With 33 new cases of coronavirus detected in Massachusetts, Governor Charlie Baker said Monday afternoon the state would make $10 million in small business loans available to employers, as leaders took additional steps to enforce "social distancing."
While Baker said he was still not considering a "shelter in place" order, House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka said they had decided to close the Statehouse, often referred to as "the People's House," to the public, beginning at the close of business Monday.
The new measures, along with reduced service on the T, were detailed in an afternoon press conference at the Statehouse after Baker and the Democratic leaders met for over two hours.
The small business loans will be made available immediately for any employers with fewer than 50 full- and part-time employees who have been negatively impacted by the coronavirus, including non-profits. The fund will be administered by the Massachusetts Growth Capital Corporation, and recipients can access up to $75,000, with no payments for the first six months.
The governor said the availability of the emergency small business loans is similar to steps the government took during the winter of 2015 and after the Merrimack Valley gas explosions.
The creation of the fund came on the same day Baker filed several pieces of legislation, including a bill to ease access to unemployment benefits for workers forced to stay home due to infection, quarantine or the care of a family member.
The Senate referred Baker's unemployment insurance bill to the Senate Ways and Means Committee, suggesting it may be on the fast-track, but the other two bills, including one to give municipalities more budgeting flexibility, were referred to traditional joint House-Senate committees.
DeLeo and Spilka did not say how the Legislature intended to process those bills, or if they would waive public hearing requirements, but DeLeo did encourage anyone who wanted to testify to submit comments in writing.
Both Democratic leaders also said they were uncertain how the rest of the session would unfold, including debate and finalization of a fiscal 2021 state budget, which is due by July 1. DeLeo said the House, which usually debates and approved the annual budget in April, is still discussing how to proceed.
"Right now we're really pretty much just focused on this issue," DeLeo said, referring to coronavirus. "That does not mean, obviously, that we're not meeting or talking to folks relative to the budget, but in terms of timeframe of whether we'll be on time or we'll be delayed somewhat or whatever it may be, that's yet to be decided."
Baker confirmed that he took part in a call with President Donald Trump and the governors of more than 50 states and territories on Monday morning where the president and Vice President Mike Pence gave state leaders an update on the government's response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
With regard to reports that Trump had told governors not to wait for the federal government to supply respirators and ventilators, Baker said, "That's not exactly what I heard him say."
Baker said the president told governors that they and their provider organizations should "make clear to the manufacturers and distributors of gear that all efforts should be made by those who are in this business to amp up their manufacturing and to assume that it would be appropriate for them to not simply rely on whatever is available in the stockpile to meet the needs and expectations of the health care community."
"I think to have us all doing that at this point in time is probably a good thing," Baker said, noting that the state received 74,000 "pieces of gear" last week from the national stockpile.
Baker said the administration would also discuss the president's new guidance that gatherings be limited to 10 people, but said he was not reconsidering his decision to not issue a mandatory stay-at-home order. The governor has ordered that groups of no more than 25 people not congregate in the same place.
"The big message that everybody should take from this is that non-essential gatherings of any significant size, given the contagious nature of this particular virus, are just simply a bad idea," Baker said.
At the time of the press conference, the governor was unaware that Boston Mayor Marty Walsh had just suspended all construction in the city, and said that unlike New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, he continues to believe the state, with cooperation from residents, businesses and health care providers, can impact the spread of the coronavirus.
The number of cases in Massachusetts climbed to 197 on Monday, including 15 hospitalizations, but no reported deaths. New York saw its caseload climb to 950 on Monday, with 158 hospitalizations and nine deaths.
Cuomo said Monday he no longer thought New York could "flatten the curve enough to meet the capacity of the health care system.”
"We believe at this point in time we can develop plans that can manage this," Baker said.