Baker: 'Right Kind Of Progress' On Health Trends Ahead Of Phase 2 Reopening Announcement

Gov. Charlie Baker gave his Friday afternoon news conference after touring Cambridge's LabCentral, a launchpad for biotech and life sciences startups. (Matt Stone/Boston Herald/Pool)
Gov. Charlie Baker gave his Friday afternoon news conference after touring Cambridge's LabCentral, a launchpad for biotech and life sciences startups. (Matt Stone/Boston Herald/Pool)
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The day before Gov. Charlie Baker is set to announce when Massachusetts will advance to the next level of a gradual economic reopening plan, state health officials newly reported a "positive trend" in a third of the six metrics they're monitoring to gauge progress against COVID-19.

The Department of Public Health's Friday afternoon report for the first time moved the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations into "positive trend" status, a categorization the DPH had already bestowed on testing capacity and the rate of tests that come back positive. Health care system readiness, contract tracing capabilities and the number of COVID-19 deaths all remain classified as "in progress."

There are now 1,533 patients hospitalized for COVID-19 across Massachusetts, less than half of the number from a month ago, according to the DPH. Gov. Baker said Friday that hospitalizations are "down dramatically" from mid-April, when cases of the respiratory disease surged.

"Across a number of key indices we've been seeing positive trends for the past several weeks and making the right kind of progress," he said.

The earliest elements of the Baker administration's four-phase plan to restart an economy shut down out of concern for public health began on May 18, and some activities have slowly started to resume, with new restrictions in place.

"Frankly, it's been good to see people have an opportunity to get back to work, either remotely or back at the place that they used to call their office, and it's been especially encouraging to see families visit with parents and grandparents at many of our long-term care facilities," Baker said.

Baker on Saturday plans to announce when the second phase of the recovery plan can begin. The earliest it could happen is Monday, and Baker said Friday that the decision will be "based on the data."

The governor said it will still be at least a couple weeks before it becomes clear how the large demonstrations this week, held to protest racism, police brutality and the death of George Floyd, affected the spread of the coronavirus.

After holding a call on Thursday with members of the Black and Latino Legislative Caucus, Baker said he expects to provide more details next week about specific proposals to "dramatically improve transparency in law enforcement."

Baker spoke after touring Cambridge's LabCentral, a launchpad for biotech and life sciences startups.

Companies in the shared lab space are working on testing solutions, immunotherapies and vaccines to help fight COVID-19 and have adapted their practices to the new realities of the pandemic, Baker said. They have encouraged working from home, staggered shifts, implemented new protocols on social distancing and hygiene, and reconfigured work areas.

Baker said LabCentral and its member companies are providing a "great example of how this can be done responsibly."

Johannes Fruehauf, LabCentral's president and co-founder, said the member companies have attracted nearly $500 million in venture capital since March 10, the day Baker declared a public health emergency.

"I think we know that this is a science challenge that only science can solve, and Boston and Massachusetts and this community around us here is well-placed to develop the necessary answers," Fruehauf said.

Pharmaceutical research and development operations were permitted to stay open when the Baker administration ordered widespread business closures in March.

When the first phase of the reopening plan launched, a limited number of businesses — including hair salons, pet groomers and car washes — were able to open their doors, and retail shops were authorized to conduct sales via curbside pickup.

When Phase 2 begins, restaurants will be able to serve diners outdoors and retailers can allow customers back inside for browsing, with capacity limits and other precautions in place.

Phase 2 will also bring with it new recreational opportunities. Public and semi-public outdoor pools will be allowed to open, while hot tubs and whirlpools must stay closed and indoor pools can only reopen for supervised youth sports leagues and youth summer sports camps. Playgrounds, spray decks and outdoor fitness areas will also be able to reopen, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito said, provided they adhere to new state guidance.

Baker addressed some of the hardships faced by retailers so far, in response to a reporter's question about looting and property damage that occurred in downtown Boston Sunday night after an earlier protest march.

"Small businesses especially, and retailers on Main Street more so than anybody else has suffered a terrible blow as a result of this pandemic and a lot of the decisions that we made to slow the spread of the virus," he said. "And to add insult to injury by having so many of them be the victims of what happened on Sunday night, sent a very significant and important message to all of us about how important it would be for us to make sure that main streets and small businesses and local communities were protected and that the people who marched and demonstrated — who were doing so as I've said over and over again peacefully — would be able to do that without worrying about about any violence breaking out, and since then, that's pretty much been the case."