COVID-19 News and Updates

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COVID-19 News and Updates

Economy Health Care Costs HR & Employment Law News | March 13, 2020
By: Chris Geehern

State and federal governments continue to pass measures and issue orders to address the medical and economic fallout from the COVID-19 issue.

Here is a summary for employers. If you have questions regarding these or other public policy issues, please contact a member of the AIM Government Affairs Team.

January 14, 2021

Governor Will Re-Introduce Unemployment Rate Relief for Businesses

Governor Charlie Baker plans to refile a proposal to freeze pending increases in unemployment insurance rates for employers.

The governor proposed the freeze during the just-concluded 2019-2020 session but lawmakers did not pass it.

The proposed legislation seeks to sustain unemployment benefits and provide an estimated $1.3 billion in unemployment insurance relief to the commonwealth’s employers over two years. In addition to a two-year unemployment insurance tax schedule freeze, the legislation proposes financing measures designed to ensure the solvency of the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund and that federal borrowing that has occurred is repaid in a responsible and affordable manner.

The main provisions of this legislation include:

  • Short Term Employer Tax Relief through a two-year tax schedule freeze. Current Massachusetts unemployment legislative statute requires the employer tax schedule to increase from schedule E to schedule G. This would cause an average per employee tax increase from $539 to $866 – a nearly 60% increase over the previous year. Remaining on schedule E for 2021 and 2022 slows annual employer contribution growth from $539 average per employee costs in 2020 to $635 in 2021 and $665 in 2022.
  • Authorization for the issuance of special obligation bonds for the purposes of repaying federal advances. In order to fund the unprecedented increases in demand on the unemployment system in Massachusetts as a result of COVID-19, the Commonwealth has received federal cash advances. Through the issuance of bonds, the Commonwealth will be able to ensure positive trust fund solvency to enable the continued payment of benefits. The utilization of capital markets also allows Massachusetts to avoid paying punitive federal tax increases on employers regardless of their experience rating if federal advances are not repaid by November of 2022. Bonds issued will be supported by an unemployment obligation assessment and will not be general obligations of the Commonwealth.
  • Establishes an employer surcharge on contributory employers. In 2020 all federal advances taken to pay benefits are interest free. However, interest on federal advances will begin to be charged beginning in January of 2021. The first interest payment is due in the Fall of 2021 and it cannot be paid from the state unemployment trust fund, per federal law. To fund interest payments on repayable advances, the legislation also establishes a separate fund to house surcharge proceeds. The passage of this provision authorizes the Department of Unemployment Assistance to make this assessment but does not require the surcharge if interest is waived through future federal legislation.

AIM Advocacy on behalf of this legislation included:

 

AIM plans on re-engaging with the legislature on the importance of this bill and continuing our efforts encourage its passage before initial UI bills are due from employers at the end of Q1/March 2021.

Vaccine Distribution Update & COVID Resources

Vaccine Distribution Status: We are in Phase One with health-care providers and first responders.  Next week begins congregate care and related a- risk communities.

As of today, the Baker Administration is planning that Phase Two would start around the same time as originally planned for February.

COVID-19 Infection Rate(s) Status:  Key metrics relative to rate of transmission and hospitalization remain closely watched metrics. For a weekly report, click here for new vaccination data dashboard.

COVID-19 Business Regulation Status: Temporary Capacity Restrictions remain in effect.  Click here for more details (direct link) or click here to read the Temporary Capacity Order or here for the overview.

Vaccine Finder Interactive Map – Find a location in the commonwealth to receive a vaccine.

When can my employees receive vaccine?  The Department of Public Health changed the Phase 2 Group 1 based distributions related to residents age 75 and older to conform with CDC guidance – See full distribution plan here.

How can I find out where my employees fall in the distribution plan or how can I advocate that my employees fall within a certain phase?   For companies to inquire with the MassDPH regarding vaccination prioritization see email: COVID-19-Vaccine-Plan-MA@mass.gov

Essential Workers:  The Massachusetts distribution plan considers and prioritizes “critical employees” instead of essential workers.

EEOC guidance – see directly below for recent guidance.

Other States:  Coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine distribution by state – Ballotpedia and State COVID-19 vaccine distribution plans: Links to all 50 (usatoday.com) and State COVID-19 Vaccine Resources – National Governors Association (nga.org)

AIM Webinar | Pins and Needles: Should Employers Require COVID-19 Vaccines?

Today, January 14 | 11-11:30 am.

Join us as Andrew P. Botti, a Director at McLane Middleton and member of the firm’s Employment Law Practices Group, discusses the implications of the recently issued Equal Employment Opportunity Commission advisory on requiring employees to receive COVID-19 vaccinations. Such a requirement may implicate provisions of the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act concerning religious freedoms.

Learn More

AIM HR Solutions Offers Resources on Leaves

With the Massachusetts Paid Family Medical Leave now effective and COVID cases still on the rise, the AIM HR Solutions team has put together new resources and training opportunities to help employers ensure they understand managing leaves through 2021 and beyond.

Listen to our first podcast featuring AIM HR Solutions PFML experts Mary McNally and employment lawyer and VP, Tom Jones. They will discuss the recent updates to the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) and provide further clarity on the new guidance.

AIM Members can also download the Leaves of Absence Guide at no-cost.

EEOC Provides COVID-Related Information to Employers

EEOC Information

The FAQs, which address all COVID-related issues, are here.

The EEOC added a new section to the FAQs, Section K, in mid December.  Here it is:

  1. Vaccinations

The availability of COVID-19 vaccinations may raise questions about the applicability of various equal employment opportunity (EEO) laws, including the ADA and the Rehabilitation Act, GINA, and Title VII, including the Pregnancy Discrimination Act (see Section J, EEO rights relating to pregnancy).  The EEO laws do not interfere with or prevent employers from following CDC or other federal, state, and local public health authorities’ guidelines and suggestions.

ADA and Vaccinations

K.1. For any COVID-19 vaccine that has been approved or authorized by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), is the administration of a COVID-19 vaccine to an employee by an employer (or by a third party with whom the employer contracts to administer a vaccine) a “medical examination” for purposes of the ADA? (12/16/20)

No.  The vaccination itself is not a medical examination.  As the Commission explained in guidance on disability-related inquiries and medical examinations, a medical examination is “a procedure or test usually given by a health care professional or in a medical setting that seeks information about an individual’s physical or mental impairments or health.”  Examples include “vision tests; blood, urine, and breath analyses; blood pressure screening and cholesterol testing; and diagnostic procedures, such as x-rays, CAT scans, and MRIs.”  If a vaccine is administered to an employee by an employer for protection against contracting COVID-19, the employer is not seeking information about an individual’s impairments or current health status and, therefore, it is not a medical examination.

Although the administration of a vaccination is not a medical examination, pre-screening vaccination questions may implicate the ADA’s provision on disability-related inquiries, which are inquiries likely to elicit information about a disability.  If the employer administers the vaccine, it must show that such pre-screening questions it asks employees are “job-related and consistent with business necessity.”  See Question K.2.

K.2. According to the CDC, health care providers should ask certain questions before administering a vaccine to ensure that there is no medical reason that would prevent the person from receiving the vaccination. If the employer requires an employee to receive the vaccination from the employer (or a third party with whom the employer contracts to administer a vaccine) and asks these screening questions, are these questions subject to the ADA standards for disability-related inquiries? (12/16/20)

Yes.  Pre-vaccination medical screening questions are likely to elicit information about a disability.  This means that such questions, if asked by the employer or a contractor on the employer’s behalf, are “disability-related” under the ADA.  Thus, if the employer requires an employee to receive the vaccination, administered by the employer, the employer must show that these disability-related screening inquiries are “job-related and consistent with business necessity.”  To meet this standard, an employer would need to have a reasonable belief, based on objective evidence, that an employee who does not answer the questions and, therefore, does not receive a vaccination, will pose a direct threat to the health or safety of her or himself or others.  See Question K.5. below for a discussion of direct threat.

By contrast, there are two circumstances in which disability-related screening questions can be asked without needing to satisfy the “job-related and consistent with business necessity” requirement.  First, if an employer has offered a vaccination to employees on a voluntary basis (i.e. employees choose whether to be vaccinated), the ADA requires that the employee’s decision to answer pre-screening, disability-related questions also must be voluntary.  42 U.S.C. 12112(d)(4)(B)29 C.F.R. 1630.14(d).  If an employee chooses not to answer these questions, the employer may decline to administer the vaccine but may not retaliate against, intimidate, or threaten the employee for refusing to answer any questions.  Second, if an employee receives an employer-required vaccination from a third party that does not have a contract with the employer, such as a pharmacy or other health care provider, the ADA “job-related and consistent with business necessity” restrictions on disability-related inquiries would not apply to the pre-vaccination medical screening questions.

The ADA requires employers to keep any employee medical information obtained in the course of the vaccination program confidential.

K.3. Is asking or requiring an employee to show proof of receipt of a COVID-19 vaccination a disability-related inquiry? (12/16/20)

No.  There are many reasons that may explain why an employee has not been vaccinated, which may or may not be disability-related.  Simply requesting proof of receipt of a COVID-19 vaccination is not likely to elicit information about a disability and, therefore, is not a disability-related inquiry.  However, subsequent employer questions, such as asking why an individual did not receive a vaccination, may elicit information about a disability and would be subject to the pertinent ADA standard that they be “job-related and consistent with business necessity.”  If an employer requires employees to provide proof that they have received a COVID-19 vaccination from a pharmacy or their own health care provider, the employer may want to warn the employee not to provide any medical information as part of the proof in order to avoid implicating the ADA.

ADA and Title VII Issues Regarding Mandatory Vaccinations

K.4. Where can employers learn more about Emergency Use Authorizations (EUA) of COVID-19 vaccines? (12/16/20)

Some COVID-19 vaccines may only be available to the public for the foreseeable future under EUA granted by the FDA, which is different than approval under FDA vaccine licensure. The FDA has an obligation to:

[E]nsure that recipients of the vaccine under an EUA are informed, to the extent practicable under the applicable circumstances, that FDA has authorized the emergency use of the vaccine, of the known and potential benefits and risks, the extent to which such benefits and risks are unknown, that they have the option to accept or refuse the vaccine, and of any available alternatives to the product.

The FDA says that this information is typically conveyed in a patient fact sheet that is provided at the time of the vaccine administration and that it posts the fact sheets on its website.  More information about EUA vaccines is available on the FDA’s EUA page.

K.5. If an employer requires vaccinations when they are available, how should it respond to an employee who indicates that he or she is unable to receive a COVID-19 vaccination because of a disability? (12/16/20)

The ADA allows an employer to have a qualification standard that includes “a requirement that an individual shall not pose a direct threat to the health or safety of individuals in the workplace.”

However, if a safety-based qualification standard, such as a vaccination requirement, screens out or tends to screen out an individual with a disability, the employer must show that an unvaccinated employee would pose a direct threat due to a “significant risk of substantial harm to the health or safety of the individual or others that cannot be eliminated or reduced by reasonable accommodation.”  29 C.F.R. 1630.2(r).

Employers should conduct an individualized assessment of four factors in determining whether a direct threat exists: the duration of the risk; the nature and severity of the potential harm; the likelihood that the potential harm will occur; and the imminence of the potential harm.  A conclusion that there is a direct threat would include a determination that an unvaccinated individual will expose others to the virus at the worksite.

If an employer determines that an individual who cannot be vaccinated due to disability poses a direct threat at the worksite, the employer cannot exclude the employee from the workplace—or take any other action—unless there is no way to provide a reasonable accommodation (absent undue hardship) that would eliminate or reduce this risk so the unvaccinated employee does not pose a direct threat.

If there is a direct threat that cannot be reduced to an acceptable level, the employer can exclude the employee from physically entering the workplace, but this does not mean the employer may automatically terminate the worker.  Employers will need to determine if any other rights apply under the EEO laws or other federal, state, and local authorities.  For example, if an employer excludes an employee based on an inability to accommodate a request to be exempt from a vaccination requirement, the employee may be entitled to accommodations such as performing the current position remotely. This is the same step that employers take when physically excluding employees from a worksite due to a current COVID-19 diagnosis or symptoms; some workers may be entitled to telework or, if not, may be eligible to take leave under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, under the FMLA, or under the employer’s policies. See also Section J, EEO rights relating to pregnancy.

Managers and supervisors responsible for communicating with employees about compliance with the employer’s vaccination requirement should know how to recognize an accommodation request from an employee with a disability and know to whom the request should be referred for consideration.  Employers and employees should engage in a flexible, interactive process to identify workplace accommodation options that do not constitute an undue hardship (significant difficulty or expense).  This process should include determining whether it is necessary to obtain supporting documentation about the employee’s disability and considering the possible options for accommodation given the nature of the workforce and the employee’s position.

The prevalence in the workplace of employees who already have received a COVID-19 vaccination and the amount of contact with others, whose vaccination status could be unknown, may impact the undue hardship consideration.  In discussing accommodation requests, employers and employees also may find it helpful to consult the Job Accommodation Network (JAN) website as a resource for different types of accommodations, www.askjan.org.  JAN’s materials specific to COVID-19 are at https://askjan.org/topics/COVID-19.cfm.

Employers may rely on CDC recommendations when deciding whether an effective accommodation that would not pose an undue hardship is available, but as explained further in Question K.7., there may be situations where an accommodation is not possible.  When an employer makes this decision, the facts about particular job duties and workplaces may be relevant.  Employers also should consult applicable Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards and guidance.  Employers can find OSHA COVID-specific resources at: www.osha.gov/SLTC/covid-19/.

Managers and supervisors are reminded that it is unlawful to disclose that an employee is receiving a reasonable accommodation or retaliate against an employee for requesting an accommodation.

K.6. If an employer requires vaccinations when they are available, how should it respond to an employee who indicates that he or she is unable to receive a COVID-19 vaccination because of a sincerely held religious practice or belief? (12/16/20)

Once an employer is on notice that an employee’s sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance prevents the employee from receiving the vaccination, the employer must provide a reasonable accommodation for the religious belief, practice, or observance unless it would pose an undue hardship under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.  Courts have defined “undue hardship” under Title VII as having more than a de minimis cost or burden on the employer. EEOC guidance explains that because the definition of religion is broad and protects beliefs, practices, and observances with which the employer may be unfamiliar, the employer should ordinarily assume that an employee’s request for religious accommodation is based on a sincerely held religious belief.  If, however, an employee requests a religious accommodation, and an employer has an objective basis for questioning either the religious nature or the sincerity of a particular belief, practice, or observance, the employer would be justified in requesting additional supporting information.

K.7. What happens if an employer cannot exempt or provide a reasonable accommodation to an employee who cannot comply with a mandatory vaccine policy because of a disability or sincerely held religious practice or belief? (12/16/20)

If an employee cannot get vaccinated for COVID-19 because of a disability or sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance, and there is no reasonable accommodation possible, then it would be lawful for the employer to exclude the employee from the workplace.  This does not mean the employer may automatically terminate the worker.  Employers will need to determine if any other rights apply under the EEO laws or other federal, state, and local authorities.

Title II of the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) and Vaccinations

K.8. Is Title II of GINA implicated when an employer administers a COVID-19 vaccine to employees or requires employees to provide proof that they have received a COVID-19 vaccination? (12/16/20)

No. Administering a COVID-19 vaccination to employees or requiring employees to provide proof that they have received a COVID-19 vaccination does not implicate Title II of GINA because it does not involve the use of genetic information to make employment decisions, or the acquisition or disclosure of “genetic information” as defined by the statute. This includes vaccinations that use messenger RNA (mRNA) technology, which will be discussed more below.  As noted in Question K.9. however, if administration of the vaccine requires pre-screening questions that ask about genetic information, the inquiries seeking genetic information, such as family members’ medical histories, may violate GINA.

Under Title II of GINA, employers may not (1) use genetic information to make decisions related to the terms, conditions, and privileges of employment, (2) acquire genetic information except in six narrow circumstances, or (3) disclose genetic information except in six narrow circumstances.

Certain COVID-19 vaccines use mRNA technology. This raises questions about genetics and, specifically, about whether such vaccines modify a recipient’s genetic makeup and, therefore, whether requiring an employee to get the vaccine as a condition of employment is an unlawful use of genetic information.  The CDC has explained that the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines “do not interact with our DNA in any way” and “mRNA never enters the nucleus of the cell, which is where our DNA (genetic material) is kept.” (See https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/vaccines/different-vaccines/mrna.html for a detailed discussion about how mRNA vaccines work).  Thus, requiring employees to get the vaccine, whether it uses mRNA technology or not, does not violate GINA’s prohibitions on using, acquiring, or disclosing genetic information.

K.9. Does asking an employee the pre-vaccination screening questions before administering a COVID-19 vaccine implicate Title II of GINA? (12/16/20)

Pre-vaccination medical screening questions are likely to elicit information about disability, as discussed in Question K.2., and may elicit information about genetic information, such as questions regarding the immune systems of family members.  It is not yet clear what screening checklists for contraindications will be provided with COVID-19 vaccinations.

GINA defines “genetic information” to mean:

Information about an individual’s genetic tests;

Information about the genetic tests of a family member;

Information about the manifestation of disease or disorder in a family member (i.e., family medical history);

Information about requests for, or receipt of, genetic services or the participation in clinical research that includes genetic services by the an individual or a family member of the individual; and

Genetic information about a fetus carried by an individual or family member or of an embryo legally held by an individual or family member using assisted reproductive technology.

29 C.F.R. § 1635.3(c).  If the pre-vaccination questions do not include any questions about genetic information (including family medical history), then asking them does not implicate GINA.  However, if the pre-vaccination questions do include questions about genetic information, then employers who want to ensure that employees have been vaccinated may want to request proof of vaccination instead of administering the vaccine themselves.

GINA does not prohibit an individual employee’s own health care provider from asking questions about genetic information, but it does prohibit an employer or a doctor working for the employer from asking questions about genetic information.  If an employer requires employees to provide proof that they have received a COVID-19 vaccination from their own health care provider, the employer may want to warn the employee not to provide genetic information as part of the proof.  As long as this warning is provided, any genetic information the employer receives in response to its request for proof of vaccination will be considered inadvertent and therefore not unlawful under GINA.  See 29 CFR 1635.8(b)(1)(i) for model language that can be used for this warning.

Helpful Resources for the Paycheck Protection Program

Top-line-Overview-of-Second-Draw-PPP.pdf (treasury.gov)

KLR – Registration (gotowebinar.com)

SBA Posts Interim Final Rules Implementing Changes to First Draw and Second Draw Loans under the Paycheck Protection Program | Seyfarth Shaw LLP

The Small Business Administration recently released new guidance governing the reopening of the Paycheck Protection Program. This guidance comes in the form of an Interim Final Rule, Interim Final Rule on Second Draw PPP Loans,  and Guidance on Accessing Capital for Minority, Underserved, Veteran, and Women-Owned Business Concerns. In addition, see the press release for highlights of the programmatic changes made to PPP via the recently-passed federal stimulus.

Several key program changes include:

  • Allows past recipients to receive a “Second Draw” from PPP
  • Makes 501(c)6 nonprofits (like Chambers of Commerce) eligible applicants, among other types of organizations
  • Allows borrowers to set their covered loan period to any length from 8-24 weeks to allow additional flexibility
  • Expands what is an eligible forgivable expense to include costs, including adaptive operations expenditures, property damage costs, technology operations, supplier costs, and worker protection expenditures
  • Clarifies that PPP loans are tax-free and eligible expenses paid with PPP proceeds are tax-deductible
  • Caps First Draw loans at $10 million and Second Draw loans at $2 million
  • Allows Accommodations and Food Service businesses to obtain loans calculated at 3.5x average monthly payroll

As with prior implementations of PPP, businesses can apply for a forgivable loan via SBA lenders and should speak to their lender to discuss an application. Effective today, community lenders (community development financial institutions, minority depository institutions, certified development companies, and microloan intermediaries, more here) are able to offer PPP loans to applicants that have not yet received a loan; on January 13th, these lenders will be able to offer loans to “Second Draw” applicants. All lenders will be authorized to offer the program shortly; the date has not yet been announced. For additional information on PPP, forms and other information, visit www.sba.gov/ppp.

When Will People be able to Get the COVID-19 Vaccine?

The Boston Globe – The slow rollout of coronavirus vaccines has raised a host of questions about how state residents will know when it’s their turn to be immunized. With limited vaccines available and fewer shots being administered than promised, the Globe asked Dr. Paul Biddinger, medical director for emergency preparedness at Massachusetts General Hospital and chair of the state’s COVID-19 vaccine advisory group, to explain what residents should expect in the coming weeks and months.

When will people know it’s their turn to get the vaccine?

Biddinger referred to a state website that officials frequently update with the status of different phases of the vaccine rollout. Phase 1, which is ongoing, prioritizes health care workers, those living in long-term-care facilities, and first responders. Phase 2, which is slated to begin in February, focuses on individuals 75 and older and younger people with at least two or more medical conditions that put them at elevated risk of severe illness from COVID-19. The general public will be immunized in Stage 3, slated to begin in April.

“Many physicians’ practices are also building mechanisms to inform patients when they become eligible, either through e-mail, texts, or phone calls,” he said. “Everyone understands that it’s not reasonable to expect people to continually monitor the website, so local and state leaders are also discussing other communications strategies to make sure people are aware.”

What about people who don’t have a primary care physician?

Biddinger said commercial pharmacies will be administering vaccines, and that residents should seek information about the eligibility for the vaccine from local public health departments.

“We believe there will be several large-scale vaccination clinics set up, in places like conference spaces, gyms, or armories. Fenway Park, Gillette Stadium, and other large areas have been mentioned as well and are being looked at,” he said. “If a resident doesn’t have a primary care physician, they’ll need to look at state messaging, the state’s website, and the media to know when they are eligible for vaccination.”

Will residents have to make an appointment with their doctor, clinic, or pharmacy to get vaccinated?

In most cases, they likely will, he said. That’s because there’s a mandatory 15-minute waiting period after someone gets the vaccine, so medical staff can observe if they have an adverse reaction. Appointments also reduce the need for waiting spaces.

“There could be real queuing problems if everyone came at the same time, and we want to avoid long lines for physical distancing,” he said. “There may be some walk-in options, but for the most part, people will need to schedule an appointment.”

At the end of a given day, there may be extra doses of vaccine, because some might not show up for their appointments. So some clinics may make last-minute contingency plans for the end of the day, so doses aren’t wasted. Vaccines must be used within six hours once a vial has been punctured. The vials have five doses in them.

When should residents contact their doctors about getting the vaccine? Is this something they should do soon?

Physicians’ offices are not scheduling vaccinations now, because Massachusetts remains in the first phase of its plan, limiting vaccines to first responders, nursing home residents, and others considered “critical” personnel. “When the state announces that it is moving into Phase 2 or 3, patients who believe that they are eligible should contact their doctors, if they have not already received outreach from those practices,” Biddinger said.

He said the state has plans for drive-through vaccination locations and other mass vaccination sites.

“No one in the state wants to have vaccination vials sitting on shelves, so efforts are focused on administering the vaccine as soon as it arrives to those eligible,” he said. “Everyone wants to vaccinate the public as quickly as we have supply, so we can move into the next phases.”

Who determines if a resident has sufficient “comorbidities,” such as heart conditions and obesity, to make them eligible to receive the vaccine in the second phase?

“The medical systems are searching medical records to help identify patients with those comorbidities, hopefully making it easier to identify eligible patients,” he said. People are unlikely to have to show evidence they have a comorbidity, he said. “Obviously, it’s really important for patients and for systems to honestly follow the rules,” he said. “More information on how this will be assured is likely to come soon.”

Will residents have a choice of vaccines?

Probably not, given how limited the supply remains. “There’s so much complexity in administering, there’s no real option to provide a choice at this point,” he said. Biddinger said he wouldn’t have a preference between the two. “They’re equally effective and equally safe,” he said. “There are only limited differences.”

The Moderna vaccine, for example, is approved for those age 18 and older, while the Pfizer vaccine is for those ages 16 and up. There are also rare allergies associated with each that may affect a small number of people.

Other vaccines, if approved, could increase supply and potentially give residents more of a choice.

When will children be eligible for the vaccine?

It will be at least several months, as clinical trials must be conducted before federal regulators would sanction their use in children, he said. The trials have to enroll large numbers of young patients. Pfizer and Moderna started testing the vaccine in children ages 12 and older in November and December.

“I expect it won’t be until late spring before children could be eligible, at the earliest,” Biddinger said. “For younger children, it’s unclear when they will be eligible.”

Will those who get an initial dose be assured of getting the second dose?

As soon as a dose is administered, the second dose is automatically assigned to that person, he said. They will be scheduled to receive their second doses while getting their first dose. Doses, however, aren’t left on a shelf for them, they’re automatically ordered and accounted for later when they’re needed. “That’s the way it has happened so far, and we’ve been receiving our second doses, as promised,” he said.

As of Thursday, the federal government had shipped more than 21 million vaccine doses, but only 5.9 million people had received a dose. On Friday, President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team said his administration plans to release nearly all available doses “to ensure the Americans who need it most get it as soon as possible.” Biden has promised to administer 100 million doses by his 100th day in office.

How long will the vaccines provide immunity?

“There are hints that we’ll have durable immunity for at least three months, but at this point, because we don’t have the data yet, there’s no way to say whether it’s a year or longer,” he said.

When will the average person expect to get a vaccine?

Biddinger said the timing still looks like April for when most people will be eligible. That depends on the stability of the supply chain and assumes that at least one or two other vaccines also receive emergency approval from federal regulators. “There’s so much unknown that we cannot predict this with certainty,” he said.

Trump Administration Urges States to Vaccinate People 65 and Older

NPR – The Trump administration is making several big changes to its COVID-19 vaccine distribution strategy, officials announced Tuesday, in a bid to jump-start the rollout and get more Americans vaccinated quickly.

The first change is to call on states to expand immediately the pool of people eligible to receive vaccines to those 65 and older, and those with underlying health conditions that make them more susceptible to COVID-19.

“We’re telling states today that they should open vaccinations to all of their most vulnerable people. That is the most effective way to save lives now,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said at a press briefing Tuesday.

The call is accompanied by a change in how vaccine doses are allocated to states. Currently, doses are given to states based on their total adult populations. Starting in two weeks, vaccines will be distributed to states based on the number of over 65-year-olds who live there — and by the pace of vaccine administration reported by states.

“[This new allocation system] gives states a strong incentive to ensure doses are going to work, protecting people rather than sitting on shelves or in freezers,” Azar said at the press briefing, “We need doses going to where they’ll be administered quickly and where they’ll protect the most vulnerable.”

The administration is also urging states to expand vaccination to more venues, such as convention center “mega-sites,” pharmacies and community health centers.

In addition, senior officials announced they would stop holding second doses of the vaccines in reserve and instead ship more doses to states right away.

“Because we now have a consistent pace of production, we can now ship all of the doses that had been held in physical reserve,” Azar said. “We’re now making the full reserve of doses we have available for order, [and] we are 100% committed to ensuring a second dose is available for every American who receives the first dose.”

The change in releasing more of the previously reserved doses of vaccine preempts a policy change the Biden team announced last week. Officials from the Biden team declined to comment on Tuesday’s policy announcements.

State Awards Another $78.5 Million in Grants to 1,595 Businesses

The Baker Administration announced $78.5 million in awards to 1,595 additional small businesses in the third round of grants through the COVID-19 Small Business Grant Program administered by the Massachusetts Growth Capital Corporation.

To date, the administration has awarded close to $195 million in direct financial support to 4,119 small businesses out of a $668 million fund set up to support small businesses across the Commonwealth.

Additional grants will be announced in the coming weeks for thousands of additional businesses.

“Our administration set up a $668 million grant program to support small businesses statewide that are struggling from COVID-19 impacts,” said Governor Charlie Baker. “Today, we are awarding our third round of grants, for a total of $195 million in direct financial support for over 4,000 small businesses, with more yet to come. Supporting small businesses is vital to our economic recovery, and we’ll continue to expedite this grant process to send out funds to provide some much-needed financial relief.”

“Understanding how significant the need for financial assistance is, we’ve taken important steps to ensure these resources are directed toward the businesses that have historically been at a disadvantage even before the pandemic, or are located in communities, especially Gateway Cities, that have suffered disproportionately because of this virus,” said Lt. Governor Karyn Polito. “I’m grateful for the partnership with MGCC to provide this important assistance, and I look forward to the coming weeks when we can award even more support for the economic sectors that are most in need.”

State Department of Unemployment Assistance Implements Federal Stimulus

The state is currently implementing unemployment-related provisions from the most recent federal stimulus. Key details on these programs can be found here to assist claimants with questions about their continuation of benefits.

Boston Fed Chief Sees Tailwinds Beyond Slow Vaccine Rollout

State House News – While the development and approval of two effective COVID-19 vaccines offer great promise that the public health crisis inflicted by COVID-19 will soon fade, the sputtering rollout of the vaccines is bogging down the economic recovery, the leader of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston said Tuesday.

Many of the uncertainties that clouded the view when Boston Fed President and CEO Eric Rosengren spoke to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce more than eight months ago — Can we develop a vaccine for this virus? How will federal policymakers respond? — “have been resolved in a positive way,” he said in an address to the chamber Tuesday. But an underlying truth remains: a public health recovery is a precondition for an economic recovery.

“So, in the near term, we have to be very concerned about how we solve the public health problem. First of all, by trying to make sure that infections remain as small as possible. And second, trying to get as many people vaccinated as possible in the shortest amount of time,” he said.

Rosengren later added, “Unfortunately the inoculation rate at least to date has been relatively disappointing. Hopefully over the next several months, we’ll see some additional efficiencies in getting the vaccine not only distributed to the states but actually getting it into the arms of people.”

“Until that happens, we’re not going to have a full recovery,” he said.

About 27.7 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been distributed nationwide and about 9.33 million people have received at least the first of two doses, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. In Massachusetts, just more than 476,000 doses have been distributed and just more than 204,000 people here have received the first shot, the CDC said.

Mass Vaccination Site at Gillette Stadium

State House News – Gillette Stadium has been home to a near-undefeated football season, two outdoor hockey games, a Major League Soccer final, dozens of concerts, and next week, it will host another landmark event: the first mass vaccination site in Massachusetts.

In six days, Gillette will open its doors to hundreds of first responders per day who can receive COVID-19 vaccinations, then continue to scale up capacity to serve more people as they become eligible, Gov. Charlie Baker announced Tuesday.

After touring the Worcester Senior Center that started vaccinating first responders on Monday, Baker said the stadium will become the first of several locations to host large-scale immunization efforts in the state.

“These vaccines are safe and effective, and millions of doctors, nurses and health care workers are getting vaccinated across our country,” Baker said. “This is a huge step forward in our fight.”

Massachusetts started making COVID-19 vaccines available to police, firefighters, EMTs and other emergency personnel on Monday at more than 100 local sites and individual departments.

The Worcester Senior Center alone surpassed its initial capacity and hosted 376 vaccinations on Monday, Baker said, citing an “overwhelmingly positive response from first responders to get vaccinated.”

When Baker unveiled a plan last week to vaccinate the more than 45,000 first responders in the state, he said mass vaccination sites would serve as a key pillar to support the effort and then expand to other populations.

Tuesday’s announcement puts a clear timeline on the start of that segment: on Thursday, staff who will administer the vaccinations will receive their own vaccines, and then Gillette will open to first responders on Monday. Those eligible can schedule appointments at mass.gov/covidvaccine.

CIC Health will operate the site, while Brigham and Women’s Hospital will serve as medical director and Fallon Ambulance will support clinical staff.

January 12, 2021

Baker Administration Announces $1.5 Million to Support Development and Acceleration of Coronavirus Testing Solutions

The Baker-Polito Administration announced Friday that more than $1.5 million has been awarded to four projects that seek to increase testing capacity and provide solutions for coronavirus testing.

The funding is through the Accelerating Coronavirus Testing Solutions (A.C.T.S.) Program, designed and administered by the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, which supports projects focused on two core areas: accelerating the development of at-home or point-of-care testing methods that are simpler and faster, and new and innovative solutions that address existing supply chain bottlenecks.

Among the four initial A.C.T.S. awardees are two companies: Framingham-based Kephera Diagnostics and Wellesley-based Virex Health; and two research hospitals: Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

“We are committed to continuing to find ways to expand testing innovations and solutions as we continue to fight COVID-19,” said Governor Charlie Baker. “I applaud the efforts of these companies and institutions, and I look forward to adding new and innovative solutions and continuing to work together to combat the pandemic.

The MLSC launched a Request for Proposals for A.C.T.S. this past October, open to for-profit companies and not-for-profit institutions submitting proposals that directly address the critical, near-term impact through innovative solutions that would support the process of safely reopening the Massachusetts economy. The MLSC brought together an external advisory panel of experts from academia and industry, including entrepreneurs, clinicians, scientists, clinical diagnostic lab managers, and public health experts, to assist in reviewing the proposals.

“While there remain many unknowns yet to be fully explored, as we work in the present and look to the future, we do know testing will be vital to ensuring continued protection from COVID-19,” said MLSC President and CEO Kenneth Turner. “The mission of the MLSC remains more important than ever. We will continue to support novel innovations in the battle against this deadly virus, which matches the ongoing work of the MLSC to support the life sciences ecosystem and expand the capabilities of Massachusetts companies and research institutions.”

While Massachusetts has had a number of successes in supporting initial manufacturing needs through the Manufacturing Emergency Response Team (M-ERT), the commonwealth has struggled with bottlenecks in testing. A.C.T.S. seeks to identify innovative solutions that can expand the breadth and depth of testing occurring in the commonwealth.

Increasing the number and accessibility of testing methods can provide new options and opportunities to testing centers, as well as alleviate certain costs at testing sites for equipment related to administering and processing tests. Novel testing modalities identified have the ability to provide alternatives to current testing stopgaps, expand the number of settings tests can be administered, and provide further validation of tests already available.

Click here for AIM’s recent COVID rule changes

Click here for key updates on AIM’s COVID-19 Resource

Administration Announces Pooled Testing Initiative for Massachusetts Schools, District

The Baker Administration announced that weekly COVID-19 pooled testing will be available within the next month to schools and districts across the commonwealth, expanding on a rapid testing initiative that began in schools in December.

Through collaboration with the COVID-19 Response Command Center and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE), participating school districts providing in-person or hybrid learning will be prioritized for testing kits. Schools in remote learning, looking to bring students back to classrooms, can also participate in the pooled testing program. Interested districts and schools have until January 15 to notify DESE of their participation in the program.

Pooled testing involves mixing several test samples together in a “batch” or “pool,” and then testing the pooled sample with a diagnostic, PCR test for detection of SARS-CoV-2. This approach increases the number of individuals who can be tested using the same amount of laboratory resources as a single PCR test.

The test is performed at least once per week on an anterior nasal swab and results are delivered within approximately 24-48 hours. If a pooled test result is negative, then all individuals within that pool are presumed negative and may continue to remain in school. If a pooled test result is positive, then everyone in the pool is given an individual diagnostic test. Once positive individuals are identified, they must follow isolation guidance. Students, teachers, and staff that were close contacts of the positive case must quarantine according to current requirements.

Under a state contract being developed, districts and schools will work with pooled testing service providers who will coordinate with testing labs, implement a technology platform for tracking results, and provide training for school staff, and technical assistance. Tests will be analyzed at a CLIA-certified laboratory.

DESE will assume the costs for the testing initiative during the initial start-up of the program, estimated to cost between $15 million and $30 million, which will be funded by federal stimulus funds. Following the initial launch, districts and schools may continue using pooled testing by purchasing the tests and any other accompanying testing materials and software from a statewide contract using their federal stimulus dollars.

The testing strategy announced today builds on a rapid testing initiative launched at schools across the commonwealth in December. Massachusetts received Abbott BinaxNOW tests from the federal government, some of which are currently being used in public school districts and other educational settings to test students and staff showing symptoms. Abbott BinaxNOW tests are currently provided to more than 100 schools at no cost.

PPP Updated to Provide More Relief for Small Business

Over the weekend, the Small Business Administration (SBA) released the latest guidance for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).  The PPP is designed to provide financial support to small businesses to help keep their workforce employed.

The revised PPP program:

  • Allows for borrowers who previously received a PPP loan to apply for a “Second Draw” loan.
  • Allows new borrowers to apply for a “First Draw” loan.
  • Expands the eligibility for new borrowers to include 501(C) 6 organizations, housing cooperatives, direct marketing organizations, among other types of organizations.
  • Allows borrowers to set their loan covered period to be any length between 8 and 24 weeks to best meet their needs.
  • Allows for greater flexibility for seasonal employees when determining payroll costs.
  • Covers additional expenses such as group insurance payments, cloud operating expenses, property damage costs such as those associated with looting as a result of public disturbances, supplier costs, and worker protection expenses (i.e. PPE).
  • No longer requires those who received an Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) as well as a PPP loan to reduce their PPP loan amount by the EIDL amount.
  • Prohibits publicly traded companies from receiving a loan.
  • Maintains the previous requirements for loan forgiveness: employee and compensation levels maintained; the loan is spent on payroll costs and other eligible expenses; and at least 60 percent of the loan is spent on payroll costs.

First Draw applications have opened for applications from participating Community Development Financial Institutions, Minority Depository Institutions, Certified Development Companies and Microloan Intermediaries. Second Draw applications from these institutions will open on January 13. First and Second Draw applications from all other lending institutions will open at a later date to be announced.

In addition to the new PPP program, the federal stimulus package also expands the Employee Retention Tax Credit; reopens the EIDL $10,000 grant program; and creates a grant program solely for eligible live venue operators or promoters, theatrical producers, live performing arts organization operators, museum operators, motion picture theatre operators, or talent representatives that have experienced at least a 25 percent drop in revenue. We anticipate more guidance on this information to come.

As well, Congress has enacted an expanded tax deduction for business meal and beverage expenses in 2021 and 2022. For these years, taxpayers may now deduct 100 percent of these expenses from their tax filings as opposed to the previous 50 percent deduction. Expenses include delivery and carryout meals as well as those in restaurants.

School Districts Roll Back Re-Openings amid Case Rise

Commonwealth Magazine – Dozens of School Districts shifted to remote learning for at least two weeks after the holidays in an effort to keep the virus out of schools in the event students and parents traveled or engaged in large-person events during the break.

Brockton, which has an 11.85 percent community positive test rate, is delaying its return to in-person learning for almost 400 high-needs students, which was set for mid-January, by at least two weeks. Pre-K and kindergarten students, which have been remote, would return February 8.

“I would like to recommend a two-week delay in that just so we can see where these numbers go for the holidays,” Superintendent Michael Thomas told the school committee Tuesday. “I am concerned about the number of staff members who have COVID since November 27.”

Brockton’s hospitals are experiencing hospitalization numbers not seen since late-May.

Other schools that remained hybrid after the holidays are switching to remote learning due to rising in-school cases. Students at Bagnall Elementary School in Groveland, with the exception of those with special needs, will move to fully remote learning beginning Thursday and continuing through January 15. The school committee for the Pentucket Regional School District, which the school is part of, demanded an emergency meeting after learning Bagnali had seven COVID-19 cases in December, a number that has doubled in the past week.

In Worcester, school officials unanimously decided to delay the start of in-person learning indefinitely, after a date of January 25 had been set to return special needs students in-person.

‘Army Of Vaccinators’ Being Trained In Worcester

WBGH – Worcester is gearing up for a massive effort to administer coronavirus vaccines to first responders who work in the city and several surrounding communities, officials say.

What’s being called an “army of vaccinators” made up of up to 150 medical students will be trained Saturday to administer the vaccines, city Medical Director Dr. Michael Hirsh said during the weekly COVID-19 update at City Hall, The Telegram & Gazette reports.

The Worcester Senior Center is being transformed into a vaccination center.

First responders from Worcester as well as Shrewsbury, Millbury, Leicester, Holden, Grafton and West Boylston are eligible for the vaccinations starting next week.

Police officers, firefighters, EMS personnel from public and private ambulance companies, campus police and dispatchers will be given their first dose and can return by appointment in 28 days for the second dose.

An estimated 2,200 people will be eligible, and the city hopes to administer 300 per day, City Manager Edward Augustus said.

State Issues Update On Vaccine Distribution For Home-Based Healthcare Workers

On January 8, the Executive Office of Health and Human Services issued an important update regarding the COVID-19 vaccine distribution for all home-based healthcare workers working in Massachusetts who will be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine in Phase 1 of the roll-out beginning in February.

Please see attached documents available in English and Spanish for more information.

Download (PDF, 173KB)

https://docs.google.com/viewerng/viewer?url=https://thearcofmass.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/Home-based-Healthcare-Worker-COVID-19-Vaccine-Important-Update-1-8-21-vF2_ENGLISH.pdf&hl=en_US

January 5, 2021

Government Affairs Roundup: What happened over the past couple of weeks?

  1. Speaker Robert DeLeo resigned (more here) and Speaker Ronald Mariano was elected (more here)
  2. Congress passed and the President signed a stimulus bill (here for more)
  3. Massachusetts remains in temporary capacity order of 25 percent (here for more)
  4. What should employers know about the vaccine? See AIM webinar here and for latest updates on COVID-19 Vaccinations (more here)
  5. Latest here on State Small Business Grant Program (Started December 31 and ends January 15)
  6. Temporary Order impacting business occupancy remains in effect until January 10, 2020. Here are some additional legal perspectives  from an AIM member firm.  AIM will continue to monitor additional press conferences this week where additional statewide COVID-19 data may impact this temporary order. Click here for more details (direct link).  Click here to read the Temporary Capacity Order or here for the overview.

Eight Things You Need to Know About the COVID-19 Vaccine

AIM thanks Dr. Michael Collins, Chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Medical School; Kevin Cranston, Assistant Commissioner, Massachusetts Department of Public Health; and Maura McLaughlin, Employment Law Partner, Morgan, Brown & Joy for the discussion of  the medical, legal and political implications of the COVID-19 vaccine. The webinar was moderated by AIM Executive Vice President of Government Affairs , Brooke Thomson. (Click here),  If you missed this important conversation- Here are eight highlights you need to know.

First Responder Vaccinations to Start January 11

State House News – Massachusetts first responders will begin receiving COVID-19 vaccinations next week, while some of the state’s oldest residents will move up in line to access the crucial immunization, state officials announced Monday.

Marking another milestone in the sometimes-bumpy vaccine rollout, Gov. Charlie Baker said the more than 45,000 police officers, firefighters and EMTs in Massachusetts will gain access to the first doses starting Jan. 11.

“These men and women put their lives on the line regularly back before we had COVID-19, and for the last 10 months, they’ve kept on working the front lines, protecting and caring for residents across Massachusetts,” Baker said. “Police officers, firefighters, EMTs and all first responders work in risky situations every day, and this vaccine will protect them from COVID and the terrible illness that can come with it.”

Some departments that can administer the vaccine to at least 200 people will qualify to host vaccinations on location, and individual first responders can also use a state website to find information about more than 60 sites where vaccines are available. They will be able to make appointments later this week.

The Baker administration is also finalizing details on several sites that will be able to administer 2,000 vaccines per day, which should open to first responders by the end of the month. Those mass vaccination sites will likely expand into serving other populations as the months-long distribution plan unfolds, Baker said.

With responders up next, the administration has started offering vaccines to three of the six groups outlined in the first phase of its distribution plan. Those in congregate care settings such as correctional facilities and shelters, home-based health care workers, and health care workers who are not involved in COVID response are next on the list.

Baker said he is confident that emergency personnel will embrace the vaccine’s availability.

“They, like many of the folks in the health care community and long-term care community, say the same thing when they talk to the lieutenant governor and me about this, which is: ‘I’m out there all the time. I worry about the places and spaces I’m in. I’m afraid that if I get it, I might give it to my family members,’ ” Baker said.

In another significant step, Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said the state will increase the priority level for residents aged 75 and older and allow them to receive vaccines early in the second rollout stage. They will now fall into “Phase Two, Group One” alongside individuals who have two or more comorbidities increasing their risk of serious illness, Sudders said.

Sudders said the update, which will affect about 170,000 Massachusetts residents, follows new federal guidelines for vaccine prioritization based on the higher threats that older adults face from the respiratory illness and its complications.

Under the original plan, all adults 65 years old and older were near the bottom of the list for receiving vaccines in the second phase, which officials aim to run between February and April.

The change leapfrogs those 75 and older ahead of workers in early education, K-12 education, transit, grocery stores, utilities, food and agriculture, sanitation, public works and public health workers.

Mike Festa, Massachusetts state director for the AARP, said that focusing on older adults can help limit the pandemic’s damage and its strain on the health care system.

“With remarkable speed, vaccines have been developed, and continue to be developed, and now it’s time to put them to good use,” Festa said. “AARP is fighting for older Americans to be prioritized in getting COVID-19 vaccines because the science has clearly shown that older people are at higher risk of death. Vaccinating the people most likely to wind up in the hospital alleviates burdens on communities’ health care systems, too.”

So far, about 287,000 doses of the vaccine have been distributed to providers in Massachusetts, and about 116,000 have been administered, according to Baker. Those numbers are reported with a lag of a few days.

The governor acknowledged that “there have been bumps” in the rollout of COVID vaccines across the country, but stressed that the administration so far has not received any reports of lost doses.

A handful of community health centers already distributed some vaccines to first responders “rather than keeping them in storage,” Baker said, adding that he believes “it’s important to use it” rather than allow any waste.

Officials are planning to reach out to leaders in the private sector to help craft plans to vaccinate employees and to get a sense of any additional storage capacity that businesses could provide for the vaccine.

Sudders hinted that the Baker administration will not look harshly on providers who occasionally step outside narrow distribution plans or communicate with one another when they find extra doses on their hands.

“It’s very important that we want the vaccines utilized,” she said. “In these early days, providers are estimating what they believe the use is going to be. If they have slightly overestimated, if they assumed 60 percent of the individuals would be vaccinated and if it’s 55 percent and you have some left over, we obviously don’t want the vaccines wasted.”

Last week, the Professional Fire Fighters of Massachusetts publicly criticized the vaccine rollout, arguing that too much responsibility was placed on local boards of health and that the state “still has not provided any dates, times, or vaccination locations.”

The group on Monday notified members about the updated announcement and directed firefighters to the Baker administration’s guide to first responder vaccinations.

Unemployment Taxes Among Pending Issues as Legislative Session Wanes

Now that the calendar has flipped to 2021, businesses across Massachusetts that have already been bruised during the pandemic are in line for a nearly 60 percent increase in the taxes they pay to fund unemployment benefits.

Governor Charlie Baker wants to freeze the rate schedule and limit the hikes to a more manageable 17 percent, but he needs action from the Legislature before the bills are due at the end of the first quarter. While the state’s unemployment rate has dropped from a June peak of 17.7 percent, soaring joblessness over a span of months depleted the unemployment insurance trust fund, triggering an automatic increase in business costs to keep it running.

The Labor and Workforce Development Committee received testimony last week from business groups calling for immediate adoption of Baker’s bill (H 5206), many of whom argued that they need certainty now – not in two months – so they can plan accordingly.

The more than $2.2 billion Massachusetts borrowed from the federal government to float the unemployment fund is now accruing interest at a 2.4 percent rate, and Baker worries that will create higher long-term costs if the Legislature does not act on another section of his bill to pay down that balance with lower-interest bonds.

Labor groups have been mum about their views, pointing to concerns about structural issues such as employee misclassification rather than offering an up or down take on rate freezes. It’s a vote lawmakers could take Tuesday, but the issue may get punted to the next Legislature and become one of its first agenda items.

Massachusetts Reports 3,110 New COVID cases, 105 More Deaths Sunday

Masslive – Massachusetts public health officials on Sunday reported 3,110 new cases of COVID-19 and 105 related deaths just as the U.S. death toll surpassed 350,000.

Sunday’s data, based on 44,831 new molecular tests, brings the number of estimated active cases to 79,261 across the state, according to the Department of Public Health. Throughout the pandemic, at least 371,097 Massachusetts residents have contracted COVID-19 and 12,341 have died.

The seven-day weighted average rate of positive test stands at 8.42%, up from a low of 0.8% in September. Excluding positive tests collected on college and university campuses, the state’s positivity is at 9.28%, according to DPH.

As of Sunday, at least 2,291 people are being treated in the hospital for COVID-19, including 416 in intensive care.

While government-recommended mitigations including mask-wearing, closures of businesses and offices and limitations on gatherings helped curb the spread earlier this year, many hospitals are now overwhelmed, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, told ABC News.

The deaths are real deaths,” Fauci said, countering President Donald Trump’s false claim Sunday that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention inflated COVID-19 data.

“I mean, all you need to do is to go out into the trenches, go to the hospitals, see what the health care workers are dealing with. They are under very stressed situations in many areas of the country, the hospital beds are stretched. People are running out of beds, running out of trained personnel who are exhausted right now.”

Baker Administration Awards $67.4 Million in Additional Grants to 1,366 Businesses

The Baker Administration announced $67.4 million in awards to 1,366 small businesses in a second round of grants through the COVID-19 Small Business Grant Program administered by the Massachusetts Growth Capital Corporation (MGCC).

Additionally, the new Sector-Specific Small Business Relief Grant Program, also administered by MGCC, is now accepting applications from businesses from sectors most impacted by the COIVD-19. Both grant programs are part of a new $668 million relief package announced last week.

The businesses being notified of their successful grant application include many that are owned by minorities (50%) and women (48%). Restaurants and bars, beauty and personal services, health care and retail are among the top sectors receiving relief in this second round of awards. The first round of grants announced last week totaled nearly $49 million in support of 1,158 Massachusetts small businesses.

MGCC is continuing to review existing applications and will make awards over the coming weeks to companies that meet demographic and industry preferences. Businesses that have already applied to MGCC’s Small Business Grant Program do not need to reapply to the new program.

The new business relief program will offer grants up to $75,000, but not more than three months’ operating expenses, to be used for payroll and employee benefit costs, mortgage interest, rent, utilities and interest on other debt obligations.

The online application portal for the new program will close on Friday, January 15. Awards are expected to be announced in February.

Program details, application instructions, eligibility and documentation requirements, and more are available at www.empoweringsmallbusiness.org.

5,912 Eviction Cases Filed So Far

Commonwealth Magazine – In the two months since the state’s eviction moratorium ended, 4,524 landlords have filed cases against 5,912 tenants for non-payment of rent.

Most housing advocates and landlords are expecting a wave of eviction filings, but it’s still too early to gauge how bad it’s going to get.

Case filings jumped from 164 in October, after the moratorium ended on the 17th, to 2,771 in November, and 1,589 through December 29.

The Metropolitan Area Planning Council, a regional planning agency, suggested in a recent report that larger corporate landlords, which own roughly a third of rental units in Boston, could eventually be responsible for a disproportionate share of evictions in the coming months. About 50 of the 1,600 large landlords in Boston have signed a pledge to abide by the federal moratorium, work with tenants on payment plans, and accept rental assistance funds from the state.

The process for evictions starts slowly. Landlords begin the eviction process by sending a 14-day notice to quit to tenants they want to evict for nonpayment of rent. After a tenant doesn’t reply to a notice or declines to move, the landlord can then serve them with a summons for a court date. If mediation isn’t successful within two weeks, court proceedings can move forward. In 2019, it took 20 days, on average, for an eviction to play out after that point.

If tenants officially claim within 30 days that the pandemic changed their financial status (a layoff or reduced hours) and caused them to fall behind on their rent, they may be able seek a stay of an eviction under a moratorium established by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That moratorium, which was scheduled to expire on Thursday, was extended until the end of January in the recent federal stimulus package. Some communities have also extended their own moratoriums; the Boston Housing Authority, for example, extend its eviction moratorium to March 1.

As Pandemic Wears On, Schools Remain Committed to Hybrid Learning

Worcester Telegram – There’s been no respite from the pandemic during the holiday school break, as thousands of new cases continue to be counted every day in the state.

But local school officials are sticking with their post-vacation plans, which will see most of them return to hybrid in-person learning or transition to it over the next few weeks.

Those district leaders cited confidence in their virus mitigation practices and the relatively lower case rates in their schools, as well as the will of the state, which has been pushing school systems to move out of remote learning.

“Nationally, we have learned that children need to attend school in-person,” said Jeffrey Villar, receiver/superintendent for the Southbridge schools, which will continue with its hybrid learning model when classes resume this week.

“There simply are few models of success with remote instruction … So as I consider the needs of our students and families and the success that we had for 14 weeks this fall, I believe it is in our community’s best interest for the Southbridge Public Schools to remain open for in-person learning as long as we can continue to maintain an environment where we are not allowing for uncontrolled transmission.”

According to Villar, the data so far bears out that the schools have not been a major source of spread. The positive test rate for the district over the last month has been lower than 1%, he said, compared to the roughly 13% rate for Southbridge in general.

He credited that disparity to the safety protocols in the schools, which include enforced mask wearing, adherence to six feet of social distancing, and required, frequent hand washing.

December 29

Vaccines Head to Long-Term Care Facilities

COVID-19 vaccines are being delivered to long-term care facilities this week. More than 35,000 people in Massachusetts have received their first COVID-19 vaccine dose and more than 146,000 doses of the vaccine have arrived in the state so far, according the state’s first round of vaccine reporting.

The Department of Public Health on Dec. 24 added a vaccine dashboard outlining number of doses administered and shipped, people vaccinated, distribution by county, demographic breakdowns of those receiving vaccines, and vaccines administered by different type of providers. The first dashboard, released Thursday, showed that within the last seven days 35,524 doses were administered and 87,200 doses of the Moderna vaccine arrived in the state.

Stimulus Will Re-Invigorate PPP, Clarify Tax Status 

AIM Blog – For additional expert guidance on tax, employment law and other important businesses related issues, please see the following AIM member resources.

  • HRWfor employment law changes
  • KLRclient alert regarding tax and employment law
  • SHRM member alertregarding major employment law changes.
  • RSMCongress passes appropriations bill containing COVID-19 relief bill Learn more.
  • A business guide to the December coronavirus relief package Get the guide. 

Key Summary Documents

The full bill text
PPP – Summary

If you have expertise to share regarding the federal stimulus legislation, please contact Brad MacDougall so we can continue to update this resource section.

AIM Testimony Filed for Unemployment Hearing; Association Calls for Urgent Freeze

AIM Blog – Associated Industries of Massachusetts has worked tirelessly with elected officials on both the state and federal levels to moderate a potentially disastrous 60 percent increase in unemployment insurance rates next year and to keep the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund on sound financial footing.

Last Friday, Governor Charlie Baker took a major step toward addressing that issue by filing timely legislation (HD.5476) to ensure a two-year schedule freeze and provide the ability to bond the remaining Trust Fund deficit and allow it to be rebuilt overtime.

Meanwhile, AIM continues to support efforts by the Massachusetts Congressional delegation to persuade Congress to provide additional resources for the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund. The $900 billion economic stimulus bill signed by President Trump does not provide money for state UI systems, though it does revive the Paycheck Protection Program with $284 billion to cover a second round of PPP grants to especially hard-hit businesses.

Massachusetts businesses now need elected officials to stabilize the state’s unemployment insurance system by freezing the statutory rate and allowing Massachusetts to authorize bonding.

Last Thursday, a day before Governor Baker filed his rate freeze bill, AIM provided a statement to the entire Massachusetts legislature calling for a freeze on employer UI tax-rate schedules to shield Massachusetts employers from the upcoming rate spike, which is tied by statute to the overall condition of state UI Trust Fund.

Given the unforeseen economic shutdowns brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic beginning in March, the Massachusetts Department of Unemployment Assistance’s (DUA) November 2020 UI Trust Fund Report projects that the Fund, primarily financed by direct and reimbursing employer contributions, will be in the red by $5 billion at the end of 2022 and remain insolvent by about $3 billion as far out as 2024.

These initial numbers left unchecked would trigger an increase from the current 2020 employer tax rate of Schedule E, or $539 per employee, to Schedule G, about $866 per employee, reflecting an almost 60 percent increase.

Governor Baker’s bill would freeze the employer tax rate at Schedule E for the next two years, slowing annual employer contribution growth to $635 in 2021 and $665 in 2022.

“Massachusetts businesses and employers are already vulnerable,” said John Regan, President and Chief Executive Officer of AIM.

“Such a steep rate increase during the worst economic recession of the decade would place an undue burden on employers striving to regain strong levels of employment and operations in Massachusetts. The Trust Fund was depleted due to an unprecedented public-health emergency that forced countless businesses to close and individuals to lose their jobs.

“We’re grateful to the Legislature for the steps they enacted earlier this year to ensure all claims are paid out while shielding employers from negative experience ratings and we remain committed to working with the Baker Administration to pass new legislation and further safeguard our members’ ability to conduct business in the commonwealth.”

AIM’s outreach to the Legislature included a packet showing the association’s federal advocacy conducted throughout the year for direct relief to state unemployment insurance trust funds, as well as results from an Employer Survey conducted this fall indicating that 91 percent of respondents considered increased UI costs as a top concern entering 2021.

The survey found that up to 27 percent of companies are concerned that increased costs could translate into additional layoffs for their businesses.

Governor Baker’s legislation would allow the authorization of special obligation bonds to repay the federal cash advances that Massachusetts has received throughout 2020 to fund the increased demand on the state UI system.

According to the administration, using capital markets will allow the commonwealth to bypass federal UI tax increases faced by employers, regardless of their experience ratings, if the federal advances are not repaid by November 2022.

However, because interest on federal advances will be charged beginning January 2021 and the borrowed funds may not be repaid through the state UI Trust Fund by federal law, the legislation also calls for a separate surcharge on contributory employers to assist in interest payments initially due next Fall. This surcharge will be waived if interest is waived through any future federal negotiations.

AIM thanks Governor Baker for filing this legislation and we appreciate the speedy action that the House and Senate have taken throughout this pandemic with legislation to stabilize the unemployment insurance system for employers and employees.

We urge the House and Senate to take urgent action on this proposed legislation to freeze rates and fund the system through bonding, which will ensure that all claims are paid to individuals, that the trust fund is stabilized with a low-interest loan and the commonwealth is able to avoid statutorily triggered unemployment insurance tax rate hike in first months of 2021.  

Members of the Massachusetts House of Representatives and Senate looking for additional information, or a copy of AIM’s letter to the House and Senate, please contact Brooke M. Thomson, EVP for Government Affairs  

To learn more about AIM’s Unemployment Insurance committee and how to engage elected officials regarding this issue as it moves towards a public hearing and next steps for legislative actions please contact membership@aimnet.org or sign up for updates directly by updating your preferences online. 

Click here to learn more about AIM’s work on unemployment insurance issues at the state and federal level.   

Boston Globe: Business Needs a Break on Unemployment Taxes 

Massachusetts lawmakers should make it a priority to pass Governor Baker’s bill by the end of the session.

Not every fix for the sagging economy comes from Washington.

One huge boost to businesses in Massachusetts can and should come from right here on Beacon Hill — that is, if House lawmakers can keep their focus.

A week ago, as House Speaker Robert DeLeo made news of his imminent departure public, Governor Charlie Baker filed legislation aimed at saving businesses $1.3 billion over the next two years for their share of unemployment insurance taxes. That’s no small chunk of change — and not only could it save money, but it could also enhance the prospect of companies growing (or at least not cutting) their workforces at a time when people desperately need jobs.

Without the legislative action, employer payments into the unemployment trust fund would jump by 60 percent in 2021. That’s an average of $866 per employee from the current average of $539, when many businesses are struggling just to keep employees on payroll in the pandemic.

Under the Baker bill, the per worker average rate hike would be a more modest 17 percent, or about $635 in 2021 and $665 in 2022.

“We could do this in January or February or March,’’ Baker said at a Dec. 18 news conference, “but if you want to send a really big and positive signal to employees and to people who are out of work and to employers, this would be an incredibly positive message to send because it limits the increase in unemployment exposure to workers and it also limits the hit financially that would be associated with employers come January.’’

That anticipated hit to employers next year would be triggered by the yawning deficit in the unemployment trust fund caused by the pandemic and the subsequent rise in unemployment as businesses have shuttered — some of them for good.

During the first 10 months of 2020, the fund paid out $5.3 billion — about $4.2 billion more than the previous year during that same period, according to state figures. As recently as last June, Massachusetts had the highest unemployment in the nation, at 17.7 percent. The November figures, released Friday, showed the figure had dipped to 6.7 percent, the same as the national rate.

But Massachusetts had borrowed about $2.2 billion from the federal government to keep the trust fund afloat. For the past year, that has been an interest-free loan. But all good things must come to an end and, come January, interest will begin accruing on that loan, payable next November — and, by law, that interest can’t be paid out of the trust fund.

Under Baker’s bill, the interest would be covered by a two-year surtax on employers. (The amount thus far is unknown.)

And because Baker is banking on being able to do better in the private bond market than by continuing to borrow from the federal government, he’s also looking for authorization to sell up to $7 billion in special obligation bonds to continue to keep the fund solvent.

Freezing the tax to spare employers hardship is hardly unprecedented. Governor Deval Patrick successfully urged lawmakers during the Great Recession to twice freeze scheduled rate increases for businesses.

Today, with employment numbers finally beginning to bounce back, it makes little sense to tax employers at an onerous rate for every new job they create.

This is admittedly a stop-gap measure to assure the fund’s solvency during an unprecedented period of pandemic-driven economic upheaval. And, of course, there is always the hope that a Biden administration will be more amenable to providing aid to struggling states left out of the current stimulus package.

The issue among state lawmakers — as it so often is — is less about the merits of the bill than about the timing. Baker is right that businesses need predictability and that sooner is better than later.

So with a handful of working days left before the session ends Jan. 5, lawmakers will need to keep their eyes on that which is essential to the well-being of the Commonwealth, even as they scramble to assure the preordained line of succession as Speaker DeLeo leaves for the private sector.

This bill meets that test. It must stay on the 2020 end-of-year agenda.

Battle Over Remote Workers’ Taxes Just Got Bigger  

Bloomberg News – The worst fiscal crisis in decades is pitting US states against one another over billions in taxes from residents working from home, and Massachusetts is in the middle of it.

New Jersey and Connecticut have joined a legal battle to stop neighboring states from taxing residents who — due to the pandemic — have stopped commuting over state lines and are now working remotely. The case, filed by New Hampshire against Massachusetts in October, has drawn more than a dozen friend-of-the-court briefs by states urging the US Supreme Court to take up the challenge.

With states around the United States facing steep deficits and little federal aid in sight, the shift to remote work could give many cash-strapped states a legitimate way to bring back much-needed tax revenue. The situation could set up a high-stakes money grab, with New York and Massachusetts — two regional economic powerhouses that employ tens of thousands of out-of-state workers — battling over revenue that neighboring states now say is rightfully theirs.

“The resolution of this case thus has far-reaching implications as to which states will collect billions in revenue during the pandemic,’’ New Jersey wrote in its brief.

While the total amount paid in nonresident taxes is unclear, at stake for New Jersey is as much as $1.2 billion credited to its residents for income taxes paid to New York. Before the pandemic, more than 400,000 residents of New Jersey commuted to jobs in New York City. With many of these people now working remotely, their taxes are “more fairly attributed to New Jersey,’’ state Treasurer Elizabeth Maher Muoio said in a statement.

Seven states currently tax people where their office is, even if they work remotely. While six of the states have permanent policies on nonresident income taxes, Massachusetts’ rule came as a result of the pandemic. New Hampshire does not have a tax on income.

New Hampshire’s decision to not have broad-based taxes is “central to its sovereign identity,’’ Governor Chris Sununu said Wednesday, summarizing his state’s complaint. “Massachusetts’ current position is a far cry from our country’s rallying call of ‘no taxation without representation,’ which they seem to have forgotten originated in their state.’’

Massachusetts said its telecommute rule is temporary and due to expire when the governor declares an end to its pandemic state of emergency.

According to New York’s taxation website, any nonresident whose primary office is in the state but is telecommuting is still considered to be working in the state.

Many states, including New Jersey, provide a tax credit to eliminate “double taxation’’ of a person’s income.

Such taxes “contain no mechanism to prevent double taxation if the taxpayer’s home state does not allow a credit,’’ New Jersey wrote in its brief. It “results not only in an unconstitutional windfall but diverts the revenues that home states would otherwise receive.’’

The case was filed under the Supreme Court’s original jurisdiction, which lets states sue one another directly at the nation’s highest court. Texas unsuccessfully tried to invoke the court’s original jurisdiction recently to overturn President-elect Joe Biden’s win in four other states.

The court could appoint a special master to take the first look at the case if it agrees to let the suit be filed.

US Adds Negative COVID Test Mandate for UK Travelers 

New York Times – The United States will require all airline passengers arriving from Britain to test negative for the coronavirus within 72 hours of their departure, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday.

The move comes as a new highly transmissible variant of the virus, which first appeared in Britain, has led more than 50 countries to seal their borders to travelers from there or to impose restrictions on their arrival.

The new rule, which takes effect Monday, will apply to Americans as well as foreign citizens and will require passengers to show proof of a negative result on a genetic test, known as a PCR, or an antigen test.

“This additional testing requirement will fortify our protection of the American public to improve their health and safety and ensure responsible international travel,’’ the CDC said in a statement.

Passengers will be required to “provide written documentation of their laboratory test result (in hard copy or electronic) to the airline,’’ the CDC said, adding that “if a passenger chooses not to take a test, the airline must deny boarding to the passenger.’’

The rules were a reversal for the Trump administration, which initially told US airliners that the government would not require testing for travelers from Britain.

United Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, and Delta Air Lines had already announced similar policies, requiring all passengers on their flights between Britain and the United States to submit proof of a negative test result within 72 hours of departure. British Airways had also been requiring negative test results for passengers arriving in New York.

At Logan International Airport, about 10 flights a week arrive from London on British Airways and Virgin Atlantic planes.

The announcement from the United States adds another layer of difficulty for Britons hoping to travel. Nonessential travel will also be banned within much of Britain starting Saturday, new restrictions further limit socializing, and schools and universities might soon have to close.

The British Foreign Office updated its travel advice online Friday to warn travelers of the new testing requirement. “We are in close contact with US authorities and working urgently to minimize disruption as far as possible,’’ the office said in a statement.

People traveling immediately after the holiday may face uncertainty: Many private testing clinics and labs are closed on Christmas Day, so testing within the 72-hour window may prove difficult, especially for the PCR screening, which must be sent to a lab and can take several days to process.

The rapid antigen test, a relatively new tool to detect the virus, gives a result in around 30 minutes, but it is not as widely available, although it is cheaper. Heathrow Airport, for example, charges passengers about $130 for PCR results with 48 hours and about $60 for antigen tests with results within 45 minutes.

Both tests are offered at major British airports — including Heathrow and Gatwick, London’s two major hubs, and Manchester Airport — but passengers must register in advance. It was unclear how many would be able to procure a test and get a result in time for travel.

The introduction of new travel restrictions led to concerns that travelers to the United States would flock to the airport, as Londoners did at train stations last Saturday when tighter domestic rules were announced. But employees at Heathrow on Friday described a normal, if quieter, stream of passengers typical of Christmas Day, with most appearing to travel on long-haul flights.

The US requirements are less Draconian than those of other countries in Europe and Asia, which barred all travelers from Britain after the new coronavirus variant emerged. Experts are skeptical that travel bans can stop the spread of the variant. In fact, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious disease expert, said there was a good chance that the variant was already in the country.

“I don’t think that that kind of a Draconian approach is necessary,’’ he said of a travel ban on “PBS NewsHour.’’ “I think we should seriously consider the possibility of requiring testing of people before they come from the UK here.’’

December 22

Baker Administration Announces Support For 1,158 Small Businesses Impacted by COVID-19 Recession 

The Baker Administration announced that nearly $49 million in grants to small businesses will be awarded through the COVID-19 Small Business Grant Program administered by the Massachusetts Growth Capital Corporation.

In October, the $50.8 million grant program was announced as a key component of Partnerships for Recovery, the administration’s comprehensive plan to get people back to work, support small businesses, foster innovation, revitalize downtowns, and ensure housing stability.

Of the businesses being notified of their successful applications, each meets the preferred criteria of being owned by women, minorities, veterans, individuals with disabilities, or that identify as LGBTQ. Additionally, every completed application received from a qualified minority-owned business that has not been able to receive prior aid from federal, state or local programs established to support businesses during the pandemic will be receiving relief.

“As the pandemic continues to create challenges across the commonwealth, our administration is pleased to partner with Mass Growth Capital Corporation to award almost $50 million to small business owners disproportionately impacted by COVID-19,” said Governor Charlie Baker.

“We are thankful to our state, local and federal partners for their collaboration to equitably distribute these funds, and remain committed to working together to deliver additional relief to the families and businesses of Massachusetts.”

“Our administration is proud to announce almost $50 million in grants to support historically underrepresented small business owners as they navigate the pandemic,” said Lt. Governor Karyn Polito.

“We thank Mass Growth Capital Corporation for their partnership to distribute these funds quickly, and look forward to continuing to work with business and community leaders to ensure a strong, equitable recovery from COVID-19.”

MGCC worked with a statewide network of local non-profits, small business technical assistance providers, and other organizations that support minority enterprises, including BECMA, Amplify LatinX, the Business Equity Initiative, Massachusetts Association of CDCs (MACDC), LISC and the statewide Coalition for an Equitable Economy, to reach businesses and entrepreneurs that would match the program’s priorities.

The Small Business Grant Program received more than 10,000 applications seeking $500 million.

The Fiscal Year 2021 budget recently signed by Governor Baker including an additional $17.5 million for the Small Business Grant Program. This funding will be distributed using the same criteria, and MGCC will review applications already submitted. Small businesses that did not receive awards in the first round do not need to reapply, and no new applications will be accepted.

The FY21 budget also includes $17.5 million for community development financial institutions (CDFI) grants and loans, $5 million for small business technical assistance, and $3.9 million for technical assistance and grants, including for small business online and digital tools.

Summary of Unemployment Sections of the COVID Relief Bill

  • Extends Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) to March 14, 2021 and allows individuals receiving benefits as of March 14, 2021 to continue through April 5, 2021, as long as the individual has not reached the maximum number of weeks.
  • Increases the number of weeks of benefits an individual may claim from 39 to 50.
  • Provides for appeals to be at the state level.
  • Provides states authority to waive overpayments made without fault on the part of the individual or when such repayment would violate equity and good conscience.
  • Provides a transition rule for certain individuals transitioning between PUA and the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program.
  • Limits payment of retroactive PUA benefits to weeks of unemployment after December 1, 2020.

Extension of Emergency Unemployment Relief for Governmental Entities and Nonprofit Organizations. Extends through March 14, 2021 a provision in the CARES Act which amended the Families First Coronavirus Response Act to provide federal support to cover 50 percent of the costs of unemployment benefits for employees of state and local governments and non-profit organizations.

Extension of Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation. Restores the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (FPUC) supplement to all state and federal unemployment benefits at $300 per week, starting after December 26 and ending March 14, 2021.

Extension of Federal Funding of the First Week of Compensable Regular Unemployment for States with No Waiting Week. Extends through March 14, 2021 the CARES Act provision that reimbursed states for the cost of waiving the “waiting week” for regular unemployment compensation. Sets the reimbursement percentage for weeks ending after December 26, 2020 at 50 percent.

Extension of Emergency State Staffing Flexibility. Extends through March 14, 2021 the CARES Act provision which gave state unemployment offices temporary, emergency authority to use “non-merit” staff.

Extension and Benefit Phaseout Rule for Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation.

  • Extends Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) to March 14, 2021 and allows individuals receiving benefits as of March 14, 2021 to continue through April 5, 2021, as long as the individual has not reached the maximum number of weeks.
  • Increases the number of weeks of benefits an individual may claim through the PEUC program from 13 to 24.
  • Provides rules for states about sequencing these benefits with other unemployment benefits.

Extension of Temporary Financing of Short-Time Compensation Payments in States with Programs in Law. Extends through March 14, 2021 the CARES Act provision that provided temporary 100 percent federal financing for Short-Time Compensation (“worksharing”) programs which are established in state law.

Extension of Temporary Financing of Short-Time Compensation Agreements for States Without Programs in Law. Extends through March 14, 2021 the CARES Act provision which provided a 50 percent subsidy to non-statutory, temporary state Short-Time Compensation programs.

Extension of Temporary Assistance for States with Advances. Extends through March 14, 2021 accumulation of interest on federal loans states have taken in order to pay state unemployment benefits. The loans allow states with low balances in their unemployment trust funds to delay employer tax increases or other employer surcharges while the economy is struggling.

Extension of Full Federal Funding of Extended Unemployment Compensation. Extends through March 14, 2021 the provision in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act which provided temporary full federal financing of Extended Benefits (EB) for high-unemployment states. States are normally required to pay 50 percent of the cost of EB, which is a program in permanent law.

Continued Assistance to Rail Workers

  • This section provides the short title.
  • This section restores the federal supplemental benefit for unemployed railroad workers at $600/registration period for registration periods beginning after December 26, 2020 and on or before March 14, 2021.
  • Provides up to 11 additional weeks of unemployment benefits under the Railroad Unemployment Insurance Act (RUIA) for qualifying railroad workers. This provision also extends the availability of the 13 weeks of additional unemployment benefits provided under the CARES Act. These weeks are not available to those whose extended benefit period begins after March 14, 2021, and they turn off for everyone for any registration period beginning after April 5, 2021.
  • This section extends the waiver of the 7-day waiting period for benefits provided under the RUIA through March 14, 2021.
  • This section temporarily prevents sequestration of the benefits available under the RUIA during the period that is 7 days after the date of enactment of this section and 30 days after the date on which the President’s declaration under the National Emergencies Act related to the coronavirus is terminated.

Improvements to Pandemic Unemployment Assistance to Strengthen Program Integrity

  • Effective January 31, 2021, requires new applicants for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) to submit documentation to substantiate employment or self-employment within 21 days and provides for such deadline to be extended when an individual has shown good cause.
  • Requires individuals receiving PUA as of January 31, 2021 to submit documentation to substantiate employment or self-employment within 90 days.
  • Requires states to have procedures in place to verify or validate the identity of PUA applicants, and for timely payment of benefits.
  • Clarifies that expenses to implement such procedures qualify as an administrative cost and may be reimbursed as part of PUA operation.

Subchapter V – Return to Work Reporting Requirement

Effective 30 days after enactment, requires states to have methods in place to address situations when claimants of unemployment compensation refuse to return to work or refuse to accept an offer of suitable work without good cause including:

  • A reporting method for employers to notify the state when an individual refuses employment.
  • A plain language notice to claimants about state return to work laws, rights to refuse to return to work or to refuse suitable work and information on contesting a denial of a claim, as well as what constitutes suitable work, including a claimant’s right to refuse work that poses a risk to the claimant’s health and safety.

Other Related Provisions and Technical Corrections

  • Mixed Earner Unemployment Compensation. Provides a federally funded $100 per week additional benefit to individuals who have at least $5,000 a year in self-employment income but are disqualified from receiving Pandemic Unemployment Assistance because they are eligible for regular state unemployment benefits. This mixed-earner supplemental benefit would be added to the FPUC and would terminate along with it on March 14, 2021. This provision would be effective for future unemployment benefit payments after a state chose to make an agreement with the Department of Labor.
  • Lost Wages Assistance Recoupment Fairness. Allows states to waive recovery of “Lost Wages Assistance” overpayments for which the recipient was not at fault and would suffer hardship if required to repay the benefits the same way they do in state unemployment benefits.
  • Continuing Eligibility for Certain Recipients of Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. Ensures individuals who are otherwise eligible for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance do not have their benefits terminated because of inadvertent or state system failure errors in past required weekly benefit recertifications, so long as the state made good faith efforts to implement the program.
  • Technical Correction for Nonprofit Organizations Classified as Federal Instrumentalities. This section makes a technical correction to allow certain federal instrumentalities that are reimbursable employers to receive the same federal subsidy for reimbursable employers that is provided to nonprofit organizations and government entities (see Sec. 1102).
  • Waiver to Preserve Access to Extended Benefits in High Unemployment States. Provides a temporary waiver of the mandatory “EB freeze period” for states that trigger back onto the program because of fluctuations in their unemployment rates, beginning November 1, 2020 and ending December 31, 2021.

The Stimulus Deal: What’s in It for You

New York Times – Another dose of relief is finally on the way for the millions of Americans facing financial distress because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Congress on Monday approved a bill based upon an agreement to provide a round of $600 stimulus payments to most Americans and partly restore the enhanced federal unemployment benefit, offering $300 for 11 weeks.

The legislative package will provide welcome, albeit temporary, assistance to many. And how quickly the money reaches your pocket will depend on several factors.

Here’s a closer look at what the latest legislative package will mean for you. This article will be updated as more details from the deal become available.

Will I receive another stimulus payment?

Individual adults making up to $75,000 a year would receive a $600 payment, and a couple earning up to $150,000 a year would get twice that amount. If they have dependent children, they would also get $600 for each child.

Some people with incomes just above these levels may receive a partial payment, as they did earlier this year. The full text of the bill is not yet available, and we will update this article once we have it.

When might it arrive?

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin told CNBC on Monday that he expected the first payments to go out before the end of the year. But it will be a while for all eligible people to receive their money.

Under the CARES Act earlier this year, payments began landing via direct deposit about two weeks after that legislation passed. But those who received their payments by another method often had to wait much longer.

Will it be direct-deposited, as it was last time?

Yes, for many recipients.

What if I still haven’t received my previous stimulus payment or only got part of it?

You can claim what is known as a “recovery rebate credit” when you file your 2020 tax return. The Internal Revenue Service has a page on its website that explains the details.

What about older children whom I claim as a dependent?

If they are 17 or older, they will not be eligible for a payment and you cannot collect one on their behalf.

Unemployment Insurance

What does the agreement do?

Congressional leaders agreed to extend the amount of time that people can collect unemployment benefits.

It would also restart an extra federal benefit that is provided on top of the usual state benefit. But instead of $600 a week, it would be $300. That would last through March 14.

How does the extension work?

Everyone eligible for unemployment benefits would receive an extra 11 weeks. That includes people receiving state-level benefits as well as individuals receiving checks through the so-called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which covers the self-employed, gig workers, part-timers and others who are typically ineligible for regular unemployment benefits. Pandemic unemployment checks were scheduled to run out on Dec. 26.

Here’s how the extension would work in practice: Most states pay benefits for 26 weeks, though some offer less. After that, the CARES Act had extended benefits by 13 weeks. The latest package would tack on 11 more weeks, bringing the total extension to 24 weeks — for anyone receiving either state benefits or pandemic unemployment assistance.

(In periods of high unemployment, your state may also offer its own extended benefit program. Extended benefits usually last for half the length of the state’s standard benefit period, but may be longer in some places.)

Will unemployment benefits become more generous?

Everyone who qualifies for unemployment checks will also get an extra payment of $300 weekly. The so-called federal Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation benefit will be paid for 11 weeks, starting at the end of December through March 14.

That’s less generous than the first package, which granted an extra $600 a week to all workers who qualified for state-level or equivalent benefits. That extra payment ran out in July, although President Trump later issued a memo making a further $300 available for about five weeks.

Will anything else change?

The bill also provides an additional federal benefit of $100 weekly to individuals who have earned at least $5,000 a year in self-employment income, but are disqualified from receiving a more generous Pandemic Unemployment Assistance benefit because they are eligible for state unemployment benefits, according to a Senate aide.

This extra money would be added to the extra $300 weekly benefit, and would also end on March 14. The benefit will begin only after your state chooses to reach an agreement with the Labor Department.

This will help people, for example, in the film industry. Let’s say a person earned most of their income through larger freelance jobs from movies, but took lower-paying jobs at restaurants in between. These workers would qualify for lower, state-level benefits based on the restaurant work. The extra money will help people in these types of situations.

 How long will I have to wait for benefits?

If your benefits have already run out, experts said to check your state’s website for further instruction about whether you’ll be required to do anything to receive the extra 11 weeks of aid.

The states will probably reinstate them automatically, but expect to wait at least a few weeks.

“You may have to wait through part of January to get access to benefits that stopped at the end of December,” said Michele Evermore, a senior policy analyst for social insurance at the National Employment Law Project. “If Congress passes relief, it has historically been structured so that your benefits are restored beginning the date of enactment. So there shouldn’t be a gap in your eligibility if that happens, just a gap in when you get paid.”

Student Loans and Higher Education

Are there any changes in interest rate policies?

Yes. The federal government makes the interest payments for students who qualify for subsidized loans while they are in school, but it cuts them off if it takes too long for them to finish. Now, there would be no time limit.

What about changes to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)?

It should be a lot simpler, soon.

Senator Lamar Alexander, a Republican of Tennessee who is retiring, has long sought to reduce the number of questions on the notoriously complicated form, which students must fill out in order to qualify for aid including federal loans and Pell Grants for low-income students.

The new FAFSA, which as many as 20 million people fill out each year, would lose two-thirds of its questions, going from 108 to no more than 36.

 Did Pell Grants get more generous?

Yes. After years of efforts by advocacy groups and some senators, prisoners would again be eligible to use them for higher education.

Overall eligibility rules will get simpler, too, which means more people would qualify — and qualify for the maximum grant.

Other Forms of Help

I am behind on my rent or expect to be soon. Will I receive any relief?

The latest legislation extended a moratorium on renter evictions through Jan. 31.

