Boston's 'new normal'— masks when outside, overnight curfew

Mayor Walsh donned a face-mask made for him by Councillor Annissa Essaibi-George during a press conference on Sun., April 5. John Wilcox/City of Boston photo

Mayor Walsh this week asked all Bostonians to observe a nighttime curfew from 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. and to begin wearing face-coverings when they leave their homes as he warned of an imminent surge in COVID-19 cases in the city.

Boston had recorded 19 deaths— and more than 2,000 known positive cases of the disease— through Tuesday afternoon, with “many more” fatalities expected as the trajectory of reported cases continued to climb across the Commonwealth.

During a press conference outside Boston City Hall on Sunday, Walsh at first stood at a podium against a backdrop of people wearing masks, and talking about his plans to wear one made by City Councillor Annissa Essaibi-George. He donned the mask at the end of his remarks, in which he confirmed cases had risen 27 percent over the previous 48 hours. On Tuesday, he said that number had grown higher still— by 33 percent over a three-day period.

"That's what a surge looks like and we are still at the beginning of the surge," the mayor said. "I'm asking everyone and anyone to wear a mask covering their face when you leave your house," Walsh said. "That means shopping, going for a walk. That means working on a construction site or at work. Any essential workers, we're asking you to do the same. Anything outside your home."

Scarfs, bandanas, or any type of cloth may be used for a mask, Walsh said, and people should make sure they are able to breathe comfortably while wearing masks. The city is providing them to its employees who must work outside their homes, he said, and helping others to acquire them.
"We can all help slow the spread by covering our faces," he said. "It's important to understand that covering does not protect you from infection. Physical distancing is still one hundred percent necessary.

“You need to keep at least six feet away from other people even when you are wearing a face covering, but face coverings will help slow the spread of the virus. That's because up to about 25 percent of the people who are infected are not showing symptoms right now. Many are still out and about because they don't feel sick."

In its new guidance, the CDC says, "We now know from recent studies that a significant portion of individuals with coronavirus lack symptoms ('asymptomatic') and that even those who eventually develop symptoms ('pre-symptomatic') can transmit the virus to others before showing symptoms. This means that the virus can spread between people interacting in close proximity — for example, speaking, coughing, or sneezing — even if those people are not exhibiting symptoms."

In an update on Tuesday, Walsh told residents that —like many of them— he finds wearing a face-covering awkward at times. But, he added, it’s what has to be done to lower the risk of community spread.

“I’m having a hard time myself with it,” said Walsh, who told people to “use common sense and think about where you’re going. “If I’m walking down the street, when I pass my neighbors, I’ll put it on. When I come into City Hall and I’m walking around, outside of my office, I have it on. If I’m sitting outside on my porch with no one else around, I’ll take a break. But the mask is in my pocket all the time,” he said.

Underscoring the grim nature of Boston’s preparations, Walsh added that the city is prepared to work with its hospitals to expand the capacity of their morgues. The city will expedite any permits needed to increase mortuary space, he said. In New York City and elsewhere, officials have established temporary morgues and have used refrigerated trucks to temporarily store the dead.

"The next few weeks are going to be a test of our health care capacity like never before. We're going to see cases continue to climb," the mayor said on Tuesday afternoon. "And unfortunately, we're going to see a lot more loss of life. We expect hospitals will need to add their capacity to their morgues."

Walsh said that any operations associated with expanding morgue capacity "will not be visible to the public. These facilities are an unsettling reminder of how serious this emergency is. It underscores the urgent work we must continue to do to support and expand our medical capacity.”

The nighttime curfew— which Walsh has said is recommended, but won’t be enforced by police at this stage— kicked into effect on Monday night. It applies to all but essential workers, he said, noting that city streets have been “quiet,” and— when asked by a reporter— adding that arrests in the city of Boston have gone down “21 percent since the pandemic” began.

But, he said: “If anyone is in a situation where they do not feel safe at home: Call 911. Boston Police are here to help you.”

Of the city’s three branches of public safety response— Police, Fire, and EMS— Walsh said that less than 2 percent have tested positive for the coronavirus.

A Boston Public Health Commission analysis of available data through April 2 showed that certain neighborhoods in the city— including Dorchester and Mattapan— were shown to have a slightly higher rate of positive, known cases in Boston. Overall, as of that date, the average rate of positive cases citywide was 18.2 per 10,000 residents. In Dorchester, that rate was about 20 percent. East Boston and Hyde Park were two other neighborhoods with higher than average caseloads.

On Tuesday, Marty Martinez, the city’s Health and Human Services chief, responded to a question from the Reporter about whether the city is tracking more granular demographic information— including race and ethnicity— that can tell the public more about the distribution of cases within the city.

Martinez said that only about 50 percent of reported cases from hospitals and other sources included information about a patient’s race or ethnicity, which prevents a full picture about whether certain groups have been impacted at different rates than others.

But, he noted: “What we do know is that health disparities exist. The mayor has asked us to make sure we are looking at that data to see where we need to target our messaging.”

The 1,000-bed coronavirus field hospital planned for the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center in the city's Seaport district will be ready to open as soon as Thursday, Walsh said.

"When it opens later this week, the BCEC medical center will have 1,000 total beds, 6 acute care suites, a physical therapy suite, 52 nursing stations, [and] 48 bathroom facilities; 500 of these beds will be dedicated to patients struggling or homeless and the remaining 500 will be for other patients," the mayor said.

The first patients at the BCEC will likely be homeless Bostonians who test positive for COVID-19, he said. There are roughly 200 cases of COVID-19 among the city's homeless population, according to Martinez. Walsh added that the 250 beds planned for specialized care for homeless individuals at the Newton Pavilion, a former Boston Medical Center hospital building the state now owns, will be ready by this weekend or early next week.
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All events scheduled for the 50th anniversary Boston Pride Parade and Festival scheduled for June will be pushed back one year to prevent coronavirus transmission risks, organizers announced Tuesday. Boston Pride and city officials agreed on a new date of June 12, 2021 for the parade and festival.