State House: Covid-19 positive test rate, testing capacity remain on positive trends

BOSTON (SHNS) – Massachusetts started the Memorial Day weekend Saturday with routines still disrupted, the pathway toward a new normal still in its infancy, and key indicators the Baker administration is watching maintaining slow but steady progress.

Public health officials attributed 76 more deaths to the highly infectious virus, bringing the toll since the outbreak began to 6,304. Another 773 newly confirmed cases from 9,342 tests pushed the cumulative number of confirmed infections to 91,662.

The weighted average of new tests to come back positive ticked up a third of a percentage point to 9.3 percent, but three other major statistics — the average number of patients hospitalized, number of hospitals using surge capacity and the three-day average of deaths — continued to decrease gradually.

Total patients hospitalized for COVID-19 decreased another 86 in Saturday’s data report to 2,237, a decrease of more than 1,500 since the mid-April peak. Of the six indicators deemed key as the phased reopening continues, two — COVID-19 positive test rate and testing capacity — remain on positive trends, while total deaths, hospitalizations, health care system readiness, and contact tracing capabilities were listed as “in progress.” The administration has not offered any clear definitions about what will trigger movement from one phase of the recovery to the next, when more businesses will be allowed to reopen.

Another wave of businesses are spending the holiday weekend preparing to reopen their doors as soon as Monday, the first day that laboratories, hair salons, car washes, and curbside-only retail stores can resume operations with significant new safety mandates and requirements for masks, hand sanitizer and other protective gear.

Unlike its neighbor Connecticut, which just authorized outdoor dining in the state’s right of way, Massachusetts still does not allow restaurants to offer any more than delivery or takeout.

Graphic: Chris Lisinski, SHNS

Outdoor Dining Gets Lift in Connecticut:

Mystic Pizza in Connecticut is the first business in that state to receive a permit under an executive order expediting processes to allow restaurants, retailers and other small businesses to use sidewalks or other areas that are in the state’s right of way. Gov. Ned Lamont announced the permit Saturday, saying it would enable Mystic Pizza to add tables in front of its West Main Street building near the doorways and on the sidewalk. Under phase one of Lamont’s reopening, restaurants that had been limited to takeout and delivery are allowed to expand their operations to outdoor dining while following specific sector rules. Lamont signed the executive order to assist businesses that don’t have outdoor space available. The order also creates an expedited process for municipal governments to make similar adjustments to accommodate businesses. Connecticut reported 38 COVID-19 deaths Saturday and 382 newly confirmed infections, with 724 COVID-19 patients in hospitals.

Brief: CARES Act Tax Cuts Benefit Wealthy:

The more than $2 trillion CARES Act included $160 billion in two tax cuts to high-income business owners and corporations, according to the non-profit Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center, which this week called on state lawmakers to step in. The law, which passed with bipartisan support as part of a major effort to address COVID-19 impacts, removes the dollar caps on the amount of pass-through business losses that can be used in a single year to reduce a filer’s taxable income from non-business sources, such as salary income or income from the sale of stocks, bonds and other assets, MassBudget said. It also permits 100 percent of business losses to be deducted from taxable income, up from a previous 80 percent limit, with the higher deduction permitted on business losses incurred in 2020, and before the pandemic hit in 2019 and 2018. The Congressional Joint Committee on Taxation assigned the $160 million value of the two tax law changes, according to MassBudget. “To avoid unnecessary and damaging state budget cuts, legislators should reform our state tax laws to collect a portion of this federal tax windfall,” MassBudget’s Kurt Wise wrote in a three-page policy brief released May 19. The beneficiaries of “lopsided income gains of the last several decades are well-positioned to contributemore at the state-level, while also successfully navigating the COVID recession,” the brief said. Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa credited MassBudget for its work on Twitter Friday night and said the findings gave her “ragey feelings.”

Another $4.9 Million in Aid Coming to Massachusetts Housing:

Massachusetts public housing authorities will receive nearly $4.9 million in vouchers through the CARES Act, members of the state’s congressional delegation announced Friday. In a joint press release, the lawmakers said the funding will provide rental assistance to non-elderly tenants with disabilities, aiming to keep them in stable living situations amid the pandemic’s widespread impacts. About $1 million, the largest chunk of Massachusetts funding in this round of the Mainstream Housing Choice Voucher Program, will go to the Boston Housing Authority. Other municipal and regional housing authorities that will receive funding are Lowell, Cambridge, Chicopee, Taunton, Quincy, Brockton, Northampton, Somerville, Springfield, Falmouth, Plymouth, Amherst, Franklin County, Yarmouth, Greenfield, Chelmsford, Mansfield, Milton, Sandwich, The Bridge of Central Massachusetts, Bridgewell, Community Teamwork Inc., and the state Department of Housing and Community Development.

