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Behind Mass. Gov. Baker's Decision To Close Schools Statewide

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, at right, with Lt. Governor Karyn Polito.
Sam Doran
State House News Service
Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, at right, with Lt. Governor Karyn Polito.

Governors across New England ordered schools closed, and Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker went even further than that.  

Most school districts had apparently already acted to cancel classes for the next few weeks over COVID-19 concerns. The largest teachers union in Massachusetts urged Baker to apply this across the state, and that's what he did Sunday night.

State House News Service reporter Matt Murphy joins us to talk about the details.

Matt Murphy, State House News Service: The governor had, for several days, been resisting calls to make this a statewide-ordered shutdown of the public school system. He had preferred to keep it a decision made at the local level.

That is, until [Sunday] night, when he ordered the statewide shutdown after places like New York City also took such a step.

The governor had serious concerns about what kids would do in the meantime with no school, what it would mean for food programs, and whether or not children would be sufficiently contained and practice the social distancing necessary to contain the virus if they were left at home versus at school. And you heard that in his messaging last night. He was urging people not to continue with the kind of playdates and other activities that might happen when kids are on vacation.

Baker's order also included new rules for restaurants, large gatherings, nursing homes, even the Registry of Motor Vehicles. What stands out to you?

Yeah, the step to shut down the bars and restaurants — very interesting, and came very quickly after Boston Mayor Marty Walsh had taken not quite as drastic a step. 

The mayor had been urging restaurants to reduce capacity by 50%. That was superseded by the governor ordering all restaurants to basically stop sit-down service, and to move exclusively to takeout service.

The Registry of Motor Vehicles also adding a 60-day extension to the expiration date for standard driver's licenses and other credentials.

So people are really bracing for this to potentially last for several weeks.

There are so many affected businesses, some of which say they will keep paying their employees, but not all. The governor said he will file emergency legislation Monday aimed at getting some relief to those workers. What does the bill do? And will lawmakers be able to act quickly?

We're very interested in getting a look at this bill that the governor said he will file [Monday], but as we understand it, he's going to be waiving some of the waiting periods that typically go along with accessing unemployment benefits, including the one-week period for workers to begin taking effect.

We're also expecting the Executive Office of Labor to issue new emergency regulations so that businesses that are shutting down with plans to open within four weeks can also start tapping into the UI Pool. That's a fund the state maintains that, as I understand it, has been pretty robust recently due to the strength of the economy over the past year. Plus, not a lot of people have been tapping into it. That would appear to be changing.

And the legislature isn't in today. The House and Senate leaders are planning to meet with Governor Baker this afternoon. And we anticipate that, yes, this is something that they will probably be able to take up rather quickly.

The total number of reported cases of COVID-19 in Massachusetts stands at 164 as of Sunday. That includes nine in Berkshire County, one in Hampden County, and the bulk still in eastern Mass. Still, it seems those numbers may not mean a lot because it's been so hard to get tested. What's the Baker administration say about that?

They say they're working to ramp up as fast as they can now. The state lab should this week be up to testing 400 cases a day — that's up from 200. We have three private labs on that led to an exponential growth in the number of tests that have been done over the weekend.

So we should start to see the number of tests, and presumably the number of positive cases, also tick up. The governor also says he anticipates seeing drive-through centers begin to come online fairly quickly.

Keep up here with Beacon Hill In 5.

Carrie Healy hosts the local broadcast of "Morning Edition" at NEPM. She also hosts the station’s weekly government and politics segment “Beacon Hill In 5” for broadcast radio and podcast syndication.
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