Critics who spent the past week urging Governor Charlie Baker to tell Massachusetts residents to stay home are welcoming today’s announcement in which Baker did exactly that — while also urging the governor and State House to act with more alacrity as the coronavirus crisis unfolds.
“I think it was the right call,” said State Representative Mike Connolly (D — Cambridge), who previously urged Baker to take action in an open letter signed by dozens of other elected officials.
“I would have liked to see this announcement come early last week,” Connolly added. “Unfortunately, I think we will see many more cases that would have otherwise been prevented. But nevertheless, I’m glad and relieved to see the call came today.”
Now that Baker has taken this step, Connolly said, it’s time for the Legislature to back him up.
“There needs to now be government action to support everyone who’s wondering how they’ll make it through the month, how they’ll make it through this crisis situation,” Connolly said.
“I filed legislation to halt all evictions and all foreclosures in the Commonwealth about two weeks ago,” he added. “That bill has already received about  cosponsors … and just last night, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka announced that they would be moving forward with legislation to address the concerns of renters and homeowners. So that’s a big piece.
“Beyond that, I think we need direct cash assistance. We need student debt-forgiveness," he continued. "We need to put freezes and holds on things like loans and credit-card bills, for people who won’t be able to make those payments.”
On Monday morning, Baker ordered all nonessential businesses to close beginning Tuesday, but stopped short of ordering private citizens to stay in their homes.
"It doesn't make sense from a public health point of view,” Baker said. “And it's not realistic, especially if people need to get to work at essential businesses or go to places like grocery stores, pharmacies or hospitals or healthcare providers.
Instead, Baker issued an advisory urging Massachusetts residents to practice social distancing, avoid travel when possible and simply stay put — especially people over 60.
Medical facilities and grocery stores, as well as gas stations, mass transit, airlines, laundromats, convenience and hardware stores, shelters, utility companies and kennels will all remain open, according to Baker.
"We will always allow all grocery stores, pharmacies and other types of businesses that provide essential goods and services to Massachusetts residents to continue to operate,” Baker said. “And we will not stop anyone from accessing these essential businesses.”
Like Connolly, State Senator Jamie Eldridge (D — Acton) had signed that open letter urging Baker to tell Massachusetts residents to stay home. He also praised Monday’s announcement.
“I think it’s a major step,” Eldridge said. “And I think the stay-at-home advisory really reinforces what I’m seeing a lot of my constituents say, which is, ‘We’re still seeing people going out shopping or going to a park, but not practicing social distancing.’”
Eldridge agrees that the Legislature should follow Baker’s directive with action of its own. But he argues that there, too, Baker has a role to play.
“The governor [could] say, ‘You know, let’s pass a massive [supplemental] budget for everything from food assistance to rent assistance to financial support to community hospitals and community health centers,” Eldridge said. “Showing a more aggressive [approach] toward reducing our prison population. Because all of these things are just as tied to reducing the coronavirus as [Baker’s] different orders limiting contact or closing businesses.
“If we can pass a budget where people aren’t worried and going to work in order to pay their rent, that’s going to keep more people in their home.”
Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu, who also signed the aforementioned open letter, praised Baker’s announcement as well.
“This is really important, to put out the official word that people need to take social distancing seriously,” Wu said.
“Without that directive to nonessential businesses to work remotely, and ask their workers not to come in, we were hearing from family after family where it wasn’t an essential business — but the employer was not letting people stay at home, and therefore people didn’t feel like they had any choice,” she added. “So this really has an impact on the family side, and on communities, when we now have official word.”
But Wu also said she hopes the Baker Administration takes a less reactive approach to the crisis in the coming days.
“It feels right now that there are issues that are bubbling up, and then political pressure builds from folks on social media or in the community, and then one more step is taken, and then one more step is taken, as opposed to looking proactively,” Wu said.
“It’s tricky in this situation, because the state and the governor are used to having solid data foundations to go from and to be able to point to numbers to make justifications. But in this case, data from epidemiology is always lagging.”
The Massachusetts Legislature took action in another coronavirus-related area Monday, sending Baker a bill that would empower municipalities to delay local elections during the crisis.
DeLeo, the House Speaker, said the bill, filed by Baker last week and approved by a handful of lawmakers in session at the State House, will let officials postpone town meetings and required budget deadlines until it's once again safe to assemble for votes.
"The municipalities are concerned about their town meetings, they're concerned about their elections,” DeLeo said. “They're concerned about, obviously, their financial situations, in terms of getting through the next fiscal year.”
DeLeo and Karen Spilka, the Senate President, are also discussing lowering the number of signatures that candidates for federal office need to gather to appear on the ballot, given the obvious tension between standard-issue signature gathering and the social distancing Massachusetts residents are being asked to practice.
Lawmakers would have to act quicker than they're used to address the problem, as signatures are due by May 26th.
Speaking at what’s become a daily press briefing on Boston’s efforts to curb the coronavirus outbreak, Mayor Marty Walsh said the city has hired a consulting firm founded by former U.S. General Stanley McChrystal to advise the city on emergency strategies.
“I am not willing to leave anything to chance when it comes to the safety and well being of our residents,” Walsh said. “This is uncharted territory.”
Walsh urged residents to stay home and to practice social distancing, saying he’s been doing so every day. He also said the city has begun testing people who depend on Boston’s homeless shelters to prevent a coronavirus outbreak in a crowded facility.
So far, Walsh said, no one who is homeless in Boston has tested positive.
In a teleconference with the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, Walsh said while it's too soon to tell exactly how the situation will impact affect the city's budget he is preparing for significant shortfalls.
"I'm expecting," Walsh said, "large reductions in revenue coming from the state coming predominantly from sales tax, meals tax and also income tax. A lot of that is going to be cut back this year so we're going to figure things out as we move forward.
Additional reporting from Mike Deehan and Isaiah Thompson.