BOSTON (State House News Service) — Travelers visiting Massachusetts and residents returning home from seven Northeast states that have shown progress in controlling the spread of the coronavirus will no longer be asked to quarantine for two weeks after Gov. Charlie Baker on Tuesday updated the state's travel guidance ahead of the Fourth of July.
Baker said that starting July 1 anyone coming to Massachusetts from Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York and New Jersey will no longer be asked to self-quarantine.
He said he based the decision on the fact that infection rates and new hospitalizations in those states have been in decline. Visitors from other states and countries, including hotspots like Florida, will still be asked to quarantine, but Baker said he did not think it was necessary to go further.
Maine has asked visitors from anywhere except Vermont and New Hampshire to either quarantine or show proof of a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours before their arrival.
In Rhode Island, Gov. Gina Raimondo moved her state into the next phase of its reopening on Tuesday by permitting larger gatherings and businesses like theaters to reopen, but the Ocean State also advised any travelers from a state with a positive test rate of greater than 5 percent to quarantine or show proof of a recent negative test.
"We believe this change reflects the facts on the ground and is consistent with the Commonwealth's approach to COVID-19 standards, generally," Baker said. "We're home to many destinations that people usually travel to visit from all over the world and there's no doubt this season will be different and immensely difficult for visitors and businesses."
"It's our hope that many folks will still be able to visit their favorite places in our great state," Baker said.
Facing questions about why travel restrictions have been voluntary, the governor defended his approach and said the state would run into "some pretty interesting constitutional questions" if it tried to make quarantining mandatory for travelers to Massachusetts.
"It's definitely had an impact, according to the lodging community, on people's willingness to make reservations," Baker said.
The governor's relaxation of the state's travel guidance comes as millions of Americans are preparing to celebrate Independence Day this weekend amid alarming spikes in new cases in some states, including Florida, Texas and California. Governors of states experiencing a surge have moved to again close beaches and some businesses, like bars, while leaders in states faring better have taken what they're seeing elsewhere as a cautionary tale.
Gov. Phil Murphy in New Jersey said this week that he would no longer move to allow indoor dining due to his concerns over the relaxed behavior of some New Jersey residents and what's happening around the country.
Baker continued to stress that Massachusetts' success in controlling the spread of the coronavirus can be attributed to people's willingness to wear masks, maintain social distance and observe proper hygiene.
"It's working for us, but we clearly need to stay on our game," Baker said.
The governor promised an update on when Massachusetts would move to Phase 3 of his reopening plan later this week, but suggested that his decision would not be based on what's happening in other states. The next phase includes the opening of theaters and gyms and expected guidance on larger gatherings like weddings, and could begin as soon as July 6.
"I would say that, generally speaking, we've tried to stick to our knitting with respect to the data and our decision making," Baker said.
He added, "I think the big message I take from what's happening in some other parts of the country is you need to respect the virus, you should be careful and cautious about the way you reopen, and you should be willing to rely on a solid foundation of guidance and information that you believe people will actually comply with before you open."
Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito also announced a new $20 million rental assistance program that will use a mix of CARES Act and other federal funds to provide relief of up to $4,000 per household to low-income families struggling to pay their rents or mortgages due to COVID-19.
"The goal here is simple, provide housing stability," Polito said.
Baker has been getting pressure this week to extend the moratorium on evictions and foreclosures put in place in April to protect those who could not cover their housing costs during the pandemic as businesses closed and income dried up. The moratorium expires on Aug. 18, but the governor has the option to extend it for 90 days at a time.
"We continue to talk to folks in the housing community about what some of the key issues are, but I don't think we're in a position to make a decision on that today," Baker said, highlighting the $160 million in federal funding that went to the Department of Housing and Community Development to assist with housing affordability and other programs.
Polito also made a forceful push for the governor's long-stalled housing legislation that would make it easier to obtain local approval for developers to build more housing in communities where real estate has become scarce and unaffordable for many families.
"The bill the governor filed to increase the supply of housing is not new, but it's more important now than ever. We can see the effects of too little affordable housing, too many families living on the edge of eviction, too many households doubled up, and too many of our people in unsafe living conditions," Polito said.
Polito said the housing "crisis" in Massachusetts existed well before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, but has been exposed to a greater extent.
"We cannot address the housing issues of 2020 without the restrictive housing laws changed that are on our books today," Polito said.
By Matt Murphy, State House News Service
(Photo: Getty Images)