Boston Distributing 10,000 Care Kits:

City of Boston workers will distribute 10,000 packages this weekend to help keep vulnerable residents safe amid the COVID-19 outbreak, Mayor Martin Walsh’s office announced Saturday. Over the course of the week, 130 volunteers assembled 20,000 care kits, half of which will be given out Saturday and Sunday. The kits — each of which includes a mask, gloves, hand sanitizer, soap, wipes and an educational packet — will be given to testing sites, meal sites, and community outreach partners for distribution to those in need. Locations were identified by the city’s Health Inequities Task Force as having a disproportionate level of need. “These kits provide simple supplies and important information to help educate our residents on how to keep them and their families safe,” Boston Chief of Civic Engagement and Neighborhood Services Director Jerome Smith said in a press release. “As we move forward to our new normal, it’s important that we help residents prepare.”

Trump Administration Exempts Athletes from Immigration Ban:

Most travel by non-Americans into the country during the pandemic has been banned by the Trump administration for months, but foreign professional athletes and related individuals will be allowed to enter the United States under an order the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued Friday. In a late evening press release, Acting Secretary Chard Wolf said the decision will contribute to reviving economic activity and supporting professional leagues such as Major League Baseball. “Professional sporting events provide much needed economic benefits, but equally important, they provide community pride and national unity,” Wolf said in the release. “In today’s environment, Americans need their sports. It’s time to reopen the economy and it’s time we get our professional athletes back to work.” The Trump administration has been aggressively pushing for a reopening process, while state governors urge the need for a cautious and measured approach. Gov. Charlie Baker has not indicated how his ban on gatherings of 10 or more people applies to professional sports in Massachusetts, saying last week that decisions about MLB were proceeding on a different track.

MBTA Offering Lower Fares in Lynn:

The MBTA is on the second day of a 10-day trial run accepting Zone 1A fares at Lynn’s commuter rail stop, effectively lowering the price from $7 for a one-way ticket to the same $2.40 charged on the subway. Passengers traveling between Lynn and North Station will only need to show a CharlieCard or CharlieTicket on board trains, while monthly passes and mTickets will still be accepted. Officials said the temporary fare policy, which runs through the end of service on May 31, will help prevent overcrowding and ensure social distancing to prevent COVID-19 transmission is possible while Blue Line trains are offline between Bowdoin and Airport stations. T leaders decided to shut down Blue Line from May 18 to May 31 to accelerate track replacement and tunnel repair work while ridership is low during the pandemic.

Cuomo Wants to Help Bring Back Pro Sports:

The reintroduction of pro sports in Boston hasn’t been front and center as elected officials deal try to first bring other businesses back online, but New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is tired of watching classic re-runs and wants to help resurrect franchises in that region. During a press conference Monday, Cuomo said that if the economics work for teams to host game without fans, teams should take steps toward returning, and in doing so give people something new to watch during the pandemic. The economics, he said, hinge on whether revenues that accrue to teams by airing games on television are sufficient to make it worthwhile to hold games without the influx of revenue that comes from fans packing arenas, parks and stadiums. “If they can economically have games with no fans, and the numbers work for them … I say great. Come back. The state will work with you,” Cuomo said. Teams need to take administrative steps toward returning and bring players back to camps, Cuomo said, and the work could start now to put teams in position to bring fans back when that’s deemed safe from a public health standpoint. “Anyway we can help, we would help,” he said. “And then they’ll be up and running. And then when we can fill a stadium again, we could fill a stadium. Why wait wait until you can fill a stadium before you start to bring the team back?” From a fan standpoint, Cuomo said, the product wouldn’t be as good as the live experience or going to a bar to watch a game, but “I’m watching the reruns right now of the old classic games and that’s fine, but I’d rather watch current sports on TV, if it works.” When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the Boston Celtics and Boston Bruins were set up for promising playoff runs, the new-look Red Sox were preparing to take the field under a new manager, and the Patriots, now without star quarterback, were making offseason moves ahead of the 2020-2021 season. Gov. Baker’s reopening board’s report makes no mention of pro sports. Asked about the Red Sox and Patriots at a press conference on Monday, Baker replied that the board has been working on youth sports and “the professional stuff’s running through a different channel.”

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