The Trump administration, through an order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, had already extended a previous eviction ban through the end of the year. The agency said the moratorium was needed to prevent renters from ending up in shelters or other crowded living conditions, which would put them at higher risk of contracting the coronavirus.

The new legislation simply extends that order. To be eligible, renters must have experienced a “substantial” loss of household income, a layoff or “extraordinary” out-of-pocket medical expenses, among several other conditions — and they can’t expect to earn more than $99,000 in 2020 (or $198,000 for married people filing their tax returns jointly).

Renters can use a form from the C.D.C.’s website to attest to their eligibility — more information on eligibility can be found here.

 What if I can’t pay my mortgage?

If you’re struggling to make your payments, you may qualify for a forbearance, which allows homeowners to temporarily pause or reduce payments for up to 180 days (after that, homeowners can ask for an additional 180 days). These rules, which apply to federally backed mortgages, are still in effect as part of the CARES Act relief package passed in March.

But the rules vary a bit, depending on the type of mortgage you have.

If your loan is backed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Freddie Mac, there is no precise end date to the policy — regulators will wind it down when they deem it appropriate.

But homeowners with loans insured by the Federal Housing Administration must contact their servicer and request an initial Covid-19 forbearance on or before Dec. 31. “We are continuing to assess options related to this deadline date,” a spokeswoman for the agency said.

Any skipped payments aren’t forgiven and must eventually be paid back. But if borrowers cannot make the extra payments right away, they may be eligible to push back what they owe until the home is sold, refinanced or when the loan term is up.

The situation is murkier for borrowers with private mortgages. They aren’t covered by the same protections, though some providers have extended similar relief.

I’m a homeowner on the verge of foreclosure. Am I at risk?

Single-family homeowners with loans backed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac would be protected from foreclosure through at least Jan. 31, 2021, regulators that oversee federally backed mortgages said this month. The moratorium had been scheduled to expire at the end of December.

People living in properties that either Fannie or Freddie has taken over because the owner couldn’t pay the mortgage are also protected — the moratorium on evictions has been extended as well.

The Federal Housing Administration, which often insures loans to borrowers who put less money down, has a foreclosure and eviction moratorium through Dec. 31. A spokeswoman for the agency said it was assessing its next steps.

Front-Line Workers and Adults 75 and Older Should Get Shots Next, CDC Panel Says

Boston Globe – The debate about who should receive the COVID-19 vaccine in these early months has grown increasingly urgent as the daily tally of cases has swelled to numbers unimaginable even a month ago.

A panel advising the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention voted Sunday to recommend that about 30 million “front-line essential workers,” including emergency responders, teachers, and grocery store employees receive the coronavirus vaccine in the United States next.

Striking a compromise between two high-risk population groups, a panel advising the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention voted Sunday to recommend that people 75 and older be next in line to receive the coronavirus vaccine in the United States, along with about 30 million “front-line essential workers,” including emergency responders, teachers, and grocery store employees.

The debate about who should receive the vaccine in these early months has grown increasingly urgent as the daily tally of cases has swelled to numbers unimaginable even a month ago. The country has already begun vaccinating health care workers, and, on Monday, CVS and Walgreens were to begin a mass vaccination campaign at the nation’s nursing homes and long-term care facilities. This week roughly 6 million doses of the newly authorized Moderna vaccine are to start arriving at more than 3,700 locations around the country, including many smaller and rural hospitals.

The panel of doctors and public health experts had previously indicated it would recommend a much broader group of Americans defined as essential workers — about 87 million people with jobs designated by a division of the Department of Homeland Security as critical to keeping society functioning — as the next priority population and that elderly people who live independently should come later.

But in hours of discussion Sunday, the committee members concluded that given the limited initial supply of vaccine and the higher COVID-19 death rate among elderly Americans, it made more sense to allow the oldest among them to go next, along with workers at the highest risk of exposure to the virus.

Groups of essential workers, such as construction and food service workers, the committee said, would be eligible for the next wave. Members did clarify that local organizations had great flexibility to make those determinations.

“I feel very strongly we do need to have that balance of saving lives and keeping our infrastructure in place,” said Dr. Helen Talbot, a member of the panel and infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University.

Together, the two groups the committee voted to prioritize Sunday number about 51 million people; federal health officials have estimated that there should be enough vaccine supply to inoculate all of them before the end of February.

Still, as the first week of vaccinations in the United States came to a close, frustrations were flaring about the pace of distribution. This weekend, General Gustave Perna, who heads the Trump administration’s distribution effort, apologized for more than a dozen states learning at the last minute that they would receive fewer doses next week of the vaccine manufactured by Pfizer than they had expected. Tensions were also boiling in some states over local decisions regarding which health care workers should get their shots immediately and which should wait.

The director of the CDC, Dr. Robert Redfield, will review the panel’s recommendation and decide, likely by Monday, whether to embrace it as the agency’s official guidance to states. The panel, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, emphasized that its recommendations were nonbinding and that every state would be able to fine-tune or adjust them to serve the unique needs of its population.

The 13-1 vote came as frustrations flared about the pace of vaccine distribution. Some 128,000 shots have been given in the first five days of the vaccine in the United States, according to a New York Times database tracking vaccinations — just slightly more than half the number of new cases reported across the country on Friday alone.

In addition to teachers, firefighters, and police, a subgroup of the committee suggested that “front-line essential workers” should include school support staff; day care, corrections personnel, public transit, grocery store, and postal workers, and people working in food production and manufacturing. But the group’s official recommendation is not that specific.

Originally, the committee had signaled last month that it had been inclined to let 87 million essential workers receive vaccines before adults 65 and older. Many had expressed their alarm that essential workers, who are often low-wage people of color, were being hit disproportionately hard by the virus and additionally were disadvantaged because of their lesser access to good health care.

In a strongly worded statement before the panel’s vote Sunday, its chair, Dr. Jose Romero, the Arkansas secretary of health, pushed back against a recent flood of often vicious accusations that the panel was prioritizing other racial groups over white people. “Our attempt has been always to achieve equitable, ethical, and fair distribution of that resource. We have never targeted a specific ethnic nor racial group for receipt of the vaccine,” he said.

Eight Things you Need to Know About the COVID-19 Vaccine

AIM thanks Dr. Michael Collins, Chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Medical School; Kevin Cranston, Assistant Commissioner, Massachusetts Department of Public Health; and Maura McLaughlin, Employment Law Partner, Morgan, Brown & Joy for the discussion of  medical, legal and political implications of the COVID-19 vaccine. The webinar was moderated by AIM Executive Vice President of Government Affairs , Brooke Thomson. (Click here), Here are eight highlights you need to know.

Massachusetts COVID-19 Numbers Climb as Moderna Vaccine Arrives

Boston Globe – Massachusetts expects to add a second vaccine to its pandemic arsenal this week, as state public health officials reported more than 4,100 new confirmed COVID-19 cases and 60 deaths Sunday.

Due to arrive just days before Christmas, the Moderna vaccine comes as Governor Charlie Baker and Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh renew calls for residents to avoid large, holiday gatherings to avoid opportunities for the often-deadly virus to spread.

“Let’s all do our part to protect our communities and slow the spread of #COVID19,” Walsh said in a statement posted Sunday to Twitter.

Boston Children’s Hospital on Sunday confirmed a cluster of 13 cases in a single unit.

Meanwhile, the leader of one of the state’s highest risk communities, Peabody Mayor Ted Bettencourt, announced Saturday that he has tested positive for COVID-19.

Children’s Hospital said two patients and 11 staff members from the same unit tested positive for COVID-19, according to a hospital statement. The cases were reported to the state Thursday.

“We are performing contact tracing and testing for patients and staff who came in contact with these patients, and are taking a series of precautions to ensure that all of our patients and staff remain safe and protected,” the statement said.

Patients, families, and staff have been notified, the statement said.

Sunday’s reported confirmed cases brought the total in Massachusetts to 311,090, according to the Department of Public Health. The confirmed death toll has reached 11,465.

The state reported that 82,617 people were estimated to have active cases of the potentially deadly virus, while 1,919 confirmed coronavirus patients were in the hospital.

The Moderna vaccine, like the one developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, involves two doses administered weeks apart. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine began distribution last week in

Massachusetts and has been administered to health care workers.

The state has ordered 120,000 first doses of the Moderna vaccine, which will be shipped to more than 200 health care facilities across the state, according to a statement from the COVID-19 Response Command Center Sunday.

The Moderna vaccine comes after the state faced a setback in its use of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine late last week. Federal regulators notified Massachusetts officials that it would reduce the state’s allotment of the drug, from more than 59,000 doses to 42,900 doses in its next few shipments.

The state now expects to receive 145,275 doses of the Pfizer vaccine by the end of December, it said in the statement Sunday. That’s down about 20 percent from the 180,000 doses that had been anticipated.

As of Friday, 17,573 doses of vaccine have been administered in Massachusetts, the statement said.

Patients and workers at long-term care facilities in Massachusetts, including nursing homes, are expected to start receiving vaccine doses Dec. 28, according to the command center.

CVS and Walgreens will administer those doses, which have not been delayed by the reduction in Pfizer vaccine, the command center statement said.

Tara Gregorio, president of the Massachusetts Senior Care Association, said in a statement Sunday that vaccine doses would be administered to residents and workers.

As officials prepared to roll out a broader vaccination effort, the impact of the pandemic was still being felt across the state.

In Peabody, Bettencourt said he was notified Friday that he tested positive for COVID-19 after contracting through household transmission, the mayor said in a Facebook post Saturday. Bettencourt said he has been experiencing mild symptoms.

He urged people to follow public health guidance and noted an uptick in coronavirus cases.

Peabody has been categorized as a high risk for the disease by the state. On Thursday, the state reported 827 new cases of COVID-19 over the previous two weeks in Peabody.

Since the pandemic began, there have been 3,081 cases of COVID-19 in the city, according to the state’s public health department.

“Our COVID-19 numbers are still rising rapidly,” Bettencourt said in the post. “Please continue to take all the important precautions to fight back against this virus.”

The coronavirus’s impact also reached the heart of Red Sox Nation, after longtime star Jason Varitek tested positive for the disease, his wife Catherine Varitek wrote on Twitter Saturday.

She said the former player is doing well for the most part and is self-isolating.

In Newton, officials have created a poignant reminder of the coronavirus’s human cost. Rows of black, empty chairs have been placed on the lawn outside City Hall. “As we pass by, we will remember that each empty chair reflects a life lost,” Mayor Ruthanne Fuller said in a statement.

The memorial was erected shortly before Thanksgiving, and modeled on similar tributes created in other cities, Fuller said.

As of Wednesday, the city reported 160 people have died in Newton due to the disease; there have been more than 1,900 cases there since the start of the pandemic in the spring.

Hundreds of Businesses Violated COVID-19 Rules, Putting Workers at Risk

WBUR – At first, two employees at Horner Millwork tested positive for COVID-19.

That was in April, as businesses first grappled with working amid the pandemic. The Somerset distributor and custom maker of windows, doors and stairs did not enforce mask-wearing until the fall, its president, Peter Humphrey, said.

By November, 30 employees had tested positive. Yet the company was slow to cooperate with state officials in charge of tracing the virus’s spread.

“We originally, I’ll say, resisted some because we were feeling we were doing a good job” monitoring employees, Humphrey acknowledged. But, faced with verbal and written warnings from the state’s Department of Labor Standards (DLS), as well as thousands of dollars in potential fines, the company finally agreed to work with health officials.

“They convinced us that they need to do the contact tracing,” Humphrey said, “for people that maybe are not in our workforce — somebody’s wife or child or friend.”

It’s a story playing out at businesses across the state. Horner is one of more than 1,000 companies and gathering places that had complaints filed against them for alleged pandemic safety violations from mid-May through Dec. 1, according to public records analyzed by WBUR.

The complaints ranged from the relatively routine — bars opening before they were allowed to under state rules and offices failing to require staff to wear masks — to far more serious allegations, according to data from the DLS and the Massachusetts attorney general’s office.

In the most egregious cases, employees reported having to work despite believing they had COVID symptoms. Some employers allegedly failed to alert people that their coworkers had tested positive, while others failed to promptly respond to inquiries by local health officials.

Retailers and restaurants topped the list of industries facing complaints, WBUR found. The restaurant chain 110 Grill received 20 complaints — more than any other company — across a dozen of its Massachusetts locations, according to data from the Attorney General’s office.

Some of the complaints alleged that employees of 110 Grill were required to work despite having COVID symptoms, or weren’t notified when a colleague tested positive. A number focused on the company’s actions when an employee showed up at work feeling sick in Saugus and later tested positive for the virus.

Ryan Dion, chief operating officer of 110 Grill, said all employees at that location were notified and those who could have been exposed were tested. He denied that any employees were asked to work if they felt ill.

Dion said it can be difficult for employers to judge the validity of complaints, because they’re anonymous; it’s often unclear if reports have come from employees or customers.

When someone tests positive for the coronavirus, the state requires an employer to inform other employees, without violating the individual’s privacy, and to cooperate with the state’s contact tracers.

“If they’re not telling employees that they’ve come into close contact with someone else [with COVID] then there’s obviously the increased likelihood of transmission and the formation of clusters within the workplace, and then formation of clusters in the homes, of these people who may have been exposed,” said Iain MacLeod, chief executive of Aldatu Biosciences, a Watertown company processing COVID tests. “If you’re not informing your other employees of possible exposure, then you’re essentially playing with fire.”

Ideally, workers in all industries would be tested weekly, MacLeod said, but that’s not currently possible, given the backlogs here and across the country. Still, he said, employers are ethically and legally responsible for keeping their workers safe.

Yet many have fallen down on setting and enforcing procedures during this challenging period. Of the complaints that resulted in violations, 74 percent related to retailers, restaurants, gyms and salons, according to the state data.

“These are industries where workers are working inside, with exposure to many members of the public,” said Jodi Sugerman-Brozan, executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety & Health (MassCOSH). State officials and employers have repeatedly said workers are picking up the virus at home, but many employers are not doing enough to keep workers safe, she said, and the regulations should be stronger.

“Workers have to complain to start any kind of investigation or process,” she said. “Retaliation is high. We’re relying on workers to protect themselves. And it’s just not working.”

WBUR’s analysis was based on complaints to DLS’s coronavirus hotline from mid-May through Dec. 1. The data was obtained through a public records request. Because it tracks only concerns that employees or customers called to report, the total scope of workplace safety problems related to the pandemic is likely even larger.

The department investigates these complaints and, when violations occur, can issue verbal and written warnings, as well as civil citations. It also can order companies to cease and desist the activities leading to violations and levy fines if companies fail to comply — or shut them down altogether.

WBUR also found that a large number of violations occurred at businesses in cities such as Lawrence and Everett, hotspots with high rates of infections.

The data included large brand names such as Home Depot, UPS and Dunkin’ Donuts. There were also small locations like bakeries and gyms, as well as government offices, car dealers and churches.

WBUR focused in particular on complaints in which the state determined workplace COVID regulations were violated, and those complaints were backed up by public records or interviews.

A Home Depot distribution center in Westfield drew complaints that said employees were not informed when colleagues tested positive for the virus; that some people had to work in close quarters in the back of a truck; that face coverings weren’t enforced; and that employees could face discipline if they asked to go home because they felt sick or unsafe.

Spokeswoman Christina Cornell said the Atlanta-based home improvement giant has worked with the state of Massachusetts on the Westfield issues, submitting a plan in November “that addresses the complaints that they brought to our attention.”

She declined to say whether that location had experienced an outbreak or cluster. “Like any major retailer, we’ve had positive cases,” she said. The company is offering expanded time off for anyone feeling sick or unsafe. The case remains open with DLS.

Adam Kaszynski, president of IUE-CWA Local 201 and a milling machine operator at General Electric in Lynn, is advocating for safer work conditions in manufacturing. He said employers need to take cues from workers to properly protect them from the coronavirus.

“We started a campaign in March because we didn’t trust corporate America to make the safety decisions without the input of people on the floor,” he said. “Hearing from workers, people that are doing the production on the shop floor, they know where there’s not six feet of distance. They know where the ventilation is bad.”

Even with the precautions, Kaszynski recently tested positive for COVID, he said, and learned that a coworker had, too.

GE was listed in the state database in June, over complaints about a lack of mask-wearing and inadequate cleaning. But the state did not find the company had violated pandemic regulations.

Richard Gorham, a spokesman for GE Aviation, said the company’s “number one priority is the health and safety of our employees,” and that it continues to collaborate with public health authorities around the world.

He declined to say whether there has been a cluster of cases in Kaszynski’s work area.

In the period from March 1 through Oct. 31, the state traced 138 clusters (defined as two or more people) to manufacturers, distributors, warehouses and other industrial workplaces, accounting for 1,049 individual COVID cases. During the same period, restaurants saw 78 clusters; retail locations were the source of 77 clusters; and offices and workplaces contributed 62, according to Department of Public Health data obtained in a public records request.

One such cluster has affected 50 people who worked at C&S Wholesale Grocers’ Westfield location, which faced a complaint over alleged lack of COVID procedures.

“It is inevitable in this environment that there will be cases, including individuals impacted by spread in their families and communities and not at work locations,” C&S Vice President Lauren La Bruno said in an email. The spread took place over a long period, she said, and “C&S is taking all the necessary measures to keep our employees, customers and communities safe.”

December 17

Miss AIM’s Vaccine Webinar?  We Have You Covered

Did you miss AIM’s members-only webinar last week The Road to Immunity? Now you can watch the video of the presentation featuring UMass Medical School Chancellor Dr. Michael Collins, Assistant Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health Kevin Cranston and Maura McLaughlin, Employment Law Partner at Morgan, Brown & Joy. What’s the timeline for vaccine distribution? How will distribution be prioritized? Will vaccine distribution have a financial impact on your business?  These critical questions and more are addressed by the panel.

Click here to review the webinar

Additional AIM Resources on COVID-19

AIM received questions from participants in last week’s The Road to Immunity webinar and we are working to answer them.  One question that has come up often: What does “workspace” mean as it relates to the new safety protocols regarding face coverings in an office environment?

Answer:  A workspace could be an office with a door, separate area, individual cubicle, etc. If an individual cubicle is 6 ft apart from another active workspace or has a 6 ft tall partition, the worker in that cubicle would be allowed to remove his or her face covering.

Here are additional resources:

  • Click here to review the recently released Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) guidance for employers. See specifically Sections K and J.
  • Click here to email the Massachusetts Department of Public Health to inquire about when your employees or when your industry may be eligible for the vaccine.
  • Click here for the Massachusetts Department of Public Health Vaccine FAQ.
  • Click here for Vaccine Prioritization Phase 1, 2 and 3 *Updated every two weeks
  • Click here for City of Boston Regulations modified Phase Two, Step Two (Effective December 16)

Holiday COVID-19 Guidance

Click here for recently released state guidance on holiday activities and gatherings.

Other AIM Guidance COVID Documents

  • Click here for AIM’s recent COVID rule changes
  • Click here for key updates on AIM’s COVID-19 Resource Page

Key Updated Sector Specific Guidance documents:

Massachusetts Orders:

  • Click here for all State of Emergency Orders
  • Governor’s COVID-19 Order #57 (issued December 8, 2020, effective December 13, 2020 at 12:01AM) Reduces the limit on outdoor gatherings statewide from 100 persons to 50 persons. Sustained other gathering limits from Order #54.
  • Governor’s COVID-19 Order #45 (issued July 24, 2020) Instituted mandatory 14-day quarantine requirement for travelers arriving in Massachusetts. Note: Please review the MA Travel Order website and DPH Guidance for the latest details on the travel order.
  • Face Coverings (Public Spaces): Governor’s COVID-19 Order #55 (issued November 2, 2020) Revised order requiring all persons to wear face-coverings in all public places, even where they are able to maintain 6 feet of distance from others. Allows for an exception for residents who cannot wear a face-covering due to a medical or disabling condition, but allows employers to require employees to provide proof of such a condition. Allows schools to require that students participating in in-person learning provide proof of such a medical or disabling condition.
  • Face Coverings: (Business) Click here for all Sector Specific Guidance 

Department of Public Health Guidance for all workers:

Have other questions?  Email us membership@aimnet.org or 617-262-1180.

Negotiators Near Agreement on COVID-19 Economic Aid Bill

Congressional negotiators closed in Wednesday on a $900 billion COVID-19 relief package that would deliver additional “paycheck protection” subsidies to businesses, $300 per week jobless checks, and $600 or so stimulus payments to most Americans.

The long-delayed measure was coming together as Capitol Hill combatants finally fashioned difficult compromises, often at the expense of more ambitious Democratic wishes for the legislation, to complete the second major relief package of the pandemic.

It’s the first significant legislative response to the pandemic since the landmark CARES Act in March, which delivered $1.8 trillion in aid and more generous jobless benefits and direct payments to individuals. Since then, Democrats have repeatedly called for ambitious further federal steps to provide relief and battle the pandemic, while Republicans have sought to more fully reopen the economy and to avoid padding the government’s $27 trillion debt.

But President-elect Joe Biden is eager for an aid package to prop up the economy and deliver direct aid to the jobless and hungry, even though it falls short of what Democrats want. He called the emerging package “an important down payment” and promised more help next year.

Republicans, too, are anxious to approve some aid before going home for the year.

“We made major headway toward hammering out a bipartisan relief package,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky told reporters Wednesday morning. And during a Senate GOP lunchtime call a day earlier, party leaders stressed the importance of reaching an agreement before for the upcoming Georgia Senate runoff election, according to a person who was on the private call and granted anonymity to discuss it.

The details were still being worked out, but lawmakers in both parties said leaders had agreed on a top-line total of about $900 billion, with direct payments of perhaps $600 to most Americans and a $300-per-week bonus federal unemployment benefit to partially replace a $600-per-week benefit that expired this summer. It also includes the renewal of extra weeks of state unemployment benefits for the long-term jobless. More than $300 billion in subsidies for business, including a second round of “paycheck protection” payments to especially hard-hit businesses, are locked in.

Democrats acknowledged that the removal of a $160 billion-or-so aid package for state and local governments whose budgets have been thrown out of balance by the pandemic was a bitter loss.

“It’s heartbreaking for us,” said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, whose state has big fiscal problems.

The emerging package was serving as a magnet for adding on other items, and the two sides continued to swap offers.

And it was apparent that another temporary spending bill would be needed to prevent a government shutdown at midnight on Friday. That is likely to easily pass.

House lawmakers returned to Washington Wednesday in hopes of a vote soon on the emerging package, which would combine the COVID-19 relief with a $1.4 trillion governmentwide funding bill and a host of other remaining congressional business, including extending expiring tax breaks and passing other unfinished legislation.

Negotiations intensified on Tuesday after months of futility. Before the election, with Democrats riding high in the polls, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi took a hard line in the talks. Now, McConnell is playing a strong hand after a better-than-expected performance in the elections limited GOP losses in Senate races.

McConnell successfully pushed to get Democrats to drop their much-sought $160 billion state and local government aid package while giving up a key priority of his own — a liability shield for businesses and other institutions like universities fearing COVID-19 lawsuits. Democrats cited other gains for states and localities in the emerging deal such as help for transit systems, schools and vaccine distribution.

The addition of the $600 direct payments came after recent endorsements from both Trump and progressives including Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who remains dissatisfied about the overall package.

“Everything that is in that package is vitally needed,” Sanders said Wednesday on MSNBC. “The problem is that it is a much smaller package than the country needs in this moment of economic desperation.”

Pelosi has insisted for months that state and local aid would be in any final bill, but as time is running out, she is unwilling to hold the rest of the package hostage over the demand.

A poisonous dynamic has long infected the negotiations, but the mood was businesslike in two meetings in Pelosi’s Capitol suite Tuesday that resulted in a burst of progress.

Pressure for a deal is intense. Unemployment benefits run out Dec. 26 for more than 10 million people. Many businesses are barely hanging on after nine months of the pandemic. And money is needed to distribute new vaccines that are finally offering hope for returning the country to a semblance of normalcy.

The looming agreement follows efforts by a bipartisan group of rank-and-file lawmakers to find a middle ground between a $2.4 trillion House bill and a $500 billion GOP measure fashioned by McConnell.

The $908 bipartisan agreement has served as a template for the talks, although the bipartisan group, led by Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, favored aid to states and localities instead of another round of stimulus payments. The CARES Act provided for $1,200 payments per individual and $500 per child.

“I think that the work that our bipartisan group did really helped to stimulate this,” Collins said.

With Congress otherwise getting ready to close up shop, lawmakers are eager to use the relief package to carry other unfinished business.

A leading candidate is a 369-page water resources bill that targets $10 billion for 46 Army Corps of Engineers flood control, environmental, and coastal protection projects. Another potential addition would extend favorable tax treatment for “look through” entities of offshore subsidiaries of U.S. corporations. Meanwhile, thousands of craft brewers, wineries, and distillers are facing higher taxes in April if their tax break isn’t extended.

The end-of-session rush also promises relief for victims of shockingly steep surprise medical bills, a phenomenon that often occurs when providers drop out of insurance company networks. That measure, combined with an assortment of other health policy provisions, generates savings for federal funding for community health centers. And Senate education panel Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., is eager to simplify the maddening form for federal college aid.

Pandemic Affects Senate Group’s Revenue Discussions

State House News – A working group launched by state Senate leaders that’s been studying the state tax code is getting together one more time before the two-year session ends, but its long-awaited recommendations may still be months away.

A spokeswoman for Sen. Adam Hinds, who chairs the working group and co-chairs the Legislature’s Committee on Revenue, tells the News Service that the group’s efforts will likely spill into the next session, which begins Jan. 6, since lawmakers are focused on other unfinished business this session.

Hinds, a Pittsfield Democrat, is assembling a “draft comprehensive summary” of the 21-member group’s findings, the spokeswoman said, and that summary will likely be made publicly available next year, ahead of the annual budget debates that are usually held in the House in April and in the Senate in May.

The House in March approved transportation taxes and fees totaling more than $500 million. That bill has languished in the Senate, frustrating House lawmakers who say they took difficult tax votes. The bill’s apparent demise raises questions about whether House and Senate Democrats can come together around new taxes and revenues, and comes as the MBTA, facing a budget crunch, moves ahead with service reductions to reflect reduced ridership.

Senate President Karen Spilka highlighted plans for the working group when she was sworn in as president at the start of this session, and later charged the panel with assessing the state’s revenue system and developing a set of recommendations to update and improve it, with the primary goal of ensuring a system that “generates sufficient funds in a predictable, sustainable and fair manner while contributing to a vibrant and competitive economy and ensuring taxpayer accountability.” The group began meeting in May 2019.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted the environment around everything, including taxes and the mobility of workers, employers and jobs. Change is facilitated by a movement towards work-from-home jobs, which could reshape everything from where workers live to whether employers hold on to big office spaces.

The $45.9 billion fiscal 2021 budget Gov. Charlie Baker signed on Friday blocks the scheduled Jan. 1 start of a charitable giving tax deduction worth about $300 million in fiscal 2022. Employers are facing massive increases next year in unemployment insurance taxes as well as a minimum wage increase on Jan. 1. And the conversation about the T has switched from ways to prevent crowding and delays to how long service cuts should last given the sharp drop in riders.

One important tax proposal is also on the cusp of reemerging on Beacon Hill. Lawmakers next session are expected to take the second necessary vote to put on the November 2022 ballot a constitutional amendment imposing a 4 percent surtax on household income above $1 million per year. A years-old estimate points to a potential for $2 billion in new annual state revenues should the measure clear Beacon Hill and be approved by voters.

New Elective Surgery Guidance Leaves Out Ambulatory Centers

State House News – After the state’s new order to restrict elective invasive procedures prompted confusion and concern among ambulatory surgery centers, an updated version of the guidance appears to settle remaining uncertainty.

A memo the state’s Executive Office of Health and Human Services issued last Wednesday updating guidelines on non-essential invasive procedures described restrictions only on hospitals, omitting any language referring to ambulatory surgery centers. That’s a change from the original guidance, which explicitly included the state’s dozens of ASCs that are typically geared toward outpatient procedures.

Although Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said several times that preventative visits such as colonoscopies could take place, the head of the state’s Association of Ambulatory Surgery Center said the first pass at written guidance was less clear and appeared to leave gaps that could prevent patients from getting some outpatient care.

Now, ASCs are no longer included in the same language requiring hospitals to stop elective procedures. State health officials are hopeful the restriction requiring many elective procedures to be postponed will help direct additional resources toward responding to rising COVID-19 case numbers and hospitalizations.

DPH Updated Order RE: Elective Procedures

What you need to know about Moderna’s COVID-19 Vaccine

Boston Globe – The Food and Drug Administration on Tuesday confirmed that the coronavirus vaccine developed by Cambridge biotech Moderna appears to be highly effective and safe, setting the stage for the agency to clear the second genetic vaccine to prevent COVID-19 for emergency use within days.

Only four days after the drug regulator approved a similar vaccine developed by New York-based Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech, the FDA found that Moderna’s vaccine prevented more than 94 percent of COVID-19 cases in a late-stage clinical trial and raised no major safety concerns.

A panel of outside experts is expected to vote Thursday on whether the FDA should authorize the vaccine for emergency use, as coronavirus deaths in the United States surpass 302,000. Assuming the committee makes that recommendation, the agency would likely act swiftly, and the second vaccine could start being rolled out soon afterward.

In advance of Thursday’s advisory panel hearing, here are some questions and answers about Moderna’s vaccine

How does it compare with the one developed by Pfizer and BioNTech?

Broadly speaking, they’re very similar. Both rely on synthetic messenger RNA, an ingenious variation on the natural substance that directs cells to produce proteins. While traditional vaccines inject a dead or weakened virus into the body to stimulate an immune response, mRNA vaccines use custom-made messenger molecules that tell cells to create a viral protein. In the case of both COVID-19 vaccines, they instruct cells to create the distinctive spike protein on the coronavirus. Once that happens, the body’s immune system generates antibodies to fend off the disease if the recipient is exposed to the virus. No mRNA vaccine had ever been deployed until drug regulators in several countries, including the US, recently cleared the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for emergency use.

Are there other similarities?

Yes, several. Both vaccines require two shots (three weeks apart for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, four weeks apart for Moderna’s). The Pfizer-BioNtech vaccine prevented 95 percent of COVID-19 cases in a late-stage study of more than 43,000 volunteers, half of whom got the vaccine and half of whom received a placebo. The Moderna vaccine prevented 94.1 percent of cases in a similar study of some 30,000 volunteers, who also had a 50-50 chance of getting the experimental substance. Both vaccines appeared to work well regardless of age, gender, race, and ethnicity of participants. Both were also highly effective in fending off severe cases of COVID-19. And neither appeared to cause any alarming side effects.

What are the differences between the two vaccines?

Some information on how the vaccines were made is proprietary. Robert Langer, the prolific inventor and biomedical engineering professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who cofounded Moderna, said, “I don’t think anybody has done a head-to-head comparison of the Pfizer one and the Moderna one.” In other words, the vaccines are like two chocolate fudge cakes with closely guarded recipes. Still, Langer said, there may be subtle but important differences between the vaccines in two key areas: the super-tiny fatty bubble that delivers the mRNA into cells, and the messenger molecule itself.

The lipid nanoparticle that ferries the molecule into cells is composed of four ingredients, he said, and in the two vaccines those ingredients probably differ. The same is likely true with the mRNA, which instructs cells to make the coronavirus protein. Slight variations in biomedicine can have a huge impact. “We know that if you change one amino acid in hemoglobin, you go from being a healthy person to having sickle cell anemia,” Langer said.

The variations may contribute to an obvious difference between the vaccines: temperature requirements for storage. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine must be kept at minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit in freezers and in custom-made “cool boxes” packed with dry ice so it doesn’t spoil during distribution. Moderna’s vaccine can be stored at a comparatively balmy minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit without going bad.

The youngest age that people could receive the vaccines under the emergency use authorization is also different. Moderna has asked the FDA to clear its vaccine for people age 18 and over. Pfizer’s vaccine was cleared for use in people age 16 and older, although that caused some debate in last week’s advisory committee meeting.

What about side effects?

Both vaccines were linked to mild to moderate side effects, including pain at the injection site, fatigue, headache, and fever. Some appeared to be more significant with the Moderna vaccine. The side effects for both vaccines were generally more common and noticeable after the second dose. As a result, some experts say people may need to take a day off from work after the second shot. But none of the side effects alarmed regulators.

Dr. Eric Rubin, editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine and a member of the advisory committee that will meet Thursday, said inflammatory reactions probably stem from the lipid nanoparticle that each vaccine uses to deliver the messenger molecule into cells. Those reactions might actually be a good thing, he said, prodding the body to mount an immune response. “You want that to happen,” said Rubin, who is also a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Are there any other side effects that people should consider?

In the Moderna trial of roughly 30,000 volunteers, there were three cases of Bell’s palsy ― or temporary facial paralysis ― in the vaccine group, and one in the placebo group. (That’s three cases among 15,000 people, since half of the volunteers got the vaccine.) In the Pfizer trial, there were four reported cases of Bell’s palsy, and all four were among the roughly 21,500 recipients who got the vaccine rather than a placebo. Those rates are higher than the expected one of 1.2 cases of Bell’s palsy for 10,000 people a year, according to Dr. Paul Offit, an infectious disease expert at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia who sits on the advisory committee. “This is not a deal-breaker obviously, but it needs to be followed up,” he said. “You need to make sure this isn’t a coincidental association but a causal association.” The FDA said Tuesday it will recommend that vaccinated people be monitored for the condition.

How long does the Moderna vaccine confer immunity compared with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine?

No one knows yet. Both vaccines were developed in less than a year, which shatters the record set by a mumps vaccine that took four years to go from collection of viral samples to licensing in 1967. Such breathtaking speed means regulators haven’t collected data nearly long enough to gauge the duration of immunity.

If the FDA approves the Moderna vaccine, how many doses will be available in the United States, and how does that compare with the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine?

At least 40 million doses ― enough for 20 million people ― should be available from the makers of both vaccines combined by the end of the year, according to federal officials, and many more are expected next year. \

The federal government has so far ordered 100 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine and 200 million doses of the Moderna vaccine. It could buy more doses from the companies, and will probably buy other vaccines in late-stage trials, if they prove effective and safe.

A third vaccine, from Johnson & Johnson, which uses a different scientific approach and was developed with help from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, is in a late-stage clinical trial. Results are expected early next year. That vaccine would require only one shot, which could be a significant advantage.

December 15

State House News – Gyms, movie theaters, museums and other indoor event spaces in Boston will be ordered to close for general in-person use starting Wednesday as the city reintroduces COVID-19 restrictions as part of a larger, regional strategy that Mayor Martin Walsh said is meant to combat the post-Thanksgiving surge in coronavirus activity.

The Boston Public Health Commission on Monday issued a supplemental order moving the city back to a modified version of Step 2, Phase 2 of the state’s economic reopening strategy for at least three weeks beginning Wednesday. Walsh said the curtailment of allowable activity “is not about targeting specific sectors that cause the virus. This is an effort to reduce overall activity outside the home using mechanisms afforded by the state’s reopening plan.”

Boston’s hospitals “are not in danger at the moment of being overwhelmed” but with case counts rising and more people needing hospital care, Walsh said it was time to make changes that could prevent a dire situation in which hospitals and their workers are overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients.

“Unfortunately, we are at the point where we need to take stronger action to control COVID-19 in Boston, and urgently, to ensure our health care workers have the capacity to care for everyone in need,” he said.

For the week that ended Dec. 6, Boston averaged 5,552 COVID-19 tests and 438 new positive results each day. The city’s positive test rate for the week that ended Dec. 6 was 7.2 percent, up from 5.2 percent the week before, the mayor said. Dorchester, East Boston and Hyde Park all have neighborhood positivity rates between 10 percent and 12 percent. While testing was up nearly 38 percent from the prior week, Walsh said the average number of daily new cases is also up.

“That number spiked obviously after Thanksgiving and we’ve stayed at that elevated level for most of December so far,” he said. “So, we’re pretty much into our third week now of high numbers.”

The city’s closure of indoor recreational and athletic facilities does not apply to activities for kids 18 or younger, college athletic programs or professional sports teams. Indoor pools can remain open if they use pre-registration and limit swimming lanes to one person.

Sightseeing and other organized tours like the ubiquitous duck boat tours and harbor cruises must cease operation, indoor historical sites must close, and indoor event spaces like ballrooms and private party rooms cannot be used. Private social clubs will be allowed to operate as long as they serve food.

Outdoor activities at gyms can continue as long as there are fewer than 25 people participating and some one-on-one personal training will be allowed indoors, the mayor said. Indoor dining will be allowed to continue in Boston, Walsh said, but restaurants will not be allowed to seat anyone in bar areas without prior approval from the city.

“I know that many people have concerns about indoor dining. These are concerns about the possibility of viral transmission. There are concerns about the ability of restaurants to survive closure during these restrictions. I hear both of the concerns and we’re responding to both the concerns,” Walsh said.

The rollback will be accompanied by increased enforcement from city agencies, he said.

“We are increasing enforcement of all guidelines for all licensed businesses. We will have emergency licensing board meetings every Monday to address any violations from the previous week. But I also want to appeal to restaurant patrons and small business customers to be part of the solution,” Walsh said.

“We hear from owners that it can be difficult to police customers who keep their masks off or ignore distancing guidelines. So, I ask you if you dine in a restaurant or you visit a store and you want to help small businesses stay open, do your part and follow the guidelines.”

The mayor said Monday that Boston’s decision to impose restrictions that are stricter than the statewide rules Gov. Charlie Baker has put in place is part of a regional approach coordinated by mayors and local officials.

“We’ve been in close contact with the communities all across Greater Boston. We’re going to take a regional approach for maximizing effectiveness, several cities and towns are taking steps this week with modifications fit to their particular needs,” Walsh said. “They include the city of Newton, Somerville, Brockton, the town of Winthrop, town of Arlington, City of Lynn, and other cities and towns that will be announcing, over the course of the next couple days, actions of each of them are taking.”

As of Sunday, Gov. Charlie Baker has moved the entire state from step two of Phase 3 back to step one, a move that reduced capacity from 50 percent to 40 percent in retail shops, offices, libraries, museums and elsewhere, and that requires indoor recreational venues to close once again. Boston was mostly unaffected by the governor’s change since the city had never advanced beyond Phase 3, Step 1 of the state reopening plan.

After Baker announced his actions last week, Walsh said the governor’s plan “works for some places and doesn’t necessarily work for other places” and announced that his own public health advisors would be briefing him on Boston’s own rollback options.

Pfizer COVID Vaccine to be Produced at Massachusetts Manufacturing Site

MassLive – After receiving emergency authorization from the Food and Drug Administration for its COVID-19 vaccine, Pfizer plans to produce the vaccine at several locations across the world, including one in Massachusetts.

A Pfizer manufacturing site in Andover will be among locations to produce the vaccine, along with sites in Saint Louis, Missouri; Kalamazoo, Michigan; Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin; and Puurs, Belgium, according to a statement from Pfizer.

“Pfizer’s purpose is breakthroughs that change patients’ lives, and in our 171-year history there has never been a more urgent need for a breakthrough than today with hundreds of thousands of people continuing to suffer from COVID-19,” said Albert Bourla, the chairman and chief executive officer of Pfizer.

“As a U.S. company, today’s news brings great pride and tremendous joy that Pfizer has risen to the challenge to develop a vaccine that has the potential to help bring an end to this devastating pandemic. We have worked tirelessly to make the impossible possible, steadfast in our belief that science will win.”

Health care workers will be among the first to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which uses mRNA technology and requires two doses. Wider delivery of the vaccine is expected next year.

Through Operation Warp Speed, a vaccine development program from the administration of President Donald Trump, about 3 million doses of the vaccine are expected in the first shipments around the U.S.

In Massachusetts, the first vaccine shipment will include just under 60,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine, which will be delivered to 21 hospitals across eight counties and to the Department of Public Health Immunization lab. The vaccine will be offered in three phases. The first to receive the vaccine, likely before the end of the month, will be healthcare workers offering direct care to COVID patients.

Boston Medical Center receives 1,950 Doses of Pfizer COVID-19 Vaccine

Boston Globe – Boston Medical Center accepted 1,950 doses of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine Monday morning, marking the arrival of the life-saving product amid a spike in coronavirus infections and deaths in Massachusetts.

Other Boston-area hospitals and health organizations contacted by the Globe said they expect to receive their initial doses of vaccines starting Tuesday, although they stressed that could change depending on changes in shipment protocols.

BMC will offer the vaccine first to employees who have frequent contact with COVID-19 patients. That includes doctors, nurses, and respiratory therapists, as well as workers in dietary, transport, and environmental services — anyone who comes into COVID-19 patient rooms.

About 3,000 of the hospital’s 12,000 employees fall into that category, and the hospital expects to get additional doses next week to reach all 3,000, said David Twitchell, chief pharmacy officer of the Boston Medical Center Health System.

“We plan to be able to vaccinate as many as 1,000 by Saturday and then another 300 or so Monday and Tuesday,” Twitchell said.

Massachusetts Health-Care Workers Expected to Have Access to COVID-19 Vaccine Midweek

WCVB – The first rounds of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine were loaded onto trucks in Michigan on Sunday, bound for hospitals across the nation.

Boston hospitals expect to welcome the critical deliveries as soon as Monday, and Tufts Medical Center said it plans to start administering the first vaccinations by midday Wednesday.

Officials said they recognize they can’t force everyone to get vaccinated, and there is some hesitation, but they are offering the first doses to anyone who works in the medical center, which totals about 5,500 people.

Hospital officials said they plan to administer 1,500 doses by the end of the year.

“You don’t have to hold half your supply in reserve and save that for the next 21 days. You’re expected to give out the full 975 first dose, knowing there’s another one coming,” said Nick Duncan, director of Emergency Management at Tufts Medical Center.

Because Tufts has a research component, they already have several ultra-cold freezers registering temperatures at -80. The ultra-cold freezers are required to store the Pfizer vaccine.

Tufts plans to have everyone immunized who wants to be by sometime in March.

In anticipation of the vaccine, Gov. Charlie Baker has announced a phased timeline for distribution in Massachusetts.

Clinical and nonclinical health care workers doing direct and COVID-19-facing care will receive the first doses in the state as part of Phase 1 of the COVID-19 Vaccine Timeline, which was approved by federal officials.

Could Getting Vaccinated be a Back-to-the-Office Requirement?

Boston Globe – With COVID-19 vaccines expected to become gradually more available in the new year, employers and employees are beginning to ask questions about what that means for the workplace.

  1. Can my employer force me and my coworkers to get the vaccine?
  2. Right now, there’s no definitive federal law, regulation, or guidance on whether employers have the legal right to condition continued employment on getting the coronavirus vaccine.
  3. Have there been times in the past when mandatory vaccinations were deemed legal?
  4. Yes, there is precedent for workplace mandatory vaccinations. When the F1N1 influenza pandemic hit in 2009, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces federal laws that make it illegal to discriminate in the workplace, advised employers that mandatory vaccinations were legally allowable.
  5. What does the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say about workplace vaccines?
  6. The CDC strongly advocatesfor employers offering free on-site seasonal flu vaccinations in the workplace. It makes no similar case for workplace vaccinations for COVID-19, but that could change.
  7. Doesn’t it make sense to require front-line health care workers and others to get vaccinated?
  8. Probably. An advisory committee to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently put health care workers, including those at hospitals and nursing homes, at the top of its list for risk of COVID-19 exposure and transmission. It said: “Early protection of health care personnel is critical to preserve capacity to care for patients with COVID-19 or other illnesses.”

There is precedent for mandatory vaccination of health care workers. Mass General Brigham, for example, already requires all employees, including those working remotely, to get a seasonal flu vaccine unless they are approved for a medical or religious exemption.

The CDC has made available this comprehensive guidance for employers and others on implementing flu vaccines.

  1. What other kinds of jobs may be subject to mandatory vaccinations?
  2. First responders and retail and service workers who interact with the public.
  3. Can I refuse to work with others on my job if they haven’t gotten the vaccine?
  4. Employers have an obligation under OSHA to provide a workplace free from serious recognized hazards, which includes COVID-19. You have a legal right to contact OSHA, without fear of retaliation, if you have concerns. But be aware that OSHA last spring said it would leave it to employers to investigate some complaints, while conducting few inspections.

Although the EEOC has not explicitly approved mandatory vaccinations in the workplace for COVID-19, it did endorse the “principles” it developed during the F1H1 pandemic in an update it posted on its website earlier this year in response to the coronavirus outbreak. Q. Did the EEOC recognize any exceptions to mandatory vaccinations?

  1. Yes, it cited the American with Disabilities Act for exceptions for employees who refuse the vaccine for medical reasons and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for exceptions for employees with religious reasons.
  2. How are employers expected to handle those who refuse the vaccine for medical or religious reasons?
  3. Employers are required to make reasonable accommodations for employees citing a medical objection to the vaccine, like allowing them to work from home or otherwise apart from other employees. An employer may deny such an accommodation, however, it if it deemed to present an “undue hardship.” Employers may required those invoking a medical reason to provide documentation of their disability.

The standard for religious exception is a “sincerely held religious belief,” rather than personal or ethical objections, such as an antivaccination position.

  1. Is there any reason to expect the EEOC to treat COVID-19 vaccinations differently?
  2. No. The coronavirus is much more deadly than the H1N1 flu was in 2009. Therefore, mandatory vaccinations for COVID-19 may be the norm.
  3. So the EEOC is in favor of mandatory flu vaccinations?
  4. No, actually, the EEOC favors employers encouraging flu vaccinations, rather than requiring them, which may be the approach it takes as well to COVID-19. The EEOC reasons that employers are more likely to get employees vaccinated with incentives, like gift cards and refreshments at on-site mini-clinics, than with disincentives, like termination.
  5. Does the state have any say in mandatory vaccinations?
  6. The EEOC says employer-mandated vaccinations program must be consistent with state law.
  7. Is there any Massachusetts law standing in the way?
  8. No. And in fact, the Baker administration last summer showed his support for vaccinations generally when the Department of Public Health, which has the authority to establish what immunizations are required for school enrollment, ordered that nearly all students in the state under the age of 30 get a seasonal flu vaccine by the end of this year. That made Massachusetts the first state in the country to do so. The purpose was to reduce the overall strain on the health care system by reducing flu cases. Enforcement is in the hands of local school districts and higher-education institutions.

Massachusetts boasts of having the highest flu vaccination coverage in the country for those age 17 and younger: About 81 percent got the vaccine during the 2018-2019 flu season.

MBTA Board Approves Service Cuts

State House News – Significant MBTA service cuts will hit early next year after the agency’s oversight board voted 3-2 in favor of the amended plan Monday afternoon, capping off months of planning and public outcry.

The Fiscal and Management Control Board approved virtually all of the changes that T staff proposed, making only a handful of tweaks aimed at keeping some commuter rail service after 9 p.m. possible, setting a target date for determining if the agency needs to increase service, and ensuring that fare hikes will not factor into upcoming T budget deliberations.

FMCB members Joseph Aiello, Monica Tibbits-Nutt and Brian Lang voted in favor of the plan, while members Chrystal Kornegay and Tim Sullivan voted in opposition. Kornegay and Sullivan voted against a Lang amendment requiring the FMCB and its successor board to avoid increasing fares on buses and subways before both ridership and service hours return to fall 2019 levels. All five board members were appointed by Gov. Charlie Baker, whose administration oversees the MBTA.

The final plan will suspend 20 bus routes, eliminate weekend commuter rail service on seven lines, reduce subway and bus frequency, and cut Hingham and Hull ferry schedules. The changes aim to trim spending in fiscal year 2021 while the agency decide how to address a fiscal 2022 budget deficit inflicted by the pandemic’s impact on ridership.

The long-term outlook remains unclear, and officials plan to discuss in February and March whether to keep cuts in place, expand them or reverse them in the next fiscal year.

State and Local Leaders Back Tighter Re-Opening Restrictions

Boston Herald – Each week, Rebecca Rausch watches more of the towns in her sprawling state Senate district land on the high-risk list for coronavirus transmission.

Five of the 12 municipalities the Needham Democrat represents were among the record-shattering 158 that fell into the state’s “red” zone this week. And all but two saw higher case counts and positivity rates in this latest 14-day period surveyed in the state Department of Public Health weekly report.

It’s a microcosm of the metrics that have worsened statewide over the past few weeks as the coronavirus has resurged across Massachusetts.

With reports this week showing record or near-record highs across several categories, state and municipal elected officials are calling on Gov. Charlie Baker to take even more drastic action than the rollback to step one of Phase 3 that took effect on Sunday.

“Already, 11 days into December, we’ve blown the spring numbers out of the water,” Rausch said Friday. “The additional so-called measures that the governor announced earlier this week are insufficient and inadequate.”

Massachusetts went back to the first step of the third phase of reopening on Sunday, a statewide tightening of restrictions that includes reducing indoor capacities to 40 percent, bringing party sizes at restaurants back down to a cap of six people, and slashing outdoor gatherings to 50 people from 100.

But many of the state’s hardest-hit cities were already there, having been forced back to step one after landing on the state’s high-risk list for at least three weeks in a row. And others, such as Boston and Somerville, chose to remain at that step as a precaution earlier this fall even though they could have advanced.

Now, leaders in several of those cities want not just more shutdowns, but also more state aid to help the businesses already bearing the brunt of the pandemic’s restrictions.

“We are being overwhelmed by a tsunami and monsoon combined,” Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone said. “We’re seeing record numbers of infections, more people are dying, food lines are growing longer, people are being evicted, businesses are closing. I would just submit that baby steps aren’t going to do it.”

Clark: Nearly $1 Trillion Aid Package Still in the Mix

With some federal programs set to expire this month and a complex series of efforts to distribute COVID-19 vaccines now kicking off, it is critical that Congress agree to and pass another relief package, U.S. Rep. Katherine Clark said Monday.

“It is mind-boggling that we are here in mid-December still discussing if we are going to do a package,” Clark, a Melrose Democrat who was elected assistant speaker last month, said at a New England Council webinar.

Clark spoke to the business group as the first doses of COVID-19 vaccines were arriving in Massachusetts, and with a bipartisan group of lawmakers reportedly ready to present a plan that involved splitting a stimulus package into two pieces.

The proposal involves breaking out a $160 billion bill with state and local government aid and corporate liability protections from a $748 billion portion with unemployment benefits, small business relief and money for education and vaccine distribution, Roll Call reported.

“This bifurcation does have the potential of leaving state and local governments behind, and I simply don’t see how we do that, so I think that we have to continue to work on passing what we can,” Clark said.

Clark said she has “not given up on state and local government” and hopes “that we can get the package in the totality.”

Vaccines Highlight Need for Cold Storage Warehouses

Boston Business Journal – Long before the novel coronavirus pandemic sent Americans racing for their smartphones to order groceries, industrial real estate observers were keeping a close eye on the availability of temperature-controlled warehouses.

Cold-storage warehouses have been in the spotlight in recent weeks due to Covid-19 vaccines that require low temperatures.

Standard vaccines like your annual flu shot can be kept cool in normal refrigerators until they’re used. But the COVID vaccine developed by Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech Inc. uses a science called messenger RNA that must be shipped and stored in deep freezers at minus-100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Even the vaccine developed by Cambridge-based Moderna Inc. can only last in standard refrigerator temperatures for a month, according to company assessments.

Areas like Boston and Cambridge — which are flush with hospitals, drug companies and research laboratories — are well-prepared to meet the need. But outside the urban center, there may be a scramble to find enough storage for all the vaccines needed in coming months.

The cold-storage sector has seen little vacancy for years, and industrial real estate experts don’t expect that to change even after the pandemic, as consumers shift more of their food shopping online.

Cape Cod Nursing Homes Take Steps to Prevent COVID-19 Spread

Cape Cod Times – As nursing home officials across the state anticipate phase one of the state vaccination campaign announced last week, they are hoping new infection control procedures prevent the massive loss of life that occurred in the pandemic surge last spring.

Residents of long-term care facilities represent about 52 percent of total COVID-19 deaths on Cape Cod since the pandemic began. In the spring and summer, however, that number reached more than 60 percent.

The virus “appears to be even more infectious today compared to the early months of the pandemic,” said Tara Gregorio, president of the Massachusetts Senior Care Association.

But nursing homes have more access to personal protective equipment now compared to when the pandemic started in March and have ramped up regular COVID-19 testing of staff.

MassHealth started requiring at least 90 percent of a facility’s staff to be tested for coronavirus weekly as of Nov. 26.

“If one staff member has a positive result then the facility shifts to so-called ‘outbreak’ testing at least every three days of both residents and staff who have previously tested negative,” Gregorio said.

“Under our infection control protocols, residents who test positive are separated from (other) residents until they recover and are no longer infectious,” Gregorio said.

“This is a state mandate,” Tim Brown, spokesman for Athena Health Care Systems, said. Athena operates Cape Regency Rehabilitation and Health Care Center in Centerville and Cape Heritage Rehabilitation and Health Care Center in Sandwich.

Mass. restaurants feeling effect of phase three step back

WPRI — On Sunday, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker’s step back into phase three went into effect, meaning outdoor events will be limited to 50 people, indoor theaters and performance spaces are closed, and some businesses had to reduce their capacity.

Restaurants everywhere are struggling right now, but for small restaurants like Simply Simon’s in Swansea, the reduction from 50 percent capacity to 40 percent is making a big difference.

“They were among the things that we considered to be the most difficult to create guidance for around managing spread,” Baker said.

Patrons must now wear a mask at all times, except when actually eating or drinking.

Simply Simons owner Gary Simons says combine that with the fact social distancing only allows him to have about 25 people in his restaurant at a time.

“We’ve already been down about 60 percent. I think it’s going to drop even more than that now because of the masks you got to wear the mask when you’re at the table. And the seating requirements,” Simons said. “It’s way down from what we used to do.”

Simons isn’t as concerned about another new state regulation capping the time spent at a table at 90 minutes.

He’s also grateful for takeout.

But it’s not just restaurants feeling the effects of the state rollback that went into effect Sunday.

“Retail stores, office spaces, places of worship, movie theaters and common areas and lodging facilities will remain open, but will be required to operate at 40 percent capacity, allowing for greater distancing,” said Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito.

Massachusetts Companies Pay Employees to Get Regular COVID Tests

Boston Business Journal – When local universities adopted plans this summer to regularly test students and staffers for COVID-19, even if they show no symptoms, it was seen as a worthwhile if pricey experiment.

Now, more employers in Greater Boston — from banks to ballet troupes — are arranging for their employees to be tested on demand, or seriously considering doing so, as case counts skyrocket and testing services become more common and less expensive.

Want employees to be tested at the office? A health care professional can swing by a few times a week. Prefer an at-home nose swab? Employees can self-administer tests and FedEx them to the provider overnight. Or bring the swab back to the office for a courier to pick up.

While tests are cheaper than they were in the pandemic’s first months, they are not exactly cheap: $60 for a so-called PCR test is considered a good deal. The services are out of reach for many small businesses struggling just to keep their doors open.

But some deeper-pocketed employers are willing to take on the expense because of the ongoing surge, especially those with workers on-site. Covid-19’s spread is as high as it’s been since the spring. Waiting in line for a test can take hours, especially around the holidays, and executives see convenient testing, with fast results, as a smart investment.

COVID-19 Has Changed Everything, Even Boston’s Trash

Boston Globe – It is before dawn and below freezing. South Boston has yet to wake up. And Juan Sandoval and John Kelley are disrupting the cold tranquility with the thudding and clanking of the task at hand: picking up the trash.

There is the truck itself: its compactor thrums, its air brakes hiss. Occasionally, a crunch emerges from its innards. The two men roll and drag the garbage bins off the curb on Emerson Street in a seemingly endless task: The contents of barrel, after barrel, after barrel are emptied into the back of the yellow Capitol Waste Services vehicle.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, such work is plentiful, with Bostonians providing more refuse for these trucks to collect each week. Add garbage to the list of what the public health emergency has changed. With more people telecommuting, kids learning from home, and many opting to shop online instead of in person, the volume of household trash and recycling in the city has risen.

Compared to last year, the city has seen a 6.6 percent bump in residential waste as of the end of October. That translates to 18 million more pounds of household trash and 8 million more pounds of household recycling, which includes curbside recycling, yard waste, and electronics and textile collection, according to Brian Coughlin, the city’s superintendent of waste reduction.

“That’s a substantial increase,” said Coughlin recently.

Boston is hardly alone. According to the Solid Waste Association of North America, residential waste nationwide is about 7 percent to 10 percent above normal, down from a 20 percent spike in the spring, at the start of the pandemic.

David Biderman, the association’s executive director, anticipated that if stay-at-home orders are issued to combat the current surge in virus infections, there would be a steeper uptick for such waste in places where the orders are issued.

Lawmakers: Drivers Deserve New Round of Auto Insurance Relief

Boston Business Journal – Five senators and seven House lawmakers, led by Sen. Barry Finegold, wrote a letter to Insurance Commissioner Gary Anderson on Friday urging him to order auto insurance companies to deliver another round of premium relief to drivers in light of reduced travel and accidents as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Insurance companies covering 98 percent of the market offered drivers premium reductions in the spring as a result of people quarantining at home to avoid the virus and not driving as much. But the lawmakers said that relief was not commensurate with the reduction in risk to insurers, who they said continue to benefit from people working from home and observing COVID-19 precautions.

The unadjusted rates, they said, also disproportionately impact lower-income communities that have been hit hard by COVID-19 and typically pay higher insurance premiums.

“Drivers are effectively being punished for heeding public health guidelines and staying off the roads,” said Finegold, an Andover Democrat, who represents Lawrence.

The letter was signed by Finegold and Sens. Diana DiZoglio, Brendan Crighton, Sal DiDomenico, and Harriette Chandler, and by Reps. Christina Minicucci, Marcos Devers, Frank Moran, Steven Ultrino, Carol Doherty, Carole Fiola, and Antonio Cabral.

Eviction Crisis Brings Calls for Additional Help

Boston Business Journal – Despite the creation of a state program designed to help those in danger of losing their homes once a mid-October evictions moratorium expired, area politicians and housing experts warn that it isn’t nearly enough to avert a looming crisis as the region deals with another wave of the pandemic.

A week before the state moratorium ended, Gov. Charlie Baker announced the COVID-19 Eviction Diversion Initiative, which includes up to $100 million in emergency rental assistance through the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT) program, up to $12.3 million to provide tenants and landlords with legal representation and $50 million for post-eviction rapid rehousing.

December 10 

Administration Announces Initial Steps for COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution

The Baker Administration today announced allocation and distribution plans for the first round of COVID-19 vaccine shipments to Massachusetts set to begin around December 15. The state’s first shipment of 59,475 doses of the Pfizer vaccine was ordered from the federal government this past Friday and will be delivered directly to 21 hospitals across eight counties, as well as to the Department of Public Health Immunization lab.

Doses will then be redistributed for access to 74 hospitals across all 14 counties for front-line medical workers. The next 40,000 doses of Pfizer vaccine will be allocated to the Federal Pharmacy Program to begin vaccinating staff and residents of skilled nursing facilities, rest homes and assisted living residences.

Vaccine is being prioritized for these groups to maximize life preservation and to support the health-care system. Based on information at this time, Massachusetts is expecting 300,000 first doses of the vaccine to be delivered by the end of December. The first vaccines, manufactured by Moderna and Pfizer, will require two doses administered 3-4 weeks apart.

Click here to view the administration’s vaccine website: www.mass.gov/COVIDvaccine.

Click here to view the administration’s vaccine presentation

Click here for Frequently Asked Questions

While all delivery dates and quantities are subject to change due to ongoing federal approval and allocation, the administration plans to receive and distribute over 2 million doses to priority population groups by the end of March.

In collaboration with the COVID-19 Vaccine Advisory Group, the Administration designated groups of medical workers, first responders and residents most at risk for serious illness to receive the vaccine before the general population. The Vaccine Advisory Group is made up of leading medical, infectious disease and public health experts as well as representatives from communities of color and representatives of high-risk populations.

Communities of color and at-risk populations are prioritized throughout the process to maximize life preservation and to prevent serious complications from COVID related illnesses.

Anticipated Vaccination Phases and Timeline:

Phase One (December 2020-February 2021):

In order of priority

  • Clinical and non-clinical health-care workers doing direct and COVID-facing care
  • Long-term care facilities, rest homes and assisted living facilities
  • Police, Fire and Emergency Medical Services
  • Congregate care settings (including shelters and corrections)
  • Home-based health-care workers
  • Health-care workers doing non-COVID facing care

Phase Two (February 2021-April 2021):

In order of priority

  • Individuals with 2+ comorbidities (high risk for COVID-19 complications)
  • Early education, K-12, transit, grocery, utility, food and agriculture, sanitation, public works and public health workers
  • Adults 65+
  • Individuals with one comorbidity

Phase Three (April 2021- ):

  • Vaccine available to general public

The first shipments of the vaccine are expected to contain doses manufactured by Pfizer and Moderna. While both Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are pending FDA emergency use authorization, Massachusetts will not distribute the COVID-19 vaccine until it receives this authorization.

Vaccines go through extensive testing, more than any pharmaceuticals, including extensive testing in clinical trials. The FDA, which approves the vaccine, and the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), which will make its recommendation for use, must ensure any vaccine is both safe and effective for the public before approval and distribution.

The infectious disease experts in the state’s academic medical centers have pledged to review the EUA data and provide an independent opinion about their safety and efficacy.

Rsidents should visit www.mass.gov/COVIDVaccine to learn more or contact their medical provider for questions about their vaccination plans.

Governor Announces Rollback of Re-Opening Plan

AIM Blog – Effective Sunday, December 13, Massachusetts will roll back to Step 1 of Phase 3 under a new announcement by Governor Baker.  These changes are the result of the rate of COVID positive test cases increasing, Massachusetts hospitals experiencing capacity challenges from the rate of hospitalization and healthcare provider now facing COVID related workforce challenges.

The return to Step 1 of Phase 3 on December 13th will also require the closure of certain businesses designated as Step 2 industries. These include indoor performance venues and certain high-contact indoor recreational businesses. In addition,

  • Capacity limits will be reduced to 40% statewide for most industries.
  • Outdoor gatherings will be reduced statewide from 100 persons to 50 persons.
  • New mask, table capacity, time limit rules for restaurants

The Governor indicated that current COVID-19 testing data reflects the need roll back the State’s Reopening Plan to flatten the curve in advance of the holiday season.  The Governor described three key goals including, preventing viral spread, create stronger mask compliance and time with others, reduce mobility.

Contact tracing data showing spikes in certain areas and these changes being imposed are intended to help flatten the curve and prevent a statewide shut down, which some in the public health arena have been calling for.  Contact tracing data is also showing that breakrooms and lunchrooms are areas for spread.

Click here to read the order rolling Massachusetts back to Phase III, Step 1.

COVID-Aid Negotiators Grapple Over Liability Protections

Wall Street Journal – Lawmakers struggled Monday to resolve a long-running dispute over what kind of liability protections to give businesses and other entities operating during the pandemic, one of two big stumbling blocks remaining in their efforts to strike a deal on an emergency relief package.

An expanding bipartisan group of Senate and House lawmakers has been working to hammer out details of the roughly $900 billion coronavirus relief framework detailed last week. Lawmakers held hours-long phone calls over the weekend and said they came closer to a final agreement on many elements. They are still, however, hashing out the two most contentious portions: the liability protections, long a top GOP priority; and funding for state and local governments, sought by Democrats.

“There are still some issues that are outstanding and it’s no secret generally speaking state and local and liability have always been the difficult issues,” said Rep. Tom Reed (R., N.Y.), co-chairman of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group of 50 House lawmakers, which endorsed the $908 billion proposal. “That’s where we stand right now. I think we can get there.”

What You Need to Know about New Massachusetts Coronavirus Restrictions

Boston Herald – A rollback in the state’s reopening plan amid a current surge in coronavirus cases means businesses will have to cut capacity, heighten safety protocols or close effective Sunday. 

The state will revert to Step 1 of Phase 3 of the reopening plan on Dec.13 amid “disturbing trends” in coronavirus data that is straining hospitals, Gov. Charlie Baker announced during a Tuesday press conference at the State House.

Performance venues and certain “high-contact indoor recreational businesses” including roller rinks, trampoline parks, laser tag venues, and escape rooms across the state will have to shut down completely. Fitting rooms will also be shuttered.

Most other businesses — including retail stores, gyms, offices, churches, libraries, movie theaters, arcades, golf facilities and museums — will have to cut capacity to 40 percent, down from 50 percent of their maximum.

Outdoor gatherings will be cut from 100 to 50 people. Anyone planning to host a gathering of 25 people or more outside will be required to notify their local health board in advance.

Office workers, diners and gym-goers will face additional restrictions as well. Gym guests will be required to wear a mask at all times. Office workers must wear a mask whenever they are not alone or in their personal workspace.

Diners will be required to wear a mask whenever they aren’t eating or drinking. Tables will be limited to parties of six people — down from 10 — and restricted to 90-minute time limits. Food court seating in malls will be shut down entirely.

Massachusetts Expands Free COVID Testing Program

CBS — The state will be expanding its free COVID testing program, Gov. Charlie Baker announced Monday. Massachusetts now supports free testing in 25 communities, including the new additions.

The expansion will be in Barnstable, Berkshire, Franklin, and Hampshire counties. Three new free express testing locations will go up in Framingham, New Bedford, and Lynn.

The testing sites will be “winterized,” Baker said. “All of these sites will be able to deal with the fact that it is getting colder and winter is coming.”

“By the end of December, with this new plan in place, the state will have the capacity to complete 110,000 tests a week, through free testing sites that are sponsored by the Commonwealth,” said Baker.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders said the state was also looking to increase access to rapid testing in hospitals ahead of the holidays.

Additionally, the state has adopted the latest CDC guidelines which reduce the quarantine period from 14 days to eight if the person does not have any symptoms, a PCR or rapid test on day five is negative and they continue to monitor for symptoms for 14 days.

Massachusetts Long-Term Care Facility to Accept COVID Patients Amid Surge

Boston Herald – A Massachusetts long-term care facility will soon start accepting coronavirus patients, sparking concerns from at least one family member who’s worried the new COVID-19 unit will put “the most vulnerable in harm’s way.”

Lowell’s Willow Manor announced on Tuesday that it’s converting a 10-bed unit to care for COVID-19 patients as hospitalizations surge across the region. The unit will be in an isolated portion of the building, and the area will be closed off to other residents and staff members, the facility said.

The staff members working on that unit will have their own separate entrance and will not be in contact with the other departments or residents, according to Willow Manor.

But those assurances from the facility are not comforting all loved ones.

“I can’t think of a worse idea,” said Darlene Torre, whose sister and mother-in-law are residents there. “This is putting the most vulnerable in harm’s way.”

The new COVID-19 unit at the long-term care facility comes in the wake of nearly 7,000 people dying from the coronavirus at such Bay State facilities.

Nine COVID-19 deaths have been reported at Willow Manor, according to the state Department of Public Health tally. Elsewhere in Greater Lowell, an October outbreak at Chelmsford’s Sunny Acres Nursing and Rehabilitation Facility led to five deaths. A cluster at Life Care Center of Nashoba Valley in Littleton sparked an investigation from Attorney General Maura Healey.

Logistical Challenges Lie Ahead as COVID Vaccines Reach Senior Care Sites

Boston Globe – Nursing home residents and staff could start getting COVID-19 shots as soon as Christmas week, good news for a population that was ravaged by the pandemic last spring. But already administrators are wrestling with daunting logistical challenges as they try to protect their people.

Their biggest fear: A compressed vaccination schedule, mandated by federal guidelines, could mean many staff and residents get their shots on the same days, leading to lots of people suffering vaccine side effects. That could mean nurses and aides calling in sick with side effects such as fatigue and low-grade fever just when old and frail residents with the same side effects need attention, say medical directors at the state’s skilled nursing facilities and other long-term care sites.

“That would be a dire situation,” warned Dr. Asif Merchant, a geriatrician at Newton-Wellesley Hospital who serves as medical director for four suburban Boston nursing homes.

Merchant, who sits on the state’s vaccine advisory committee, said he and colleagues have raised the issue with Massachusetts health officials. But the vaccine schedule was set by the pharmacy companies that will deliver and administer the vaccines at senior sites based on guidelines from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Nurses and Healthcare Professionals Call for Universal N95 Masking
MassInsider.com – As the second surge of the COVID-19 pandemic rocks Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Nurses Association – representing 23,000 nurses and healthcare professionals statewide, including 70% of nurses in acute care hospitals – is calling for the immediate implementation of a universal N95 masking standard to protect staff, patients and the community from asymptomatic spread.

“The state’s rapid increase in COVID-19 cases, high rates of asymptomatic spread, continued inadequacy of healthcare worker testing and the elevated risk of workplace exposure demand that all frontline nurses and healthcare professionals be provided N95 masks,” said Katie Murphy, MNA President and a practicing ICU nurse. “Having an N95 mask is and always has been the scientific standard for caregivers exposed to COVID-19. The federal government weakened PPE guidelines early in the pandemic not because the science changed but due to inadequate supply chains, poor planning, and political expediency.”

Extensive research shows that asymptomatic infections account for as much as 40% to 50% of cases. This includes patients who have not been tested for or suspected of having COVID-19, as well as healthcare staff. Therefore, all nurses and healthcare professionals providing direct patient care or working in high-risk areas (i.e. confined spaces or work requiring significant interactions with variety of people), should receive and wear a new NIOSH-approved N95 respirator mask at the beginning of each shift. For patients that are suspected to have COVID or are COVID positive, nurses and healthcare professionals should have full PPE (gown, gloves, N95 mask and goggles or shield).

Baker urges Congress to extend expiring jobless benefits

WWLP –  As he announced a tightening of some business restrictions in response to worsening COVID-19 conditions in Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker suggested that the looming expiration of federal unemployment assistance programs have weighed on his decisions.

Baker was asked at a State House press conference whether the passage of additional federal stimulus for states would make it easier for him to roll back reopening guidelines as the pandemic worsens.

“I’ve been urging my colleagues in Washington for quite awhile now to recognize and understand how important it would be for all of their constituents to come together on a plan that either looks like, or is an extension of the CARES Act that was passed last summer, last spring,” Baker responded.

He mentioned the expiration at the end of the month of enhanced federal unemployment assistance payments, including the end of the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program created by Congress as a life raft in the spring for gig workers and other independent contractors and artists who couldn’t work, but were ineligible for traditional unemployment benefits.

“Unless that thing gets extended, there will not be an unemployment assistance program in the United States for a whole bunch of folks who, through no fault of their own, are not able to work,” Baker said.

Since April, 285,942 eligible claims have been submitted in Massachusetts for PUA benefits and another 1,149,691 eligible claims have been made for traditional benefits. The state’s unemployment rate in October sat at 7.4 percent, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that Massachusetts lost 340,200 jobs since October 2019.

White House Offers $916 Billion Stimulus Proposal as Talks Intensify

Boston Globe – Jump-starting negotiations with days to spare, the White House on Tuesday offered Democrats a $916 billion pandemic stimulus proposal that would meet their demand to provide some relief to state and local governments and include liability protections for businesses that have been a top priority of Republicans.

The offer from Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, to Speaker Nancy Pelosi was the first time since November’s elections that the Trump administration had engaged directly in talks on Capitol Hill about how to prop up the nation’s flagging economy. It came as lawmakers raced to reach a deal on another round of coronavirus relief before they conclude this year’s session, expected to happen next week.

The plan does not include a proposed revival of $300 weekly enhanced unemployment benefits, although it would extend other federal unemployment programs set to expire in the coming weeks. Instead, it would include another, smaller round of direct payments to Americans, amounting to $600 per person.

“The president’s proposal must not be allowed to obstruct the bipartisan congressional talks that are underway,” Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, the minority leader, said in a statement, calling the cuts to unemployment insurance benefits from a proposed $180 billion to $40 billion “unacceptable.”

AIM | Telecommuting Tax – Proposed Regulation

This issue has previously been dealt with as an emergency regulation.  Today the Department of Revenue issued a public hearing notice for a proposed telecommuting regulation.  This proposed regulation is identical to previously issued Emergency regulation 830 CMR 62.5A.3 promulgated December 8, 2020.

Click here for the full text of the proposed regulation

Click here for additional hearing details regarding the January 20, 2021 public hearing.

830 CMR 62.5A.3: Massachusetts Source Income of Non-Residents Telecommuting due to the COVID-19 Pandemic

Summary: Proposed regulation 830 CMR 62.5A.3 sets forth the sourcing rules that apply to income earned by a non-resident employee who telecommutes on behalf of an in-state business from a location outside the state due to the COVID-19 state of emergency in Massachusetts and explains the parallel treatment that will be accorded to resident employees with income tax liabilities in other states that have adopted similar sourcing rules. The rules in the regulation are effective until 90 days after the Governor gives notice that the state of emergency is no longer in effect.

Please contact Brad MacDougall, bmacdougall@aimnet.org.

December 8

Elective Surgeries Curtailed, Testing Sites Expanded

State House News – With Thanksgiving celebrations being blamed for the “rapid increase” in COVID-19 infections over the past week, Gov. Charlie Baker on Monday announced an expansion of free testing and said hospitals beginning Friday would “curtail” inpatient elective procedures that can be safely postponed to free up bed space and staff.

Baker also said his administration was studying the post-holiday data to determine whether additional restrictions were necessary to stop the spread of the virus and take some of the pressure off hospitals. Baker said “every option is on the table” if infections and hospitalizations continue to rise, but said he’d have more to say on further restrictions “soon.”

As of Sunday, 1,416 people were hospitalized with COVID-19, including 298 in intensive care units. Statewide, hospitals were operating at 68 percent of capacity, with 39 percent of all ICU beds still available.

“Massachusetts is now experiencing a rapid increase in new positive cases in the wake of Thanksgiving, and in turn the number of people becoming ill and needing hospitalization is also increasing,” Baker said.

Baker last week visited the DCU Center in Worcester where a field hospital has been set up for the second time this pandemic. The state is working to establish a second field hospital in Lowell, and possibly a third on the South Coast.

“Even with these additional resources, we can’t afford to continue to strain the hospital system at this rate,” Baker said. He explained that the problem of increasing admissions has been compounded by staff testing positive or having to quarantine.

Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said the curtailment of elective procedures will be limited to inpatient treatments and procedures, and not outpatient surgeries or appointments for preventative services like mammograms, colonoscopies or regular pediatric checkups.

“Let me be clear. This is a limited curtailment of elective procedures to promote the redeployment of staff that perform non-essential elective procedures to support the essential emerging inpatient care,” Sudders said. “It is not the blanket across the board curtailment that we implemented in the first surge.”

Sudders told the Massachusetts Association of Health Plans in early November that the administration was working with hospitals, providers and insurers to “engage in more nuanced planning in order to maintain access throughout the fall and winter” and avoid a situation like the spring when the state mandated that Massachusetts hospitals cancel non-essential elective procedures.

“We also saw some of the consequences of shutting things down in terms of people delaying treatment, and then when they were hospitalized it was for very, very serious conditions, so we’re trying to find the balance here,” she said on that Nov. 6 call.

Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association President Steve Walsh said hospitals had become “stretched yet again by an influx of COVID-positive patients,” but have worked to make sure a widespread closure won’t be necessary as it was in the spring.

Baker, who said he planned to address the media five times this week, including on Wednesday about vaccine distribution, expressed frustration that the warnings from public health officials over the dangers of gathering for Thanksgiving were not heeded.

He said he spoke over the weekend with several mayors who are frustrated with him for not taking more aggressive action to curtail activities, but he said all of them also admitted to seeing people in their communities engaging in the risky behavior he has been warning about, including neighbors hosting informal gatherings.

Some mayors told the Boston Globe over the weekend that they were reluctant to act alone to shut down businesses in isolation, but were considering regional action if the state doesn’t take more uniform steps to control the spread.

In addition to making sure hospitals have the space and staff to treat COVID-19 patients, Baker announced an expansion of testing that includes three new free express testing sites in Framingham, New Bedford and Lynn. Those express sites will be operated by Project Beacon, the vendor running the express testing site in Revere, and will be able to test 1,000 people a day. The Framingham site was expected to open Monday, and the others by the end of the month.

Free “Stop the Spread” testing sites set up by the state for people with or without symptoms will also be opened in Barnstable, Berkshire, Franklin, and Hampshire counties, bringing the total number of state testing sites to 25, with a capacity to test 110,000 people a week.

“All of these sites will be able to deal with the fact that it’s getting colder and winter is coming,” Baker said.

Public health officials and lawmakers from Cape Cod have been urging the administration to set up a “Stop the Spread” site on the Cape, describing the region as a “testing desert.” With money from a July COVID-19 budget bill, the county will now be running a drive-thru site in Falmouth.

Baker also said new testing sites will be established in Amherst, Great Barrington, Greenfield, North Adams and Pittsfield, and up to 150,000 Abbott BinaxNOW tests will be distributed to community hospitals and health centers for rapid testing.

Before the governor’s Monday press conference, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that in his state if hospital admission rates do not stabilize over a five-day period indoor dinning would either be shut down in New York City or cut back to 25 percent capacity in other regions of the state.

Baker, however, defended restaurants against being scapegoated as the driving force behind the increased rate of infection.

“There are many things that spread COVID and restaurants certainly play a role along with many others,” Baker said. “But honestly if you were to say to me the thing I worry about the most is still the informal gatherings, because there are no masks, there are no rules, there are no guidance, there are no time limits. It’s a completely different problem.”

Over the week that ended Thursday, the Department of Public Health’s data shows that restaurants and food courts accounted for 24 clusters of COVID-19 and 103 confirmed cases, compared with the 21 clusters and 130 cases traced back to social social gatherings.

The biggest source of transmission – 9,393 clusters and 23,756 – continues to be within households where the source of the original infection cannot be traced.

Baker was also asked about social clubs, which have been linked to several outbreaks.

“Stay tuned,” he said.

Administration Submits Initial Vaccine Order

MassLive.com – The Baker Administration submitted the commonwealth’s initial vaccine order to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The federal government allocated Massachusetts 59,475 doses of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for this first shipment that is part of 300,000 doses that the CDC is expected to send to Massachusetts by the end of December. The first allotment of 300,000 COVID vaccines will be for the first dose of a two-dose regimen.

Anticipating that the federal government will soon issue emergency use authorizations for additional vaccines, the administration has been working with the COVID-19 Vaccine Advisory Group to prepare for a safe, equitable and efficient distribution that is based on guidance from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The commonwealth has been working on preparedness and planning for a COVID-19 vaccine since early August. Over the past decade, the commonwealth has invested in the state-of-the-art Massachusetts Immunization Information System (MIIS), which serves as the state’s vaccine registry, ordering system, and inventory system. Department of Public Health has enhanced MIIS to prepare to administer the COVID-19 vaccine.

For more information:

https://www.mass.gov/info-details/preparing-for-a-covid-19-vaccine

https://www.mass.gov/doc/massachusetts-interim-draft-plan/download

First Novel Coronavirus Vaccines Could Happen this Week

BostonHerald.comThe first coronavirus vaccine doses could get administered in the U.S. later this week if the vaccine is approved by the feds on Thursday, the chief adviser to Operation Warp Speed said Sunday.

Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine is heading in front of the Food and Drug Administration for an emergency use authorization.

“The first vaccine shipment will happen on the day after the vaccine is approved,” Moncef Slaoui, chief adviser to Operation Warp Speed, said Sunday on CBS’ “Face The Nation.” “That’s how we planned it. If the vaccine is approved on the 10th or the 11th, the minute it’s approved the shipments will start.

“It should take them about 24 hours to make it to the various immunization sites that the various jurisdictions and states have told us to ship vaccines to them,” he added. “And within, I would say, 36 hours from approval, potentially the first immunization could be taking place.”

The Pfizer vaccine is likely to gain federal approval, followed by Cambridge-based Moderna’s vaccine. Both are more than 90 percent effective, according to research.

“Based on the data that I know, I expect the FDA to make a positive decision,” Slaoui said. “But of course, it’s their decision. … They will make their own judgment based on the data, and I hope that the decision will be positive.”

Operation Warp Speed plans to vaccinate 20 million people this month. There are “no serious adverse effects” associated with these vaccines, Slaoui said.

Gov. Charlie Baker said health care workers and those in long-term care facilities “are absolutely going to be up near the top of the list” — following CDC guidance that health workers and nursing homes should get the first shots.

Build Public Trust in the Vaccine

BostonGlobe.com – The coronavirus is the enemy in this pandemic, but as we move toward government approval of vaccines, the virus has several allies: conspiracy theories, deep-seated distrust of government, and scientifically unfounded fear of immunizations.

That’s why, as the Food and Drug Administration considers emergency use authorization for vaccines from pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and Moderna, the agency must go to extraordinary lengths to reassure the public about vaccine safety and to deprive conspiracy theorists and anti-vaccination alarmists of opportunities to undermine this critical effort.

The FDA’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee, from which the agency usually takes its cue, will consider the Pfizer (and partner BioNTech) vaccine on Wednesday, Moderna’s a week later. The FDA generally follows the recommendation of the advisory group.

Given the simmering suspicions of vaccines in general, the politicized nature of this pandemic, which some Americans still believe is a hoax or overhyped, and the lamentable American tendency to credit conspiracy theories, it is vital that the approval process proceed in a transparent, confidence-inspiring manner.

