Governor Charlie Baker on Friday announced a one-day extension of his nonessential workplace closure, which was set to expire at midnight on Monday, to align with the release of his road map for easing restrictions on businesses amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Facing a wave of questions about how he’ll reopen Massachusetts’ economy, Baker also offered a sweeping defense of his “cautious and careful” approach, arguing that the dearth of reliable information about the novel coronavirus demands it.
His remarks at a State House news conference Friday were all the more notable for what they lacked: details of his plan. He promised that on Monday he will flesh out what to date he’s only described as a prolonged, four-step outline.
But he appeared to be readying for an expected onslaught of second-guessing, as progressive lawmakers called on him to extend a stay-at-home advisory and conservative legislators demanded he reopen the state sooner.
“Some people are going to say it’s too slow and some people are going to say it’s too fast. And I understand and I respect that,” Baker said Friday. “But this is our idea of having the best shot we have at continuing to make progress and not giving the virus a chance to get back out of the barn.”
Baker sidestepped a question on whether he’d extend a separate statewide stay-at-home advisory for residents, which is also slated to expire Monday. And despite repeated questions about how the state’s plan would look, he’s offered little insight to key questions: How long could each phase last? What guidelines will specific industries face? When will certain businesses — bars, barber shops, pet groomers, and the like — be allowed to reopen?
Baker has defended that tack throughout the week, saying while he’d love to reopen businesses immediately, a full-scale return to normal life would be “incredibly irresponsible.” Thousands of workplaces deemed nonessential have been shut in Massachusetts since late March, and restaurants and bars have been prohibited from offering in-person dining for two months.
“When people say to me, ‘You’re not doing enough,’ my answer to that is I want to be able to have open businesses and progress on coronavirus in the fall,” Baker said. Public health officials say a second wave of infections could await the country, he added, and Massachusetts residents have sacrificed time with family and the comforts of normal life for too long to step backward now.
“Despite the tragedy that’s just everywhere, it’s a really impressive story so far,” Baker said. "But it doesn’t end until we get through the fall.”
Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who said Friday that he is willing to reopen Fenway Park and TD Garden for games with no fans allowed, also emphasized caution is key.
“We simply cannot afford any unnecessary setbacks,” Walsh said at a separate news conference. “If we come back too soon, there will be a second surge.”
Baker’s stance has done little to quell growing frustration. Some Republican lawmakers and groups have urged Baker to join other states in easing restrictions now. On Friday, a half-dozen Democratic legislators called for exactly the opposite: extend the stay-at-home advisory until at least the beginning of June.
In their letter, the lawmakers argue the “raw number” of daily coronavirus cases remains too high, and testing isn’t widespread enough. The state reported Friday that the death toll from the coronavirus outbreak had risen by 110 cases to 5,592, and the number of confirmed coronavirus cases had climbed by 1,239 to 83,421.
It marked the 12th consecutive day of decline in new cases, when measured by seven-day rolling average.
“We want to be conservative and careful and cautious with respect to the way we do this," Baker said.
For others, that cautious communication has been the problem. With May 18 long looming as the order’s expiration date, confusion has proliferated among business owners about what day they should actually plan to unlock their doors again.
“Business owners need to know what the reopening plan is in Massachusetts,” said state Representative Carmine Gentile, a Sudbury Democrat, who pointed to long runways of information other states, such as New York, have provided. Governor Andrew M. Cuomo offered a broad look at his strategy for reopening 11 days before his order lifted, including with timelines of when it would be reevaluated.
“Waiting to tell us on Monday or even Sunday would be too late,” Gentile wrote on Twitter.
Somerville Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone announced Friday that the city’s state of emergency will continue beyond Monday and the suspension of all city-sponsored or permitted events will extend through the end of the year.
Smaller events may be reconsidered if conditions improve, and city officials have not issued guidance for school-sponsored activities and programming from the city Parks and Recreation Department.
Meanwhile, Rhode Island will stay in the first phase of reopening its economy through early June, Governor Gina M. Raimondo said Friday. It doubles the time between stages so health officials have enough time to evaluate the effect of loosening restrictions, which included lifting a stay-at-home order, allowing restaurants to offer outdoor dining with limits, and letting nonessential retail stores to open, also with restrictions.
As Massachusetts awaits Baker’s decision, some potential contours of his plan have trickled out. A subcommittee under his reopening advisory board created a set of draft recommendations for reopening beaches, such as initially limiting parking lots to 50 percent capacity and keeping 12 feet of distance between groups of beach-goers.
Swimming and surfing would still be allowed, but other beach games, including volleyball, football, or bocce, would be prohibited under the proposal. Face coverings will also still be required.
The draft plan, however, didn’t emerge from one of Baker’s daily briefings, but at a Yarmouth Board of Selectmen meeting, where local officials held a lengthy debate about them Tuesday and posted a copy of the recommendations.
The subcommittee, called the Outdoor Recreation Working Group, included representatives from the Baker administration’s Office of Coastal Zone Management, as well as the Trustees of Reservations and Cape-based officials such as Brian Carlstrom, superintendent of the Cape Cod National Seashore, and Barnstable Town Manager Mark Ells, according to the documents presented at the meeting.
But how many of those recommendations will ultimately make it into formal guidelines on Monday is unclear.
Baker declined to say Friday if his plan will include specific guidance for beaches, even as New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Delaware announced they’ll open their beaches for Memorial Day weekend. Baker’s office also did not address whether Baker was considering the specific proposal.
Carlstrom said Friday the guidance was “all draft and is still under development.”
The recommendations were quickly met with consternation on several fronts: Local legislators bemoaned they were released publicly at all ahead of the administration’s formal announcement. “It created a whole world of confusion,” said Representative Sarah K. Peake, a Provincetown Democrat.
Yarmouth officials, hungry for some direction from the state about how to prepare ahead of Memorial Day weekend, questioned if they could even enforce the rules as proposed.
“I’m not questioning the underlying advisability of it from a public health point of view. But we can’t diagram out the beach, so that every person has a 12-foot plot. Somebody comes and sits in the middle of those people, what are we going to do?” Michael Stone, the selectman board chairman, said in a phone interview Friday.
Daniel Knapik, Yarmouth’s town administrator, said regardless of whatever version of the plan emerges Monday, he hopes Baker gives local officials flexibility to adjust them to fit their individual needs.
“What we would like to see, more than anything else, is latitude to local boards of selectmen and boards of health to make judgment calls,” he said.
“In Boston, people think the lights just come on down here,” Knapik said of summer prep on the Cape. “It doesn’t work that way.”
Travis Andersen, Martin Finucane, Christina Prignano, Nestor Ramos, Edward Fitzpatrick, and Michael Silverman of the Globe staff contributed to this report.