Coronavirus Emergency — Notes from the past 96 hours

MONDAY, MARCH 16, 2020

After a weekend of communication with experts and colleagues in state and local government, I want to take a few minutes to update constituents on some my efforts over the past few days in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

First, let me start with what's most important to convey to everyone: People need to avoid all unnecessary in-person interaction right now.

Unfortunately, too many people are uninformed or have been taking a caviler attitude toward this emergency situation. And given the reprehensible way Donald Trump has responded to the pandemic — it's easy to understand why.

To be clear, George Q. Daley, the Dean of Harvard Medical School, has called the outbreak of COVID-19, "the single most threatening pandemic to arise in the last century."

And because the United States has so far lacked the basic ability to deploy wide-scale testing, lots of people have the virus and don’t even know it yet. This leads to what experts call "silent chains of transmission," as asymptomatic people interact with others and spread the virus unknowingly.

Simply put, limiting the potential for further spreading of the virus is a matter of life and death. And the best way to limit the spread of the virus is to stay home as much as possible. 

In the following sections, I will provide updates on:

  1. Efforts we've been making to halt evictions and foreclosures for the duration of the emergency.
  2. Efforts we've been making to push Governor Baker to take stronger action on the state-level.
  3. Notes from a call I participated in last night with local officials and a leading local expert.

Halting evictions for the duration of the Coronavirus Emergency

When I last posted to this blog, on Wednesday, March 11, Governor Baker had declared a State of Emergency in the Commonwealth, and I was focusing a lot of my attention on one particular aspect of the pending crisis — legislation to halt all evictions and foreclosures for the duration of the emergency.

A moratorium on evictions and foreclosures and related legal proceedings will protect public health and safety by keeping vulnerable residents sheltered, by reducing crowding within the courts and in shelters, and by helping to limit further disruptions and additional strain on our already-fractured social safety net.

Throughout the day on Thursday and well into Friday morning, I worked closely with House Chair of the Joint Committee on Housing, Rep. Kevin Honan, as well as several legal practitioners and housing justice advocates from City Life/Vida Urbana, Lawyers for Civil Rights, Greater Boston Legal Services, and the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau on the drafting of new legislation, HD.4935, An Act Providing for a Moratorium on Evictions and Foreclosures During the COVID19 Emergency.

We filed our bill at noontime on Friday, and followed it up with an urgent letter to the Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Housing Court as well as a letter to the Cheif Justice of the Trial Courts. More about this effort is here on my State House blog

By Saturday, we received word back that the Chief Justice of the Housing Court had responded to our advocacy by issuing an order that will postpone eviction hearings until at least April 21. And the Trial Courts, which also handle some evictions via District Court, issued a similar order.

These are very important steps, and they were hailed as victories by housing justice groups. Meanwhile, we continue to build support for our new bill, which would go even further by limiting foreclosures and limiting execution on cases that have gone to judgement. As of this morning, our bill has 35 co-sponsors and we are in conversations with House Leadership over the need to advance it.

It's becoming clear our goal must be to avoid the collapse of the healthcare system. To do that, we need to keep our distance from each other and limit further transmission of the virus.

Having worked with others to secure the immediate goal of halting evictions, my focus on Saturday turned toward the broader scope of this situation — and for the past 48 hours, as the awful picture of the situation in Italy became more clear, I have been largely focused on a single goal — avoiding the collapse of our local healthcare system.

That may sound very stark, but the truth is, that is what's at stake right now.

We are living in a national hotspot for COVID-19 cases — and we have already allowed the virus to spread all over the country — and if we do not take drastic action immediately, the epidemiologists say our healthcare system could be completely overwhelmed in a matter of weeks. 

Late Saturday afternoon, photos emerged from South Boston showing large groups of people queued up in long lines to enter crowded pubs. For myself and many others who saw these photos, this was very alarming, as it went against all of the advice we've been getting to practice social distancing.

Meanwhile, Governor Baker was continuing to resist our calls to close all schools in the Commonwealth.

Yesterday at 11 am, the Governor was on live television and made it clear he did not plan to order everyone to shelter in place — and then a few minutes later, he said he would not order all schools closed — and then he also went on to say that we may not achieve the objective of social distancing without making people shelter in place. I took this as emblematic of what has too often been an illogical, chaotic, and insufficient response from our state’s chief executive.

In order to push the Governor to close all the schools and impose stronger social distancing requirements, I joined with Somerville City Councilor Ben Ewen-Campen to help draft an online petition and worked to promote it throughout the day yesterday. The petition garnered nearly 15,000 signatures and got a lot of attention online.