Massachusetts Reports 4,747 More COVID Cases, 48 Deaths on Sunday

MassLive.com – Massachusetts public health officials on Sunday reported another 4,747 newly confirmed cases of COVID-19, bringing the number of active cases to about 57,304.

Officials on Sunday also announced another 48 deaths linked to confirmed COVID-19 cases. Over the course of the pandemic, Massachusetts has seen at least 247,559 coronavirus cases and 10,763 deaths. When including probable cases, the death toll is now at 11,004, according to the Department of Public Health (DPH).

The latest case totals are based on 89,439 new molecular tests, DPH reported.

The seven-day average positivity rate stands at 5.34%, up from a low of 0.8% over the summer. Excluding higher education tests, that rate is at 7.38%. Testing has been frequent at colleges, which have a seven-day average positivity rate of 0.46%, according to DPH.

Currently, 1,416 people are hospitalized with the virus, including 298 in intensive care units.

field hospital at the DCU Center in Worcester opened Sunday to help manage virus cases as more people are hospitalized. Another field hospital is planned for Lowell.

Currently, nearly 100 communities in the state are considered at high risk for spreading the virus. Massachusetts education officials said this week that 276 students and 251 staffers had tested positive for COVID between Nov. 26 and Dec. 2.

Calls grow for Governor to Roll Back Re-Openings; Industry Leaders Push Back

Boston Herald – Pressure is mounting on Gov. Charlie Baker to roll back economic re-openings as coronavirus cases and hospitalizations rise, but the governor and industry leaders say the data doesn’t support piling restrictions on already suffering businesses and restaurants.

Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, vented his frustration with Baker on Twitter Saturday night.

“For many months, I defended @CharlieBakerMA against critics, saying our governor has done a good job,” Jha wrote. “Over the past 6 weeks, I’ve gone from uncomfortable to aghast at lack of action. It’s incomprehensible.”

Municipal and state leaders piled on Sunday. And the White House Coronavirus Task Force recently suggested Massachusetts “consider rolling back a step in the state reopening plan and not just in high-risk areas.”

A spokeswoman for the state’s COVID-19 command center said Sunday that while “the administration is not announcing more restrictions now, all options are on the table.”

Baker argued against rollbacks on WCVB’s “On the Record” Sunday, saying the fall surge is “just different than the experience we had in the spring” when shutdowns proliferated.

“We had a thousand people in the ICU back in the spring and we now have about 260 people there now. We’re paying day-to-day attention on those numbers and we talk to the hospital community on a nonstop basis,” Baker said. “But there’s no question that the community that’s getting infected is different this time than the community that was getting infected in the spring.”

Jha told the Herald Sunday afternoon that Baker “knows better than that. This is the same tired argument of people who have not been taking this pandemic seriously, and our governor is not one of those people.”

Biden Picks MGH Infectious Diseases Chief Rochelle Walensky to Oversee CDC 

The Boston Globe – Massachusetts General Hospital infectious diseases chief Rochelle Walensky has been picked by President-elect Joe Biden to be the new director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he announced in a press release Monday morning.

Walensky will replace Dr. Robert Redfield and be charged with rebuilding a troubled federal agency that has been widely regarded as ineffectual in the face of the coronavirus pandemic and President Trump’s efforts to downplay it.

She’ll arrive in the role at a critical moment — as the virus surges across the nation and the government prepares to approve and distribute vaccines that may finally bring relief.

Walensky’s selection was announced along with a number of key members to the Biden-Harris health team, among them the nomination of Xavier Becerra as Secretary of Health and Human Services and Dr. Vivek Murthy as Surgeon General of the United States. The choice was first reported by Politico.

Massachusetts Restaurants, Workers Need Coronavirus Relief Now

The Boston Herald – Armageddon is looming on the horizon for Bay State eateries hit hard by the pandemic. Already barely hanging on after the spring shutdowns, outdoor dining and third-party delivery services have allowed some restaurants to at least slow down the bleeding enough to limp into the winter under deep capacity restrictions and byzantine new public health regulations.

But even if restaurants could hope to make this precarious math work indefinitely, New England weather is going to have other ideas.

Outdoor space heaters have bought patio dining a little extra time, in spite of massive demand and outrageous prices for the devices, but it cannot last forever against a Massachusetts winter. With the season’s first major snowstorm leaving the region blanketed just in time for Halloween, and another early blizzard hitting the first weekend of December, the restaurant industry’s time is quickly running out.

How many diners will be willing to dig out their cars and brave multiple feet of snow just for the pleasure of sitting on a frozen patio, eating in gloves and parkas and breaking the crust of ice forming on their glasses to sip their cocktails?

Delivery services may also suffer in extreme weather, with fewer drivers able or willing to make deliveries under such conditions and customers unwilling to pay higher-than-usual surcharges for the service. And delivery alone would never have been enough to keep the businesses alive in any case.

December 3

It’s Long Overdue, But Rodrigues Not Rushing Budget

State House News – As state government rolls into the sixth month of the fiscal year still operating on stopgap spending authorizations, the Senate’s budget chief said Tuesday that while a resolution to the fiscal 2021 budget could be close at hand he does not want to “rush” finalizing the bill.

Lawmakers tasked with writing the compromise version of the long-overdue fiscal 2021 budget continued their private deliberations through the holiday weekend, and Senate Ways and Means Chairman Michael Rodrigues said Tuesday morning he was on his way to another closed-door conference session.

“Our goal is to get it done as quickly as possible. We would prefer not to have another interim budget. But we are going to do it right. We did not wait this long in order to rush something and in order not to get it right,” Rodrigues told the News Service.

The Legislature needs to either approve a general budget compromise or seek another temporary budget to keep government operating through December. State agencies are running on an interim spending authorization that Gov. Charlie Baker said was intended to cover November but which a Baker aide on Friday said will also cover “several days” in December.

The House’s lead budget negotiator, Rep. Aaron Michlewitz, told the News Service on Monday that he felt budget negotiators were trying to wrap up work before having to find out just how long the November money would last – “trying to get the conference committee done to avoid even that question, certainly,” he said.

The budget is predicated on a drop in fiscal 2021 state tax collections that has yet to begin materializing.

Lawmakers appear likely to settle on a full-year fiscal 2021 budget in the $46 billion range, a spending plan that avoids tax increases or service reductions, and sets up a real struggle for fiscal 2022 by driving up the state’s spending on the back of one-time federal revenues and a roughly $1.5 billion draw on state reserves.

The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation estimates a “multi-billion shortfall” for fiscal 2022, a budget cycle that could get underway this month with a revenue forecasting hearing, since Baker and the Legislature will need to replace about $3.5 billion in non-replicable revenues while facing higher costs in health care and pensions, as well as the need to begin funding a 2019 law aimed at shoring up public school finances.

A few major measures appear destined to become law soon since they are baked into the House and Senate budgets as well as Baker’s revised fiscal 2021 budget. They include a one-time sales tax revenue bump of $267 million obtained by accelerating the remittance due dates for certain vendors, delaying the start of a charitable giving tax deduction to net $64 million for the budget, and a $107 million increase in Chapter 70 school aid.

Insurers Launch Major Study of Telehealth Inequities

Massachusetts health insurers are launching a new research project that aims to get a handle on inequities in telehealth usage and recommend ways to bring down barriers to access.

Telehealth has surged in popularity during the COVID-19 pandemic, offering a way for patients to keep up with their care without leaving home and risking exposure to the highly infectious virus.

Health care leaders have said telehealth is likely to stick around as an option after the public health crisis subsides, and a bill to cement its place in the state’s health care landscape has been tied up in private negotiations among House and Senate Democrats for the last three months.

Along with its promise as an innovation in care delivery, another main conversation topic around telehealth has been the potential for disparities in its deployment, arising from factors like language barriers, internet access and the ability to obtain and comfortably use a device.

The Massachusetts Association of Health Plans is sponsoring an 18-month study “to identify how access to telehealth services during the COVID-19 pandemic has differed based on race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic factors, and how the health care sector can work together to eliminate identified barriers to equitable access.”

The association said in a statement that the study, which will include a review of recent claims data and interviews in communities with low telehealth-use rates, “aims to be the most timely and comprehensive evaluation to-date of potential socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic inequities in telehealth usage in Massachusetts, since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

A preliminary report is tentatively set for a July release, with a final report slated for one year after that.

Dr. Alon Peltz, an instructor of population medicine at the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute and Harvard Medical School, will lead the study, and the state Health Policy Commission will serve as an advisor.

Governor Says ‘Too Many’ COVID-19 Clusters Stem from Religious Gatherings

Boston.com – During his first press conference following the Thanksgiving weekend, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker said Tuesday that he has no plans to implement additional restrictions to combat the spread of COVID-19.

But with more holidays on the horizon, Baker cautioned residents about in-person religious gatherings, which state officials have linked to hundreds of coronavirus cases.

Baker didn’t go so far as to urge Bay Staters against attending in-person religious services, acknowledging that “a lot” of residents attend Christmas Eve midnight services, as well as other places of worship during the holiday season. And he said the “majority of both parishioners and clergy have done a remarkable job” following the state’s safety guidelines for religious gatherings during the pandemic.

“But our data has still found that there were too many clusters of cases that stemmed from houses of worship,” Baker added. “And these cases spread out into the community at large.”

Baker’s decision to avoid additional restrictions stands  contrast to steps underway in other states where the outlook has been worsening. Rhode Island started a two-week pause Monday that closed all gyms, bars and other recreational activities and banned all social gatherings, while New York also plans to ramp up steps such as halting elective surgeries in some areas.

“There’s been a lot of misinformation going around about things that are going to get shut down here, there, everywhere, at a moment’s notice. People have enough stress in their lives without having to deal with the rumor-mongering,” Baker said.

“At this time, the commonwealth is not planning any additional closures or restrictions. We’ll continue to follow closely the public health data and continue to make decisions based on that,” he said. “The public will be given, as they have been in almost every instance and circumstance since the beginning of this, clear notice before anything new goes into effect.”

Confirmed new cases around the country have risen to unprecedented levels in recent weeks. In Massachusetts, the spread has been significant over the past two months, with the average number of daily confirmed cases nearly 1,000 percent higher than the lowest values observed this summer.

Boston Sees Coronavirus Case Jump in Start of Possible Thanksgiving Spread Trend

Boston officials are monitoring a sudden jump in coronavirus cases Mayor Martin Walsh said he hopes isn’t the start of a post-Thanksgiving trend.

Walsh told reporters the city logged 407 new coronavirus cases on Tuesday — far more than a normal day’s count, and nearly double the previous day. Walsh said the city recorded 11 COVID-19 deaths since Friday.

“We’re going to be monitoring the data closely as it comes in to make sure that we don’t see these large spikes,” Walsh said, adding that he believes Tuesday’s tally is the largest number since June. “So tomorrow and the next couple days we’ll see what our numbers look like.”

He said the focus will be on cases and hospitalization as officials keep an eye on a possible Thanksgiving-driven increase.

“It could be the first signs of what Thanksgiving holiday brought,” Walsh said. “It’s important for us to get testing to see exactly if there’s been any spread of the virus during Thanksgiving.”

People infected with the virus often don’t test positive or have symptoms for several days, and that incubation period can last up to two weeks, scientists have said. The average time it takes is about five days — right about the time it is right now since Thanksgiving. Hospitalization numbers lag a bit further behind, and deaths beyond that, so it can take three or four weeks to see the real toll of a spike.

Health-Care Workers, Long-Term Care Residents First in Line for Vaccine

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention committee voted Tuesday to give coronavirus vaccine priority first to health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities as the initial doses are set to be distributed as early as this month.

“I believe that my vote reflects maximum benefits, minimum harm, promoting justice and mitigating the health inequalities that exist regarding the distribution of this vaccine,” said Dr. Jose Romero, chairman of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.

The committee, which has 15 members, held a virtual public meeting to make the vote and share presentations that covered vaccine safety monitoring, clinical considerations, potential sub-prioritizations and implementation.

All members voted yes on the proposal to first vaccinate health care personnel and nursing home residents with the exception of Dr. Helen Keipp Talbot of Vanderbilt University, who acknowledged “this was not an easy vote.”

Health care personnel outlined in the guidance include those working in hospitals, outpatient clinics, long-term care facilities, home health care, pharmacies, EMS and public health departments. Long-term care facility residents include those in skilled nursing homes, assisted living facilities and other residential care.

Moderna’s Vaccine Will Come from Massachusetts

WGBH – The COVID-19 vaccine that was dreamed up and developed by Massachusetts-based Moderna will also be manufactured in the state.

“The vast majority of the U.S. production will be done in Massachusetts,” Moderna co-founder Noubar Afeyan told GBH News. Afeyan is the founder and CEO of Flagship Pioneering, a biotech venture capital firm that founded Moderna and more than 50 other life science and technology startups.

Moderna applied this week for emergency use authorization for its COVID-19 vaccine from the Food and Drug Administration. With an up-front purchase agreement from the federal government, Moderna is already producing the vaccine at its own production facility in Norwood. Moderna has also partnered with contract manufacturer Lonza, which is producing the vaccine at a facility in Portsmouth, N.H.

When the pandemic hit, Afeyan said, Moderna was able to move quickly to ramp up research and production.

“We were able to attract hundreds of people in the middle of a pandemic to join the company — beyond the people we already have — so we could ramp up production,” Afeyan said. “I don’t know where else you can do that. You might be able to do that in little pockets here and there. But Boston, Massachusetts is, I would argue, the only place where this could have been developed.”

The biotechnological innovation behind Moderna’s vaccine has been the company’s focus for roughly a decade: programming messenger RNA to trigger a person’s immune system into producing antibodies.

“We recognized that if we could somehow make a molecule that could essentially have a code for any protein we wanted, and put that into a patient or a subject safely, so that their own cells could convert that into a protein . . . that would be a remarkable new capability,” Afeyan said. “We didn’t have any way of doing it. We didn’t have any proof it could be done. But we set out on a voyage.”

First COVID Vaccines Could Arrive in State within Weeks

WCVB – The first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine are just a few weeks away from arriving in Massachusetts, according to Gov. Charlie Baker.

On Tuesday, Baker revealed what he learned about the highly-anticipated doses during a phone call with federal officials.

“They would begin the distribution process for Pfizer some time in mid-December, and the Moderna would probably start to be distributed shortly after that,” Baker said.

Just after 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, a U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention panel voted that health care personnel and residents of long-term care facilities will be the first to receive the COVID-19 vaccine by a 13-1 margin.

Earlier in the day, Baker said that would likely be the case, and that the general public would likely have to wait until the spring to receive the vaccine.

“It will probably be Q2 before ‘Joe Q’ or ‘Jane Q’ citizen would have access to a vaccine,” the governor said.

High-Risk Groups Await State Vaccine Plan

The Boston Globe – With the first COVID-19 vaccines on track to arrive in Massachusetts in less than two weeks, the groups most vulnerable to the deadly virus — from front-line health workers to residents of hard-hit communities — are awaiting the state’s plan for allocating the initial doses in what’s shaping up as the largest vaccination program in history.

Members of a state vaccine advisory group say they now expect Massachusetts could receive enough two-shot allotments to inoculate 300,000 residents in the first phase, considerably more than they’d anticipated two weeks ago. As drug makers Pfizer and Moderna press forward with their bids for federal emergency use authorization, they think both vaccines could be available in the state by mid- to late December, and distributed over the course of several months.

“Current projections are something on the order of 300,000 [allotments] in the first month or so, and it will take a couple months or so to deliver all of those doses,” said Dr. Robert Finberg, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester and a member of the advisory group.

At a press briefing Tuesday, Governor Charlie Baker reiterated that “high-risk individuals,” due to their work, age, or physical condition, will be first in line for the state’s vaccine supply.

Potential Side Effects from Moderna, Pfizer Vaccines

The Boston Herald – A coronavirus vaccine could be approved for distribution in priority groups as early as this month, according to health officials, but the desperately needed vaccine does not come without side effects.

Moderna and Pfizer are the only two companies that have submitted data for their mRNA vaccine candidates to the Food and Drug Administration for emergency use authorization.

Below are the side effects reported by trial participants, according to the companies.

Moderna:

  • Injection site pain
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle aches
  • Joint pain
  • Headache

Pfizer:

  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Injection site pain

Both companies said the vaccines were well-tolerated overall and no serious adverse events were reported.

Warren makes case to Fed chair for canceling student loan debt

TheHill.com – Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) on Tuesday pressed for President-elect Joe Biden to take executive action to cancel student loan debt during an exchange with Federal Reserve Chairman Jay Powell at a Senate hearing.

“All on his own, President-elect Biden will have the ability to administratively cancel billions of dollars in student loan debt using the authority that Congress has already given to the secretary of Education,” Warren said during a Senate Banking Committee hearing. “This is the single most effective economic stimulus that is available through executive action.”

Warren has long supported student debt cancellation, and her comments come amid a debate over whether Biden should act unilaterally to do so.

Since March, student loan borrowers have been able to defer payment on loans without accruing interest and penalties, but that relief is set to expire at the end of the year.

Biden has backed measures, including the cancellation of $10,000 of student loan debt through legislative means, as part of his broader higher-education plan. But Biden would struggle to enact this plan legislatively if Democrats don’t get control of the Senate after the Jan. 5 Georgia runoffs.

December 1

AIM Convenes Discussion on Vaccines and Employers

Join AIM on December 15 from 9:30-10:30 am for a virtual panel conversation with Kevin Cranston, Assistant Commissioner, Massachusetts Department of Public Health; Dr. Michael Collins, Chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Medical School; and Maura McLaughlin, Employment Law Partner, Morgan, Brown & Joy as they discuss the Covid-19 vaccine and plans for deployment for the business community.

How will COVID Data impact reopening or businesses?

The greatest risk of increased business rules/regulations or rollback related to COVID-19 could be based on local data.

As of Friday, 81 communities are considered red or high risk.  The COVID infection rate, hospitalizations and death counts continue to rise even prior to full analysis of the impact of any related travel or gatherings activities associated with Thanksgiving.

It is important for employers to keep track of their local status. Communities moving to red or high risk may be required to revert back to Step 1 of Phase 3 (VIGILANT), which impacts business closures, reduced capacity limits, and smaller gatherings.  Communities may move from Step 1 to Step 2 based on three consecutive weeks of public health data indicating a lower risk.

  • Is your business(es) located in a red/high risk community or do your employees reside in a high risk community? Check here for the Department of Public Health report.
  • Continue to monitor DPH reports this week as more infection rate data will become available. This data will show any impacts to local community infection rates.  Click here for the daily updates and here for the local community data.

Twenty-five communities are new to the red category compared to last week: Bellingham, Berkley, Boxford, Chelmsford, East Longmeadow, Gardner, Georgetown, Haverhill, Hopedale, Leicester, Lenox, Littleton, Mendon, Merrimac, Middleton, Millbury, Monsoon, Oak Bluffs, Paxton, Rutland, Upton, Wenham, West Boylston, Westminster and Whitman.

The rest of the cities and towns in the red have been at that level since at least last week. Six others – Abington, Acushnet, Nantucket, Northbridge, Rockland and Townsend – that were in the highest risk level last week dropped down to lower designations in the latest report.

At the end of October, when the Baker administration still measured risk levels based solely on average new cases per 100,000 residents, 121 communities were in the red. Officials changed the metrics starting in November, pushing up the cases per 100,000 rate to land in the red and adding positive test rate and population as factors. That switch cut the number of highest-risk communities to just 16 in the first report under the new system.

Nearly 10,000 New Cases Over Long Holiday Weekend

The number of patients in Massachusetts hospitals with COVID-19 rose by about 140 over the Thanksgiving holiday, and state officials reported nearly 10,000 new cases of the highly infectious virus over the past four days.

The Department of Public Health reported the new cases from a total of 240,696 tests in data reports covering four days and released on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

In Sunday’s report, the seven-day average positive test rate rose to 3.8 percent, its highest point amid the second surge that has been underway this fall. Friday’s DPH report included 4,464 new cases, though it covered a longer timeframe – parts of Wednesday and Friday plus all of Thursday – than most daily updates.

On Sunday, DPH counted 1,081 confirmed COVID-19 cases among hospitalized patients, an increase of 139 from Wednesday’s report. Elected officials warned for weeks that Thanksgiving travel could accelerate COVID-19 spread, and the latest data indicate that infections were still on the rise even before the holiday impacts are known.

Officials also reported 115 newly confirmed deaths in data reports over the long weekend, pushing the cumulative confirmed death toll in Massachusetts to 10,487 since the pandemic began.

Local Company Donating PPE to Communities

Mascon Inc., a minority-owned manufacturing and supply chain company, is donating more than 1.5 million pieces of personal protective equipment, including masks and hand sanitizing wipes, to communities across the state.

The Woburn-based company launched a subsidiary company called Mascon Medical in March in response to PPE shortages across the country. Revere, Chelsea, and Lawrence are the first communities to receive more than $400,000 worth of PPE from Mascon Medical, since these neighborhoods are considered to be at high risk for virus transmission.

Massachusetts Limits on Worship Gatherings in Line with High Court Ruling

The Boston Globe – Pandemic restrictions on places of worship in Massachusetts won’t run afoul of a Supreme Court ruling this week that barred certain capacity limits on religious gatherings in areas of New York where coronavirus infections were rising, according to legal scholars and Governor Charlie Baker’s office.

“The administration believes the Supreme Court decision is consistent with the way Massachusetts is working with our houses of worship during the pandemic,’’ a Baker spokeswoman said in an e-mail.

The Supreme Court issued a preliminary injunction late Wednesday against specific restrictions imposed by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on religious services in New York. The vote was 5-4, with Chief Justice John Roberts and the court’s three liberal members in dissent. The order was the first in which the court’s newest member, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, played a decisive role.

The high court’s ruling targeted New York’s rules on the size of religious gatherings in the state’s so-called red and orange zones, which capped attendance at houses of worship at 10 and 25 people, respectively.

Rene Reyes, a constitutional law professor at Suffolk University Law School, said the decision is unlikely to undermine Massachusetts’ constraints on religious services, which are less restrictive than the caps Cuomo imposed. But the court’s ruling could influence governors across the country as they consider future pandemic restrictions.

In March, Baker issued an emergency order temporarily shuttering all nonessential businesses and organizations to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Under the order, houses of worship were not required to close, but any gatherings, including religious services, over 10 people were banned.

Houses of worship were included in the first phase of Baker’s reopening plan and were allowed to resume services on May 18 with masking and social-distancing mandates and a 40 percent cap on indoor capacity.

Under current guidelines in Massachusetts, houses of worship can operate at 50 percent of their occupancy limit. If no occupancy record exists, they can allow no more than 10 people per 1,000 square feet of space. Social distancing and mask-wearing — with some exceptions — are still required.

Moderna Seeks Emergency Use of COVID-19 Vaccine

Moderna asked federal regulators Monday to authorize emergency use of its experimental COVID-19 vaccine, after complete results from a late-stage study showed the two-shot regimen was more than 94 percent effective at preventing the disease and 100 percent effective at warding off severe cases.

If the Food and Drug Administration approves the Cambridge biotechnology company’s request, people at high risk for catching the coronavirus or developing life-threatening infections could start getting vaccinated as early as Dec. 21, Moderna said. The first wave of recipients would be likely to include front-line health care workers and the elderly.

The final efficacy results from a clinical trial of 30,000 volunteers were almost identical to those in an interim analysis released by the company two weeks ago. The updated data set the stage for the possibility that at least two vaccines — Moderna’s and another developed by Pfizer and its German partner, BioNTech — will be available on a limited basis in the United States by the end of the year.

Who Gets First COVID-19 Vaccines?

Masslive – With national experts finalizing their recommendations of who gets the first COVID-19 vaccines, physicians and community leaders on the Massachusetts COVID-19 Vaccine Advisory Group see frontline health care workers, first responders and older adults in congregate housing and with underlying health conditions as some of the first recipients.

Bipartisan Senate Group Revives Coronavirus Relief Talks

Politico – A bipartisan group of senators is trying to jump-start stalled coronavirus stimulus talks during the lame duck, with congressional leaders still at odds over providing more relief as cases and deaths spike ahead of the coming winter.

The effort is an uphill battle given the entrenched positions of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his GOP conference and Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. So whatever this collection of senators can achieve is likely to be modest, if they can accomplish anything at all.

The group is informal and sprawls throughout both caucuses in the Senate, according to sources familiar with the talks. The talks mostly involve telephone conversations since physical meetings in the Senate are at a minimum amid the coronavirus’ grip on the Capitol. Much of the discussion took place over the Thanksgiving recess last week.

On Monday, both McConnell and Schumer said they want additional Covid relief.

“There’s no reason, none, why we should not deliver another major pandemic relief package,” the Kentucky Republican said.

“We need a true bipartisan bill, not ‘this is our bill, take it or leave it’ that can bring us together,” Schumer said.

A number of key provisions, like expanded unemployment insurance and eviction moratoriums from the spring’s massive CARES Act are expiring at the end of the year, heightening the urgency. Any potential coronavirus relief package could be attached to a spending bill due by Dec. 11 to ensure its passage.

Congressional leaders prefer a large spending package to avoid a shutdown instead of a stopgap continuing resolution into the new presidency of Joe Biden that begins next January.

November 24

AIM, MTF Executives: Go Slow on New Business Taxes

The fragility of the Massachusetts economy requires a go-slow approach to new taxes on business, AIM Executive Vice President Brooke Thomson and Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation President Eileen McAnneny, argue in an Op-Ed here in the Boston Business Journal.

The two point out that Massachusetts in the age of Covid-19 is experiencing record-high unemployment; record closure of businesses in retail, restaurants and hospitality; and what promises to be a prolonged period of uneven economic performance until after treatments and vaccine are developed.

AIM Outlines Key Budget Issues for Employers

AIM’s Government Affairs team has outlined the key issues that confront employers as a legislative conference committee hammers out a final version of a budget for the current fiscal year.

  • Sales Tax “Prepayment” language was contained in both House and Senate versions and will be subject to negotiations.
  • Nonprofit UI relief language added by Senate Amendment #10
  • TNC Fees adopted in the Senate Amendment #53
  • SALT Deduction CAP adopted in the Senate Amendment #87
  • Paid Sick Days Amendments were filed in both House and Senate but were withdrawn.  Be advised that stand alone legislation is still pending.
  • Budget floor comments by some elected officials identifying new businesses taxes as priority for FY22 budget deliberations. 

Legislature Appoints Budget Negotiators

The Legislature appointed negotiators Monday to work out the differences between the House and Senate budget plans and to come up with a final fiscal 2021 budget, which is now nearly five months late.

Legislative leaders cast the usual actors in the conferee roles. In the House, Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz, Vice Chairwoman Denise Garlick, and ranking Republican Rep. Todd Smola; and in the Senate, Ways and Means Chairman Michael Rodrigues, Vice Chairwoman Cindy Friedman, and ranking Republican Patrick O’Connor.

The question now is how quickly those lawmakers can get the spending bill moved toward Gov. Baker’s desk.

Five other conference talks remain pending behind closed doors, and Rodrigues and O’Connor now each sit on three of those panels, which meet in secret. 

Rodrigues and O’Connor were appointed in July, along with Michlewitz and three other lawmakers, to finalize a jobs and economic stimulus bill. Rodrigues also serves on a transportation spending conference, and O’Connor is on the negotiating team for climate change legislation. 

Friedman leads the Senate’s conferees on a telehealth expansion bill, appointed at the end of July, which as of October still had not held its first meeting.

The budget bills (H 5151/S2955) were moved into a conference committee three days before Thanksgiving, which is when Baker had said back in October he wanted to see a final version of the budget. House Speaker Robert DeLeo has said he’d like to see the process completed by the end of November, or shortly thereafter.

The Senate passed its version of the budget last Wednesday, and the two branches are closer on most spending and policy priorities than in a typical year, but differences remain and the fiscal year is nearly five months old already. 

Massachusetts to Require Visitors from New Hampshire and Maine to Quarantine

Boston.com – Massachusetts residents planning to visit family in New Hampshire and Maine this Thanksgiving will be required to quarantine for two weeks or have proof of a negative COVID-19 test upon their return, according to the latest change of the state’s out-of-state travel rules — and the same goes for visitors from two those states coming here for the holiday.

As local officials urge residents against traveling at all for Thanksgiving amid the surge in coronavirus cases this fall, a spokesperson for the state’s COVID-19 Command Center told Boston.com that Massachusetts will remove New Hampshire and Maine from its list of lower-risk states effective Saturday, joining 46 others that are subject from to its travel order.

That means individuals visiting or returning from those states are now required to self-quarantine for 14 days or have proof of a negative COVID-19 test from within the prior 72 hours upon arriving in Massachusetts. Failure to comply may result in a $500 fine per day.

Vermont and Hawaii will be the only states considered lower risk and exempt from the travel rules. The Department of Public Health announced the change later Friday afternoon.

COVID-19 Precaution Campaign Built on “Things We Love”

State House News – Giving hugs, going out dancing, sitting in the stands at Fenway Park, traveling and seeing concerts are among the missed experiences highlighted in a new state public awareness campaign that makes the case for keeping up COVID-19 precautions as the best way to return to such activities.

“To get back to the things we want to do and love to do, we need to keep doing the things that we know work – wearing a face covering, avoiding big groups, keeping our distance and getting tested,” Gov. Charlie Baker said Monday.

The #GetBackMass ads are slated to run through February, which will mark a year since the first COVID-19 case was detected in Massachusetts. As of Sunday, 200,050 cases had been confirmed in the state.

Baker said Massachusetts has been “aggressive about expanding testing capacity,” and called the 110,280 tests reported Sunday – which yielded 2,721 new COVID-19 cases – “obviously a huge number.”

“We’re going to do what we can to continue to expand our testing infrastructure, but I think one of the things we’re wondering about here is whether or not, in fact, that colossal increase we’ve seen over the past few days, which does appear to be related in some ways to the holidays, is going to continue or actually start to move down, and we won’t know that till we get a few more days worth of data.”

The state is having talks with “a number of providers about expanding lab capacity,” the governor said, and he expects more capacity to come online “around the middle of December.”

Baker said he also wants to see the federal government release funds that have been allocated for COVID-19 testing.

“This is a perfect example of why the current sort of stalemate in Washington, both legislatively and administratively, is such a problem for people who are trying to wrestle through this pandemic,” he said.

“You would think that even in a state like ours, which has as much access to testing per capita as you’re going to find anywhere in the country, is struggling to deliver on the demands and expectations of an appropriately concerned public, this would be a great time for the feds to move forward and release many of those funds that they have, so that people would be able to incorporate that into expanding their testing capacity, and I would like to see that, along with a bunch of other things happen.”

Last week, Baker announced plans to make Abbott BinaxNOW rapid antigen tests available to 134 school districts for instances in which students or staff develop COVID-19 symptoms while in school. The Trump administration said last month that it would send more than 2 million of the 15-minute tests to Massachusetts to be distributed at Baker’s discretion.

Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said Monday that the Abbott BinaxNOW testing program will be expanded to include long-term care centers, which will be able to use the tests on individuals entering the facility who are not regular staff, including visitors and nursing-home surveyors.

“We know this time of year can be difficult for many, and particularly in long-term care facilities, and it’s important to preserve the quality of life of loved ones in those facilities,” Sudders said. “The use of Abbott BinaxNOW testing will continue to allow quality of life to be paramount while also preserving the health and well-being of residents, staff and visitors.”

Sudders said that nursing homes and rest homes across the state will now perform weekly surveillance testing of all staff — up from every other week — because of increased community spread of COVID-19.

The secretary also announced $650,000 in grants to community and faith-based organizations, aimed at reducing COVID-19 spread and boosting awareness among communities of color in areas hard-hit by the pandemic.

Twenty organizations will receive the grant money.

AstraZeneca-Oxford Covid-19 Vaccine Up to 90% Effective in Late-Stage Trials

Wall Street Journal – AstraZeneca PLC and the University of Oxford added their vaccine candidate to a growing list of shots showing promising effectiveness against Covid-19—setting in motion disparate regulatory and distribution tracks that executives and researchers hope will result in the start of widespread vaccinations by the end of the year.

AstraZeneca and Oxford said their vaccine was as much as 90 percent effective in preventing the infection without serious side effects in large clinical trials, though they said the vaccine’s efficacy varied widely based on dosage.

At the lower end, the vaccine’s 62 percent efficacy trailed the trial results issued by rival drugmakers so far. The limited results at the top end of the range, however, came close to matching those of two other Western-developed vaccine candidates, one from Moderna Inc. and one from Pfizer Inc. and Germany’s BioNtech SE. Each of those showed efficacy of more than 90 percent in early results disclosed recently.

These preliminary findings, all from so-called Phase 3 human trials, represent the first look at the effectiveness of experimental Covid-19 vaccines and open the way for the companies to seek regulatory authorization and gear up their distribution plans. That process is now under way for all three of the West’s front-runner vaccine candidates, though at different speeds in different parts of the world.

New State Metric Means 80 Communities Can Loosen Restrictions

WGBH – The latest weekly COVID report from the state shows 62 cities and towns in the high-risk “red zone.” A month ago, there were nearly twice as many on the map. But that doesn’t mean things are better now. In fact, they’re worse.

The apparent reduction in risk is the result of a change three weeks ago in the metric the state uses to determine which communities are considered high risk.

The state’s new plan says if a city or town stays out of the red for three weeks in a row, it can choose to move into the next step of reopening. And since Thursday’s weekly report was the third one using the new metric, 80 cities and towns that were considered high-risk a month ago now qualify to move to that next step of reopening.

As COVID-19 cases are spiking across the state, that means those cities and towns could choose to allow greater numbers of people to be in places like performance venues, gyms, museums and libraries.

Instead of having a single formula, the new metric breaks cities and towns into three groups by size. There are different thresholds for each group — including the percentage of COVID tests that come back positive.

Massachusetts Jobless Rate Drops, but Remains Higher than National Rate

Boston Business Journal – The state’s unemployment rate fell again last month to 7.4 percent, moving more within the historic bounds of a recession instead of the record-breaking numbers seen earlier in the pandemic.

The state’s rate is now only slightly above the U.S. unemployment rate of 6.9 percent. Earlier in the pandemic, there was a much wider gulf between the Massachusetts and national rates, in part because the Baker administration put greater Covid-19 restrictions in place than many other states.

At its high point in June, the state rate was 17.7 percent. It has now fallen for four consecutive months, but even in September, when it was just under 10 percent, it was still historically high. Prior to the pandemic, the last time the Massachusetts unemployment rate had been that high was in the 1970s.

By comparison, the rate got as high as October’s 7.4 percent during and after the Great Recession and in the early 1990s.

The rate is still more than double what it was before the pandemic. In March, it was below 3 percent.

With Kids at Home, Working Mothers are Forced to Quit or Scale Back Jobs

The Boston Globe – Tiarra Noblin tried to keep up with her job after the pandemic hit. She had just started working as a health care coordinator helping homeless clients at Bay Cove Human Services. It was, she said, her dream job. But after a few months watching over her daughters, a kindergartner and a high school senior, on her own while struggling to work from home in Roslindale, she felt she had to quit.

Noblin, 35, is among a wave of women who have been forced to scale back their careers in recent months to take care of their children while day care and in-person schooling have been disrupted. In Boston, nearly 12 percent of working mothers had to reduce their hours or stop working between January and October for this reason, according to the workforce solutions company ManpowerGroup, which cross-referenced local jobless numbers with population data and day care closures by ZIP code.

Statewide, more than half of women whose jobs have been affected by child care and educational upheaval said they had pulled back at work or were thinking of doing so, according to an October report by the Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women; a fifth said they were considering quitting their jobs altogether. Women in lower-income households felt the burden of these child-care-related disruptions even more acutely.

More often than not it’s the mother, not the father, retreating from work to oversee children at home, in part because men tend to have higher salaries. According to census research released in August, among those not working, women age 25-44 were nearly three times as likely as men not to be working because COVID had disrupted their child care arrangements. One in three mothers say she may be forced to downshift or opt out of work due to COVID, according to a recent study by McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.org.

November 19

Northeast Governors Encourage College Testing as Thanksgiving Approaches

BOSTON – Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont, Delaware Governor John Carney, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, and Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo today announced they will encourage residential colleges and universities in their respective states to provide testing for all students traveling home for Thanksgiving break to the maximum extent possible before they leave campus.

Any student who tests positive will be encouraged to isolate on campus before they can travel or detail arrangements of their safe travel home with the local department of health. These efforts will help mitigate the threat of college students returning home for the holidays importing COVID-19 into their communities. In addition, colleges should inform students and their families of relevant quarantine policies in their home state.

“The region is experiencing a surge in COVID cases and a surge in the serious health impacts this disease brings with it. Working together on travel and higher education policies like these, states can have a bigger impact on COVID spread as students travel for the holidays,” said Governor Charlie Baker.

“Gathering with friends and family significantly increases the risk of spreading the virus and while testing and isolation guidelines can help slow the spread, it is up to everyone to wear a mask and avoid gathering indoors with people outside of your household.”

“As everyone predicted, cases are rising as temperatures drop, and New York is not immune. With the holidays approaching, we are fighting ‘living room spread’ from small gatherings in private homes – and adding college students’ interstate travel will be like pouring gasoline on a fire,” said New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo.

“We know this virus does not respect borders, which is why governors from across the region are working together to stop the spread. Colleges and universities have to do their part by testing all students before they leave, informing them about quarantine rules, and keeping classes online between Thanksgiving and Winter Break. We beat back the COVID beast in the spring, and by working together we can do it once again this winter.”

“With Thanksgiving and the broader holiday season fast approaching, we have to recognize that any large family gathering — particularly among different age groups — runs the risk of turning the dinner table into a COVID hotspot,” said New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy.

“To reduce the risk of transmission across our region, we are encouraging colleges and universities to ramp up testing for students returning home, and for anyone who tests positive to adhere to their state’s quarantine restrictions. If we collectively recommit ourselves to the commonsense mitigation practices that got us through the first wave of this pandemic, we can save lives before a vaccine becomes broadly available.”

“College students returning from highly infected states could accelerate the spread of COVID in Connecticut,” said Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont. “I appreciate the joint effort of all our regional governors to clearly state the testing/quarantine rules for returning home from college.”

“There’s no sugarcoating it: this will be a difficult winter,” said Delaware Governor John Carney. “We are seeing rising cases, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 in our region and across the country as we enter the colder months. The holidays present a significant challenge. I’m thankful for the cooperation in our region, and will continue to urge Delawareans to do what works. Wear a mask. Don’t gather with anyone outside your household. Stay vigilant.”

“It is our collective responsibility to protect our communities and our most vulnerable from COVID-19 and to continue to work together to get through this pandemic,” said Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf. “These targeted mitigation efforts, combined with existing ones, are paramount to decreasing the spread of COVID-19. We need everyone to be united in wearing a mask, practicing social distancing, and washing our hands in order to save lives and help protect our economies.”

“As our COVID cases and hospitalizations continue to rise, it’s critical that we come together as a region to slow the spread and keep our constituents safe,” said Rhode Island Governor Gina M. Raimondo. “We all need to be more vigilant about keeping our circles small and our masks on, while at the same time we’re continuing to ramp up asymptomatic testing across-the-board. This collaborative approach among Northeastern states will help us flatten the curve and contain spread over the Thanksgiving holiday.”

The combination of rising cases across the country – including in the northeast – due to increased transmission of COVID in small, residential settings and Thanksgiving travel has created the perfect storm for viral spread. If people proceed with celebrations in small gatherings outside of their immediate families, they risk generating a dramatic spike in cases after Thanksgiving. All Governors are urging their residents to stay home and celebrate small this year in an effort to help eliminate the risk of unchecked COVID-19 spread in the coming weeks.

The governors and their public health experts developed this guidance over the weekend at an emergency summit of northeastern governors.

The governors also emphasized the importance of in-person education. Medical research as well as the data from northeastern states, from across the country, and from around the world make clear that in-person learning is safe when the appropriate protections are in place, even in communities with high transmission rates. In-person learning is the best possible scenario for children, especially those with special needs and from low-income families. There is also growing evidence that the more time children spend outside of school increases the risk of mental health harm and affects their ability to truly learn.

In addition, the governors are strongly recommending that colleges and universities finish their fall semesters by expanding remote instruction, enabling more students to learn from home for the few weeks between Thanksgiving and winter break rather than require students to travel back to campus and then back home again in December. Half of colleges and universities across the northeast have already indicated they will be fully remote between Thanksgiving and the end of their fall semester. Colleges and universities should prioritize on-campus programs for students who did not travel or who need in-person exams or clinical and laboratory experiences.

If colleges and universities do reopen for in-person instruction during this period, all returning students should receive COVID-19 tests and comply with relevant isolation and quarantine protocols. These institutions should also double down on precautions including frequent health screenings and surveillance testing due the increased risk of COVID exposure from student travel.

School Districts Launch Rapid Testing

State House News – Starting in early December, 134 school districts, charter schools and special education collaboratives will have access to rapid COVID-19 tests for students or staff members who show symptoms of the respiratory disease while school is in session.

The school testing initiative will launch as the number of tests available and able to be processed has ramped up significantly from the spring, and as more and more people choose to get tested regardless of their symptoms to have peace of mind.

Testing technology has come a long way from the early days of the pandemic and people may be able to test themselves for the coronavirus quickly at home in the next few months, Gov. Charlie Baker said Wednesday.

The first phase of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s testing initiative will use Abbott’s BinaxNOW, an antigen test that uses a nasal swab and test card to return a result in about 15 minutes, Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeff Riley said. Last month, the Trump administration said it was sending more than two million of the BinaxNOW tests to Massachusetts.

“As we have said many times, staff and students must stay home if they are not feeling well. However, some people may experience the onset of symptoms while at school. The Abbot BinaxNOW tests will allow schools and districts to rapidly respond to these types of situations,” Riley said. “By testing students and teachers and getting results within minutes we will be able to identify infected individuals and their close contacts more quickly, and to help stop any spread.”

Long Lines Underscore Need for Expanded Testing

State House News reported, Gov. Charlie Baker agreed Tuesday that long lines at COVID-19 testing sites are an issue and said his administration is talking to the federal government and others about ways that Massachusetts could soon expand testing capacity, provide access to new types of coronavirus tests, and change the way it makes testing available to residents.

With a second surge of COVID-19 cases underway in Massachusetts and as elected officials urge people to get tested regardless of their own symptoms or exposure, lines of people waiting several hours outside the state’s free testing sites in the increasingly chilly weather have proliferated in recent days. Lines are also popping up at urgent care sites. It’s unclear how many people may be forgoing testing to avoid the lines.

The free testing sites, part of the Stop the Spread initiative, are generally located in communities at high risk of coronavirus transmission and are a popular option for people who want to be tested but don’t have symptoms and have not been in close contact with someone who has tested positive, making it likely they would have to spend $160 to be tested elsewhere.

The sites are also seeing additional traffic from people who want to be tested before seeing others for Thanksgiving next week.

“It’s an issue, I agree,” Baker said Tuesday afternoon when asked about the increased demand for free testing.

At the free testing site at Lawrence General Hospital, demand for coronavirus testing has been so high in recent days that officials announced Tuesday that it will stop allowing more people to get in line once the wait has exceeded two hours.

“Increased community spread of COVID-19 combined with a higher number of people seeking tests before holiday travel is leading to higher volume at the testing center,” the hospital said.

“With an estimated wait time of 4-5 hours on Mondays and Tuesdays, we will be closing the end of the wait line to accommodate everyone in line and will continue increased hours of operation by opening an hour earlier at 8 am.”

Lawmakers Scale Back Governor’s Small-Business Plan

State House News – When Gov. Charlie Baker offered a revised budget plan in mid-October, one of the highlights flagged by the administration was a $100.7 million recovery plan that would invest in small businesses and community lenders that had not been helped during the pandemic by federal aid.

Baker and his top budget chief said $35 million would be set aside for grants targeting businesses with 50 or fewer employees in underserved markets or owned by women, veterans and minorities. Another $35 million would go to community development financial institutions.

But as the budget process has moved along, Baker’s recovery plan has been chipped away by legislative Democrats who are electing to use the state’s available resources in different ways. And several business-group leaders say they’re more concerned now with the way Baker proposed to pay for his recovery plan than the fact that lawmakers have reduced the size of the effort.

The $46 billion budget passed by the House and the one currently being debated in the Senate this week would reduce the size of Baker’s small business relief effort by close to half, with the House approving almost $54 million in comparable programs and the Senate Ways and Means Committee proposing about $56 million.

“We put some of the governor’s small business recovery plan in it, but it was not as much as the governor had,” House Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz said early this month when he presented his plan.

Both the House and Senate leaders want to trim the $35 million small business grant program and community development lending support by half to $17.5 million. Baker’s capital investment matching grant program for businesses with fewer than 20 workers was cut by $5 million to $10 million in the House budget, and the branches proposed to cut back on Baker’s plan to turn vocational high schools into career technical institute’s to train people for new types of jobs. That career training initiative was slashed from $8.4 million in Baker’s budget to $1.5 million in the House and $5.5 million in the Senate Ways and Means budget.

COVID Brings Re-Evaluation of Transportation and Climate Initiative

Boston Herald – Gov. Charlie Baker said governors are re-evaluating support of a controversial carbon tax designed to limit greenhouse gas emissions as advocates renew calls for its passage.

“We’re living at a point in time right now that’s dramatically different than the point in time we were living in when people’s expectations about miles traveled and all the rest were a lot different,” Baker said Tuesday during a press conference at the State House.

Baker said analysts are looking at the costs and benefits of the program in an era where travel patterns have shifted as many people work from home amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“Modeling, I think, is an import part of figuring out how people feel about the cost-benefit associated with the program and the product and it’s certainly something that we think is an important part of helping states make decisions,” he added.

Baker’s comments came the same day that more than a dozen Massachusetts environmental, health and transportation groups joined 200 organizations to renew calls in a letter to Northeast governors — including Baker — to launch the ambitious Transportation and Climate Initiative program.

Rep. Clark Sees Relief Bill as Option in Lame Duck Session

State House News, with President-elect Joe Biden calling on Congress to push through its differences and deliver an immediate COVID-19 relief package, House Democrats, including U.S. Rep. Katherine Clark, said it’s not just the size of the stimulus bill that matters, but also where the money gets spent.

Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill said Tuesday that they believe there’s path forward to delivering a COVID-19 relief bill before the holidays during the lame duck session, but Senate Republicans continue to express reservations about a major spending bill. It’s also unclear how a bill would be received by President Donald Trump, who has said Biden “won” the election but won’t concede and continues to assert a “rigged” election.

Clark specifically said that state and local governments need financial support to avoid cutting back on services, and cities like Revere need help stocking food pantries and meeting the demand for shelter that is increasing as the second surge of the coronavirus rips through states like Massachusetts.

“We understand what is at stake for the American people, but it cannot just be a relief package for relief’s sake. We cannot leave out key territories, state and local government. We have to make sure this is a package that will deliver the aid where we need it,” Clark said.

Another round of federal relief would be welcome news on Beacon Hill where the Legislature is working through its budget process for fiscal 2021 and trying to put together a budget balanced on federal funding from an earlier federal stimulus package and the state’s own reserves.

Pfizer Vaccine 95 Percent Effective; Company to Seek Clearance

Boston Herald – Pfizer said Wednesday that new test results show its coronavirus vaccine is 95 percent effective, is safe and also protects older people most at risk of dying — the last data needed to seek emergency use of limited shot supplies as the catastrophic outbreak worsens across the globe.

The announcement from Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech, just a week after they revealed the first promising preliminary results, comes as the team is preparing within days to formally ask U.S. regulators to allow emergency use of the vaccine. Anticipating that, a Food and Drug Administration advisory panel is on standby to publicly debate the data in early December.

The companies also have begun “rolling submissions” for the vaccine with regulators in Europe, the U.K. and Canada and soon will add this new data.

Pfizer and BioNTech had initially estimated the vaccine was more than 90 percent effective after counting a group of the earliest infections that occurred in its final-stage testing. With the new announcement, they have accumulated more infections — 170 — and said only eight of them occurred in volunteers who got the actual vaccine rather than a comparison dummy shot. One of those eight developed severe disease, the companies said.

“This is an extraordinarily strong protection,” Dr. Ugur Sahin, BioNTech’s CEO and co-founder, told The Associated Press.

Even if regulators agree, he dispelled any notion that an end to the pandemic is around the corner, warning “we are now awaiting a hard winter.”

Hinds: Tax Debate An “Important Strategy” For Next Session

State House News – Quietly dropping a fight that progressives have urged the Legislature to take on, state senators will not debate a proposal to raise taxes on corporations and the income derived from stocks and bonds as part of this year’s state budget, but some have their eye on a broader revenue talk when the new term begins in January.

The lame duck budget debate kicked off in the Senate Tuesday after House lawmakers last week passed their roughly $46 spending plan on a 143-14 vote.

Sen. Jo Comerford withdrew an amendment (82) she said she filed with support of her constituents and advocates in the Raise Up Coalition, which sought to increase the tax rates on corporate profits, on profits from Massachusetts-based corporations that Comerford said had been shifted overseas, and on so-called “unearned income” like dividends and interest.

“I urge all of us to take up revenue at the top of next session, and I know I’m not alone in my desire to do so,” the Northampton Democrat said, pointing to the revenue working group led by Sen. Adam Hinds.

Sen. Becca Rausch said there were other revenue amendments that would not be adopted, including her plan to impose an opioid-sales excise tax on pharmaceutical companies and “creative and progressive” proposals from other senators.

“These measures are equitable and have garnered broad support and we truly must address them in the future,” Rausch said. Like the House’s, the Senate budget does not propose broad-based tax hikes, and Ways and Means Chairman Michael Rodrigues has said that while senators could offer tax amendments, his committee would not support them.

The fiscal 2021 budget relies on federal stimulus dollars and other one-time money that won’t be available next year.

“You can see why holding onto the tools that might allow us to bring new revenue to the table in the next fiscal year is actually an important strategy for us,” he said. “It’s a way to maintain those critical investments next fiscal year and beyond, when we do not have the current levels of external supports. All of the above points to a robust debate on revenue in the new year, and I for one look forward to that.”

MBTA Says Service Cuts are Temporary; Advocates Say Effects will be Permanent

Boston.com – According to Boston.com, MBTA officials have tried to take some of the edge off their recently proposed — and seemingly inevitable — service cuts, needed to offset unprecedented revenue losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with the assurance that they aren’t forever.

While the sweeping cuts will be painful in the near term, the idea is to “build back” service when ridership eventually rebounds, he said.

Transit advocates say it may not be that simple.

They worry that, by making the service less attractive, the proposed plan — which includes widespread cuts to the commuter rail and bus networks and a 20 percent reduction in rapid transit frequencies — could permanently drive riders away from the transit system and send MBTA revenue into a long-term “death spiral.”

November 17

State Reports More than 2,000 new COVID-19 Cases for Six Consecutive Days

The Boston Globe – Coronavirus cases in Massachusetts increased by more than 2,000 for the sixth straight day Sunday, according to the state, while the virus has returned to levels not seen since April and continues to hinder in-class learning for students.

Fitchburg State University and Babson College in Wellesley announced they will switch to all-remote learning, a move officials at both schools attributed to upticks in coronavirus cases. Milton High School, which last week reopened for in-person learning, also switched back to remote classes after nine students tested positive for the virus.

The state Department of Public Health reported that confirmed COVID-19 cases climbed by 2,076 Sunday, bringing the Massachusetts total to 182,544. The state’s death toll reached 10,098, with 33 newly reported confirmed deaths.

Boston Offers Rent Relief To Businesses Reeling From COVID

According to WBUR, the city of Boston is offering more help to local small businesses struggling to stay viable amid the pandemic.

Mayor Marty Walsh on Friday announced three new relief funds totaling $6.3 million. One will provide up to $15,000 to small businesses that are struggling to pay their rent. Another will make $15,000 grants available to businesses owned by minorities, women or veterans. The third will offer grants to restaurants to enable them to retain or rehire employees.

Since the start of the pandemic the city has set aside more than $15 million in total to help businesses survive the economic downturn caused by the pandemic.

Massachusetts hit 10,015 confirmed coronavirus deaths on Thursday, nearly nine months after the state’s initial case was detected. Confirmed cases have topped 174,000 and the number of cities and towns designated as “high risk” nearly doubled over a two-week period last month. Amid growing calls for action, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker recently tightened restrictions but has resisted taking more drastic measures such as halting indoor dining.

Survey Ties Viral Surge to Indoor Gatherings

WBUR – As the rate of new confirmed COVID-19 cases surges in Massachusetts, a recent survey of state residents suggests that an increasing number of Bay Staters have been engaging in activities that public health experts say are feeding the viral outbreak.

For the past several months, a team of researchers from Northeastern University, Harvard, Rutgers and Northwestern University have been conducting a 50-state survey aimed at gauging how people’s behaviors have changed during the pandemic.

In October, survey respondents were asked whether they had, in the past 24 hours, gathered indoors with people who did not live in the same household. About 45% of survey respondents from Massachusetts said that they had.

According to many health experts, including those interviewed by WBUR and NPR, the risk of coronavirus transmission increases when people who do not live together gather indoors.

Here’s How Teachers are Adapting to the Pandemic

The Boston Globe – Teachers are facing unprecedented challenges this school year, from trying to reach invisible students who attend class without their computer’s camera turned on to juggling the demands of simultaneous online and in-person instruction. Even accomplished teachers have floundered.

With a few months of online teaching now under their belts, many teachers “feel like a first-year teacher halfway through their first year,” said Justin Reich, director of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Teaching Systems Lab. “It’s still hard and they still don’t know how to do all these things, but some of that clawing sense of disaster and failure has gone away.”

Mid-career and veteran teachers are struggling the most, according to a recent study from FutureEd, a think tank based at Georgetown University. That’s because they are more likely than novices in their early and mid-20s to have caregiving responsibilities at home, and less likely to feel comfortable with the new teaching technologies.

Yet those few months of experience have given many Massachusetts teachers time to feel comfortable with the new medium, and now some are starting to experiment. Three told the Globe how the pandemic has transformed their teaching.

Efforts Intensify to Determine Who Will be First for COVID Vaccine

The Boston Globe – With a potential COVID-19 vaccine suddenly closer on the horizon, planning is intensifying over which Massachusetts residents will be first in line to receive the shots and how to persuade communities that are deeply mistrustful of vaccines and the health care system to step forward.

The two missions intersect in countless nursing homes, hospitals, and neighborhoods, as many residents who may be prioritized for getting one of the limited number of vaccines are wary of the system delivering it. Nursing home workers in Massachusetts, for instance, face a higher risk of infection. They also tend to be disproportionately Black and Latinx, communities in which trust has frayed.

From Boston to Springfield, advocates and health organizations are launching listening sessions. Some are surveying their communities to identify trusted local leaders who can help communicate reliable information about coronavirus and counter rumors and fears. But they face a daunting prospect as many communities that have shouldered a disproportionate share of coronavirus illness and deaths also harbor deep-rooted suspicions stemming from years of discriminatory treatment by physicians and researchers.

In Boston, the Roxbury Presbyterian Church is hosting none other than the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, in a Zoom event later this month about grappling with “health, equity, access, and trust” during the pandemic.

Moderna Vaccine Appears to be 94.5 Percent Effective

The Boston Herald – For the second time this month, there’s promising news from a COVID-19 vaccine candidate: Moderna said Monday its shots provide strong protection, a dash of hope against the grim backdrop of coronavirus surges in the U.S. and around the world.

Moderna said its vaccine appears to be 94.5% effective, according to preliminary data from the company’s still ongoing study. A week ago, competitor Pfizer Inc. announced its own COVID-19 vaccine appeared similarly effective — news that puts both companies on track to seek permission within weeks for emergency use in the U.S.

Dr. Stephen Hoge, Moderna’s president, welcomed the “really important milestone” but said having similar results from two different companies is what’s most reassuring.

“That should give us all hope that actually a vaccine is going to be able to stop this pandemic and hopefully get us back to our lives,” Hoge told The Associated Press.

“It won’t be Moderna alone that solves this problem. It’s going to require many vaccines” to meet the global demand, he added.

A vaccine can’t come fast enough, as virus cases topped 11 million in the U.S. over the weekend — 1 million of them recorded in just the past week. The pandemic has killed more than 1.3 million people worldwide, more than 245,000 of them in the U.S.

Senate Ways and Means Panel Releases Proposed Budget

Mass Insider – The House of Representatives this week debated their version of the state’s annual operating budget. On Thursday, the Senate Committee on Ways and Means produced a $45.985 billion budget for Fiscal Year 2021. The Committee’s budget recommends allocations to protect access to core essential services, address urgent needs, and support efforts to build an equitable recovery for the Commonwealth in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last night, members of the Senate met a 10 PM deadline to offer proposed amendments to the committee’s proposal. There are 473 amendments to the bill – these will be debated next week. You can read the text of the underlying budget bill and the filed amendments here: https://malegislature.gov/Budget/SenateDebate The Committee’s budget recommends a total of $45.985 billion in spending, a 5.5% increase over the Fiscal Year 2020 (FY20) General Appropriations Act.

This spending recommendation is based on a revised tax revenue estimate of $27.592 billion, which is $3.558 billion less than the original consensus revenue estimate of $31.151 billion, as originally agreed upon in January. To close this anticipated revenue shortfall, the FY21 budget includes $1.5 billion from the Stabilization Fund, ensuring a majority of the Stabilization Fund balance remains for future years, $1.38 billion in available federal supports, and more than $400 million in new revenue initiatives.

More House Staffers Test Positive for COVID-19 Days after Budget Negotiations

MassLive – Three more Massachusetts House employees who were in the State House recently reported testing positive for COVID-19, according to an email obtained by MassLive.

Two House employees reported Sunday that they tested positive, according to the email to House staff. One was last in the building Monday, Nov. 9. The other was last in the building Thursday, the same day some lawmakers showed up for the final day of debating the House budget proposal.

“Any Member or staff person with whom the affected employees reported being in close contact with on either Monday, November 9, 2020 or Thursday, November 12, 2020, respectively, has been personally notified,” the email states.

The House was notified Saturday of positive tests from a staffer, who was last in on Oct. 27, and a state representative, who was last in on July 31, what would have been the last day of the legislative session had House and Senate leaders not extended it due to the pandemic. Neither COVID-positive person reported having any close contact with state representatives or staffers, according to the email.

November 10

AIM Continues to Answer Questions on New State COVID Regulations

Editor’s Note – AIM continues to assist large numbers of member employers as they seek to comply with new regulations announced last week to stem the rise in new cases of the virus. Here is more information.

AIM Blog – Massachusetts will mandate face coverings, impose new restrictions on gatherings and limit the hours of some public-facing businesses as officials attempt to control rising cases of COVID-19.

Governor Charlie Baker today announced what he called “targeted interventions” intended to keep schools open, the economy operating and the health-care system stable in the face of a 300 percent increase in cases since Labor Day. He appealed to the public to resume vigilance about social gatherings so the state will not be faced with reversing its four-stage re-opening plan.

“We can’t afford to continue what we’ve been doing,” Baker said.

The interventions announced today include a shelter-in-place order from 10 pm to 5 am, with exceptions for people going to work or grocery shopping.

The governor also issued executive order requiring gyms, casinos, theaters and other public venues to close by 9:30 pm. Restaurants must halt table service by 9:30 pm and liquor sales at package stores and restaurants will also cease by 9:30 pm.

Baker also reduced the limit on indoor private gatherings to 10 people and outdoor gatherings to 25 people.

Massachusetts yesterday reported 1,139 new COVID-19 infections, the ninth consecutive day of 1,000 or more. More than 600 people are hospitalized, including 113 in intensive care units across the commonwealth.

Baker said economic stability depends upon the willingness of every resident to be cautious.

“The simple truth is this: Too many of us have become complacent in our daily lives. We’re doing much better than many other states and many other countries, but here, too, we’ve let down our guard and we have work to do,” he said.

Pfizer Reports 90 Percent Effectiveness Rate for COVID Vaccine

The Boston Herald – Pfizer said Monday that early results from its coronavirus vaccine suggest the shots may be a surprisingly robust 90 percent effective at preventing COVID-19, putting the company on track to apply later this month for emergency-use approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

The announcement, less than a week after an election seen as a referendum on President Donald Trump’s handling of the crisis, was a rare and major piece of encouraging news lately in the battle against the scourge that has killed more than 1.2 million people worldwide, including almost a quarter-million in the United States alone.

“We’re in a position potentially to be able to offer some hope,” Dr. Bill Gruber, Pfizer’s senior vice president of clinical development, told The Associated Press. “We’re very encouraged.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the U.S. government’s top-infectious disease expert, said the results suggesting 90 percent effectiveness are “just extraordinary,” adding: “Not very many people expected it would be as high as that.”

“It’s going to have a major impact on everything we do with respect to COVID,” Fauci said as Pfizer appeared to take the lead in the all-out global race by pharmaceutical companies and various countries to develop a well-tested vaccine against the virus.

Dr. Bruce Aylward, the World Health Organization’s senior adviser, said that the vaccine could “fundamentally change the direction of this crisis” by March, when the U.N. agency hopes to start vaccinating high-risk groups.

Still, Monday’s announcement doesn’t mean for certain that a vaccine is imminent: This interim analysis, from an independent data monitoring board, looked at 94 infections recorded so far in a study that has enrolled nearly 44,000 people in the U.S. and five other countries. Some participants got the vaccine, while others got dummy shots.

Pfizer Inc. cautioned that the protection rate might change by the time the study ends. Even revealing such early data is highly unusual.

State Releases Updated Metrics for Schools, Municipalities

Mass Insider – The Baker Administration and COVID-19 Command Center released updated metrics for schools and municipalities. The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education also released updated school guidance.

This update builds on the state’s ongoing efforts to refine data that is reported publicly to track the impact of the virus in the Commonwealth. The updated metrics for communities will give school districts more data to make informed decisions regarding in-person learning. Local officials have also used these metrics to make decisions for schools and businesses in their communities.

Understanding of the virus continues to evolve. Studies have shown that there is low transmission in schools, even in communities where there are high rates of COVID.

The updated metrics adjust for the reporting of cases by a municipality’s population size. These metrics incorporate cases per 100,000 residents and the test positivity rate when determining a municipality color designation.

The Command Center has also been reviewing metrics used by other states as well as what is available in the academic and national data sets. This updated metric also will better account for communities that conduct a significant amount of testing.

This metric will continue to be used to determine whether a community is in Step 1 of Phase 3 or Step 2. Communities currently in Step 1 of Phase 3 will need to have 3 weeks of data where the community is designated yellow, green or grey in order to move to Step 2 of Phase 3.

Under the new methodology, the color coded designations are: 16 red communities, 91 yellow communities, 79 green communities, and 165 grey communities based on this week’s data.

See details on the metrics.

Surge Continues With More Than 4,000 Cases Over Weekend

State House News – The week began Monday with the state tracking 22,023 active cases of COVID-19 after public health officials reported 4,009 new cases of the coronavirus over the weekend and 43 new confirmed deaths from the disease.

The Department of Public Health reported on Sunday that 568 people were in the hospital for confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 144 patients who were in intensive care units. That was an increase of 55 patients hospitalized with the virus since Friday and 26 patients newly being treated in ICUs around the state.

The state reported a combined 172,858 new molecular tests on Saturday and Sunday, which put the state’s seven-day average positivity rate at 2.27 percent. When removing repeat higher education testing from the equation, the positivity rate over the past week was 3.92 percent.

This past weekend was the first since Gov. Charlie Baker put in place a new mandatory mask policy in public, and began imposing curfews on some businesses, forcing them to close by 9:30 p.m. so that people have time to return home and comply with the new statewide advisorythat people remain in their homes from 10 p.m. until 5 a.m.

The new guidelines were put in place to slow what Baker has newly described as a second surge of COVID-19, with the seven-day average of new confirmed cases up 717 percent from a low of 157 a day and the average number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 over the past week up 222 percent from a low of 155.

The death toll from the virus now stands at 9,923 people with confirmed cases of COVID-19.

Travel Advisories Cause Friction Between States 

Salem News – With coronavirus cases rising, states are seeking to limit cross-border travel, and it’s leading to bad feelings between neighbors. 

Last week, Connecticut added Massachusetts to its advisory list. That means visitors from the Bay State must fill out a travel form when they arrive and present evidence of a negative COVID-19 test or quarantine for 14 days. 

Meanwhile, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said he’s discouraging people from the Empire State from making non-essential trips to Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts or Pennsylvania. His state’s restrictions also require proof of a negative test, or two weeks in quarantine, for visitors from those states to New York.

Gov. Charlie Baker said he called Connecticut and New York officials last week to tell them he thought their restrictions were “a bad idea.” He didn’t get far.

“They said, ‘thank you very much for your opinion,’ ” Baker told reporters recently.

A few days later, Massachusetts officials fired back. The Department of Public Health removed Connecticut and New Jersey from a list of states exempt from out-of-state travel rules. That means visitors from both of those states to Massachusetts are now required to quarantine for two weeks or have proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within the previous 72 hours.

Violators could face fines of $500 or more. 

Vaccine makers plan public stance to counter pressure on FDA

Bloomberg – Drug makers are planning a public pledge to not send any COVID-19 vaccine to the FDA for review without extensive safety and efficacy data, according to people familiar with the effort.

The joint stance is seen as a bulwark against political pressure being applied on the Food and Drug Administration to get a vaccine out as soon as possible. It is likely to be announced in a multicompany statement as soon as next week. 

The companies involved in the discussions include Pfizer Inc., Moderna Inc., Johnson & Johnson, GlaxoSmithKline Plc, Sanofi, and possibly others. All are developing vaccines for COVID-19.

The drug industry has long relied on the FDA as a gold-standard approval for its drugs. But in the middle of the pandemic, the agency has made several controversial decisions to allow emergency use of therapies without rock-solid evidence they work. 

A vaccine, which will need to be taken by millions of healthy people, requires significant uptake to be effective. One recent poll found a majority of the public thought a vaccine approval would be driven by politics. Federal health officials have said the process will be based entirely on science.

Meanwhile, President Trump has accused the FDA of slowing work to hurt him politically, and said he believes a vaccine will be ready soon. 

Much of the vaccine work is being done under the umbrella of the government’s Operation Warp Speed, which has struck deals with drugmakers to fund development and manufacturing. But the chief adviser for Warp Speed, Moncef Slaoui, sought to tamp down expectations, saying in a National Public Radio interview this week that it’s “extremely unlikely’’ a vaccine would be ready by Election Day.

In an interview with the news organization Axios this week, Eli Lilly & Co. Chief Executive David Ricks said drug companies wouldn’t submit a COVID-19 product to the FDA until they were confident in the science behind it. Eli Lilly is developing a COVID-19 treatment, but is not part of the vaccine effort. 

“Most of the principals in our industry and their scientific teams would say we’re not going to make something or we’re not going to sell it until we’ve proven to our own standards it’s safe and effective, subjected it to scientific scrutiny from the outside world,’’ Ricks said.

Final-stage vaccine trials are rushing toward completion, and earlier this week Pfizer said it could have results by October.  

The FDA has set an Oct. 22 date for an outside group of experts to discuss a potential vaccine.

Senate to Launch Budget Debate Nov. 17

State House News – In a sign that the branches appear to be working together to quickly wrap up the fiscal 2021 budget, the Senate’s top budget writer said Monday his committee plans to release a Senate version of the budget Thursday in anticipation of a debate on the annual spending plan to begin next Tuesday.

Senate Ways and Means Chairman Michael Rodrigues said the committee was “in the final stages of finalizing a responsible budget for the remainder of Fiscal Year 2021” that it would release on Thursday.

The Senate put the budget (S 4) on its schedule as the only item of business for Nov. 17.

“We want to congratulate our colleagues and partners in the House on the release of their budget priorities. Both chambers have worked collaboratively during these difficult times, and we will continue to do so as we finalize a FY21 budget,” Rodrigues said in a statement.

The Senate also voted on Monday to set a deadline for senators to file amendments to the still-unreleased bill for 10 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 13.

“In preparation for the forthcoming release of Senate’s FY21 budget proposal, and in recognition of the need to finalize a budget with the House as quickly as possible, an amendment order was adopted today to ensure members have adequate time to have their voices be heard in the process,” Rodrigues said in a statement released after Monday’s session.

The timeline laid out by Senate leaders means the branch will almost certainly begin its budget process – releasing its own bill and accepting amendments – before the House concludes its own debate, which is scheduled to resume Thursday after the Veterans’ Day holiday.

Should two days of debate not be sufficient, House leaders also told members to be prepared to continue debate on the $46 billion budget plan Friday and Saturday, if necessary.

This year’s state budget is more than four months late and Gov. Charlie Baker has asked lawmakers to get a budget bill to his desk by Thanksgiving. House Speaker Robert DeLeo said last week that he would like to see the budget reach Baker’s desk by the end of the month, or shortly thereafter.

There are 17 days until Thanksgiving and 21 days until the end of November. Any budgets that pass the House and Senate by the end of next week will have to be negotiated and reconciled between the branches before a bill goes to Gov. Baker for his review and signature.

House Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz said last week that a “framework” for the budget had already been discussed with the Senate prior to the release of the House version, and DeLeo has discouraged members from pursuing major policy initiatives in the budget.

November 5

Coronavirus Cases Rise by 923 in Massachusetts; 12 Deaths Reported

The Boston Globe – The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Massachusetts climbed by 923 on Tuesday, bringing the state’s case total to 157,308.

The death toll from confirmed cases rose by 12 to 9,809, the Department of Public Health reported.

State officials also reported Tuesday that 54,843 more people had been tested for coronavirus. The total number of tests administered climbed to more than 6.27 million. New antigen tests had been completed for 2,402 people, bringing that total to 193,148.

The seven-day average rate of positive tests, which is calculated from the total number of tests administered, was at 1.78 percent. The lowest observed figure for that metric — a number watched closely by state officials — is 0.8 percent.

Governor Continues to Stress Importance of Masks

WGGB/WSHM – Gov. Charlie Baker provided an update Tuesday on the new statewide restrictions as we contend with an uptick in COVID-19 cases. During his briefing in Boston, Baker stressed the importance of wearing face masks.

As part of the new restrictions, people are required to wear the coverings when they are in public, even if social distancing is possible.

Baker told Western Mass News it’s about more than just sending a message.

“Making clear to people that we actually have some well-known, well-established, well-tested tools to stop transmission. If we would just commit to being disciplined, vigilant, and consistent about it, we could take all of the gas out of the runway that’s creating the concern we have right now in the healthcare community and the hospital industry,” Baker explained.

Baker went on to say that if everybody commits to his plans now, he said we’re going to have “one heck” of a holiday season.

Baker Defends New COVID Control Measures

Associated Press — Gov. Charlie Baker on Tuesday defended his new measures aimed at stemming the rising number of new COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts, which include earlier closing times for restaurants and some other businesses.

The alternative, he said, is an overwhelmed health care system.

“We have a 300 percent increase in daily positive case rate since Labor Day, a 150 percent increase in daily hospital COVID census since Labor Day, and a lot of concern in our health-care and hospital community about what this trend will mean if it keeps running for another eight to 10 weeks,” the Republican governor said.

He understands that the regulations are “disruptive” to the restaurant industry but added that it’s better to take targeted measures now rather than suffer the consequences in several weeks.

The new rules also give local governments more tools to end informal gatherings of more than 10 people, he said.

“It gives them for the first time a vehicle that they can use to just tell people that it’s time to go home,” he said.

He also reiterated the importance of wearing face coverings.

“If people would just wear these things religiously for 30 days, we could kill the virus,” Baker said as he held up his own mask.

Chicopee Restaurant Owner Says New Orders Harm Everyone

WGGB/WSHM — Restaurants and bars that serve food are bracing for the impact of Gov. Charlie Baker’s new order that will force them to close for in-person dining every night at 9:30 starting Friday.

It will hurt businesses already struggling in the pandemic, but also employees too.

With a recent spike in coronavirus cases, Baker is cracking down on closing times at restaurants, bars that serve food and entertainment venues advising them to stop on-site food service at 9:30 p.m. beginning Friday.

This is not welcome news at Rumbleseat in Chicopee.

“Really I feel badly for my staff,” Owner Bill Stetson said. “We’re going to have to cut staff by 20 to 30 percent right away, and as the weeks go on, maybe more.”

The owner said because they’re going to be closing at 9:30 p.m., they’re not going to get as large of a crowd as they’re used to.

November 3

Here are the Details on New State Measures to Curb Rising COVID-19 Cases

Mass.gov – Governor Charlie Baker announced a series of targeted measures to disrupt the increasing trend of new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. The changes come at a time when public health data has indicated that cases are rising, with cases up by 278 percent and hospitalizations up by 145 percent since Labor Day.

These measures are meant to disrupt rising trends now, so the commonwealth can keep the economy and schools open for residents and to prevent the need to roll back to Phase I or Phase II of the reopening plan.

All orders and advisories will be effective Friday, November 6th at 12:01 AM.

Stay-At Home-Advisory: The Administration issued a revised Stay-At-Home Advisory to ensure residents avoid unnecessary activities that can lead to increased COVID-19 transmission. The revised Stay-At-Home Advisory instructs residents to stay home between 10 PM and 5 AM. The advisory allows for activities such as going to work, running critical errands to get groceries and address health needs, and taking a walk.

Early Closure of Businesses and Activities: Governor Baker issued a new executive order that requires the early closure of certain businesses and activities each night at 9:30 PM. The 9:30 PM closure requirement is aligned with the Stay At Home Advisory and together the two new initiatives are designed to further limit activities that could lead to COVID-19 transmission.

Effective November 6, the following businesses and activities must close to the public each day between the hours of 9:30 PM and 5:00 AM.:

  • Restaurants (in-person dining must cease at 9:30 PM, although takeout and delivery may continue for food and non-alcoholic beverages, but not alcohol)
  • Liquor stores and other retail establishments that sell alcohol must cease alcohol sales at 9:30 PM (but may continue to sell other products)
  • Adult-use marijuana sales must cease at 9:30 PM (not including medical marijuana)
  • Indoor & outdoor events
  • Theaters/movie theaters (including drive-in movie theaters), and performance venues (indoor and outdoor)
  • Youth and adult amateur sports activities
  • Golf facilities
  • Recreational boating and boating businesses
  • Outdoor recreational experiences
  • Casinos and horse tracks/simulcast facilities
  • Driving and flight schools
  • Zoos, botanical gardens, wildlife reserves, nature centers
  • Close contact personal services (such as hair and nail salons)
  • Gyms, Fitness Centers and Health Clubs
  • Indoor and outdoor pools
  • Museums/cultural & historical facilities/guided tours

Face Covering Order: Governor Baker also signed an updated order related to face coverings. The revised order requires all persons to wear face-coverings in all public places, even when they are able to maintain six feet of distance from others. The revised order still allows an exception for residents who cannot wear a face-covering due to a medical or disabling condition, but it allows employers to require employees to provide proof of such a condition. It also allows schools to require that students participating in in-person learning provide proof of such a medical or disabling condition.

Gatherings Order: Governor Baker also signed an updated order restricting gatherings. The new gatherings order reduces the gathering size limit for gatherings at private residences: indoor gatherings at private residences are limited to 10 people and outdoor gatherings at private residences are limited to 25 people. The limit on gatherings held in public spaces and at event venues (e.g. wedding venues) remains the same. The new order also requires that all gatherings (regardless of size or location) must end and disperse by 9:30 PM.

The new gatherings order also requires that organizers of gatherings report known positive COVID-19 cases to the local health department in that community and requires organizers to cooperate with contact tracing. The gatherings order authorizes continued enforcement by local health and police departments and specifies that fines for violating the gathering order will be $500 for each person above the limit at a particular gathering.

R.I. Governor Sets New COVID-19 Restrictions; Limits Gathering to 10 People

Boston Globe – Governor Gina M. Raimondo on Friday tightened the limits on social gatherings, banned spectators at youth sports, limited visits at hospitals and nursing homes, and closed hockey rinks and indoor sport facilities to try to curb an alarming spread of the coronavirus.

Raimondo said she is determined to keep students in school instead of moving to all-virtual learning, because “it’s highly likely that letting them out of school will exacerbate our COVID problems.” To avoid hindering the already-struggling economy, the state will offer $5 million in grants for businesses to provide hardware, software, and Internet access to help their employees work from home, she announced.

Exactly four months after moving Rhode Island’s economy into Phase 3 of reopening, the governor said she is trying to avoid having to shut down the state’s economy, and minimize strain on the hospital system.

Hospitalizations have tripled in the last few weeks, and Rhode Island has had several consecutive days with more than 400 new cases of COVID-19. If the state stays on this trajectory, she said, Rhode Island will have to open a 300-bed field hospital in Cranston in a few weeks.

US Economy Bounces Back in Third Quarter

Bureau of Economic Analysis – The U.S. economy bounced back strongly, jumping 33.1 percent in the third quarter, the largest increase in the history of the series, which dates to 1947. This follows the steepest decline in history in the second quarter, contracting 31.4 percent at the annual rate. Despite soaring in the third quarter, real GDP remained down 3.5% year to date.

Moving forward, real GDP is expected to rise an annualized 3.0 percent in the fourth quarter, but uncertainties continue to exist in the marketplace, which could challenge that outlook. Overall, the U.S. economy is predicted to shrink 3.3 percent in 2020, with 4.0 percent growth forecasted for 2021.

Massachusetts Initial Unemployment Claims Rise

Massachusetts had 47,170 individuals file an initial claim for regular Unemployment Insurance (UI) for the week ending October 24, an increase of 2,672 over the previous week.

Increases were widespread over all sectors.  Health and social assistance, up 618; public administration 510 more; education, plus 485; and professional and technical services, 392 higher had the most increases in initial claims filing over the week.

A total of 1,468,945 initial claims for regular UI have been filed since March 15.  For the nineteenth consecutive week continued weeks claimed for the week of October 18 to October 24 were down, 4,710 or 1.9 percent less over the previous week.

The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) initial claims filed for the week ending October 24, at 12,162 were 548 claims higher than the previous week.  Since April 20, 2020, 837,294 claimants have filed an initial claim for the PUA.

The Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC), which provided up to 13 weeks of extended benefits, was implemented on May 21.  For the fourth week in a row, PEUC claims filed for the week of October 18 to October 24, at 15,832 initial claims filed were down, decreasing by 2,301 over the previous week.  Since implementation, PEUC filings now total 270,894.

The federal/state Extended Benefits (EB) program, which triggered on May 3 due to the high volume of claims, for the week ending October 24 had 1,995 claims filed, 124 more than the previous week.  Since the week of September 6, the first week EB claims were filed, a total of 11,579 individuals filed an EB initial claims.

Signs Emerge That COVID-19 is Tightening Hold on State

The Boston Globe – Troubling signs emerged Sunday that the coronavirus was tightening its hold on Massachusetts as the state announced more than 1,000 new cases for the ninth straight day, along with some reported at a Newton medical office, a Fitchburg church, and in a Groveland school.

The latest figures came as health experts warned Sunday that the state must step up and do more immediately to stanch the surging number of new cases as the weather grows colder and people spend more time indoors.

Dr. Helen Jenkins, a Boston University epidemiologist, said people cannot become inured to daily reports of new deaths and new cases of the disease, and must continue to follow public health guidance.

“This virus isn’t going anywhere,” Jenkins said in a phone interview. “We can’t stop doing all the things that we are doing to try to take it down. And whenever we give the virus opportunities to transmit, it takes those opportunities.” Among the reports of new cases that emerged over the weekend were some at a medical office adjacent to Newton-Wellesley Hospital, where five workers tested positive for the disease.

In Fitchburg, health officials were tracking nearly 200 cases tied to activities at Crossroads Community Church and to local hockey programs.

And prekindergarten students at the Bagnall Elementary School in Groveland will switch to remote learning this week after two students at the school tested positive.

Dr. Robert Horsburgh, also a professor of epidemiology at Boston University, warned that people can’t afford to downplay the threat posed by COVID-19. His family has been directly impacted by COVID-19, he said: His wife’s aunt died after contracting the virus.

Business Executives Urge Local Officials to Expand COVID Testing

The Boston Globe – Rattled by a resurgent pandemic, public officials and business executives are scrambling to avoid another destructive lockdown by closing only a sliver of the economy in the hardest hit cities and towns, while pushing for a radical expansion of testing into everyday life.

Last week, as beleaguered leaders in Britain, France, and Germany shut down most nonessential businesses, officials here began rolling out less-drastic restrictions, but warned that more measures might be needed to contain the virus in order to preserve the holiday season. The Baker administration closed indoor hockey rinks, while Boston said it may reduce the number of people permitted to gather and temporarily halt indoor dining at restaurants, and Revere said it would cut capacity at big-box stores starting this week.

Business executives, meanwhile, are urging municipal officials to aggressively expand COVID-19 testing and tracing, saying it could help keep the economy open. They are calling for frequent and widespread screening — not just for frontline workers such as doctors and nurses as happens now, but for far more residents. Sometimes called serial testing, proponents say it would make it easier to isolate more people earlier in their illness, especially those without symptoms, who can unwittingly infect others.

