria.mcgrane@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @vgmac. Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.