Millions of Americans in more than a dozen states are being urged — ordered, in many cases — to stay home to slow the spread of the coronavirus. As of Tuesday afternoon, Massachusetts became one of those states, following Governor Charlie Baker's order that all non-essential businesses shut down until April 7.
Baker chose his language carefully. He didn't call this a "stay-at-home-order," but instead focused on shutting down all those non-essential businesses, while making it clear that grocery stores, pharmacies, gas stations and medical facilities will remain open. And he went out of his way to tell Massachusetts residents that this is not a lockdown order.
"I do not believe that I can or should order U.S. citizens to be confined to their homes for days on end," Baker said on Monday. "It doesn't make sense from a public health point of view, and it's not realistic."
But Baker did order the State Department of Public Health to issue "a stay at home advisory," urging residents not to go out except to do essential jobs, shop for groceries, buy medicine or take a walk.
"What's sort of clever about that is that it's exactly what other governors around the country are calling a stay-at-home order," said State Rep. Mike Connolly of Somerville, who was one of more than 60 elected officials who had urged Baker to order people inside.
Connolly said that Baker was able to have it both ways; he didn't directly tell residents to stay home, but he told DPH to deliver the message.
"The key point was to close non-essential businesses and tell people to stay home," Connolly said. "In terms of its practical impact, it's what we had been asking for."
Connolly said Baker's actions puts Massachusetts pretty much in line with California, which was the first state to impose a stay-at-home order. But there's a difference: California didn't just advise residents, it ordered them to stay home.
But California also has exceptions, such as doing essential jobs, going to the store, even getting exercise. So, in the end, there isn't much practical difference between the two approaches.
At least 21 states have issued similar orders, affecting some 200 million Americans. Several other states have closed essential businesses but stopped short of telling residents to stay home, so there's a patchwork of policies across the country. Howard Markel, a doctor and a medical historian at the University of Michigan, said we need uniform standards. And that means guidance from Washington, which Markel said is missing.
"Without federal guidelines, we'll have a patchwork of different governors doing different things," Markel said. "It would be much better to have one set of guidelines that we all [follow], and that would help us contribute to the conquest of this terrible pandemic."
Now that non-essential businesses are shut down in Massachusetts, State Rep. Mike Connolly said the state must next focus on how to protect those who will continue to work in grocery stores, pharmacies and other businesses listed as essential by the state.
"These are people who never signed up to be front line workers in a disaster situation, but that's truly who they are right now," he said.
Among other things, that means new regulations and guidelines to ensure those workplaces are as safe as they possible, Connolly said. To that end, Baker said Wednesday that state officials are drafting a new public health order to require grocery stores and pharmacies ensure social distancing, and provide hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes for employees.
Correction: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this story had Howard Markel's name spelled incorrectly. An earlier version also incorrectly noted what type of businesses were told to close. It is all non-essential businesses that have been ordered to close.
This article was originally published on March 25, 2020.
This segment aired on March 26, 2020.