The developments in Massachusetts and Europe underscored the limited options available to local leaders. Locking down the state again is an extraordinary step they don’t want to take. It would not only put hundreds of thousands of people out of work, but such a move would likely be ineffective without neighboring states going along.

Friendly’s Restaurants Filing for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy in Wake of Pandemic

FIC Restaurants, the parent company that runs Friendly’s restaurants, is filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, but that doesn’t mean the iconic local chain of eateries is going away.

The company made the announcement in a news release late Sunday night, saying that they plan to sell their assets to Amici Partners Group. Amici is made up of experienced restaurant investors and operators.

Under the plan, nearly all 130 Friendly’s restaurants, whether corporate-owned or franchised, will remain open under current COVID-19 protocols. Amici expects to keep nearly all employees who work at corporate-owned locations.

The Wilbraham-based chain of restaurants has seen its number of locations decline sharply in past years, from more than 500 restaurants to their current chain of 130. The company’s CEO, George Michel, says they have made progress toward re-invigorating their brand in the past couple years, but the COVID-19 pandemic has hit them hard, much like it has other restaurant businesses.

“We believe the voluntary bankruptcy filing and planned sale to a new, deeply experienced restaurant group will enable Friendly’s to rebound from the pandemic as a stronger business, with the leadership and resources needed to continue to invest in the business and serve loyal patrons, as well as to compete to win new customers over the long-term,” Michel said.

Administration Announces Grants to Support Buy Local Organizations

The Baker-Polito Administration today awarded $500,000 in grants to regional Buy Local organizations across the Commonwealth for projects that will support the agricultural industries in western, central, northeastern, and southeastern Massachusetts. These organizations work to generate consumer awareness and demand for locally grown food products while improving logistical access to these important food sources.

“The challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic have highlighted the importance of reinforcing local food system connections and encouraging residents and businesses to buy local,” said Governor Charlie Baker. “Regional Buy Local organizations have been doing great work promoting the Commonwealth’s agricultural industry, and these efforts will be just as important in the future to sustain the farming community and local food sectors for generations to come.”

“These grants build on our administration’s efforts to improve food security and support local food and agricultural businesses during these difficult times, including through our new $36 million Food Security Infrastructure Grant Program,” said Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito. “We remain committed to helping the regional Buy Local organizations continue and grow their efforts as a valuable resource for the promotion of the farm and local food sector throughout the Commonwealth.”

These grants build upon the Baker-Polito Administration’s efforts to support regional economies across the Commonwealth. On August 25, 2020, the Administration announced the launch of the “My Local MA” campaign to encourage residents across the Commonwealth to support their local economies by shopping at local Massachusetts businesses and attractions, either in person, online, or by using curbside pickup or takeout.

For Some Employees, It’s Now ‘Work from Anywhere”

The Boston Globe – Ben Ghosh, head of revenue at home delivery meat startup ButcherBox, lived less than a mile from the company’s Boston headquarters. But when the city shut down in March because of the pandemic, Ghosh, 37, and his wife took what they figured would be a one-month “work vacation” to Utah.

Months later, they (along with their dog and cat) are still there.

“I didn’t think it would be permanent until I got here and fell in love with the area,” he said from the small city of Moab. “It only took a few times walking in the national parks, or doing hikes, or paddle boarding on the Colorado River before I realized the quality of life was really great out here.”

Ghosh is one of about two dozen employees who decided to relocate because of COVID-19, said ButcherBox founder Mike Salguero. About 20 percent of the company’s 100 workers are now either permanently or temporarily working outside of Massachusetts. “I don’t think there will be a time where everyone comes back to the office, ever,” Salguero said. “We can change the way we operate, rather than asking everyone to move back.”

Other area companies are adopting a similar approach, coming to the realization that, for some, working from home can mean working from virtually anywhere.

October 30

State Issues Weekly COVID-19 Public Health Report

Boston Mayor: Everyone Should Be Tested for COVID

Boston GlobeBoston Mayor Martin J. Walsh asked people today to pledge to get tested, launching the “Get The Test Boston” initiative to help track the spread of the virus across the city. “We need everyone to focus on how they can help,” he said. One little piece of the initiative that will make it a tad fun: They’ll be giving out stickers to people who get tested. (Think “I voted” stickers, but they’ll say you got tested instead!)

Low-Income Residents Marked for Retroactive Unemployment Benefits

State House News – With the state’s unemployment rate still hovering close to 10 percent, Gov. Charlie Baker made quick work Monday of new legislation that will allow thousands of workers to collect $1,800 in additional unemployment benefits, signing the bill just hours after it landed on his desk.

The House and Senate on Monday pushed through a bill (S 2934) to qualify as many as 17,000 people who were previously ineligible for $300 in enhanced weekly federal benefits under the Lost Wages Assistance Program. The federal program ran for six weeks from the end of July through the first week in September, but in order to qualify for the additional benefits a claimant had to be receiving at least $100 in weekly state benefits.

The bill filed by Sen. Patricia Jehlen, of Somerville, and signed by Baker on Monday afternoon increases the minimum benefit for any unemployment insurance beneficiary to $100 for the week ending Aug. 1 through the week ending Sept. 5, enabling those affected to retroactively collect the enhanced weekly federal benefit.

“This is thirty-one million dollars that people in Massachusetts can use for rent, for food, for other necessities. It will benefit them and local businesses. We can be absolutely sure they will spend it locally and immediately,” Jehlen said Monday.

The state unemployment rate dipped to 9.6 percent in September, but 365,400 people remained unemployed in the state. In the week ending Oct. 10, 39,038 people filed claims for traditional unemployment benefits and another 11,478 filed claims under the expanded eligibility Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program.

Baker Outlines Vision for “Pretty Decent” FY22 Budget

State House News – Gov. Charlie Baker, while still hoping that lawmakers will deliver him an overdue fiscal 2021 state budget by the end of November, looked ahead to next year on Wednesday, forecasting a “pretty decent” spending plan for fiscal year 2022.

“I really do think that for me, the big thing is we have a big rainy day fund that can help us this year and next year, and I do think the feds will get around eventually to at least agreeing on the things they all agreed on previously and just couldn’t pass, and if they just do that and our economy continues to get modestly better, I think we’ll be OK,” Baker said in conversation with Providers’ Council President and CEO Michael Weekes.

Baker filed a revised $45.5 billion fiscal 2021 budget earlier this month and has said he wants it done by Thanksgiving so that he can begin work on next year’s budget proposal, due to be filed in January.

Massachusetts government has been operating under temporary budgets since this fiscal year began in July, and lawmakers haven’t indicated their timeline for debating and passing a full budget to cover the rest of the year. A $5.4 billion budget that Baker signed Monday authorizes spending through the end of November.

The governor’s $45.5 billion plan is built around the expectation that tax revenue collections will be $3.6 billion lower than originally anticipated. The major elements that Baker’s plan relies on to close that gap are the use of up to $1.35 billion from the state’s rainy day fund and $1.8 billion in federal relief money.

The rainy day or stabilization fund has a balance of about $3.5 billion, and Baker’s intended withdrawal would leave approximately $2.2 billion for use in future years.

“Now, if tax revenue turns out to be a little better or the feds get around to just enacting
the things they’ve already agreed on, we probably won’t need to use all 1.3 billion, which would mean there would be more available for 2022,” he said.

Baker has voiced frustration that Republicans and Democrats in Washington, D.C. have been unable to reach a deal on another coronavirus stimulus package, despite some areas of common ground. The U.S. Senate this week adjourned until Nov. 9, meaning any legislative action will not come until after next week’s election.

New State Growth Data Highlights Rollercoaster Economy

State House News – The Massachusetts economy grew at a record pace in the third quarter after an historic fall this spring when the COVID-19 pandemic hit and prompted widespread business closures, but economists say that upswing has started to slow and employment remains well below pre-pandemic levels.

The economists at MassBenchmarks reported Thursday that gross domestic product increased at a rate of 37.7 percent in the third quarter, outpacing the 33.1 percent growth recorded nationally by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

But while the rate of growth outpaced the 31.6 percent state decline in the second quarter, MassBenchmarks said gross state product remained 2.6 percent below its fourth-quarter peak in 2019.

The third-quarter rebound in Massachusetts was aided by federal relief funding and monetary policy, including the enhanced unemployment benefits made available through the CARES Act and grants and loans made to small business to keep workers on payrolls. As those supports expire, the economists said growth is likely to slow into the fourth quarter.

Payroll employment in Massachusetts grew at a 29.5 percent clip in the third quarter after falling 51.2 percent in the second quarter, MassBenchmarks said, again outpacing the national growth of 22.9 percent.

But while the country is just 7 percent under its February employment peak through September, Massachusetts remains 10 percent below its pre-pandemic high. Wage and payroll growth also did not keep up with national trends, growing at 13.6 percent in the state compared to 20 percent around the country in the third quarter, putting Massachusetts wages down 1.8 percent from 2019.

“Aggregate payroll incomes in the third quarter were down less than employment because job losses – although widespread – have been concentrated in lower-paying sectors, especially in leisure, hospitality and other services,” said Alan Clayton-Matthews, a Northeastern University economics professor and MassBenchmarks senior contributing editor.

“These sectors include entertainment, hotels, restaurants, barbershops, gyms, and other personal services that require close personal contact or travel,” Clayton-Matthews said.

Governor: State Better Positioned Now to Deal with COVID Spike

Boston Globe – Governor Charlie Baker said Wednesday that the state is in a better position now than it was in the spring to deal with rising coronavirus cases.

“Well, the biggest thing that’s different is we know a lot more about where cases are coming from, and we have way more testing capacity, tracing capacity, and knowledge and understanding about the virus than we had then,” Baker said. “We also have rules for basically every employer that’s open – which we didn’t have – about how to operate safely.”

“We’re playing a really different game at this point than we were playing then,” he said.

Baker, who has pointed out that a large part of the recent spike in cases has come among younger people, said, “It’s important for us to continue to message, especially to young people, the importance of taking this seriously – wearing face coverings and recognizing and understanding that that’s not just about ‘You might get it,’ it’s also about ‘You might give it.’ ”

Amid growing calls for more transparency about the source of infections, the administration also released information that begins to shed more light on how the disease is spreading.

State officials said hockey games accounted for as many as 110 cases. In addition, there have been at least 300 recent cases among people under age 30.

Baker and the state health secretary, Marylou Sudders, said the state is ramping up contact tracing, hiring back many tracers who were laid off during a lull in infections over the summer, as the state tries to track down how the virus spreads. Contact tracers continue to be hindered, as people refuse to cooperate or even impede the efforts, Baker said during a State House briefing.

Virus Testing Begins at Boston Logan Airport

WBUR: Travelers will soon be able to get tested for the coronavirus at Boston’s Logan Airport.

Health and wellness company XpresSpa Group is opening a testing facility Wednesday in Terminal E, according to company CEO Doug Satzman.

“It helps create a safer environment and reduces risk,” Satzman said. “Testing is not the only answer. It’s just one of the important pieces of the puzzle.”

Testing will be available to airport and airline workers first, and will then be available to all travelers in a couple of weeks, according to Satzman.

XpresSpa’s testing facility — called “XpresCheck” — is located in the arrivals section of Terminal E and will offer three types of coronavirus tests: a rapid molecular test; a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test — the now familiar nasal swab — and a blood antibody test.

State Sustains Pressure on Districts to Have Kids in Classrooms

State House News – Gov. Charlie Baker and his top education advisors urged schools Tuesday not to overreact to the rise in COVID-19 cases this fall, telling even those districts in communities deemed to be at the highest risk for transmission of the virus to stick with in-person learning unless there is evidence of spread within the school system.

Education Secretary Jim Peyser and Department of Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeff Riley also defended plans for the state to administer the MCAS exam in the spring, describing the test as being linked to federal funding and necessary to measure how far students may have fallen behind.

The recommendations from Baker and his senior education team came after three straight days of the state reporting more than 1,000 new cases of COVID-19, a mark not seen since May. The administration, however, continued to assert that schools have not been linked to increased transmission.

“We are not seeing the spread take place, the clustering take place, in the schools as was initially feared,” Riley said. Last week, education officials reported 202 cases of COVID-19 detected in schools.

Boston last week switched to full remote learning, and after three weeks in the high-risk category Abington Public Schools said Monday it would shift to remote-only learning until at least Nov. 12. In Milton, the high school will pivot to fully-remote learning starting Tuesday after the rise in infections left it understaffed.

State Issues Recommendations for Low-Risk Halloween ActivitiesState House News – Ahead of the Halloween weekend, state officials are looking down the calendar to the next major holiday for social events.

The Department of Public Health on Tuesday issued a set of recommendations for lower-risk ways to celebrate Thanksgiving, recommending virtual festivities and in-person celebrations that are limited to one household. Both Gov. Charlie Baker and Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders cautioned that the holidays are going to need to be different this year.

For those who do opt to gather with others from outside their home, Sudders said food should be served by one or two people, wearing face coverings, “almost like wait service at your table,” rather than passing shared dishes around.

“There is no perfect in a time of pandemic, but it’s really like re-thinking,” she said, urging people to be “really conscious about the sharing of utensils, the sharing of plates, and certainly not picking at the turkey carcass this year.”

The state has now recorded more than 1,000 new cases of COVID-19 on each of the last four days, and Baker said case demographics have largely flipped from the spring so that people under 30 make up a larger share of new cases than those over 60.

New Campaign Will Promote Need for Routine Care, Vaccinations

State House News – Hospitals, schools and public health agencies are bracing this fall for the convergence of COVID-19 and flu season, but it’s not just those two viruses that medical professionals and health insurers are worried about.

With the coronavirus pandemic having caused many people to delay routine medical care, school officials and health groups have begun to sound the alarm about children missing routine check-ups and vaccinations, putting kids at risk of spreading preventable diseases like measles, mumps and whooping cough as they return to classrooms and daycare centers.

To encourage parents to have their children vaccinated, and to remind adults to get the flu shot as well, the state’s largest insurers and medical groups are banding together to produce a public awareness campaign about the importance of routine vaccinations.

“Getting a flu shot is really paramount during this pandemic. The symptoms of the flu are really similar to COVID-19. But that’s only part of it,” said Lora Pellegrini, president of the Massachusetts Association of Health Plans. “Our plans have seen through claims data a drop-off in kids getting childhood vaccines, particularly during the spring when everyone was doing telehealth appointments.”

Pellegrini said in-person, preventative health visits are “bouncing back,” but she said it’s important to remind people about keeping up to date with vaccines.

In addition to MAHP, the effort has been joined by Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts, the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association, the Massachusetts Medical Society, the Massachusetts chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers, the Organization of Nurse Leaders and the Massachusetts Chain Pharmacy Council.

Coalition of Physicians Calls on Baker to Roll Back Reopening

Boston Globe – A group of physicians is calling on Governor Charlie Baker to close indoor bars, restrict indoor seating at restaurants, and roll back other reopening measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

The COVID-19 Action Coalition, an advocacy group known as COVAC, said such actions are necessary because of the “sharply increasing case numbers in recent weeks.”

“Thousands of Massachusetts residents received text messages last night to stop gathering with family and friends due to the high risk of COVID-19,” Dr. Rebecca Perkins, the group’s co-founder, said in a statement Wednesday.

“If the risks are too high for us to see our loved ones, how can businesses that allow people to gather indoors in large numbers remain open safely? We need the administration to issue clear, evidence-based guidance that applies to all settings.”

Cases have been gradually rising and have surged in recent days. Baker said Wednesday the state is better prepared now to handle the spike than it was during the deadly springtime surge.

But the doctors’ group wants Baker to institute several changes to the state’s reopening policy. Their recommendations include closing indoor bars (even if food is served); resuming previous limits on indoor seating at restaurants; closing or limiting the capacity of indoor entertainment venues; and limiting gathering sizes to fewer than 10.

Thanksgiving During COVID-19

Massachusetts Department of Public Health – As Massachusetts residents plan for the Thanksgiving holiday, we offer the following considerations to help keep our friends, families, and communities safe during COVID-19.

If you host a holiday celebration, keep it small. If you are considering travel, be aware of Massachusetts travel orders. If you participate in a celebration, follow public health guidance.

Any time you’re near people you don’t live with:

  • Wear a mask when not eating or drinking
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water
  • Stay at least six feet apart from others
  • Consider if those around you may be at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19, such as older adults or those with certain medical conditions, and take extra precautions
  • If gathering indoors, improve ventilation by opening windows and doors

Lower Risk Celebrations

  • Limit in-person holiday gatherings to only people you live with or limit to a small group of individuals with whom you are regularly in contact.
  • Gatherings with more people pose more risks. As a reminder, gatherings in Massachusetts are subject to gathering size limits.
  • Keep visits short – gatherings that last longer pose more risk than short gatherings.
    • Host a virtual holiday dinner with extended family or friends, especially if they are at higher risk for illness from COVID-19. Prepare traditional family recipes for family and neighbors, especially those at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19, and deliver them in a way that doesn’t involve contact with others.

Higher Risk Celebrations, including people who are not in your household or limited social network increases the risk of contracting or spreading illness. If you plan on celebrating the holidays in person with people you don’t live with:

  • Wear your mask and watch your distance at all times.
  • Do not share food, drink, or any utensils.
  • Encourage guests to bring food and drinks for themselves and for members of their own household only.
  • Wear a mask while preparing or serving food to others who don’t live in your household.
  • Consider having one person serve all the food so that multiple people are not handling the serving utensils.
  • Use single-use options or identify one person to serve sharable items, like salad dressings, food containers, plates and utensils, and condiments.
  • Avoid any self-serve food or drink options, such as buffets or buffet-style potlucks, salad bars, and condiment or drink stations.
  • For 14 days before and after holiday gatherings, minimize contact with other people, and leave home for essential services like going to work, buying groceries, and appointments with doctors;  OR,
  • Obtain a negative result from a molecular (PCR) SARS-CoV2 test, on a sample obtained within 72 hours of the celebration. Information about where to obtain a test can be found at mass.gov/GetTested.
  • Seat people with plenty of space from one another while dining.
  • Consider small seating table arrangements in multiple rooms with plenty of spacing, instead of a large family table.
  • If gathering indoors, improve ventilation by opening windows and doors.

Avoid these activities

  • Avoid sharing food and drinks.
  • Avoid shaking hands and hugging. Wave and verbally greet others instead.
  • Avoid singing, dancing, and shouting. These activities increase your chances of catching COVID-19 through the air.
  • Avoid in-person gatherings with people at a higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19, such as older adults and people with certain medical conditions.

Other Important Considerations

  • Community levels of COVID-19 – Higher levels of COVID-19 cases and community spread in the gathering location, as well as where attendees are coming from, increase the risk of infection and spread among attendees. Consider the number and rate of COVID-19 cases in your community and in the community where you plan to celebrate when deciding whether to host or attend a holiday celebration. Find information on cases in Massachusetts cities and towns and information on cases across the United States.
  • People with or exposed to COVID-19 should avoid attending in-person celebrations. Do not host or participate in any in-person festivities if you or anyone in your household:
    • Has been diagnosed with COVID-19 and has not met the criteria for when it is safe to be around others
    • Has symptoms of COVID-19
    • Is awaiting COVID-19 viral test results
    • May have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 in the last 14 days
    • Is at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19, such as older adults or those with certain medical conditions

All residents are also encouraged to get the flu vaccine. For additional information, please refer to the holiday guidance provided by the CDC at www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/holidays.html#thanksgiving.

Third Interim Budget Buys More Breathing Room

State House News – With Monday’s signing of a $5.4 billion interim budget, Gov. Charlie Baker and the Legislature have so far agreed to more than $27 billion in spending authorizations to keep state government open and running in the continuing absence of a full-year state budget.

Baker has made special efforts in recent months to avoid spending cuts and bolster state spending due to the need for services during the pandemic.

The Legislature, meanwhile, still has custody of Baker’s $44.6 billion fiscal 2021 budget he filed in January and the revised, $45.5 billion version of that bill that he offered this month. The House Ways and Means Committee also has a $424 million fiscal 2020 spending bill filed by Baker and which Comptroller William McNamara needs to close the books on fiscal 2020, which ended nearly four months ago.

The Joint Ways and Means Committee held an invitation-only public hearing on Baker’s revised budget last week and House budget aides have not responded to requests for information about further hearings, a tentative date to release the overdue fiscal 2021 budget recommendation, or a timeline for action on an annual budget.

Baker asked lawmakers to return a full-year budget to his desk by Thanksgiving, citing the need to start work then on the fiscal 2022 state budget.

The House and Senate passed the interim budget on Monday and Baker signed it within hours. The spending plan is designed to cover the state’s bills through November so another decision on continuing appropriations appears likely around this time next month.

The governor’s revised fiscal 2021 budget relies on more than $3 billion in one-time revenues from the federal government and the state’s reserves, an approach that will preserve and enhance spending levels, but that will leave major budgetary hurdles in fiscal 2022.

Manufacturers Saluted for Adapting in COVID Crisis

State House News – With an economic development bill stuck in private House-Senate negotiations and a new Gov. Charlie Baker stimulus proposal still under consideration, legislative and administration leaders on Tuesday praised the Massachusetts manufacturing sector as crucial to the state’s pandemic response.

Many local companies pivoted operations early in the ongoing state of emergency to produce personal protective equipment or other medical supplies, helping avoid pitfalls in the supply chain at a time of crisis.

Housing and Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealy said 50 Massachusetts companies have “repurposed their production lines” to address COVID-related needs, boosted by about $16.6 million in grants from the Baker administration.

“It has been absolutely inspiring to see this sector answer the call and meet so many of our needs going forward,” Kennealy said during a virtual awards ceremony hosted by the Legislature’s Manufacturing Caucus.

“Manufacturing really is core to who we are, to our economy, to our legacy as a state, and it will be core to our recovery going forward, playing an important role both addressing the public health crisis and an economic crisis.”

Several lawmakers also touted manufacturing as an important component to economic recovery from the COVID recession, though they did not offer any insight on the status of legislation aimed at accelerating that progress.

House Speaker Robert DeLeo said manufacturing, which employs about 8 percent of the state’s workforce, is “one of the most important industries we have here in Massachusetts” and today is “inextricably linked” with innovation industries such as life sciences and energy.

Senate President Karen Spilka, who also spoke at the event, described manufacturing as an “economic engine” that “offers the keys to a very bright future.”

Governor’s Council Goes Remote After Brush with COVID

State House News – The Governor’s Council will be conducting its business entirely online Wednesday after worry over a potential COVID-19 exposure at last week’s hearing, two members of the panel that vets judicial candidates said Tuesday.

In recent months, some councilors have returned to working at the State House, while others have opted to participate virtually over videoconference.

The council will be “fully remote, at least for a couple of weeks,” Councilor Eileen Duff told the News Service, after “somebody who was there last week has just tested positive.

“So our staff is being tested, and asked to quarantine for at least a week, maybe a little bit longer to be safe,” Duff said.

The Baker administration later confirmed the potential exposure and said Wednesday’s council meeting would be conducted remotely “out of an abundance of caution.” A spokesman said no councilors are considered close contacts and all close contacts have been notified.

Councilor Robert Jubinville said it turned out to be “sort of a false alarm” and the news “came across initially worse than it was.”

“I don’t know who it was, but I guess whoever it was had no contact, which got near anybody, so it wasn’t an issue,” Jubinville said, adding that he was initially told to get tested, but subsequently told he did not have to.

Recent hearings have had limited attendance, with only councilors, staff, judicial nominees, and the nominee’s guests and witnesses present. Councilors last week interviewed District Court nominee Danielle Williams in addition to holding a formal assembly. All council business is livestreamed on YouTube.

Small Business Grant Program

As part of Partnerships for Recovery, Mass. Growth Capital Corp. has opened a $50.8M grant program to support small businesses.

Grants made through this program will give preference to minority-, women-, veteran-, and immigrant-owned businesses; businesses located in Gateway Cities; businesses most impacted by COVID-19; and businesses that weren’t able to access the Paycheck Protection Program. These funds can be used to cover a number of expenses, such as payroll and benefit costs, mortgage interest, rent, utilities and interest on other debt obligations.

The program will accept applications until November 12. It is not a first-come, first-served program, but eligible businesses should not hesitate to apply. Small businesses should read the program eligibility criteria to determine which of the two funding “doors” they should use to access grant funding. Businesses can read more and apply here.

Small Business Supports

A reminder that the SBA District Office in Massachusetts, America’s SBDC, Massachusetts Small Business Development Centers, and other SBA resource partners offer virtual workshops and resources for small businesses, including PPP forgiveness and other technical assistance.

Childcare Survey

The Department of Early and Education and Care (EEC) has deployed a survey about childcare for the business community. Feel free to share this survey with employers in your networks this week. Results from this anonymous survey will help EEC better support workers and families.

Administration Announces Food-Security Grants 

Continuing its ongoing efforts to support a resilient, secure local food supply chain in Massachusetts, the Baker Administration announced $5.9 million in grants to address urgent food insecurity for residents across the commonwealth as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The funding is being awarded as part of the fourth round of the new $36 million Food Security Infrastructure Grant Program, created following recommendations from the Administration’s COVID-19 Command Center’s Food Security Task Force, which promotes ongoing efforts to ensure that individuals and families throughout the Commonwealth have access to healthy, local food.

“As part of our response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we continue to build on our efforts to secure a resilient, diverse local food supply chain so Massachusetts residents maintain access to fresh, healthy food,” said Governor Charlie Baker.

“With this fourth round of grants, we will have awarded a total of $17.7 million, making critical investments in our local food infrastructure and ensuring a secure supply of food as residents across the Commonwealth adjust to the impacts of this unprecedented public health challenge.”

October 27

Initial Unemployment Claims Drop to 787,000

The United States Department of Labor announced that in the week ending October 17, the advance figure for seasonally adjusted initial claims was 787,000, a decrease of 55,000 from the previous week’s revised level. The previous week’s level was revised down by 56,000 from 898,000 to 842,000. The 4-week moving average was 811,250, a decrease of 21,500 from the previous week’s revised average. The previous week’s average was revised down by 33,500 from 866,250 to 832,750.

State Jobless Rate Falls to 11.4 Percent in September

Bureau of Labor Statistics – Massachusetts’ September 2020 unemployment rate was 9.6 percent, down from11.4 percent in August and higher than the 2.8 percent in September 2019.

Unemployment rates were lower in September in 30 states, higher in eight states, and stable in 12 states and the District of Columbia. All 50 states and the District had jobless rate increases from a year earlier. The national unemployment rate declined by 0.5 percentage point over the month to 7.9 percent but was 4.4 points higher than in September 2019.

Thirteen Communities in Massachusetts Revert to Phase 3. Step 1

The Boston Globe – Thirteen communities in Massachusetts rolled back to Phase 3, Step 1 of the state’s reopening plan Monday after being designated high-risk for COVID-19 for three straight weeks.

For many businesses in those cities and towns, that means scaling back — or worse, closing their doors altogether.

On Thursday, the state reported 986 new coronavirus cases, the highest count in nearly five months. The state also released its weekly town-by-town data, which identified 77 cities and towns as high-risk, including Boston. Among those 77 are the 13 that have been listed in the red, or high-risk category, for three consecutive weeks.

The towns reverting back to Phase 3, Step 1 are Acushnet, Brockton, Chelmsford, Holyoke, Hudson, Kingston, Leicester, Malden, Plymouth, Randolph, Waltham, Webster, and Woburn.

Capacity will be cut back from 50 percent to 40 percent in arcades, driving and flight schools, gyms, libraries, and museums.

Indoor theaters and performance venues, as well as roller skating rinks, trampoline parks, obstacle courses, laser tag and escape rooms must close.

Some businesses now closing had only reopened a few weeks ago when the state moved into Phase III, Step 2, on Oct. 5.

House and Senate Enact Supplemental Budget, UI Benefits Bill

State House NewsWorking together to start the week, the Senate and House whisked back to Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk a stopgap budget he filed last Wednesday to cover state spending for the month of November in the continuing absence of a full-year spending bill. The branches also quickly ushered to final passage a bill opening the door to additional federal unemployment benefits for as many as 17,000 Bay Staters under the Lost Wages Assistance Program, by increasing minimum state unemployment benefits for a period between August and early September.

Source of Infections Unknown in Half of COVID-19 Cases

The Boston GlobeAs the number of new coronavirus cases in Massachusetts climbed past 1,000 for the second day in a row Sunday, the state acknowledged it has not been able to determine the source of infection in about half of COVID-19 cases, an information gap that epidemiologists say could limit the ability to respond to outbreaks and control transmission of the disease. 

“For a disease like COVID, where superspreading is so important [to] prevent, not identifying the sources of infection means we’re risking not identifying superspreading events fast enough,” said Dr. Sam Scarpino, an epidemiologist at Northeastern University, in an e-mail to the Globe Sunday.

The state reported 24 new confirmed deaths Sunday, bringing the death toll to 9,640, according to the Department of Public Health. The agency also reported 1,097 new confirmed cases of COVID-19, increasing the total number of cases to 147,120.

Governor Charlie Baker, earlier this month, told reporters he expected an increase in cases this fall, after the state reduced the rate of infections during the summer. Now there are signs that the state has returned to numbers not seen since late May, increasing positivity rates, and an increase in the average number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients.

Trend Line Direction is Difference Between May, October Virus Numbers

State House News – The last time Massachusetts confirmed more than 1,000 new coronavirus infections on back-to-back days, in mid-May, conditions were improving here and Gov. Charlie Baker was beginning to reopen the economy and was reminding people to be safe when venturing out for Memorial Day weekend. 

Five months later, Massachusetts is in the midst of a steady resurgence of the highly-contagious virus with 1,128 new cases of COVID-19 reported Saturday and another 1,097 new cases confirmed Sunday and the governor is urging safety for Halloween festivities.

The cumulative 2,225 new cases of COVID-19 confirmed in Massachusetts over the weekend put the state’s total case count at 147,120 and on track to surpass the 150,000-person mark this week. The Department of Public Health also reported 32 recent COVID-19 deaths over the weekend, increasing the virus’s death toll in Massachusetts to 9,864 people since mid-March.

COVID Testing to be Offered in Some Massachusetts Schools

MassLive – Massachusetts education officials are looking to start the first phase of coronavirus tests in schools with some form of in-person learning, planning to distribute test kits at no cost to a selection of schools and districts.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Defense have announced an initiative to deliver 150 million Abbott BinaxNOW COVID-19 rapid tests to schools and other environments. Massachusetts is expected to get about 2 million tests for use in public districts, charter schools, educational collaboratives and approved special education schools, among other areas, according to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The department is working with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, is seeking districts to start the first phase of testing, which is intended for districts or schools with either full in-person learning, a hybrid model or in-person learning just for high-needs students.

Schools interested must complete a survey by Oct. 30.

Baker Touts Economic Reach of $775 Mil in Government Spending

State House News – Looking to further boost an economy that has added back tens of thousands of jobs since April but has a long way to climb out of the hole dug by the pandemic, Gov. Charlie Baker rolled out a multi-pronged strategy last week to infuse small businesses and workforce training programs with new money to stabilize some sectors and help revive others.

To fully execute his plan, the governor will need help from the Legislature, which has been mostly dormant since July.

At a State House press conference, Baker said his plan would make $115 million in grants immediately available to support small businesses hurt by the pandemic, train workers in growth areas like manufacturing, subsidize internet for low-income residents and support community efforts to create new opportunities for commerce.

The money is being drawn from the state’s allocation from the Coronavirus Relief Fund approved by Congress and federal community development block grants. The new grant funding, which will be targeted to hard-hit businesses and areas of the economy, is part of a broader $775 million program to bolster economic growth, some of which had already been announced or proposed in the governor’s revised fiscal 2021 budget plan, and at least $175 million of which requires legislative approval.

“The plan, we believe, can help stabilize in many parts of the commonwealth growth that’s already started to take place and hopefully kick start it in other parts of the state as well,” Baker said.

Baker said his administration was taking action, in part, because Congress and the White House failed to deliver the type of relief that is still necessary to help small businesses, workers and government get back on their feet.

“To be clear, there’s no substitute for the size and scope that a federal aid package could deliver. But that doesn’t seem to be in the offing and we certainly don’t believe that we can wait,” Baker said, also nudging the Legislature to finalize a $275 million borrowing bill that would invest in affordable housing, tourism and other economic development needs. Businesses will have three weeks to apply for the newest grants.

Clark: Crisis Exposes Crucial Role of Child Care

Congresswoman Katherine Clark on Thursday said a lack of access to child care is “holding our economy hostage” and called for a shift in how the public views care and education of young children.

Speaking at an online Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce event, Clark said child care should be thought of as a public good like transportation infrastructure rather than as a personal choice for parents.

“If the Zakim Bridge collapsed, the effects on the local economy would be immediate, devastating and obvious,” Clark said during what the Chamber billed as the Melrose Democrat’s first address to the business community.

“Every one of us would leap into action. We would make the necessary investments in resources because we know our ability to function hinges on it. The pandemic has shown us this is true for child care.”

Describing the current economic crisis as “the country’s first she-cession,” Clark said women have been especially hard hit by the disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic. In September, 865,000 women left the workforce, she said.

Clark said many women have been confronted with a choice between their jobs and caregiving responsibilities.

In a recent Massachusetts Commission on the Status of Women survey, 72 percent of 4,089 respondents said they were facing an “increased inability to work” because of COVID-19’s effects on child care and education arrangements in their families. Twenty-one percent reported that they were considering quitting their jobs, and 45 percent said changes in school and care arrangements had hurt their financial security.

Small Businesses Need Help Quickly

Lawrence Eagle TribuneWith additional federal relief uncertain, business leaders are looking to Beacon Hill to help buoy Main Street merchants struggling to survive amid the continued economic fallout of the coronavirus.

A sweeping economic development bill that would provide grants and other relief for small businesses has been tied up for months in closed-door talks between House and Senate negotiators. Business leaders say lawmakers need to move faster.

“Our restaurants desperately need relief,” said Bob Luz, president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association.

Long-term, substantive relief for small businesses will need to come from the federal government, Luz said, as the state won’t have enough money for a total bailout.

In Washington, Democrats and Republicans are negotiating another stimulus package, including help for small businesses, but the sides remain divided over how much money is needed. Heading into talks this week, Democrats were proposing $2.2 trillion in relief, while the White House was offering about $1.9 trillion.

Rep. Linda Campbell, D-Methuen, said help might not be coming from Washington anytime soon so the state needs to act. She’s pushing for more relief for small businesses in the current fiscal year budget, a final version of which is being hammered out.

“We’re not offering small businesses enough to stay afloat through the winter,” Campbell said. “There should be some tax relief and grants.”

Small PPP Borrowers Waited Longer than Larger Clients

Boston Business Journal – Small-business owners with the smallest Paycheck Protection Program loan applications sometimes waited more than three times longer for the money than the largest borrowers.

The findings, from an October report from the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, analyzed data from some of the largest PPP lenders and found that the smallest businesses were often kept waiting far longer to receive their money. The Small Business Administration ultimately doled out $525 billion to more than 5.2 million borrowers, with an average loan size of just over $100,000.

PPP applicants at JPMorgan Chase & Co. for loans under $100,000 saw an average wait time from application to funding of about 14.5 days, for instance. For loans $5 million and up, it was just 3.7 days. Small businesses with five employees or fewer who applied at JPMorgan waited 14.3 days for the loan to be funded, compared with 8.7 days for companies with 100 or more employees.

When the subcommittee compared PPP loan processing times by line of business at JPMorgan, it found a larger disparity. Wholesale bank customers — customers with $20 million in revenue and high-net-worth individuals — got their loans processed in an average of 3.1 days, compared with 14.9 days for business bank customers.

Boston Teachers, Students Seek Sustainable Plan

Boston Herald – Boston teachers and students are pushing for a safe and sustainable plan to provide services for high-needs students as in-person learning has switched to remote amid rising COVID-19 levels in the city.

“For months, we have been advocating for a safer, better plan, and that goal still has not yet been achieved. There are no winners here today, during this pandemic,” Boston Teachers Union President Jessica Tang said outside headquarters in Dorchester.

Mayor Martin Walsh said Boston Public Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius and her team will be releasing a plan for special education students in the coming days.

Boston Arts Academy Student Anya Edwards joined BTU members on Wednesday and addressed Cassellius directly, saying, “You were supposed to be our superhero. You were supposed to fight for us, Superintendent.”

Edwards said, “I ask that BPS promise to stay remote until they can ensure that they have provided the necessary resources and materials for principals, teachers and families to successfully welcome their students back.”

Attorney General Seeks Supports for Tenant and Landlords

WHDH – With her calls for Gov. Charlie Baker to extend the moratorium on evictions having gone unanswered, Attorney General Maura Healey has turned her focus to making sure supports for tenants and landlords are put in place as quickly as possible, and she’s worried some services may be months away.

The statewide temporary ban on evictions and foreclosures lifted on Saturday, though a federal moratorium could still apply to some Massachusetts renters. In allowing the moratorium to expire, Baker announced a $171 million plan to help tenants stay in their homes and landlords pay their mortgages.

Healey’s office, however, is worried that some of those supports, including legal counsel and mediation services, are not in place as Housing Courts begin to hear eviction cases.

“The state’s focus must now be centered around getting the funding and assistance our landlords need to stay afloat and to help tenants stay in their homes. It’s critical that the Baker Administration prioritize the hiring of additional legal counsel and mediators to assist tens of thousands of landlords and tenants in the courts and when applying for rental assistance,” Healey said in a statement.

The Democrat’s office said it does not believe the contracts to increase the availability of legal services and mediation for tenants and landlords have been finalized or signed, and the funding to hire those professionals has not been dispersed.

Healey’s office also said Baker’s announced upgrades to the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition program that would allow landlords to apply for assistance on behalf of their tenants could take one to two months.

Pollack: Regional Transit Authorities Should be OK This Year

The state’s 15 regional transit agencies should all be able to balance their budgets this year without cutting critical services or raising rider fares, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said.

Pollack told members of the Joint Ways and Means Committee during a hearing Wednesday on Gov. Charlie Baker’s updated $45.5 billion budget that $213 million in flexible federal funding that the agencies received through the CARES Act will serve as a “critical backstop.”

Baker’s new budget allocates $90.5 million to the RTAs, the same amount as last year and less than the $94 million he’d initially recommended in January. Pollack said the CARES Act money is one-time funding that “needs to be used to fill in fare revenue not just for fiscal ’20 and fiscal ’21, but potentially beyond.”

Fixed route service fares make up a smaller portion of RTA budgets – 12.5 percent on average – than they do for the MBTA, Pollack said, meaning the infusion of federal money “works pretty well for our RTAs.”

“Having examined all of the RTA operating budgets through the MOU process, we are confident that as the RTAs carefully utilize their federal CARES funding, this level-funded state operating assistance, their regular federal funding and their local assessments, all the RTAs should be able to balance their budgets in fiscal ’21 while continuing all critical existing services and without increasing fares,” she said.

The MBTA is weighing service cuts to help close a budget gap arising from steep drops in ridership amid the COVID-19 crisis and corresponding changes in the way people access work, school, shopping and health care. The pandemic, Pollack said, “may well have changed travel and transportation forever.”

MassHealth Enrollment Surges During Pandemic

Commonwealth Magazine – The state’s Medicaid program is experiencing a big increase enrollment, with officials worried about its long-term impact on state finances.

MassHealth, the state Medicaid program, is meant to cover the lowest income individuals in Massachusetts but in fact, it covers more than a quarter of the state’s population.

Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders testified at a budget hearing before the House and Senate Ways and Means Committees that the MassHealth caseload has increased by 9.2 percent since March, or 161,000 individuals. There are now more than 1.9 million people enrolled in the program, the highest number since 2016, and Sudders expects that figure to reach 2 million in fiscal 2022.

This is likely due to people becoming newly eligible for Medicaid during the pandemic as they lose jobs, income, or access to employer-sponsored health insurance. Under federal rules, Massachusetts is also not allowed to conduct redeterminations – assessing whether someone has lost eligibility for MassHealth – during the pandemic.

October 22

Finance Secretary to Discuss Budget in Wake of Pandemic

Join AIM this morning for virtual discussion with Michael Heffernan, Secretary of the Executive Office of Administration and Finance.

The event will be an opportunity for AIM members to connect with a key policymaker regarding state fiscal policy matters as the governor and legislature work together to close out the Fiscal Year 2020 budget, complete work for the remaining months of the Fiscal Year 2021 budget before policy leaders need to pivot to planning for the Fiscal Year 2022 budget in the next several months.

Scammers Again Target Unemployment System

Boston25 News – Since the pandemic started, almost every state in the country has been hit by unemployment fraud.

In July, the Massachusetts Department of Unemployment Assistance revealed that 58,000 fraudulent claims had been detected, preventing the loss of $158 million. At the time, the Department of Labor said that it was working with the state and federal law enforcement to investigate the fraud and hired a private accounting to perform a forensic audit.

But 25 Investigates has found evidence that fake unemployment claims are on the rise once again in Massachusetts, and this time the scammers appear to be targeting public employees.

Over the past few weeks fraudsters have used the names of hundreds, possibly thousands, of state and municipal employees to try to cash in on unemployment benefits.

Boston Schools Suspend In-Person Learning Amid Rising Case Numbers

Boston Globe – All Boston Public Schools students will return to remote-only learning starting today, as the city’s coronavirus positivity rate continues to rise, city and school officials announced Wednesday.

Boston’s coronavirus positivity rate rose to 5.7 percent for the week ending Oct. 17, jumping up from 4.4 percent the week prior and 4.1 percent the week before that. It was the largest one-week increase city officials had seen in a while and the highest positivity rate in Boston since late May, Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh said in an interview after the announcement.

Pelosi, Mnuchin Continue Talks on Stimulus

Bloomberg News – Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin “continued to narrow their differences’’ on a coronavirus relief package, a Pelosi aide said, as time draws short to reach agreement on a bill that could pass by Election Day.

“The Speaker continues to hope that … we will have clarity on whether we will be able to pass a bill before the election,’’ Pelosi spokesman Drew Hammill said on Twitter. “The two principals will speak again, and staff work will continue around the clock.’’

Pelosi told House Democrats that significant areas of disagreement are standing in the way of any deal, according to four people who participated in the closed conference call.

Democrats have resisted giving up on their priorities for local governments, workers, schools, and health care. Hammill said Democratic committee chairmen have been directed to work with their Republican counterparts in the Senate on a solution.

Republican lawmakers have not played a leading role in negotiations, with Senate GOP members favoring a far smaller effort than what’s under discussion. President Trump said if an agreement is reached he would lean on congressional Republicans to “come along.’’

“We’re discussing it today very solidly — we’ll see what happens,’’ Trump told reporters in Arizona. “Nancy Pelosi at this moment does not want to do anything that’s going to affect the election, and I think it will affect the election negatively for her.’’

A welter of dividing lines remain between the two sides, including the scale of assistance to state and local authorities, tax credits Democrats want for lower-income families, liability protections that Republicans are pushing but Democrats oppose, and a repeal of a credit for past business-tax losses that Republicans want to keep.

While Trump has said he’s ready to match the $2.2 trillion spending level demanded by Democrats — or go higher — Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has consistently warned that most GOP senators will oppose any coronavirus relief package that big.

Amid the continuing stalemate, lawmakers have been voting on single-party proposals in an effort to demonstrate they’re determined to do something to help households and businesses that continue to be hammered by the COVID-19 crisis.

After House Democrats early this month voted on a $2.2 trillion package, Senate Republicans will try to stage two votes in coming days on separate, smaller relief efforts. Both are expected to be blocked by Democrats.

“American families deserve for us to agree where we can, make law, and push huge amounts of money out the door while Washington continues arguing over the rest,’’ Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Monday. “It’s what the country needs.’’

First up in the Senate is a stand-alone bill to allow unused money left over from a $2 trillion March stimulus deal to reinvigorate the Paycheck Protection Program, which provides help to small businesses facing the risk of layoffs.

McConnell also plans to proceed with a broader package, on a scale that Democrats say isn’t sufficient. His last attempt at such a move, in September, was blocked. Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer said Monday, “The Republican proposal was unacceptable a month ago. It remains unacceptable now — even more so that the crisis has gotten even worse.’’

White House chief of staff Mark Meadows said that if Pelosi and the administration get an agreement with Democrats, McConnell “will bring it to the floor, it will get a vote, and hopefully we’ll get stimulus on the way to the American people.’’

But McConnell made no such pledge publicly on Monday.

Most forecasters say nothing will be done before the Nov. 3 election. The question then is whether relief could get wrapped into an overall spending bill, which is due by Dec. 11. Without passage of such a stopgap funding package, the federal government faces a shutdown.

Young Adults Driving Virus Spread, Guv Says

State House News – Young adults are driving the largest chunk of growth in COVID-19 positive test rates amid a statewide uptick in transmission, Gov. Charlie Baker said Tuesday, prompting the administration to renew its warnings against large gatherings and other unregulated social activity.

Residents between the ages of 19 and 39 represent the “vast majority of the increase in positive tests” in Massachusetts and around the country, Baker said. As state and local officials ramp up enforcement of public health protocols, Baker said most of the recent growth in infections has come not from dining or other public activities, but from “informal events and social gatherings.”

“Those are the places and spaces where, if people are asymptomatic, they will give it to somebody else if neither of them are wearing a mask and they’re engaged in close contact over an extended period of time,” Baker said.

“That’s exactly what happens when people get together to have a house party or a backyard party or some other celebration – the kinds of stuff we used to do, once upon a time, as a matter of course almost every weekend.”

The state’s COVID enforcement team in recent weeks has observed private parties bringing together dozens or hundreds of people – often young – in close quarters and with spotty use of masks, according to Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders. State police arrested an individual who was planning such an event after Revere officials got wind of a potential party via social media, Mayor Brian Arrigo said at a press conference alongside Baker and Sudders. A state police spokesman, however, told the News Service that the individual was arrested on an outstanding warrant “unrelated to COVID” after police made contact to inform the person that the planned party would violate state COVID guidelines.

Springfield Extends Free COVID Testing Until January

WWLP – The City of Springfield is extending the Stop the Spread initiative for free COVID-19 testing until January 15.

Mayor Domenic J. Sarno and Health and Human Services Commissioner Helen Caulton-Harris announced that American Medical Response and Fallon EMS will continue with the Stop the Spread testing initiative into January.

Additional COVID-19 testing sites added in Springfield

AMR will continue their daily testing at the Eastfield Mall and Fallon EMS will announce their testing location and details at a later date. Testing is provided at no cost to residents.

High-Risk COVID Areas Covered by Phone Warnings

Boston Globe – State officials are going to send out coronavirus alerts to people’s cellphones in high-risk communities, borrowing a technique used in the past for weather and public safety emergencies.

The jurisdictions where people will be getting alerts include Chelsea, Everett, Lawrence, Lynn, Nantucket, New Bedford, Revere, Framingham, Winthrop, and Worcester, the COVID-19 Command Center said in a statement. Cellphones in nearby communities may also receive the alert due to cell tower locations, state officials said.

“COVID is persistently high risk in these communities, and this alert is another important message to remind residents to remain vigilant — wear masks, get tested/stay home if they feel sick, stop having gatherings and practice social distancing,’’ the statement said.

The alert, which will be sent between 5 p.m. and 10 p.m., will begin by saying it is a “MAGovt Alert.’’

It will continue, in both English and Spanish, “COVID19 is a serious threat in [city/town name]. Wear a mask. Wash your hands. Keep your distance. Do not share food drinks utensils. Stay home if sick. Get a free COVID test. Stop gatherings with family and friends. Protect you and your loved ones. For more info visit mass.gov/stopcovid19.’’

The statement from the command center said the message was part of stepped-up efforts to ensure residents remain vigilant about the coronavirus. The broader campaign includes field teams, paid advertising, and other communications to remind residents that the pandemic is not over, and to continue taking precautions to help protect their family, friends, and neighbors.

The message will be a Wireless Emergency Alert, the statement said.

People may be familiar with such alerts emanating from their cellphones for weather alerts or Amber Alerts for a kidnapped child in danger. The technology can also be used to send out alerts from the president.

Boston, Somerville Mayors Warn Against MBTA Service Cuts

State House News – Boston Mayor Martin Walsh and Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone added their voices to a chorus urging the MBTA to walk back planned service cuts, arguing that the damage wrought will far outweigh the savings as the T grapples with a massive budget deficit created by declining ridership.

Both Walsh and Curtatone said Monday that T officials should rethink intentions to trim transit service and stay away from potential fare increases down the line. Cuts will disproportionately affect low-income and nonwhite riders, many of whom rely on transit to get to and from front-line jobs essential to the region’s pandemic response, they said.

Walsh told the MBTA’s oversight board it should focus instead on outside funding, suggesting that Boston and the T partner with other cities that feature major – and financially distressed – transit agencies to push for federal relief.

“Reducing service levels in the most transit dependent communities just as we are trying to get our businesses reopened and get our economy moving again will undermine our progress,” Walsh said in pre-recorded testimony, adding that public transit is “critical” to the state’s economic recovery.

The T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board is preparing to decide in December on a major package of service cuts, potentially totaling as much as $255 million, to help close a fiscal year 2022 budget gap that could surpass half a billion dollars. Ridership across the system – and, with it, fare revenue – has cratered during the pandemic, standing at only about 25 percent of prior averages on the subway and 40 percent on buses in late September.

The potential cuts, Curtatone warned, could “squander” the progress Massachusetts has made in getting the virus under control and recovering from a national recession.”Essential services eliminated in 2021 will be harder to restore in 2022 than many stakeholders realize, and I’m worried that austerity budgeting at the T will divide us at a moment that requires unity,” he said.

Meanwhile, a coalition of 30 groups plans to ask the T to wait until the 2020 legislative session concludes before making decisions about cuts, to take fare hikes off the table and cut fares for low-income riders, and to accelerate investments in bus and rail electrification and expansion efforts.

The coalition also wants Beacon Hill to intervene and shore up T revenues. Chris Dempsey, director of Transportation for Massachusetts, called on the Senate to reconsider a House package of tax and fee increases, including a hike in the gas tax.

Massachusetts Businesses Need Support – Not New Taxes

Massachusetts needs support not new taxes to ensure that we can provide good-paying, stable jobs and emerge from this crisis with a strong economy.  The AIM Membership Reopening survey tells a critical story about Massachusetts businesses trying to survive.

The survey tells the story of businesses in the state and underscores the uniquely fragile nature of the economy. What we heard from the Berkshires to Boston, from Cape Cod to the Nashoba Valley, and from Worcester County to the North Shore, was that the global pandemic and resulting economic collapse have taken an enormous toll on businesses.

Review the results and hear stories from member employers struggling to maintain their businesses during the pandemic.

State Plan Gives Vaccine Priority to Three Groups

State House News – Adults over 65 will join front-line health-care workers, residents with underlying medical conditions and other essential workers as the first to qualify for COVID-19 vaccines in Massachusetts, the Baker administration said Tuesday.

During a visit to a new Suffolk Downs testing facility Tuesday, Gov. Charlie Baker outlined a rough sketch of the state’s draft plan for distributing an inoculation for the highly infectious virus once it becomes available.

The plan was submitted by the administration to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week.

“The plan also outlines our messaging efforts to make sure people know, once there is a vaccine available, that it has been approved by the federal government and is safe and effective,” Baker said. “We’ll also make it a priority to reach out specifically to groups that have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, including people and communities of color.”

Massachusetts can expect between 20,000 and 60,000 doses of a vaccine in the first phase of distribution, according to the plan.

Those on the other end of the age range appear to be driving the most significant chunk of new infections: over the past two weeks, young adults between 20 and 39 represented the highest positive test rate in the state.

The rising infection numbers — higher on Monday than any day since May, albeit with far more tests conducted — prompted Baker and his top deputies to renew their warnings Tuesday against large gatherings and other unregulated social events.

Baker Files Interim Budget to Cover Spending Through November

Gov. Charlie Baker on Wednesday filed a new temporary budget to keep state government running through the end of November, a plan that landed as lawmakers were reviewing his revised $45.5 billion annual spending plan.

The $5.4 billion bill would be the state’s third interim budget for the fiscal year that started in July, and its passage will give lawmakers a few more weeks to put together a budget for the remainder of fiscal 2021.

The governor has said he wants the House and Senate to return a finished budget to him by Thanksgiving. The current temporary budget runs through the end of October.

Baker had originally proposed a one-month, $5.15 billion bill that would run through the end of August, but lawmakers, hoping to see another stimulus package from Washington D.C. that still has not materialized, extended it to run for three months and $16.5 billion.

The House and Senate Ways and Means committees held a virtual hearing Wednesday into the revised budget that Baker filed last week, which proposes to use new federal money and up to $1.35 billion from the state’s reserves to boost spending even though tax collections are forecast to decline this fiscal year.

Administration and Finance Secretary Michael Heffernan described the new budget during the hearing as “a fiscally responsible plan that makes big investments in our schools, small businesses and vulnerable communities.”

State Updates Travel Rules

Over the weekend, the Baker Administration eased travel restrictions for visitors traveling to Massachusetts and residents returning home. California, New Jersey, Hawaii, and Washington were added to the list of lower-risk states, joining Maine, New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, and the District of Columbia.

Visitors and residents returning home from lower-risk states are not required to complete the Massachusetts Travel Form nor quarantine or produce a negative COVID test administered within 72 hours prior to arrival. This is good news for the travel and tourism industry.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) adjusted its metrics for determining lower-risk states. The DPH will now consider data over a two-week period rather than one week before moving a state out of the lower-risk category into a high-risk state. One week of data will remain the standard for moving states down into the lower risk category. Additionally, the threshold of daily cases per 100,000 residents will now be 10 to bring Massachusetts’ standard more in line with other states.

N.H. sues to halt tax on remote workers

Boston Globe – New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu took his beef over income tax collections with Massachusetts to the US Supreme Court on Monday, as he promised he would.

But whether the country’s highest court even agrees to take up the case before the Massachusetts regulation in question expires is an open question.

Sununu said the Massachusetts Department of Revenue’s new regulation, formalized on Friday, is an unconstitutional incursion on a state that takes pride in its lack of a broad-based income tax and a fundamental threat to its sovereignty. The rule allows Massachusetts to continue to collect income taxes from out-of-state residents who previously commuted to Massachusetts but are now working from home because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Massachusetts has launched a direct attack on the defining feature of the ‘New Hampshire Advantage,’’’ Sununu said at a press conference in Concord, N.H., on Monday. “Massachusetts cannot balance its budget on the backs of our citizens.’’

New Hampshire’s complaint, filed Monday, seeks three things: an order declaring that the Massachusetts rule violates the Constitution’s commerce and due process clauses, a ruling barring enforcement of the rule, and an injunction requiring a full refund of taxes collected under it. An estimated 80,000-plus New Hampshire residents used to commute regularly into Massachusetts, but it’s unclear how much money they pay in income taxes to Massachusetts.

Gordon MacDonald, New Hampshire’s attorney general, said his team is seeking relief at the US Supreme Court because it has exclusive jurisdiction over disputes involving two or more states. He said he hopes to have an answer about whether the court will take it up “by the end of the year.’’

However, the Massachusetts rule is set to expire at the end of December, or when Governor Charlie Baker declares an end to the COVID-19 emergency, whichever comes first. That means the rule, as written, won’t last much longer than two more months — maybe not enough time for an answer from the Supreme Court.

The New Hampshire complaint says “there is significant reason to believe the underlying shift in policy will survive the current pandemic.’’ Massachusetts has already extended this rule before, first as a temporary measure and now as a “final rule,’’ the complaint says.

New Hampshire’s lawyers also cite how the pandemic has drastically altered how people work, with countless Americans working from home when they previously did so in the office, and with some companies announcing that remote work will remain a permanent option after the pandemic.

Therefore, MacDonald’s team reasons, Massachusetts will continue to impose its income tax rule, or something similar, long after the pandemic ends.

Baker’s Department of Revenue has portrayed the rule, in effect in some form since March, as a continuation of the pre-COVID status quo, meant to limit disruption during the pandemic. Employers and employees are advised to continue to use their previous apportionment system for people who split time between the two states: Residents from New Hampshire who commuted part time pre-pandemic would pay income taxes to Massachusetts, at the state’s current rate of 5 percent, only on the portion of their work time that they used to spend here.

Pfizer Won’t Seek Vaccine Authorization before Mid-November

The chief executive of Pfizer said on Friday that the company would not apply for emergency authorization of its coronavirus vaccine before the third week of November, ruling out President Trump’s assertion that a vaccine would be ready before Election Day on Nov. 3.

In a statement posted to the company website, the chief executive, Dr. Albert Bourla, said that although Pfizer could have preliminary numbers by the end of October about whether the vaccine works, it would still need to collect safety and manufacturing data that will stretch the timeline to at least the third week of November.

Close watchers of the vaccine race had already known that Pfizer wouldn’t be able to meet the requirements of the Food and Drug Administration by the end of this month. But Friday’s announcement represents a shift in tone for the company and its leader, who has repeatedly emphasized the month of October in interviews and public appearances.

In doing so, the company had aligned its messaging with that of the president, who has made no secret of his desire for an approved vaccine before the election. He has even singled out the company by name and said he had talked to Bourla, whom he called a “great guy.’’

Bourla has pushed back against any suggestion that Pfizer’s vaccine timeline was politically motivated. In September, Pfizer was the driving force behind a pledge by nine vaccine companies to “stand with science’’ and not put forward anything that had not been properly vetted. Earlier this month, he published an open letter to employees that said he “would never succumb to political pressure’’ and expressing disappointment that “we find ourselves in the crucible of the US presidential election.’’

Pfizer is one of four companies testing a coronavirus vaccine in late-stage clinical trials in the United States, and it has been the most aggressive in its timeline estimates. Moderna, AstraZeneca, and Johnson & Johnson have said that later in the year is more likely, matching the predictions of federal health officials. (AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson’s trials have been paused for potential safety concerns, which could further delay their outcomes.)

In interviews, Bourla has said that he expects a “conclusive readout’’ by late October, with an application for emergency authorization that could be filed “immediately.’’

Pfizer’s trial of 44,000 volunteers tests the vaccine by giving one group the vaccine, another group the placebo, and waiting until a certain number of people become infected with the virus. If significantly more people who received the placebo got infected, then the vaccine is considered to be effective.

Health Care Workers Warn Hospitals are Nearing Brink

Health care workers in states across the United States are issuing dire warnings that an ongoing surge in coronavirus cases is pushing hospitals to the brink.

Eight hospitals and emergency departments in the Kansas City area in Missouri saw such high volumes of patients on Wednesday night that they had to temporarily stop accepting ambulances, Marc Larsen, an emergency physician overseeing the virus response at St. Luke’s Health System, told the Kansas City Star on Thursday. Health-care facilities are “bursting at the seams’’ and “continually struggling with having adequate capacity for the surge that we are continually seeing and experiencing,’’ he said.

After treating an average of 15 patients a day in May and June, the St. Luke’s system has averaged roughly 85 patients being treated at any given day since the start of this month, Larsen told the Star.

Earlier this week, it hit a record of 100.

“I worry that if we don’t start taking this seriously as a metropolitan area, we’re going to be the next New York,’’ Larsen told the Star.

At least a dozen states have reached record hospitalization levels in the past week, according to data tracked by The Washington Post. Wisconsin opened a field hospital at the state fairgrounds this week to accommodate an influx of patients, while 98 percent of inpatient beds in Montana’s most populous county were full on Wednesday.

In North Dakota, doctors are urging Governor Doug Burgum to institute a statewide mask mandate as hospitals with a small number of intensive-care beds are increasingly strained.

“You might value personal rights and the Constitution, and so do I, but I also respect life,’’ Joan Connell, North Dakota’s field medical officer, told Forum News Service this week. “I don’t know why those can’t occur concurrently.’’

Study Minimizes Risk of Catching Virus on Flight

A Defense Department study of the risk of catching the coronavirus on a packed commercial flight concluded that a person would have to sit next to an infectious passenger for at least 54 hours to receive a dangerous dose of the virus through the air.

Researchers concluded, assuming that passengers wear surgical masks continuously, very little of the virus spreads because of how the air is circulated and filtered on the planes.

The study, which used a mannequin expelling simulated virus particles to determine how the virus spreads as an aerosol inside an aircraft cabin, had some limitations. But it offers a new way to try to understand the risks of flying during the pandemic.

October 15

Baker, Courts Announce $171 Million Plan to Prevent Evictions

State House News – Expanded rental assistance, rapid rehousing efforts and streamlined application processes are cornerstones of a $171 million plan announced Monday by the Baker administration to keep tenants in their homes and support landlords after the state’s eviction moratorium expires on Saturday.

The plan represents an alternative to extending the moratorium, which Baker is authorized to do under a law passed earlier in the pandemic and is a path that many community activists and some lawmakers say is preferable for the safety of tenants struggling due to job losses and other COVID-19 pandemic hardships.

Baker’s team said the plan was developed in coordination with the Massachusetts Trial Court and others “to manage the end of the moratorium” on Saturday. It uses federal funds as well as existing authorizations under a COVID-19 supplemental budget and does not require any additional legislative appropriation.

The plan wouldn’t be possible, according to the administration, if lawmakers hadn’t granted flexibility for the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition program, which is assigned a $100 million commitment this fiscal year to expand capacity. The plan’s other major pot of funding is $48.7 million for HomeBASE and other rapid rehousing programs that aim to put people in new housing after they’ve been evicted and prevent long periods of homelessness.

Chair of Housing Committee Says More Money Need to Stave Off Evictions

State House News – As Governor Charlie Baker defended his $171 million plan to mitigate the threat of evictions and foreclosures, the House chair of the Legislature’s Housing Committee said he believed more than twice the amount the governor is prepared to spend on rental vouchers will be needed to avert a crisis.

Rep. Kevin Honan, a Boston Democrat, said that he recommended to the House’s chief budget writer Rep. Aaron Michlewitz on Tuesday that the $100 million rental assistance program laid out by Baker be doubled to $200 million in this year’s state budget.

“I appreciate the administration making this investment in housing stability, however, we think a lot more needs to be done,” Honan said in an interview.

With state’s moratorium on evictions and foreclosures expiring on Saturday, Baker and the Massachusetts Trial Court rolled out a plan designed to allow that to happen without jeopardizing the housing stability of tens of thousands of residents.

In addition to providing help with access to housing attorneys and landlord-tenant mediation, the plan calls for a $100 million expansion of a rental voucher program that would provide families with a maximum benefit of $10,000, up from $4,000.

Baker said Tuesday that if the $100 million increase to Rental Assistance for Families in Transition program proves to be insufficient he would “figure it out.”

Housing advocates, however, criticized the funding as insufficient to meet the need, which has been estimated to be as many as 100,000 tenants and homeowners who will be unable to pay their rents or mortgages.

“I just feel we need to do a lot more, and I’m very worried,” Honan said.

Baker Administration Announces COVID-19 Measures for Fall and Winter

The Baker Administration provided an update on a series of initiatives that will continue to stop the spread of COVID-19 and ensure the state’s readiness status heading into the fall and winter.

The initiatives include:

  • One of the most robust testing networks in the nation
  • A first-in-class contact tracing network
  • Investments and strengthened initiatives to provide appropriate care for older adults and staff at long-term care facilities (LTCF)
  • Hospital preparedness plans
  • PPE stockpile investments
  • Health and Safety requirements to protect teachers and students as schools re-open
  • A cautious phased approach to resume business activity.

Testing

Since the start of the pandemic, approximately 4.8 million tests have been administered to more than 2.4 million residents in Massachusetts. Growing steadily from approximately 2,000 tests per day in March to about 13,000 a day in May, today approximately 65,000 tests are administered every day.

A key driver in this success has been the Stop the Spread initiative, which has sites in 18 of the highest-risk communities. The administration announced that the Stop the Spread initiative has been extended through December.

As part of its readiness, the state now has the in-state lab capacity to process more than 100,000 tests per day if demand warrants. This level of testing, which has an average turnaround time of 1.8 days, is part of a strong readiness foundation to identify COVID, stop the spread and inform policy through data analysis.

Contact Tracing

In April, responding to the increasing number of cases, the commonwealth established the Contact Tracing Collaborative (CTC), a collaboration between the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, local boards of health and Partners in Health.

Today, this network includes just under 2,000 workers who maintain regular connection with and support for individuals who are isolated in quarantine. A team of epidemiologists was recently added to CTC to investigate cases, identify the source of transmission and catch clusters early. To date, more than 100,000 people have been contacted.

Hospital Readiness

Hospitals are required to continue adherence to the policies put in place upon reopening to ensure continued readiness, including inventories of PPE, ICU nursing staffing ratios and strict policies to ensure sufficient inpatient capacity. Massachusetts hospitals have approximately 50 percent ICU capacity available, plus additional beds can be made available by converting medical or surgical beds through established and proven procedures. Further, temporary spaces can be utilized again. In the spring, the state set up five alternative medical sites. MEMA is prepared to rapidly reinstate these if necessary.

Long-Term Care Readiness

Caring for older adults in LTCF has been a priority since the earliest days of the pandemic.

Early on, the state provided approximately 2.8 million pieces of PPE to nursing homes and opened dedicated COVID isolation spaces and facilities to safely cohort and protect residents and staff and help stop the spread.

An additional measure to protect staff and residents, the state implemented a surveillance testing program ahead of federal guidance.

From July 1 to October 8, approximately 280,000 state-financed tests for residents and staff have occurred. The Commonwealth has retained clinical rapid response teams if severe staffing shortages occur. The latest set of reforms, which include more than $400 million in new funding for infection control and staffing, build on the legislatively authorized Long-Term Care Facility Commission’s report.

PPE Stockpile

In the early days of the pandemic, the global supply chain struggled to deliver critical PPE. Massachusetts pursued every piece of this important protective measure and partnered with local manufacturers, which pivoted operations to support essential workers in a time of need.

The commonwealth has added millions of pieces of PPE to the state stockpile over the last several months with sufficient material to support medical institutions if their supplies run low through 2021. In addition to masks, gowns, gloves and other PPE, the stockpile includes approximately 1,200 ventilators, almost double the number on-hand in the spring. For perspective, the peak number of ICU patients was 1,085 in April.

K-12

After extensive consultation with infectious disease physicians and pediatricians, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education provided districts with detailed guidance on how to develop plans for safely delivering in-person instruction. The guidance was endorsed by the Massachusetts Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The Department of Public Health (DPH) developed town-by-town health metrics to guide school districts on whether to be fully in-person, hybrid, or remote, based on three weeks of community-wide data. DPH has also made available rapid-response mobile testing for any school that experiences a COVID cluster.

To help districts bring their children back to school, the governor allocated nearly $1 billion to municipalities and school districts, through formula distributions of COVID Relief Funds and targeted grants, providing students with access to computers and connectivity.

In collaboration with legislative leaders, the administration has committed to increasing Chapter 70 school aid, adjusting for inflation and enrollment, to ensure stable funding even in this very challenging economic and fiscal climate.

Isolation Compounds Virus Impacts in Long-Term Care

State House News – As the COVID-19 pandemic stretches now into an eighth month and the possibility of a second surge of virus activity becomes more of a reality, advocates for people living in long-term care settings said Tuesday another crisis is brewing.

The coronavirus carved a devastating path through nursing homes and other long-term care settings this spring, preying on the elderly, frail and those with underlying health complications, while outsiders were barred from visiting the facilities out of fear that someone could bring the virus in. In June, many facilities were able to schedule outdoor visits and just recently have been cleared to hold indoor visits. But all visits are kept relatively short, must be scheduled ahead of time and can only take place under a series of restrictions.

“As the pandemic continues and when we see cases rising in many states, people with dementia and other residents of long-term care are struggling very much so with social engagement,” Daniel Zotos, director of public policy and advocacy for the Alzheimer’s Association’s Massachusetts and New Hampshire chapter, said during a hearing of the Joint Committee on Elder Affairs. “Social isolation among people with dementia may contribute to individual decline and stress on family caregivers who cannot assess the health of their loved ones.”

Zotos said that there have been more than 30,000 more deaths from Alzheimer’s and dementia nationwide than expected from the start of the COVID-19 pandemic through the middle of September.

“This is truly a crisis within a crisis,” he said.

Governor Says State is Prepared for Next Phase in Virus Battle

State House News – Expecting a rise in COVID-19 cases this fall, Gov. Charlie Baker said Tuesday that Massachusetts is prepared for the next stage of the months-long fight against the highly contagious coronavirus.

Baker said he did not think a second surge of the virus had arrived in the Bay State at this point, though daily COVID-19 case counts, rolling average positive test rates and hospitalization numbers are higher now than they were during a summer lull.

He and other administration officials stressed months of work building hospital capacity, testing capabilities and equipment stockpiles, progress that Baker said puts the state in “a strong position to be prepared for whatever comes next.”

“I think part of the idea today was to just make clear to people that a lot has happened over the past seven months, eight months,” Baker said.

“We are in a very different position with respect to our ability to test and trace and isolate quarantine, and we have far better data that we can make available to our communities and to our health care system than we could last spring, and that we’ve done a lot of work in particular, with the health care community and the long-term care community, to sort of make them far more robust with respect to their ability to deal with whatever might come. I think it’s important to remember that we are not where we were in March.”

The state has “built a massive infrastructure to respond to this pandemic,” Baker said. Hospital capacity can be quickly expanded if needed, he said, with the ability to convert medical/surgical space into at least 450 intensive care unit beds and the equipment available at the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency to once again set up temporary COVID-19 treatment facilities.

Baker said hospitals are reporting that personal protective equipment supply chains are largely back to normal after the spring’s disruptions — during which the governor said “states were left on their own to track down these critical materials” — and local companies are still actively producing PPE in the state.

Massachusetts has added millions of pieces of PPE to its stockpile over the past several months, Baker said, for “far more than we ever had before.”

Outgoing Children’s CEO Outlines Tips for Managing During a Pandemic

State House News – Boston Children’s Hospital this week named its next CEO, weeks after its outgoing top executive laid out a few tips about running such a facility during a pandemic.

Sandra Fenwick has worked on the hospital’s leadership team for two decades, with the last eight years as CEO. She also headed up efforts to expand research and create a new pediatric facility scheduled to open in 2022. Chief Operating Officer Kevin Churchwell will take over as CEO on March 31, the day Fenwick retires.

During a virtual event in late September, Fenwick highlighted the importance of surrounding yourself with experts, saying it’s key to making critical decisions.

“Pharmacists kept our hospital running, our laboratory technicians kept our hospital running, but also our doctors and our nurses and our command center. Those people, our infection control team, our infectious disease people, were truly the ones who were providing the guidance, our safety people, so that we really, truly could protect ourselves and obviously, those we served,” Fenwick said. “Surrounding yourself with experts, listening to them, taking their expert advice and then, as someone said, sometimes when you’re hearing all the right and all the important information, taking some leaps of faith.”

Fenwick offered insights into running a children’s hospital in the midst of a health crisis during a Sept. 29 Facebook Live discussion with Robert Blendon, a professor at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Gap Narrows, Blame Game Continues on Stimulus Bill

State House News – Another spasm of activity in Washington on stimulus bill talks has not led to an agreement and no votes are scheduled in the U.S. House this week, leaving Gov. Charlie Baker to make an important judgement on likely state revenues without any new level of clarity on potential new federal funds.

“Members are advised that due to the Trump Administration’s failure to reach an agreement on coronavirus relief, no votes are expected in the House this week,” Majority Leader Steny Hoyer wrote in an update to House members.

“Members are further advised that as conversations surrounding additional coronavirus relief legislation continue, it is possible that the House will meet during the month of October.”

After pulling the White House out of stimulus bill talks, President Donald Trump quickly re-engaged in those discussions and a $1.8 trillion White House plan that surfaced narrows the mathematical gap between the White House and the $2.2 trillion plan approved by the U.S. House.

Trump also told Rush Limbaugh that he would “like to see a bigger stimulus package than either the Democrats or the Republicans are offering.”

Saying the economy was in a “strong rebound,” White House economic advisor Larry Kudlow told CNN’s Jake Tapper Sunday on “State of the Union” Sunday that Trump was focused on targeted aid in the areas of unemployment assistance and small business loans, and would “go beyond” the Democrats in some areas.

“If an agreement can be reached, they will go along with it,” Kudlow said of Republicans who control the U.S. Senate. He added, “If we can get this thing settled on the Democrats’ side, we will get it settle on the Republican side.” Kudlow said “the D’s are holding this thing up.”

In a letter to Democrats on Saturday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said updates will continue but that the White House proposal “does not meet the health needs of this crisis” and represented a “grossly inadequate response.”

“It is hard to understand who is shaping their approach, which to date has been a miserable and deadly failure,” Pelosi said of the White House. “Until these serious issues are resolved, we remain at an impasse. However, I remain hopeful that the White House will join us to work toward a relief package that addresses the health and economic crisis facing America’s families and will do so soon.” State finance law requires the Baker administration by Thursday to update state tax revenue expectations, as well as expectations of federal receipts.

State Creates Vaccine Advisory Group

LAWRENCE — When a coronavirus vaccine arrives, Mayor Daniel Rivera will be among the first in the state to know about it.

Rivera is one of 17 medical professionals, public health experts, elected officials, community leaders and others chosen by Gov. Charlie Baker to sit on a new COVID-19 vaccine advisory group, the Baker Administration announced this week. According to the governor’s office, the group will help state officials as they plan to distribute the vaccine once available. 

Rivera said Thursday he looks forward to making sure Lawrence residents have a seat at the table for something so critical in the fight against coronavirus.  

“As the mayor of a community that has been, and continues to be, one of the most drastically impacted by COVID-19, I look forward to playing an active role in the assurance of not only complete access to the vaccine, but also equitable distribution through communities in the Commonwealth,” Rivera said, calling his appointment an “honor.”  

The vaccine advisory group is chaired by Dr. Paul Biddinger of the Mass General Brigham hospital network.

In addition to Biddinger and Rivera, other members include Dr. Barry Bloom of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Sen. Cindy Friedman, chairperson of the Joint Committee on Healthcare Financing, and Attorney Michael Curry from the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers, among others. 

They will be guided by state Department of Health experts and lean heavily on the Massachusetts Immunization Information System, which is the state’s way to register, order and inventory vaccines, according to a statement from Baker’s office.

According to state Department of Health statistics released Wednesday, 5,002 Lawrence residents have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began and 143 residents have died. Those numbers put the densely populated city squarely in the red, high-risk zone, according to a color coded map released by state officials.

This week, Rivera launched a $255,000 mobile coronavirus testing unit set to travel throughout the city to offer free testing to residents through a partnership with Lawrence General Hospital.

On Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., residents living near the Merrimack Court Housing Development on Melvin Street can receive a free test and only need to supply their name and phone number in order to receive results. The mobile unit also was in the neighborhood Thursday. 

No insurance is necessary. Residents may track where the unit is headed next by visiting www.cityoflawrence.com.

Comcast Announcement to Help Small Businesses RISE

Comcast Corporation announced the launch of RISE, which stands for “Representation, Investment, Strength and Empowerment,” to help the hardest-hit small business owners get a fresh start and boost their operations as part of our larger $100 million Diversity, Equity and Inclusion initiative.

RISE will help provide grants, computers, internet access, commercial production, media campaigns, website upgrades and marketing advice.

Starting today, US-based Black-owned small businesses can apply for marketing and technology support and equipment. In the next wave (~11/28), eligibility will expand to include Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC), those next hit hardest by the effects of the pndemic. And the program will continue to expand to include more small businesses in the future.

Governor’s Budget Proposal Boosts Spending, Lowers Tax Estimate

State House News – Armed with a spending plan buttressed by federal aid and emergency reserves, Gov. Charlie Baker on Wednesday planned what might be the unprecedented step of refiling an annual budget with the Legislature that proposes spending more money, $45.5 billion, than he pitched in January before the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the state’s economy.

The higher bottom Line obscures the fact that the administration is projecting that state tax revenues will actually be nearly $3.6 billion lower that what had been forecast just nine months ago.

The loss in revenue due to the pandemic is made up for in Baker’s new budget with federal relief funding, including $834 million in enhanced Medicaid reimbursements, and a $1.35 billion draw from the state’s reserves, which would leave the “rainy day” fund with about $2.2 billion at the end of the year.

Administration and Finance Secretary Michael Heffernan said the governor’s plan avoids any broad-based tax increases, layoffs, or cuts to social and health safety net programs, and level funds local aid, consistent with an agreement announced with the Legislature in July.

It also would commit $100.7 million in new funding to a small business recovery programs that would invest $35 million in small business grants targeted at minority-, women-, and veteran-owned businesses, $35 million for community financial institutions and $15 million for small business capital improvements.

Heffernan said the new spending plan was both “conservative” and “realistic.”

October 8

Stimulus Deal Appears Dead after Trump Calls Off Talks

Boston Globe – President Trump on Tuesday abruptly ended his administration’s discussions with Democrats for another round of economic stimulus, raising the odds that additional help for millions of unemployed Americans and struggling businesses won’t arrive until at least after Election Day and perhaps not until next year.

In an afternoon post on Twitter, Trump accused House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of bad faith in her months-long negotiations with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. He said the talks would resume after the election, “when, immediately after I win, we will pass a major Stimulus Bill that focuses on hardworking Americans and Small Business.”

In the meantime, he urged Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell to focus the chamber’s efforts on clearing the nomination of federal appeals court Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court.

The surprise announcement, coming less than a day after Trump returned to the White House from the hospital where he was being treated for COVID-19, drew swift condemnation from Democrats.

Brigham, Broad to Launch 10,000 At-Home COVID Tests

Boston Herald – Brigham and Women’s Hospital along with The Broad Institute at MIT will facilitate at-home COVID tests for 10,000 Bostonians as part of a surveillance study that aims to detect clusters and evidence of previous infections.

“The objective of our study is to provide at-home testing that pairs viral testing for active virus with antibody testing to give us a clearer picture of COVID-19 rates now and over time in different communities, as well as an understanding of who is getting infected,” said Dr. Lisa Cosimi, infectious disease physician at BWH.

The at-home tests check for active COVID infection and also coronavirus antibodies. The study will take place over the course of six months and participants will be sent monthly tests to do at home.

The results could reveal clues and warning signs about how case counts are changing in the Boston area and could help researchers understand if a prior COVID-19 infection offers any protection against future infections.

“We are really hoping to partner with individuals in the community on this effort by making the at-home access easier,” Cosimi said.

Current and former Brigham patients can enroll and samples will be analyzed at the Broad Institute. The at-home tests require a swab from the front of the nose, not the back, and a finger prick for antibodies.

Participants will get the viral results back within 24 hours of the sample arriving to the Broad via mail and the antibody responses will be aggregated and reported at a community level.

“The hope would be that folks feel, if they have a positive test, that we can talk to them and make sure they’re connected to their health care provider,” Cosimi said.

Another goal of the study is to create a platform for home-based sample collection that can be scaled if needed, in case of another surge in Boston.

Baker: Repeat Testers Give Fuller Picture of Positivity Rate

State House News – Public-health experts have pointed to a steady uptick in the rate of people who test positive for COVID-19 as reason for concern in Massachusetts, but Gov. Charlie Baker thinks a different way of measuring the spread of the disease – which returns a positivity rate several times lower – is a better option.

Baker on Tuesday touted the rate of total tests that return positive, which counts every repeat test on a single individual and thus results in a lower percentage, as preferable to the rate of individuals who test positive, which only counts each person once even if they are tested multiple times.

The Department of Public Health publishes both rates in its daily data reports but uses the former figure to calculate a rolling average in its list of key indicators. After saying Massachusetts has not “had a 5 percent positive test rate in, like, forever,” Baker described the rate of positives per test as a more accurate measure than positives per person given how frequently individuals are tested more than once.

“Those people absolutely belong in the denominator,” Baker said at a press conference. “If you test somebody on a Monday and they test negative and they’re in a high-risk community, and they end up having some sort of close contact with people who they believe have tested positive or do test positive, and they come back on Friday and get tested again, yeah, I want to know that they tested negative the second time.”

Over the past month, the rate of individuals who tested positive has climbed from an average around 1.8 percent to an average between 3 and 4 percent, prompting warnings from medical leaders and public figures that risks might be growing in Massachusetts after months of progress.

The rate of positives among total tests includes every sample from repeat tests of the same individual, a process that is happening regularly on many college campuses. That figure has stayed lower, climbing only from an average of about 0.8 percent to an average of about 1.1 percent.

Walsh Pauses Reopening of Boston Public Schools

State House News – Boston Mayor Marty Walsh paused the phased reopening of the city’s public schools on Wednesday, pointing to an uptick of COVID-19 cases, but said the school system would continue the in-person instruction for high-needs students that began last week.

“We believe that it’s prudent at this time to pause the school reopening plan,” Walsh said during a press conference outside City Hall. Most students in Boston are currently learning remotely, but the city had intended to start welcoming kindergartners back into the classroom for hybrid learning on Oct. 15. That start date has now been pushed to Oct. 22, and Walsh said the city will continue to monitor trends in the virus as that new date approaches.

Sixty-three new cases and zero deaths were reported in the city on Tuesday, but the Boston’s chief of health and human services Marty Martinez said the average number of new positive cases over the past week has crept up from 65.6 to 73 per day. The seven-day moving average has climbed above 4 percent for the first time since early June to 4.1 percent, Martinez said, triggering a review of the city’s reopening strategy.

