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Two months after first coronavirus death, Massachusetts passes 6,000 fatalities

Public health officials reported 128 new coronavirus deaths Wednesday, bringing the total to 6,066.
Public health officials reported 128 new coronavirus deaths Wednesday, bringing the total to 6,066.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

BRAINTREE — Hard-hit Massachusetts passed a grim milestone Wednesday with more than 6,000 deaths now linked to the coronavirus, a tally reached two months after an 87-year-old Winthrop man became the state’s first reported victim of the pandemic.

But signs of hope can be found amid the losses. Governor Charlie Baker said the seven-day average of positive tests for the virus remained under 10 percent, a statistic he called “a very promising development.”

Baker’s cautious optimism followed a tour of a Braintree company that has shifted some of its manufacturing to protective equipment, and it coincided with the state’s first steps in a gradual, four-phase reopening.

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"We believe moving forward on a cautious and careful basis is really the only way this makes sense,” Baker said at a news conference.

Public health officials reported 128 new coronavirus deaths Wednesday, bringing the total to 6,066. The number of confirmed cases climbed by 1,045 to 88,970. More than 13,000 tests were conducted Wednesday.

The first phase of the state’s plan — dubbed Start — began Monday with construction sites, houses of worship, and manufacturing joining essential businesses such as grocery stores that can open. Hospitals and health care providers were also allowed to resume “high priority” preventative and pediatric care.

But some wariness has surfaced about the pace of reopening and whether enough health protections are in place, even though Massachusetts is among the last states in the country to loosen restrictions. US Representative Ayanna Pressley has said Baker is moving too quickly, and the head of an MBTA union criticized the agency Wednesday for not enforcing a state requirement that riders wear masks.

The union representing bus and subway drivers hit back against a recent statement by MBTA general manager Steve Poftak that the agency “won’t be refusing rides to people who are not wearing face masks.”

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Jim Evers, president of Boston Carmen’s Union Local 589, took issue with Poftak’s comments, published in CommonWealth Magazine, that people without masks will not be refused rides.

Evers called that statement “disappointing and concerning” in a letter to Stephanie Pollack, the state’s transportation secretary.

“If the MBTA chooses not to enforce the governor’s mandate for MBTA riders, the health and safety of essential front-line MBTA workers and the passengers they transport will be at risk," Evers wrote. “Passengers should be required to wear a mask on MBTA buses, trains, and trolleys.”

More than 160 MBTA personnel have contracted COVID-19, and at least one has died.

MBTA ridership almost certainly will increase when offices outside Boston are permitted to reopen at 25 percent of capacity on May 25. Offices in Boston can follow suit June 1, but Mayor Martin J. Walsh has said the 25 percent threshold might be too high at the outset.

Baker responded Wednesday by saying that 25 percent is the maximum allowable threshold, which no office is required to reach. He stressed that employees will encounter big differences in the workplace, and that many companies will be allowing employees to work from home.

“Physical closeness associated with work is clearly going to change,” Baker said, adding that businesses permitted to reopen during the initial phase must maintain rigorous cleaning and safety protocols, which are available online.

In Boston, outdoor work on major development sites also restarted Monday, two months after Walsh ordered a citywide construction shutdown.

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Statewide, hair salons and barber shops can reopen May 25 in limited capacity and by appointment only, while retail stores and recreational marijuana dispensaries can launch curbside pickup.

Baker also said that about 6,500 child-care slots are available in a state emergency system, which initially had been set up for children of first responders and other essential personnel. State officials also are discussing a model for child care and summer youth camps in the coming months, Baker said.

“I am fully confident that we will figure this out,” he said.

As of Tuesday, Baker said, the state had distributed more than 11 million pieces of protective gear including masks, gowns, gloves, and ventilators to medical facilities and front-line workers.

Baker spoke at Symmons Industries, which makes kitchen and bath plumbing supplies but has shifted some manufacturing in recent months to personal protective equipment. Symmons also has been making copper hooks to open doors without touching the handle and potentially spreading germs.

Baker said many companies in Massachusetts have been shifting production to protective equipment, which he said could help the state’s preparation for future emergencies. The governor said he expects much of this manufacturing capacity to remain in place, even as companies return to nonessential production.

Baker: Social aspect of work will change
Speaking about socialization at work, Governor Baker said, "There will be a lost opportunity for people to engage with one another." (Photo: Sam Doran/Pool, Video: Handout)

Symmons officials said sales dropped by half as the economic effects of the pandemic set in, and chief executive Tim O’Keeffe said Wednesday that the privately held company had laid off staffers as part of its response. He declined to disclose how many people lost their jobs.

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However, a former employee who said he had been laid off in late March criticized the timing and questioned the motivation behind the reductions. In an e-mail to the Globe, the former employee said Symmons fired 150 workers, all of them salaried sales staff.

“At that point in the pandemic, the country wasn’t under quarantine and we had not started social distancing yet,” said the former sales representative, who asked not to be named because he is looking for work.

“Was this part of a larger plan by my company to use the COVID pandemic as a way to restructure the company and mask irresponsible decisions from the top?” the former employee wrote.

O’Keeffe said the company made cuts early in the crisis because it had experienced a drastic drop-off during the Great Recession and hoped to adjust quickly to the current crisis.

As the economy reopens, the company has brought back about 25 manufacturing employees who had been laid off, he said.

"We would hope by the end of the year we are substantially close to where we were,” O’Keeffe said.

Travis Andersen, Tim Logan, Matt Stout, and Adam Vaccaro of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com. Andy Rosen can be reached at andrew.rosen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @andyrosen.