By Devyani Chhetri
BU News Service
BOSTON — With COVID-19 cases continuing to multiply in the state, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker ordered Monday that non-essential businesses close their physical offices and instead work remotely from home starting noon Tuesday until at least April 7.
He also directed the Department of Public Health to announce a “stay-at-home” advisory outlining social distancing and self isolation protocols.
In the days leading up to the March 23 press conference, Baker had resisted drastic provisions that signaled the closure of businesses and asked citizens to confine themselves indoors.
Businesses that are “locally grown” and owned by “neighbors and friends” are the ones that may find it most difficult to transition to remote or telework policies, Baker said.
“But I also know that by taking this action now we can significantly improve our position in this fight to slow the spread of this virus,” Baker said.
Citizens will still be able to access “essential services” such as grocery stores, gas stations, pharmacies, hospitals and other health centers. Takeout and delivery services offered by restaurants are also permitted during this period.
Baker also said medical marijuana dispensaries will remain functional but recreational adult use shops must close.
State Sen. Paul Feeney, D-Foxboro, and Rep. James Hawkins, D-Attleboro, said that the emergency order was essential as a state response to the coronavirus pandemic because it clarified and emphasized what social distancing meant.
“These decisions aren’t made lightly, but the priority right now is to slow the spread of the virus so that we don’t overwhelm our healthcare system,” Feeney said.
With lawmakers working exclusively on bills related to the coronavirus, Feeney said lawmakers had been planning as much as it could for the short, mid and long-term impact on the economy.
“Ramifications of this virus are more than anyone can truly comprehend at this moment,” said Sen. Becca Rausch, D-Needham, who had been at the forefront of pushing for a “shelter-in-place” order, which is similar to the current advisory.
Rausch said the list of essential services was “comprehensive” and lowering of the limit of public gathering was a good step.
“The governor’s order has also called for a $300 fine if any of its terms are violated, so they’ve taken care of that too,” Rausch said.
But she wasn’t satisfied with the governor’s response time.
“This should’ve come a week ago,” she said.
Baker had also made a careful distinction between the “stay-at-home” advisory and a “shelter-in-place” order.
“I do not believe I can or should order U.S. citizens to be confined to their homes for days on end,” Baker said. “It doesn’t make sense from a public health point of view, and it’s not realistic.”
Rausch felt that the interpretation of “shelter-in-place” as “confinement” was a reductive interpretation of the order she had been pursuing.
“We do not need a suggestion for people to stay in, we need an ‘order,’” she said.
Referring to the response to the coronavirus pandemic as a “matter of life and death,” Rausch said that this advisory was important to drive home the fact that people needed to stay home to the greatest extent possible.
“This is not a time to party, this is not an extended snow day. This is very, very serious,” she said. “Extensive social distancing is not an option. It’s a necessity and we must do whatever we can to flatten the curve of infection.”
Rausch said that this was just as important as the research being done on the infection.
Before the governor announced the advisory, Nantucket and Provincetown were among several towns to announce their own “shelter-in-place” orders starting March 23 at 5 p.m..
Nearly two weeks ago, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh announced a “public health emergency” that required bars and restaurants to shut down and only offer delivery and takeout services.
As for Attleboro, Hawkins said several businesses had already withdrawn operations or curtailed timings to limit the window of community interaction.
“I know people from the communities I represent have already started isolating themselves in their homes,” Hawkins said.
Even if the governor’s order wouldn’t necessarily have a “dramatic effect,” Hawkins said that the order was “timely” because it reinstated the safe practices required to contain the pandemic.
“Wash your hands, practice social distancing and make sure that you sleep right and drink enough water,” he said.
Meanwhile, Attleboro Mayor Paul Heroux is working on helping businesses that are not sure if they qualify as essential or nonessential.
“Our economic director is working from home to help Attleboro businesses figure out where they stand and whether they should stay open or closed,” Heroux said.
The mayor added that the city has closed playgrounds to the public, and residents have been urged to practice social distancing.
This article was originally published in The Sun Chronicle.