The mayor said his announcement will not impact in-person learning for high-needs students who returned to the classroom last Thursday on an opt-in basis for hybrid learning. Walsh said the city has seen an average of 1,300 students per day coming to school, or an average of 10 students per school.

“For many of these students not being in school presents a risk that cannot be mitigated the way the risk of COVID can,” Walsh said. The highest-needs students include those with disabilities who require in-person supports, English language learners, homeless students and those in the custody of the Department of Children and Families.

Massachusetts Publishes Updated Reopening Guidance for Step 2 of Phase 3

Seyfarth Synopsis – On September 29, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker  issued Executive Order 51, outlining the process for “lower risk communities” to advance to Step Two of Phase Three of the Commonwealth’s reopening plan. Under the Governor’s Order, communities with an average daily COVID-19 incidence rate of 8 or fewer per 100,000 residents will be classified as “lower risk communities.”

In accordance with the governor’s order, on September 30 and October 1, the commonwealth issued updated sector-specific reopening guidance for businesses moving into Step Two of Phase Three, effective October 5. The commonwealth issued updated guidelines for the following sectors: retailers, lodging operators, arcades and other outdoor recreational facilities, fitness centers, indoor and outdoor events, golf facilities, and close contact personal services. Notable changes to the sector specific guidelines include:

Retailers in lower risk communities are permitted to open fitting rooms in all retail stores within such lower risk communities. Under prior guidance, retailers were only permitted to open fitting rooms if the fitting rooms were necessary for their operations.

The new guidance allows lodging providers to resume providing non-essential amenities such as coffee, guest-facing water, and coat rooms. Valets must also provide hand sanitizer and must use hand sanitizer before and after parking vehicles.

Fitness centers in lower risk communities are permitted to operate with increased capacity. Fitness center customers are no longer required to wear face masks while engaging in strenuous activity, provided that they can remain 14 feet apart from other customers during exercise. Attendees of group exercise classes must also maintain 14 feet of social distance during exercise, unless physical barriers are installed, in which case 6 feet of social distance must be maintained.

The updated guidance for arcades and other outdoor recreation businesses permits businesses in lower risk communities to operate certain activities with greater capacity, including batting cages, driving ranges, bowling alleys and others. In addition, businesses in lower risk communities that operate roller skating rinks, trampolines, obstacle courses, laser tag arenas, and escape rooms are permitted to resume operations.

Outdoor events in public settings within lower risk communities are permitted to take place with up to 100 attendees. For outdoor gatherings involving more than 50 attendees, the event organizers must notify the local Board of Health one week prior to the event. Notice to the local Board of Health must include the location and time of the planned event, the name and contact information of the event organizer, and the number of anticipated attendees. Attendees of any indoor or outdoor event must maintain 6 feet of physical distance between other attendees not within the same household.

State Gives Final Round of Outdoor-Dining Grants as More Restaurants Close

CBS Boston – Just as Boston learns more restaurants are falling victim to the pandemic, state officials are doling out the final round of grant money to help set up outdoor dining areas on sidewalks and streets across Massachusetts.

“People feel safer outside, and so we’re hoping to have this space activated well into the winter,” said Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll, inside the Olde Main Street Pub, which was one of many grant recipients. It’s called the Shared Streets and Spaces Program. The Massachusetts Department of Transportation put $10 million toward expanding sidewalks into streets to make room for pedestrians, bicyclists, and diners.

Stoddard’s Fine Food and Ale in Downtown Crossing closed. The Cheers replica bar in Faneuil Hall held an online auction Tuesday to sell memorabilia after it went out of business. There’s a “closed” sign up at The Kinsale Irish Pub and Restaurant in Government Center.

Operation Warp Speed Seeks to Immunize Population by 2021

Boston Herald – Top health experts working to educate the public about the complex vaccine approval and distribution process joined in a Tuesday webinar in which the head of Operation Warp Speed said its goal is to immunize the American population against COVID-19 by 2021.

“Our mission is to deliver approved vaccines to the American people before the end of the year, and in enough quantities so as to immunize the U.S. population potentially by 2021 or slightly later,” said Moncef Slaoui, chief adviser of Operation Warp Speed, the federal public-private partnership aimed at creating a vaccine.

Slaoui said the process of stockpiling millions of vaccine doses already has begun, and in November tens of millions of doses of each of the eight Operation Warp Speed vaccine candidates will be stockpiled.

The candidates include those made by Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca, Sanofi, Pfizer, Novavax and two more that have not yet been named as they are not yet proven effective, according to Slaoui.

Pandemic Rules Restrict Budget Savings from MassHealth

State House News reported, When Gov. Charlie Baker first entered office more than five years ago, he faced what he saw as a challenging budget landscape with spending outpacing tax collections by $1.8 billion and the state reliant on one-time funding sources to balance it off.

So in his first budget, he proposed a solution that included wringing $750 million in savings from the state’s Medicaid program, known as MassHealth, which covers predominantly low-income residents and families.

He did that, in large part, by undertaking a process that hadn’t been done in years to comb through the rolls of MassHealth membership and find people who were no longer eligible and costing the state money. When the process was over, Baker had trimmed enrollment by roughly 250,000 and saved the state hundreds of millions of dollars.

But with Massachusetts once again teetering on the edge of a potential budget crisis, MassHealth and its roughly $17 billion budget will be a harder well to tap for savings in fiscal 2021 if the state, as projected by some, confronts a gap of up to $5 billion in lost revenues from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act passed by Congress in March at the start of the pandemic included a “maintenance of effort” provision, or MOE, that prohibited states that elected to accept enhanced federal Medicaid payments of 6.2 percent for certain populations from removing anyone from their health insurance rolls.

The MOE is scheduled to remain in place for as long as there is a declared federal health emergency, which the Trump administration extended last week until at least Jan. 22, 2021.

Agency Urges Courts to Intervene on Evictions

State House News – The Massachusetts judiciary should intervene to prevent a potential surge of tens of thousands of housing removals that could hit when the state’s temporary ban on evictions and foreclosures expires this month, a regional planning agency urged in a new report.

At least 80,000 households in Massachusetts, including both renters and homeowners, will struggle to cover the costs of both housing and basic needs this month, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council concluded after studying unemployment and Census Bureau data

With the moratorium expiring on Oct. 17, it is likely too late for policy solutions such as increasing rental assistance, offering legal assistance to tenants, or implementing foreclosure protection for struggling landlords, the council representing 101 cities and towns in the greater Boston region said.

Instead, the group directed its message to the state’s Housing Court and to the Baker administration.

Judicial leaders should delay all non-essential eviction hearings until at least Jan. 1, MAPC said, and Gov. Charlie Baker – who has already indicated he may not keep the ban in place – should use his authority to extend the moratorium to the end of the year.

“Without federal, state, or court intervention, Massachusetts is likely to see a significant wave of evictions and foreclosures in the coming months,” MAPC authors wrote in the report published Monday.

“As a result, more people may find themselves homeless or living in overcrowded housing — circumstances that contribute to the spread of COVID-19 and may extend the length of the pandemic. Small landlords unable to cover mortgage payments due to lost rent may be forced to sell their rental properties, accelerating the consolidation of the rental real estate market under the control of large corporate owners and trusts.”

Baker Administration Launches Second Round of Nursing Home Reform

Mass Insider — The Baker Administration has begun implementing its second round of comprehensive nursing home reforms to keep older adults safe, improve the standards of care and infection control, and respond to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

As part of the Accountability and Supports Package 2.0 announced in September, the first phase includes $82 million in restructured Medicaid rates and immediate steps to eliminate 3 and 4 bed rooms in nursing homes. In addition, the state released updated surveillance testing guidance for nursing homes and rest homes and announced new funding for assisted living residences (ALRs) to support surveillance testing.

The Administration also announced strengthened flu vaccine requirements for staff at nursing homes, rest homes, ALRs, adult day health programs, and dialysis units to protect vulnerable residents and providers.

More than 55,500 older adults live in 700 nursing homes, rest homes, and ALRs in Massachusetts. The Administration has taken significant action to support these residents throughout the COVID-19 emergency, and the actions announced today reinforce the state’s commitment to improving care for these residents both during the pandemic and long-term.

October 6

Massachusetts Schools Report 97 COVID Cases Among Students, Teachers

WBUR – The first snapshot of coronavirus cases as schools reopen in Massachusetts shows there were 97 COVID-19 cases reported over the last week.

The cases were reported to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education from Thursday, Sept. 24 to Wednesday, Sept. 30. Sixty-three of those cases were students spread out over 41 districts. The remaining 34 coronavirus cases were staff members who were spread out over 21 districts and three special education schools.

Only districts that are offering 100% in-person learning or hybrid models are required to report positive cases among students. Staff reports include school personnel who have been in the building seven days prior to the report of their positive case.

State Education Commissioner Jeff Riley said most of the positive COVID-19 reports have been “one-offs” and there is no indication yet that the virus is spreading within school communities.

More Than 1,200 Virus Cases Confirmed Over Weekend

State House News – Public health officials reported more than 1,200 additional COVID-19 cases and 20 confirmed deaths in Massachusetts over the weekend, adding to the state’s caseload amid a steady uptick in transmission.

The Department of Public Health confirmed 600 new cases on Saturday from 13,813 individuals newly tested, a positive test rate of about 4.3 percent. On Sunday, the department reported 626 new cases from 18,981 individuals tested, a positive rate of about 3.3 percent. Saturday’s report counted 17 confirmed fatalities and Sunday’s added another three, bringing the state’s total number of deaths among confirmed COVID-19 cases to 9,295.

When counting both confirmed and probable COVID-19 deaths, the toll stood at 9,510 as of Sunday.

The number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients dropped by five in Saturday’s report and then increased by 22 in Sunday’s to 438, which is 30 more than one week earlier. The seven-day weighted average positive test rate, which DPH calculates based on all tests that come back positive and not the number of individuals who test positive, remained at 1.1 percent Sunday, where it has been since last week.

Amid the increases, Massachusetts communities deemed “lower-risk” based on incidence rates of the highly infectious virus can proceed Monday into the next phase of economic reopening, which includes allowing indoor performance venues to reopen and increasing some business capacity limits. Twenty-nine municipalities, including the state’s four largest cities, are not permitted to advance and must continue to operate under current restrictions.

Small Businesses Shortchanged on SBA Economic Injury Loans

Boston Business Journal – Hundreds of thousands of businesses that applied for the Small Business Administration’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan program were ultimately given less than they needed, according to a Government Accountability Office review of the program.

When the SBA first started providing loans in the middle of March, it limited the loans to six months of working capital, capping the amounts at $500,000 even though the program was originally being advertised to cover loans of up to $2 million. The small business agency then lowered the loan limit to just $15,000 on April  but reversed that decision a few days later. On May 4, the agency lowered the loan limit to $150,000, where it has remained since.

That cap meant that many businesses did not get loans for the amount of the actual economic injury, according to the GAO. In all, the SBA approved 7,000 Economic Injury Disaster Loans for $500,000 and another 459,000 loans capped at $150,000 each, when the economic injury in those cases was greater than that, GAO said in its report.

Baker: Reserves, Borrowing Not Needed for Fiscal 2020

State House News – State tax collections in the fiscal year that ended June 30 came up about $693 million short of expectations, mostly driven by an evaporation of sales tax revenue, Gov. Charlie Baker said as he filed a bill to close the books on fiscal year 2020 without borrowing or tapping the state’s reserves.

The $424 million supplemental budget (HD 5307) carries a net state cost of $197 million, which Baker said is mostly to cover expenses at MassHealth, the state’s Medicaid program.

The governor said Massachusetts does not need to dip into its $3.5 billion Stabilization Fund to close the books on FY20 in part because state spending, which is managed by the executive branch, was slowed in the spring as the COVID-19 pandemic upended state programs.

Baker said the FY20 budget shortfall “was less severe than some had feared” in part because businesses and employees generally adapted well to remote working and others were kept afloat with unemployment insurance, which contributed to income tax withholding revenues meeting expectations set before the pandemic hit. 

SBA chief hopeful more relief dollars will flow

The Boston Globe – If members of Congress need a good reason to reach an accord on a new stimulus package, they should pay a visit to Ernie Campbell’s Jamaican eatery on Centre Street, across from the Jackson Square T station.

Sales at Campbell’s Jamaica Mi Hungry restaurant have finally bounced back to prepandemic levels. But revenue from the catering and food-truck side of his business remains negligible, with events all but nonexistent and few office workers returning to downtown Boston.

He has brought back 15 workers, about half of what he had before COVID-19 disrupted everything in March, although he still plans to go forward with opening a second shop in Allston next week. He has already received a $150,000 forgivable loan through the federal Paycheck Protection Program, established by Congress in March. But he sure could use another one.

That’s one reason Jovita Carranza, head of the Small Business Administration, swung by on Thursday. Carranza was making the rounds in Boston, as part of a broader tour to meet with recipients of PPP loans and other forms of SBA assistance.

Carranza said in an interview that she’s hopeful a deal on a new stimulus package can be reached in Washington, based on her conversation Wednesday with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, who has been negotiating with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The Democrat-led House and Republican-led Senate have been far apart for months on how much to spend and where to spend it.

Significant Delays Forecast for New Orange, Red Line Fleets

State House News – The full transformation of the Red and Orange Line fleets will be delayed by at least a year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and pre-existing manufacturing issues, MBTA officials announced Monday.

Under its contract with Chinese manufacturer CRRC, the MBTA expected to have a fleet of new Orange Line cars delivered by January 2022 and a fleet of new Red Line cars by September 2023. The Orange Line delivery is now projected to be 15 months late and arrive in April 2023, while the Red Line set is running a year late and is expected to be done in September 2024, according to MBTA Deputy General Manager Jeff Gonneville.

With those delays, the T also pushed back its target for running trains more frequently with shorter headways to summer 2023 for the Orange Line and winter 2024 for the Red Line. Gonneville said the T’s contract with CRRC includes language allowing the agency to seek damages for delays and that officials intend to explore its possible application.

Healey Calls on Congress to Require Airlines to Pay Refunds to Consumers Who Cancel Their Flights During the Pandemic

Mass Insider – Attorney General Maura Healey announced her office joined a multistate coalition in urging Congress to put conditions on any future bailout of the airlines, including paying refunds to consumers who cancel their flights because of the COVID-19 pandemic and giving state attorneys general the authority to hold airlines accountable for harming consumers.

In a letter sent to leaders of the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate yesterday, 40 attorneys general called on Congress to couple important consumer protection requirements with any new federal aid provided to the American airline industry as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing economic crisis.

“The COVID-19 pandemic derailed travel plans for millions of people across the globe and left families unsure of how to get their money back from airlines,” said Healey.

“If Congress is going to bailout the airline industry for a second time, it should require refunds for the consumers who are not able to travel during a public health crisis.”

The AG’s Office has received thousands of travel-related complaints since the COVID-19 pandemic forced consumers to cancel trips and vacations and ground the airline industry to a halt. The attorneys general write in today’s letter that while the CARES Act provided for strong taxpayer protections when it allocated federal relief for the airline industry, not all airlines are treating consumers fairly.

In fact, consumers have continued to complain to state attorneys general that airlines have failed to refund them in a timely manner or provide them with a way to redeem vouchers and credits when flights were cancelled or significantly delayed. These failures by the airline industry have led to consumers losing thousands of dollars, the attorneys general contend.

October 1

Governor Takes Additional Steps to Re-Open Economy

State House News – Indoor performances and recreational activities such as laser tag can resume next week in Massachusetts communities with low COVID-19 transmission rates, and many businesses will also be permitted to increase their capacities, Gov. Charlie Baker announced Tuesday.

On the same day that a coalition of public health experts and workers’ rights advocates urged Baker to implement additional precautions amid growing COVID-19 spread, the governor signed an executive order pushing Massachusetts forward in its phased reopening plan.

His order will loosen a range of restrictions, but only in communities deemed “lower risk” based on three weeks of municipal-level infection data that the administration uses to produce its color-coded risk charts.

“We’ve learned a lot from watching what’s going on in other states, especially in the northeast region, and similar changes elsewhere have not led to significant transmission there,” Baker said at a press conference.

Starting on Monday, Oct. 5 in those lower-risk communities, indoor performance venues can reopen at 50 percent capacity, topping out at 250 people, while outdoor performance venues already open can increase their capacity to the same levels.

Many other recreational activities can also resume, including trampoline parks, obstacle courses, roller rinks and laser tag, at half capacity in the same list of approved cities and towns.

The order also includes changes for businesses that are already operational. Retail stores can open their fitting rooms, while gyms, museums, libraries, and both driving and flight schools can increase the allowable numbers of patrons to half of their capacity.

Read AIM Blog for Details 

Stimulus Talks Resume With $2.2 Billion Proposal

State House News – Republicans and Democrats in Washington D.C. are talking again about a fiscal stimulus bill, with a $2.2 billion proposal offered by House Democrats tentatively marked for a vote.

House Democrats say they have come down substantially from the size of the stimulus bill they approved in May and called for the White House and Senate Republicans to show a willingness to compromise in negotiations.

“We’re going to try and arrive at a meaningful agreement in the next few days,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus.

“House Democrats are united around the legislation that could be on the floor as early as this afternoon and will remain united until we get something done on behalf of the American people.” Jeffries pointed to expected talks Wednesday between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and said he was encouraged that Mnuchin referenced a $2 billion bill as worthy of consideration in the ongoing negotiations.

“Now, we’ve already come down approximately $1.2 trillion,” said Jeffries. “And that is where we’ve drawn a line in the sand as outlined in our legislation. We’ll see what the discussion is like between Speaker Pelosi and Secretary Mnuchin. But we’ve shown flexibility. We need to see the White House and Senate Republicans show some flexibility as well.”

Mnuchin has been reviewing the House proposal over the last day or two, Jeffries said.

COVID Disruption May Create School Enrollment Changes

State House News – The COVID-19 pandemic’s disruption across the education system could lead to enrollment changes in some school districts, the state’s education commissioner said Tuesday.

“We are hearing anecdotally that many parents of kindergarten children, or some parents of kindergarten children, have chosen to keep their kids home for another year and then start kindergarten the year after, so you may see lower kindergarten numbers this year,” Commissioner Jeff Riley said at a Board of Elementary and Secondary Education meeting.

“We’re also hearing in some communities that some families have chosen to go to private or Catholic school, if that private or Catholic school is opening up full in-person and their district is not.”

District enrollment numbers are based on the student population as of Oct. 1, and Riley said those figures and comparisons to the previous school year will likely be available to discuss at the board’s November meeting.

Also at the November meeting, board members plan to check back in on regulations they approved Tuesday around student learning time. The amended regulations – initially adopted in June on an emergency basis, and later revised after a public comment period – address issues around remote learning and delivering education during a state of emergency.

Walsh Blames Boston’s Red Label on Irresponsibility

State House News – Boston will move into the highest-risk category when health officials release updated COVID-19 transmission statistics and Mayor Martin Walsh said that a recent and sharp rise in coronavirus activity is due in large part to “irresponsibility.”

The positive test rate in Boston jumped in the last week from 2.7 percent to 3.5 percent, Walsh said Wednesday, and the average number of daily tests has dropped. The mayor said the capital city has not seen an increase like that “in quite some time” and is now dealing with “small outbreaks due to parties, due to college students, due to, quite honestly, irresponsibility.”

“I do get frustrated because here we are today laying down millions of dollars to open school, we have businesses on the verge of bankruptcy, we have restaurants that need to open up, we have arts venues that need to open up, we have people that have to come back to work and we’re in the process of [being] concerned about do we have to shut everything down again because 25 here, 25 there, 25 people over here decided to get together and have a party and raise the number in Boston to get us to the red point,” the mayor said. “That’s irresponsible, so I guess I can say I am frustrated, and I’m concerned.”

Parents Seek In-Person Learning in Low-Risk Communities

State House News – The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education kicked off its first in-person meeting since February with testimony from a pair of parents dissatisfied with the hybrid learning models in place in their communities that have COVID-19 positivity rates below the state average.

Andover parent Stephanie Sweet said her family is now “spending thousands of dollars a month to send our three kids, ages six and under, to private facilities so that we can access full-time, in-person models for them.”

“The fact that this is our only option is simply unacceptable,” Sweet said. She said Andover’s nine private kindergartens are fully reopen, and urged education officials to rethink some of their guidance – like rules limiting the number of children who can be transported on one bus – so that it would be easier for areas with low infection rates to bring kids into schools.

David Goldstone said high school in Newton, which his daughters attend, is offering remote learning, with no date set to open in-person. There is less homework and an “incomplete curriculum,” he said, and students are isolated.

“The schools are abandoning our children,” he said. “Watching these harms inflicted on our daughters is the saddest experience we’ve had as parents.”

School reopening decisions have been largely left to local officials, though the Baker administration has been pushing for at least some in-person schooling in communities deemed to have lower risks of COVID-19 spread.

Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeff Riley planned to discuss reopening later at Tuesday’s board meeting. “Each community is unique in terms of its own data, right, so we know that that’s the case, and it’s also unique in terms of its ability to bargain between its school committee and its teachers,” board chair Katherine Craven said.

Renewed Push Afoot to Boost Local Health Infrastructure

State House News – Saying improvements to local public health infrastructure won’t happen quickly enough under a law signed in April, lawmakers and advocates are backing new legislation seeking additional reforms.

A bipartisan bill that will filed Wednesday by Reps. Denise Garlick and Hannah Kane and Sen. Jo Comerford would set baseline public health standards for all 351 cities and towns, dedicate state funding to local health departments, launch a uniform data collection system statewide, and create incentives aimed at sharing health services across communities.

Joining public health advocates and local health officials at a virtual press conference, the lawmakers said the bill — the StatewideAccelerated Public Health for Every Community 2.0 Act — will build on its five-month-old predecessor.

Local departments have done their best to respond during the COVID-19 pandemic, but local health infrastructure in the state is fragmented and many communities do not have the funding or support they need, speakers said.

“The pandemic has laid bare to all the inequities that many of us had already realized existed, and it’s important to note these inequities were not formed during this pandemic, but in all the days leading to it,” said Kane, a Republican from Shrewsbury.

“The Massachusetts decentralized model has led to inadequate and inconsistent public health protections, and our state is one of the only to not provide dedicated state funding to local public health departments.”

September 29

Bar Seating, Increased Group Sizes Take Effect in Restaurants

WHDH – Restaurant owners said they are eager to re-open bar seating for the first time since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, but that more help from the government is needed to keep them afloat.

Seating at the bar must be used for food service, not just alcohol service. Gov. Charlie Baker is also expanding group seating from six to 10 people.

Not all cities and towns are allowing the expansion, with Boston and Worcester both holding back. But Alex Hage, manager of the Backroom and Pollo Club restaurants in Waltham, said the expanded capacity would be a big help for his business.

“We have been waiting for this since the shutdown, we are excited and waiting for it,” Hage said.

However, Bob Luz, president of the Massachusetts Restaurants Association, said restaurants need increased federal funding to stay in business.

“Really, what restaurants need is a second round of PPE funding to come from the federal government so they afford these extra costs that continue to mount in order to take care of our guests,” Luz said.

Boston Fed Chief Sees Need for Fiscal, Monetary Stimulus

Bond Buyer – A “fragile” economy and expectations for a more gradual-than-forecast recovery mean “fiscal- and monetary-policy stimulus are essential,” Federal Reserve Bank of Boston President Eric Rosengren said Wednesday.

“While I expect the economy to recover in time, my own expectation is that it will be more gradual than the median forecast of FOMC participants,” Rosengren said in a speech hosted by the Boston Economic club, according to prepared text of remarks released by the Fed.

“Several challenges” on the horizon led to his more pessimistic view, including the possibility of a second wave of coronavirus infections, “which could cause some states to impose new restrictions on mobility and face-to-face interactions.”

Another round of infections, even if there are no shutdowns, will keep consumers and businesses from spending, he said.

Fiscal relief, which is needed but appears “increasingly unlikely to materialize anytime soon” remains a headwind. And if fiscal assistance comes after a second wave of illness, its “impact on the economy would probably not be realized until early next year,” Rosengren said.

US to Ship Millions of Tests in Push to Re-Open K-12 School

The Associated Press — President Donald Trump announced that the federal government will begin distributing millions of rapid coronavirus tests to states this week and urging governors to use them to re-open schools for students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

The move to vastly expand U.S. testing comes as confirmed new COVID-19 cases remain elevated at more than 40,000 per day and experts warn of a likely surge in infections during the colder months ahead. It also comes just five weeks before the November election, with Trump facing continued criticism for his handling of the crisis.

The tests will go out to states based on their population and can be used as governors see fit, but the administration encourages states to place a priority on schools. A senior administration official with knowledge of the plans told The Associated Press that 6.5 million tests will go out this week and that a total of 100 million tests will be distributed to governors over the next several weeks.

The administration is emphasizing testing in schools because it’s important to the physical, social and emotional development of students to be back in classrooms to the degree that’s possible. The Abbott Laboratories tests would allow teachers, for example, to be tested on a weekly basis, or for parents to know whether their symptomatic child has COVID-19, the official said. In some cases, states could undertake some baseline surveillance, like testing a proportion of students per week or per month to make sure that the incidence of COVID-19 is low.

The tests will come from a previously announced supply of 150 million ordered from Abbott. The company’s rapid test, the size of a credit card, is the first that does not require specialty computer equipment to process. It delivers results in about 15 minutes.

Municipalities Weigh Risks, Rewards of Re-Opening Facilities

State House News – As the weather turns colder, some Massachusetts cities and towns are setting plans to re-open their facilities to the public. Others don’t plan to fully reopen municipal buildings anytime soon and say some of the new ways they’ve been connecting with residents could be here to stay.

As of Aug. 10, at least 35 communities had re-opened their city and town halls to walk-in service, with some operating on reduced hours, according to a voluntary survey compiled by the Massachusetts Municipal Association. The survey indicates that a larger portion of municipalities have re-opened city and town halls on an appointment-only basis, while most libraries and senior centers remain closed aside from curbside service and virtual programs.

Bellingham’s town hall has been open to the public since mid-June, though the town is encouraging residents to do their business online when possible, Town Administrator Denis Fraine told the News Service. Before reopening for walk-in service, officials had to make sure Bellingham had enough cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment on hand, as well as the necessary staffing to handle increased cleaning protocols, Fraine said.

The town has also reopened its library on a limited basis, with some areas, such as the computer kiosks, still shut down. The facilities haven’t seen nearly as much traffic as they would prior to the pandemic, Fraine said, but residents are glad to have the option.

“A lot of people like to come in and visit the Town Hall. They have questions they don’t want to deal with on the phone, they want to come in in person,” Fraine said. “Given the setup that we have in our foyer, where all the customer services are, we were able to do that, we think very safely, and haven’t had any problems so far.”

Emergency Child-Care Centers Kept Virus in Check

The Boston Globe – As schools and day-care centers were shuttered last spring to slow the spread of the coronavirus, hundreds of emergency child-care centers stayed open to serve the children of essential workers, even amid concerns that little was known about the risk of infection and transmission among children.

Now, newly released state data show that few cases of coronavirus spread within those centers, a feat that experts attribute to careful adherence to health and safety protocols, and that could provide insight to schools, day cares, and learning pods that are re-opening their doors to children.

Only nine of the 550 emergency child-care centers reported more than a single case of COVID-19 from March through May, according to data provided by the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care.

To date, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health believes there are only a few cases in which COVID-19 transmission occurred within child-care centers.

“Because COVID numbers remain relatively low in Massachusetts, the risk of COVID transmission in any setting, including child-care settings, exists but remains low,” said public health spokeswoman Ann Scales.

At centers that did see the virus last spring, some program directors think they were able to contain it by swiftly closing classrooms and recommending 14-day quarantines for teachers and children who had been in close contact. And they believe adherence to the state’s rigorous health and sanitizing standards helped.

Johnson & Johnson, Beth Israel Vaccine Shows Promise

WBUR – Researchers have reported hopeful results from an early clinical trial of a potential coronavirus vaccine developed by a team from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Johnson & Johnson. The company announced earlier this week it has moved forward to field test what could be a the first single-shot vaccine for the virus in a third and final phase clinical trial.

The completion of the early phase clinical trial suggested the vaccine is safe and may provide protection against COVID-19, according to the researchers.

The early phase trial involved two groups of roughly 400 people each and was designed to test safety and probe the vaccine’s potential. The researchers published the results online on Friday.

While the work has not yet been peer-reviewed, Boston University immunologist Dr. Chris Gill — who did not work on the vaccine — says the trial provided evidence the vaccine is safe but that further work is needed to show if one dose will be sufficient.

AAA: Lower Gas Prices Likely to Continue as Virus Reduces Travel

State House News – At $2.11 per gallon, Massachusetts gas prices this week are down four cents a gallon from a month ago and 49 cents a gallon compared to a year ago, according to AAA Northeast. Gas prices here dropped by a penny over the past week and are seven cents a gallon below the national average.

“Low demand, even as gasoline stocks decline, has helped pump prices decline or hold steady on the week,” said AAA’s Mark Schieldrop. “That is likely to continue into the fall as the season sees fewer road trips, especially amid the pandemic.”

The Massachusetts House in March approved a bill (H 4508) designed to raise between $522 million and $612 million per year by increasing the state’s 24 cents a gallon taxes on gasoline and diesel by five cents and nine cents, respectively. Senate Democrats have chosen not to take that bill up, though it remains alive technically.

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically altered work and transportation patterns, with many people working from home and staying off the roads and public transportation and others opting to travel by car rather than using public transportation. A major loss of riders is forcing the MBTA to rethink its service and fare options.

September 24

Click here to take the AIM survey (7-10 minutes)

AIM webinar with Senate Ways and Means Chair Michael Rodrigues moderated by Brooke Thomson, EVP for Government Affairs

Governor: Use Three Weeks of Data to Decide Schooling Models

State House News – Amplifying his administration’s desire to see more children return to school, Gov. Charlie Baker is turning up the pressure on cities and towns with low COVID-19 transmission rates, urging them to stick with their plans for in-person learning and not make snap decisions based on a single party or cluster of infections.

Baker on Wednesday chided districts that opted to begin the school year with remote-only learning despite very small infection rates in their communities, telling them that the science supports a return to the classroom.

“Local officials run their local schools. We understand that,” Baker said at a press conference in Lowell. “But the state has an obligation to ensure that local officials are providing the best possible education in these difficult circumstances to kids in their communities.”

The governor’s comments came after Education Commission Jeff Riley sent a letter to 16 school districts last Friday that fall into the state’s lowest categories for COVID-19 but have not reopened schools for in-person learning. The state gave those districts 10 days to submit a plan to bring students back to school, and Riley said districts could be audited based on how they respond.

The reopening of schools has been fraught with confusion and anxiety. Teachers have expressed concern about returning to classrooms, parents are struggling to balance health risks against job responsibilities, and house parties and other isolated outbreaks have caused some districts to rethink their strategies.

While Baker has deferred to local authorities on a lot of decisions about how to enforce state public health guidance during the pandemic, his administration has taken a more forceful approach when it comes to schooling.

Lawmakers Send COVID-19 Workers’ Comp Bills to Study

State House News – Massachusetts businesses are in line to save on workers’ compensation insurance over the next year while efforts in the Legislature to expand the ability of workers to tap into those benefits for COVID-19 care appear to have hit a dead end.

Workers’ compensation coverage for COVID-19 in Massachusetts is limited to situations in which “the hazard of contracting such diseases by an employee is inherent in the employment,” the attorney general’s office said, meaning health care workers like nurses are likely to be covered.

As of late August, officials in at least 15 states had passed legislation, issued executive orders or enacted other administrative policy changes to directly address workers’ compensation coverage of COVID-19, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In Massachusetts, the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development this month put two workers’ compensation bills — H 4749 from New Bedford Rep. Chris Hendricks and H 4739 from Bedford’s Rep. Ken Gordon and Cambridge Rep. David Rogers — into a study order, effectively spelling the end of the line for those bills during this extended legislative session.

Hendricks wrote in May that he filed his bill “to fast-track workers compensation benefits for frontline health care workers during the COVID-19 crisis” and asked Gov. Charlie Baker to issue an executive order to streamline workers’ compensation claims and create a rebuttable presumption that any essential worker infected with COVID-19 contracted the virus while on the job.

“As the law stands today, front-line workers are already able to file workers compensation claims related to COVID-19 diagnoses. However, these employees will unfortunately have the burden of showing that the COVID-19 diagnosis was a result of their job. This will lead to insurance companies denying claims en masse, because – while it is obvious that these diagnoses are the result of being on the front-lines – it is nearly impossible to show where the COVID-19 molecule was actually ingested,” Hendricks wrote in a May letter to Baker. “In short, the current threshold will be too high for these workers. We owe it to them to ease this burden.”

Under Hendricks’ bill, as well as Gordon’s, infected frontline workers would become eligible for immediate wage relief in the form of 60 percent of their average weekly wage, as well as 100 percent of COVID-19-related medical care at Department of Industrial Accidents rates.

“During a time when our unemployment benefits system will be challenged in ways that we have never seen before, it is crucial that we ease that administrative burden by rightfully directing these cases into the workers’ compensation system,” Hendricks wrote.

The committee’s dismissal of the bills could keep the landscape steady for businesses, which stand to save on workers’ compensation insurance costs thanks to a recent state approval of rate with an average reduction of 6.8 percent.

The Workers’ Compensation Rating and Inspection Bureau of Massachusetts, an industry group that represents hundreds of member carriers, filed its request for an average 3.8 percent decrease in workers’ compensation premiums, effective July 1, 2020, back in December. By late January, the WCRIBMA, the State Rating Bureau and the attorney general’s office had started negotiating a possible settlement.

On March 13, the parties filed a stipulation that provided for a 6.8 percent reduction in the existing overall average workers’ comp insurance rates for policies effective July 1, 2020. The presiding officer from the Division of Insurance ruled March 24 that the stipulation would provide for classifications and rates that are “not excessive, inadequate, or unfairly discriminatory for the risk to which they respectively apply, and fall within a range of reasonableness.” On March 27, Commissioner of Insurance Gary Anderson affirmed the ruling.

“We appreciate the collaboration by all the parties to lower workers’ compensation rates. This relief removes any further delay and uncertainty for policyholders and is especially important for businesses grappling with the economic impact of the COVID-19 public health crisis,” Anderson said in a statement in March.

Though there are some exceptions, most Massachusetts businesses are required to purchase workers’ compensation insurance to cover lost wages and other expenses for employees who become injured on the job. The Division of Insurance said the 6.8 percent average decrease in premiums for the next year “will result in savings for business owners across the Commonwealth.”

That’s in stark contrast to what Massachusetts business owners can expect when it comes to unemployment insurance costs. With a jobless rate that was the highest in the nation for two months and as the unemployment insurance trust fund braces for a multibillion-dollar deficit over the next four years as a result, unemployment insurance contributions from businesses are poised to increase nearly 60 percent when the calendar turns to 2021.

State’s Emergency Child-Care Centers kept COVID-19 in Check

The Boston Globe – As schools and day-care centers were shuttered last spring to slow the spread of the coronavirus, hundreds of emergency child-care centers stayed open to serve the children of essential workers, even amid concerns that little was known about the risk of infection and transmission among children.

Now, newly released state data show that few cases of coronavirus spread within those centers — a feat that experts attribute to careful adherence to health and safety protocols, and that could provide insight to schools, day cares, and learning pods that are reopening their doors to children.

Only nine of the 550 emergency child-care centers reported more than a single case of COVID-19 from March through May, according to data provided by the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care.

To date, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health believes there are only a few cases in which COVID-19 transmission occurred within child-care centers.

“Because COVID numbers remain relatively low in Massachusetts, the risk of COVID transmission in any setting, including child-care settings, exists but remains low,” said public health spokeswoman Ann Scales.

At centers that did see the virus last spring, some program directors think they were able to contain it by swiftly closing classrooms and recommending 14-day quarantines for teachers and children who had been in close contact. And they believe adherence to the state’s rigorous health and sanitizing standards helped.

“The risk of exposure in here I don’t think is greater than you going to the supermarket,” said Rony Adams, director of early learning for the Greater Lawrence Community Action Council, whose emergency child-care program at Head Start at the Common reported two adult cases of COVID-19.

“Following all those broader [safety guidelines] has kept us to this point as safe as possible,” Adams said.

The data provide the first glimpse of Massachusetts child-care centers’ experience with the coronavirus and more fodder for parents hungry for information about safety. The newly released records date back to the spring, when most of the state was in lockdown and many of those in emergency care were the children of frontline workers at elevated risk of exposure.

Data newly released by the Department of Public Health since regular child-care centers reopened on June 22 show continued low numbers but pockets of concern. (The Boston Globe is still appealing to the state Supervisor of Records for complete detailed records on those data.)

At the Guild of St. Agnes Salem Covenant site in Worcester, for instance, three children and four teachers tested positive this summer, said deputy director Sharon Fileccia MacDonald. Although the outbreak was contained, the situation illustrated how much disruption even a few cases can cause: Six teachers, 19 children, and a bus driver and monitor all had to quarantine for 14 days, as did a nearby family child-care center where one of the COVID-19 positive teachers sent her child, who also contracted the virus. No one else tested positive at the family child-care center, however, MacDonald said.

During the emergency child-care program in the spring, however, the highest number of COVID-19 cases reported at any emergency child-care program was five. Three early learning teachers tested positive at the YMCA Tower Square in Springfield, in addition to a teacher’s family member. Also testing positive was the day-care director who had helped in the early learning room, noted Dexter Johnson, president and chief executive of the YMCA of Greater Springfield.

“The experience made it clear to us that the guidelines that were in place needed to extend beyond the classroom,” Johnson said in an e-mail. “We had to apply those same guidelines to interaction between staff in offices, at the coffee shop or in the parking lot.”

All the families in the affected classroom were notified and told to stay out for 14 days, he said.

In those early months, some centers took more drastic action than required as they worked to contain the virus.

When an educator at Nurtury Horadan Way in Roxbury warned of a potential exposure outside school, the center notified parents, had all teachers tested, and shut down for 24 hours.

“We weren’t required to close our center, but we did so just out of an abundance of care and concern,” said Jaye Smith, chief advancement officer for Nurtury, which operates six centers and two family child-care programs in the area. When tests came back positive for two more educators in a different classroom, the center shut down again. Both classrooms quarantined for 14 days, she said.

At the YMCA Kids Stop in West Roxbury, one student and a parent tested positive in April, said James Morton, president and chief executive of the YMCA of Greater Boston.

“If you think about the fact that we provided 130 hours of care to the children of essential workers, those are pretty good outcomes in terms of mitigating the exposure to COVID-19,” said Morton, who noted the Y is building off the experience to open learning pods for Boston Public Schools students this fall.

At Head Start at the Common in Lawrence, a 14-day quarantine was imposed even though it was unclear whether the teacher had been contagious when last in the classroom, said Adams. Only one other teacher tested positive, said Adams.

She attributes the containment largely to strict safety protocols: Children and staff must remain in their classrooms. Floaters no longer fill in for teachers’ breaks in multiple rooms. Teachers wear masks, face shields or goggles, scrubs and gloves, and children have been surprisingly compliant about wearing masks, social distancing ,and frequent hand-washing, Adams said.

Children are less likely to become seriously ill from COVID-19, but they do catch and spread the virus, research has shown. Little has been published to date on the risks of transmission in child-care settings, often considered petri dishes of other types of contagion. A study of Rhode Island child-care centers revealed minimal transmission. Another, published this month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, showed that children who caught the coronavirus at day-care centers and a day camp did indeed bring the virus home to their relatives.

Dr. Kristin L. Moffitt, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Boston Children’s Hospital, said that taken together with other studies, “the limited data available so far do suggest that transmission in day-care centers is low, especially when risk mitigation practices are followed and closely adhered to.”

But while classroom closures and quarantines may minimize transmission within centers, she noted, contact tracing is still necessary to confirm whether students and staff are bringing the virus home to others. Children often show no symptoms, for example, and their infections might be missed, without testing.

“It will be critical that data from day-care centers continue to be tracked, ideally in combination with follow-up contact tracing and testing,” to confirm the effectiveness of the safety protocols, she said.

The Globe previously reported that 64 cases of COVID-19 emerged at 47 different emergency child-care programs, making spread seem unlikely. It was not until this month, however — after the Globe twice appealed to the state Supervisor of Records — that the state’s early education department provided the number of cases within individual child-care centers, making it possible to track potential transmission.

The department has also posted the number of COVID-19 cases reported by child-care centers between June and August, though those data are shown only by region.

In September, the state Department of Public Health also began posting child-care COVID-19 data. However, family child-care programs are not named, in an effort to protect privacy, making it impossible to discern whether the virus spread within those in-home programs.

Restaurants May Increase Seating to 10 Per Table, Serve Food at Bar Spaces

Governor Charlie Baker said Wednesday that starting next week, restaurants can seat up to 10 people at a table and serve food at their bar spaces, as the industry continues to operate on a restricted basis amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Baker made the announcement during a briefing following a tour of Mill City BBQ in Lowell.

The new rules on restaurant seating, he said, take effect Monday. The 10-person limit is up from the prior six-person cap, Baker noted. He also stressed that bar spaces will be available for food service “with the right distance measures in place.”

Baker said that while bars and nightclubs remain closed in Massachusetts, evidence from other states clearly shows restaurants can safely use bar seating for food service when physical-distancing measures are in place.

Virtual Economic Roundtable to Examine Economic Impact of COVID-19

State House News – As the start of the fiscal year 2022 budget-crafting cycle approaches before the Legislature has even dealt with the fiscal year 2021 budget, the Baker administration and legislative budget managers are planning to call economists to Beacon Hill next month for an update on the state’s fiscal health.

Secretary of Administration and Finance Michael Heffernan, Senate Ways and Means Committee Chair Michael Rodrigues and House Ways and Means Committee Chair Aaron Michlewitz announced Tuesday they will hold a virtual economic roundtable Oct. 7 to “discuss the economic impacts and fiscal implications of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.”

Since budget managers expect to gather information for a fiscal 2021 budget at the Oct. 7 roundtable, the announcement Tuesday almost certainly means there will be no plan for the rest of the fiscal year that started July 1 until mid-October at the earliest, and lawmakers will be focused for much of next month on elections.

The three budget managers held a similar roundtable in April, when economists predicted sharp revenue drops and soaring unemployment rates and said the pace and strength of an economic recovery was still up in the air.

“A second economic roundtable will provide valuable insight at a critical point in time as we consider how to best move forward with the remainder of the fiscal year 2021 budget, begin planning for fiscal year 2022, while navigating the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Rodrigues said.

Fiscal year 2021 started July 1 and Massachusetts state government has been operating on a pair of temporary budgets, which don’t include the same kind of spending directives that characterize a typical line-item-filled state budget. The latest interim budget is expected to run out at the end of October.

Rodrigues last week told business leaders he expects a $5 billion revenue tumble this fiscal year and said lawmakers will need to dip “deeply” into state reserves unless new federal aid arrives from Washington. He said the Senate’s goal is to have the fiscal year 2021 budget passed by the end of October.

Not only will lawmakers have to come up with a plan for the rest of fiscal year 2021, but they also have to soon start working on the fiscal year 2022 budget. In a normal year, with the current year budget in the rearview mirror, Heffernan and the Ways and Means Committee chairmen would hold a hearing in early December to begin the process of setting a state revenue assumption for the next budget year by January.

“The economic roundtable that was held in April helped us get a better grasp on the current and future fiscal health of the Commonwealth. Now, as we make our way through the remainder of fiscal year 2021 and look towards fiscal year 2022, it is crucial that we have as clear of a picture as possible before we make any significant budgetary decisions,” Michlewitz said.

The Legislature and governor must also close the books on fiscal year 2020, which ended June 30. The Department of Revenue was still collecting millions of dollars of fiscal 2020 revenue into August and the revenue shortfall for the year is thought to be in the neighborhood of $700 million.

The joint announcement of the Oct. 7 economic roundtable, which was sent by Michlewitz’s office, did not say which organizations or people would be invited to testify. The 10 a.m. roundtable will be held in a State House hearing room but the event, like the State House itself, will not be open to the public. Instead, the event will be livestreamed on the Legislature’s website.

The April economic roundtable featured remarks from Mass. Taxpayers Foundation, Beacon Hill Institute, Mass. Budget and Policy Center, MassBenchmarks editors Michael Goodman and Alan Clayton-Matthews, Tufts University Center for State Policy Analysis, Standard & Poor’s, and Moody’s Analytics.

Early in September, DOR reported that state tax collections are running $124 million or more than 3 percent ahead of their pace one year ago, a potentially promising sign given predictions that receipts could collapse this fiscal year.

The News Service reported Monday on an updated projection from the Center for State Policy Analysis at Tufts University, which suggests a nearly $1.6 billion reduction in anticipated tax revenues in fiscal 2021. Center director Evan Horowitz said its model relies on U.S. gross domestic product projections and was used to project a $700 million fiscal 2020 revenue gap, a figure that appears to roughly match the latest estimates.

MassHealth Enrollment Up More Than 5 Percent in Pandemic

State House News – Enrollment in MassHealth, the state’s Medicaid program, has spiked by about 63,000 people since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in Massachusetts in March, but the overall number of people with health insurance in Massachusetts has remained relatively stable and employer-sponsored coverage has not declined as fast as job losses might indicate.

The Center for Health Information and Analysis has been producing monthly health insurance enrollment summaries to provide a regular snapshot of how the pandemic is impacting access to health insurance.

The latest report released Tuesday shows that from March through July the number of residents of Massachusetts with health insurance climbed slightly from 6.43 million insured in March to 6.45 million in July, up 0.3 percent. While MassHealth saw its enrollment climb 5.4 percent, the private commercial plans that cover more than 4 million residents lost only 1.2 percent of their membership, driven by a decline in employer-sponsored insurance.

Fully-insured large group employer plan membership fell 1.5 percent from June to July alone, the largest monthly decline since the pandemic started. CHIA reported that despite the dip in employer-sponsored coverage, the rate of decline has not matched the loss of jobs in Massachusetts that contributed to Massachusetts having, for two months, the highest unemployment rate in the country.

The agency surmised that not everyone claiming unemployment benefits had insurance through their jobs, and those that did may have been furloughed, allowing them to maintain coverage or switched to a family member’s plan.

Many patients intentionally stayed away from hospitals and other health care providers during the pandemic and Gov. Charlie Baker has said that the state’s most expensive program has also experienced savings in recent months because fewer MassHealth enrollees are getting ill with other viruses or infections thanks to social distancing and mask-wearing.

September 22

CDC Reverses Course on Testing Asymptomatic People

Politico – The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now says that close contacts of people with COVID-19 should be tested, regardless of whether they have symptoms — reversing controversial recommendations it made last month, reportedly over the advice of agency scientists.

CDC’s testing guidelines now bluntly counsel people who have been within six feet of a person “with documented SARS-CoV-2 infection” for at least 15 minutes to get screened. “You need a test,” reads the latest version of the document, released Friday.

“Due to the significance of asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic transmission, this guidance further reinforces the need to test asymptomatic persons, including close contacts of a person with documented SARS-CoV-2 infection,” the guidance also says.

The agency came under fire from public health experts last month when it altered its testing guidelines to stop promoting testing to most asymptomatic people with extended exposure to someone with a confirmed infection. It left the decision about whether to test such people to state and local public health officials and health providers.

In addition to recommending testing for close contacts of sick people, the CDC now says that contacts should self-quarantine at home for 14 days, even if they test negative — and stay away from other household members in a separate bedroom if possible.

Can an Employer Require a COVID Vaccine?

Wall Street Journal – It may be the better part of a year before a Covid-19 vaccine is available to the general U.S. public, but businesses are already wondering whether they can or should require their workforce to be vaccinated, say employment lawyers.

Few companies outside the health-care industry require their staff to be vaccinated against the flu or other communicable diseases as a condition of employment.

But the threat posed by the highly contagious and deadly coronavirus is likely to persuade more companies to consider mandatory vaccine policies, particularly in hospitality and other industries that interact closely with the public.

All states have vaccine requirements for children attending schools or day care, with varying exceptions. And many states have laws requiring influenza immunization for hospital workers and other health-care personnel.

Vaccine Developers Feel Impact of Being in the Spotlight

State House News – With pharmaceutical companies racing to find a COVID-19 vaccine and the world closely watching their progress, scientific experts stressed last week that the clinical trial process must play out in full before a safe immunization can reach the public.

News about the latest vaccine and treatment developments is “front and center every day,” said messagingLAB founder and CEO Karl Schmieder.

“The effort we’re going through right now has never been seen before,” Schmieder said as he kicked off a virtual panel to discuss COVID-19 immunization trials. “We have had pandemics, but we’ve never lived in a world that’s as connected as we are, and the science and the clinical trials and the efforts that are being made – it’s kind of like we’re building an airplane as we’re flying.”

Schmieder pointed to Cambridge-based Moderna sharing a lengthy outline of its COVID-19 vaccine trial and the safety steps it is undertaking and to the decision by Oxford University and AstraZeneca to restart their trial after suspending it due to a possible side effect.

Asked about the message that pausing or halting a trial sends, panelist Audrey Chang said onlookers should not be overly concerned. Delays show, she said, that “it’s biology.”

Baker: Flu Shot Push Based on Health-Care Feedback

State House News – Gov. Charlie Baker’s got a flu shot at a Roslindale CVS last week and pressed Massachusetts residents to get vaccinated against the flu this fall, which he said will be critical to prevent overburdening the state’s health care system with the flu and COVID-19, which share many symptoms.

Baker has mandated that students in Massachusetts, from pre-school to college, and kids who participate in child-care programs, must get their flu vaccine by the end of 2020 but said Thursday that it’s important that others elect to get a flu shot too. The governor said health-care workers began talking with his team about a month ago about what it would mean to have flu activity peak at the same time as a second surge of COVID-19 cases. April’s surge in COVID-19 cases came after the bulk of activity associated with the last flu season.

“The point they made to us at that time was from a diagnostic point of view, from a care delivery point of view, from a capacity point of view, having the flu and COVID-19 surge in the commonwealth at exactly the same time would be an incredibly difficult situation for them to manage their way through and they urged us to step up our game – which is already pretty good relative to most of the states around the country – on flu vaccines,” Baker said.

As of the week ending Sept. 5, Massachusetts was showing “minimal” influenza-like illness activity, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Officials have said it is best to get a flu shot by the end of October since flu activity generally picks up in the late fall. In three-quarters of the 36 flu seasons from 1982-83 through 2017-18, peak flu activity has not occurred until January or later, the CDC said.

“While it’s not possible to say with certainty what will happen in the fall and winter, CDC believes it’s likely that flu viruses and the virus that causes COVID-19 will both be spreading. In this context, getting a flu vaccine will be more important than ever,” the CDC wrote on its website. “CDC recommends that all people 6 months and older get a yearly flu vaccine.”

Many Massachusetts Employers Say ‘No Thanks’ to Trump Payroll-Tax Plan

Boston Business Journal – President Donald Trump gave the green light last month for employers to allow workers to defer paying their portion of payroll taxes from Sept. 1 through the end of the year. His goal is to help goose the economy, with Congress unable to come together to pass another stimulus bill.

But so far, the program has garnered little interest among businesses in Massachusetts and elsewhere. How little? ConnectPay LLC, a Foxborough-based payroll services company, has approximately 4,000 business clients in a range of industries across the U.S. Not a single one of them is deferring employee payroll taxes, ConnectPay CEO Michael Young said.

Interviews with Boston-area business-group executives, accountants and others suggested that few companies are even asking about the payroll-tax deferrals, let alone participating in the program. Mass General Brigham, the state’s largest private employer, told employees last week it would not participate in the deferrals. Wayfair Inc. (NYSE: W), Suffolk University and Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co. are among the other local employers confirmed to be doing the same.

“The companies certainly aren’t enthusiastic about it. I can’t say I’ve really talked to anyone who sees a lot of benefit, even to their employees, in doing it,” said Al Cappelloni, a Boston-based partner at accounting firm RSM U.S. LLP.

Like Young, Cappelloni is not aware of any of his clients who are deferring the taxes. Such a move would allow employees earning less than $104,000 annually to defer the 6.2 percent employee portion of Social Security taxes.

The reason is simple, experts say: Because the taxes are only deferred, they must be paid back. That gives rise to several potential complications. Notably, if an employee leaves a company before the end of the year, the company could be stuck repaying his or her taxes to the government in 2021.

There’s also concern that the deferrals may give employees a short-term boost only to hurt them early next year when they are suddenly saddled with higher-than-usual taxes, at a point when the pandemic will still likely be hurting the economy.

MassMutual is not pursuing the deferrals “as it does not relieve our employees of the liability for the payment of such tax or MassMutual’s obligation to withhold and remit the tax to the IRS, it just defers all such responsibilities to next year,” spokeswoman Julie Staadecker said.

Last week, Mass General Brigham, formerly known as Partners HealthCare, also cited the strain it would put on employees.

It’s not only large companies opting out. ConnectPay, for instance, works primarily with businesses that have fewer than 100 employees and has no clients making the deferrals. When employers are explained the rules, “it takes about seven seconds, and they go, ‘I’m out,’” Young said.

Jon Hurst of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, which works on behalf of many of the state’s small retail shops, said that he had not surveyed members about the deferral, though with many of them trying to just stay alive while complying with Covid-19 restrictions, “it feels like they don’t really need a monkey wrench to worry about right now.”

There is one move that would make many employers rethink their strategy, experts said: if the deferred taxes are forgiven, and employees could just keep the money.

“If a forgiveness component is added to it, you’ll see this whole thing light up really quickly like a Christmas tree,” Young said.

But they said that would take an act of Congress. U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) has proposed a bill to do just that. But given the gridlock in Congress, it’s considered by many to be a long-shot.

Budget Chief  Sees $5 Billion State Revenue Shortfall

State House News –  Despite signs that the state’s finances have not completely cratered during the pandemic, the Senate’s top budget official said he anticipates tax collections in fiscal 2021 to be down $5 billion from last year, and said lawmakers will need to dip “deeply” into the state’s $3.5 billion “rainy day” fund unless new federal aid arrives from Washington.

The state’s uncertain financial picture could start to come into clearer focus in the coming weeks with House and Senate leaders, as well as Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration, preparing to outline a plan to introduce and pass a long-term budget that would carry the state through July of next year.

Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Michael Rodrigues told business leaders that “some major announcements” would be made in the next couple weeks about how Beacon Hill leadership wants to proceed with a fiscal 2021 budget, as well as how to close the books on the fiscal year that ended June 30.

Rodrigues said he is currently working off estimates that tax collections will be down 15 percent to 18 percent from last year in fiscal 2021, compared to the 2.8 percent growth rate projected in January.

“It’s going to be a tough year, but we’ll get through this,” Rodrigues said.

The Westport Democrat made his comments on a webinar hosted by Associated Industries of Massachusetts for its membership as part of a new “Commonwealth Conversations” series produced by the business trade group.

“Within the next couple of weeks we’re going to be making some major announcements relative to putting to bed, finally, the FY21 budget and to close out FY20,” Rodrigues told the business leaders, indicating the announcement would include a “more formal schedule” for budget deliberations.

September 17

Which Issues Matter Most to Your Company?

AIM is preparing to participate in several important public-policy debates this fall as Massachusetts lawmakers return to assess the damage COVID-19 has done to state revenue. Please help us articulate your point of view by taking a brief survey about the current state of your business and the potential effect that various public-policy choices might have on your enterprise.

Click here to take the AIM issues survey

AIM webinar with Senate Ways and Means Chair Michael Rodrigues moderated by Brooke Thomson, EVP for Government Affairs

Boston Mayor Extends Outdoor Dining Season

MassLive – Boston Mayor Marty Walsh on Tuesday announced fee waivers for outdoor propane heaters and crossed his fingers for light weather heading into the winter as he extended the city’s outdoor dining season to support restaurants during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Restaurants using outdoor dining spaces that do not extend onto sidewalks and parking lanes may do so for the duration of the public health crisis, Walsh said. Meanwhile, restaurants already approved through the city’s temporary outdoor dining program to use public sidewalks and parking areas may continue to seat patrons outdoors through Dec. 1, when “when we’ll look at situation again,” Walsh told reporters outside City Hall.

The mayor noted that “outdoor dining is weather-dependent in New England, and, at some point, snow blowers might get in the way.” But he noted that meteorologists had projected a light winter.

To aid restaurants trying to stay afloat during the crisis, the city will waive fees for outdoor propane space heaters. Eateries will still need to get a permit from the fire department, but they will not be charged any fees. Electrical heaters can be used so long as the cords do not stretch over the sidewalks, Walsh added. Earlier this year, Walsh implemented a new ramp initiative to improve accessibility to outdoor dining.

Agencies Scramble to Offer School-Day Child Care

Commonwealth Magazine –  Thousands of Massachusetts students are starting school remotely this fall. Many of their parents are working. Where will those kids go during the day?

The question is one that myriad social-service and child-care organizations are scrambling to address with an unusual amount of collaboration, amid conditions that result in logistical nightmares. Organizations –-many of them serving low-income children –– are creating spaces for school-hours child care with classrooms, staff, and support, often at little or no cost to parents. But it has not been easy.

And then there are the logistics. Imagine 10 second graders in one classroom on their computers attending different schools remotely. Some start class at 7:50 a.m., others at 8:25 a.m., and they have different breaks for lunch and recess. One staff member must help each student log in, focus on their work, and take breaks.

“That’s going to be a little bit of craziness,” said Pam Suprenant, senior executive director of youth development at the YMCA of Central Massachusetts, who is planning for exactly that scenario.

MBTA Considers Permanent Service Cuts

WBUR – The MBTA is considering cutting some service permanently as the transit agency faces major budget challenges due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The proposed service overhaul could mean some riders may have to walk further, transfer more often or switch modes of transit — and potentially, pay more — in the future.

Last month, the MBTA said it expects to have a significant budget gap of at least $308 million and as much as $577 million for fiscal year 2022 (which starts July 1, 2021). The deficit will depend on how many riders return to the system.

Transit officials discussed what service on the system may look like in the future at the T’s Fiscal Management and Control Board meeting Monday. The conversation focused on overall priorities and guidelines, rather than specific service plans.

But it’s clear that transit officials don’t expect the MBTA to offer the same type of service it did before the pandemic.

“We can’t afford to run the system we ran before COVID,” Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said.

Governor Plans to ‘Re-Engage’ Colleges After BC Outbreak

NECN – Governor Charlie Baker said he is reviewing the protocols for coronavirus testing and tracing on college campuses across Massachusetts and plans to “re-engage” with the schools following a recent outbreak at Boston College.

“We spent a lot of time working with the Broad Institute and the [COVID-19] Command Center and colleges and universities to put together a very robust platform for contact tracing,” he said Tuesday.

“And we are currently reviewing all of the protocols associated with testing, tracing, isolation and quarantining and notification and plan to re-engage with the colleges generally on this.”

Boston College has now reported 104 positive cases since it reopened a few weeks ago, with 22 of them having already recovered. A BC spokesman told the Boston Globe that many of the cases reported among student athletes are related to an off-campus gathering where students watched a basketball game without masks or proper social distancing.

“I will say the testing element of this has been pretty robust. It’s proven to be pretty effective,” Baker said. With regular testing going on at most schools, he said the test rate has been “relatively low.”

He said the BC situation has been complicated by the fact that its campus crosses over into three different communities. “But clearly we need to make sure we stay on top of this.”

CDC Says US Should Have Enough Vaccine to Return to Regular Life Next Year

CNBC – CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield told a Senate panel he expects vaccinations to begin in November or December, but in limited quantities with those most in need getting the first doses, such as health-care workers. He said it will take about “six to nine months” to get the entire American public vaccinated.

“If you’re asking me when is it going to be generally available to the American public so we can begin to take advantage of vaccine to get back to our regular life, I think we’re probably looking at third … late second quarter, third quarter 2021,” he told the U.S. Senate Appropriations subcommittee on labor, health and human services, education, and related agencies.

Redfield said the Trump administration’s COVID-19 vaccine program Operation Warp Speed was unprecedented. He told lawmakers that a vaccine usually takes four to six years.

There are no approved vaccines for the novel coronavirus. Three drugmakers are currently in late-stage testing for potential vaccines and expect to know if they work by the end of the year.

Health Insurance Premiums to Rise 8 Percent Next Year

Commonwealth Magazine – Health Insurance premiums for Massachusetts residents will rise by an average of 7.9 percent at the beginning of next year, despite insurers having profited from declining health care costs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kevin Beagan, deputy commissioner for the health market at the state Division of Insurance, said the higher premiums reflect several factors, including uncertainty about what health care will look like next year.

“Every company highlighted the uncertainty associated with 2021,” Beagan said during a presentation before the Health Policy Commission on Tuesday.

The biggest increase will be for the lower-cost offerings of Tufts Health Plan on the Massachusetts Health Connector. Beagan said the Division of Insurance is “definitely not happy with” Tufts’ 12.2 percent planned increase. But the division chose not to challenge the increase and conduct a hearing process because that would have prevented the plans from being available in time for October’s open enrollment period on the Health Connector.

Among the other largest health plans in the state, a Boston Medical Center plan that is also available to low-income patients on the Health Connector will see an average 2.5 percent premium increase. Blue Cross Blue Shield’s HMO Blue plan, a commercial plan that covers 80,000 members, will see a 5.4 percent premium increase. Always Health Partners and United Healthcare both are planning increases of at least 9 percent, while members with different Tufts health plans will see increases of at least 7 percent. Harvard Pilgrim’s HMO plan members will see a 5.5 percent increase on average.

Massachusetts Extends Administrative Tax Relief for Local Businesses

Mass Insider- Governor Charlie Baker, Lt. Governor Karyn Polito, Senate President Karen Spilka and House Speaker Robert DeLeo announced an extension of administrative tax relief measures for local businesses that have been impacted by the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, especially in the restaurant and hospitality sectors.

This includes the extension of the deferral of regular sales tax, meals tax, and room occupancy taxes for small businesses due from March 2020 through April 2021, so that they will be due in May 2021.

Businesses that collected less than $150,000 in regular sales plus meals taxes in the 12-month period ending February 29, 2020 will be eligible for relief for sales and meals taxes, and businesses that collected less than $150,000 in room occupancy taxes in the 12-month period ending February 29, 2020 will be eligible for relief with respect to room occupancy taxes. For these small businesses, no penalties or interest will accrue during this extension period.

“Our Administration is committed to supporting local businesses and Main Street economies recovering from the impact of COVID-19, and we’re glad to work with our legislative colleagues on this additional measure to provide administrative tax relief,” Baker said. “Extending the tax relief measures we put into place earlier this year will help support companies across Massachusetts including small businesses in the restaurant and hospitality industries.”

For businesses with meals tax and room occupancy tax obligations that do not otherwise qualify for this relief, late-file and late-pay penalties will be waived during this period.

The Department of Revenue will issue emergency regulations and a Technical Information Release to implement these administrative relief measures.

September 15

Webinar: Commonwealth Conversations

Join a virtual discussion this morning with Senator Michael J. Rodrigues, the Senate Chair of Ways and Means will be an opportunity for AIM members to connect with a key policymaker regarding state fiscal policy and other key legislative priorities.

Join us for this important conversation with Senator Michael J. Rodrigues, moderated by Brooke Thomson, AIM’s Executive Vice President of Government Affairs, to learn what major policy matters have become law and what other legislative initiatives are currently being debated.

Click here to register. If you have questions you would like to ask Senator Rodrigues please email mwotus@aimnet.org.

Corporate, Capital Gains Tax Hikes Favored in Poll

State House News – With crunch time for difficult and potentially painful budget decisions drawing nearer each day, advocates for greater state spending are touting survey results that they say show “overwhelming support” among Massachusetts voters for increasing taxes levied against corporations, annual household income over $1 million and investment profits.

Raise Up Massachusetts, which is working to add a proposed 4 percent surtax on income over $1 million to the state Constitution, said the results of the survey showed that most people in Massachusetts want the state to maintain or increase spending on public education and health care, and they want businesses and the wealthy to chip in more to offset the devastating financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s undeniable that this recession and public health crisis is hitting low-income communities and communities of color the hardest, and state budget cuts threaten to make things even worse. Without action, damaging budget cuts to schools and colleges, hospitals, safety net programs, and other public services will worsen the economic pain, send us deeper into a recession, and intensify racial inequities,” Marie-Frances Rivera, president of the Massachusetts Budget and Policy Center said in a Raise Up press release.

The three strategies that Raise Up said the survey, conducted online among 600 Massachusetts voters in late July, showed the most support for were hiking the corporate tax rate from 8 percent to 9.5 percent (41 percent strongly favor, 33 percent somewhat favor), increasing capital gains taxes by 2 percent (41 percent strongly favor, 31 percent somewhat favor), and closing a loophole to allow taxation of corporate profits shifted overseas (63 percent strongly favor, 21 percent somewhat favor). The results carry a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent

The survey, which was conducted by Echo Cove Research & Consulting for the Massachusetts Teachers Association, also found that 64 percent of voters either somewhat (32 percent) or strongly oppose (32 percent) increasing the state’s general income tax from 5 percent to 5.5 percent.

Taxes could be a hot topic of conversation on Beacon Hill this fall. With spending plans for two fiscal years upended, lawmakers are on the lookout for ways to close potentially massive state budget gaps.

The business shutdowns ordered by the government to deal with the pandemic punched a gap in the state’s revenue base and officials have yet to say whether the drop was severe enough that they will need to dip into the state’s $3.5 billion rainy day account to cover fiscal year 2020 spending.

The outlook for fiscal 2021, which started July 1, has been unclear for months. The state is operating through next month on a temporary budget and tax collections have shown some recent promising signs, but the state’s unemployment rate stands at a worst-in-the-nation 16.1 percent. State officials, citing projections offered earlier in the pandemic, have estimated that fiscal 2021 tax collections could fall from $2 billion to $8 billion below fiscal 2020 levels.

Lawmakers and administration budget officials have said they need to know what, if any, relief the federal government is going to provide to states before they can craft a budget for the rest of fiscal year 2021.

Financial Outlook Uncertain for Cities, Towns

State House News – As cities and towns continue to grapple with an uncertain financial future, they’re faced with the decision of whether to furlough or lay off workers in an effort to close their budget shortfalls. It’s a decision that officials are making without a roadmap, sometimes resulting in starkly different approaches from community to community.

And with the potential for another COVID-19 surge as the weather turns colder and people spend more time indoors, those financial concerns aren’t likely to disappear anytime soon, said Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association.

“Even though the state has pledged – which is an outstanding partnership with communities – to at least level fund unrestricted municipal aid and Chapter 70 school aid for communities, communities do have rising costs and lots of budget uncertainty,” Beckwith said. “And municipal revenues themselves are actually declining below expectations.”

Because many communities have passed temporary budgets, the full impact of furloughs and layoffs so far has been difficult for the association to track, according to Beckwith, though he said a substantial portion of the furloughs that were instituted in March, April and May were for positions that were unable to continue operating during lockdown conditions.

A review of local news coverage reveals that the cuts have impacted nearly every region of the state. Brookline furloughed 196 workers, including library staff, crossing guards, parking enforcement personnel and senior center employees. Framingham laid off a dozen workers and furloughed seven. And in Methuen, where the police chief refused to take a requested furlough and pay freeze, the fiscal year 2021 budget originally laid off 23 people before the City Council voted to bring some employees back using one-time reserves.

State Disburses Final Lost Wages Assistance Benefits to Unemployment Claimants

Mass Insider – The Massachusetts Department of Unemployment Assistance (DUA) has disbursed the sixth and final Lost Wages Assistance (LWA) $300 supplemental benefit to unemployment claimants in the commonwealth. The application for these federal supplemental unemployment benefits was submitted by the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), in coordination with the Department of Unemployment Assistance (DUA).

The limited additional weekly unemployment benefit to claimants under the federal LWA program went to all eligible claimants for the weeks ending August 1 through September 5. Approximately 461,000 standard unemployment insurance (UI) beneficiaries and 234,000 Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) beneficiaries were determined eligible for LWA during that time frame. The total amount disbursed to eligible claimants was more than $1.3 billion. The program was administered and funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). FEMA has informed DUA that no additional LWA payments will be available beyond the six weeks already allotted.

All LWA-eligible unemployment claimants in both the UI and PUA programs should receive the supplemental funding by September 15. If a claimant has questions about eligibility or payment status he or she can call the Department of Unemployment Assistance call center at 877-626-6800. The call center is open from 8:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m., Monday–Friday, and 8 a.m–12 p.m. on Saturdays. Multilingual call agents are available. More information about unemployment assistance in Massachusetts can be found at mass.gov/unemployment.

Group Says 59 People Have Died of COVID-19 after Being Exposed on the Job

The Boston Globe – At least 59 workers have died of COVID-19 after potentially being exposed on the job, according to a Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health report out Thursday.

These numbers, gathered from the state, unions, nursing homes, federal investigations, news stories, and obituaries, are likely a “gross undercount,” the agency said, because more than two-thirds of test results don’t include job details — critical data that could help protect workers and slow the spread of the deadly virus. The state didn’t require occupations to be included in test results until July.

Administration Announces Added Funding for Shared Streets and Spaces Program

Mass.gov – Governor Charlie Baker Governor and Lt. Governor Karyn Polito joined Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack, and Medford Mayor Breanna Lungo-Koehn to highlight an additional $5 million in CARES and state funding for the Shared Streets and Spaces Program. This initiative provides assistance for communities to conceive, design and implement tactical changes to curbs, streets, on-street parking spaces and parking lots in support of public health, safe mobility, and renewed commerce.

The Governor also announced Phase III reopening modifications to support businesses and communities to mitigate the impact of COVID-19. The modifications, contained in an Executive Order, will extend the municipal permitting timeframe for expanding outdoor dining, and allow indoor and outdoor arcades to open next week.

https://www.mass.gov/shared-streets-and-spaces-grant-program
https://www.mass.gov/doc/september-10-2020-order-making-certain-phase-iii-adjustments/download

State Supreme Court Mulls Governor’s Power to Issue Executive Orders

State House News – Six months into the COVID-19 pandemic, the state’s highest court is poised to decide whether Gov. Charlie Baker’s string of executive orders were a legally appropriate response to contain the highly infectious virus or if he overstepped the authority outlined in law.

An attorney representing business owners and religious leaders who sued the Baker administration argued in court Friday that Baker has “turned the government upside down” by taking significant individual action, rather than executing laws passed by the Legislature, during the public health crisis.

“At this point, the Legislature is left to approve or disapprove of the governor’s policy choices,” Michael DeGrandis, a lawyer with the New Civil Liberties Alliance, told justices. “That’s not how it’s supposed to work. The governor is merely supposed to execute the policy choices of the Legislature. For the Legislature to make a change, the Legislature would also have to have a veto-proof majority to do so. That is standing the government on its head. That’s not a republican form of government.”

Baker declared a state of emergency on March 10 and has issued numerous executive orders charting a course for Massachusetts through the pandemic. His orders ranged from ordering businesses deemed non-essential to shutter physical operations to closing K-12 schools to limiting how many people can gather in one place.

The alliance, a national non-profit that describes itself as fighting the “unconstitutional administrative state,” filed a lawsuit against Massachusetts on June 1 on behalf of several plaintiffs who own businesses or represent religious institutions impacted by forced shutdowns and mandatory operational changes during the pandemic.

MBTA Exploring Service Cuts Ahead of Budget Crisis

The Boston Globe – MBTA officials have begun planning for possible service cuts as they stare down a mammoth budget gap in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

With ridership still well below pre-pandemic levels, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority forecasts that it could be short by $300 million to nearly $600 million for the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2021 — depending on how quickly riders return. Federal funds from the CARES Act are covering hundreds of millions of dollars in lost fare revenue for now, but those reserves will likely expire by next summer, and the T has already acknowledged it may be forced to reduce service as a possible next step.

Officials will raise the topic at a meeting of the MBTA’s governing board, according to draft presentation slides obtained by the Globe. The presentation is mostly conceptual, meant to outline principles and priorities rather than detailing which specific lines or routes may lose service.

“Basically they’re admitting that service cuts are coming,” said a transportation advocate who was briefed on the presentation but asked for anonymity because the conversation was not public. “It’s just a question of the scale and the size.”

September 9

Employers Face ‘Staggering’ Rise in Unemployment Taxes

State House News – With unemployment soaring, state lawmakers are considering ways to soften the blow from a major impending increase in the taxes employers pay toward the state’s unemployment system, a jump in costs that one business group described as a “pretty staggering.”

With the unemployment insurance trust fund suddenly facing a multibillion-dollar deficit over the next four years, the contributions required from Massachusetts businesses are set to increase nearly 60 percent when the calendar turns to 2021 and then continue growing at a smaller rate through 2024.

Those higher taxes – estimated at an average of $319 more per qualifying employee next year – will be due starting in April, raising concerns that the sharp uptick will put a drag on the economic recovery from the ongoing COVID-prompted recession and make it more difficult for employers to bring back jobs they cut.

The Legislature has on occasion stepped in to prevent a significant increase from hitting employers, but it’s unclear if it will do so this year. Lawmakers continue to weigh ideas to accelerate economic growth.

During the Great Recession, lawmakers and former Gov. Deval Patrick agreed to several consecutive years of unemployment insurance rate freezes amid projections that the rate schedule would climb to the highest allowable level.

A key lawmaker said this week that the anticipated increase in 2021 might not come to pass.

Sen. Patricia Jehlen, who co-chairs the Labor and Workforce Development Committee, told the News Service she believes the Legislature will look to freeze rates on employers to limit the additional strain, but stressed that because of the size of the shortfall, the federal government will need to play a role in any solution.

“Traditionally, and I think we would want to do this again, we would need to freeze,” Jehlen said. “We would love to freeze rather than allowing it to go up during a recovery because so many businesses are in trouble. But we really need help from the feds to make that possible.”

“Like everything else, we’re just totally dependent on the federal government in this situation,” she added.

Over the first six months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Massachusetts – like many other states – faced an unprecedented level of demand for joblessness benefits and demand remains high. The state paid more than $4 billion in aid between January and July, compared to just $812 million over the same period in 2019.

The account used to pay those claims was not equipped for the sudden surge. At the end of July, it was already $748 million in the red, and the Baker administration projected in an August quarterly report that the shortfall will grow to nearly $2.5 billion by the end of the year.

Each of the following four years will also run negative, officials estimate, pushing the five-year total to a roughly $20 billion net deficit – an outlook that is somewhat better than the $27 billion net deficit projected in the previous quarterly update issued in May.

To help prevent the fund from becoming insolvent, the average cost per employee is estimated to increase from $539 in 2020 at rate schedule E to $858 in 2021 at rate schedule G. Officials expect to remain at the highest rate schedule through 2024, topping out at an average cost per employee of $925 in the final year of projections.

Business Confidence Remains in Pessimistic Territory

AIM Blog – Business confidence rose slightly in August but remains well below its level of a year ago, with a predominantly pessimistic outlook still prevailing.

Associated Industries of Massachusetts reported Tuesday morning that its business confidence index rose half a point to 46.3, better than its 2020 low of 38.4 but 12.4 points lower than its August 2019 reading.

Employer sentiments heading into the post-Labor Day period are constrained by the state’s highest-in-the-nation unemployment rate (16.1 percent) and “persistent weakness” in the state’s health care and education sectors, AIM said.

“The good news is that employers are showing increased confidence in the prospects of their own companies. The sobering news is that recent announcements of major layoffs by health care, higher education and hospitality organizations in Massachusetts leave little doubt about the challenges of getting the state economy back on track,” said Raymond Torto, professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design and chair of the AIM Board of Economic Advisors.

The index reached its historic high of 68.5 on two occasions in 1997-98, and its all-time low of 33.3 came in February 2009.

Parent Frustration about Schools is Rising

Commonwealth Magazine – With fewer than two weeks until school starts, parents from Somerville and Newton say they have yet to get any details on what classes will look like for their children and whether remote learning will be better than it was when schools suddenly shut down last spring amid COVID-19.

“Families cannot live in a state of uncertainty,” said Keri Rodrigues of Somerville on The Codcast. “I am two weeks away from the first day of school in Somerville. I still don’t have a specific hour-by-hour schedule of what remote learning is going to look like, when my child is expected to be on Zoom. I don’t even know who my kids’ teachers are going to be and frankly they don’t know my kids either. I just spent six months with my children. I have a lot of information I’d like to tell their teachers about who they are, how they learn, and what they’re capable of. And there has not been any communication with me and … what this is going to look like when it gets down to brass tacks.”

Jack Cheng of Newton says he and his two teenagers are also in the dark. “They don’t know what school is going to be like and they’re frustrated,” he said.

Cheng is urging school officials to think outside the box, and is offering up specific suggestions for learning during COVID. “It seems like there’s a chance now to sort of reinvent what the school is going to be,” he said. Rodrigues, a mother of three boys in second, third, and seventh grade and the CEO of Massachusetts Parents United, is demanding answers to her many unanswered questions and looking outside the Somerville schools for help.

Parents across the state are having similar responses, and former state education secretary Paul Reville thinks this heightened parent activism “could become a tipping point for educational choice and, in its extreme form, the privatization of public education.”

One thing is clear: Cheng and Rodrigues are paying close attention to what’s going on in their schools. Cheng said 2,000 people joined online for a recent meeting of the Newton School Committee, which in normal times attracts less than a dozen attendees. “It’s the talk of the town,” he said of the upcoming school year. “There’s a lot of conflicting information. There’s a lot of rumors.”

Rodrigues said parents are getting a look behind the curtain at what goes on inside schools.

“This is all playing out in our living rooms. So now we’re seeing directly how much academic instruction is happening, how much information and interaction our kids are having with teachers. We are more engaged now than ever – by necessity. So that’s not toothpaste you can put back in the tube very easily. We now know there are options,” she said.

The infighting between the Baker administration and teachers unions over how to return to school has overshadowed the bigger question for many parents of how schools should operate, how technology should be deployed.

“We’ve injected politics into the situation and kept families and community out of it. In the end, the kids are lost in the shuffle here,” said Rodrigues, who thinks parents need to have a much bigger say. “The fact that we’re not authentically engaged in co-collaboration and creation of these things is insane. People are not going to stand for that.”

McConnell Unveils Slimmed-Down Coronavirus Relief Bill

The Washington Post – Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) unveiled a slimmed-down coronavirus relief bill on Tuesday and announced plans to move to a vote later this week, an effort to put Democrats on the defensive after weeks of stalled talks.

The legislation is not expected to advance, since that would require support from Democrats, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called the measure “pathetic.” McConnell has struggled even to unite Republicans behind the measure, and is likely to suffer some GOP defections.

But a month after bipartisan talks collapsed on Capitol Hill, McConnell is aiming to pressure Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) with a GOP package that would spend around $500 billion on some key priorities including small businesses, enhanced unemployment insurance, child care, the post office, coronavirus testing and schools. It would also create a type of liability shield for businesses to protect them from certain lawsuits related to the coronavirus.

The Senate GOP bill is expected to kick off a frenetic flurry of legislating this month. In addition to the economic-relief talks, lawmakers must agree on a government spending bill in order to avoid a shutdown in October. Relations between Democrats and Republicans have soured markedly since the Spring, particularly as the November elections near.

Clark: Spending Bills May Offer Vehicle for COVID Relief

State House News – With states like Massachusetts still waiting for additional federal financial help, U.S Rep. Katherine Clark said that Democrats could look to use the federal budget process to force more spending if they can’t reach a deal with Senate Republicans and the White House on a new stimulus bill.

Clark, a top-ranking Democrat in the House, said Democrats will “continue to push” for the Senate to take up a version of the more than $3 trillion Heroes Act, but said the federal budget could be a vehicle for COVID-19 relief spending if that fails.

“We know that the American people are depending on the federal government and Congress for the help that they need and they can’t do it alone. And state and local government can’t do it alone,” Clark said.

Clark, the vice-chair of the Democratic Caucus, took part in a conversation about the state of Congress on Thursday sponsored by the Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate and moderated by Kimberly Atkins, a senior opinion writer at the Boston Globe.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has expressed doubts about reaching a deal on a new COVID-19 relief package when Congress returns from recess, but Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has continued to talk about the need for additional stimulus to help the economy.

While Democratic leaders have offered to reduce the size of the package to $2.2 trillion, Republicans were seeking closer to $1 trillion in spending, and now are reportedly eyeing an even smaller $500 billion bill.

“I am very confident in the Democrats compromising to be able to get relief,” Clark said. “The problem is, to be frank about it, there is nobody coming to the negotiating table with us.”

Baker: Let Rules Guide Vaccine Development

State House News – A day after news emerged that the federal Centers for Disease Control told states to prepare for coronavirus vaccine distribution by Nov. 1, Gov. Charlie Baker stressed the importance of letting the development process run its course and not rushing to roll out a potential immunization.

Baker told reporters at a press conference that it is “incredibly important” for pharmaceutical companies such as Moderna and Pfizer, both of whom are working to develop vaccines, to work through the full clinical trial process before officials make any decisions about next steps.

“The last thing we should do at this point in time is change the way these processes work,” Baker said. “I get why people want the vaccine to be here tomorrow, but we have a tried and true process for developing these sorts of things, and it needs to be pursued according to the rules, protocols and standards that have always been in place.”

The CDC wrote to governors last week asking them to prepare for distribution of a possible vaccine by Nov. 1 – two days before the election – according to a McClatchy report later confirmed by other outlets.

