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State Extends COVID-19 Capacity Limits for Two More Weeks

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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BOSTON — Gov. Charlie Baker on Thursday announced that the commonwealth will extend restrictions on businesses that went into effect on Dec. 26 through at least Jan. 24 in an effort to stem Massachusetts' second surge of COVID-19 cases.
 
"Since Dec. 26, the commonwealth has had statewide restrictions in place to pause activity and reduce mobility statewide," Baker said. "These restrictions include reduced capacity for nearly all industries and reduced gathering sizes. It was put in place, in addition to other existing orders, like the 10 p.m. stay-at-home advisory and early closures for businesses earlier this fall.
 
"All together, these restrictions are set to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and lower the strain on our health care system while maintaining open businesses and keeping our schools open. As we continue to see a strain on our health-care system and respond to the holiday spike, today we're announcing the capacity and gathering limit restrictions will be in place for at least another two weeks."
 
Those restrictions were set to expire on Sunday, Jan. 10. Instead, they will remain in place for at least another two weeks, restricting capacity limits to 25 percent for most businesses and capping gatherings at 25 people outside and 10 people inside, Baker said.
 
The limits do not apply to K through 12 education, Baker emphasized.
 
"School districts can continue to bring kids back to the classroom, as the science shows clearly that schools can and are right now holding in-person class safely, even in communities with high transmission rates," he said.
 
While the continued restrictions on commerce aim to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus, the state took other steps Thursday to help hospitals deal with strain created by the increased spread already seen in the wake of the end-of-year holidays.
 
The state's seven-day average of positivity in COVID-19 testing stands at 8.25 percent, and the number of patients hospitalized for the illness is about 2,400 — both well above the numbers seen just before Thanksgiving. And hospital capacity limits are being "stretched to their limits," Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders said.
 
The commonwealth is not yet doing what it did in the spring and closing hospitals to outpatient services, Sudders said. But it is taking other steps to address the health care system's capacity issues.
 
"Hospitals must cease all non-essential elective invasive procedures, such as orthopedic procedures and dermatology," she said.
 
"[And] effective today, hospitals with severe capacity constraints can request an exemption to the state's mandated ICU nurse-to-patient ratios. Unlike in the spring, this is not an across the board exemption. It's hospital or hospital-system specific."
 
In order to receive the exemption, a hospital or system must have fallen below 20 percent capacity for a seven-day period and must testify in writing that its non-essential elective invasive procedures have ceased, Sudders said.
 
Sudders also shared some encouraging news on the health-care front, announcing that the commonwealth has stockpiled personal protective equipment "sufficient … to support medical institutions if their supplies ran low throughout 2021."
 
"The Department of Public Health has issued updated comprehensive guidance to clarify the PPE that health-care personnel use in the clinical care areas," she said. "The guidance makes clear that the best practice regarding the use of N-95 respirators and alternatives for health-care personnel caring for individuals presumed or confirmed to be infected with COVID-19.
 
"Due to improvement in the health-care supply chain of facemasks, DPH has modified earlier guidance and supports the extended use of facemasks for no more than one shift or one day … ."
 
As for businesses impacted by the two-week extension of the more restrictive capacity limits, the Baker Administration coupled that news with the promotion of small-business grants through the Massachusetts Growth Capital Corp.
 
"Our administration has made $668 million in state funding available for businesses impacted by the pandemic," Baker said. "Over $120 million in grants have gone out the door for those who previously applied, and applications for the new grant program are now open."
 
Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito stressed that small businesses who want to apply for those grants through the state's empoweringsmallbusiness.org website have a Jan. 15 deadline.
 
"We know that the sacrifices of our business owners have been many," Secretary of Housing and Economic Developent Mike Kennealy said. "And the challenges are far from over. We thank you for your patience and for your commitment to your customers, your employees and public safety.
 
"Support will continue to come from our administration, and we'll continue to work with our federal partners to get the new resources approved by Congress here to Massachusetts and to the people and enterprises who need them the most."

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Mount Greylock Negotiating to Modify COVID-19 Agreement with Union

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Mount Greylock Regional School Committee continues to hear from parents concerned about the lack of in-person instruction for most children in the PreK-12 district even as the panel works to modify the agreement with its unions to allow just that.
 
The committee held an executive session after last Thursday's meeting to discuss strategies with respect to collective bargaining with its union personnel. And Superintendent Jason McCandless said on Friday that he has asked the committee to look at some dates for a special meeting to consider a revised memorandum of understanding with the Mount Greylock Educational Association.
 
The next regular meeting of the School Committee is Feb. 11, but it was clear from the public comments at the start of last week's meeting that some in the community are unwilling to wait until the middle of next month for a revision to the MOU that allowed classes to begin in September.
 
The committee was reminded that a petition calling for in-person instruction received more than 200 signatures in 36 hours, and that those families continue to be frustrated with the district's move from hybrid instruction to fully remote learning in early December.
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