State House: COVID-19 update in Massachusetts

Boston Statehouse

BOSTON (SHNS) – The last daily COVID-19 report before Governor Charlie Baker is set to detail his economic reopening strategy on Monday offered encouraging signs for those anxious to get back to work and those making the decisions about when to let that happen.

Key indicators watched by the Baker administration, including the positive test rate and the number hospitalizations, were all down. The Department of Public Health reported 1,077 new positive tests from a total of 12,737 tests conducted since Saturday. That’s a positive test rate of about 8.5 percent, which was below the 12 percent recorded Saturday.

The state also reported 92 new deaths linked to COVID-19, which the lowest total of daily fatalities reported since Tuesday. Finally, the number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 declined by 95, leaving a total of 2,597 people in a hospital with the coronavirus.

Sunday’s reporting brought the total number of cases in Massachusetts to 86,010 and total number of deaths attributed to the disease to 5,797, including more than 700 in the last seven days.

Baker is set to release a detailed economic reopening plan on Monday, adding crucial detail to what he described this past week as a four-phased proposal that will start with Phase I – Start. The governor has said people should not expect an immediate, full-scale resumption of public activity in Massachusetts, and a Republican lawmaker on Sunday said he had been told the administration would focus initially on construction and manufacturing — two industries that don’t have much face-to-face contact with customers.

On the Sunday talk shows, the head of the Boston chapter of the NAACP spoke to WBZ’s Jon Keller about the disproportionate impact the coronavirus has had on communities of color, and how it remained unclear what would happen with the group’s national convention that had been planned for Boston in July. And on WCVB’s “On the Record,” Rep. Ayanna Pressley discussed the HEROES Act and her views on mail-in voting. – Matt Murphy

GOP Rep Teases “Heads Up” On Reopening:

A day before Gov. Charlie Baker is planning to release a detailed economic reopening plan, Republican Rep. Shawn Dooley appeared to spoil some of the surprise when he posted on Facebook about a “heads up” he got that the the first phase would focus on construction, manufacturing and worship. Baker was tight-lipped last week when pressed repeatedly about what types of businesses might be allowed to reopen first after a prolonged closure during the COVID-19 pandemic. Dooley, of Norfolk, posted on his Facebook page Sunday that he had received a “heads up” about what the Phase I plan would look like. “I am being told it will be focused on construction, manufacturing, and worship,” he wrote. Some of Dooley’s conservative GOP House colleagues complained last week that Baker was moving too slowly to allow Massachusetts to return to work, and should trust businesses to figure out how to do it safely. Dooley seemed to agree with those opinions. “I guess he is opening churches so if your business isn’t one of the ‘chosen ones’ you can go there to pray that you don’t go bankrupt,” Dooley wrote. “Government shouldn’t be choosing winners and losers. Set a safety / disinfecting / health requirement and make everyone adhere to this standard. If you can’t adhere to such, then you can’t open,” he continued. Dooley told the News Service that he wasn’t briefed directly by the administration on Phase I, but that the Massachusetts Municipal Association had been. MMA Executive Director Geoff Beckwith said only the administration could confirm its plans, but a senior Baker advisor did immediately respond to a request for comment Sunday afternoon on Dooley’s post.

New $56M Announced For Food Security:

The Baker administration announced $56 million on Sunday to help prop up overburdened food banks, provide meals directly to struggling families and encourage urban farming and other solutions to make local food more available to those receiving food assistance benefits. The initiative, the administration said, implements some of the more than 80 recommendations brought forward by the Food Security Task Force, which was put together by the coronavirus command center being led by Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders. The bulk of the funding will be distributed through a $36 million food security infrastructure grant program. The grants will be put toward increasing food delivery, food bank and food pantry capacity, programs that make is easier for SNAP and WIC benefit recipients to receive food and to support farm, fisheries, retailers and other business to make local food more accessible. Another $12 million will be put toward supplying food pantries with 25,000 family food boxes per week. Each box contains 30 to 35 meals. “These funds jump start some of the recommendations to address urgent needs and food supply chain issues due to the COVID-19 pandemic for communities across the Commonwealth,” Gov. Charlie Baker said in a statement. “While COVID-19 has had a statewide impact, some of our communities and residents who have historically experienced food insecurity have been even more disproportionately impacted.” The administration will also increase funding for the Healthy Incentives program by $5 million to meet the demand among SNAP recipients for local produce and make $3 million available immediately for food banks as a “relief valve.”