The virus has upended life in the United States and so far led to the deaths of more than 185,000 people.

States will need to license distribution company McKesson to ensure vaccine doses flow to them, CDC Director Robert Redfield wrote, stressing that “the normal time required to obtain these permits presents a significant barrier to the success of this urgent public health program.”

“CDC urgently requests your assistance in expediting applications for these distribution facilities and, if necessary, asks that you consider waiving requirements that would prevent these facilities from becoming fully operational by November 1, 2020,” Redfield wrote, according to a copy of the letter posted by CBS News. “The requirements you may be asked to waive in order to expedite vaccine distribution will not compromise the safety or integrity of the products being distributed.”

Baker, a Republican who worked as CEO of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care earlier in his career, said Thursday that the clearly delineated trial process ensures the public has “comfort and confidence” in the safety and efficacy of any vaccine.

The process to bring new vaccines to the public often takes years, but scientists have been working rapidly since the pandemic began to find a viable option. In July, when Moderna’s version entered the third stage of clinical trials, National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins described distribution of a vaccine by the end of 2020 as a “stretch goal” but “the right goal for the American people.”

Pharma CEOs Issue Vaccine Safety Pledge

The Washington Post – The chief executives of nine drug companies pledged Tuesday not to seek regulatory approval before the safety and efficacy of their experimental coronavirus vaccines have been established in Phase 3 clinical trials, an extraordinary effort to bolster public faith in a vaccine amid President Trump’s rush to introduce one before Election Day.

“We believe this pledge will help ensure public confidence in the rigorous scientific and regulatory process by which covid-19 vaccines are evaluated and may ultimately be approved,” the executives wrote in their joint statement. The Wall Street Journal first reported Friday that a statement from the companies would be forthcoming.

The statement included a vow that the companies would “only submit for approval or emergency use authorization after demonstrating safety and efficacy through a Phase 3 clinical study that is designed and conducted to meet requirements of expert regulatory authorities such as FDA.”

They also vowed to “always make the safety and well-being of vaccinated individuals our top priority.”

The statement left open the door for the use of partial data from the massive Phase 3 vaccine trials — which require the participation of at least 30,000 test subjects — to seek emergency-use authorization. Such trials typically take years to complete and require lengthy follow-up to see how long protection from a vaccine may last.

The executives signing the pledge included the leaders of AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, Moderna, and Novavax, as well as those heading two joint vaccine projects, Pfizer and BioNTech, and Sanofi and GlaxoSmithKline.

In most contexts, pledges by drug companies that they will adhere to safety and efficacy standards would be unremarkable. But their joint resolve in the current political make clear their intent to ease growing worries about the race for a vaccine amid intense White House pressure.

Researchers Struggle to Ensure Diversity of Vaccine Study Subjects

WGBH – A line of people worked its way recently through the parking lot at Brookside Community Health Center in Jamaica Plain. The big draw there was free coronavirus testing, but before they left, Carlos Hernandez, a patient navigator at the center, had one last important question to ask them.

“So would you be interested in learning a little bit more about the coronavirus vaccine research study that we’re offering to patients?” he asked, handing out a flyer to anyone who said yes.

For the most part, people seemed open to learning more about the trial. But getting those people to actually volunteer to take an experimental vaccine is a bigger lift.

In late July, Cambridge-based Moderna Inc., received approval to begin a Phase 3 clinical trial to study the safety and efficacy of a coronavirus vaccine it has been developing along with the National Institutes for Health. But researchers are running into a challenge that they’ve seen before in other clinical trials — a skepticism from the Black community that’s rooted in a history of racial injustice and present-day healthcare inequities.

Moderna has not responded to multiple requests for interviews about the vaccine trial. But last month, The Washington Post reported that Moderna had enrolled more than 15,000 people in the study, and about 19 percent of those participants are Black, Hispanic or Native American.

Doctors say having more Black participants in the trial will help demonstrate the vaccine works in that population.

As she waited in line to get a COVID test, Samira Lopez of Hyde Park expressed concern that the vaccine was speeding through the approval process too quickly and said she’s unlikely to sign up for the trial.

“This came out only a few months after this all started,” she said. “It’s probably not safe.”

While that’s a concern shared by many, Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, an infectious disease expert at Brigham and Women’s, said the skepticism about medical trials in the Black community runs deeper.

“There have been these incredibly egregious events that many people talk about and reference,” said Ojikutu, who studies racial and ethnic disparities in research.

She cites Henrietta Lacks, a Black cancer patient whose cervical tissue was taken without her permission in the 1950s and turned into a cell line that’s widely used in research labs today, and the Tuskegee syphilis study, in which Black men were exploited and not treated for the disease for decades, as just two examples.

On top of that history, Ojikutu said, are all the issues of racial inequity in the health care system today. The CDC reports longstanding social inequities are leading to worse outcomes and greater risk for people of color.

September 3

AIM Members May Opt Into COVID-19 Policy Communications

AIM members, if you would like to change your email preferences to hear more on policy matters including COVID-19 related unemployment insurance, please click here to opt-in.

Massachusetts Disburses Lost Wages Assistance Benefits to PUA Claimants

The Massachusetts Department of Unemployment Assistance (DUA) has begun disbursement of Lost Wages Assistance (LWA) benefits to Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) claimants, who will receive benefits beginning Sept. 2, 2020.

Payments are expected in claimant accounts by Saturday, Sept. 5. For those who are eligible for LWA through the standard unemployment assistance program accessed through UI Online, benefits are expected to be disbursed on or before Sept. 15, 2020.

The commonwealth’s application to receive grant funding to pay a limited additional weekly unemployment benefit to claimants under the federal Lost Wages Supplemental Payment Assistance (LWA) program for the weeks ending August 1, August 8 and August 15 was recently approved by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The application was submitted by the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), in coordination with the Department of Unemployment Assistance (DUA).

An additional application for the week of August 22 has been sent to FEMA and the Massachusetts DUA is awaiting review by the federal agency.

The grant will fund an additional $300 weekly payment to those who are eligible for at least $100 in weekly unemployment benefits for the three weeks ending 8/1/20, 8/8/20, and 8/15/20. The Massachusetts Department of Unemployment Assistance continues to work on the technology and business requirements necessary for this program and anticipates being able to quickly deliver retroactive funds to all eligible claimants in the coming weeks.

Most eligible claimants currently receiving benefits do not need to take any action because the commonwealth will automatically add LWA to their weekly benefit payment retroactive to the dates specified in the grant.

Judge Rules Against Landlords in Eviction Moratorium Lawsuit

Banker & Tradesman – A lawsuit seeking to end the state’s eviction moratorium has been denied a preliminary injunction by a Suffolk Superior Court judge.

Judge Paul Wilson ruled that the moratorium was a key part of the state’s fight against COVID-19 and the risk a wave of evictions would play to the state’s economy and health would outweigh the harm being done to landlords with tenants who could not pay rent.

Mitchel Matorin, a Worcester landlord, and Linda Smith, a Hudson landlord, had sued the state saying the moratorium represented an unconstitutional taking of their property without compensation and an exclusion from the court system, among other claims.

Jordana Roubicek Greenman, one of the lead attorneys in the case, told Banker & Tradesman her clients intend to appeal to the Supreme Judicial Court.

“We’re not involved in this case because we want to throw anyone on the street. That is not the point. The people have rights, but they’re being violated,” she said.

The judge in a parallel federal suit had earlier telegraphed that he would likely rule against the plaintiffs, but is now considering a temporary injunction suspending the eviction freeze. A decision in that case could come as early as this week.

The ruling comes as MassLandlords announced an effort to organize members who want to sue the state for compensation in exchange for continuing to provide apartments to renters unable to pay. The announcement was made in an opinion piece published in Banker & Tradesman Sunday.

Southampton School Committee Mulls Override of Flu Vaccine Exemption

Daily Hampshire Gazette – The William E. Norris School Committee in Southampton is exploring whether it can override a religious exemption to the state’s mandate that children in schools or child care ages 6 months or older get a flu vaccine.

The matter was introduced by School Committee member Greg Bennett at a meeting last week, who said that parents interested in increasing vaccination rates at the school asked him to look into it.

He added that because the school won’t be able to provide six-foot distancing to all students if full in-person instruction resumes, vaccination rates are important to differentiate those suffering from COVID-19 from those suffering from the flu.

“The symptoms of flu mimic the same symptoms of COVID-19,” Bennett said.

Calm Move-In Day for Boston College Students

WCVB – College students who live in the city of Boston said this year’s traditional Sept. 1 move-in day seemed less crowded and less chaotic due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The students who did move into their apartments on Tuesday wore face masks as they unloaded their mattresses, furniture and suitcases from moving trucks and vans.

Many of their fellow students have decided to learn remotely during the ongoing pandemic, while others returned to the city weeks ago in order to comply with COVID-19 quarantine rules.

“In terms of traffic, it’s much lighter. The parking’s much easier,” said Harvard Medical School student Slater Sharp. “The apartments are cheaper, to be perfectly honest, and hopefully they stay that way next year.”

City inspectors are going door-to-door to make sure that apartments are up to code and to remind students that they will be back if they receive reports of large gatherings.

FDA May Speed Vaccine Approval

CNBC – The federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may be willing to speed up approval of COVID-19 vaccines, potentially giving the go-ahead for shots before clinical trials are over.

It’s unclear how a speedier process might work, though it’s possible that the FDA could give emergency use authorization for a vaccine that is still being tested and allow its use among populations that face a higher risk from the virus, while the general population waits until phase three trials conclude.

Here Is a Summary of COVID-19 Vaccines in Development

The Wall Street Journal (subscription) – Here is a has a rundown of the various vaccines in production. The front-runners in the midst of or slated to begin final round testing include:

  • AstraZeneca
  • Pfizer and BioNTech SE
  • Moderna
  • Sinopharm
  • CanSino Biologics

The Wall Street Journal has a comprehensive overview of the 174 vaccines currently in progress. The caveat amid all this progress is that safe vaccine development takes time, and most experts estimate that it will be well into 2021 before a vaccine becomes widely available.

Companies Advance COVID Treatments

CNBC – GlaxoSmithKline and its partner Vir Biotechnology have started trialing an experimental antibody.

The GSK drug is intended to jumpstart attacks on infected cells while also preventing healthy cells from becoming infected in the first place. The antibody is expected to remain effective for several months and focus on a part of the virus that hasn’t been shown to mutate—potentially guarding against changes in the virus’ makeup.

GSK isn’t the only pharmaceutical company doing this work. They join Regeneron, which is partnered with Roche, and Eli Lilly, which is working with biotech company AbCellera.

Other researchers are working on strengthening the immune system against COVID-19 by boosting interferons, the front lines of the body’s immune response, reports The Washington Post (subscription).

COVID-19 seems to go after interferons early on—and shoring up these interferons at the beginning of an illness might weaken the disease and prevent hospitalization.

Of course, the challenge is timing—applying this treatment too late in the process might actually make the illness worse.

September 1

Coalition to Safely Reopen Schools Issues Position Statement

Mass Insider – In response to the statewide push to re-open schools for in-person education, the recently formed Coalition to Safely Reopen Schools, has issued a position statement citing a number of issues that need to be addressed to ensure that schools can be re-opened without jeopardizing the health and safety of students, staff or the communities schools serve.

The Coalition is calling for a phased approach to reopening, with no in-person learning unless and until those issues are resolved.

The Coalition is a statewide collaboration of school nurses, teachers, parents, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, librarians, school support staff, janitorial staff, labor, occupational health and community advocates, who came together to provide a  frontline perspective and medically-informed recommendations for what is needed to safely re-open for in-person learning.

“This process represents one of the most consequential decisions our communities and our state will make as our state and nation construe to grapple with a pandemic that is still surging across the nation,  showing signs of a second wave in our state, with the threat of the flu season looming,” said Patty Comeau, RN, a member of the Coalition, the Massachusetts Nurses Association and a school nurse in Methuen.

“In confronting this challenge a safe, scientifically guided, well planned, adequately funded and appropriately resourced process must be the priority for all involved, as the stakes couldn’t be higher and the outcome of our decisions truly have life-and-death consequences.”

The position statement addresses 16 different areas of concern that need to be considered and addressed appropriately to ensure a safe reopening of schools for in-person learning, including:

  • Proper ventilation and circulation of air;
  • Assessing community resources for alternative school settings;
  • Ensuring proper social distancing;
  • Standardization and availability of PPE for all staff and students;
  • Resources and infrastructure to support hand hygiene and mask wearing;
  • Safe cleaning practices;
  • Addressing the health and safety of students with special needs;
  • Access to rapid testing;
  • Clear guidelines for contact tracing;
  • Appropriate school nurse staffing;
  • Space to isolate and monitor suspected or positive cases;
  • Resources for safe transportation of students;
  • Safe re-entry into school protocols;
  • Comprehensive education and training of staff prior to reopening;
  • Disparities in access to in-person learning;
  • Preserving school staff pay and benefits.

The Coalition calls for the state and school districts to reopen for remote learning, while taking the time to develop comprehensive plans with the infrastructure, protocols, staffing, funding and training “to safely institute in-person learning that we all know our students deserve.”

Governor Defends Authority to Issue Declare State of Emergency

Commonwealth Magazine –  Governor Charlie Baker filed a court brief on Friday defending his use of a 1950 Civil Defense Law to declare a COVID-19 state of emergency, equating the virus to the “natural causes” referenced in the law and pointing out that the Legislature has not balked at his use of emergency powers to shut down the state’s economy.

The brief, which includes citations to Alexander Hamilton and The Federalist Papers, is the first time Baker has publicly spelled out in any detail his legal authority for declaring a state of emergency.

Attorney General Maura Healey filed the brief on behalf of the governor in response to a lawsuit filed by a group of business owners and pastors who say the Civil Defense Law is not applicable to COVID-19 and the governor’s many sweeping orders to deal with the coronavirus infringe on powers granted to the Legislature under the state constitution. The parties are scheduled to appear before a single justice of the Supreme Judicial Court on September 11.

The Civil Defense Act of 1950 was passed at the beginning of the Cold War, a time when the United States was increasingly worried about the spread of communism and military threats from the Soviet Union. The law allows the governor to declare a state of emergency when the state is threatened by enemy attack, sabotage, riots, fires, floods, earthquakes, droughts, or “other natural causes.”

According to the state website, all but one of the previous state of emergency declarations in Massachusetts dealt with storms. The lone exception was a state of emergency declared by Baker to address the Merrimack Valley gas explosions in 2018.

College Students Return to Find Changed Business Landscape

Daily Free Press – As college students from around the world return to Boston, many are eager to enjoy their favorite Boston businesses.

Restaurants and retail stores have been reopening their doors throughout the summer after initial coronavirus shutdowns, but many Boston businesses are not quite like students remember them.

All individuals over age two must wear a face covering in stores, on public transportation and when social distancing is not possible. Businesses can refuse entry to those who decline to wear masks without having a medical exemption.

In response to the pandemic, Massachusetts officials have put in place a series of precautions and regulations in accordance with Gov. Charlie Baker’s four-phase plan to reopen the state.

Boston is currently on the first step of Phase Three — the second-to-last stage — of the state’s reopening plan. The city moved to this phase on July 13, a week later than the rest of the Commonwealth.

After an uptick in cases and violations of state guidance, however, Baker indefinitely postponed step two of the phase.

Activists Take Shots at Governor over Mandatory Flu Vaccine

Boston.com – If the signs being brandished at the Massachusetts State House Sunday were any indication, a lot of Bay State parents aren’t planning to roll over when it comes to mandatory influenza vaccine shots for their children.

Gov. Charlie Baker announced Aug. 19 that flu vaccinations will be required for all students six months or older who attend child care, pre-school, school and college in Massachusetts, in an attempt to reduce the possibility of the health care system becoming overburdened by the dual punch of COVID-19 and the typical seasonal flu.

The decision drew immediate blowback from many parents and others concerned that the order was an example of government overreach. And on Sunday, protesters crowded along Beacon Street to express their displeasure, occasionally chanting, “We will not comply, we will not comply!”

State Reports 301 New COVID-19 Cases Monday

State public health officials on Monday reported 301 new confirmed COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts, bringing the total number of confirmed cases statewide to 118,784.

There were 11 new deaths reported for a total of 8,827 confirmed death cases.

According to the Department of Public Health, 18,740 new tests were performed with a total of 1,732,768 individuals who have been tested by molecular tests with an overall of 2,404,426 molecular tests administered.

The state said that 314 patients are currently hospitalized with COVID-19 with 56 patients that are in intensive care units.

New Study Confirms Staggering Racial Disparities in COVID-19 Cases

The Boston Globe – A new study quantifies COVID-19′s disproportionate toll on Black and Latino communities in Massachusetts for the first time, and explores the extent to which other demographic factors — including foreign-born noncitizen status, average household size, and the role of the essential worker — explain racial and ethnic gaps.

The results, drawn from an analysis of 351 Massachusetts cities and towns, are staggering: A 10 percentage point increase in the Black population is associated with 312.3 more cases per 100,000 people. The same increase in the Latino population is associated with 258.2 more cases per 100,000.

From the early days of the pandemic, Massachusetts cities with large Latino and Black populations have suffered high infection rates and death tolls. Chelsea, the city with the highest number of total cases per capita in the state, is 66.9 percent Hispanic or Latino. Of Massachusetts COVID-19 cases where the infected person’s race is known, 45.6 percent are non-Hispanic white, a group that makes up 71.1 percent of the state’s population.

Similar patterns have played out nationally. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last week that COVID-19 infection rates are 2.8 times higher in the Hispanic or Latino and American Indian or Alaska Native populations, when compared to the rate for non-Hisanpic white people. For Black people, the case rate is 2.6 times higher and the death rate is 2.1 times higher. Case and death rates for white and Asian Americans are similar.

The Massachusetts researchers found that higher average household size and larger shares of food service workers, foreign-born noncitizens, and non-high school graduates across cities were all independent predictors of higher COVID-19 infection rates. A city’s foreign-born noncitizen population proved to have an especially strong correlation with higher COVID-19 case rates.

Abbot Gains Emergency Authorization for Rapid COVID-19 Test

Mobile Health News – According to Mobile Health News, Abbott has scored yet another Emergency Use Authorization for rapid coronavirus testing – this one, named BinaxNOW COVID-19 Ag Card, comes in the form of a card and can provide results in 15 minutes.

The other notable difference in the test is price. Abbott said it will sell the tests for $5 each.

Users will also be able to link their results to Abbott’s app, dubbed NAVICA, which will provide users with what Abbott calls a “digital health pass” displaying negative results on the phone. The app is able to keep track of when a person has a test at a health-care provider, the result of the test, and the date.

The idea is that an individual will be able to show her or his test results to different organizations, such as schools or workplaces, in order to get access.

The test, which is designated for use by health-care professionals at approved point-of-care facilities, includes the test card, extraction reagent, nasal swabs, a positive control swab, a negative control swab, a product insert and a procedure card.

Abbott is planning to make a million tests a day and produce 50 million by the beginning of October.

Administration Announces Policies to Expand Child-Care Options

BOSTON – The Baker Administration today announced new policies that will provide families who require child care while their children are engaged in remote learning additional options by allowing programs to offer supervised care during regular school day hours.

Governor Charlie Baker signed an Executive Order that allows the Department of Early Education and Care (EEC) to authorize currently licensed after-school and out-of-school programs to operate during the school day while children are learning remotely.

As schools prepare to re-open, working parents need to find care and learning support for their school-aged children while they are engaged in remote learning. Current state statute prohibits licensed after-school and out-of-school time programs for school-aged children from offering care during school hours. The Executive Order allows EEC to authorize childcare programs, like YMCAs, Boys and Girls Clubs, family child-care homes, and others, to care for school-age children while they participate in remote learning.

The Department will also exempt informal remote learning parent cooperative arrangements organized by families, if the groups are supervised by unpaid parents. These parent cooperatives are still subject to any state orders regulating gatherings in place under the COVID-19 state of emergency.

In addition, the Executive Order creates a temporary license exemption for remote learning enrichment programs to provide supervision and care for school children up to age 14 while they participate in remote learning during the school day. These remote learning programs, which must meet specific criteria, will need to first be approved by their local municipality before they can apply for the license exemption. Programs run by a school district are already exempt from EEC licensure and do not need to apply for this exemption

As Telemedicine Replaces the Physical Exam, What Are Doctors Missing?

WBUR – Despite a foothold in medicine that predates Hippocrates himself, the traditional physical exam might be on the verge of extinction. The coronavirus crisis has driven more routine medical appointments online, accelerating a trend toward telemedicine that has already been underway.

This worries Dr. Paul Hyman, author of a recently published essay in JAMA Internal Medicine, who reflects on what’s lost when physicians see their patients almost exclusively through a screen.

A primary care physician in Maine, Hyman acknowledges he’d already begun second-guessing routine physicals on healthy patients as insurance requirements pushed doctors away from them.

But while Hyman is now providing mostly telemedicine, like many doctors during the pandemic, he writes that he has gained a clearer sense of the value of the age-old practice of examining patients in person. He notes the ability to offer reassurance, be present for his patients and find personal fulfillment as a doctor.

“I think there’s something therapeutic about seeing a physician and having them lay their hands on you, and my sense from the feedback I’ve gotten from the article already is that a lot of people agree that it’s therapeutic in its own right — and that can be lost without the physical exam,” Hyman told NPR.

August 20

Grants to Address Pandemic-Related Food Issues

Mass Live – Gov. Charlie Baker on Tuesday announced $3.3 million in grants to address food insecurity residents have faced as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the second round of a $36 million Food Security Infrastructure Grant Program.

That program was created following recommendations from the administration’s COVID-19 Command Center’s Food Security Task Force, promoting efforts to make sure individuals and families have access to healthy, local food. The program also seeks to ensure farmers, fishermen and other local food producers are better connected to a resilient food system to help mitigate future food supply and distribution disruption, Baker’s office said in a statement.

“Massachusetts is lucky to have a rich and diverse supply of local food, but too many families and residents continue to struggle with hunger and food insecurity during this public health emergency,” said Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Kathleen Theoharides. “Our administration is pleased to invest in our local producers and businesses through this grant program to help expand the distribution of healthy, fresh food throughout the Commonwealth.”

The grants, totaling $3,324,349, include 34 awards to fund investments in technology, equipment, increased capacity, and other assistance to help producers distribute food, especially to food-insecure communities, the statement said.

Press Release

AIM to Host Conversation in Child Care

As employees try to meet their new work and family obligations in these unprecedented times, the loss of child-care options and the uncertainty surrounding in-person instruction for school-aged children presents a unique set of challenges that can be tricky for employers to navigate. What can employers do to ensure they are attracting, retaining, and acknowledging the challenges faced by working parents?

There are several ways in which employers can respond to the needs of their employees and offer innovative family-friendly support in the COVID-19 era. Join AIM virtually on August 27 from 11-11:30 am as Colleen Ammerman, Director of the Gender Initiative at Harvard Business School and Sharon Woodbury, Director of Human Resources and Public Relations for the Guild of St. Agnes share their insights and recommendations on the talent management strategies companies can take to attract, retain and win the loyalty of working parents.

Register

Flu Shot to Be Required for Students

State House News – Students across all levels of schooling in Massachusetts will now be required to receive flu vaccines, a new mandate that state public health officials described as a step to reduce the impact of flu-related and respiratory illnesses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The immunizations will be required from the age of six months on for attendees of Massachusetts child- care programs, pre-schools, K-12 schools, and colleges and universities, the Department of Public Health announced Wednesday.

Students will need to get flu vaccines by Dec. 31 for the 2020-2021 flu season, unless they have a medical or religious exemption. Homeschooled K-12 students and college students “who are completely off-campus and engaged in remote learning only” will also be exempt, DPH said.

“College students who attend any classes or activities on campus, even once, must be vaccinated by December 31,” the department said in a press release.

The new flu vaccine requirement will apply to full-time undergraduate and graduate students under age 30, and all full- and part-time health science students.

“Every year, thousands of people of all ages are affected by influenza, leading to many hospitalizations and deaths,” Dr. Larry Madoff, the medical director for the DPH Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences, said in a statement. “It is more important now than ever to get a flu vaccine because flu symptoms are very similar to those of COVID-19 and preventing the flu will save lives and preserve healthcare resources.” – Katie Lannan/SHNS

Conferences Look Different During the Pandemic

The Boston Globe – This is what conferences could look like in the age of the coronavirus: long, thin tables with water pitchers, but almost no people.

Most industry conferences in Boston have been canceled or have gone fully virtual since the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March.

But not this one: a series of life sciences meetings this week at the Wyndham hotel on Blossom Street with 150-plus participants from various states and countries. Nearly all these guests are attending electronically, but conference host Enal Razvi still invited some attendees to physically visit the ballroom on the hotel’s 15th floor, where the conference is being held.

About 10 did so, Razvi said, well within the state’s 25-person cap for indoor gatherings during this phase of the economic reopening.

Razvi, managing director of Select Biosciences, the conference’s organizer, said there’s something missing in a fully virtual conference — like a spark that can be ignited by people in the same field asking questions of each other in the same room.

“It anchors the conference, it’s a place where you can start discussions,” Razvi, who is based in California, said of the physical space. “My job as an organizer is to stimulate people so they talk and they engage. We’re trying to do it as best as we can, given the circumstances.”

Governor Baker Applying for Trump Unemployment Funds

Commonwealth Magazine – Gov. Charlie Baker doesn’t like the way President Trump’s $400 enhanced unemployment insurance benefit is funded, but he’s getting in line for the money with nothing else coming along from Congress.

Baker said the state has submitted a letter to the Trump administration indicating the administration intends to apply for funding for the $400 supplemental unemployment insurance benefit proposed by Trump in an executive order.

The governor doesn’t like the proposal because it takes money set aside by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help states deal with COVID-19 costs and repurposes it to pay three-quarters of the unemployment benefit. The remaining quarter of the cost would come from states themselves, most likely from other federal aid.

“As I said before, I don’t think this is the right way to do this. I worry a lot that we’re taking money from federal reimbursements associated with the first four months of COVID,” he said.

“But if this program is there and it’s the only thing that’s there, I don’t think Massachusetts should pass on that.

State Makes Progress on Testing

State House News – Massachusetts is seeing “good progress” in its COVID-19 testing numbers, Gov. Charlie Baker said Tuesday, 199 days after the first case of the new coronavirus was identified in Massachusetts.

Baker said the state “is seeing a steady climb in the number of new individuals tested” over the past week, with about 15,000 people or more newly tested each day. Though that number fell to 11,653 in Tuesday’s Department of Public Health report, it remained above what Baker said was a seven-day average of about 9,000 new individuals tested per day in mid-June.

The total number of tests conducted each day is also up, the governor said, hitting a seven-day average of about 20,000 daily tests for the past two weeks.

Baker teased that he might have more to say later in the week on testing for schools, as he announced that most districts were aiming for either a hybrid or fully in-person return to school this fall.

Free COVID-19 Testing Now Available in 20 Hard-Hit Communities

WHDHGov. Charlie Baker on Tuesday announced that Massachusetts is expanding its “Stop the Spread” initiative to three new communities, bringing the total number of hard-hit cities and towns involved in the statewide program to 20.

The state will now start offering free tests for symptomatic and asymptomatic people in Saugus, Salem, and Holyoke, Baker said during a news conference at the State House.

The initiative — which was launched in July to curb the transmission of coronavirus in communities that have had a higher prevalence of COVID-19 and a previous decrease in testing — also includes Agawam, Brockton, Chelsea, Everett, Fall River, Framingham, Lawrence, Lowell, Lynn, Marlborough, Methuen, New Bedford, Randolph, Revere, Springfield, Taunton, and Worcester.

Baker said the average positive coronavirus test rate over the last seven days is 1.4 percent but that the state has seen a “steady climb” in the number of people newly tested.

Seventy Percent of School Districts Plan Some In-Person Instruction

State House News – More than two-thirds of the Massachusetts school districts that have so far reported their reopening plans to the state envision some sort of in-classroom education, while the others are poised to resume remote learning, Gov. Charlie Baker said Tuesday.

Baker said 371 of the 400 districts had submitted their plans as of Monday, and 70 percent involved either a full return to in-person classes or a hybrid of remote and in-person learning. He said 30 percent were pursuing a fully remote model.

The governor has raised concerns about the difficulty of students getting to know their teachers and learning to read over digital platforms and said that communities where public health metrics show lower risks of COVID-19 transmission should feel comfortable reopening their school buildings for at least some classes.

“We’re encouraged that nearly three-quarters of the school districts are planning for at least a partial in-person learning experience for kids. Students have been away from their classrooms and their teachers and peers since March,” Baker said. “Since then we’ve learned a tremendous amount about COVID and have put together guidelines to allow for a productive and safe learning environment that adapts to the challenges that come with COVID-19.”

A more detailed breakdown provided by an Executive Office of Education spokesperson shows that hybrid models are the most popular choice, and that the decisions vary by grade level.

August 18

School Districts Push for Free COVID Testing

NECN – One school committee in Massachusetts is pushing the state to provide free, easily accessible, ongoing COVID-19 testing with a quick turnaround time before any school district in the commonwealth brings students back into the classroom.

“It feels irresponsible for us to say, ‘Well it’s your responsibility to go get a test and bring it back,’ ” said Worcester School Committee member Tracy O’Connell Novick.

Worcester’s school committee passed a resolution Thursday night in a 6-1 vote, and Novick says she’s already heard from several other school committees from across the state looking to have the same resolution requesting COVID testing before bringing students back into school buildings.

“If we’re actually as a state talking about putting a million kids back into buildings, and talking about having 150,000 staff, that are all in contact with each other,” said Novick, “we’ve got to be able to say, ‘you have symptoms, go get tested, you’re going to have results in a short period of time.’ ”

Novick says currently the state’s protocol is if a student or staff member isn’t able to be tested, they need to stay home for 14 days.

She says that’s not an acceptable solution when consistent testing and contact tracing is being required at businesses and colleges across the state.

“My daughter’s going back to college. She has to get tested before she goes on campus, she’s getting tested I think every two weeks while she’s there,” Novick said. “There’s lots of places where this is happening, so it’s definitely doable, it’s just something that actually has to be a priority.”

The education commissioner was not immediately available for comment Friday, but parents and community members who spoke to NBC10 Boston agree that COVID testing should be part of the equation for K-12 students learning in-person.

Employers Find Fed’s Main Street Lending Program is No Cure-All

Boston Business Journal – Small businesses that have received — and spent — their Paycheck Protection Program loans from the Small Business Administration may now be looking to the Federal Reserve for help.

And they are likely to be sorely disappointed.

The Fed’s Main Street Lending Program, rolled out with much fanfare and even more delays, was part of a $2.3 trillion package of financial aid and backstops funded in part from the CARES Act signed into law March 27. Yet, it has seen only a relative trickle of interest so far. The Boston Federal Reserve, which oversees the program, said Aug. 12 that $250 million in loans have been committed or settled and another $856 million worth are in the pipeline — for a program that has a ceiling of $600 billion.

Boston Fed President Eric Rosengren said that the loans offer attractive terms for both small businesses and lenders and that he was optimistic the loan program will pick up.

But experts disagree on both counts. Those terms, they point out, include an eye-popping repayment of 70 percent of the loan principal in the last year of the five-year term, as well as total loan calculations based on profitability levels that would be less helpful to businesses in distress.

The program has been adjusted several times to lower loan limits for applicants, now with a minimum size of $250,000 for for-profit businesses. That’s down from a $500,000 minimum announced in May and the $1 million limit originally envisioned when the program debuted. Those are high sums for the typical small business that pursued PPP loans, where the average loan size was closer to $110,543 and many loan amounts fell far below that figure.

Insurers Report Gains as Pandemic Reduces Health Spending

Boston Business Journal – All three of Massachusetts largest insurers reported substantial gains in the second quarter as patients kept paying health insurance premiums but largely didn’t seek out services.

The results are in line with earlier trends reported by the state, which showed that despite high unemployment, insurance coverage remained relatively stable through May, with over 6.4 million Massachusetts residents covered.

Even though state residents remained insured, they largely didn’t use their insurance. While thousands of patients flocked to hospitals with coronavirus, a temporary shutdown of elective surgeries and outpatient care sidelined much of the typical spending that would have happened in the second quarter.

The result has been insurers retaining millions of dollars.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts — the largest insurer in the state — reported $150.1 million in operating income on $2 billion in revenue in the second quarter, ending in June. That compares to a $16.5 million operating loss on $2.1 billion in revenue the same time last year.

Boston Aims to Provide Child Care, Remote Learning Space for Thousands of Students

The Boston GlobeBoston Public Schools and after-school providers stepped up planning last week to create emergency learning centers where students will be able to gather in person during the fall to study.

It’s an effort that several city leaders say is long overdue — cities including New York and San Francisco operated remote learning centers throughout the spring. The initiative is also, so far, scant on details, including who will staff the centers (and whether the staff will include tutors who can help the students with their homework), the locations of the centers, how many students will be able to participate, and who will be eligible.

“Our goal is to serve every family who wants it,” said Chris Smith, executive director of Boston After School & Beyond. But he added that programs will be limited by the need to socially distance kids across available spaces and, possibly, by funding issues.

After-school programs typically held in schools are concerned those buildings may no longer be feasible, Smith said, so they’re scrambling to find space in churches, community centers, parks, museums, summer camps — and even the Franklin Park Zoo. About 50 locations have been identified so far, he said, adding that families interested in securing spots should inquire at their schools.

In the end, organizers concede the need is likely to outpace availability.

At Least 130 COVID-19 False Positives Turn Up at Lab

Commonwealth Magazine – State public health officials rolled back the COVID-19 risk status of Fall River and Taunton on Friday after it was discovered that a commercial lab had reported a large number of false positive test results.

Fall River went from the red, or high-risk, level (8.4 cases per 100,000 people) to yellow, or moderate risk (7.4 cases per 100,000). Taunton went from yellow (6.5 cases per 100,000) to green, or low risk (3.2 cases per 100,000).

The Department of Public Health issued a statement saying a commercial lab it did not identify had a disproportionate number of false positive test results over a three-day period. The agency said about 700 tests are being rechecked. So far, the agency said, 460 tests have been redone, turning up 130 false positives.

Officials said the case numbers for other municipalities may change, but, with the exception of Fall River and Taunton, they did not expect their risk level to move.

The latest risk levels issued by the state covered the two-week period ending August 8. Presumably, the lab’s three-day issue with false positives occurred sometime during that time period.

MBTA Extends Discounted Commuter Rail Pilot

State House News – Commuter rail passengers will be able to travel between Lynn and Boston at the same price as a subway ride through the end of 2020 under a pilot program extension the MBTA announced Thursday.

Zone 1A fares will be accepted for trips between North Station and both the Lynn and Riverworks commuter rail stations through Dec. 31, adding four and a half more months to what was originally a one-week test run. The T accepted Zone 1A fares for Lynn and Riverworks as a pilot program between May 22 and May 31, then revived the practice starting July 1 so the MBTA could track more data about fare changes and to relieve crowding – a new risk during the COVID-19 era – on buses.

“This temporary zone change pilot aims to manage passenger volume and promote physical distancing on buses, and we continue to encourage our North Shore riders to consider this Commuter Rail option,” MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said in a Thursday press release.

A one-way ticket between those stations will continue to cost $2.40, compared to the $7 that had been charged pre-pilot when both Lynn and Riverworks were considered part of Zone 2. Lynn community leaders and elected officials had been pushing for the change for months, arguing that the higher price disincentivizes public transit and contributes to worsening congestion.

COVID-19 Spreading Fastest among Those in 20s, 30s

Commonwealth Magazine – COVID now appears to be spreading the fastest among people in their 20s and 30s, according to the Baker administration’s new weekly dashboard on the disease.

Over a two-week period from July 26 through August 8, people ages 20 to 39 accounted for 41 percent of all COVID-19 cases. During that time frame, the average age of those infected with the coronavirus was 39 – at the top of the 20-39 age group but way below the average age of cases during the entire pandemic, a number that has been hovering just above 50.

The shift in age of those infected is happening at a time when the Baker administration is trying to rein in the spread of COVID-19 by targeting 46 communities considered at high or moderate risk for the disease and the state as a whole at moderate risk with 4 cases per 100,000 people.

The 46 communities were identified using data for the two-week period ending August 8. That data showed the situation worsening; just a day earlier, the state released data for the two-week period ending August 5 indicating only 33 communities were at moderate or high risk, and the state as a whole was in relatively good shape at 3.2 cases per 100,000 people.

Medical Transport Company Offers Mobile COVID-19 Testing

Capecod.com – Medical transportation company Coastal Medical Transportation Services has started a Safe Return Program to offer mobile COVID-19 testing.

The company aims to have the program serve schools, nursing facilities, group homes and assisted living facilities, sports teams, businesses, and families who need testing for COVID-19.

Spero Theoharidis, Executive Vice President of Operations for Coastal Medical Transportation Services, said that the move took advantage of the company’s existing infrastructure.

“Businesses are trying to safely go back to normal and open and colleges and schools are trying to get students back in. With the infrastructure we had in place and our relationship with the labs, we thought it made sense to offer this to the community and people who need to show negative test results for whatever it may be,” said Theoharidis.

Theoharidis said that the service was an easy one to provide, given that 90 percent of their staff are already EMTs and paramedics, the type of staff state protocol has allowed to perform testing.

He also said that the testing that they provide has a fast turnaround time on results.

Colleges Ask Students to Sign Waivers to Return to Campus

The Boston Globe reported that college students who want to return to campus this fall will have to first sign a form acknowledging they understand the dangers of COVID-19 and in some cases relinquish their right to take legal action if they get sick.

Along with the code of conduct manuals and reminders to wear masks, colleges across the country are also including unprecedented agreements, waivers, and risk acknowledgement forms in their back-to-school packets this year.

Higher education institutions say these documents are a way to address life during an extraordinary pandemic and ensure that students understand the public health risks of the coronavirus and take the necessary precautions to protect themselves.

But critics argue that even as colleges invite thousands of students back this fall and try to reassure families that their campuses are safe, the institutions are also trying to protect themselves if something goes wrong.

“The universities are trying to cloud their responsibilities,” said Heidi Li Feldman, a law professor at Georgetown University Law Center. Feldman has warned students against signing the waivers and argues that colleges are attempting to squelch potential negligence lawsuits and make any legal claims more difficult to win.

“What the universities are saying is that students, faculty, and people in the community should bear the risk.”

Rules Set for School, Adult Sports

State House News – Football, competitive cheerleading, basketball, ice hockey and wrestling are among the activities assigned the highest risk level in new state guidance on youth and adult amateur sports, falling into a category where games, matches and competitive practices will only be allowed with new modifications in place.

The guidance, from the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, took effect Monday.

“For the avoidance of doubt, this guidance applies to K-12 school and other youth sports activities,” the document says.

Aimed at facility operators and organizers of youth and adult sports and activities, the guidance categorizes sports into three levels of COVID-19 transmission risk, based on the amount of close contact required or expected, with different limitations for each.

Facility operators and activity organizers “must require facial coverings to be worn by all participants,” except when distancing of six feet or more between participants is possible, for individuals who cannot wear a mask because of a disability or medical condition, or during “high intensity aerobic or anerobic activities, swimming, water polo, water aerobics or other sports where individuals are in the water,” the guidance says.

“Some sports by their nature involve intense aerobic activity throughout play. For these sports, it is required that players use facial coverings when possible, taking frequent breaks when they are out of proximity to other players using caution to avoid touching the front or inside of the face covering by using the ties or ear loops to remove and replace,” the guidance says. “For example, soccer players should have facial coverings with them at all times, and where possible play with the facial covering on, removing it for long runs down the field, for plays without close contact, and in the goal; baseball/softball batters must wear facial coverings while at bat; lacrosse or hockey players participating in face-offs must wear facial coverings.”

The guidance allows lower-risk activities, like tennis, golf, gymnastics and cross country, to hold individual or socially distanced group activities, competitive practices, competitions and outdoor tournaments. Individual crew, sailing and biking, horseback riding, fishing, hunting, surfing, pickleball, motor sports and no-contact exercise classes are also listed as examples in the “lower-risk” category.

For the other two risk levels, competitive practices and competitions are only allowed with modifications in place. Players can participate in individual or distanced activities like non-contact workouts, aerobic conditioning and drills the way the sport is traditionally played.

Sports including baseball and softball, team swimming, volleyball, soccer, fencing and field hockey are deemed moderate risk, as are running clubs and dance classes.

The higher-risk category includes football, basketball, competitive cheer, ice hockey, wrestling, boxing, martial arts, rugby, pair figure skating and ultimate Frisbee.

The guidance lists “lacrosse” as higher-risk and “girls’ lacrosse” as moderate risk.

The modifications for games and competitive practices for higher- and moderate-risk sports included staggered starts for races; elimination of deliberate contact like tackling and body-checking; and changes to or elimination of intermittent contact like scrums. Some intermittent contact, like face-offs, could take place if each player involved wears a mask.

“Modifications should strive to keep participants 6 feet apart for the majority of play and must eliminate all deliberate contact,” the guidance says.

Sports and activities that cannot implement such modifications to limit contact or increase distancing would not be able to hold matches, meets or games, according to the guidance, but could still be able to practice under certain circumstances.

The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association said in a statement posted to Twitter that it was aware of the updated state guidance and was awaiting “accompanying guidelines from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.”

Scientists Observe Lasting Immunity in COVID Patients

The Boston Globe – Scientists who have been monitoring immune responses to the coronavirus are now starting to see encouraging signs of strong, lasting immunity, even in people who developed only mild symptoms of COVID-19, a flurry of new studies suggests.

Disease-fighting antibodies, as well as immune cells called B cells and T cells that are capable of recognizing the virus, appear to persist months after infections have resolved — an encouraging echo of the body’s enduring response to other viruses.

“Things are really working as they’re supposed to,” said Deepta Bhattacharya, an immunologist at the University of Arizona and an author of one of the new studies, which has not yet been peer-reviewed.

Although researchers cannot forecast how long these immune responses will last, many experts consider the data a welcome indication that the body’s most studious cells are doing their job — and will have a good chance of fending off the coronavirus, faster and more fervently than before, if exposed to it again.

Editorial: Cut the Tax on New Hampshire Teleworkers

The Salem News – The divide between Massachusetts and New Hampshire is as much about taxes as it is geography. The Granite State’s famous distaste for income or sales taxes — the “New Hampshire advantage,” it’s sometimes called — entices many who work in and around Boston to buy houses and move their families north of the border.

Hence the incense among Gov. Chris Sununu and others in New Hampshire when revenue officials in Massachusetts tweaked their rules this spring to levy their state’s income tax on those forced to work from home in New Hampshire instead of commuting to offices in Massachusetts.

In other words, these New Hampshire residents may not be crossing the border to work, much less leaving their homes, due to steps taken to limit the spread of COVID-19. But, says the Massachusetts Department of Revenue, they’re still subject to the state’s 5 percent income tax, at least through the end of this year.

If you’re standing on the Massachusetts side of the border, this change may seem necessary to shore up the state’s coffers, hit hard due to the recession brought on by COVID-19. But the rule is illogical and unfair. Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration should reverse it lest their northern neighbors drag them into court, deservedly, thus piling up legal bills on both sides.

US House Panel Releases Bill to Support Child Welfare System During Pandemic

Mass Insider – On Friday, August 7, Chairman Danny Davis (D-IL) and Ranking Member Jackie Walorski (R-IN) of the Worker and Family Support Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee released the bipartisan Supporting Foster Youth and Families through the Pandemic Act (H.R.7947), which provides supports to children and families in the child welfare system in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

After months of stalled progress, this bipartisan legislation provides much-needed emergency support for children, youth, and families facing unprecedented stress and disruptions due to the public health crisis by addressing challenges found across the child welfare continuum.

It reflects many of the recommendations elevated by the child welfare community in the April 10 sign-on letter to House and Senate leadership on the emergency support needed for children and families in response to the pandemic. Once enacted, it would provide much needed resources to help support struggling families, keep children safe, and help youth thrive during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Specifically, the Supporting Foster Youth and Families through the Pandemic Act would:

Dramatically increase resources to help older youth successfully transition from foster care to adulthood and maintain their health during the pandemic. Older youth who have made tremendous progress toward successful adulthood, often without the support of family, are seeing that progress upended by the economic impact of the pandemic. The bill will help mitigate the daily challenges facing these young people by providing $400 million to the John H. Chafee Foster Care Program for Successful Transition to Adulthood (Chafee) and adjusting program requirements to make it more able to meet youths’ specific needs during the public health emergency.

Prevent youth from aging out of the foster care system during the crisis. This bill also keeps more young people connected to supports and safe housing by placing a moratorium on youth “aging out” of foster care and by allowing youth who have already aged out during the pandemic to re-enter care. Now more than ever, extended foster care is a life line for young people as it provides them with the safety and security of knowing they can maintain their current living arrangements and services and ensures they will be in the best position to stay healthy and continue working towards their goals for their future.

Increase investment in the Title IV-E Prevention Program. The COVID-19 pandemic creates many new stressors for vulnerable families and communities need the tools and resources to offer prevention and early intervention services to help families remain safe and healthy. By increasing the federal reimbursement for the Title IV-E Prevention Program to 100 percent, this bill would build on important reform efforts already underway across the country and will allow states, tribes, and territories to act swiftly to provide evidence-based, trauma-informed mental health and substance use treatment and in-home skill-based parenting programs to help keep families strong and keep children safely at home with their families.

Provide $85 million for services and programs to support birth, foster, adoptive and kinship families and to help child welfare courts adapt to the pandemic. A targeted investment of federal funds into the MaryLee Allen Promoting Safe and Stable Families Program will give communities the flexibility they need to boost investments in services that support families during this challenging time. Investment in the Court Improvement Program will help mitigate the impact of the pandemic on the functioning of the child welfare courts, such as enhancements in technology to ensure timely hearings and avoid delays in reunification and other legal proceedings to achieve permanency.

Help relatives caring for children by increasing federal support for Kinship Navigator Programs. Grandparents and other relatives who step in to raise children and keep them safely with family and out of foster care, face unique challenges during this COVID crisis. These relative caregivers are often older and are particularly vulnerable to the virus and are struggling to safely access basic food, medicine, and supplies without exposing themselves to the virus. By increasing the federal share for Kinship Navigators to 100 percent and temporarily waiving the evidence standard required for federal reimbursement, this bill creates stronger flexibility to reach more kinship caregivers and provide them with access to resources and information they need to safely care for children.

Provide flexibilities for home visiting programs to continue serving families safely. Allowing for necessary adaptations to ensure that young parents can continue to receive home visiting services will ensure that funding for these vital programs will not be reduced because of measures taken to ensure safety of home visiting staff and clients. Delaying deadlines and providing programmatic flexibility allow home visiting programs to adapt to the public health crisis while safely providing necessary supports to families.

It is important to acknowledge that the bill represents only provisions that are under the jurisdiction of the Ways and Means Committee and Congress must still invest heavily in primary prevention and family support by funding Community-Based Child Abuse Prevention grants, which are under the jurisdiction of a different committee. In the Senate, Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Kamala D. Harris (D-CA), Bob Casey (D-PA), and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-NV) introduced the Child Welfare Emergency Assistance Act (S. 4172), which includes the provisions in the Davis/Walorski bill along with additional support in a number of critical areas. As Congress moves forward in the broader negotiations for the next COVID-19 relief package, we strongly urge for the inclusion of the provisions put forth in these different proposals.

August 13

State Targeting COVID-19 Enforcement, Aid in 33 Communities

State House News – Massachusetts has identified 33 communities where worrying trends in COVID-19 infection rates warrant targeted intervention efforts, and the state plans to offer those municipalities assistance with testing, contact tracing and public awareness campaigns, Gov. Charlie Baker said Tuesday.

The effort is part of a new initiative to better inform residents about the spread of the coronavirus in their communities and the cities and towns where they work, shop or travel to on a regular basis so they can make informed decisions about precautions to limit infections.

“People need to step up and be aware of the level of spread in each community, especially in your own area, and be vigilant,” Baker said.

The administration said it will begin publishing weekly data showing town-by-town infections rates and assigning every community a color based on the level of infection and spread detected by testing. The worst-off communities will be assigned a “red” designation signaling a daily infection rate of more than 8 cases per 100,000 people. Currently, four cities – Chelsea, Everett, Lynn and Revere – fall into that high risk category. The moderate risk “yellow” designation will mean between four and eight daily cases per 100,000 people, while “green” communities will have fewer than 4 cases and “white” communities will have had less than 5 cases in the past 14 days.

Baker said parks, playgrounds and some businesses could be restricted or shut down in moderate- or high-risk communities if they have been shown to be contributors to higher infection rates. Local officials in trouble spots, Baker said, identified social gatherings without masks as their biggest challenge this summer.

Baker also said communities in the “green” and “white” categories should feel good about reopening schools in the fall. “If you’re in a green or a white community, I can’t imagine a good reason not to go back, whether it’s full time or some sort of a hybrid,” Baker said.

COVID Map Could Influence Key Decisions

Mass Insider – Just moments after the administration unveiled a new COVID-19 measure that assigns a color code to each community signifying its caseload, state and local leaders discussed the implications for the new metric for reopening schools and attacking the spread of the disease in Massachusetts.

School Re-Openings

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) announced that it is using the new color codes to recommend a learning model for school districts this fall.

DESE Senior Associate Commissioner Russell Johnston said his department is recommending full-time, in-person learning for the 318 communities classified as either green or white.

A hybrid model – a blend of in-person and remote learning – is recommended for the 29 yellow communities: Auburn, Belchertown, Boston, Brockton, Charlton, Chicopee, Fall River, Framingham, Georgetown, Granby, Holyoke, Hull, Lawrence, Longmeadow, Malden, Marlborough, Maynard, Middleton, Northampton, Peabody, Quincy, Randolph, Salem, Saugus, Springfield, Taunton, Winthrop, Worcester, and Wrentham.

A remote learning model is recommended for the red communities. A district may downgrade to a lower learning model if it faces “extenuating circumstances,” such as building conditions, Johnston said.

With input from health experts, DESE continues to place an emphasis on bringing children back into classrooms to the greatest extent possible.

“We want to get back to what we know is best for kids,” he said. “We believe that with the right health and safety features in place – wearing masks, maintaining physical distance, good hand hygiene, and staying … at home if you’re sick – the combination of those four factors make our schools safe to be at in person. And that’s why we really want to lean in on reopening our schools and having as much in person instruction as possible, while also recognizing that it might be something that we have to grow toward as the school year resumes.”

School districts have until Friday to notify the DESE of their choice of learning model, and many school committees have already made their decisions, following extensive deliberations and public input.

Recognizing this, Johnston said his department is urging districts to use the new data to continually assess their position as the school year goes on and the data evolve, and some may wish to revisit their decisions. He added that a city or town’s COVID-positive test rate – particularly whether that number is rising or falling – is another factor to consider in decision-making.

The DESE is also urging districts to prioritize in-person services for the “most vulnerable” students – those with disabilities and special needs – even if they select a hybrid or remote model for the district as a whole.

“There are some legal consequences to students not getting a ‘free and appropriate’ public education,” he added.

Johnston said DESE “will have more information for you on [school-based COVID] testing very soon,” adding that it would be “positive and helpful news.” Asked about the appropriate response to a COVID-positive case in a school, Johnston said there were a small number of cases in residential programs that stayed open throughout the pandemic as well as summer school programs, but not a single school was closed in response.

“When you think about the many, many, many people we have involved in our schools, we will have cases,” he said. “And we need to take the attitude that these will occur, and we can find our way through them.”

He said conversations at the local level about this reality and the plans and protocols in place to deal with it “will help take down the pressure” when a case does occur.

Dr. Larry Madoff, medical director at the Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences at the Department of Public Health, said the department is working with DESE to update its guidance regarding contact tracing specifically for school-age children.

On the popular topic of school sports, Johnston said guidance will be coming “very, very soon” and that it will likely align with guidance for outdoor activities from the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs and will reflect input and support from the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association.

He said the department is also working on guidance updates to address instances when students or staff come into a district from a community with a higher COVID rate. And he referenced the guidance for student transportation issued by DESE last month.

Berkshire Theater Leaders Push for Exemption from Gathering Limits

Berkshire Eagle — Beginning Tuesday, outdoor gatherings of more than 50 people are prohibited in the state under Gov. Charlie Baker’s revised COVID-19 guidance.

What that means for two ongoing Pittsfield theater productions — and an outdoor musical production scheduled later in the month — remained an open question into the evening Monday.

Barrington Stage Company and Berkshire Theatre Group are seeking a waiver to Baker’s order, which is aimed at curbing the spread of the virus amid a recent uptick in cases across the state. The governor’s order leaves open the possibility of exceptions in certain instances, to be determined in consultation with the Department of Public Health.

“This is a cultural event in Pittsfield, not a big private party on Cape Cod,” said Barrington Stage artistic director Julianne Boyd, during a break in rehearsals for “The Hills Are Alive With Rodgers & Hammerstein,” a concert-style revue.

“There is a difference between a social gathering in which people are moving about freely, many of them unmasked, and a performance in which people are required to wear masks; whose temperatures are taken as they come in, and then they sit at a socially safe distance, 6 feet apart, for 75 or 80 minutes in an … open-air tent. We have taken the strictest protocols, approved by Berkshire Medical Center, the city’s health commissioner, and Actors’ Equity.

Lt. Governor Reviews New Gathering, Opening Rules

Lt. Gov. Polito reviewed changes made to the state’s rules governing gatherings and restaurants, effective today, and the decision to put a hold on Step 2 of Phase 3 of the state’s reopening plan.

“It is summer, and we have these few months of the year that we love to enjoy,” she said. “And there are some people that are just enjoying it a little too much, in terms of activity that is not distant, doesn’t include a [face] covering and choices that some people are making that are leading to [COVID] spread.”

State and local police are now empowered to help local health departments enforce the revised outdoor gathering limit of 50 people for a single event on either public or private property. The state is also creating an interagency enforcement and intervention team, which will target its work in communities with higher-than-average COVID rates (designated red and yellow).

Regarding restaurant rules, Polito said, “We went more after the bars that were trying to say that they were a restaurant, but they really were just serving drinks with no real food, and we updated some guidance there.”

Restaurants, she added, are not subject to general gathering limits, but must comply with industry-specific guidance. The gathering limit applies, however, when a venue hosts a single event, such as a wedding.

The state’s 17 Stop the Spread free testing sites have conducted more than 50,000 tests and will remain open through Sept. 12, and possibly longer. Polito said these sites may be a resource for Massachusetts residents returning from states designated as non-low-risk under the state’s travel order and want a negative test result in order to return to work.

Polito said the state will be updating its travel order information now that a bordering state, Rhode Island, has been added to the list of non-low-risk states. She also referenced the state’s human resources policy regarding voluntary travel by employees and their return to work.

Emergency child care centers had 64 cases of COVID-19

MassLive – The Department of Early Education and Care in Massachusetts reported 64 cases of coronavirus had been reported at 47 emergency child care centers, forcing temporary closures and quarantines at some of the programs set up to care for children of essential workers, according to the Boston Globe.

The Boston Globe reported that the EEC has refused to provide data on coronavirus cases reported by the state-licensed emergency child care centers that remained open during the three months while the state was shut down.

In the limited data that was provided, the vast majority of cases were of a single person at each facility who was infected, although nine programs reported more than one case, EEC spokesperson Colleen Quinn told the newspaper. No program reported more than five cases.

Quinn, in her email to the Globe, wrote that there were 32 cases reported among staff at child care centers, and another 32 children at the facilities, or their family members, were infected.

The documents received by the newspaper did not give any more detail about the coronavirus cases.

Emergency daycare centers began opening in March taking care of the children of essential workers, nurses, doctors, first responders, custodial staff and grocery store personnel on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19.

Feds Reach Agreement with Moderna on Vaccine

State House News – The federal government has reached an agreement with Cambridge-based Moderna to manufacture and deliver 100 million doses of the company’s COVID-19 vaccine candidate, President Donald Trump announced early Tuesday evening.

“The federal government will own these vaccine doses,” Trump said. “We’re buying them.”

Moderna estimated the value of Tuesday’s award at $1.525 billion, including incentive payments for timely delivery of the product. Under the agreement, the U.S. government will also have the option to purchase up to 400 million additional doses of the vaccine – mRNA-1273 – from Moderna.

Trump highlighted federal government investments in the development and manufacturing of the top six vaccine candidates “to ensure rapid delivery” and noted previously established vaccine manufacturing partnerships with Johnson & Johnson and Sanofi/GSK.

“Some tremendous things are happening on the vaccine front, on the therapeutic front,” Trump said.

U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said that as part of Operation Warp Speed, the federal government is “assembling a broad portfolio of vaccines to increase the odds that we will have at least one safe, effective vaccine as soon as the end of this year.”

Trump said there are three vaccine candidates in Phase 3 studies, the final stage of clinical trials.

Baker Opposes Trump Stimulus Alternative

Commonwealth Magazine – Gov. Charlie Baker said he opposes President Trump’s stimulus alternative because it relies for funding on money Massachusetts and other states are counting on to cover COVID-19 costs and related expenditures.

With Congress unable to come to agreement on a stimulus package, Trump over the weekend signed a number of orders, including one that would provide an extra $400 a week to people out of work and receiving existing unemployment insurance benefits.

Baker said Trump intends to use money appropriated to the Federal Emergency Management Agency to cover the federal government’s share of the enhanced unemployment insurance benefit, which comes to three-quarters of the cost. States would be required to cover the remaining cost of the benefit, and Trump has said they could use CARES Act funds to do so.

Baker said Trump’s proposal is credible, but it takes money that states are already counting on to cover their COVID-19 costs and uses those funds to pay for the enhanced unemployment insurance benefit.

“That FEMA money, as far as most states are concerned, is what’s there for us to apply to be reimbursed for the costs we incurred in March, April, and May during the original emergency,” Baker said.

SBA has opened its Paycheck Protection Forgiveness Portal. Many small businesses will have to wait.

Boston Business Journal – Small businesses eager to submit their forgiveness applications for Paycheck Protection Program loans may have to wait.

While the Small Business Administration officially opened its forgiveness portal to lenders Aug. 10, many lenders will likely wait, according to banks and experts. That is because the potential for shifting guidance, new legislation and a desire to fully prepare for a flood of applications means banks have little incentive to launch right away.

August 11, 2020

State Mulls Response to Trump Executive Orders

President Donald Trump issued executive orders Saturday to defer payroll taxes and replace an expired unemployment benefit with a lower amount. Separate orders addressed student federal loan payment and evictions.

“The (Baker) administration is reviewing the Executive Order related to unemployment benefits,” a spokesman for Massachusetts Labor Secretary Rosalin Acosta told State House News Service Monday. The administration said the Department of Unemployment Assistance had received a memo outlining the program.

If Massachusetts were to participate, it’s unclear how much it would cost. Massachusetts has had one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, and as of the last week of July had 502,471 continuing claims for unemployment assistance and 19,179 initial claims for regular UI benefits for the week.

Given the complexities of these new orders, employers should await further guidance.  It is important to note that legal challenges against the Executive Order are likely, there are statutory and programmatical issues with the use of Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) money for unemployment insurance and it is possible that states will not administer this program given that funding is not authorized from Congress.

AIM will continue to monitor developments, including how the Baker Administration will react to this new order and Congressional negotiations regarding a stimulus deal.

Unemployment:  The Executive Order provides for a supplemental federal unemployment benefit of up to $400 each week, not the $600 Congressionally approved amount.  The Executive order would require states to pay for 25 percent of the $400 weekly benefit, while the federal government would pick up 75 percent.  The Administration would utilize $44 billion from FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund to cover the unemployment program. This extra unemployment help would last until Dec. 6 or until the Disaster Relief Fund balance drops to $25 billion, “whichever occurs first.” The program could begin the week ending August 1, 2020.

Payroll Tax: The Executive Order would defer the employee portion of the payroll tax from Aug. 1 through the end of the year. The move would not directly aid unemployed workers, who do not pay the tax when they are jobless, and employees would need to repay the federal government eventually without an act of Congress.

Evictions:  The evictions executive order directs the Treasury and Housing and Urban Development departments to identify funds to provide financial assistance to those struggling to pay their monthly rent.

Student Loans: The Executive Order would defer interest-free loans that would have to be repaid.

The executive order does not address several areas that have been part of the congressional negotiations, including funding for schools and state and local governments.  AIM has urged the Massachusetts federal delegation to provide relief on a variety of issues including unemployment insurance, childcare and other relief for state and municipal budgets.

Federal Eviction Ban Would Leave Most Tenants in Peril

POLITICO – President Donald Trump’s vow to protect millions of Americans from the threat of eviction has one serious shortcoming: It would do nothing to help the vast majority of the country’s tenants.

Lawmakers have been unable to agree on extending a federal moratorium on evictions as part of their negotiations over the next economic relief package. But the ban itself shields barely a quarter of the nation’s 44 million rental units — only residents of buildings that have federally guaranteed mortgages.

The rest live in rentals with private mortgages, and millions of them could face eviction even if the federal government extends the ban because dozens of states have either offered tenants no protection or have let their own moratoriums expire.

That’s why housing advocates say the only way to ensure people can stay in their homes is to provide rental assistance payments — an idea that’s gaining traction even with some Republicans. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Thursday told reporters that the White House negotiating team would “consider some payments on rental assistance.”

Baker Orders New Enforcement, Gathering Size Limit to Fight Virus Spread

Gov. Charlie Baker is indefinitely postponing the next step of the state’s reopening in response to the uptick in COVID-19 cases that Massachusetts has seen in recent weeks.

AIM Blog | Governor Reduces Gathering Limits; Steps Up Enforcement

The governor said the second step of Phase 3 of the state’s reopening plan will be put on hold and the outdoor gathering limit will decrease from 100 to 50, effective today. He said he was authorizing all state and local police to enforce the orders, and that people who host events – even on private property – that exceed gathering limits will be subject to fines.

Amid reports of large parties and unauthorized gatherings, Baker said “some residents feel a bit too relaxed about the seriousness of this virus.”

He also announced the creation of a COVID Enforcement and Intervention Team that will ramp up enforcement efforts and coordinate intervention efforts in yet-to-be-named high-risk communities.

“We have to work hard, always, harder in some respects than ever, to contain COVID-19 and keep our economy open for business,” Baker said.

“We also want to keep this virus out of our communities as we head into the fall so we can give our kids a chance to get back to school.”

Movie theaters, gyms, casinos, museums and more were allowed to reopen in early July as part of Phase 3. The Baker administration referred to it as “Step One of Phase III” but did not fully detail what would be included in the second step of Phase 3.

On the state’s reopening website, it lists indoor theater or concert hall performances, and laser tag, roller skating, trampolines and obstacle courses as the activities that would be allowed to reopen in step two of Phase 3.

Baker said the gathering limit on indoor gatherings will remain at 25. He said the limits apply to all types of locations on public or private property. He also said he was updating restaurant guidance to make clear that alcohol may only be served for on-site consumption if it is accompanied by food prepared on-site.

Public Hearing for Proposed Massachusetts Tax Rules for Telecommuters

The Massachusetts Department of Revenue recently issued two guidance documents and will be hosting a public hearing on August 27 regarding the taxation of telecommuters.  The Boston Globe also had a featured article regarding the impact.  This topic was discussed at last weeks’ AIM Taxation Committee meeting.

The issue is important because the proposed regulation 830 CMR 62.5A.3 sets forth the sourcing rules that apply to income earned by a non-resident employee who telecommutes on behalf of an in-state business from a location outside the state due to the COVID-19 state of emergency in Massachusetts.

It explains the parallel treatment that will be accorded to resident employees with income tax liabilities in other states that have adopted similar sourcing rules. The regulation is effective through the earlier of December 31, 2020 or 90 days after the Governor gives notice that the state of emergency declared in Executive Order 591 is no longer in effect.  The proposed regulation is identical to Emergency regulation 830 CMR 62.5A.3 promulgated July 21, 2020.

Please see RSM analysis here and additional tax analysis and reporting here.

Please contact Brad MacDougall, bmacdougall@aimnet.org or 617-262-1180 with any questions as AIM continues to work with the Department of Revenue regarding issues and clarification with this new guidance and as AIM prepare formal comments for the public hearing.

Massachusetts Wants to Keep Taxing Telecommuters from New Hampshire

Boston Globe – Before the coronavirus kept us all housebound, thousands of New Hampshire commuters streamed south each morning to work at Massachusetts businesses — and paid the income tax to prove it.

But now a border war is brewing over that lucrative prize.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic started, Governor Charlie Baker’s administration has made it clear it will continue to tax out-of-state residents who normally go to work in Massachusetts each morning, even if they’re stuck at home.

That didn’t cause much of a stir back in the spring, when it seemed like the coronavirus would be gone by Labor Day. But it is causing a stir now.

Baker’s Department of Revenue said on July 21 that it wants to keep collecting these income taxes, probably until the end of the year. Before COVID hit, New Hampshire residents who worked for a Massachusetts employer could adjust their income tax liability downward to reflect any days they spent working from home (and perhaps avoid the state tax entirely). The Baker administration’s approach essentially treats these new at-home days as in-office days, if people are home specifically because of the pandemic.

That isn’t sitting well with politicians in New Hampshire. They argue these constituents should benefit from their state’s longstanding tradition of not imposing a broad-based income tax, now that they are not schlepping into Massachusetts every weekday.

Governor Chris Sununu this week directed the New Hampshire attorney general to review the taxation rules issued by neighboring states to ensure New Hampshire residents aren’t being improperly taxed, and to determine the legality of these border-state rules. The Republican governor’s brief statement on the matter didn’t mention Massachusetts by name. But it didn’t need to: An estimated 84,000 New Hampshire residents regularly commuted to Massachusetts in normal times, roughly four times the total of commuters to all other states.

Sununu’s action followed a story last weekend in the Union Leader, the state’s largest newspaper, about the Baker administration’s approach to collecting income taxes from New Hampshire residents.

Meanwhile, the two top Democrats on the New Hampshire Senate’s ways and means and finance committees fired off a brief letter to Geoffrey Snyder, Baker’s revenue commissioner, on Wednesday. The letter slammed the Baker administration’s plans to collect income taxes from New Hampshire residents who are working remotely because of the pandemic through the end of the year, or 90 days after Baker ends the state of emergency, whichever comes first. Snyder’s agency plans to hold a virtual public hearing to discuss the issue on Aug. 27.

Andrew Botti, a litigation attorney with the McLane Middleton law firm, said these workers are often logging into computer servers in Massachusetts, one of several factors that give the state enough jurisdiction to impose the tax. Besides, he said, it’s not as if New Hampshire is losing income tax revenue to its neighbor.

But the border fight underscores a bigger question that state bean counters may need to confront. Once the pandemic finally ends, many employers say they’ll be more lenient about telecommuting. That trend could take a bite out of Massachusetts finances, if many New Hampshire residents never resume their daily commutes south across state lines, or drive into Massachusetts infrequently.

“I’m sure there are economists right now thinking about if telecommuting becomes the norm in the future, what does that mean for economies of high-cost states?” Pitter said.

School Re-Openings Generate Anxiety

State House News – If Worcester Public Schools brings students back into buildings in any capacity during the upcoming academic year, registered nurse Tami Hale would be among the first people responsible for responding to the threat of a potential COVID-19 case.

But Hale, a school nurse at Gates Lane Elementary School, said that no one in leadership has solicited her input on how to keep the building safe from the highly infectious virus, even as city officials discuss a reopening plan.

Hale joined with several other school staff, educators and parents on a labor-backed virtual panel where they aired concerns about the viability of returning to in-person K-12 instruction while the pandemic rages on and criticized district and state officials for how preparations have unfolded.

“If we don’t listen and involve the school nurses in this process, we are going to put lives at risk,” Hale said. “At this point, it feels very much like we have been left out of it. These are our buildings, our students. We are the experts in this, and no one’s asking.”

Almost five months after schools abruptly sent students home and shifted on the fly to remote learning, COVID-19 remains a threat even if the outbreak has slowed considerably in Massachusetts.

Education leaders are now grappling with how to balance the value of sending students back into schools, the shortcomings and benefits associated with learning from home, and the safety risks inherent in bringing crowds of people into a closed location.

Gap Grows Between Boston Mayor and Teachers Union

WGBH – With the official start of the school year just weeks away, and in the midst of a pandemic crisis whose continued magnitude and duration are unknown, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh has found himself caught between a rock and a hard place.

Walsh is engaged in an increasingly public and at times acrimonious tug of war with one of the city’s most influential employee unions — the Boston Teachers Union, which represents not only BPS teachers, but also school nurses and other professionals, and whose more than 10,000 members comprise the largest single public sector union in the city.

The gap between Walsh and the influential teachers union was not always so wide.

In the city’s 2013 mayoral election, then-candidate Walsh received a boost from union teachers in the form of an unsolicited, nearly half-million dollar TV ad blitz supporting Walsh over opponent John R. Connolly — paid for by the American Federation of Teachers, with which the BTU is affiliated.

While it’s by no means clear the ad buy affected the race, it marked the ascendance of the Boston Teachers Union as a rising political force in a city that had just held its first open mayoral election in more than two decades, and a force few politicians would care to run afoul of.

Now, Walsh (who has not yet said he’s running for re-election next year but has more than strongly hinted he intends to) finds himself at something of a political crossroads. A proud union advocate whose political career is rooted in the city’s trade unions, he is facing off with an increasingly frustrated BTU over a draft school reopening plan released by the Boston Public Schools this week.

UMass Amherst Tells Most Students Not to Return to Campus

State House News – Officials at the flagship University of Massachusetts campus in Amherst said they would no longer repopulate their residence halls with students taking online classes.

In late June, the school announced a reopening plan under which most classes would be held remotely except for labs, studios and other courses that require hands-on work. Students were nonetheless invited to return to the large campus, where dorms and dining halls would operate under new health and safety precautions.

At the time, Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy said school officials had heard “loud and clear” from students that they wanted to be in and around campus.

Citing worsening conditions around COVID-19 nationally and the risk of having to close campus mid-semester, Subbaswamy sent a message to students and their families informing them the school will not offer housing to students whose courses are entirely remote.

Only students who are taking “essential face-to-face classes” will be granted access to dorms and other campus facilities, Subbaswamy wrote. He said school officials “strongly urge” students taking remote courses not to return to the Amherst area. Classes begin on Aug. 24.

“I realize that today’s announcement will cause disruption for many of you and is a major departure from the plan we released in June,” Subbaswamy wrote. “Our intention at that time, with our plans to conduct most classes remotely while inviting all students back to campus, was to strike a balance between the immersive residential experience so important to our students’ development and the health and safety of the entire community in the Amherst area. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts and detailed planning, the proliferation of the pandemic has left us with no choice but to pursue this more stringent approach.”

The chancellor said situations involving students who are dependent on campus housing and dining, those in health care fields, and international students with specific visa requirements “will be handled on a case-by case basis, and in most instances will be accommodated.”

Pressley Calls for Schools to Go Fully Remote

WWLP – As more school districts in Massachusetts announce that they will begin the new academic year online due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Representative Ayanna Pressley is calling for all schools to go remote this fall.

In a statement, the U.S. Representative for Massachusetts’ 7th, Congressional District said in part:

“Schools throughout the Commonwealth, particularly in communities hardest hit by COVID-19 like so many across the Massachusetts 7th, are not equipped with the resources, equipment, classroom facilities and staff necessary to safely reopen for in person courses.”

According to a recent study by the Boston Teachers Union, 87 percent of members do not feel safe returning to in-person teaching. Of those surveyed, 64 percent are at high-risk for COVID-19 or living with someone who is high-risk.

National Job Growth Continues at Slower Pace

State House News – American employers added nearly 1.8 million jobs in July while the unemployment rate declined to 10.2 percent, restoring another chunk of the jobs lost during the pandemic but at a slower pace than in recent months.

The 1.76 million positions added are more than three times the gains as any pre-pandemic month since 2000, but the boost also lags behind the 2.7 million jobs added in May and the 4.8 million added in June, according to federal data.

Altogether, the three continuous months of rising employment have clawed back less than half of the historic 21.3 million jobs cut in April, when many businesses were ordered to close physical operations to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“The economy fell off a cliff at the end of the first quarter of 2020 and we have been slowly climbing back ever since, thanks in large part to government support,” Citizens Bank Head of Global Markets Tony Bedikian said in a statement. “We have seen a very troubling increase in COVID-19 cases in many states that had reopened for business, but we continue to be cautiously optimistic that the overall U.S. economy has turned a corner, and that the solid job gains announced today will be sustained.”

Job gains came in most industries tracked by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, with leisure and hospitality and food services and drinking places — two of the categories most sharply affected by mandatory shutdowns — together accounting for nearly 1.1 million of the new positions.

MBTA Buses Tell Different Stories

Boston Globe – For months, the bus system has been the MBTA’s workhorse, shuttling essential workers around the region while many commuter rail and subway trains rumble nearly empty down the tracks.

But within the bus network, the primary transit option in many neighborhoods, different lines tell very different stories.

Some, like the normally popular routes through South Boston, are still drawing only small fractions of their pre-pandemic ridership. The 7 bus, which connects the neighborhood to the financial district, for example, reflects the kind of ghost town that Boston’s central business district has been since spring — fewer than 300 people ride each day, compared to nearly 5,000 earlier this year.

But just a few miles away, the 109, from Sullivan Square through Everett to Malden, has regained more than 60 percent of its ridership. It’s one of about 20 bus lines that transports more than half the riders it did before the virus struck, according to Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority data. And in recent weeks, its passengers have been substantially more likely to ride in what the MBTA now considers a crowded vehicle.

“It’s pretty packed,” said Doma Sherpa, who takes the 109 to the Orange Line on her way to a baby-sitting job in Boston. “If there’s too many people, there’s a chance to get infected . . . [But] I have to go to work to survive.”

Governor Signs IT Bond Bill

Mass Insider – Governor Charlie Baker signed An Act Financing the General Governmental Infrastructure of the Commonwealth, which authorizes up to $1.8 billion in capital funding for key investments in public safety, food security, and information technology. This includes programs to enhance the security of the Commonwealth’s IT assets, improve the delivery of state and local services, and continue responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are pleased to have worked closely with the Legislature to sign this bill into law and continue investing in information technology improvements, public safety upgrades and food security across the Commonwealth,” said Governor Baker. “We are continuing to support critical capital investments that modernize our technology infrastructure and allow us to deliver effective and reliable government services for the people of Massachusetts during the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic.”

“Our Administration is proud to collaborate with our legislative colleagues and continue making important technology infrastructure investments throughout our local communities,” said Lieutenant Governor Polito. “This legislation will allow us to work closely with our municipal partners to make upgrades that improve the delivery of government services and benefit Massachusetts residents.”

“As we adjust to a world transformed by a global pandemic, I am thrilled to see these critical investments in our Commonwealth clear the final hurdle and become law,” said Senate President Karen E. Spilka (D-Ashland). “The Senate stands committed to supporting existing programs as well as  investing in underserved and underrepresented populations, and this bond authorization includes many of the priorities championed by my colleagues. I am particularly proud to see this legislation includes much-needed supports for our childcare providers and directs funding to bolster economic empowerment in communities of color across our state.”

“Now, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, more than ever, everyone realizes the importance of our information technology infrastructure,” said House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo (D-Winthrop). “These investments will strengthen the resilience of our state and help provide more equitable access to key services for our residents. I thank Governor Baker, Senate President Spilka, and my colleagues in the Legislature for their work on this important bill.”

$660 million in authorizations in the legislation will support IT infrastructure needs throughout the Commonwealth, strengthening cybersecurity and improving how state agencies serve their constituents. The bill authorizes $90 million for public safety including $10 million to establish a new fire training facility in southeastern Massachusetts.

$346.5 million is authorized for municipal grant programs including $25 million for firefighter safety grants, $10 million for a municipal ADA-accessibility grant program, and $5 million for the Community Compact program.

The legislation also authorizes $37.3 million in capital funding to ensure food security for residents across the Commonwealth.

Other notable authorizations in the General Governmental Bond Bill include:

$115 million for library construction grants

$20 million for a program to enhance fiber-optic connectivity in key municipal buildings

$375 million for repairs and improvements for facilities across the Commonwealth

State Issues HR policy Regarding Employees Traveling Out of State

Mass Insider – The Baker administration has promulgated its human resources policy regarding state employees who travel to non-low-risk states under the COVID-19 travel order.

The policy is explained in a memo dated Aug. 4 from the Human Resources Division to state agency heads and managers.

Under the policy, those employees who travel out of state and are subject to a mandatory 14-day quarantine may be eligible for COVID-19 emergency paid leave under the federal Families First Coronavirus Relief Act, which requires employers to provide up to 10 days of additional paid sick leave if an employee must quarantine as a result of a federal, state or local government order.

The policy requires managers to inquire as to whether employees intend to travel to restricted states before granting vacation leave and requires employees to provide notice if they intend to travel to non-low-risk states.

The policy states that vacation leave can be denied if an extended absence from the workplace is not consistent with the agency’s operational needs, or the vacation leave may be granted contingent on having the employee pre-schedule an appropriate COVID-19 test to take place within 72 house of the employee’s scheduled return to the workplace.

The Massachusetts Municipal Association is advising municipal officials to confer with labor counsel regarding this issue.

August 6, 2020

Notice Regarding Updated Workplace Safety Protocols

On July 6, the Baker Administration updated the Sector Specific Workplace Specific Safety Standards, which for most industries imposed a new protocol to establish a screening process for all workers.

Facilities must screen workers at each shift by ensuring the following:

  • Worker is not experiencing any symptoms such as fever (100.0 and above) or chills, cough, shortness of breath, sore throat, fatigue, headache, muscle/body aches, runny nose/congestion, new loss of taste or smell, or nausea, vomiting or diarrhea.
  • Worker has not had “close contact” with an individual diagnosed with COVID-19. “Close contact” means living in the same household as a person who has tested positive for COVID-19, caring for a person who has tested positive for COVID-19, being within 6 feet of a person who has tested positive for COVID-19 for 15 minutes or more, or coming in direct contact with secretions (e.g., sharing utensils, being coughed on) from a person who has tested positive for COVID-19, while that person was symptomatic.
  • Worker has not been asked to self-isolate or quarantine by their doctor or a local public health official.
  • Workers who fail to meet the above criteria must be sent home.

AIM has researched the guidance and discussed alternative language with AIM members.  AIM has provided alternative language to the administration regarding this new protocol and we continue to work to have these new requirements relaxed.

Please see the Phase 3 Step 1 Sector Specific Workplace rules to determine if this impacts your organization.

Should you have any questions or have concerns with this new requirement please contact Brad MacDougall bmacdougall@aimnet.org or Beth Yohai at byohai@aimhrsolutions.com. You can also call the AIM hotline at 800.470.6277.

Rhode Island Removed from Massachusetts Safe List

Effective August 7, Rhode Island has been removed from the Mass Department of Public Health lower-risk state list.  All travelers arriving in Massachusetts from Rhode Island must fill out a form, quarantine for 14 days or produce a negative COVID test.  Exemptions apply for regular commuters.  For more information go to www.mass.gov/MATraveler.

Since the travel order was implemented on July 24, AIM has gathered several questions from AIM member companies and have shared those observations and questions with the administration.  Should you have any additional questions or feedback regarding the travel order let us know. We will share any feedback that we get from the administration.

Court System Eyes Gradual Resumption of Jury Trials

The Jury Management Advisory Committee, a group of justices from several levels of Massachusetts courts, has suggested a phased-in resumption of jury trials, acknowledging that the already-sizable backlog of cases will continue to expand even as the process resumes.

In a July 31 report to the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) , the committee said the judicial system should embrace a clear and transparent risk-reduction plan to help jurors perform their duties with minimal concerns about health risks and without impacts on the fairness of the trial process.

SJC justices will accept public comment on the committee’s recommendations through Aug. 14 before they decide how to act.

FAQs On Paycheck Protection Loan Forgiveness

On August 4, 2020, the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) issued the long-awaited frequently asked questions document on loan forgiveness under the Paycheck Protection Program. The complete Frequently Asked Questions on Loan Forgiveness is available on the US Treasury website. For an overview of the 11 key takeaways, click here.

Massachusetts Not Tracking Coronavirus Outbreaks in Schools

Boston Herald – The state said it has no formal reporting process for tracking coronavirus outbreaks that have already cropped up in summer-school programs, leaving teachers unions wondering how health officials plan to prevent outbreaks considered “inevitable” in the fall.

“We are not formally tracking them, but we are trying to notice them as they pop up,” said Department of Elementary and Secondary Education spokeswoman Jacqueline Reis. “There is no formal reporting process for schools.”

Reis said DESE is still finalizing its guidance as schools shore up their plans for remote, in-person or hybrid learning once classes resume in September.

“It’s absurd and it’s stunning but it’s also not a surprise,” said Merrie Najimy, who leads the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

Najimy accused DESE Commissioner Jeffrey C. Riley of “choosing to ignore the data” and rush students and teachers back into classrooms even though it may not be safe to do so.

“The commissioner’s plan at this point is putting the lives of 1 million students and 120,000 educators at risk,” Najimy said.

Cases have popped up this summer in three separate school districts. Last month, a Westwood school staff member reportedly returned to work after receiving a false-negative for coronavirus after being sick with the highly infectious virus for several weeks. In Melrose, a high school student tested positive last month, according to district communications.

