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MBTA will play ‘important role,’ but Baker urges work-from-home

Warning comes as offices in Boston are slated to partially open June 1

Governor Charlie Baker put on a safety vest as he stood beside MBTA general manager Steve Poftak (right) before touring improvements being made to the MBTA's Blue Line.
Governor Charlie Baker put on a safety vest as he stood beside MBTA general manager Steve Poftak (right) before touring improvements being made to the MBTA's Blue Line.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

As coronavirus infections trend downward, Governor Charlie Baker on Wednesday said the MBTA “will play an important role” in the slow reopening of the Massachusetts economy in the coming weeks, but he called on workers and employers to help keep crowds to safe levels.

With offices in Boston and Cambridge scheduled to partially open on June 1, Baker used the Maverick Blue Line Station as a backdrop for his daily COVID-19 briefing. He stressed the T will not be suited to handle normal pre-pandemic commuting levels and urged companies to continue allowing employees to work from home or stagger work hours to spread out the commute.

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“We know some employees will need to get to their workplaces for a fixed start time each day, and for others tele-work is not an option. But for the rest, we’re asking employers to continue to consider having employees who can successfully work from home continue to work from home," Baker said. “Buses, ferries, and trains are unique environments. Fighting the virus in these settings is only possible through shared responsibility.”

His remarks came on the same day the United States passed a grim milestone: its 100,000th death from the coronavirus, according to a database maintained by Johns Hopkins University.

The state Department of Public Health reported Wednesday that the Massachusetts death toll had risen by 74 cases to 6,547. The number of confirmed cases climbed by 527 to 94,220. The agency also reported 6,663 new tests had been conducted, marking a total of 552,144 in the state.

The seven-day weighted average of positive test rates, a key metric the state is scrutinizing during the reopening process, showed a slight increase to 8.5 percent on Tuesday, up from 8.4 percent a day earlier. However, the number has generally been trending downward, dropping 71 percent since April 15, officials said.

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“These numbers show steady progress,” Baker said before the release of Wednesday’s data, adding that the early part of the reopening of the economy has so far been “incredibly encouraging.”

For the first time Wednesday evening, state health officials released a breakdown showing how many people had been tested in each of Massachusetts’ 351 cities and towns. Previously the state only released the numbers of confirmed cases in municipalities. Local officials had been pushing for the total number of tests performed in their communities to help put infections in context.

The new data showed testing has varied widely from place to place. So has the share of tests that come back positive, which is often called the positivity rate.

According to the state’s calculations, the highest per capita rate for testing was in Shirley, home to a large state prison complex. There, 26 people out of every hundred people had been tested. Data show testing has also been concentrated in Ayer, Bedford, Brockton, and Chelsea, where the per capita testing rate is roughly 17 people out of 100.

The highest positivity rate was found in the small town of Buckland in Franklin County — 8 positive out of 18 tests, for 44 percent. Chelsea is second for positivity at 40 percent. Other municipalities with high positivity rates include Lynn, Everett, Brockton, and Lawrence.

The governor focused his coronavirus response Wednesday on the state’s transit system, praising T employees for working throughout the pandemic and lauding a project that he reviewed at Maverick: the two-week shuttering of much of the Blue Line to take advantage of low ridership and replace 2,200 feet of track, improve fare gates, and make tunnel repairs. Previously that work was scheduled to occur over a series of weekends spread across several months.

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“The T will continue to review other opportunities where accelerated work might be possible due to low ridership and less traffic,” Baker said.

Baker praises Blue Line work
Governor Baker said repairs to the Blue Line were among projects the MBTA has been able to tackle faster amid the pandemic, when ridership numbers have fallen. (Photo: Sam Doran/Pool, Video: Handout)

Transit ridership plummeted as the virus took hold and will likely remain very low for months — as might commuting more generally. Boston offices are allowed to open next week, but with limited capacity. Many large employers have already committed to allowing most or all of their white collar workforce to stay home; in other parts of the state, offices were sparsely populated upon opening Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the MassINC Polling Group released a poll Wednesday of nearly 1,500 Massachusetts residents, finding that 44 percent of people expect to travel less than they used to as the economy reopens and 41 percent would like to work from home even after the crisis.

The MBTA’s plan has focused on running enough service to keep a relatively low number of riders safely distanced. For now, however, buses and trains are still running on a reduced schedule. They would see increased frequencies during phase two, which could begin next month, and service would return to normal weekday levels in phase three.

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MBTA general manager Steve Poftak said the agency “has enough capacity on the system right now" to meet current rider levels. One problem with increasing service more quickly is that nearly 400 T workers are inactive for “COVID-19-related” reasons, he said, limiting the number of available drivers.

The agency has also established new ridership standards so passengers can maintain a safe distance from each other. However, these limits — such as 20 people per bus, compared to the past level of 56 — will not be enforced; instead, they are meant to help the agency determine when and where it needs to boost service or encourage riders to travel at different times.

The MassINC survey also found that more than a third of respondents expect to ride transit less than they did previously, compared to just 6 percent who expect to ride it more, mirroring other polls showing significant concerns about riding buses and trains. By contrast, 28 percent of residents expect to drive more compared to 10 percent who expect to drive less. The poll also showed that many residents expect to walk to destinations more.

“The big question on everybody’s mind is, is there going to be a traffic apocalypse? We don’t really know yet,” said Steve Koczela, president of the polling group, noting that increased trips by car could be offset by decreased travel or an uptick in walking or biking.

Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said the state of the roads and the rails will depend in large part on how many people return to work and school or begin making other trips.

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“One of the reasons we’re thinking about things like work-from-home is that it doesn’t shift the problem from transit to the roads," Pollack said. “Hopefully we can have a world where the T is socially distant and the roads are not overly congested, because trips that were being made are actually not traveled.”

Pollack added that the state will likely have time before traffic becomes a major issue.

“These are real problems, but they’re not tomorrow problems,” she said. “Transit is going to come back slowly. The economy is going to come back slowly.”

Travis Andersen and Jaclyn Reiss of the Globe Staff and correspondent Jeremy C. Fox contributed to this report.


Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro. Andrew Ryan can be reached at andrew.ryan@globe.com Follow him on Twitter @globeandrewryan.