Berkshire lawmakers: Shelter in place might not be necessary, but state needs to plan for it

Massachusetts State House. (Photo by Aaron Ye/BU News Service)

By Damian Burchardt
BU News Service

MASSACHUSETTS – Preparations for a shelter-in-place order in Massachusetts “must move forward” amid the spread of the new coronavirus, said state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, despite Gov. Charlie Baker’s reassurances that he had no plans to enforce it.

But state Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams thinks the state will avoid a strict lockdown, as Massachusetts residents have been adhering to social distancing guidelines.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered a statewide order to shelter in place March 19, after a number of California counties had ordered their residents to stay home — banning all nonessential gatherings and allowing only crucial services, such as hospitals and grocery stores, to remain open. Newsom’s order came after the total California COVID-19 cases passed 1,000, including 20 deaths.

Residents still are able to leave their homes, if necessary, providing that they maintain a safe distance from other individuals and take extra care of their hygiene.

Illinois also has issued a stay-at-home order, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has ruled that nonessential businesses must shut down in New York City.

Gatherings of more than 10 people in Massachusetts are forbidden, with public schools moving to remote learning, casinos shutting down and restaurants only allowed to offer takeout or delivery food. Baker also has activated the state’s National Guard to help suppress the coronavirus outbreak.

But Rep. Mike Connolly, D-Cambridge alongside 16 other state representatives, called on the governor to issue a shelter-in-place — or stay-at-home — order, labeling it “the most important thing we can do right now.” His comments came on Twitter, as part of an event where they advocated for stronger efforts to aid vulnerable residents. He is now calling for even tighter restrictions.

So far, Baker has indicated that he is not close to putting extra safety measures in place while COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts continue to rise.

Hinds, though, said that informal talks have taken place on the continuation of businesses that provide crucial functions — even though he has not been told of the scope of potential extra restrictions. And although he did not want to speculate on the likelihood of shelter in place being ordered in Massachusetts, Hinds said preparations for such an eventuality are necessary.

“It’s my view that we absolutely need to be preparing for what that would look like and what the impact of that could be on critical businesses and social services,” he said. “That process of planning for an eventuality like that must move forward.”

Meanwhile, Hinds didn’t want to rule out the possibility of a strict lockdown, similar to Italy’s.

“We’re all keenly aware that this is going to get worse before it gets better. And so it seems like all the options should be kept on the table,” he said.

But, Hinds points out that many of his constituents already have limited their outside-of-home activities to essential ones only.

Barrett agrees that, unlike in other states, Massachusetts residents have been paying attention to current safety instructions. And he adds that he does not see a need for extra restrictions at the moment, nor has there been any indication from the Baker administration that such measures would be necessary.

But, while opposing a shelter-in-place order, he is aware that, in the coming weeks, more cases of the coronavirus will be confirmed as the state ramps up its testing capability.

“[In] the next two weeks, we’re going to see a terrific rise from a number of reported cases of COVID-19. And many of them will, obviously, be tested as positive,” Barrett said. “Only then you can determine whether there should be any type of lockdown. Right now, that’s the last thing that you want and you need.

Berkshire Regional Transit Authority Administrator Robert Malnati said he is “not planning” on a shelter-in-place order being issued after Baker’s adamant reassurances. He said, though, that the authority has discussed multiple scenarios as part of its planning process and that it would react “rather quickly,” depending on which scenario materializes.

Malnati also said that the BRTA already had seen a significant decline in ridership earlier in the month reaching 40 to 48%, compared with numbers that would have been recorded on a normal day in March last year.

This article was originally published in The Berkshire Eagle.

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