As Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker looks to reopen the state’s economy amid the coronavirus pandemic, questions remain about which industries will be allowed to resume operations first and what restrictions will be in place once they do.
For city and town leaders throughout the state, there are a number of uncertainties surrounding how businesses will be able to operate amid the public health crisis, though they have received hints from the state on what the initial steps may look like.
The governor announced in late April that a 17-member advisory board, led by Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito and Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Mike Kennealy, would create a four-phased plan for reopening the state.
The advisory board is set to deliver more details about the plan on Monday, May 18, the same day that Baker’s order closing non-essential businesses is set to expire.
The commonwealth’s plan may be similar to those of other states, which have spaced out the waves of their reopening four weeks apart, Baker said. The governor has yet to lay out specific dates for the state’s plan.
So far, the advisory board has fielded reopening pitches from business leaders throughout the commonwealth, from retailers to recreational marijuana operators to dentists, and last week, the governor gave the OK to golf courses to reopen with guidelines and restrictions.
Officials across Massachusetts were on calls ahead of Monday’s announcement with Polito and members of the COVID response team to ask questions and express concerns about the advisory board’s reopening plan.
In an interview, Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz told MassLive the advisory board has been in “marathon hearings” with industry groups and municipal officials like himself.
“We’ve seen an outline of what it looks like,” Narkewicz said. “Obviously, there’s some key information, like what the timelines are and what the health metrics are and obviously what institutions and businesses are included in each phase of the process, that we’re still waiting for.”
Narkewicz and other municipal leaders told MassLive they have seen the basic framework of the reopening plan. The plan’s specifics have yet to be released, though.
Four phases of reopening
The reopening plan’s four phases are named “Start,” “Cautious,” “Vigilant” and “The New Normal,” respectively.
In the “start” phase, limited businesses will be able to reopen with severe restrictions. In the second phase, additional industries, previously designated as non-essential, are expected to resume operations with restrictions and capacity limits.
The “vigilant” phase will see more businesses begin to reopen with guidance, and in the fourth phase, the development of a vaccine or a recommended treatment for the viral respiratory infection is expected to allow for the start of a “new normal.”
If the state sees a rise in cases of the illness as well as hospitalizations, according to Baker, the commonwealth could return to an earlier phase of the reopening plan and issue new business restrictions.
Businesses and activities that provided needed services, per Baker’s non-essential business closure order in March, will continue to run.
“Certain businesses and activities with a lower risk of COVID-19 transmission will open in earlier phases,” the outline of the reopening plan says. “Decisions and timing will be influenced by public health metrics for when the first phase of reopening begins, as well as when it is safe to move into concurrent phases.”
The advisory board is developing detailed timelines on business re-openings “industry by industry.” The plan will consist of guidelines about how businesses will be able to operate in the environment of the pandemic, including advisories about where customers can go in physical spaces as well as safety and cleaning protocols.
But those guidelines have not yet been released. Until details about reopening protocols are made available to businesses, multiple city officials MassLive spoke with said they do not see how local and state leaders will be able to implement the first phase of the board’s plan.
“You wouldn’t be able to initiate a phase one without those guidelines,” Narkewicz said. “If you’re a business owner and you have to make changes to your space – you have to add plexiglass shields and make modifications – that’s going to take some time.”
The state – with consultation from the advisory board and feedback from industry, labor and community groups – has already developed a list of mandatory workplace safety standards to stave off the spread of the virus as businesses begin to reopen. The standards include various social distancing, hygiene, staffing, cleaning and disinfecting requirements.
What has not been made public yet is the advisory board’s “Sector Specific Safety Protocols and Best Practices” that will detail how particular industries should operate after reopening.
“The governor and the advisory board are really in the driver’s seat for that,” Narkewicz said.
In the wake of the public health crisis, Narkewicz has been speaking with business owners and managers as well as the Northampton Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Northampton Association about how restaurants and other businesses can abide by social distancing requirements as the state reopens.
Boston Mayor Marty Walsh has similarly been in talks with community and business leaders as well as the state reopening advisory board. Walsh’s office will not be lifting the city’s emergency declaration next week or in the near future, though, the mayor noted.
“The same applies for our guidelines for physical, social distancing and face covering,” Walsh said during a press conference Friday. “I know that many people are feeling worn down after living through two months of this. I know that everyone is deeply concerned about the economic impacts.
“I share those concerns, but the fastest and the most sustainable way out of this situation is a healthy way.”
A recent survey of Boston residents found about 10% had COVID-19 antibodies and an additional 3% tested positive for the virus despite not presenting symptoms.
The mayor of Boston said that he wants construction to start again, retailers to reopen and restaurants to be filled, but out of safety concerns, the city cannot “jump right back into it.”
In Worcester, construction is set to resume as soon as Monday on Polar Park, the new home of the Worcester Red Sox being built in the city’s Kelley Square neighborhood.
“It’s the right time to begin to bring essential construction projects back,” City Manager Edward Augustus Jr. said, describing Polar Park as a “critical economic development project.”
Augustus ordered construction on the stadium halted April 1 as concerns regarding the coronavirus outbreak grew. On Sunday, he announced construction projects like Polar Park and South High School could continue. Companies first had to lay out plans on how they would operate to ensure safety on the site amid the pandemic.
Augustus said that the city is still working out what long-term impact the delay will have on the project, but he is confident it’s possible to make up for the lost time. Construction on Polar Park began in July 2019, with steel beginning to go into place in March.
