BOSTON (State House News Service) — As the state braces for a "critical" next couple of weeks in the effort to flatten the trajectory of coronavirus infections, Gov. Charlie Baker extended his stay-at-home guidance through May 4 on Tuesday, ordering all non-essential businesses to remain physically closed for the next month and for people to continue to avoid groups of more than 10 people.
Baker also announced that the federal government had approved the first of three field hospitals requested by the state, and beginning on Wednesday three tractor trailers full of supplies would be arriving in Worcester to set up a 250-bed medical facility at the DCU Center to treat patients with less acute symptoms of COVID-19.
The governor's decision to extend the severe social distancing measures imposed on businesses for the past week aligns with the orders he has already given to keep state public schools and daycare centers closed through April. Baker initially ordered most businesses to close for two weeks from March 24 through April 7.
A Suffolk University-Boston Globe poll released over the weekend found broad support for strict social distancing measures imposed by the state, with close to 92 percent of those surveyed saying they support the first iteration of Baker's order to close non-essential businesses.
"I know this is difficult to hear, but we need everyone to continue to go without being around many of your family and most of your friends for your own health and safety and for the health and safety of your family, your friends, and others," Baker said during his daily press briefing at the State House.
The governor opened his remarks by calling the situation at the Holyoke Soldiers' Home, where 13 veterans have died, six of whom tested positive for COVID-19, "gut-wrenching" and promised to get to the bottom of why he only learned what was happening at the facility Sunday night.
He then pivoted to the reality that the new daily routines of working from home and limiting contact with others will be in place a lot longer. The governor, as he has frequently, mentioned how difficult it has been emotionally for himself to not visit his 91-year-old father, who he typically saw at least once a week before the pandemic.
"I miss him, but that's just the way it is, and it's the way it should be, and it's the way all of us need to be as purposeful as we can be in dealing with the contagious nature of this virus," Baker said.
While he said the state was considering options to prevent people from gathering outdoors, for now Baker said he hoped people would do the right thing.
Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, who on Monday cited concerns about outdoor gatherings as the weather improves, announced Tuesday the city would begin zip-tying basketball hoops, and removing tennis court nets.
"Don't play basketball just because you can, or sit on the beach all day with your friends. We cannot have big groups at our parks," Baker said.
As part of his new order that takes effect Wednesday at noon, the state is also updating its list of essential businesses.
While it will cover more of the supply chains that feed essential services and include optometrists and chiropractors and additional sanitation services, Baker said the idea of opening recreational marijuana shops was a "non-starter" for him.
"Remember, medical marijuana is available as an essential business. If we make recreational marijuana available we are going to have to deal with the fact that people are going to come here from all over the place across the Northeast and create issues for us, with respect to the fundamental issue we are trying to solve for here, which is to stop the spread," Baker said.
The governor also said that rooms at hotels, motels and short-term rentals through websites like Airbnb should "no longer be booked for vacation or leisure purposes." He said those spaces should be used only for front-line health care workers and people who have been displaced from their home by COVID-19.
"People should really be using common sense on this one, and should not be going on vacation right now," Baker said.
The state is expecting to see a surge of patients requiring hospitalization with COVID-19 between April 7 and April 17, but Baker said there is some evidence to suggest that social distancing has pushed back the arrival of the surge.
The Department of Public Health announced Tuesday that 868 new people had tested positive for coronavirus, bringing the state's total caseload to 6,620. A total of 562 patients have now been hospitalized, and 89 people have died, including 33 new deaths reported Tuesday.
To prepare for the surge, Baker said UMass Memorial Medical Center will oversee operations of the field hospital at the DCU Center to treat "lower acuity" patients.
A spokeswoman for the administration's coronavirus command center said the locations of the other two field hospitals requested by the state would be "determined and announced soon."
Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders, who joined Baker at the press conference, also spoke about the need to protect seniors living in nursing facilities, urging families to continue to observe visitation restrictions.
Sudders said a new state pilot program implemented Tuesday would allow for on-site testing of symptomatic residents of nursing and rest homes by trained personnel from the Massachusetts National Guard.
Rather than force nursing home residents to visit a hospital to get tested, Sudders said seven National Guard teams will transport samples from homes to the state's public health laboratory, and those samples will be prioritized for testing by the Broad Institute, with a turnaround time of 24 to 48 hours.
In response to criticism from the Massachusetts Nurses Association of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services latest guidance to health care professionals on the need to conserve personal protective equipment, Baker defended the recommendations as "consistent" with what other states have done.
He strongly urged people to use telemedicine, if possible, to limit interactions with patients for medical professionals, and said he continues to work on procuring more equipment.
"We do agree, they need more gear. We've said that for two weeks," Baker said.
By Matt Murphy, State House News Service