'Things Are Looking Better' In Massachusetts Post-Holiday COVID-19 Surge

Feb 8, 2021

Massachusetts COVID-19 metrics looked good enough to Governor Charlie Baker to roll back some business restrictions, effective Monday.

Matt Murphy of State House News Service joins us to talk through the changes that went into effect, and how lawmakers are reacting to the new call center meant to help people set up vaccine appointments.

Carrie Healy, NEPM: Can you remind us where we are regarding capacities for restaurants and other businesses?

Matt Murphy, State House News Service: [The metrics are] good enough for Governor Baker to go back on those limits that, for many weeks now, have kept a lot of businesses — including theaters, event spaces, restaurants — to a limit of 25% of their capacity.

Starting Monday morning, as of 5 a.m., the governor lifted that capacity restriction to 40%, meaning gyms and all these types of businesses, theaters, museums, other places where gatherings like this occur can go to 40%.

Baker did, however, keep in place the restrictions on gathering sizes to 10 people indoors, and 25 people outdoors, for public event spaces and indoor gatherings of people. 

So the restrictions, or the recommendations from the state, for those types of gatherings are still limited, even as the governor said he believes the state is coming out of the post-holiday surge.

Hospitalizations, one key metric that he has been looking at, are down 35%. So things are looking better. But you know, they continue to urge caution, mask wearing and distancing.

Meanwhile, there's a push to get residents vaccinated against COVID-19. We heard pleas from many western Massachusetts lawmakers and others late last week. The governor then announced a call center to assist people in making vaccine appointments is now available during weekday business hours. Are lawmakers satisfied with the speed of vaccinations and accommodations to assist those making appointments?

The opening of the call center was certainly seen as a step in the right direction. But are lawmakers satisfied — are the governor's critics are fully satisfied? I would say no.

The call center that is now open during the week, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. is not open on the weekends. The governor said they did this to ensure the maximum amount of staffing that they could during the busiest hours.

But you know — Senator Eric Lesser, for instance, who filed legislation to force the governor to create a 24/7 call center, said he would reserve judgment, wait and see how this worked. He also wanted this call center open around the clock for people to be able to make appointments, especially with blocks of appointments coming on early in the morning hours, people jumping online, booking them fast.

I think there is a lot left to be done for the governor to gain the trust of legislators and the public.

Equity is another big concern in this vaccine rollout. We're hearing it from lawmakers trying to reach hard-to-reach populations — communities of color and other groups of that may be more resistant to getting vaccinated. So there is still much more work to be done on this front.

Lawmakers in the Massachusetts Senate are slated this week to consider rules for the session. While some of this is procedural formality, the draft joint rules include three new committees that would be added to the 29 existing joint committees. What are these proposed committees?

Yes, this is really necessary for the legislature to get going.

One thing that the speaker and the Senate president have agreed on is to ask members to create these three new communities, one of which would be a COVID-19 and emergency preparedness oversight committee, signaling a desire among legislative Democrats to play, maybe, a more active role in overseeing the Baker administration's response to the pandemic and the vaccine rollout.

They're also looking to create separate committees that would focus on legislation and oversight efforts on racial equity, as well as cybersecurity and other technological business areas.

So the speaker and Senate president are saying these are committees that would respond to issues of the times. We'll see — if they are approved, and get up and operational — what kind of impact they have on lawmakers moving forward.

Should we read anything into the fact that the House is not scheduled to take up the rules this week?

I wouldn't read anything too much into that. The speaker has postponed the House rules debate. I think they will look to see what the Senate proposes and sends over to them. There are some transparency measures in there, including the publishing of votes on bills coming out of committee. It's been an issue between the branches in the past. They will look to see what the Senate approves, and then make adjustments accordingly, and try and reach agreement in the next couple of weeks.

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