Despite the public health concerns, Business leaders throughout the state are thinking about ways to work amid the outbreak, and for those working in the food industry in several communities, outdoor dining is being considered.
Creating outdoor dining spaces by expanding out onto the sidewalk by potentially closing down specific streets to vehicles to allow for table space is being considered in numerous communities across the state.
With the expansion comes regulatory challenges. Restaurants without a permit to seat patrons in outdoor dining settings – restaurants without a patio, namely – will need an additional permit.
Then there’s serving alcohol outdoors.
Chris Russell, executive director of the Springfield Business Improvement District, working with other business leaders in the state, is seeking approval from the commonwealth to allow restaurants that serve alcohol to be able to go directly to their municipal governments to get approval to serve patrons outdoors instead of having to get the OK from the state Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission.
Getting approval from the state is a step that can take up to eight to 12 weeks under normal circumstance, according to Russell. That process may take longer due to the pandemic.
“We’re very hopeful they’re going to allow that,” Russell told MassLive. “It’s not decided on yet, but it’s certainly being considered.”
There are a variety of other industries and services public officials across the state have questions about in terms of their inclusion in the rollout of the reopening plan, including municipal government agencies, recreational marijuana shops, daycares and summer camps.
City and town government
On municipal buildings, MassLive has learned that local government buildings will soon be partially reopened to allow for additional local services, by scheduled appointment.
In Springfield, Mayor Domenic Sarno shared tentative plans about how the city would reopen its municipal offices in accordance with state and federal guidelines.
Pending the governor’s announcement on May 18, Springfield city employees could be required to undergo temperature checks and wear face coverings to access community facilities.
Municipal government operations could also reopen to the public by appointment only, and all city offices may have proper public health and safety measures and equipment installed in them.
“I felt it was important to let our residents know this will be a cautious reopening of municipal government and we all have to continue to do our part in safe social distancing, wearing masks, using common sense,” Sarno said. “I look forward to providing additional direction once my cabinet and I have had time to review the Governor’s Guidance Report on Reopening Government.”
How cannabis companies may reopen in Massachusetts has also become a hot-button issue.
Multiple representatives from the recreational marijuana industry met last week with the advisory board to pitch their reopening plan. The Commonwealth Dispensary Association has noted it is planning to implement safety measures based on national best practices and input from its 38 members.
“We look forward to safely reopening the Massachusetts economy in close collaboration with the Administration,” David Torrisi, president of the CDA, said in a statement.
Recreational marijuana shops have been closed since March 24 after they were deemed non-essential by the governor, though medicinal cannabis is still allowed to be sold. To date, tax revenue from marijuana sales in the state was estimated to be in the tens of millions of dollars for fiscal year 2020, according to Massachusetts Department of Revenue data.
The lack of excise tax revenue from marijuana sales – which has become a significant portion of Northampton’s general fund operating budget – is a concern for Narkewicz. NETA, the community’s sole recreational shop, was the first recreational cannabis shop to open in the state.
Several city mayors across the state, including Narkewicz, recently sent a letter to the governor urging Baker to include the recreational marijuana industry in the first phase of the reopening plan. He told MassLive it would be prudent to do so as cannabis shops provide significant revenue for the state and municipalities.
The city of Worcester was getting roughly $140,000 a quarter in tax revenue from the recreational marijuana shop Good Chemistry, according to Jacob Sanders, the city’s director of intergovernmental and municipal affairs.
Officials in the community do not yet know exactly how the public crisis will impact cannabis sales in fiscal year 2021.
“It takes a long time for these shops to open and this just will add to the delays, which are expecting and it’s just like any other business that’s struggling right now, trying to make it through this unprecedented time,” Sanders told MassLive.
Implementing limitations on recreational marijuana businesses’ customer bases may prove effective as the industry reopens, municipal officials have said. For instance, at the beginning of the reopening, it may be that just Massachusetts residents can purchase from recreational shops and that curbside delivery is only allowed.
“I am hopeful that that will be one of the industries that will be able to reopen during the first phase,” Narkewicz said. “In many areas, it makes sense.”
Details on how daycares and summer camps will operate once Massachusetts gets the ball rolling on reopening will also be needed. Working parents will need child care services when they begin to return to their jobs, officials have noted.
The governor’s closure of non-emergency child care programs will not expire until June 29, while his order closing non-essential businesses is set to end on May 18. Community leaders have told MassLive this discrepancy needs to be resolved as the state works on its reopening plan.
Summer camps remain an unanswered question for parents who rely on local programs for child care when schools are closed and operators who rely on children attending to pay their workers.
From the governor’s office to small Massachusetts communities, a consistent message has been shared: Reopen cautiously to curb the spread of the virus.
“I want to make sure that we have all the data we need when we make this decision,” Baker said on Wednesday, addressing concerns that next Monday would be too early for parts of the economy to reopen. “There are a lot of folks in the public health community who are very concerned that we need to go slow on this because they’re worried about a re-ignition of the virus.”
In Georgia and other states that quickly reopened, a spike in COVID-19 cases has arisen.
Despite the uncertainty over the rate at which the virus is slowing, Baker said on Tuesday that May’s numbers have been an improvement over April’s. He said the percentage of daily positive tests is declining, and that officials are seeing fewer deaths amid efforts to expand testing.
At the end of March throughout April, Baker said the rate of positive test results varied between 20 and 30 percent. It’s now “in the vicinity of 10%,” he added.