MARCH 24 -- Massachusetts begins its most aggressive phase yet in the fight against the highly-contagious coronavirus at noon Tuesday, when any business not deemed essential must shutdown for two weeks as the state attempts to get on top of the viral outbreak that's so far claimed nine lives here.
Baker's latest order requires any workplace that does not conduct a service the state considers essential -- a detailed list that includes grocery stores, pharmacies, media and transportation -- to close its physical operations and also cuts the maximum size for public social gatherings from 25 down to 10.
Residents of the state are advised -- the administration stopped short of declaring a formal shelter-in-place order Baker has repeatedly resisted -- to stay home as much as possible and avoid "unnecessary travel and other unnecessary activities" for the next two weeks.
On Monday afternoon, the Department of Public Health announced that the total number of COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts reached 777 and that nine deaths have been linked to COVID-19.
The governor is expected to address the public and provide an update on the state's efforts against coronavirus at noon, just as his latest order takes effect. The update will come from Gardner Auditorium, the State House's largest public meeting room, rather than Baker's press briefing room. In addition to providing more space for social distancing, Gardner also has livestream capabilities.
The White House is planning to detail the federal response to the pandemic during a live town hall-style event on Fox News on Tuesday, also at noon. The federal Coronavirus Task Force, helmed by Vice President Mike Pence, will meet at 3 p.m. but no on-camera briefing was mentioned on the White House public schedule Tuesday.
The latest numbers on positive cases, testing, hospitalizations and deaths connected to the coronavirus are expected from DPH by 4 p.m. Tuesday. -- Colin A. Young
RIZE Awards Grants to Community Orgs: Twenty-five organizations strained by the COVID-19 pandemic will receive a total of almost $200,000 in grants from the nonprofit RIZE Massachusetts Foundation, an organization that is working to end the opioid epidemic the state. According to the foundation, groups that serve people with opioid use disorder will be adversely affected as medical resources shift to address the coronavirus and social distancing protocols are implemented. RIZE said its community partners are incurring unforeseen costs, like moving operations to outside tents. Grant recipients include Learn to Cope, the Massachusetts Organization for Addiction Recovery, New England Users Union, Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative, Prisoners Legal Services, Boston Health Care for the Homeless, Brockton Neigbhorhood Health Center, AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod, the cities of Chelsea, Everett, Malden and Medford, Lynn Community Health Center, HRH413, Fenway Health and the Greater Lawrence Family Health Center. - Katie Lannan 10:09 AM
Overdose Survival Kits: The sheriffs departments in Suffolk, Middlesex and Essex counties will begin distributing "survival kits" to reduce drug overdose risks for people they release from incarceration in response to the COVID-19 crisis, in partnership with the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative. Several corrections facilities, in Massachusetts and various locations around the country, have announced plans to release people who are vulnerable to the respiratory illness and who do not pose a public safety risk. According to PAARI, those who are released will face an increased risk of a fatal overdose -- a 2016 state report found that the fatal overdose rate among those recently released from incarceration is 120 times higher than for the rest of the adult population -- at a time when local hospitals are confronting the burden of caring for COVID-19 patients. The kits include the overdose reversal drug known as naloxone or Narcan, information on recovery supports and resources, information to connect with Boston Medical Center addiction treatment telemedicine programs, and safety information related to both COVID-19 and fentanyl. The Department of Public Health is providing approximately 200 Narcan kits to "fast-track" the program, PAARI said. - Katie Lannan 9:52 AM
New Balance Foundation Commits $2 Mil to Virus Response: The Boston-based New Balance Foundation on Tuesday morning announced it has committed $2 million in non-profit grants to help support local, regional and global communities with COVID-19 response. Grant recipients include Global Giving, No Kid Hungry, The Boston Resiliency Fund, Groundwork Lawrence, Good Shepherd Food Bank in Maine and the St. Louis Area Foodbank. "We firmly believe it is our civic duty to support our communities in need around the world," said Anne Davis, managing trustee New Balance Foundation. "As we witness the growing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are inspired by the acts of humanity, kindness and compassion that have emerged in support of one another during this health crisis. Guided by our values, NB Foundation will remain generous, flexible and responsive recognizing the uncertainty created by these challenging times." - Michael P. Norton 9:41 AM
Without Buyers, Fisheries in Need of Lifeline: U.S. Sens. Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren were joined by the U.S. Senate delegation from Alaska in a call to Senate leadership to include the commercial fishing industry in a federal coronavirus relief package being negotiated. "The COVID-19 outbreak has caused restaurants across the United States to shutter, eliminating a key customer base for the fishing and seafood industries. Large export markets in virus-affected countries like China have also been disrupted. Additionally, many fishermen are not eligible for unemployment benefits because they are self-employed," Markey, Warren, and U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan -- both Republicans -- wrote. "Congress must provide dedicated financial assistance to these vital industries to ensure that, when this crisis has passed, we still have a robust fishing economy." The senators suggested that the aid package include the creation of federal procurement programs specifically for U.S. seafood products, vessel loan payment and refinancing assistance; a measure qualifying fishermen for unemployment insurance; and funding for federal fisheries disaster assistance. -- Colin A. Young 9:35 AM