In Quincy, three staff members tested positive across three schools, prompting 11 students to quarantine, according to Quincy Public Health Commissioner Ruth Jones.

“COVID is not gone and not going to be gone until we have a vaccine. It’s almost inevitable — as we saw in summer school — that we’ll see cases pop up here and there,” Jones said.

The state Department of Public Health said it relies on local health commissions to identify coronavirus clusters and then provides guidance in how to manage the outbreaks. Questions about tracking cases in school were referred to the DESE.

The lack of planning to prevent illness has left teachers wary of returning to in-person instruction. Jessica Tang of the Boston Teachers Union said she has “no confidence” in Boston’s so-called “hybrid hopscotch plan” to return to some in-person schooling.

“They should be tracking these clusters and incidents because health and safety is a priority,” Tang said, noting community transmission of COVID-19 has been on the rise in Massachusetts in recent weeks.

The state’s two largest teachers unions — the Massachusetts Teachers Association and the American Teacher Federation, which includes Boston’s teachers — are calling for a continuation of remote learning until the safety of students, staff and teachers can be guaranteed.

“If the state is not tracking data and not paying attention to possible impacts, then they are not doing their due diligence to protect health and safety,” Tang said.

Najimy said both unions have agreed not to allow teachers to return until every school building is inspected to ensure proper air quality and ventilation, rapid testing and contact tracing are available, and the state keeps up with public health benchmarks.

August 4, 2020

Partiers Prompt Baker to Revisit Gathering Limits

State House News – Citing upticks in positive COVID-19 testing rates linked to larger social events, Gov. Charlie Baker said that his administration is reviewing the state’s guidance on gathering sizes. He blamed the behavior of people choosing to party without precaution for the clusters of infections that have sprung up.

A large party in Chatham has been linked to a cluster of new infections there, while a number of lifeguards who attended a party in Falmouth walked away infected by COVID-19. And on Nantucket, officials are considering scaling back restaurant hours as infection numbers on the island have ticked up and people have been observed gathering on beaches close to one another without masks.

“I think that’s one of the things we’re talking about,” Baker said at a press conference when asked about the state’s gathering size limits. “But the bigger issue is not so much the nature of the size of some of these gatherings, especially the private ones that are going on in backyards and places like that. The bigger issue is honestly the behavior generally at those, which is not socially distant, no masks and in some respects a lack of respect for how this virus works and how it moves from person to person.”

Baker’s assessment of the situation echoed that of frustrated Cape Cod officials, who pointed to house parties and other private gatherings as a driver of new COVID-19 infections in the region. Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo also told her constituents to tone down the summer partying as she took action to reduce permissible gathering sizes in the Ocean State.

“To all our residents I can’t express this enough. Don’t be careless or complacent,” Baker said.

State Launches #MaskUpMA

The Baker Administration has launched #MaskUpMA, an effort to remind residents to wear masks and face-coverings in public to stop the spread of COVID-19. The effort will underscore the importance of wearing masks across multiple channels including video testimonials on social media, a new PSA, and a website, Mass.Gov/MaskUp.

Governor Baker and Lt. Governor Polito helped launch #MaskUpMA with video testimonials where they urge residents to wear masks to protect themselves and others. Red Sox mascot Wally the Green Monster also joined the effort today, and in the coming weeks, additional local public figures will remind everyone in Massachusetts to “mask up.”

In addition, the Department of Public Health today also launched an updated public service announcement video, which is available here. Residents can also visit Mass.Gov/MaskUp to learn more about wearing face-coverings, including best practices and multilingual resources.

In May, Governor Baker issued an order requiring residents to wear face-coverings in public where social distancing is not possible. This applies to both indoor and outdoor spaces. Exceptions include children under the age of 2 and those unable to wear a mask or face covering due to a medical condition. Read the full DPH Guidance and find more detailed information in Frequently Asked Questions – Face Covering.

State Commits to Hold Local Aid Level Amid Pandemic

State House News – The Baker administration and the Legislature are committing to maintain fiscal 2021 local aid and school aid at last year’s levels, and to provide an additional $107 million in school aid to cover inflation and enrollment factors.

Administration and Finance Secretary Michael Heffernan notified local officials of the commitment in an email from the Department of Revenue and emphasized that the money is separate from $450 million in new federal supports for K-12 schools to assist with educating students during the pandemic.

The Division of Local Services released a list of aid amounts for all cities and towns in connection with Heffernan’s announcement.

The commitment mirrors the aid levels that the News Service reported on Tuesday, when Revenue Committee Co-chairman Sen. Adams Hinds posted the pledge on Twitter and then deleted it, asserting afterwards that the agreement had not been finalized.

In his announcement, Heffernan said the commitment was being made even though “critical information from the federal government is still needed in order to finalize a full fiscal year budget.”

Baker Directs $50M from Feds to Reopening Schools, Colleges

State House News – Gov. Charlie Baker is allocating $50 million federal funds to schools and colleges to help with costs associated with re-opening, remote learning, early literacy and financial aid for low-income college students, his office announced.

The bulk of the money – up to $25 million – will go toward “COVID-related expenses associated with re-opening colleges and universities, as well as certain non-public elementary and secondary schools,” according to a press release. That money will be distributed based on the number and percentage of enrolled low-income students.

Up to $10 million will be dedicated to early literacy programs for students through third grade, with the goal of remediating learning loss experienced since the closure of school buildings in March and accelerating skills for kids from high-need communities.

As much as $5 million will be set aside in an emergency reserve; as much as $7.5 million will be used to expand access to online courses including advanced placement, early college and dual enrollment programs; and up to $2.5 million will go to financial aid for low-income students of public colleges.

“We know districts will need more funding this year than in a typical school year, and I am pleased to see this money added to the financial support that is already on its way to districts,” Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley said in a statement.

US Chamber Compares Relief Proposals

Earlier this week, the Senate introduced its Phase 4 legislative package to provide financial relief to families, businesses, and communities across the country enduring the economic destruction as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The U.S. Chamber has prepared an initial side-by-side summary for the business community of the House and Senate Phase 4 proposals specifically as they each pertain to the five priority areas—Liability Protection Against Unwarranted Lawsuits, Support for Small and Midsize Employers, Support for Childcare and K-12 Schools, Unemployment and Job Training, and State and Local Assistance— which were identified by the U.S. Chamber in its recommendations earlier this month.

The side-by-side summary also includes initial draft recommendations from the U.S. Chamber for improving the package. Click here to view the side-by-side summary.

Massachusetts Economy Shrinks 44 Percent in Q2

The Massachusetts economy shrank at a staggering pace in the second quarter, plummeting by an annual rate of nearly 44 percent, the biggest decline on record, according to an estimate from MassBenchmarks economists.

The Bay State’s real gross domestic product declined significantly more than the country’s as a whole, as U.S. GDP dropped by an annual rate of almost 33 percent during the same time period, according to new data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Massachusetts was hit harder by COVID-19 earlier in the pandemic than many parts of the country, with cases peaking in April. The Baker administration was also slower to allow businesses to reopen than many other states.

The state is now faring better with the pandemic than large swaths of the country, but the GDP figure suggests just how much economic pain it has required to reach that place.

MassBenchmarks, a journal published by the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute with the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, cautioned that the rate is “based on the best information available today.” It is subject to revision.

Growth in the third quarter “should be sharply higher,” Alan Clayton-Matthews, a Northeastern University professor and MassBenchmarks senior contributing editor, said in a statement, adding that “there is the very real possibility that state performance in the third quarter will outpace that of the nation.”

More recent data signals economic improvement. Massachusetts added an estimated 138,700 jobs in May and June, after losing nearly 700,000 in March and April, according to MassBenchmarks. As of July 19, consumer spending in Massachusetts was just 2% below what it was in January, according to data tracked by Harvard University’s Opportunity Insights initiative.

Still, even with a sharp third-quarter uptick, the state economy could still be in historically rough shape given the depths to which it sunk.

As of mid-July, there were almost 1 million Massachusetts residents continuing to receive unemployment benefits, between those receiving traditional unemployment and those using a special pandemic-specific program for gig workers, the self-employed and others, according to federal data.

In June, the state had an unemployment rate of 17.4 percent, the highest in the country.

Paid Sick Time Proposal Advances

A redrafted legislative proposal was approved by the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development Committee to provide emergency paid sick time.

As a summary, the proposed legislation would do the following:

  • Adds new Section 148E to GL Chapter 149 that entitles all employees in the commonwealth that work 40 hours a week to up to 80 hours of emergency paid sick time if they are not otherwise entitled to leave under the Federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act, H.R. 6201, P.L. No. 116-127; entitles employees that work under 40 hours a week to their average hourly schedule in a 14 day period or the amount of hours they are otherwise scheduled to work; allows employees to carry over such emergency paid sick time to the next year; requires the emergency paid sick time to remain available until the end of the end of the state of emergency or disaster.
  • Conditions use of such time on an employee’s need to comply with the listed circumstances related to self-isolating, including caring for oneself or a family member due to any diagnosis, display of symptoms or treatment related to a communicable public health emergency, or determination by a public health official or authority that the employees presence on the job poses a risk to the health of others due to their or a family member’s exposure to a contagious disease, or display of symptoms; limits benefits to those unable to work and who are unable to telework; requires payment of an employees regular hourly rate; establishes a maximum weekly payment of $850; adjusts the maximum weekly payment to be 64 percent of the state average weekly wage rate by October 1 of each year.
  • Entitles employers who pay their employees for emergency paid sick time to reimbursement from the Commonwealth, unless they are receiving a federal payroll tax credit for an employee’s use of paid sick time under the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act; requires use of the Commonwealth stabilization fund for reimbursement costs.
  • Requires employers to provide emergency paid sick time in addition to any existing job protected time off, paid and unpaid, the employer must provide to employees, resulting from employer policy, negotiated collective bargaining agreements, or state or federal law, including the Massachusetts Family and Medical Leave Act (GL Chapter 175M); allows employees to use emergency paid sick time on an intermittent basis and in smaller hourly increments; regulates employee notice of a need to use such time and recordkeeping by employers; makes it illegal to restrain or deny exercise of the right to such sick time, and to take adverse actions against employee for exercising such rights; directs the attorney general to enforce compliance and to establish regulations related to such emergency paid sick time.

Historic Legislative Session to Continue Beyond Traditional Deadline

State House News – Both branches of the Massachusetts Legislature have agreed to scrap the end-of-July deadline that the House and Senate for decades have imposed on themselves to complete formal business in the second year of their two-year sessions.

Virtually every legislative session ends after a rush to wrap up work on complex – and, often, procrastinated – bills, and after experiencing an unprecedented disruption due to the COVID-19 outbreak that hit Massachusetts in March, legislative leaders opted to give themselves more time and flexibility to complete critical work.

Now, they will have about five more months in which they can call the full House and Senate rosters into session for roll call votes on pandemic-related bills, a spending plan and other business that may arise.

Formal sessions can now run effectively until the next makeup of the Legislature is inaugurated. On paper, the order amending the rules pushes back the deadline but does not set explicit parameters on what actions may be taken.

Senate President Karen Spilka said, however, that she intends to keep a narrow focus.

“There may be some COVID-related emergency unforeseen,” she told the News Service shortly after the Senate approved the extension. “We’re hoping that’s not the case, but as we know, the numbers are upticking a little bit. Across the country, it has been a resurgence. We’re hoping not, but one thing we have learned from COVID is you can’t foresee everything that may need to take place and everything we may need to act on, so it’s important to give ourselves a little leeway.”

Unemployment Claims On the Upswing in Massachusetts

State House News – The number of first-time unemployment aid claims crept up last week in both Massachusetts and nationwide compared to the prior week, hinting at ongoing volatility in the job market and continuing economic uncertainty more than four months into the pandemic.

State labor officials reported receiving 19,179 new filings for jobless benefits between July 19 and July 25, an increase of 1,025 over the previous week. While the weekly sum was one of the lowest since the start of the crisis, it also marked only the second time since April in which total weekly applications were greater than the week before.

Applications for the expanded eligibility Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program also increased from 12,402 in the week that ended July 18 to 14,850 in the week that ended July 25.

The slight uptick in Massachusetts residents seeking unemployment aid comes with the state well into its third phase of a phased plan to revive business activity after months of forced shutdowns. While many establishments have reopened to some degree, the lingering damage is profound.

Massachusetts has the highest unemployment rate in the nation in June at 17.4 percent, and additional cuts to the public sector could be on the horizon if the federal government does not provide aid to close massive state and local budget gaps.

Federal figures showed a similar trend of rising unemployment applications. Americans filed 1.43 million initial claims for standard unemployment insurance last week, compared to 1.42 million one week earlier and 1.3 million two weeks earlier.

Judge Plans Eviction Moratorium Ruling “As Soon As I Can”

State House News – Landlords who are unable to remove non-paying tenants due to a statewide moratorium on evictions and foreclosures face “potentially devastating” economic harm, an attorney argued in Suffolk Superior Court.

A lawyer representing landlords squared off with attorneys for Massachusetts and a range of housing justice groups over whether a judge should step in and lift the temporary ban on removals, which supporters say protects thousands of renters from losing their homes during a global pandemic.

Attorney Richard Vetstein argued that scrapping the moratorium would not lead to a tsunami of evictions and that the policy violates landlords’ constitutional property and court access rights.

“This is literally state reps trying to be housing court judges, and it’s gone too far,” Vetstein, who is representing landlords that claimed they have lost thousands of dollars in unpaid rent from tenants during the state of emergency and have no recourse to reclaim it, said.

State attorney Jennifer Greaney said the Legislature is well within its rights to order stays in court action, stressing that landlords will still have the right to pursue action against tenants once the public health crisis ends. The moratorium was scheduled to end on Aug. 18, but Gov. Charlie Baker used an option available to him under the new law to trigger an extension until Oct. 17.

Through more than two hours of oral arguments, Suffolk Superior Court Judge Paul Wilson did not indicate how he plans to rule on the case in which plaintiffs are seeking a preliminary injunction. At the end he said he would “issue a decision as soon as I can.”

July 30

Stimulus Talks Stall

Talks between US House Democrats, Senate Republicans and the White House stalled with not much reported movement. Trump and Mnuchin are talking about a piecemeal approach to UI benefits and the eviction moratorium.  However, Democrats say this is a non-starter. Both sides seem to be far apart and Senate Republicans are split and confused on their own proposal.

Senate Relief Plan Includes Stimulus Checks, School Aid

State House News – Saying the nation “has one foot in the pandemic and one foot in the recovery,” U.S. Senate Republicans unveiled a long-awaited relief package Monday that proposes another round of stimulus checks, a scaled-back extension of unemployment benefits, and more than $100 billion aimed at bringing students back to school in the fall.

The roughly $1 trillion Republican proposal leaves untouched a range of elements Democrats included in a $3 trillion bill that cleared the House, foreshadowing a challenging negotiation process to decide what a final package will ultimately comprise.

One House-approved piece critical to the next few months on Beacon Hill is altogether absent from the Republican bill: more aid for state and local governments struggling with a collapse in tax collections.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell outlined his party’s proposal, dubbed the HEALS Act, on the Senate floor Monday, saying it targets four areas: health, economic assistance, liability protection, and schools.

“We have produced a tailored and targeted draft that will cut right to the heart of three distinct crises facing our country – getting kids back in school, getting workers back to work, and winning the healthcare fight against the virus,” he said.

The package is built on individual bills filed by various Republican committee leaders.

The legislation would extend the timeframe for governments to use $150 billion in the CARES Act and allows some of it to cover revenue shortfalls, but its approach is far more limited than the $500 billion additional support for states and $375 billion for cities and towns included in the HEROES Act the House approved in May.

House Adopts Orders Enabling Formal Sessions Throughout 2020

State House News – Massachusetts House lawmakers voted unanimously on Wednesday in favor of a rule suspension that would allow them to continue meeting in formal sessions past the Legislature’s traditional July 31 deadline and throughout and beyond the 2020 election season.

The early afternoon vote was on an order that would suspend Joint Rule 12A in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. The order (H 4910) said it is “critical for the House of Representatives and the Senate to continue to convene in formal sessions to take additional steps to respond to, and mitigate the spread of, COVID-19 to protect the health, security, safety, economic well-being and convenience of the people of the commonwealth.”

“There are a number of pending matters across areas of policy, major policy issues, that require our attention, and we will certainly endeavor to deal with as much of that as we can prior to the current deadline of July 31,” Rep. Joseph Wagner said as he introduced the order on the House floor. Wagner said it is hard to come up with words that adequately “capture the changed world in which we live.”

The rule establishing July 31 as the last day of formal sessions for the two-year term is a joint House-Senate rule, so suspending it would require buy-in from the Senate.

“There’s no reason why we can’t get most of this done by July 31, but if we need to work through these extraordinary circumstances and work past July 31, we will,” Senate President Karen Spilka said last week.

On a 33-126 vote, the House defeated a Minority Leader Brad Jones amendment that would have required 14 calendar days’ notice for a formal session held after July 31. Another Jones amendment dealing with the time period for committee polls was also defeated.

The Legislature usually meets in informal sessions between August and December in election years. During such sessions, which do not feature a quorum, any lawmakers can halt the progress of any bill, a situation that can force the ruling Democrats to address concerns raised by Republicans.

Senate Passes Economic Development Bill

The Massachusetts Senate unanimously passed its version of a major economic development bill (S 2842) Wednesday night after adding measures dealing with housing reform, offshore wind development, nondisclosure agreements, and other topics over the course of more than nine hours. Among the rejected amendments was an effort by Sen. Bruce Tarr to include legalization of sports wagering, something the House folded into its version of the bill earlier this week. A formal session is planned for 1 p.m. Thursday.

Legislature Accelerates Interim Approach to Budgeting

State House News – The Massachusetts House and Senate on Tuesday quickly passed a $16.53 billion interim budget to keep the government funded through October, a plan that would give the Legislature and Gov. Charlie Baker more time to understand the state’s fuzzy but dire financial picture in the middle of the ongoing pandemic.

The House and Senate are in the final scheduled days of their formal legislative calendar for the two-year session, but as a result of COVID-19 neither the House nor Senate have produced a full-year spending plan and will have to take the rare step of holding a special session later this year to take up a budget.

The Legislature and Gov. Charlie Baker agreed on a $5.25 billion one-month budget in June to keep state services funded through July, and Baker filed another $5.51 billion budget bill last week to cover spending through August.

The Legislature, however, responded Tuesday with an appropriations bill that would give them more time and remove the need to figure out immediately how and when to return for a special post-July 31 session to deal with a spending plan for the rest of fiscal 2021.

“Today, the Senate and House Committees on Ways and Means have agreed to a three-month interim budget that will provide near-term fiscal stability for our Commonwealth,” House Ways and Means Chairman Aaron Michlewitz and Senate Ways and Meas Chairman Michael Rodrigues said in a joint statement.

$2M Awarded to Train Unemployed or Underemployed Workers

Mass Insider – Two million dollars in grant awards will fund training to assist 445 unemployed or underemployed people to fill in-demand jobs in construction, finance and insurance, information technology, social assistance, and transportation, the Baker Administration announced.

Nine public-private partnerships between local businesses, unions, education and training providers, and MassHire Workforce Boards and Career Centers will run two-year programs across Massachusetts with their awarded Senator Kenneth J. Donnelly Workforce Success Grants and matching contributions of at least 30 percent.

Each program aims to train and place unemployed or underemployed Massachusetts residents into in-demand regional occupations with a starting wage of at least $14.25 per hour.

The grant awards are as follows:

  • Apprenti — $225,000:Partnership proposes to provide training and placement services to prepare approximately 40 un/underemployed participants for software developer positions. Partners include: Wayfair, Liberty Mutual, Harvard University Information Technology, Boston Private Industry Council, MassHire Downtown Boston Career Center, and Launch Academy.
  • Asian American Civic Association — $245,000:  Partnership proposes to provide training and placement services to prepare 48 un/underemployed participants for banking and finance positions. Partners include: Bank of America, East Boston Savings Bank, Citizens Bank, MassHire Metro North Workforce Board, and Asian Task Force Against Domestic Violence.
  • Building Pathways — $240,000: Partnership proposes to provide training and placement services to prepare 90 un/underemployed participants for construction trades positions. Partners include: American Plumbing & Heating, Boston Housing Authority, Building Trade Training Directors Association, Consigli, Dimeo, East Coast Slurry, EM Duggan, JC Cannistraro, Marr, McDonald Electrical, McCusker- Gill, Metro South/West Employment and Training Administration Inc., North Atlantic States Carpenters Training Fund, Sheet Metal Workers Local 17, Suffolk Construction, Sullivan McLaughlin, TG Gallagher, TJ McCartney, TREVIICOS Corporation, and 16 union partners. MassHire partners include the MassHire Boston Workforce Board, MassHire Metro South/West Workforce Board, MassHire South Shore Workforce Board, Metro North MassHire Workforce Board, MassHire Downtown Boston, MassHire Metro North Career Center, and MassHire South Shore Career Center.
  • CompTIA — $180,000:Partnership proposes to provide training and placement services to prepare 30 un/underemployed participants for IT Support Specialist positions. Partners include: Welsh Consulting, Apogee IT Services, Cengage, Apprenti, MassHire Boston Workforce Board, MassHire Downtown Boston, and Creating IT Futures Foundation, Inc.
  • CyberWarrior Academy Foundation — $160,000:Partnership proposes to provide training and placement services to prepare 27 un/underemployed participants for software developer positions. Partners include Rapid7, Steward Health Care, Abacus Insights, Mass General Brigham, Advoqt Cybersecurity, MassHire Merrimack Valley, MassHire Boston (Boston PIC), MassHire Hampden County, MassHire Merrimack Valley, MassHire Downtown Boston, Riff Analytics, Lawrence Partnership, Tech Talent Exchange, Roxbury Community College, Northern Essex Community College, Holyoke Community College, and Worcester Community Action Council.
  • MassHire Central Region Workforce Board — $225,000: Partnership proposes to provide training and placement services to prepare 45 un/underemployed participants for CDL driver positions. Partners include: City of Worcester Human Resources Department, Polar Beverages, Schneider Trucking, Advantage Truck Group (ATG), Highway Driver Leasing (Woman-Owned Business), Atlas Distributing, Inc., The Guild of St. Agnes, Trucking Association of Massachusetts (TAM), MassHire Central Region Workforce Board, MassHire North Central Workforce Board, MassHire Metro South/West Workforce Board, MassHire Career Center Worcester, MassHire North Central Career Center, New England Tractor Trailer Training School, Inc. (NETTTS), JobGet, Worcester Jobs Fund, Worcester Community Action Council (WCAC), United Way of Central MA, United Way of North Central MA, Community Health Network (CHNA9), DTA Worcester Transitional Assistance Office, and the Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission.
  • MassHire Greater Brockton Workforce Board — $225,000:Partnership proposes to provide training and placement services to prepare approximately 25 un/underemployed participants for CDL driver positions. Partners include: Sid Wainer & Son, Brockton Area Transit Authority, MassHire Greater Brockton Workforce Board, MassHire Greater Brockton Career Center, MassHire Greater New Bedford Workforce Board, MassHire Greater New Bedford Career Center, MassHire Bristol County Workforce Board, MassHire Bristol County Career Center, MassHire South Shore Workforce Board, MassHire South Shore Career Center, and Parker Professional Driving School.
  • MassHire Metro North Workforce Board — $250,000:Partnership proposes to provide training and placement services to prepare 40 un/underemployed participants for construction/facilities maintenance positions. Partners include: Winn Companies, Accutemp Engineering, Central Cooling and Heating, Electrical Dynamics, Inc., Nardone Electrical Corporation, WS Aiken LLC, MassHire Metro North Workforce Board, MassHire Metro North Career Center, Associated Builders and Contractors of Massachusetts, YouthBuild Boston, International Institute of New England (IINE), CONNECT, Medford Vocational Technical High School.
  • Morgan Memorial Goodwill Industries — $250,000:Partnership proposes to provide training and placement services to prepare 100 un/underemployed participants for social assistance/human services positions. Partners include: Arbor Associates, Bay Cove Human Services, Children’s Services of Roxbury, Communities for People, Pine Street Inn, The Home for Little Wanderers, Vinfen, Whittier Street Health Center, Massachusetts Council of Human Services Providers, MassHire Boston Workforce Board, MassHire Boston Career Center, Roxbury Community College, and the City of Boston Office of Workforce Development.

Teacher Union Backs Strikes Over Re-Opening Plans

The Boston Globe – One of the nation’s largest teachers’ unions is authorizing its members to strike if their schools plan to re-open without proper safety measures in the middle of the global pandemic.

The American Federation of Teachers, which represents 1.7 million school employees, issued a resolution on Tuesday saying it will support any local chapter that decides to strike over reopening plans.

In providing its blessing, the union is also offering local chapters access to its financial and legal resources as they navigate a return to the classroom. Union officials said they will provide legal support, communications support and staffing to local chapters that vote to strike.

Although the measure says strikes should be considered only as a “last resort,” it lists conditions the organization wants met for schools to reopen. It says buildings should reopen only in areas with lower virus rates, and only if schools require masks, update ventilation systems and make changes to space students apart.

Poll Samples Attitudes on Transportation, Working at Home

State House News – Two-thirds of people surveyed in a new poll believe the state’s transportation system will need “big changes” coming out of the COVID-19 crisis, and most respondents who are employed full- or part-time indicated they’d like to keep working from home at least partially once the state reopens.

Thirty-nine percent of employed respondents in a MassINC Polling Group survey released Wednesday said they’d prefer to work from home every day after re-opening, while 29 percent said a few times a week, 9 percent said a few times a month, and 5 percent said never.

Fifteen percent said it wasn’t an option for their work.

The poll of 797 registered voters was conducted from July 17 to July 20, and it was sponsored by the Barr Foundation.

Respondents were split on whether transportation taxes and fees should be on the table as possible solutions “if Massachusetts ends up with a state budget deficit as a result of the COVID-19.”

Thirty-seven percent said yes, 30 percent said no, and 33 percent were unsure. Tax collections last fiscal year missed benchmarks by about $3 billion and analysts say initial fiscal 2021 collections forecasts are overly optimistic by several billion dollars, leaving the state with a budget crisis that officials hope will be softened by an infusion of federal relief funds.

Asked if they’d support or oppose cities and towns redesigning their streets during the gradual economic reopening to create more space for social distance, 66 percent said they’d either strongly or somewhat back the idea. A similar amount – 68 percent – said they’d strongly or somewhat support street redesigns for activities like walking and biking. – Katie Lannan/SHNS

Blue Cross Offers Dental Members Access to Teledentistry During Pandemic

MassInsiders – Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts has introduced several programs to support Dental Blue members’ oral health-care needs, as Massachusetts dental practices begin to reopen after a temporary closure for non-emergency services during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Dental Blue members now have access to:

  • Three months of free use of the Toothpicteledentistry app
  • Special access to select Philips Sonicareoral health products for use at home
  • In-person preventive services such as cleanings and exams twice in a calendar year instead of once every six months

In late March, Blue Cross began covering dental consultations via phone or video with in-network providers for dental members with non-emergency dental concerns to ensure members had access to necessary care during the pandemic.

Toothpic’s online teledentistry platform provides members with a convenient way to get clinical recommendations from a licensed dentist. After registering and downloading the Toothpic app, members are asked to provide a written description of their dental issue along with photos of the problem area. Members will receive a personalized report with treatment options and estimated costs, in as little as six hours. In-person services, such as cleanings and exams, are not supported by the Toothpic platform.

In partnership with Philips Sonicare, Blue Cross is offering Dental Blue members special access to select oral care products, including power toothbrushes, replacement brush heads and subscription packages. Philips Sonicare power toothbrushes are designed to decrease plaque and gingivitis more effectively than manual toothbrushes in everyday use

July 28

New Massachusetts Travel Order Takes Effect August 1

Governor Charlie Baker announced that, effective August 1,  all travelers entering the Commonwealth, including both out of state residents and Massachusetts residents returning home, will be required to comply with a new travel order. The travel order and other information is available at www.mass.gov/MAtraveler.

Travel Order: Starting August 1, all visitors and Massachusetts residents returning home, including students returning to campuses for the fall semester, must fill out a “Massachusetts Travel Form” and quarantine for 14 days unless they are coming from a COVID-19 lower risk state or they can produce a negative COVID-19 test result administered no more than 72 hours prior to arriving in Massachusetts, or they are included in one of the other, limited exemptions.

Individuals who get a test must remain in quarantine until they receive their negative test results. Failure to comply may result in a $500 fine per day.

Travelers are exempt from this requirement if they are coming from a state that has been designated by the Department of Public Health as a lower risk COVID-19 state or fall into another narrow exemption category.

Based on current public health data, those lower risk states will include: New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Maine, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire and Hawaii.

Traveler exemptions include people passing through the state, people commuting across state lines for work, people traveling to Massachusetts for medical treatment, people complying with military orders, or people traveling to work in federally designated critical infrastructure sectors (essential services).

Prior to travel, people should visit www.mass.gov/MAtraveler to fill out the “Massachusetts Travel Form” or text “MATraveler” to 888-777.

The list of lower risk states is subject to change based on public health data, and states may be added or taken off the list at any time.

Read the order here.

The administration also announced updates to the commonwealth’s COVID-19 Mandatory Safety Standards for Workplaces to incorporate the requirements of the travel order. This included sector-specific updates for lodging, offices, manufacturing, construction, labs, performance venues and indoor and outdoor events relative to the travel order. In addition, lodging operators are required to notify guests about this new travel order

Employers are strongly discouraged from allowing business-related travel to destinations other than those appearing on the list of COVID-19 lower risk states. Employers that permit employer-paid or -reimbursed travel to those states should take measures to ensure employees comply with this order. Employers are also urged to strongly discourage their employees from taking leisure travel to destinations not included on the list of COVID-19 lower-risk states.

To read the updated guidance, click here.

All travelers and residents are required to continue to follow the Administration’s order that requires face coverings, and practice good hygiene, social distancing and regular hand washing. People should not travel to Massachusetts if they have symptoms of COVID-19. Travelers will be informed of this order and new travel guidance by airlines, passenger rail corporations, bus companies and some major travel agents when booking trips and before arrival in Massachusetts.

For more information, please visit mass.gov/MATraveler or text “MATraveler” to 888-777.

State Expands Targeted Testing

State House News – With cases of COVID-19 on a slight upswing across Massachusetts and state officials trying to get a clearer picture of coronavirus activity in the state, Gov. Charlie Baker announced Monday that his administration is making free, widespread testing available in eight more communities showing concerning signs.

Free testing will be made available to anyone in Agawam, Brockton, Methuen, Randolph, Revere, Springfield, Taunton and Worcester regardless of symptoms, the governor said.

The eight communities were selected because cases and positive test rates far exceed the statewide average there, and the volume of testing being conducted has declined significantly over recent months, he said.

“Together, these eight new communities make up approximately 10 percent of the Massachusetts population but constitute about 15 percent of the commonwealth’s positive tests in the past week,” Baker said during his Monday press conference.

“The statewide positive test rate over the past week, as I said before, is about 1.9 percent for the past seven days, but in these eight towns the positive test rate was 2.3 percent. The number of tests conducted in these communities has also declined by over 20 percent since the end of April.”

At the beginning of the month, Baker rolled out a testing initiative that runs through mid-August in Chelsea, Everett, Fall River, Lawrence, Lowell, Lynn, Marlborough, and New Bedford — eight communities where the prevalence of COVID-19 exceeded what was occurring elsewhere in the state.

US Senate Republicans Begin to Release Stimulus Proposal

Politico.com Senate Republicans began to release their coronavirus relief proposal Monday afternoon, setting off what could be weeks of political battles with Democrats over unemployment insurance, state and local aid and liability protection for businesses and schools as the pandemic continues to batter the U.S. economy.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) outlined the pillars of the proposal, which will include another round of $1,200 in direct payments, more money for the Paycheck Protection Program, a reduction in boosted federal unemployment benefits, liability protection and more than $100 billion for reopening schools and colleges.

With the introduction of the GOP proposal, talks with Democrats will begin in earnest.

“Which version of our distinguished Democratic colleagues are the American people about to get?” McConnell asked on the Senate floor. “Are they going to get the Democratic party we got in March when our colleagues met in good faith negotiations and worked with us to turn our framework into a bipartisan product?”

The Senate GOP proposal calls for the reduction in increased federal unemployment benefits from $600 to $200 per week for a 60-day period, or until states are able to provide a 70 percent wage replacement, according to sources on a call with GOP staff Monday. This prospective change had been floated by the White House last week, although there have been concerns whether state unemployment agencies could handle the revisions.

The enhanced jobless benefits from the March CARES package began to expire over the weekend. Democrats are pushing to extend those benefits into next year.

Massachusetts COVID-19 Case Counts on the Rise

State House News – There were nearly 500 new cases of COVID-19 confirmed in Massachusetts over the weekend and the percentage of tests that come back positive for the coronavirus is rising.

The Department of Public Health confirmed 210 new cases of COVID-19 on Saturday and 273 more cases on Sunday. It also announced 31 recent COVID-19 deaths over the two days. The number of daily new cases, which had generally settled at fewer than 200 a day earlier in the month, has been above 200 each of the last four days.

“Last four days in #Massachusetts had #COVID19 new positive tests over 200. Last time that happened? Mid-June – on the way down,” Dr. David Rosman, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, tweeted Sunday night. “The data is early, but it looks like we are on the way back up. We should consider backing down a phase. #wearamask.”

Sunday’s report from DPH also showed that the seven-day average of the positive test rate as of July 25 had climbed to 1.9 percent from 1.8 percent after holding steady at 1.7 percent for more than a week. One month ago, the positive test rate was 2.0 percent.

Data reported Sunday would suggest the average will continue to climb – the 273 new cases reported Sunday were the results of 9,780 tests, meaning that 2.79 percent of all tests came back positive for the virus.

Last week, the governor pointed out that the state’s average positive test rate has dropped in the months since many aspects of the state’s economy began to reopen. When the earliest steps of the administration’s reopening plan began May 18, the seven-day average positive test rate was 9.6 percent.

Think Tank Slams Governor’s ‘Hands-Off’ Approach to Re-Opening Schools

Boston Herald – A new report slams Gov. Charlie Baker’s “hands-off” approach to reopening schools and recommends the state to give more direct and concrete guidance to local districts.

“The state’s approach to reopening the schools too closely resembles President Trump’s often too hands-off COVID-19 response,” Pioneer Institute Executive Director Jim Stergios said in a statement.

“State guidelines can’t just be lists of options. If school districts are to effectively serve Massachusetts’ families, they must also provide direction and express preferences.”

The report highlights Baker’s decision to implement a “much-needed return to school” for teachers and students this fall but says the governor’s plan fails to inform districts how to do so.

Districts are tasked with determining whether to adopt in-person, remote or hybrid schooling options for the fall semester and must submit preliminary reopening plans to state education officials by Friday.

“The present challenge is how to implement this much-needed return to school, optimally balancing the importance of in-person schooling with the countervailing importance against the virus,” the group says in the foreword to the report.

Universities, Hotels Team Up to Create Socially Distanced Housing for Students

The Boston Globe – When students return to Northeastern University this fall, some will move into campus dorms. Others will call the Copley Place Westin home. Suffolk University students will spread out among four downtown hotels. And a few dozen up-and-coming musicians at the New England Conservatory of Music will settle in at the South End’s hip Revolution Hotel.

As Boston’s universities and hotels both find themselves wrestling with the realities of life with coronavirus, some of them are teaming up to house students in a socially distanced fashion.

Three schools — Northeastern, Suffolk, and the New England Conservatory — have asked the Walsh administration for approval to lease floors of hotels and ― in some cases ― entire hotels for use as dorms. And Boston University wants to take over a Commonwealth Avenue apartment building that has been used as temporary student housing for several years to supplement its dorm space.

What Remote Learning Will Look Like this Fall

MassLive – Remote learning for school-aged children this fall will look significantly different from remote learning offered by Massachusetts school districts this past spring.

The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education released guidance regarding remote learning.

Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education Jeffrey C. Riley emphasized that while top education officials want as many students as possible returning to classrooms, remote learning must be offered to all.

“The Initial Fall School Reopening Guidance requires districts and schools to prepare a plan that includes three learning models: in-person learning with safety requirements, a hybrid model of in-person and remote learning, and a plan for full-time remote learning,” the guidance states.

“Remote learning will be necessary for students who will not be attending school in-person, as part of a hybrid learning model, and in case changing COVID-19 conditions require a shift to full remote learning as determined by local and state leaders.”

Massachusetts school districts pivoted to remote learning in mid-March amid a growing number of coronavirus cases, leaving educators scrambling to teach their students. Some offered remote classes over Zoom while other districts relied on take-home work packets for students.

Neal Announces $8.7 Million in COVID-19 Relief Funds for Holyoke Medical Center

Gazette Net – Standing outside of Holyoke Medical Center on Saturday morning, U.S. Rep. Richard Neal announced $8.7 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds to the hospital that officials say will help secure valuable resources to continue fighting the pandemic.

“That $8.7 million will bring back people that we still have out furloughed, it will buy us additional PPE (and) it will get us ready should there be some additional outbreak in the fall,” said Spiros Hatiras, president & CEO of Holyoke Medical Center & Valley Health Systems as he stood next to Neal. “I know that Chairman Neal will advocate for us, for any more additional funding as this pandemic unfolds.”

The money is part of $10 billion that is being distributed from the federal Department of Health and Human Services’ Provider Relief Fund in a second round of funding specifically aimed at assisting “high impact” hospitals that are designated as such by meeting a certain threshold of COVID-19 inpatient admissions. The CARES Act, Paycheck Protection Program and Health Care Enhancement Act allocated $175 billion in relief funds to health care providers, according to HHS. Holyoke Medical Center  received $2.9 million in CARES Act funding in April.

After briefly speaking to a crowd of health care workers outside of the hospital’s main entrance, Neal told reporters and others that Holyoke Medical Center didn’t qualify for an earlier round of “high impact” relief funding because it did not meet the “technical threshold” of 100 or more COVID-19 inpatient admissions between January 1 and April 10.

Boston Issues Order to Cruise Operator Following Photos of Crowded Ship

Boston Herald – The Boston Public Health Commission and the Massachusetts Department of Labor Standards issued a cease and desist order to a cruise-boat operator after photos of a crowded party boat setting sail from Boston Harbor on Saturday night circulated on social media.

A photo of a Bay State Cruise Company vessel called the Provincetown II showed passengers tightly packed on the boat’s upper deck with few wearing masks as it prepared to set sail from Pier 4 for a 7-9:30 p.m. cruise. The photo taken by former State Rep. Marty Walz has been shared hundreds of times on Twitter.

Mayor Martin Walsh said “it is very concerning to see crowds of people gathering in large groups, putting themselves, everyone around them, and every person they come into contact with at risk.”

“We know all too well the serious health consequences of the coronavirus,” Walsh said. “It is incumbent upon every person and every business to take this seriously and follow the public health guidance that has been issued for everyone’s safety.”

Cultural Institutions Scramble for Money

Boston Globe – One by one, many of Boston’s cultural institutions are reopening this month after a painful four-month shutdown.

They’re happy to see visitors again. But these institutions have plenty of lost ground to make up after seeing at least one-third of their annual revenues wiped from the books, their major spring fund-raisers canceled or moved online.

Compounding their fiscal woes: attendance limits for safety reasons, which will result in further declines in revenue going forward.

Some started fund drives to plug the budget gaps, or turned to the federal Paycheck Protection Program for temporary help. Others reoriented their pitches for money as donors shifted priorities during the COVID-19 pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests. Some, such as the Museum of Fine Arts, haven’t even reopened yet. The one common theme: the coronavirus has altered fund-raising efforts among the city’s cultural institutions significantly, if not permanently.

Officials Worry about Mask Use as People Crowd Beaches

Boston Globe – As people throughout the region flocked to beaches, parks, and other outdoor areas over the hot weekend, a health expert said the state’s warnings about the coronavirus may not be doing enough to convince the public about the grave risks it poses.

Samuel Scarpino, an epidemiologist at Northeastern University, said more people must understand the danger and the importance of wearing masks and practicing social distancing in public. It’s particularly critical advice as officials hope to reopen K-12 schools and some college students return to the region in the fall, he said.

Many summer gatherings have been marked by a lack of masks and social distancing in crowds of largely young people — practices critical to stopping the pandemic.

“We need to stress that this is deadlier than influenza for everyone [and] that individuals who don’t die are often faced with a very long and painful or frustrating recovery process,” Scarpino said. “It’s not just about mortality, it’s about quality of life going forward.”

Vaccine Makers Tell Congress They are Optimistic

Associated Press – Executives from four companies in the race to produce a coronavirus vaccine — AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, Moderna Therapeutics, and Pfizer — told lawmakers they are optimistic their products could be ready by the end of 2020 or the beginning of 2021. All four companies are testing vaccines in human clinical trials.

Three of the firms — AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, and Moderna — are getting federal funds for their vaccine development efforts. AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson pledged to the lawmakers that they would produce hundreds of millions of doses of their vaccines at no profit to themselves.

Cambridge-based Moderna, however, which has been granted $483 million from the government to develop its product, made no such promise.

“We will not sell it at cost,’’ said Dr. Stephen Hoge, the president of Moderna.

Many Democratic lawmakers have argued that federal funding for vaccine development should include provisions to guarantee affordability and guard against profiteering.

Some House members raised concerns about Pfizer’s decision to reject federal funds, suggesting it could lead to price-gouging and a lack of transparency.

“We didn’t accept the federal government funding solely for the reason that we wanted to be able to move as quickly as possible with our vaccine candidate into the clinic,’’ said John Young, Pfizer’s chief business officer.

“We’ll price our potential vaccine consistent with the urgent global health emergency that we’re facing,’’ Young said, adding that “a vaccine is meaningless if people are unable to afford it.’’

Representative Raul Ruiz, Democrat of California, also questioned whether failing to address the financial stakes of vaccine development early on could keep these products out of “the hands of the people that need this most.’’

“I don’t want to look back, and then have health equity be an afterthought,’’ said Ruiz, who is a physician. “It has to be prioritized.’’

CDC Eases Recommendations on How Long to Self-Isolate

New York Times – The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, acknowledging expanded understanding about the infectiousness of the novel coronavirus, has changed some of its recommendations on self-isolation.

It now advises most people with active cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, to isolate for 10 days after symptoms begin and 24 hours after their fever has broken. For those who have a positive test but are asymptomatic, the public health agency as of Friday recommended isolating 10 days from the testing date. The CDC had previously recommended people isolate until two negative swabs for the coronavirus — but that turned out to be impractical given the shortage of tests.

Despite suit, Georgia Governor says Masks are Key 

Washington Post – Georgia Governor Brian Kemp reiterated a recommendation that residents “commit to wearing a mask,’’ even as he sues Atlanta officials for mandating them.

“Today, I am encouraging all Georgians — from every corner of our great state — to do four things for four weeks to stop the spread of COVID-19,’’ Kemp said in a news release. “If Georgians commit to wearing a mask, socially distancing, washing their hands regularly, and following the guidance in our Executive Order and from public health officials, we can make incredible progress in the fight against COVID-19.’’

A staunch conservative who ran on shredding regulations, the governor has set himself apart even from other Republicans in his campaign against mask mandates.

More than half of all states, including conservative-led Alabama and Arkansas, have adopted them.

Kemp’s lawsuit against Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and city council members, filed July 16 in Fulton County Superior Court, seeks to undo the city’s mask ordinance and other coronavirus measures that go beyond his executive orders.

Kemp’s suit bewildered public health officials and some business leaders, who see masks as crucial to keeping the virus under control and restoring consumer confidence.

Visitors from 31 States Must Quarantine in New York 

Washington Post – Residents from 31 states must now quarantine for 14 days when arriving in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, as dozens of states experience rising positive COVID-19 rates.

Governor Andrew Cuomo acknowledged that the quarantine is “imperfect,’’ but said could help protect against the risk of increased spread.

The list of states no longer includes Minnesota, but now includes Alaska, Delaware, Indiana, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Nebraska, Virginia, and Washington.

‘‘The infection rate across the country is getting worse, not better,’’ Cuomo said in a conference call with reporters.

Cuomo has tried to get more travelers to comply with the order by instituting a $2,000 fine for impacted individuals who leave the airport without filling out a form that state officials plan to use to randomly track travelers and ensure they’re following quarantine restrictions.

Airport travelers who fail to fill out the form face a hearing and an order requiring mandatory quarantine.

Cuomo, who’s voiced concern about young people congregating in bars, said New York’s liquor authority has suspended the licenses of four bars and restaurants in Queens and Suffolk County.

And since March, the state’s suspended 27 licenses and brought 410 charges against establishments, who must follow social distancing and face covering rules on top of Cuomo’s requirement — announced last Thursday — to only serve alcohol to people who order and eat food.

Cuomo said his administration will close restaurants and bars with three violations, while “egregious’’ violations can result in the immediate loss of a liquor license or closure.

“That is a very serious situation, that means they can’t operate,’’ Cuomo said. “I’m sorry it’s come to this. But it’s a dangerous situation.’’

Cuomo claimed Tuesday that New York never “opened outside drinking.’’

Still, the state’s previous guidance allowed consumption of “food and/or beverage’’ on a licensee’s premises in outdoors, open-air areas while seated at tables 6 feet apart.

Moderna Launches COVID-19 Vaccine Trial

Boston Business Journal – Moderna Inc. officially launched the final stage of testing on its COVID-19 vaccine Monday with close to a half billion dollars in new funding in its pocket.

The first group of participants in Moderna’s 30,000-person trial received their first injections of the Cambridge biotech’s vaccine candidate this week.

Moderna declined to say how many subjects received the drug Monday, nor how many people have been enrolled in the trial thus far. The company told the Business Journal that study conductors have identified “tens of thousands” of potential participants during pre-screening and expect to enroll subjects into September. The trial is centered on people “most at-risk” for the infectious disease, the company said.

Experts estimate that Moderna will likely release initial data on how the vaccine performed this fall.

Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital will serve as the clinical research site for the Moderna vaccine.

Nitric Oxide Could Treat, Prevent Novel Coronavirus

Boston Herald – Nitric oxide, a so-called “miracle molecule” already used to help newborn babies and adults with acute respiratory illnesses, could be used to treat, or even prevent coronavirus infections, says the Nobel prize-winning scientist who helped discovered its health effects.

The treatment potential for the safe, and widely used gas, not to be confused with its cousin, nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, is being tested at Massachusetts General Hospital.

“I have every reason to believe that the inhaled nitric oxide will be quite effective in relieving all of that inflammation and the destruction in the lungs which is how the SARS-CoV-2 virus kills humans,” said Dr. Louis Ignarro, who won a Nobel Prize in 1998 for his breakthrough discovery of the molecule and its positive health impacts.

Nitric oxide, a colorless gas that is naturally created in the body dilates blood vessels to speed up blood and oxygen flow. Inhaled nitric oxide is widely known for saving many oxygen-starved newborn babies with heart defects.

House Bill Addresses Telehealth

State House News – The Massachusetts House of Representatives gave initial approval Monday to its version of a Senate-approved health-care reform bill, one of seven pieces of legislation its Ways and Means Committee advanced to kick off the final week of formal lawmaking business.

Under the legislation (H 4888), insurers would be required to cover telehealth services, and any deductible, copayment or co-insurance requirements could not exceed in-person rates. It also includes language designed to protect patients from out-of-network surprise bills.

The Senate approved its own version of a telehealth-focused bill last month incorporating responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, at the time triggering an intraparty feud with House Democratic leaders over the legislative process.

The House version, which could emerge for a vote today, is based on the Health Care Financing Committee’s redraft of the Senate bill.

Telehealth is Burgeoning – But How to Pay for It?

Commonwealth Magazine – As telehealth explodes in popularity – and has the potential to become a much larger part of the future health-care landscape –– a major question that is emerging is how to pay for it. Is telehealth a way to save money, or will it provide convenience at additional expense?

Telehealth raises other questions as well, including how to ensure high-quality care and how to safeguard patient privacy.

The Massachusetts House and Senate have laid out different approaches to paying for telehealth for the next couple of years, and it remains to be seen whether they will agree on a bill before the session ends July 31. At the same time, lawmakers and experts acknowledge that more work must be done by health care experts as the field stabilizes, learning from the quick shift prompted by the coronavirus.

Don Berwick, a former administrator of the US Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and senior fellow at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, said medicine has been gradually “easing towards” the use of telehealth for years and “now it suddenly has taken off in a way that I think is very, very promising.”

But Berwick, who sit on the state’s Health Policy Commission, cautioned that crafting policies to govern telehealth will take study. “This is new enough that we need to be charting lots of data about quality, cost, outcomes, patient satisfaction, productivity,” Berwick said. “Policies that develop should be based in that kind of evidence, not just intuition.”

Lawmakers May Extend Beacon Hill Calendar

Salem News – The state Legislature is entering the final days of its two-year session with a mountain of unfinished business and a growing number of calls to extend its schedule.

While the session ends Dec. 31, the state House and Senate traditionally wrap up formal sessions by July 31, giving lawmakers a break to run for reelection.

But with the state budget nearly a month late, and a host of other major pieces of legislation hung up in deliberations, some are suggesting lawmakers should stay put.

“I don’t think they have any option but to keep going,” said David Tuerck, president of the Beacon Hill Institute. “Politically it would be disastrous to recess without approving a budget.”

Few lawmakers have challengers in the fall primary or general election, and the coronavirus outbreak has severely limited traditional press-the-flesh campaigning.

As such, arguments for a month-long recess are pretty weak, Tuerck said.

To be sure, a number of lawmakers say they would support staying in session to approve the budget and other bills, if legislative leaders make the call.

State Tax Revenue Falls $3 Billion Short of Forecast

Boston Globe – Massachusetts brought in tax revenue of $27.3 billion in the just-ended fiscal year, $3 billion, or 10 percent, less than the Baker administration had forecasted, largely because the state delayed income-tax payment deadlines to provide relief during the coronavirus shutdown.

The Department of Revenue said Friday the tax tally was preliminary and would be updated in September.

Following the lead of the federal government, Massachusetts in late March extended the April 15 deadline for filing and paying personal income taxes to July 15. Deadlines for April and June estimated tax payments were similarly pushed back.

Department of Revenue commissioner Geoffrey Snyder said some 80 percent of the revenue shortfall for the year that ended June 30 resulted from payment deferrals. June is typically the second-biggest month for incoming revenue, after April, because it includes quarterly estimated tax payments from businesses and individuals.

The state received $2.5 billion in tax revenue for June, down 22 percent from a year earlier and 23 percent below forecast. The month and year-end numbers reflect collections through July 24.

MBTA Uses Shutdowns to Accelerate Infrastructure Projects

Boston Herald – The MBTA has used the coronavirus shutdowns to end up ahead of schedule and spending expectations for its infrastructure projects, General Manager Steve Poftak said as he left the door open to more.

“We’ve been able to take advantage of this period of lower ridership,” Poftak told the Herald in an interview this week. “We’re been able to do a lot more accelerated work.”

Poftak said the goal for the fiscal year that ended in June was to spend $1.4 billion on capital projects — and preliminary accounting says the T actually ended up spending $1.65 billion.

The T over the past few years has had issues getting money spent. As the state pours in billions more — Gov. Charlie Baker authorized $8 billion over five years — administrative and staffing issues have held the T back in using the money to deal with its longstanding issues. The system has built up a huge backlog of work that needs to be done — last year officials estimated a $10.1 billion backlog — and the crumbling infrastructure has led to frequent delays and other issues, including derailments.

July 23

Administration Extends Moratorium on Evictions and Foreclosures to October 17

Governor Charlie Baker extended the pause on evictions and foreclosures for 60 days, until October 17, 2020, through the authority granted to the governor by Chapter 65 of the Acts of 2020, which was signed into law on April 20, 2020.

The law’s limitations on evictions and foreclosures have allowed many tenants and homeowners impacted by COVID-19 to remain in their homes during the state of emergency, and the extension provides residents of the commonwealth with continued housing security as businesses cautiously re-open, more people return to work, and the state collectively moves toward a “new normal.” The moratorium was set to expire on August 18.

Click here to read the extension letter.

Tenants are strongly encouraged to continue to pay rent, and homeowners to make their mortgage payments, to the extent they are able. To assist low-income households in making rent and mortgage payments, as well as support landlords needing these rent payments to pay expenses, the Baker Administration launched a new $20 million, statewide fund, the Emergency Rental and Mortgage Assistance (ERMA) program, on July 1.

The funding complements the $18 million currently available through the Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT) homeless prevention program, which can also be used for rent or mortgage payments. In each program, landlords or mortgage lenders receive payments directly from the RAFT administering agencies.

During the 60-day extension, the Administration will consult with court administrators and other officials regarding programs and policies to help tenants avoid eviction when proceedings resume.

The law suspends most residential and small business commercial evictions, as well as residential foreclosures. It does not relieve tenants or homeowners of their obligation to pay rent or make mortgage payments. The law also:

  • prevents landlords from sending notifications to residential tenants that threaten eviction or terminating of a lease;
  • limits court actions on non-essential evictions;
  • relieves tenants, both residents and small commercial, from late fees and negative credit reporting;
  • allows landlords to use “last month’s rent” to pay for certain expenses, though not as a replacement rent payment, and only with proper notification of tenant;
  • requires lenders to grant a forbearance for up to 180 days if a homeowner experiencing financial hardship due to COVID-19 submits such a request; and
  • allows for alternative payment agreements between lenders and borrowers regarding forbearance payments.

The Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development (EOHED) has drafted emergency regulations to implement the notice provisions of the eviction and foreclosure moratoriums. The Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) supported state-aided public housing and affordable housing operators with guidance and worked with stakeholders across the state to coordinate resources. Additional resources and information can be found on DHCD’s COVID-19 Resource Page.

Meanwhile, supporters of legislation that would keep a temporary ban on evictions and foreclosures in place for at least another year indicated Tuesday that they have no plans to slow down their campaign even after Gov. Charlie Baker extended the moratorium another two months.

Member Highlight| Eversource Restarts In-Person Energy Efficiency Services

Eversource is implementing new health and safety guidelines for the restart of energy efficiency services in customer homes and businesses.

Eversource worked with Environmental Health & Engineering, a health and safety consulting firm, to develop guidelines specific to energy efficiency work. These guidelines include the use of personal protective equipment (PPE), social distancing and enhanced sanitizing requirements in line with the latest recommendations and industry best practices for reducing the spread of COVID-19.

“We’ve taken proactive steps since the pandemic began to safeguard health while providing safe, reliable service, including offering virtual energy efficiency services for our customers,” said Eversource Vice President of Energy Efficiency Tilak Subrahmanian.

“With many contractors who depend on income from energy efficiency work and customers facing financial hardship, these new guidelines will help allow contractors to safely get back to work providing the deeper energy efficiency improvements that help customers save more on their energy costs.”

Eversource is also increasing incentives for energy efficiency projects with a range of offerings for residential, small business, municipal and commercial & industrial customers. These incentives lower, and in many cases completely cover, the up-front costs of energy efficiency improvements that can help customers save now and in the future.

Virus Spread Depresses Economic Outlook at S&P

The United States economy lost three times as much growth in the first half of 2020 as in the entirety of the Great Recession and in about one-third of the time, a major credit rating agency said in a new report that warns of a deepening recession fueled by a national surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

“While it may be premature to sound the alarm for an even worse outcome, the recovery is facing increased challenges with the spread of COVID-19. This is all while government stimulus measures are set to expire,” S&P Global Ratings said in an economic update published Wednesday.

“S&P Global Economics now thinks the probability of an even worse economic outcome is 30-35 percent, up from 25-30 percent. Although our base case is for a gradual recovery through next year, the surge in COVID-19 and hospitalizations has raised concerns that a more likely scenario is that the COVID-19 recession has not bottomed out.”

The agency said the reclosures of business in states like California, Florida and Texas – which together account for almost 28 percent of the national economy – change the economic outlook and threaten the projection for a third-quarter bounce back of 22.2 percent annualized GDP growth. How much that projection changes will depend on how many states reimpose social distancing measures and whether consumers are comfortable returning to businesses.

S&P said the U.S. economy “faces a fiscal cliff” at the end of July, when many CARES Act stimulus programs and extended unemployment benefits are set to expire. As federal lawmakers and the Trump administration resume talks over the next found of federal relief, the rating agency pointed out that there is a lot on the line.

“This is happening while state and local government budgets are severely depleted, leaving their own policy hands tied in the midst of the new COVID-19 assault. Federal government actions to both contain the virus and extend stimulus programs until private demand has sufficiently recovered are key in avoiding another downturn,” the analysts said. “But the clock is ticking.”

DOR Rule Aims to Maintain Taxes from Out-of-State Telecommuters

A Rhode Island resident who commutes to work at a Massachusetts company sees her or his income from that job taxed by the Bay State. But what if that employee is no longer commuting and is working for a Massachusetts company without ever leaving home in Rhode Island?

In an emergency regulation put on file Tuesday, the Massachusetts Department of Revenue made it clear: Massachusetts still gets its cut of that income.

“All compensation received for services performed by a non-resident who, immediately prior to the Massachusetts COVID-19 state of emergency was an employee engaged in performing such services in Massachusetts, and who is performing services from a location outside Massachusetts due to a Pandemic-Related Circumstance will continue to be treated as Massachusetts source income subject to personal income tax,” the regulation says.

As telecommuting was widely adopted as a safer alternative to the real thing during the pandemic, work has been separated from the workplace for many people. But with Massachusetts and other states adopting similar “sourcing rules,” there won’t be a corresponding separation of income taxes.

DOR’s emergency regulation explains that any Massachusetts resident who was working in another state immediately before the COVID-19 state of emergency and is now working from their Massachusetts home “will be eligible for a credit for income taxes paid to the state where the employee was previously providing services.”

The rule took effect Tuesday and will remain in place until Dec. 31 or 90 days after the governor lifts the COVID-19 state of emergency, whichever is earliest.  DOR plans a virtual public hearing on the regulation on Aug. 27, and people interested in speaking at the hearing are encouraged to notify DOR by emailing their full name, mailing address and organization or affiliation to RulesandRegs@dor.state.ma.us by Aug. 26.

Understanding Home Lives Seen As Critical in Altered School Landscape

State House News – With schools preparing to return in the fall and many public officials assuming that remote learning will remain a part of that classroom experience, some educators and researchers are suggesting it will become more important to understand what’s going on in students’ lives to reengage them in their education.

“There are a lot of life hacks that families and communities are having to come up with now and can the education system actually understand those life hacks and partner with them?” said Julia Freeland, education research director at the Clayton Christensen Institute.

The Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy hosted a webinar on Wednesday focused on how educators, schools and community partners can put in place the supports that will be needed to reengage students in learning come September.

Virtual learning creates challenges for many students distanced from the classroom since March because of the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to the technological challenges it presented for some families, others struggled with access to food or other essential needs, while other students simply lost their motivation and disengaged.

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has asked districts to present preliminary plans by the end of the month for how they would fully return to the classroom, remain remote, or try to blend virtual and in-person instruction in the fall.

Breakthroughs Reported in Vaccine Development, Inhaler Therapy

The Boston Herald – Coronavirus breakthroughs in vaccine development and an inhaler therapy were separately reported Monday as the United States continues to see record-breaking spikes in cases of the deadly disease.

A coronavirus vaccine created by scientists at the University of Oxford in England triggered strong immune responses and neutralizing antibodies, according to a study published Monday.

“It’s a really important milestone to put into the public domain our findings on the safety and immune responses to this vaccine in the first group of people that we vaccinated,” said Sarah Gilbert, University of Oxford professor and project lead on the study.

The vaccine provoked an immune response within 14 days of vaccination and an antibody response within 28 days, according to the study.

The participants had levels of neutralizing antibodies, which have been suggested by researchers as important for protection against the virus.

Those responses were strongest after a booster shot, with 100% of participants’ blood having neutralizing activity against the coronavirus.

“Vaccines are absolutely the way out of the pandemic and this is a really important moment because it shows that we can make the robust immune responses which we hope will relate to protection in the future, ” said Andrew Pollard, chief investigator of the University of Oxford study.

US signs $1.95 billion contract with AIM Member Pfizer for Vaccine

The Trump administration has signed a $1.95 billion contract with Pfizer for 100 million doses of a coronavirus vaccine the company is developing. The country could buy an additional 500 million doses under the contract. The goal is to deliver 300 million doses by January 2021.

Massachusetts Lab to Use New Testing Method

WCVB – By the end of the week, one of Massachusetts’ most prolific COVID-19 testing labs will deploy a newly approved method designed to allow them to test more samples.

The announcement from New Jersey-based Quest Diagnostics comes about a week after the company announced “soaring demand” for COVID-19 molecular testing was slowing turnaround time to a week or more for most patients.

Quest Diagnostics announced Friday that the company’s lab in Marlborough will be one of two facilities to begin pooling specimens for testing in a procedure approved by under an emergency use authorization by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. In this procedure, samples are collected individually but combined into a small batch for testing.

“A negative result for a batch means that all patients in that pool are considered negative (If a positive result occurs for the batch, each specimen is retested individually). The technique is an efficient way to evaluate patients in regions or populations with low rates of disease,” company officials explained in a statement.

Investments Build Out Local Food Security Network

State House News – Twenty-six organizations, including farms, school meal programs and food pantries, will receive $3 million in grants through a new food security infrastructure program launched in June, Gov. Charlie Baker said Wednesday.

Visiting the Lynn outpost of the Salvation Army, Baker said the funding is the first round to be distributed through the grant program, and applications will continue to be evaluated on a rolling basis.

Baker’s press conference highlighted issues around food security during the COVID-19 crisis, and Salvation Army officials said it marked a milestone for their organization, which has now distributed eight million meals in Massachusetts since March.

Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Kathleen Theoharides said the pandemic has “highlighted how important it is to invest in our local food system and ensure that the food grown right here in the commonwealth especially can be distributed to our residents, to vulnerable populations and to underserved communities.”

Food banks and pantries have faced unprecedented demand, Theoharides said. She said the state’s agricultural and fishing industries have encountered “significant difficulties” but many have responded to increased interest in fresh, local food by expanding their direct sale capabilities. Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said 39 additional vendors are joining the Healthy Incentive Program, which helps families receiving food assistance buy locally grown produce by matching each dollar of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits spent.

Community Colleges Say Resources are Needed

State House News – Making sure community colleges have enough resources to avoid deep budget cuts will be crucial to ensuring that Massachusetts can recover from the economic damage of the pandemic, campus leaders said Wednesday.

Virtually the entire higher education landscape faces financial strain for the upcoming academic year as a result of new safety spending to limit COVID-19 risks, shifts in enrollment, and shortfalls in state budgets.

During a virtual panel discussion Wednesday, Bunker Hill Community College President Pam Eddinger and Roxbury Community College President Valerie Roberson warned that the significant populations of low-income students and students of color on their campuses will face even greater strain if the colleges are forced to shift more costs onto them because of budget cuts.

“If we’re going to look for economic development for the state — and everybody tells me the community colleges are the backbone of workforce development, which we are — if we’re relying on our very poor students who are in the lowest two quintiles of income to pay for their education, the state is not going to get a workforce,” Eddinger said during the Boston Globe’s Op-Talks panel.

A late June analysis presented to the state Board of Higher Education estimated that community colleges could face a shortfall ranging from $27 million to $118 million in fiscal year 2021 based on changes in enrollment and state appropriations.

Airlines Fear Business Travel Bonanza is Gone for Good

The Boston Globe – US airlines hammered by the catastrophic loss of passengers during the pandemic are confronting a once-unthinkable scenario: that this crisis will obliterate much of the corporate flying they’ve relied on for decades to prop up profits.

“It is likely that business travel will never return to pre-COVID levels,” said Adam Pilarski, senior vice president at Avitas, an aviation consultant. “It is one of those unfortunate cases where the industry will be permanently impaired and what we lost now is gone, never to come back.”

At stake is the most lucrative part of the airline industry, driven by businesses that accepted — however grudgingly — the need to plop down a few thousand dollars for a last-minute ticket across the United States or over an ocean.

While millions of customers fly rarely, road warriors are constantly in the air to close a deal, depose a witness, or impress a client. Business travel makes up 60 percent to 70 percent of industry sales, according to estimates by the trade group Airlines for America.

That’s under threat in the wake of an unprecedented collapse in passengers that started four months ago. Half the respondents in a survey of Fortune 500 CEOs said trips at their companies would never return to what they were before COVID-19, according to Fortune magazine.

Lawmakers May Break for Elections without Annual Budget

State House News – In one of the clearest signs yet that Beacon Hill may fade into a summer recess without even debating the overdue annual state budget, Gov. Charlie Baker on Tuesday filed another one-month spending bill to keep state government funded through August with an additional $5.51 billion.

Baker in January filed a $44.6 billion fiscal 2021 budget that soon thereafter became obsolete due to a tax revenue collapse sparked by government-forced shutdowns of businesses and commerce during and after the peak COVID-19 surge.

The Baker administration and Democratic legislative leaders since then have not announced any steps to address fiscal 2020 budget woes and the House blew by April and July deadlines without producing an annual spending plan for fiscal 2021 or outlining a new budget timeline.

Budget writers have been waiting to see what the state’s finances look like after state officials delayed the April 15 tax filing deadline to July 15, which jumbled the ordinary flow of revenues and made tricky forecasting even more dicey. The federal government has delivered large amounts of aid to the states, but with many states still facing unprecedented budget holes talks remain active in Washington about additional aid to individuals, businesses and states.

Without any full-year, post-pandemic budgets on the table, it appears certain that this year’s budget deliberations will extend beyond the July 31 end of formal sessions, although legislative leaders refuse to give voice to plans for a fall budget debate, which would blend into the election season.

Walsh Favors “Blended” Approach To Reopening Schools

State House News – Starting school in Boston in the fall with all students physically returning to the classrooms would “probably be a stretch,” Mayor Marty Walsh said Tuesday, indicating a preference for a blend of in-person and remote instruction.

Like other school districts across Massachusetts, Boston has until July 31 to submit a preliminary reopening plan to state education officials, with comprehensive plans due by Aug. 10. Districts have been advised to develop plans for three models of instruction – entirely in-person, entirely remote and a hybrid of the two.

Walsh said city officials have “done some analysis” of what parents would like to see happen.

“Many parents want their kids back in school, but we want to make sure if and when kids go back to the school they go into a safe environment,” he said.

“We want to take into account our teachers, our custodians, our food service folks, so I think over the course of the next few weeks we’re gonna have many conversations to talk about how we would reopen school, potentially in a blended model, safely.”

Walsh said it’s important to “continue to do that work” of complying with public health guidance around wearing masks, physical distancing and other precautions. Not doing so, he said, could have ramifications for a variety of sectors including, schools.

“I think that if there’s a way for us to open in a blended way safely, I think that that’s the preferred route where we go,” he said. “I think that as we look at the trends here in Boston over the last three weeks we’re trending in the right direction, if you will. But again, we have to continue that trend.

Governor Signs To-Go Cocktail Bill

Governor Baker recently signed a bill that will allow restaurants to sell sealed containers of mixed drinks with delivery or takeout food orders. This law follows a law signed in April which allows restaurants to sell beer and wine with takeout or delivery. Mixed drinks must be sold in sealed containers and customers will be limited to 64 ounces of mixed drinks per transaction. Read the law here.

House Bill Would Commit Massachusetts to Telehealth

State House News – New House telehealth legislation aims to incorporate lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic into the state’s health care system, according to Majority Leader Ron Mariano, who said he expects representatives to vote on the bill this week.

The bill is a Health Care Financing Committee redraft of legislation the Senate passed in late June, which sought to expand access to telehealth and protect patients from surprise costs arising from seeing out-of-network providers. Mariano said the new bill’s development stemmed from conversations had during an earlier meeting of the Special Committee on Commonwealth Resilience and Recovery that he leads.

“It has two basic goals: To apply the lessons we’ve learned from this pandemic to make longer term changes to our health care system and also to provide the system with some flexibility during this pandemic,” said the Quincy Democrat.

Mariano said that the bill makes a commitment to telehealth, beginning with primary care, behavioral health and chronic disease management. He said the bill does not attempt to tackle some of the issues surrounding privacy in telemedicine.

“There are some ancillary issues around privacy and data information protection that we don’t solve for here and we need to address and be aware of,” Mariano said.

The bill includes language allowing insurers to include a deductible, copayment or co-insurance requirement for telehealth so long as the charges do not exceed those for in-person services. For behavioral health services, the bill says insurers are to ensure that the rate of payment for in-network providers of audio-only or video telehealth is “no less than the rate of payment for the same behavioral health service delivered via in-person methods.”

A March order from Baker required insurance coverage for all medically-necessary telehealth services and to reimburse providers at the same rate as in-person care during the COVID-19 emergency. Mariano said the bill would make pay parity for behavioral health services permanent, while otherwise expanding telehealth pay parity for a year.

The bill, Mariano said, looks to extend other emergency orders related to the COVID-19 pandemic, touching on topics including testing and treatment for the coronavirus, out-of-network rates and temporary licenses for certain health care workers. It would also direct “enhanced” Medicaid payments to independent community hospitals that have “operated for years on razor thin margins,” he said.

Sen. Cindy Friedman, who co-chairs the Health Care Financing Committee and was a main architect of the Senate’s telehealth bill, said she was “pretty surprised” by the emergence of the House bill from committee on Monday and “glad to see it.”

“I’m glad that the House has decided to take up health care,” she told the News Service. “I mean, we only have 11 days left of the session so I was starting to say, ‘Hmm, is this going to happen?'”

Joint House-Senate rules set July 31 as the last day for formal lawmaking sessions, leaving a tight clock for the House to pass a bill and the two branches to reconcile the differences between their approaches to send a final bill to Gov. Charlie Baker.

“I’m very comfortable with the Senate’s position on telehealth, scope of practice and out-of-network,” Friedman, an Arlington Democrat, said. “We have done an incredible amount of work and investigation, and I think our pieces are on very solid ground, so I hope when I delve into the pieces that the House has presented that we’re going to see similarities.”

In 2018, legislative negotiators could not reach agreement on competing House and Senate health care bills, leaving the two branches to start their efforts over again this session.

The Senate this session approached health care legislation with a series of different bills, passing one last November that targeted drug pricing and another in February addressing barriers to behavioral health care.

Mental health and pharmaceutical prices are important issues, Friedman said, adding that she’ll be “disappointed” if those aren’t addressed this session.

“We’ll see, and I don’t turn away from anybody or any effort to fix the health care system in any of its pieces,” she said.

Mariano did not say anything about how the House might approach other health care bills passed by the Senate. He said he expected the House to take up the telehealth bill before the end of the week.

The House has scheduled a formal session for Wednesday, when it plans to take up police reform legislation, and representatives have also been advised to prepare for formal sessions on Thursday and Friday.

July 21

President, Congressional Republicans Discuss Next Round of Aid

NBC News – President Donald Trump and Republican congressional leaders met on Monday to plot their priorities for another round of federal coronavirus aid, which will decide the future of boosted unemployment payments and assistance to schools reopening in the fall.

The spread of coronavirus continues to worsen across the country as Congress returns to work in Washington this week to begin negotiations on another round of aid, which is expected to top $1 trillion.

Congress faces a rapidly approaching deadline at the end of the week when boosted unemployment payments are set to expire. Negotiations between congressional Republicans and the White House hit snags over the weekend and talks between the GOP and Democrats have been nearly non-existent.

The focus of the legislation should be on “kids and jobs and vaccines,” Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin told reporters in the Oval Office where the meeting occurred.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who attended the meeting along with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., is expected to unveil a proposal later this week and has left open the possibility of continuing boosted unemployment payments, which are set to expire at the end of the month.

Republicans, Mnuchin said, are committed to passing legislation by the end of the month to protect unemployed Americans who have been receiving enhanced benefits, though he suggested it won’t be as much as the current level of $600 extra in unemployment insurance per week.

Healey Backs Extension of Moratorium on Evictions

The pressure from Democrats on Gov. Charlie Baker to extend a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures into November intensified last week with Attorney General Maura Healey calling such a step “critical,” and a majority of the Committee on Housing urging the governor to keep the protections in place.

The protections under a law signed by Baker in April to prevent landlords from evicting tenants or banks foreclosing on homeowners during the pandemic are set to expire on Aug. 18, but Baker has the authority to extend those measures in 90-day increments.

Baker has said he is talking with local officials and people in the housing industry as he weighs a decision but acknowledged this week that he must make one “soon.”

Healey on Friday said that allowing the eviction and foreclosure moratorium to expire would risk more people becoming homeless at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic continues to cause economic hardships for families.

Since the law went into effect, Healey said her office had received more than 130 complaints of violations, including illegal evictions and cases of landlords threatening to change locks on units, sending notices to vacate that are not labeled as such and using minor lease violations to claim a health and safety risk to remove tenants.

“It’s critical that Governor Baker extend this moratorium to ensure our residents have the resources and assistance they need to stay safe. My office has already stopped more than 70 illegal evictions and will continue to monitor this issue,” Healey said in a statement.

Bishops Press Lawmakers to Extend Eviction Moratorium

Cardinal Sean O’Malley and the bishops of the Catholic dioceses of Worcester, Fall River and Springfield are speaking up in support of the legislation that would extend tenant protections into 2021 and potentially longer.

O’Malley and Bishop Robert McManus of Worcester, Bishop Edgar Moreira da Cunha of Fall River and Bishop Mitchell Rozanski of Springfield wrote a letter last week to the chairs of the House and Senate Rules Committees, Sen. Joan Lovely of Salem and Rep. William Galvin of Canton.

The bishops are supporting bills filed by Reps. Mike Connolly and Kevin Honan and Sen. Patricia Jehlen that would extend the moratorium on evictions and foreclosures for one year after the governor lifts the current state of emergency. The bills would also freeze rents over the same time period and allow small landlords owning up to 15 units to defer mortgage payments until the end of the mortgage if they lose income due to COVID-19.

The current moratorium expires Aug. 18.

“Our most vulnerable residents would suffer physical, economic and emotional hardships that would have immeasurable effects on their quality of life. Homelessness would spike to unprecedented levels. Our poorest communities would disproportionately suffer the most if the legislature does not act before the end of the formal session,” wrote James Driscoll, the head of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, which speaks for the four bishops.

Housing advocates have estimated that as many as 20,000 eviction notices could be served in August if the moratorium is allowed to expire.

Enhanced Unemployment Benefit Set to Expire

WBUR – Gus Tarazona has been getting by on savings and $1,300 per week in unemployment payments since mid-March, when the coronavirus pandemic shuttered the Westin Boston Waterfront, where he works.

Now, the father of three is on the verge of losing much of his jobless benefit. Unless Congress acts, this is the last week for laid-off workers in Massachusetts to collect an extra $600 under the federal CARES Act. Without that additional amount, they’ll receive only the standard unemployment payment, which is about half of their regular earnings.

Tarazona may be brought to his knees — literally. “What am I looking to do? I don’t know,” he said. “Probably get a friend of mine to help him put in floors, doing some hard work or something. I mean, there’s no way I can look for something in my industry.”

At 53, after more than two decades in hospitality, Tarazona said starting a new career would be difficult.

Many of his colleagues are in similar positions. Hotel workers in Massachusetts are among the hardest hit by coronavirus containment measures because their industry was almost entirely shut down for three months. Even now, their job prospects remain limited.

While some hotels around Boston are reopening, many are operating with skeleton crews because occupancy rates are so low. The Boston Harbor Hotel, for example, would normally be 80% to 90% booked at this time of year; instead, it’s 10% to 20% full, according to General Manager Stephen Johnston.

Harvard Will Allow International Students to Study in Home Countries

The Harvard Crimson – Harvard College will allow returning international students to transfer credits from an accredited university in their home country to Harvard this fall, director of the Office of International Education Camila L. Nardozzi wrote in an email to undergraduates living outside the United States Wednesday.

Just hours following Harvard’s announcement that it would conduct all courses remotely for the fall semester, international students reeled after United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement announced a new rule requiring them to attend in-person classes if they wished to remain in or return to the United States.

Though the federal government has since rescinded the rule, not all international students plan to set up camp in Cambridge or take Harvard classes from afar. Some, instead, are considering the prospect of enrolling in institutions closer to home for the fall, citing the appeal of synced time zones, in-person classes, and faculty interaction.

Nardozzi wrote that while the College is planning a broader timetable of courses — spanning from 7:15 a.m. to 10 p.m. — administrators recognized that attending class synchronously will still be “untenable” for many students.

“Given the remote nature of the spring term, finishing your courses in EDT provided additional challenges that some of your US-based peers did not face,” Nardozzi wrote. “For some, that meant engaging in your courses and other academic obligations in the middle of the night, forcing you to find time to sleep, study, complete homework assignments, and participate in your home life whenever possible.”

 

Pandemic Carves Hole in State’s Cultural Sector

State House News – Cultural nonprofits in Massachusetts have lost $425 million in revenue from COVID-19 cancellations and closures, and face another $117 million in costs associated with reopening, representatives of the Massachusetts Cultural Council told lawmakers.

“We know it’s staggering. We know it’s dire,” the council’s Bethann Steiner told senators during a listening session focused on the pandemic’s impacts on arts, tourism and small businesses. Steiner said cultural nonprofits are estimating it will take an average of two years and in some cases up to five years to bring their programs and finances back to pre-COVID levels.

David Slatery, the council’s acting director, said that in addition to his organization’s efforts to support artists and organizations, it is “clear that a more robust public investment will also be necessary.

“Without immediate action, organizations will shutter and artists who are at the heart of our sector will leave Massachusetts,” said MassCreative director Emily Ruddock.

US Chamber Calls on Congress to Provide Additional Support

U.S. Chamber of Commerce CEO Thomas J. Donohue sent a letter to congressional leaders urging swift action to combat the coronavirus pandemic and provide economic relief to families, businesses, and communities across the country.

“We have not yet beaten the coronavirus or achieved the economic recovery that we all desire,” Donohue wrote. “With the benefit of our experience to date and fresh data, Congress should enact proposals that are timely, temporary, and targeted to current needs.”

The Chamber urged Congress to enact targeted and temporary measures that address the following five key areas:

  • Liability Protection Against Unwarranted Lawsuits. Timely, temporary, and targeted liability relief will provide employers who follow public safety guidelines a safe harbor from unwarranted lawsuits and will hold bad actors accountable. These provisions will allow businesses of all sizes to operate and aid our nation’s economic recovery. Specifically, the safe harbor should apply to businesses; health care providers on the front lines; and manufacturers making PPE, hand sanitizer, and other needed materials.
  • Support for Small and Mid-Size Employers. While the CARES Act provided broad support to all industries Congress should now provide more targeted relief for industries, as well as small- and medium-sized businesses who remain fully or partially shuttered because of social distancing requirements. Assistance should include an extension of the Paycheck Protection Program, expansion of the Employee Retention Tax Credit, locally administered aid, and targeted tax provisions.
  • Financial Assistance for Childcare and K-12 Schools. Reopening of the economy and schools must be safe and guided by public health officials. Childcare providers and schools are confronted with increased fixed costs to implement public health guidance and declining revenue., Congress should provide targeted funding to meet these temporary demands and ensure that schools and childcare providers have the resources necessary to safely reopen.
  • Unemployment Benefits and Funding for Job Training. With more than 17 million unemployed, Congress needs to support the unemployed while aiding in the return to work. The current additional $600 weekly benefit must be revised as many workers presently earn more on unemployment benefits. The Chamber suggests a middle ground of 80% to 90% of a worker’s prior wages (and a maximum of an additional $400 a week) or $200 additional a week for states unable to adjust their computer systems, and a gradual phase down of these benefits tied to the unemployment rate. Congress also should provide funding for states to implement rapid reskilling and job connection programs to assist those least likely to return to their old jobs find new employment.
  • Assistance for State and Local Governments. State and local government are experiencing sharp reductions in revenue at the same time as they face increased costs to respond to the coronavirus. Steep budget cuts at the state and local level threaten to deepen the economic downturn.  Congress should aid states and local government with these temporary expenses and temporary reductions in revenue. It is critical, however, that the approach be targeted and fiscally responsible.

Pandemic Spending Bill Reaches Gov. Baker

State House News – The approximately $1.1 billion COVID-19 spending bill sent to Gov. Charlie Baker on Thursday directs money toward a wide slate of programs and organizations, including the health-care system, homelessness prevention, child-care providers, elections, food banks and addiction treatment services.

The bill (H 4808) includes hundreds of millions of dollars for some of the more obvious COVID-19 costs, like $350 million for personal protective equipment, $85 million for field hospitals and shelters, $44 million for the state’s contact-tracing collaborative, and more than $111 million in supplemental payments to hospitals and providers.

It also contains funding meant to help companies affected by the pandemic and the state’s orders to close all non-essential businesses. The bill calls for $10 million to go to the Massachusetts Growth Capital Corporation to provide grants to businesses with 50 or fewer employees to help cover payroll and benefits, mortgage interest, rent and utilities.

The MGCC is directed in the bill to prioritize grant funding for companies that focus on reaching underserved markets, are women-, minority- or veteran-owned, and have not received aid from federal COVID-19 relief programs.

The Baker administration has said that many of the pandemic-related appropriations will be reimbursed by the federal government, and the governor has warned that Massachusetts is in a race with other states to access a limited pool of resources available for reimbursement.