By last night, it appeared the Governor was heeding our collective message, as he announced some very important and positive steps:

  • All K-12 schools will be closed for at least 3 weeks.
  • Starting tomorrow, all dine-in restaurants will be closed. Restaurants will still be allowed to provide delivery service.
  • No gatherings of 25 people or more.
  • No visitors allowed in nursing homes.
  • All hospital visitors will be screened. Check with your local hospital for more restrictions and information.
  • All non-essential surgeries cancelled as of Wednesday.
  • Unemployment claim requirements will be relaxed and eligibility expanded.
  • Expedited unemployment claim processing and payments for new clients. 
  • Additional facilities, including pharmacies, are authorized to produce hand sanitizer.
  • No cost-sharing for COVID-19 related testing.
  • Immediate access to tele-medicine; insurers are required to cover telehelth services related to COVID-19 testing and treatment.
  • Launch of 2-1-1 call-in number for 24/7 information and referrals.

As always, if you have any questions about these steps or other matters of concern, please do not hesitate to contact me or my staff.

I understand people may look at some of the Governor's latest actions or see my suggestions to avoid in-person interactions and wonder what it will mean for them — how they will pay bills, make rent, and provide for their families?

To be sure, the duty will be on us in state and federal government to redress the many economic hardships that are now being caused by the pandemic and these necessary actions. We need to provide direct assistance to support all in need. In addition, we cannot let government forget about the rights and dignity of all people during this time of crisis, including the elderly, the immigrant community, the homeless and the incarcerated.

Overall, I am fairly pleased with the progress we made over the course of the day yesterday. While I was critical of the Governor for not taking bolder action sooner, by last night I was starting to feel more encouraged by these latest announcements.

"From what we've seen in other countries, there are no excessive precautions."

Last night, I participated in a conference call organized by Somerville Mayor Joe Curtatone and jjoined by Cambridge City Manager Louie DePasquale, Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui, and over 100 other local officials from around Eastern Massachusetts.

The call featured a presentation from Dr. Alex Vespignani, Professor of Theoretical Condensed Matter and Biological Physics at Northeastern University. Here are some of the notes I took while on the call with Dr. Vespignani:

  • In China, 850 million people have been placed under restriction, including the largest quarantine in human history. In addition, China built two new hospitals over the course of ten days. Because it's unclear whether the United States is willing or able to take such strong measures, we cannot be lulled into thinking our outcome will be no worse than the outcome in China. The epidemic is now declining in China, but the disease has spread to other countries, leading the World Health Organization to declare COVID-19 a pandemic as of last week.
  • In Italy, the discussion over "what to do" dragged on for days, allowing the virus to spread exponentially. Italy had 380 cases as of February 26th. Then there were 10,590 cases of as March 11th. Today, there are over 20,000 cases and large parts of the healthcare system are overwhelmed, with doctors having to choose who gets care and who doesn't based on who has the best chance of survival. Now, there are some 60 million people on lockdown in Italy.
  • Here in Massachusetts, there are now approximately 164 known cases. Right now we are considered a "hotspot" for coronavirus in the United States due to our connectivity with the rest of the world. We have more cases than most US states, but not as many as New York or Washington state. Meanwhile, there are "potential silent chains of transmission" going on that we do not know about.
  • This epidemic has a reproduction rate of 2.5 — this means the number of cases could double every 3 days.
  • This epidemic threatens to overwhelm our healthcare system; this happens when there are not enough beds, ICU units, or ventilators. Doctors are forced to go into disaster mode or triage. Avoiding that catastrophic outcome is why we must focus on "flattening the curve," or keeping the peak number of cases within the limited capacity of our healthcare system. 
  • Every week that is lost makes it harder and harder to contain the spread of the virus. When and if we commit to the strongest actions to limit the spread of the virus, we can still expect the number of cases to continue to go up for another 2 to 4 weeks until we reach the peak of the epidemic. 
  • The modeling shows that we are on track for about 10,000 cases in Massachusetts by the end of this month. It's only a model based on incomplete information, so that number may end up being higher or lower.
  • We have approximately 1,500 ICU beds in the Boston area. Most of them are typically utilized under normal circumstances.
  • There is still an awful lot that we do not know about this virus and the disease it causes.
  • This looks like it is going to be a major problem for months, not weeks.
  • "From what we've seen in other countries, there's no excessive precautions."

Clearly, we have a lot of work to do right now — and personally, I’ve cleared my schedule and put aside my other goals for the coming months. Right now the most important thing we can do is to get everyone to appreciate the nature of the threat we are facing. Once we are all on the same page, we will have a better chance of mitigating the worst impacts. It's too bad we're not getting any help from the Occupant of the White House.

Today, I will be working to respond to messages we've been receiving from constituents, advocates, and local businesses while continuing to stay in contact with my colleagues in state and local government. Tomorrow, I will be calling in to WGBH's Boston Public Radio program to discuss the eviction moratorium, and then in the afternoon I'm participating in a conference call with other legislators and Governor Baker to discuss our response to the emergency.

Please do not hesitate to reach out if you have any questions or concerns, and again, please do what you can to limit the spread of the virus while also looking out for friends, family, co-workers and neighbors.

Yours in service,

Rep. Mike Connolly

P.S. For the latest information, please continue to see these official sources:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH): 

City of Somerville Novel Coronavirus Preparedness and Information:

Cambridge Public Health Department COVID-19 Information: