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Why The Massachusetts Ban On Non-Essential Business Activity May Be Extended

TJ Maxx carts stand idle March 26 in an empty parking lot in Somerville, Massachusetts.
Robin Lubbock
TJ Maxx carts stand idle March 26 in an empty parking lot in Somerville, Massachusetts.

The Massachusetts ban on non-essential business activity is scheduled to expire May 4. But don't hold your breath.

Governor Charlie Baker has said he's letting the trend lines in the coronavirus data determine when much of the state's economy can reopen. Reporter Matt Murphy from the State House News Service joins us to talk, among other things, about whether Baker is giving any indication he's going to lift the shutdown order.

Matt Murphy, State House News Service: He has not given an indication about what he plans to do with that. I would not be surprised to see some action taken this week. But I think I would be surprised at this point, given what we have heard the governor say, to see him lift that order.

I would expect an extension this week. The governor has laid out a pretty clear set of guidelines that he thinks needs to be met before he would consider starting to reopen the economy.

And he wants to see some significant progress towards getting over this surge, and getting on the downward slope of the curve of infections. My gut is that we have not yet seen the kind of long-term trend in that direction that the governor is looking to see.

He also wants to put forward a pretty comprehensive set of criteria that would allow businesses to start to reopen, including the safety precautions they would need to take for both customers and workers. Those have not been published yet, either, to give businesses time to adapt, and think about how they will open those doors.

So I think the big question for me is: how long does this get extended? Is it another month? Does he take it week by week, maybe a couple weeks at a time? I think that's something that we'll see later this week.

More than half of the COVID-19 deaths in Massachusetts were patients at long-term care facilities. Officials last week started releasing some information about which facilities were seeing cases, but the state House of Representatives passed a bill calling for more specific data to be made public. What's the latest there?

The timing of this bill was certainly interesting, because the House released it at a time when the administration was finally starting to release even more information, itself, about where these cases were at long-term care facilities, nursing homes and assisted living centers.

But the House bill goes a lot further than the information we're seeing from the administration — which, to date, the breakdown of facilities is only done in terms of cases, not necessarily deaths.

The state is only releasing aggregate death totals in these long-term care facilities, and they're only releasing ranges of cases in each facility.

The House is looking very specifically for information by facility, number of cases, number of deaths and even more information. So it will be interesting to see what happens as this bill moves to the Senate this week.

In the run-up to the expected surge, Massachusetst health officials put together some grim guidance about which patients to prioritize for lifesaving equipment if hospitals were overrun with cases. You covered the state's Public Health Council meeting last week. What are experts saying about that guidance now?

The guidance got a lot of pushback, including immediately from people like Joe Kennedy and Rep. Santiago, who is an emergency room doctor at Boston Medical Center and in the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus on Beacon Hill.

The decision by this panel of medical experts to prioritize "life years saved" — that is, favoring giving the lifesaving equipment to the young, and those without underlying health conditions, to prioritize how long these people would live if they were to get over COVID-19 — that was seen as disadvantaging minority and underserved populations.

So the guidelines were rewritten. They were rewritten to prioritize life expectancy to get over just five years if access to a ventilator were to help you survive the coronavirus.

But a bit of good news in these presentations that were given to the Public Health Council: these doctors now think that despite the importance of having these on the books, should hospitals need them, these guidelines probably won't be necessary.

That's because of the hospital surge planning that's been done of increased capacity of beds. Both ICU and acute care beds have been added by the state in places like the DCU Center in Worcester.

And the fact is that the curve, perhaps, has been flattened slightly, so that the hospital system is not currently being overrun by patients. And that, I guess, is a modicum of good news.

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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