He said his administration could not pursue funding until the Legislature finished the bill, which the governor initially filed back on May 12.

If Baker signs the bill as expected, the state would direct $3 million to summer camps and youth programs that are operating this summer “to provide adequate and appropriate accommodations in a manner that is consistent with the safety protocols necessary to mitigate the spread of the 2019 novel coronavirus pandemic.”

The legislation grants the Department of Early Education and Care $500,000 “to leverage state funding by working with philanthropic and private partners in order to assist the business and technical needs of early education and care providers in the commonwealth during the reopening and recovery process.”

That Early Education and Care Public-Private Trust Fund would include money directly appropriated by the Legislature and gifts, grants and donations, and would provide statewide and regional training and make available opportunities for providers and stakeholders to assess and share best business practices relative to early education and care reopening efforts.

The bill also includes $5 million for COVID-related elections costs, which Secretary of State William Galvin said “would probably get us going” towards his office’s new requirement to send out applications for mail-in ballots for the 2020 primaries and general election.

Administration Announces $20 Million to Support Vital Social Services, Small Businesses

The Baker Administration announced $19.6 million for municipalities to address emergency needs in light of the Coronavirus pandemic. This funding will support 181 communities in their work to provide vital services to low-income residents and small businesses affected by the recent outbreak.

Local governments and regional consortiums will fund social services, including homelessness prevention, food pantries and assistance, and job training for in-demand health care workers and technicians. Many communities will also make grants available for local small businesses with five or fewer employees. Thirty six lead awardees will organize within their respective municipality or region to deliver services.

The Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) made this $19.6 million award through the federally-funded Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program. Congress allocated new emergency funding for the program through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act – the CARES Act – to address substantial needs in low and moderate-income communities affected by the pandemic. DHCD has received $46 million in special CDBG funds so far, and is distributing funding across municipalities and stakeholders to meet increased needs, with a focus on helping households maintain housing stability.

In June, the administration announced a $20 million Emergency Rental and Mortgage Assistance program, which is also funded in part through this federal allocation. This new fund will help more low-income households who have lost employment or income due to the pandemic maintain stable housing, and builds on DHCD’s existing homelessness prevention program, RAFT. In March, Governor Baker announced a $5 million infusion for the fund to address increased need.

Teacher Unions Call for Phased Re-Opening of Schools
 

MassLive – Teachers unions in Massachusetts are calling for a phased reopening of schools, suggesting a plan that mirrors the four-phased reopening of the state’s economy, as the calendar ticks closer to the start of the school year.

Last month, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary education released guidelines asking districts to prepare three plans for the fall that include in-person classes, a hybrid of in-person and online classes, and complete online learning amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The push has been for students to return to the classroom with precautions like keeping desks at least 3 feet apart and wearing face masks.

US Companies Lose Hope for Quick Rebound

Wall Street Journal – Big U.S. companies are deciding March and April moves won’t cut it.

The fierce resurgence of Covid-19 cases and related business shutdowns are dashing hopes of a quick recovery, prompting businesses from airlines to restaurant chains to again shift their strategies and staffing or ramp up previous plans to do so. They are turning furloughs into permanent layoffs, de-emphasizing their core businesses and downsizing production indefinitely.

Delta Air Lines Inc. curtailed plans to add more summer flights and said it doesn’t expect business flying to recover to pre-pandemic levels. Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. is adding staff and changing operations to accommodate more to-go business. Vox Media, the publisher of New York magazine and several news websites, said it would lay off 6 percent of its workforce as the company confronts a prolonged drought for its lucrative events business.

“We cannot defy gravity and continue with the business model we had before the pandemic,” Pret A Manger Chief Executive Pano Christou said on Friday as the sandwich chain reported an 87 percent drop in U.S. sales and announced plans to close nearly 20 stores.

Executives who were bracing for a months-long disruption are now thinking in terms of years. Their job has changed from riding it out to reinventing. Roles once thought core are now an extravagance. Strategies set in the spring are obsolete.

Massachusetts Unemployment System Faces Financial Squeeze

 

Boston Globe – It’s hard to find a silver lining when assessing the storm clouds looming over an already-battered Massachusetts job market.

 

More than 527,000 people collected state jobless checks last week, the Baker administration said Thursday, nearly 10 times the number a year earlier. Add in 400,000-plus residents covered by the feds under a new program for gig workers and others, and there are probably more than 900,000 people receiving jobless benefits, or 14 percent of the state’s labor force before the coronavirus pandemic shut down the economy.

 

Now comes news that the Baker administration has borrowed $455 million from the federal government to pay state unemployment claims, after the account used for the payouts was all but drained.

The loans will almost certainly be the first of a massive pile of IOUs. The most recent state report on the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund estimated the gap between employer contributions and benefit payments at $3.2 billion in the fiscal year ended June 30.

Employers, who fund most of the benefits paid by the state, are rightly concerned that they will have to plug the hole. In its trust fund report for June, the state said employer contributions were slated to increase from $1.6 billion in the fiscal year just ended to $2.2 billion in fiscal 2021 due to automatic increases tied to the account’s financial condition. Additional tax hikes may also be needed to close the $6.2 billion deficit estimated for the year that just finished and future shortfalls.

“Putting an extra $6.2 billion burden on Massachusetts employers as they struggle to survive the recession is like throwing an anchor to a drowning person,’’ said Greg Sullivan, director of research at the Pioneer Institute in Boston, referring to the estimated deficit for unemployment fund deficit for the current year.

But there are other options the state can pursue.

The administration could forgo the automatic hikes, as it has done before, and sell bonds to pay the feds back, said John Regan, chief executive of Associated Industries of Massachusetts, one of the state’s largest business groups. Or it could lobby Congress for some sort of bailout, such as debt forgiveness.

And Massachusetts would have allies in any push for federal help. California ($5.4 billion), New York ($4.2 billion), and Texas ($1.8 billion) are among the 12 states and the Virgin Islands that have taken loans or have signaled they will. The loans are interest-free until the end of the year, then borrowers will pay 2.41 percent.

“Everyone knows that this tide of red ink is coming at us,’’ Regan said.

No one, he said, is sure how it will all play out.

That’s especially true because the state must also confront a sharp drop in tax revenue — $6 billion below its January forecast, according to an estimate by the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation — as the pandemic takes a bite out of employer payrolls, retail sales, and corporate profits.

Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, said the state should take this opportunity to overhaul what he called its “simply bad’’ unemployment insurance system.

“We have the easiest qualification standards’’ for applicants and “the most generous benefits,’’ he said. “We can’t be both . . . It’s going to come back to haunt us.’’

For its part, the state isn’t saying much.

“The Administration is committed to making sure workers impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic continue to receive the benefits they deserve and will continue to take any steps necessary to ensure the solvency of the [unemployment insurance] trust fund,’’ the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development said in a statement.

In other words, the unemployment checks will not stop. The state will continue to borrow from Uncle Sam. And everyone will worry about the bill later.

Does that add up to a silver lining?

Massachusetts Lawmakers Seek to Mandate Masks, Quarantine for Out-of-State Visitors

Associated Press – Face masks and two-week quarantines for travelers entering Massachusetts from COVID-19 hot spots would be required under a bill filed at the Statehouse on Tuesday.

The bill would also prioritize COVID-19 testing for vulnerable populations and mandate enforcement of workplace safety requirements designed to protect both workers and the public.

Both the face mask and quarantine requirements would be enforced with fines under the bill.

Republican Gov. Charlie Baker has already ordered the wearing of masks and has advised visitors to Massachusetts to quarantine for two weeks — except for a handful of nearby states.

One of the sponsors of the bill, state Sen. Harriet Chandler, D-Worcester, said with no vaccine yet available, the state needs to write the public health protocols into law.

“We have proven practices to curb the spread of viral infection: wearing face masks, ensuring widely available testing, finalizing formal workplace safety standards, and quarantining tourists coming from hotbed states,” Chandler said in a press release. “But they only work if we all participate.”

She urged lawmakers to pass the measure before the return of college students in the fall.

The Legislature’s formal session ends July 31.

July 9

Eight Communities Targeted for COVID-19 Testing Blitz

State House News – New testing sites will be opened and mobile testing vans will be deployed in eight cities across Massachusetts where positive test rates for COVID-19 are elevated and testing volume has declined since late April, Gov. Charlie Baker announced on Wednesday.

The new testing initiative dubbed “Stop the Spread” will launch on Friday and run through Aug. 14 to make testing available for people with or without symptoms in hotspots where the prevalence of COVID-19 appears to exceed what is occurring elsewhere in the state.

The increased testing will be available in Chelsea, Everett, Fall River, Lawrence, Lowell, Lynn, Marlborough, and New Bedford.

Baker said the eight communities were selected based on elevated cases in those cities, higher rates of spread over the past two weeks, high positive test rates over the past two weeks and declining test volume since the end of April.

Residents of the eight communities represent 9 percent of the state’s population, but account for 27 percent of the positive cases detected over the past two weeks, and the positive test rate of 8 percent in those cities far exceeds the statewide rate of 1.9 percent. Baker also said that testing is down 40 percent in these communities since the end of April.

Harvard, MIT Sue ICE Over Foreign Student Rule

State House News – Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are seeking immediate judicial relief from a controversial new federal policy that would bar all international students from remaining in the United States if they take only online classes this fall.

The two schools, both of which are planning to bring some students back to campus but shift many or all courses to a remote platform in the upcoming semester, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court on Wednesday asking for a temporary restraining order against the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency’s rule change.

ICE had permitted international students to stay in the country and take all-online courses in the spring and summer amid the coronavirus outbreak, but it said Monday those exemptions would not be in place for the fall.

In their suit, Harvard and MIT argued that the guidance creates “immediate and severe” impacts on both universities and students without any regard for the challenging circumstances created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The order came down without notice – its cruelty surpassed only by its recklessness,” Harvard President Larry Bacow wrote in an open letter alongside the lawsuit.

“It appears that it was designed purposefully to place pressure on colleges and universities to open their on-campus classrooms for in-person instruction this fall, without regard to concerns for the health and safety of students, instructors, and others.”

Attorney General Maura Healey is also weighing her own lawsuit aimed at stopping the policy.

Revenue Officials to Testify Before House Recovery Panel

A special committee of House members met Wednesday to begin poring over some of the bills that lawmakers filed to help workers through the pandemic and as the economy reopens, but many members of the committee cautioned that it would be foolish to embrace new programs or benefits before they have a better idea of just how ugly the state budget picture is.

The Commonwealth Resilience and Recovery Special Committee, led by House Majority Leader Ron Mariano, heard from House Revenue Committee Chairman Mark Cusack and House Labor and Workforce Development Committee Acting Chairman Stephan Hay about some of the pandemic-inspired bills their committees have been reviewing, including proposals to provide extra sick time, providing COVID-19 worker compensation protection to emergency response and medical personnel, and more.

Mariano said he hoped the special committee could compare the proposals “to where we actually are financially in the commonwealth today as we speak,” but noted that “there are certainly a bunch of unknowns that we can’t put numbers to and certainly the amount of federal help is one of those numbers.”

“Probably even the amount of revenue that we’re going to have is very, very uncertain,” he added.

Department of Revenue Commissioner Geoffrey Snyder backed that point up, telling the committee that in fiscal year 2021, which began July 1 with a temporary budget in place, “we are confronted with a sea of unknowns.”

“As is the case with fiscal 2020, tax collections in 2021 will vary depending on the status of public health measures enacted by the state, municipalities in the commonwealth, as well as the United States to mitigate the impact and breadth of COVID-19,” Snyder said. “The full impact COVID-19 has on consumer and corporate behavior, the economy, and the stock market is not yet fully clear.”

With so much uncertainty around the revenues that would form the foundation of the eventual fiscal year 2021 state budget, Cusack said it seems unwise to push ahead with proposals for relief that he said “range in cost anywhere from $50 million to $3.2 billion.”

Business Confidence Nearly in Optimistic Territory

Business confidence continued to rebound during June as Massachusetts methodically re-opened its economy and COVID-19 cases surged elsewhere in the country.

The Associated Industries of Massachusetts Business Confidence Index surged 6.9 points to 49.0, just a point shy of the level that denotes an optimistic outlook among employers.

The increase, which came three months after the index suffered the largest one-time decline in its history, reflected the relatively smooth rollout of the state’s four-step re-opening plan and progress in containing the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 Forcing Innovation at Child-Care Centers

State House News – At the family child-care center she runs out of her Dorchester home, Dottie Williams has started asking parents to send teddy bears along with their kids.

Ms. Dottie’s NeighborSchool serves children between five months and four years old, an age range for which Williams said touch is an important way of bonding. To translate the ritual of a hug to the COVID-19 era, she now asks the kids to hug their own teddy bear while she hugs hers.

“Children are very, very creative, and when you’re creative with them, they can adjust,” Williams told lawmakers Tuesday.

As advocates and child care providers continue to call for an infusion of public funds to help the industry cope with added costs and lost revenue associated with providing care during a pandemic, stuffed animal-facilitated hugs are among several short-term adjustments speakers highlighted during the Education Committee’s virtual oversight hearing.

Williams said shared activities like sand play and a water table for children in her care are now out of the question, so her school is doing more arts and crafts. The artistic expression, she said, can also help the kids work through stresses they’ve experienced over the past few months, like social isolation and disruption of familiar routines.

State Sees Continued Positive Trends on Pandemic

State House News – Almost four months since declaring a state of emergency around the coronavirus, Gov. Charlie Baker said Tuesday that public health data “continues to show us positive trends on many of the key metrics.”

The governor’s comments came on the second day of Phase 3 of the state’s economic re-opening, and he reiterated that the plodding return to more normal business and social activities is only made possible by people who have adhered to mitigation strategies like wearing a mask and maintaining six feet or more of distance from others.

“It’s now more important than ever, especially as we get into Phase 3, that everybody continue to do the things that have made such a difference here in Massachusetts over the course of the past 120 days. That means continuing to wear masks if you can’t socially distance, to socially distance whenever possible, to practice good hygiene and to stay home if you feel sick,” he said during a press conference in Plymouth.

Though gyms, movie theaters, museums and more are re-opening this week as part of Phase 3, Boston Mayor Martin Walsh said Tuesday that he asked Baker and Lt. Gov. Polito to give Boston one extra week to prepare for Phase 3 because of Boston’s size, density and its “unique needs.” In Boston, Phase 3 kicks off July 13.

Restaurants, which are trying to stay afloat while serving fewer customers and tending to temporary outdoor dining rooms, are hopeful that the eventual return of televised professional sports will entice even more people to return to a restaurant for a meal.

Ongoing Investigation Has So Far Found 58,000 Fraudulent Claims

State House News – Investigators have so far detected more than 58,000 fraudulent unemployment claims in Massachusetts amid an alleged national criminal scheme, but state officials still have not disclosed how much money has been paid out in error.

The state Department of Unemployment Assistance announced Monday that it verified 58,616 fraudulent claims through June 20, the first insight into the scale of the false applications since officials announced the problem in May. Through the same span, the department recovered $158 million in fraudulent claims, it announced Monday.

However, the press release did not indicate how much it paid overall to applications submitted as part of the scheme. Officials have been hesitant to discuss the impact publicly.

When asked about the topic last week, Gov. Charlie Baker cited ongoing federal investigations.

“Protecting the integrity of the unemployment system and ensuring benefits are only going to valid claimants is the top priority of the Department of Unemployment Assistance,” Labor and Workforce Development Secretary Rosalin Acosta said Monday.

“It is unfortunate that because of this criminal activity, people who really need our support may face delays in receiving the benefits they need. We will continue to work with our state and federal law enforcement agencies, as well as our dedicated constituent service personnel, to ensure that those with valid unemployment claims receive financial assistance during these difficult times.”

Between March 8 and June 30, the department received 976,123 initial claims for standard unemployment insurance, 183,144 of which were denied. It also received another 649,764 for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program making aid available to previously ineligible individuals such as gig workers and denied 282,440 of them.

Ernst & Young has been hired by the state to conduct a forensic accounting as part of the fraud investigation. Department officials said they would provide further updates “as soon as they are available” while continuing to implement additional identity verification measures that may temporarily delay the payment timeframe for some unemployment claims.

Galvin Waiting for Funding to Mail Ballot Applications

The state’s top election official said Tuesday he can’t mail ballot applications to voters, as required under a time-sensitive new law, until the Legislature approves funding for the bill that Gov. Charlie Baker signed on Monday.

The law requires Secretary of State William Galvin to send mail-in voting applications by July 15 in order to give voters time to request a ballot for the Sept. 1 primary elections, fill it out, and mail it back in.

“We had hoped to do it by that date. The legislation calls for it. But the Legislature has not sent the money. We can’t pay for the postage. We can’t pay for the printing until we have the postal permit. We can’t buy the permit until we get the money,” he told reporters outside the State House.

Galvin said a $5 million appropriation included in a more than $1 billion Senate spending bill that largely deals with COVID-19 appropriations “would probably get us going.” The House and Senate spending bills differ, and it’s unclear when legislative leaders will agree on a single bill.

July 7

Paycheck Protection Program Deadline Extended

President Donald Trump on July 4 signed an extension of the small business loan Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) into law. The law extends the deadline to apply for a PPP Loan from June 30, 2020 to August 8, 2020. There is still approximately $130 billion available.

Report says MBTA Approach to COVID-19 May Worsen Traffic

State House News – The MBTA lags behind several peer agencies in its preparedness to minimize COVID-19 risks as public activity resumes, falling short in both long-term planning and mandating safe rider practices despite success in cleaning and workforce management, according to an analysis by a business-backed group.

Authors at A Better City compared the T to public transit systems in New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. on a range of safety protocols. After assigning point values to represent how each agency fares on about two dozen different actions, they ranked the MBTA second-last among the group, topping only Washington’s WMATA.

The group warned in a report last week that the gaps could exacerbate a trend of former public transit commuters turning to single-occupancy cars as they resume traveling for work.

“This anticipated mode shift to single occupancy vehicles will lead to crippling roadway congestion, as well as increased greenhouse gas emissions that will disproportionately impact underserved communities and communities of color,” the report read.

The report gave the MBTA a score of 14.5, which trailed New York City’s MTA with 21, Chicago’s CTA with 20, and both San Francisco’s BART and Philadelphia’a SEPTA with 15 points each.

Researchers based scores for transit systems on steps that transit leaders had taken as of June 23, when Massachusetts was still in Phase 2, Step 2 of its reopening plan and the T had just days earlier expanded service beyond the low levels offered during the COVID outbreak’s peak.

A Better City rated the MBTA’s service restoration at that time as needing improvement compared to the five peer agencies, knocking the T for still not running a top-to-bottom full schedule and for not offering more express routes.

Ridership cratered on the T during the pandemic, dropping as low as 10 percent of standard crowds on subways and 20 percent on buses. Gov. Charlie Baker has urged people who can still work from home to continue to do so.

The T has seen more riders come back since late May. With Massachusetts now in the third phase of its plan, even more businesses once again are able to open their doors to customers and crowds could continue to grow.

US Labor Secretary Rolling Out Employment Grants in Boston

State House News – U.S. Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia, a figure in ongoing discussions about another round of federal coronavirus aid, will announce “major federal grants” to expand employment opportunities during a Tuesday visit to Boston.

Before unveiling the grant news, Scalia plans to meet with Volunteers of America Massachusetts and other community groups that will discuss reentry into civilian life for individuals exiting the criminal justice system.

Scalia will address the media at a 2:30 p.m. press conference from the Department of Labor’s regional office in the John F. Kennedy Federal Building, according to an advisory from his office.

His visit comes as unemployment edges down from record levels caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and its economic shutdowns. Some jobs have returned, but strain remains widespread as states less affected in the spring experience potent outbreaks.

In an interview on “Fox News Sunday,” Scalia said the Trump administration will push for tax relief in the next stimulus package and opposed calls to extend the extra $600 per week in unemployment benefits offered during the crisis, according to a Bloomberg News report.

Massachusetts Begins Phase 3

Massachusetts moved into the third phase of its gradual plan to revive public activity in most of the state yesterday, allowing gyms, museums, movie theaters and more to resume some operations even as COVID cases surge in other parts of the country.

The transition shifts Massachusetts toward the leading edge of states on the path to reopening, pushing forward despite peers pumping the brakes on their own progress due to concerns about massive outbreaks in the south and west.

Citing positive trends in public health data, Gov. Charlie Baker said he is confident the state can loosen restrictions without prompting an infection rebound because bars and nightclubs will remain closed and because residents and businesses continue to abide by safety precautions.

“The success is due in no small part to the vigilance and dedication that has been shown by the people of Massachusetts, but we should not and cannot slow down or step back now,” Baker said. “We know that COVID-19 won’t be taking any time off this summer, and we need to maintain vigilance if we wish to continue to move forward.”

Phase 3 will consist of two smaller steps, though administration officials have not yet announced when the second portion will start. The loosened restrictions in the first step will take effect in Boston on July 13, one week after every other community in Massachusetts.

Under the first step, movie theaters, museums, fitness centers and some indoor recreation facilities that have all been closed since mid-March will be allowed to reopen so long as they follow industry-specific protocols.

Markey: U.S. Senate Should Return, Pass Massive Aid Package

State House News – The U.S. Senate should cancel its recess and immediately return to Washington D.C. to pass a massive economic stimulus package featuring aid to state and local governments, according to Sen. Edward Markey.

While it joined the House in passing major aid packages earlier in the coronavirus crisis, the Senate has not acted on a $3 trillion aid bill approved by the U.S. House on May 15. That bill includes $875 billion in aid to states and municipalities that are facing unprecedented budget problems.

Infections initially hammered U.S. states run by Democrats but the virus has since exploded to the south and west. During a Sunday morning Zoom call, Markey said the soaring COVID-19 infection rates in states run by Republicans gives him hope that Democrats will get help from elected officials in red states.

“We are now seeing just incredible spikes in coronavirus and obviously an impact on their economies as state after state in the south and in the west are forced to do the things which we had to do in Massachusetts,” Markey said. “I think that our alliance going forward to get this money is going to be with red state mayors, red state governors, red state senators.”

Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle and Lynn Mayor Thomas McGee Jr. joined Markey on the call.

LaChapelle said Easthampton has frozen its hiring, and faces “radical reductions in services.” She said, “We’re heading towards a financial cliff. And we don’t know what will help us. We don’t know where the resources or support are coming from.”

McGee said Lynn has the third highest rate in the state for COVID-19 infections. The city faces close to a $3 million deficit, he said, complaining of a “lack of understanding” from Republican senators to impacts nationwide.

Lynn had been looking at a $30 million increase in education funding from the state under a new state funding reform law.

“That money is not coming obviously,” he said, adding that he’s now hoping for, but not sure about, level funding of Chapter 70 state education aid.

“The budget impacts are really slamming into us,” he said. “We’re trying to hold it together on a wing and a prayer.”

Read the Latest State House News on COVID-19

Mail-In Voting Bill Goes to Governor

State House News – There wouldn’t be a need to flock to the polls on Sept. 1 or Nov. 3 under a mail-in and early voting bill the Legislature sent last week to Gov. Charlie Baker.

Instead, residents of the state could take advantage of early voting periods and mail-in ballots, or go to the polls on election day if they wish. The governor now has 10 days to act on the bill. He can sign it, return it with an amendment or veto it.

Travel Guidance Syncs with Cape Visitor Profile

State House News – Updated travel guidance in Massachusetts bodes well for business this summer on Cape Cod, where officials are observing pent-up demand for getaways.

During a conference call on reopening efforts, Cape officials said the peninsula draws the bulk of its summer visitors from Massachusetts, the five other New England states and New York and New Jersey. Visitors from those states are no longer required to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival here.

“It is good news that we are able to welcome people, that we are able to do so safely,” said Sen. Julian Cyr of Truro, noting the seven states share the trend of declining COVID-19 cases that Massachusetts has been experiencing.

Visitors from Florida and California, two states experiencing surges in COVID-19, account for about 2.9 percent of domestic visitors to the Cape, Cyr said. Cape Cod residents and visitors, broadly speaking, are complying with COVID-19 guidance on face coverings, distancing and hygiene, with some exceptions, said Cyr.

“We’re reminding the public that they need to take personal responsibility,” Cyr said. Not following recommendations to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is “profoundly disrespectful to the working people of Cape Cod,” he said.

Transportation officials also said traffic volume continues to pick up on the two bridges people use to access the Cape. In June, volume was down about 15 percent compared to last year, compared to a 31 percent decline in May and a 47 percent reduction in volume in April on the Bourne and Sagamore bridges.

U.S. Jobs Rebound, Unemployment Down to 11.1 Percent

State House News – American employers returned 4.8 million jobs in June, as economies reopened from coronavirus closings, but two straight months of record gains have brought back only about a third of the positions lost during the pandemic.

Federal labor officials announced Thursday that total nonfarm employment in the U.S. rose to about 137.8 million in June, while a separate survey showed a 2.2 percentage point drop in the national unemployment rate to 11.1 percent.

The data reflect a rebound in the labor market but may not capture the emerging effects of backtracking on re-openings in large states in the south and west due to rising COVID-19 case counts.

The nearly 2.7 million jobs added in May represented the largest one-month increase since World War II, and June’s figures far surpassed that to set a new record. The hard-hit leisure and hospitality industry added 2.1 million jobs in June, accounting for a large chunk of the month’s overall progress.

While federal officials said the data “reflected the continued resumption of economic activity,” they also noted that progress so far has not made up for the losses that have occurred due to economic shutdowns. Individuals who want a job but have not actively searched for one in the past four weeks – a distinction that puts them outside of the labor force and therefore not counted in the unemployment rate – totaled 8.2 million in June, about 3.2 million more than in February, according to federal estimates.

Eviction Moratorium Backers See Short Window for Passage

State House News – With the clock ticking for potential legislative action to extend housing relief measures, sponsors of a new bill aimed at preserving a mandatory pause on housing removals highlighted support and strategies.

An eviction and foreclosure moratorium required under a state law approved in April expires on Aug. 18. Reps. Mike Connolly and Kevin Honan and Sen. Patricia Jehlen filed bills that would impose a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures for failure to pay until one year after Gov. Charlie Baker lifts the COVID-19 state of emergency, freeze rent for the same duration and create a fund to aid those unable to pay housing costs due to the pandemic.

In a videoconference joined by at least 18 other lawmakers and several aides, Honan said the success of the initial moratorium law was “because we internally built a strong coalition of legislators” and called it “heartening to see so many representatives joining us today.

The bills (HD 5166, SD 2992) were filed June 30. Formal sessions end for the year on July 31, a timeline Rep. Nika Elugardo broke down in the call’s chat. Elugardo wrote that the bill should pass by July 20 to allow time to override a potential veto, leaving “roughly a week and change to get this through committee and to the House floor and another week and change for the Senate to do the same, provided there are no changes requiring a conference committee.”

MA Health and Hospital Association (MHA) Update: Unsustainable Financial Losses

The American Hospital Association (AHA) has determined that U.S. hospitals will suffer $120.5 billion in financial losses from July 2020 through December 2020 due to the pandemic.

These estimated losses are in addition to the $202.6 billion in losses the AHA estimated between March 2020 and June 2020. The $323.1 billion in losses that hospitals will experience in 2020 are “potentially catastrophic,” AHA says, but the situation may be worse since none of the loss estimates account for currently increasing case rates in certain states, or potential surges of the pandemic occurring later this year.

The Massachusetts Hospital Association, using similar but not identical metrics, estimates that Massachusetts hospitals will lose at least $6 billion by Labor Day.

Last week, US Rep. and senatorial candidate Joseph Kennedy III (D) joined the Congressional chorus from both sides of the aisle asking the Trump Administration to release the remaining $70-plus billion in CARES Act funding.

“The COVID-19 crisis has devastated the financial stability of the Massachusetts healthcare system, and we cannot get fully back on track without additional federal relief. We are grateful for Congressman Kennedy’s urgency on this critical issue and his advocacy to secure timely funding for our providers,” said Steve Walsh, president & CEO of MHA.

July 2

Bill Extends Eviction Moratorium for One Year After Emergency Lifts

State House News – A group of lawmakers, including one of the leaders of the Housing Committee, will push to keep a mandatory pause on evictions and foreclosures in place for more than a year.

The bill, filed Tuesday (HD 5166) by Rep. Mike Connolly and Rep. Kevin Honan, aims to prevent what they say could be tens of thousands of housing removals if an existing moratorium expires on Aug. 18. It would also make support available for tenants and homeowners most impacted by the economic downturn.

Their legislation would impose a moratorium on evictions and moratoriums for failure to pay until one year after Gov. Charlie Baker lifts the public health emergency he declared amid the pandemic. The bill would freeze rents for the same duration at their pre-outbreak levels.

To help property owners and landlords with 15 or fewer units, the bill would create a state fund that would offer aid to those who were unable to pay housing costs due to the pandemic. The proposal does not define the size of the fund, and it allows it to be funded from multiple sources.

In a blog post explaining the bill, Connolly said the state Housing Court estimates 20,000 eviction cases will be filed as soon as the existing moratorium ends, which could prompt new infections and higher rates of homelessness.

“While we don’t yet know the full scale of the economic devastation caused by the coronavirus pandemic, we know it will be immense,” Connolly wrote. “This crisis has already taken a disproportionate toll on the most vulnerable among us including low-income tenants, elders, immigrants, front line workers, and Black and Latinx renters and homeowners.”

Connolly and Honan, who co-chairs the Legislature’s Housing Committee, plan to discuss their bill today alongside Senate author Patricia Jehlen, co-sponsor Rep. Nika Elugardo, and community and housing justice advocates.

With New Law, Plainridge, Simulcast Centers Looking to Phase 3

State House News – By the end of today, the harness horse races at Plainridge Park Racecourse and the state’s other simulcasting operations figure to be cleared to resume as soon as the governor gives the go-ahead for Phase 3.

Gov. Charlie Baker late Tuesday afternoon signed a racing and simulcasting extension bill that the Legislature had sent him on Monday, his office said. That bill will keep racing and simulcast wagering legal in Massachusetts until the end of July 2021.

The Gaming Commission is planning to meet today and is expected to approve the re-opening operations plans for Plainridge Park Racecourse, and the simulcast centers at Suffolk Downs and Raynham Park. Like the state’s casinos, horse racing and simulcast wagering are part of Phase 3 of the reopening, which could begin as soon as Monday. The Gaming Commission is also planning a discussion on the state of simulcasting and account wagering, led by the commission’s director of racing and a financial analyst.

Advance deposit wagering, in which bets are placed over the phone or online from pre-funded accounts, has been allowed to continue through the pandemic through the two sites that offer it, Plainridge and Suffolk Downs.

Administration Announces $20 Million in Rental and Mortgage Assistance

The Baker Administration announced a new $20 million, statewide fund to assist low-income households facing difficulty making rent and mortgage payments. The Emergency Rental and Mortgage Assistance (ERMA) program will provide direct funding to eligible households who have suffered financial hardship during the State of Emergency put in place to combat the spread of COVID-19.

ERMA will expand eligibility for rental and mortgage assistance to more low-income households who have been impacted by the crisis by adjusting the income threshold beyond the state’s traditional Residential Assistance for Families in Transition (RAFT) program. This includes households within the 50-80 percent range of Area Median Income (AMI). Like the RAFT program, ERMA will provide up to $4,000 for eligible households to pay rent or mortgage payments in arrears going back to payments due April 1, 2020.

Beginning July 1, applicants can reach out to the eleven agencies that administer RAFT on the state’s behalf, this includes the nine Housing Consumer Education Centers, as well as LHAND and the Central Massachusetts Housing Alliance.

Funding for the new program includes $10 million from the supplemental CDBG Coronavirus (CDBG-CV) fund, part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), in addition to other federal resources. This new funding will serve twice as many households as the traditional RAFT program by greatly expanding eligibility to families who would otherwise not qualify for RAFT. This new emergency program builds on the Administration’s work to stabilize families during this uncertain time. In March, Governor Baker announced a $5 million expansion of RAFT.

Since the beginning of the State of Emergency, the administration has supported housing stability for households across the commonwealth. The Department of Housing and Community Development (DHCD) has drafted emergency regulations to protect tenants under the eviction and foreclosure moratorium, supported state-aided public housing and affordable housing operators with guidance, and worked with stakeholders across the state to coordinate resources. Additional resources and information can be found on the department’s COVID-19 Resource Page.

DHCD has received more than $160 million in federal funding through the CARES Act, including more than $20 million which has been distributed to Community Action Agencies for anti-poverty work, and is preparing to allocate additional funding for shelter providers and municipalities. DHCD is also working with CHAPA and Mass Housing Partnership to track local emergency rental assistance programs and other resources available to those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last week, the Baker-Polito Administration unveiled a COVID-19 economic recovery package to respond to challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. The $275 million package, designed to promote equity across the Commonwealth, proposes $40 million for neighborhood stabilization to bring safe, affordable housing units back on the market, $10 million for sustainable, climate resilient affordable housing, and includes the language of An Act to Promote Housing Choices, the Administration’s bill to advance new housing production in Massachusetts by reforming zoning laws.

Grants Available to Help Collaborative Workspaces Re-Open and Operate Safely

The Baker Administration and MassDevelopment announced funding for the fifth round of the Collaborative Workspace Program, a MassDevelopment program that accelerates business formation, job creation, and entrepreneurial activity in communities by supporting infrastructure that fuels locally based innovation. Established co-working spaces may apply for grants of up to $100,000 for new equipment or building improvements, including adjustments to help spaces adhere to the social distancing and health and safety standards outlined in the commonwealth’s sector-specific COVID-19 Workplace Safety Standards.

Companies Want Insurers to Pay for COVID Shutdowns

Wall Street Journal – One of the biggest legal fights in the history of insurance has begun.

A cavalcade of restaurateurs, retailers and others hurt by pandemic shutdowns have sued to force their insurers to cover billions in business losses. A video berating the industry ran for most of June on a giant screen in New York’s Times Square, four times each hour around the clock.

“Insurance companies: Do the right thing,” was the chorus at the end of the video. Repeating the words were a musician, a dancer, a chef, a rabbi, comedian Whoopi Goldberg—and a New Orleans plaintiffs’ lawyer, John Houghtaling II, who paid for the video.

Millions of businesses across the U.S. have “business interruption” insurance. The pandemic, no question, interrupted their businesses.

But insurance companies have largely refused to pay claims under this coverage, citing a standard requirement for physical damage. That is a legacy of its origins in the early 1900s as part of property insurance protecting manufacturers from broken boilers or other failing equipment that closed factories. The insurance is also known as “business income” coverage.

More than half of property policies in force today specifically exclude viruses. The firms filing the lawsuits mostly hold policies without that exclusion. Their argument for getting around the physical-damage requirement is that the coronavirus sticks to surfaces and renders workplaces unsafe.

Lawyers have found past rulings that say events rendering a property unusable may constitute property damage. In one case, a New Jersey manufacturer prevailed with its argument that an ammonia leak made its property unfit for use.

 Group Insurance Commission Deferring $190 Million in Premium Payments

The Baker Administration announced that the Group Insurance Commission (GIC) will defer $190 million in premium payments during the first quarter of Fiscal Year 2021 (FY21) from local cities and towns, regional school districts, and other entities that became members of the GIC through the Municipal Partnership Act.

This measure will provide important cash-flow relief to GIC municipal members across Massachusetts without compromising the GIC’s ability to pay member claims without any impact on total FY21 revenue.

“By deferring these monthly GIC premium payments, we are providing relief to local municipalities that are facing budget challenges and cash-flow constraints due to COVID-19,” said Governor Charlie Baker. “We are pleased to implement this payment deferral and will continue working to support municipal budgets and government services that are important to the people of Massachusetts.”

All FY21 revenues will be billed and collected later during the fiscal year. The total cash-flow relief anticipated as a result of the FY21 first quarter deferral is approximately $63 million per month or approximately $190 million total.

The announcement builds upon additional measures put in place by the administration to provide cash-flow relief and budgetary support to municipalities. This includes making up to $502 million from the Coronavirus Relief Fund available to cities and towns for COVID-19 response efforts, as well as making up to $200 million from the Coronavirus Relief Fund available for costs related to reopening public schools, $194 million in federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund grants, and $25 million in matching funds for remote learning technology grants.

The Group Insurance Commission is a quasi-independent state agency governed by a seventeen-member Commission. It provides and administers health insurance and other benefits to 460,000 members including the Commonwealth’s employees and retirees, and their dependents and survivors, as well as participating municipalities, Housing and Redevelopment Authorities’ personnel, retired municipal employees, and teachers in certain governmental units.

State Announces Updated Travel Guidelines to Support COVID-19 Response

The Baker Administration announced new COVID-19 public health guidelines on travel and transportation.

Effective July 1, all travelers arriving to Massachusetts, including residents returning home, are instructed to self-quarantine for 14-days. This guidance does not apply to travelers from Rhode Island, Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, New York or New Jersey. Additionally, workers designated by the federal government as essential critical infrastructure workers are also exempt from this directive.

Travelers who are displaying symptoms of COVID-19 are instructed to not travel to Massachusetts.

All visitors and residents of Massachusetts are also reminded that the use of masks or face coverings in public places where individuals cannot socially distance from others remains required.

These new guidelines replace previously announced Massachusetts travel guidance. For national travel information, please visit www.travel.state.gov.

Senators Load Up Amendments to COVID-19, IT Bond Bills

State House News – Senators preparing to take up a $1.7 billion borrowing bill to finance the state’s information technology infrastructure and a $1.1 billion spending bill to cover coronavirus-related expenses have filed more than 100 amendments to each piece of legislation.

Senators filed at least 143 amendments to the COVID-19 supplemental budget, including $250,000 for “increased needs due to COVID-19” at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home; $500,000 toward Department of Public Health analysis of population health trends and inequities; $100,000 to cover additional costs addressing COVID-19 at the New England Center and Home for Veterans; and $80,000 for Food Link MA to address COVID-19 food insecurity in several Greater Boston communities.

A Sen. Michael Barrett amendment would temporarily expand a timeline for select boards to transfer appropriations to apply to the previous fiscal year. A Sen. Tran proposal would set aside a $10 million reserve account to reimburse local school districts for personal protective equipment purchased in response to the COVID-19, and a Sen. O’Connor amendment would direct $5 million to the Massachusetts Growth Capital Corporation for grants to small businesses hurt by the pandemic to assist with mortgage interest, rent, and utility payments.

Commissioner: Fed Aid Won’t Solve Child Care System Woes

State House News – Emergency federal funding will mitigate COVID-19’s impact on child care, but the amount available falls far short of existing deficits and Massachusetts leaders will need to deploy “creative” solutions toward an industry on which the statewide economy relies, Baker Administration officials said Wednesday.

Early Education Commissioner Samantha Aigner-Treworgy told the Education Committee that the child-care and early education system has lost about $250 million per month since the COVID-19 pandemic prompted widespread closures in mid-March. The federal CARES Act will direct about $45 million of stimulus funding to Massachusetts for child care, but that amount will only blunt the strain rather than close enormous gaps, Aigner-Treworgy said.

“The business model, which really is reliant on per-child, per-day funding at this point to sustain operations, will be a challenge for many child-care providers throughout the recovery,” she told lawmakers.

“While the investment in the Child Care Development Block Grant in the CARES Act will certainly help mitigate the impact on providers, we know that this critical infrastructure will actually require solutions that we have yet to come up with for the year ahead.”

Officials have warned for months that the child-care system faces significant pressure and that, because so many workers rely on ensuring their children have somewhere safe to go, the uncertainty sends ripples across the economy and industries.

About 95 percent of providers who responded to EEC inquiries intend to reopen this summer or fall now that they are allowed to do so under the Baker administration’s plan to revive public activity gradually. However, Aigner-Treworgy said the demand for child care remains unclear, which in turn creates further financial clouds for providers who rely on tuition. With many parents still working from home and uncomfortable returning their children to day care, other states have seen parental demand for care fall by 40 percent to 60 percent.

June 30

Pandemic Spending Bill Moves Through Senate Committee

State House News – Ahead of a planned vote Thursday, the state Senate Ways and Means Committee is preparing a $1.1 billion COVID-19 spending bill that mirrors almost exactly what the House approved last week.

The committee began polling members Sunday on its version of the supplemental budget (H 4808), which outlines pandemic-related appropriations for fiscal year 2020 that the Baker administration says will be mostly reimbursed by the federal government.

Gov. Charlie Baker has warned that Massachusetts is in a race with other states to access a limited pool of resources available for reimbursement and that his administration cannot pursue funding until the Legislature finishes the bill.

Nearly all of the major allocations in the Senate’s version match what the House approved on Wednesday, including $350 million for personal protective equipment, $139 million for rate add-ons for essential human-service providers, $93 million for human-service worker incentive pay, $85 million for field hospitals and shelters, and millions more for contact tracing, child care and elder services.

The version moving through the Senate Ways and Means Committee also calls for making $5 million available for election supports to grapple with the outbreak’s impact on voting processes, according to a bill summary. Several springtime special elections were disrupted, and the Legislature allowed for the greater use of vote-by-mail to limit transmission risks.

Another section would designate June 19 as a state holiday known as “Juneteenth Independence Day,” commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. The House included that language in its budget bill.

Experts: State COVID-19 Reporting Still Insufficient

State House News – Gov. Charlie Baker signed a bill this month implementing new reporting requirements on his public health apparatus, but experts warn that the state is still not tracking enough information about COVID-19’s impact on communities of color to plan targeted responses.

Medical and public health experts told a Senate panel that the pandemic has already wrought disproportionate havoc on low-income areas and people of color, who are more likely to be essential workers or to live in crowded conditions with higher transmission risks.

The Senate launched a listening session to receive feedback on what the administration and lawmakers can do as Massachusetts continues to navigate the outbreak and chart a path toward a new normal.

During the first equity-themed portion of Monday’s hearing, experts urged lawmakers to take additional steps beyond the new data-reporting law to get a better understanding of how different populations are affected.

“We’re hamstrung,” said Frank Robinson, vice president of public health for Baystate Health in Springfield. “I have one hand tied behind my back as we try and think about ‘how do we intervene?’ It’s really about data, and to be able to disaggregate by race, ethnicity and by locality.”

All three experts at the first session – Robinson, Harvard School of Public Health professor Nancy Krieger, and Massachusetts Public Health Association Executive Director Carlene Pavlos – described racism as a public health crisis that directly led to more pronounced COVID impacts on Black and Latinx communities. They argued the administration needs to track and publish information on cases and deaths not just by race or ethnicity, but also by economic and occupation indicators so that officials can understand who is most at risk.

Baker Administration Unveils $275M COVID-19 Economic Relief Package to Promote Equity and Economic Growth

The Baker Administration unveiled a COVID-19 economic recovery package to generate economic growth amid the COVID-19 pandemic. The $275 million package is an update to the administration’s Act Enabling Partnerships for Growth, the economic development legislation originally filed on March 4.

The proposal represents a targeted package of investments across three core areas: housing, community development, and business competitiveness. In response to the dramatically different economic landscape due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the administration will ask the Legislature to consider an amended scope for several of the proposed programs, reallocate funding among proposed authorizations, and establish new tools to promote equity and drive economic growth.

“By funding more affordable housing, implementing critical zoning reform, stabilizing neighborhoods, and supporting minority-owned businesses with record levels of funding, these proposed changes will bring critical relief and promote equity across Massachusetts amidst the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Governor Charlie Baker. “We look forward to working with our partners in the Legislature to advance this legislation and give communities, especially those most in need, the tools and support they require to move forward.”

The package would:

  • amend the scope of several proposed programs, to target funding towards specific communities, including those hit hardest by COVID-19;
  • reallocate funding among proposed authorizations to address the significant economic impacts of COVID-19 and help provide a path for recovery, particularly for those most devastated by the pandemic;
  • establish new tools to promote equity and drive economic growth in communities and among businesses facing barriers to entry in areas like state contracting.

The Administration is proposing to allocate an additional $15 million for neighborhood stabilization (for a total of $40 million) to invest in blighted and distressed homes. This funding, paired with collaboration and engagement with community organizations and municipalities, will bring safe, affordable housing units back on the market.

The administration is also recommending increasing funding for Community Development Financial Institutions (CDFIs) by $25 million (for a total of $35 million), a record increase in this program. These grants to small business lenders allow CDFIs to serve entrepreneurs in underserved populations with financial services, technical assistance, and credit building opportunities.

To help address the disproportionate challenges to accessing early stage business financing, the administration is asking the Legislature to triple funding for grants to support micro businesses from $5 million to $15 million. Massachusetts Growth Capital Corporation (MGCC) recently launched a pilot program called Biz-M-Power, which offers matching grants and technical assistance to microbusinesses (fewer than 20 employees) that have successfully crowdsourced up to $10,000 in seed capital.

The legislation also includes the language of An Act to Promote Housing Choices, the administration’s bill to advance new housing production in Massachusetts, to promote equitable access to opportunity, and to support the administration’s goal to produce 135,000 new housing units by 2025. An Act Enabling Partnerships for Growth includes these Housing Choice provisions to enable cities and towns to adopt certain zoning best practices through a simple majority vote rather than the current two-thirds supermajority.

An Act Enabling Partnerships for Growth was originally filed in March of 2020. For more details, click here.

AG Healey Funds Summer Jobs for Young People

Attorney General Maura Healey announced that her office is awarding nearly $300,000 in grant funding to 73 organizations across the state to fund summer jobs for young people that are focused on promoting health and wellness. Grantees have adapted to the COVID-19 pandemic in a number of ways, including providing personal protective equipment (PPE), social distancing, and transitioning to virtual workspaces.

This is the sixth year that the AG’s Office is running the Healthy Summer Youth Jobs Grant Program, which enables teens to have a direct impact in their communities by working in jobs that promote good nutrition, physical fitness and healthy living. The grant program is funded with health-care and fair labor-related settlement money from the AG’s Office.

“Our summer jobs program provides teens across the state with an opportunity to challenge themselves, build new skills, and make a difference in their own communities by promoting healthy living,” Healey said. “We’re pleased to be continuing this program this summer and we are grateful to our grantees for making important adjustments to their programs during this unprecedented time to ensure employed teens are safe.”

Examples of jobs funded through this year’s grant program include:

  • Building and maintaining a community garden or urban farm;
  • Addressing food security and wellness needs of low-income communities;
  • Providing virtual educational content on the environment and local natural resources; and
  • Instructing youth virtually on at-home wellness activities.

Baker Urged to Probe Virus Outbreak at Chelsea Home

State House News – Citing the deaths of 31 veterans there, Senators. Edward Markey and Elizabeth Warren and Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley are calling for an independent investigation into the coronavirus outbreak at the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home, one of two long-term care homes that the state runs for veterans.

“Given that 31 veteran residents of the Home have died from COVID-19 and an independent investigation of the outbreak at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home (HSH) produced useful findings and recommendations, we believe a similar, independent and thorough inquiry at CSH would help save veterans’ lives, prevent further infections, and ensure a healthier and safer care environment for both residents and staff,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Gov. Charlie Baker.

The lawmakers said that federal VA medical centers in Boston and Bedford have accepted at least 40 Chelsea Soldiers’ Home veteran residents for care since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. And they called for an investigation that’s as rigorous as the one Baker ordered into the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home.

“Recent public reporting has cast doubt on whether the COVID-19 response at the Home adequately protected veterans, and we understand that at least 60 percent of all veteran residents at the Home have tested positive for coronavirus antibodies,” the lawmakers wrote.

“Altogether, these facts and circumstances suggest that a serious outbreak occurred at the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home.”

Group homes and long-term care residences, including nursing homes, have been among the hardest hit by the COVID-19 crisis.

Attorney General Maura Healey, in addition to investigating the Holyoke home, is also investigating the spread of COVID-19 at a Littleton assisted living facility where at least a third of the residents at Life Care Center of Nashoba Valley contracted the virus. The Baker administration was not immediately available to respond to the request for an inquiry.

Open Letter Calls for Nursing Home Reforms

State House News – A new state task force convened to address health-care disparities amid the pandemic should pursue new safety requirements in nursing homes to respond to thousands of deaths and prevent future crises, a think tank urged Sunday.

The Boston-based Pioneer Institute warned in an open letter that the outbreak’s deadliness in Massachusetts surpasses the national average, with about 63 percent of the state’s deaths occurring in the facilities compared to less than 40 percent across the country.

“COVID has wiped out 10 percent of Massachusetts’ nursing home population. Going forward, the state needs to take affirmative steps to control infection and prepare nursing homes for the duration of the pandemic and beyond,” said Pioneer Senior Healthcare Fellow Barbara Anthony, who co-authored the letter with Mary Connaughton, Pioneer’s director of government transparency, and research assistant Andrew Mikula.

Gov. Charlie Baker signed legislation this month requiring the state Department of Public Health to collect and report detailed information about COVID-19’s impact on long-term care, and the bill also creates a task force to report on how lawmakers can address gaps in care that impact vulnerable or underserved populations.

Pioneer outlined steps for the task force to help protect nursing homes. Those include appointing an individual to coordinate the state’s public health emergency response in nursing homes, requiring facilities to maintain a baseline stock of personal protective equipment, and mandating that each home appoint an infection preventionist.

Pioneer also called for more dedicated state oversight of facilities, arguing that concerns about their preparedness “predate this pandemic.” More than one-third of homes did not comply with COVID-prevention methods as of May 21, authors said.

“The lack of testing and the serious lack of appropriate PPE due to supply chain factors, as well as shortages of staff with appropriate infection control training, created infectious conditions that spiraled out of control,” authors wrote in their letter. “While residents and staff at most homes have now been tested once, there is no publicly available plan for how to ensure sufficient testing and adequate PPE going forward.”

MassHealth Overseer Warns Against Telehealth Retreat

The state’s top MassHealth official argued Monday that with telemedicine’s explosion in popularity, some services should not return to traditional in-person visits even after the COVID emergency subsides, though he stopped short of endorsing a legislative extension that passed the Senate last week.

Dan Tsai, who serves as Gov. Charlie Baker’s assistant secretary for MassHealth and who is serving as acting Health and Human Services Secretary while HHS Secretary Marylou Sudders leads the state’s COVID response, named mandating telemedicine coverage as one of the top options the administration is eyeing as pandemic-era policies that should be extended.

“Allowing and expanding and covering full telehealth, not just for video capabilities, but also for telephonic capabilities, was absolutely, absolutely critical,” Tsai told a Senate panel when asked about what long-term changes to the health care landscape he would like to see.

“We do not want to see a reversion back to things that could be done well via telehealth to go back to in-person just because that’s the way it’s always been.”

Some providers, he said, are now performing up to 80 percent of their usual care through a range of telehealth channels. The Senate passed a bill Thursday that would mandate insurers cover the telehealth version of any in-person services they cover at the same rate for the next two years. House lawmakers have expressed support for telemedicine more broadly but flagged concerns about several details, such as credentialing providers and prescriptions.

Pandemic Brings Back Single-Use Plastics

According to the Wall Street Journal, COVID-19 has given a new foothold to single-use plastics previously criticized for the waste they generate. To stem transmission of the virus, bars are serving drinks in plastic cups, supermarkets are wrapping once loose fruits and baked goods in plastic and offices are adding plastic coverings to everything from doorknobs to elevator buttons.

Efforts to fight the virus are boosting sales for plastics makers who are citing the pandemic to lobby against bans, maintaining their products preserve hygiene. But there is a catch: Many of the plastics for which demand has jumped are also the hardest to recycle.

Plastic bags, wraps and pouches are typically difficult for recycling equipment to identify, separate and melt because they are made from multiple types of plastic, or plastic mixed with other materials. Most flexible packaging made from a single plastic—like polyethylene bags—also isn’t recycled because it needs to be collected separately to prevent machines from mistaking it for paper.

Baker Signs Budget to Fund Government in July

State House News – Gov. Charlie Baker on Friday morning signed an interim budget to keep state government running when the new fiscal year begins on July 1 since the Legislature has not yet developed a fiscal 2021 spending plan.

The governor filed the $5.25 billion interim budget a week ago and said Friday that the amount is sufficient to fund government operations through July and “will make it possible for the treasurer to deliver local aid payments to cities and towns.”

House and Senate leaders have not laid out a timeline yet for completion of a budget for the full fiscal year. With just a few days until the new budget year begins, the Baker administration this week told municipalities that upcoming monthly local aid payments will largely be based on fiscal year 2020 estimates.

The planned implementation of a new school funding law in the new fiscal year is on hold, at least for the time being.

“We obviously look forward to working with our colleagues in the Legislature during the month of July, as some of the issues associated with fiscal ’20 get a little clearer and fiscal ’21 get a little clearer, to finalize what I would call a budget for the go-forward on the rest of the year,” Baker said  after announcing he had signed the stopgap budget.

“But I want to thank the Legislature for acting quickly on this one and providing some security and certainty to people with respect to how the new year will start here for the commonwealth and for the commonwealth’s cities and towns.”

Issues to Watch in the Week Ahead

COVID, Phase 3 – Pressure will surely begin to mount on Gov. Baker to announce whether Phase 3 of the state’s economic re-opening plan will get underway on Monday, July 6.

That’s the earliest possible date for the third phase, which will include the return of gyms, sporting events, casinos, museums, and movie theaters, but Baker has said that his decisions will be driven by data and not arbitrary dates.

“We do need to recognize and understand that this is still very much with us and for anybody who thinks this is over, I would just ask them to take a look at the data coming out of a lot of the states in the south and the southwest, which had a very positive set of statistics week over week after week after week in the months of April and May and now they’re really starting to struggle,” the governor said Friday.

Though he has said decisions about additional reopening will take into consideration things like the positive test rate, number of patients hospitalized, the state’s testing capacity and more, the governor said he is particularly interested in seeing two week’s worth of public health data from days when indoor restaurant dining has been allowed.

Indoor dining resumed June 22. But the governor also acknowledged that, so far, the state’s phased reopening process has not led to concerning spikes in cases.

The State Budget – Massachusetts begins fiscal 2021 on Wednesday with a $5.25 billion interim budget in place, a COVID-19 spending bill up for consideration in the Senate on Thursday, and Gov. Charlie Baker’s $44.6 billion fiscal 2021 budget beginning its sixth month under review in the House Ways and Means Committee.

Before deciding on how to proceed, Baker and legislative leaders are waiting to see how tax collections perform in the wake of the decision to push the annual tax-filing deadline forward from April 15 to July 15. They are also waiting to see when and whether Congress will pass another major stimulus bill providing additional support to individuals, businesses, and state and local governments struggling due to the pandemic’s impacts.

The House, which usually holds its annual budget deliberations in April, set a July 1 deadline for its Ways and Means Committee to recommend a post-pandemic fiscal 2021 budget, but committee chairman Rep. Aaron Michlewitz told the News Service this week that his panel’s General Appropriations Act recommendation won’t be ready by that deadline.

For the moment, state government appears set up to get through July on its interim budget. After that, it’s not clear whether the House and Senate will be able to quickly agree on a fiscal 2021 budget before the end of next month or whether they will need to suspend their rules to facilitate consideration of the budget, and perhaps other matters, sometime after July 31.

June 25

Poll: Many Not Eager to Engage in State’s Re-Opening

State House News – The gradual reopening of the economy in Massachusetts has led to employees feeling more stable in their jobs and financial situations over the past month, according to a new Suffolk University poll for WGBH News, the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and MassLive.

But residents continue to harbor anxiety over venturing back out to engage in what used to be mundane activities, like eating at a restaurant or taking the subway to see a baseball game. And parents are deeply divided over whether they think it’s safe to send their children back to daycare or school, according to the poll.

The pandemic has also hit communities of color particularly hard financially, according to the survey, with Hispanic residents far more likely than white, Black and Asian workers to report diminished income from the coronavirus outbreak, and workers with less education and lower incomes before the pandemic reporting a greater impact from COVID-19.

The WGBH News/SHNS/Suffolk survey of 500 Massachusetts residents was conducted June 18-21 with live callers on cellphones and landlines. It has a margin of error of 4.4 percent.

State Sets Aug. 29-30 as Sales Tax Holiday Weekend

The state’s 6.25 percent sales tax will be waived on many purchases the weekend of Saturday, Aug. 29 and Sunday, Aug. 30, the Baker administration announced Tuesday.

This summer’s sales tax holiday weekend will take place as retailers regain their footing after weeks of government-forced shutdowns, and Gov. Charlie Baker said he hopes people will take advantage of the tax savings to support local businesses.

“The annual sales tax holiday is an opportunity for us to support small businesses and consumers, and this year, it’s a great way to support our economy that’s been impacted by COVID-19,” the governor said.

“This pandemic has created enormous challenges for the Commonwealth’s small businesses, and the sales tax-free weekend is one way that we can encourage more economic activity to help Main Street businesses and local economies.”

The annual tax holiday, made a permanent fixture as part of a 2018 “grand bargain” law addressing multiple topics, allows shoppers to avoid paying the tax on most retail items – excluding food and drink at restaurants – that cost less than $2,500. The state agrees to give up tens of millions of dollars in taxes in a bid to spur buying and consumer savings.

The law calls for the Legislature by June 15 to choose a weekend in August to designate as the holiday. If legislators miss that deadline or do not act, the Department of Revenue has until July 1 to announce dates for the holiday, as it did Tuesday.

Industry Exec Says Losses Stacking Up for Mass. Hospitals

State House News – Massachusetts hospital budgets have been decimated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the industry faces a $6 billion shortfall by the end of the summer, an industry representative told lawmakers Tuesday.

Steve Walsh, CEO of the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association, warned a special House panel that hospitals in the state will lose $6 billion by Labor Day – more revenue than Major League Baseball estimates it would miss if it failed to hold a 2020 season. The losses have been “catastrophic” for some community hospitals, Walsh said.

So far, Massachusetts providers have received about $1.4 billion in emergency funding from Washington, but Walsh said the state ranks 50th out of 51 states and the District of Columbia in relief dollars per COVID case.

“This is terrifying when you think we had the third-most cases in the country,” Walsh said.

Panel members are weighing an extension to Gov. Charlie Baker’s emergency order increasing access to telehealth, and Walsh said the ability to provide remote services was a “game-changing tool” that helped keep hospitals afloat. Public health experts have warned about a potential second surge in cases this fall, and Walsh, a former House member, told lawmakers that making telemedicine accessible is “simply the most important thing we can do.”

House Majority Leader Ron Mariano is leading the Commonwealth Resilience and Recovery Special Committee for the House and has said that community hospitals and community health centers will require increased support and that those facilities “need some assurance that telemedicine will remain in some form after the state of emergency is lifted.”

Death Rates Rise as New Round of Re-Openings Begin

State House News – Restaurants resumed serving diners indoors, nail salons got back to filing and painting fingernails, and tattoo parlors fired up the ink guns Monday as the state’s re-opening plan took another step forward.

Most of the metrics used to determine the pace of re-opening continued to trend in the right direction with one major exception. The three-day average number of daily COVID-19 deaths is on the rise, climbing from 22 as of June 18 to 26 as of June 19, the Department of Public Health reported Monday.

Gov. Charlie Baker did not give an update Monday on the latest round of re-openings, the state’s progress in fighting the spread of the coronavirus or his thinking for later re-openings, the next wave of which could begin in two weeks. The governor has scaled back his public events – State House press conferences and tours of medical or manufacturing facilities – in recent weeks. After holding a press conference daily for weeks, Baker has settled into something close to an every-other-day schedule.

IRS Provides Updated FAQs on Employee-Retention Tax Credit

The IRS has issued updated FAQs for the employee retention tax credit, the temporary refundable payroll tax credit for eligible employers affected by COVID-19. The updated FAQs relate to the tax credit’s governmental order test and can be found here and here.

Courthouses Reopening for Limited Business July 13

Courthouses in Massachusetts will reopen to the public on July 13 for limited purposes, with the courts continuing to conduct most business virtually.

Under an updated order issued Wednesday by the Supreme Judicial Court, entry will be limited to people attending in-person proceedings; people conducting business with a clerk’s, register’s or recorder’s office; people meeting with probation; and people conducting business at other open offices in the courthouses.

The SJC said that people seeking to enter courthouses “will be screened to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

The SJC plans additional re-opening phases, with the number of in-person proceedings expanding during a second phase beginning on Aug. 10. In advance of each phase, Trial Court departments will identify new matters they will be addressing in person on the court system’s COVID-19 webpage, according to the SJC.

“Jury trials in both criminal and civil cases in state courts continue to be postponed to a date no earlier than September 8, 2020,” the SJC said.

“Starting July 13, judges may begin to schedule civil and criminal bench trials. No new grand jury can be empaneled prior to September 8, unless the Supreme Judicial Court so orders. Existing grand juries are extended until the date of that new empanelment or the date of the October 2020 empanelment in the relevant judicial district, whichever occurs first.”

Interim State Budget Could Reach Baker Thursday

The House and Senate on Monday passed a $5.25 billion interim budget to keep state government running when the new fiscal year dawns next Wednesday. The legislation, filed by Gov. Charlie Baker last Friday, now needs only a final enactment vote in the Senate to return to Baker’s desk. The Senate meets next on Thursday in a formal session to take up health care legislation (S 2769) dealing with telehealth, scope of practice and out-of-network billing issues.

June 23

Virus Impacts on Public Higher Education

State House News – The COVID-19 pandemic’s impacts on Massachusetts public colleges and universities will be the focus of a Board of Higher Education meeting today.

In May, board Chair Chris Gabrieli said that the Department of Higher Education and the 24 state university and community college campuses would work with EY-Parthenon consultants to develop a “system-wide view into the unique financial challenges posed by the current pandemic and all of its uncertainties.”

The team behind that assessment is scheduled to present its findings on Tuesday. Marty Meehan, the president of the University of Massachusetts, which has not announced its plans for the fall semester, is also scheduled to appear before the board.

Gabrieli said higher education faces unprecedented challenges, with significant uncertainty around major factors like enrollment, students’ ability to return to campus and state and federal funding, all of which “drive a significant part of any college’s budgeting.”

After transitioning to remote learning in the middle of the spring semester, state universities in Bridgewater, Fitchburg, Framingham, Salem, Westfield and Worcester plan in September to bring students back to campuses, where they are scheduled to return to dorms and attend on-campus classes.

Indoor Dining Resumes

Restaurants that have been serving patrons on patios and sidewalks for the past two weeks welcomed diners indoors yesterday after Gov. Charlie Baker announced Friday that he was triggering the next stage of his economic reopening plan.

Baker, at a State House press conference, also said offices would be able to bring back to work more employees and increase their capacity from one quarter to 50 percent of their workforce. And close-contact personal services offered at nail salons, massage and tattoo parlors and personal training also resumed yesterday.

The progress through the phases of the Baker’s administration’s reopening strategy comes as Massachusetts has continued to see downward trends in hospitalizations, which are now under 1,000, and positive test rates, which have fallen to 2.3 percent.

“Reopening Massachusetts is working,” Baker said. “Business is coming back, people are regaining that sense of purpose that was lost. I know it can’t happen fast enough, but people in Massachusetts are proving that we can reopen and continue to bring the fight to the virus when we all do our part.”

Insurers Hopeful About Telehealth Cost Savings Potential

State House News – Telehealth language in a new Senate bill teed up for debate next week has caught the eye of insurance carriers.

State senators last week introduced health care legislation that includes measures around telehealth, out-of-network billing, and providers’ scope of practice. The bill (S 2769) would require insurers to reimburse for telehealth at the same rate as in-person services over the next two years, and the Health Policy Commission, by the end of 2022, would have to issue recommendations on “the appropriate relationship” between telehealth and in-person reimbursement rates.

Lora Pellegrini, president of the Massachusetts Association of Health Plans, said telehealth has played a key role during the COVID-19 pandemic “but we must build on its promise of providing cost-savings for employers and consumers in the future.

“Moving forward, it is vital that the state thoughtfully monitor the provision of in-person care and telehealth coverage to determine when we can remove statutorily mandated payments in order to build on telehealth’s promise of providing cost-savings for employers and consumers, ensuring access to high-quality care for members that improves their patient experience and is appropriate for delivery via telehealth technologies,” she said in a statement.

The group Health Care for All, which backs the bill as a whole, said it is “particularly supportive of extending telehealth provisions that were included in the Governor’s Executive Order during the emergency.”

Jobless Claims Active Ahead of May Unemployment Rate Release

State house News – Massachusetts employers added a whopping 58,000 jobs in May, but the state unemployment rate remained one of the nation’s highest as most other states showed greater signs of economic recovery.

The month-over-month job gains more than doubled any previous record increase in Massachusetts dating back to at least 1990, according to federal data, but they still represent only a minor recovery from the historic 646,700 positions lost in April.

The latest batch of data shows that re-openings of some shuttered economic sectors in May brought scores of jobs back online, although the jobless rate is due to remain at elevated levels for an extended period due to COVID-19 and its myriad economic ramifications.

May’s unemployment rate in Massachusetts was 16.3 percent, the second month in a row that the state set a record. April’s original estimate of 15.1 percent was at the time the highest rate in the state since at least 1976, and federal labor officials revised the April figure to 16.2 percent in Friday’s release.

While the Bureau of Labor Statistics deemed the one-tenth of a percentage point increase not statistically significant, Massachusetts was among a small group of states that did not show improvement in that metric.

Thirty-eight states and the District of Columbia had lower unemployment rates in May than in April, eight others were stable, and just three states – Minnesota, Connecticut and Florida – had significant increases.

Only three states reported higher unemployment rates in May than Massachusetts: Nevada at 25.3 percent, Hawaii at 22.6 percent and Michigan at 21.2 percent. Rhode Island and California also reported rates of 16.3 percent, mirroring the Bay State.

Nationally, the unemployment rate dropped from 14.7 percent in April to 13.3 percent in May, according to a federal report earlier this month.

Michael Goodman, a MassBenchmarks co-editor and executive director of the UMass Dartmouth Public Policy Center, said Massachusetts may lag other states because of varying impacts of the COVID-19 outbreaks and a slower re-opening timeline.

“A number of other states have been much less careful in their re-opening plan, which may lead to rosier employment outcomes,” he said.

Raw jobs figures displayed a more positive change: total nonfarm payroll employment in Massachusetts increased to about 3.08 million in May, recovering 58,600 of the revised 646,700 jobs lost in April.

The largest gain was 17,400 new jobs in construction, which was one of the first industries given the green light to resume in May after most non-emergency operations were shut down for several months to limit spread of COVID-19.

Leisure and hospitality, which overall has been the hardest-hit field amid the mandatory closures, added 12,400 jobs in May but remains a quarter of a million positions below its employment total one year ago.

Most other industries other than information and government displayed slight gains in hiring last month, according to state data. Goodman said the Friday update included “some good news here that reflects the slow reopening of the state economy,” but cautioned that the long-term outlook remains unclear.

“I think in the coming months, we can expect additional sectors to participate in headcount reduction, particularly in state and local government if the fiscal picture doesn’t improve,” he said. “Another major concern for the private economy is what will happen to those employees currently being paid through the (federal) Payroll Protection Program when those funds expire.”

Neal, House Democrats Roll Out Infrastructure Bill

State House News – While their $3 trillion COVID-19 relief bill remains before the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate, House Democrats heralded a sweeping $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan that authors say could fuel a long-term recovery from the recession.

The proposal would direct hundreds of billions of dollars to transportation priorities, including funding for a passenger rail expansion connecting Boston and western Massachusetts.

It also reaches beyond transit, roads and bridges to suggest significant federal investment in affordable housing, education, internet access, clean energy and wastewater systems.

U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, called the bill “the most transformative and consequential infrastructure bill” in the country’s history during a press conference with other House Democrats.

President Donald Trump is reportedly considering his own $1 trillion infrastructure proposal with the existing FAST Act set to expire at the end of September.

SBA Releases New PPP Loan Forgiveness Application

The Small Business Administration has released an updated application form for Paycheck Protection Program borrowers seeking loan forgiveness. Under the PPP Flexibility Act, borrowers receiving PPP loans prior to June 5 will have the option to choose either an eight-week or a 24-week “covered period” during which they can spend their loan proceeds. View the new form here, the form instructions here and the SBA’s rule implementing the changes here.

Teachers’ Union Lays Out Demands as Part of “Re-Opening Platform”

Funding levels called for under the new school finance reform law, additional staff and an elimination of MCAS tests are among the measures the Massachusetts Teachers Association says should be the foundation for re-opening schools.

The union published its re-opening platform Thursday, as educators, parents and students wait to see what the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s fall re-opening guidance will look like.

The platform calls for “progressive revenues” to be a part of a re-opening process, saying that “Student and staff needs will not be sacrificed due to artificial funding constraints

Logan Air Traffic May Not Fully Recover for Years

State House News – Passenger volume at Logan International Airport is unlikely to return to pre-pandemic levels for at least another two years, and the recovery process could take six years under a worst-case scenario, Massachusetts Port Authority officials said Thursday.

Both air and maritime travel have dropped significantly amid the COVID-19 outbreak. While Massport leaders see rebounds on the horizon, they cautioned during a board meeting that outlooks remain uncertain and that the virus will cause lasting impacts — including budget pressure.

Logan only transported about one-tenth as many passengers in May 2020 as in May 2019, according to figures presented by Massport Aviation Director Ed Freni. Total trips in April and May, Freni said, were “dismal” with volumes at “rock bottom.”

There are signs of progress: the week ending June 8 saw 53 percent more passengers than the week before, and airlines have started to schedule more flights with a bigger uptick expected in mid-July, Freni said.

“We’re really encouraged by that, but we’re not sure how this is going to play out,” he said. “The airlines really can’t share information beyond July. Bookings have changed. People are booking on short notice. There’s still a tremendous no-show factor, so it’s very difficult to predict what’s going to happen.”

The most likely outcome Massport projects for fiscal year 2021 is slightly more than half as many passengers as fiscal year 2019 and a full recovery that does not begin until the summer of 2022 at the earliest. A worst-case scenario Freni presented would see only 31 percent of fiscal 19 passenger volume in the upcoming fiscal year and a recovery period lasting three to six years.

Massport CEO Lisa Wieland said the airport typically hosts 600 departing flights per day this time of year, but that figure dropped to 100 at the depth of the pandemic.

Emergency Regulations Will Deliver More Small Biz Tax Relief

Beacon Hill leaders will further delay tax deadlines for small businesses around the state in another step aimed at lessening pressure on those hit hardest by the economic downturn that the pandemic prompted.

Sales, meals and room occupancy taxes for qualifying businesses for March through August will not be due to the state until September, and those that wait will not face any penalties or interest, Gov. Charlie Baker and legislative leaders announced.

Under the administrative tax relief measures, any businesses that paid less than $150,000 in regular sales plus meal taxes or less than $150,000 in room occupancy taxes in the year ending Feb. 29 will qualify for relief. Others will also have late penalties waived.

The administration had originally postponed collection of those taxes until June 20. The House approved legislation this month that, among other relief steps, would waive penalties and interest on meals tax payments through the end of the year.

June 18

State Continues to Make Progress Moderating COVID-19

State House News – Massachusetts continues to make progress on its path down from the COVID-19 peak, even as other states in the South and West show signs of growing outbreaks.

The downward trend continued for fatalities linked to the virus, while the commonwealth remained close to the status quo for hospitalizations and overall infections. Public health officials reported 195 new cases in Massachusetts on Tuesday and 18 new deaths.

Gov. Charlie Baker could say as soon as the end of the week when the next step will come in the gradual plan to welcome consumers and employees back to brick-and-mortar businesses, and a surge of national retail sales in May offered some encouragement about the prospects of economic recovery.

One industry still waiting to come back is horse racing, and Plainridge Park Racecourse said Tuesday that live races could begin as soon as next month.

Looking further down the horizon, an overhaul of voting in the Sept. 1 primary and Nov. 3 general election in Massachusetts came closer to reality after the state Senate unanimously approved a massive vote-by-mail expansion.

The bill, which needs to clear a few more steps in the House and Senate before it can land on Baker’s desk, would require the secretary of state to mail every registered voter an application for a mail-in ballot by mid-July and would expand early voting hours in an attempt to limit the risk of COVID-19 transmission at polling places.

Businesses Could Face Huge Tab for Unemployment Crisis

Massachusetts labor officials now estimate that the fund used to pay out unemployment benefits will be billions of dollars in the red through at least 2024, leaving businesses to pick up a huge tab.

The unemployment insurance trust fund outlook report for May, which the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development posted this month, forecasts that Massachusetts will need to seek federal loans and will likely increase payments that employers make toward unemployment insurance by as much as 65 percent compared to pre-pandemic levels.

As first reported by the Boston Business Journal, the latest outlook projects an unemployment fund deficit of $3.1 billion by Jan. 1, 2021. Those shortfalls, which do not account for potential federal loans, are expected to last for years, rising to $6.1 billion in 2022, $6.6 billion in 2023 and then back down slightly to almost $5.9 billion in 2024.

Officials do not currently expect the fund to bring in more than it pays out in benefits until 2023.

Through April, the fund had a balance of $1.4 billion. The massive, years-long deficit on the horizon is driven by an unprecedented level of unemployment aid, an obligation the state projects to be nearly $6.4 billion in 2020 – more than five times as much as last year – and $5.1 billion in 2021.

Business premiums generate the money distributed to laid-off workers, and those mandatory payments are set to rise starting in 2021. The May report projected the average cost per employee will rise from $562 in 2020 to $759 in 2021, $880 in 2022 and $922 in 2023. In the meantime, the Baker administration will need to secure federal loans to keep unemployment benefits flowing while work continues on economic recovery.

State eases regulations for reopening camps and child-care centers

State officials have eased some of the guidelines for reopening child-care centers, in-home programs, and summer camps after fielding complaints that their regulations would be ruinous to small businesses and unworkable with small children.

The Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care has decided to encourage — but not mandate — the use of masks for children older than two and to eliminate a requirement that every child undergo a temperature check at the entrance before participating. Staff would still need to wear a mask whenever six feet of distancing is not possible.

The department also dropped one of the most controversial and costly requirements it had built into the new regulations: requiring an extra teacher in every preschool room.

But even as they address central concerns raised by day- care operators struggling to stay afloat, state regulators are hearing contradictory concerns from workers at those facilities worried about their own health and safety.

“Clearly the department is signaling that they are listening, but they continue to try to balance the reality of the situation,” said Amy O’Leary, director of Early Education for All, which advocates for early childhood programs and funding. “We’re seeing evidence that they’re just kind of back and forth.”

Indeed, no sooner did day-care owners express relief than the workers who had petitioned the state to close the centers in the first place urged caution.

“The field is not unified in its philosophy or belief system — just like the general public is not unified,” said O’Leary. She pointed to a New York Times article showing, even among epidemiologists, vast disparities in people’s comfort levels about when to return their children to camp, school, or group care.

State officials have been trying to thread that needle, heeding the concerns of business owners in a fragile industry — which is essential to restarting the rest of the economy — and the concerns of worried parents and teachers. Though Governor Charlie Baker gave camps and child-care centers the go-ahead to reopen, each must first present a plan for operating in the new landscape. The state just opened the process for submitting those plans this week.

The department also dropped a change to the teacher ratios that would have required two preschool teachers for every classroom of 10 children. Preschool rooms typically accommodate 20 children with two teachers — and their tuition disproportionately fuels a center’s budget, compared to the more labor-intensive infant and toddler rooms.

Child-care providers had complained that regulators were forcing them to keep their high staffing costs even as they halved their capacity. The revised regulations return the requirement to just one teacher for every 10 preschoolers, while noting that, “to the maximum extent possible, more than one adult is recommended.”

The initial regulations for reopening had also limited the total number of people who could be in a room at any one time — and who could come and go from a classroom throughout the day — in an effort to limit people’s contact with too many others. But providers complained that layering that requirement over existing teacher-student ratios would make it impossible to bring in an aide, even to give a teacher a bathroom break. The revised regulations do away with the total capacity limit, while still requesting that adults should not move between cohorts of children and should be dedicated to certain groups. However, they acknowledge that “programs can establish their own staffing patterns based on their own unique needs.”

The department is now encouraging providers to offer flexible hours and stagger their drop-off and pickup times. But that may be unrealistic for family providers, who often work alone in their own homes, caring for multiple children, said Jynai McDonald, family child-care coordinator for SEIU Local 509. “When you talk about things like staggered pickup and drop-off times, that’s really hard for a provider who’s used to working alone and not having an assistant,” she said. And, she noted, the new requirements for hygiene and safety will require providers to swiftly isolate a child who becomes sick from the rest of the group. “How do you do all of that and take care of all the other children without having someone else?” she asked.

Here are the updated links for the regs.

English: https://eeclead.force.com/resource/1592066255000/Minimum_requirement

Spanish: https://eeclead.force.com/resource/1592256498000/Min_Req_Spanish

Re-Opening Costs Strain Child-Care System

State House News – At the Open Center for Children in Somerville, Executive Director Sarah Sian is working through the logistics of reopening the child-care center after being closed for months due to the pandemic.

When the center does re-open, Sian said Tuesday, she will only be able to welcome back half of the students in order to comply with state safety regulations. That means she will also be forfeiting 50 percent of the center’s monthly revenue while needing to also keep all of her staff to comply with the safety rules.

“We will begin operating again at a loss of tens of thousands of dollars every month. At that rate we will deplete our reserves and be at risk of closure in a few months,” Sian said Tuesday on a call with other providers and parents.

That’s where Congresswoman Katherine Clark comes in. Clark, who organized the call, said she was filing a bill in Congress to create a $10 billion grant fund to help day-care centers pay for facility upgrades needed to reopen safely after their COVID-19 closures.

Unlike funding from the CARES Act relief bill, the money in Clark’s bill would be available to both subsidized and private-pay centers. Child-care providers say federal support is critical to their ability to keep their businesses afloat under pandemic restrictions.

Clark said her Child Care is Infrastructure Act is meant to compliment the Child Care is Essential Act, which was filed by Democrats – including Clark and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren –  in May, to create a $50 billion fund to help day care centers pay for staff, personal protective equipment and expenses tied to resuming operations.

The Melrose Democrat said Tuesday that child care was an “already fragile” system that has been “pushed to the breaking point” by the pandemic. Citing the Council for a Strong America, she said businesses nationally lose $12.7 billion a year due to employees’ inability to find affordable and quality child care.

“We cannot let this system fall through the cracks and abandon women and children in the process,” Clark said. She added, “Child care is part of the bedrock of our economy and it is a public good.”

Gov. Charlie Baker gave child-care centers permission to reopen under Phase 2 of his strategy to gradually bring people back to work and resume consumer activities. While that phase began on June 8, many child-care centers are still working through the details of what it will take to reopen safely under the state’s guidelines, which were updated as recently as Friday.

National Retail Stabilization May Foreshadow Surge in Massachusetts

State House News – American retail sales surged in May after a dismal April, offering some encouraging news about the prospects of economic recovery and delivering a potential glimpse toward the near-term future in Massachusetts, where reviving public activity has lagged other parts of the nation.

Consumers spent $485.5 billion on retail and food services nationally last month, a 17.7 percent growth over the $412.6 billion spent in April, according to data published Tuesday by the U.S. Census Bureau.

May represented the first stretch of growth in sales after month-over-month declines of 8.2 percent in March and 14.7 percent in April, precipitous drops reflecting the widespread mandatory business closures aimed at limiting transmission of the highly infectious coronavirus.

Massachusetts did not start allowing establishments shuttered in response to the outbreak to start reopening until late May, and even today – in the first half of the Baker administration’s Phase 2 – operations are still limited and some activity remains off limits. Customers have been permitted to shop inside retail stores in Massachusetts for about a week now.

However, it’s possible that the national trends could take hold soon in Massachusetts. Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, said small businesses and state leaders will need to communicate to the public that “they can shop and dine locally safely.”

“For economic investment reasons, it is important for them to do so to support the future of their Main Streets and small businesses,” Hurst wrote in a Tuesday email to the News Service. “We all need to shop like jobs depend on it, because they do.”

The resurgence in May at the national level represented the largest one-month percent increase in the history of the data series.

Despite that growth, overall sales remained lower than before the pandemic hit the United States in full force and prompted a national recession. In February, consumers spent about $527.3 billion on retail and food services.

“The dramatic bounceback in retail sales last month is an extremely positive sign for the direction of the U.S. economy, but the declines over the past few months have squeezed many U.S. retailers,” Jaime Ward, head of retail finance for Citizens Bank, said in a statement.

“The Covid-19 pandemic accelerated a disruption of the retail sector that was already well under way as more consumers shifted from bricks and mortar stores to online shopping. Retailers that were able to stay open during the pandemic such as grocery stores and others that had invested in their e-commerce platforms have fared better than those who relied more on bricks and mortar stores for sales or were over-leveraged.”

Survey: Black Domestic Workers Face “Pandemic … Within Pandemic”

Fifty-nine percent of Black domestic workers in the Boston area have either lost their jobs or experienced fewer hours and a decline in pay during the COVID-19 crisis, according to newly released survey results, which also found that 52 percent of those workers received no safety clothing or personal protective equipment from their employers.

The survey ran from May 19 to June 6 and was conducted in English and Creole by We Dream in Black, a project of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the Institute for Policy Studies.

The results, along with findings from similar surveys conducted in New York City and Miami, were released Tuesday morning and shed light on the conditions facing Black nannies and private child-care providers, home-care and paid caregivers, and housecleaners.</