Massachusetts Governor Bans Gatherings of 25 or More People, Orders Schools Closed, Restricts Bars and Restaurants To Takeout

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No gatherings of 25 or more people, no public or private schools open, no restaurants or bars serving customers on the premises, no elective surgeries, no visitors to nursing homes.

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker announced draconian restrictions on public life shortly after 6 p.m. Sunday, March 15 to try to slow the spread of coronavirus.

Monday, March 16 is the last day bars and restaurants can have patrons in their establishments – starting Tuesday, March 17, they can offer food to go but not on the premises.

Grocery stores and drug stores will remain open so people can get food and medications.

“I realize these measures are unprecedented, but we’re asking our residents to take a deep breath, and understand the rationale behind this guidance,” Baker said during a press conference Sunday evening.

Schools will be allowed to open on Monday, March 16, but the governor ordered them closed from Tuesday, March 17 until Monday, April 6.

The governor also mentioned “faith-based events” as among those restricted to less than 25.

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston and the Diocese of Springfield cancelled all public Masses starting this past weekend, but the other two Catholic dioceses in the state – Worcester and Fall River – maintained public Masses through the weekend.

As of 9 p.m. Sunday, March 15, the bishops of Worcester and Fall River had not yet issued a public statement following Baker’s most recent announcement.

Many Protestant churches cancelled Sunday services. Some, such as Park Street Church in Boston, livestreamed church services while asking their congregants not to come to the church that day.

Nonessential elective surgeries are banned starting Wednesday, March 18, said Marylou Sudders, secretary of the state’s Health and Human Services department.

Sudders said the ban on visitors to nursing homes includes an exception for end-of-life situations, including hospice care.

Pharmacists will be allowed to make hand sanitizer, to try to address the shortage, she said.

Massachusetts had 164 cases of coronavirus as of Sunday, March 15, up from 138 the day before, said Monica Bharel, the state’s commissioner of public health, during the governor’s press conference Sunday evening.

“We are going to see more cases in Massachusetts,” Bharel said.

So-called “community spread” – meaning state officials can’t trace where all the cases came from – in various parts of the state led Baker to up the ante on state restrictions.

Seven of the 14 counties in Massachusetts have reported community spread:  Suffolk (which includes Boston), Middlesex (the state’s largest county), Norfolk, Essex, Worcester (which includes the city of Worcester), Hampden (which includes Springfield), and Berkshire.

Only 799 people had been tested for coronavirus by the state’s public health laboratory as of Sunday, March 15, Bharel said. That’s up from 475 tested on Saturday, March 14. She said new guidance from the federal Centers for Disease and Prevention enables state officials to test more people more efficiently.

Since more labs can now test people, the total number of people tested is now 969, Bharel said.

State officials are planning to loosen various bureaucratic requirements for Massachusetts residents.

The state is easing restrictions and requirements for applying for and receiving unemployment benefits.

The Massachusetts Registry of Vehicles is supposed to delay deadlines for motor vehicles, Baker said.

A reporter asked Baker whether the state will extend tax filing deadlines.

“That one’s on the radar, too,” Baker said.

Baker called on Massachusetts residents to offer “a friendly check-in” for neighbors, friends, and relatives.

The state government has a web page dedicated to updates on the coronavirus.

The governor noted that life in Massachusetts has changed dramatically since seven days ago, when he got his head shaved for charity.

“That honestly feels like a million years ago,” Baker said.