MBTA: Only Essential Passengers Should Ride: Hours after the Department of Public Health issued a new advisory urging Massachusetts residents to stay home whenever possible, MBTA officials stressed that commuters should only travel by train and bus for essential trips. The T said customers should "avoid any and all unnecessary service," and that by doing so, the service that does remain will be available to health care workers, grocery store employees and other travelers who rely on public transit to get to jobs at the front line of fighting the coronavirus outbreak. Schedules across the system are reduced amid plummeting ridership, though the T will add some new morning commuter rail trips on Wednesday specifically aimed at hospital employees who need to make 7 a.m. shift changes. - Chris Lisinski 9:10 AM
Order Issued to Facilitate Waste, Recycling Work: Another state emergency order, this one announced Monday afternoon, is intended to ensure that intrastate waste and recycling collection and disposal will continue uninterrupted during the COVID-19 emergency, according to the state Department of Environmental Protection. The agency said the order "provides relief from state and federal requirements that govern the hours of service allowed for commercial vehicle operators involved in waste and recycling transportation and collection, while maintaining important safety protections and measures." The order will be in effect until at least April 12. - Michael P. Norton 9:06 AM
DHS Rescheduling Immigration Hearings Through April 22: The Department of Homeland Security late Monday night cited COVID-19 conditions as the reason for rescheduling all migrant protection protocol (MPP) master calendar and merit hearings through April 22. "Any individual with an MPP hearing date through April 22 should present themselves at their designated port of entry on their previously scheduled date to receive a tear sheet and hearing notice containing their new hearing dates," the department announced." DHS said the department and the Executive Office for Immigration Review were "deeply committed to ensuring that individuals 'have their day in court' while also ensuring the health and safety of aliens, our frontline officers, immigration court professionals, and our citizens." - Michael P. Norton 9:04 AM
Cease and Desist for Marijuana: Non-medical marijuana businesses were ordered late Monday to cease and desist all operations in Massachusetts to comply with Gov. Charlie Baker's essential services order and his "stay at home" directive. The Cannabis Control Commission sent a cease and desist order to all its licensees Monday, requiring that all non-medical operations stop by noon Tuesday and remain frozen until at least Tuesday, April 7 at noon. Medical marijuana treatment centers -- there are 61 of them operating in Massachusetts -- can remain open as long as they adhere to principles of social distancing and stores that serve both medical patients and recreational consumers may continue to sell to medical patients only. There are more than 67,700 certified patients in Massachusetts, the CCC said. The Commonwealth Dispensary Association has asked Baker to reconsider the classification of non-medical cannabis sales as non-essential, arguing that thousands of people use the drug for relaxation and anxiety-relief and could turn to potentially less safe illicit options if legal and tested marijuana is not available to them. -- Colin A. Young 8:59 AM
Pence to Join Fox News Town Hall: After a morning call with conservative leaders about COVID-19 response, Vice President Mike Pence plans to visit the Rose Garden to participate at noon in a Fox News Virtual Town Hall from the White House. In the afternoon, Pence joins a call with educators on COVID-19 response before leading a 3 p.m. White House Coronavirus Task Force meeting. Massachusetts residents, many holed up in their homes, have been regularly following local updates from Gov. Charlie Baker and Boston Mayor Martin Walsh and tuning into daily pandemic response updates from the White House. - Michael P. Norton 8:49 AM
Muni-Elections Bill Signed, Coalition Calls it "First Step": Just before 5 p.m. Monday, Gov. Charlie Baker signed legislation allowing cities and towns to postpone municipal elections scheduled for this spring because of the coronavirus pandemic, but there are already calls for Beacon Hill to consider additional steps. The bill includes language specifying that "any eligible voter may vote early by mail for any annual or special municipal or state election held on or before June 30, 2020." Common Cause Massachusetts and other voting rights groups issued a statement Tuesday morning. "Yesterday's bill is a strong first step. However, there is no guarantee that the coronavirus crisis will have receded by September 1, when Massachusetts state primaries are scheduled, or even for the November elections," the groups said. "The Election Modernization Coalition urges the Legislature to recognize that this crisis is of indeterminate length, and that we must also act quickly to ensure that the fall's elections take place as scheduled, maximize participation, and maintain public health. To that end, the Legislature must protect the ability of all eligible voters to cast ballots from home in all elections, and ensure that in-person voting is as safe and participatory as possible." -- Colin A. Young and Michael P. Norton 8:46 AM
Baker Update at Noon: Top state officials plan to provide Tuesday's coronavirus update at noon from the State House's largest public meeting room. Gov. Charlie Baker's office said he will give an update alongside Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel, and Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders, who has put her normal job duties aside to lead the state's Coronavirus Command Center, in Gardner Auditorium at 12 p.m. Tuesday. Over the last two weeks, the governor's staff has implemented social distancing at press conferences by setting chairs farther apart, limiting the number of people any one media organization can send to a press conference. Until Tuesday, most of the updates were held in the press briefing room but Gardner Auditorium is a much larger space and has livestreaming capability. -- Colin A. Young 8:45 AM