Disproportionate Impacts from an “Indiscriminate” Virus:

The fate of the postponed NAACP national convention, which had been scheduled for July in Boston, is unknown at this point, but the head of the organization’s Boston chapter said Sunday morning that COVID-19 can serve as a catalyst for change. “One of the things that is good in this moment is that from a local standpoint, we have maintained for now over a year, that the work and the preparation for this convention should not just be about the event, but that it really should be about really serving as a catalyst for the systemic work that needs to happen in our community every day,” Tanisha Sullivan told Jon Keller of CBS during a televised interview. “And if anything, this virus has really laid bare for all of us the reality that there are systemic racial inequities that put communities of color in harm’s way, even from a virus that would otherwise be considered, you know, indiscriminate.” The communities hardest hit by COVID-19 from both health and economic perspectives are the Black, Latinx, and low-income communities, as well as working families, Sullivan said. She noted that two prominent demographics reflected by convention delegates – Black Americans and older Americans – are both being disproportionately affected by COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths.

Professors Float Idea of 6 Percent Income Tax:

Ahead of the delayed fiscal 2021 budget deliberations, three public policy professors who focus on the local economy are encouraging lawmakers to consider a major income tax increase to generate $2.5 billion per year and preserve government services. Michael Goodman of UMass Dartmouth and Alicia Sasser-Modestino and Alan Clayton-Matthews of Northeastern University wrote in a Boston Globe opinion piece Friday that the $5 billion to $6 billion state budget revenue shortfall projected in April for the coming fiscal year “may be larger” because those estimates don’t account for more recent reports about gross domestic product and unemployment trends. “It’s likely that some combination of federal funds, rainy day funds, and tax increases would be needed to prevent deep spending cuts,” the three professors wrote, referring to the state’s $3.5 billion rainy day fund and one-time funds from the federal government to help states deal with the economic damage caused by COVID-19. While they acknowledged raising taxes “can reduce consumer spending and slow economic growth,” they warned that “cutting public spending could have long-term consequences for education, safety-net programs, and overall economic growth.” An increase in the income tax from 5 percent to 6 percent could be implemented with triggers that could gradually return the tax rate to 5 percent as the economy recovers, they said. Massachusetts is just coming off a similar approach. The income tax fell to 5 percent this year after a 20-year journey to achieve the mandate of a statewide ballot question that passed in 2000, but whose implementation was slowed by the Legislature.

Pressley Weighs In On Mail-In Ballots:

Independent voters should be mailed two primary ballots to vote in either the Democratic or Republican Party contests this summer, said Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley, choosing the more expansive option for mail-in voting currently being considered on Beacon Hill. Pressley, in a Sunday morning appearance on WCVB’s “On the Record,” was pressed about how the state should approach mail-in voting. Asked whether unenrolled voters should be automatically sent primary ballots for both major parties, Pressley said, “Yes. Yes, absolutely.” The Legislature’s Joint Committee on Election Laws heard testimony last week on a variety of proposals to expand access to mail-in voting for the 2020 elections. One alternative to mailing ballots to everyone automatically would be to have registered voters apply to have a ballot of their choice sent to their home. “I know that we’re sort of building the bike and riding it at the same time, but again we find ourselves in unprecedented times. It’s so important that we’re ensuring that everyone have access to the ballot and that our elections are secure and that they are protected,” Pressley said. Pressley said the embrace of mail-in voting around the country during the pandemic also underscores the need for Congress to support the United States Postal Service. She suggested the USPS’s role could actually be expanded to include “postal banking.” The first-term congresswoman from Dorchester also discussed the $3 trillion HEROES Act that passed the House on Friday, describing herself as an “eternal optimist” when asked how Democrats could overcome opposition from Senate Republicans and the White House. “I will concede it’s challenging because we’re often negotiating with people who are not good faith partners in their negotiations, who I think are very removed and disconnected from the real hardship that people that people are experiencing every day,” she said. She also said that she’s been advocating for federal resources to be doled out based on infection rates and not population so that hard hit communities of color like Chelsea, which is in her district, receive the support they need for testing, contact tracing and other response efforts.

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