Baker launches cautious phased reopening
Here’s what the governor’s plan will look like
MASSACHUSETTS TOOK INITIAL, cautious steps toward reopening on Monday, as Gov. Charlie Baker unveiled the first phase of a four-step process for restarting the state’s economy, which has nearly ground to a halt under restrictions imposed to thwart spread of the coronavirus.
The first phase begins immediately, but will be spread out over the next few weeks. Phases two and three will then follow at three-week intervals, assuming no outbreaks of COVID-19 that require a return to an earlier phase. The timing of the fourth and final phase, a “new normal” characterized by a vaccine and treatments, is unclear at this point.
“This is something no one has done before, shuttering and then reopening everything from a beachfront to a factory floor with standards in place to slow the spread of a highly contagious virus,” Baker said.
As the governor predicted last week, conservatives attacked him for moving too slowly in reopening the economy, while liberals attacked him for moving too fast in the face of a deadly virus that has killed more than 5,700 people.
Paul Craney, of the conservative Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, said the slow pace of reopening was disappointing given that many businesses have been closed already for more than 50 days. “A lot of people are fed up with this lockdown,” Craney said. “He [Baker] had to do something, but I do think he’s doing the bare minimum.”
On Monday, very little actually changed. Religious congregations were given the green light to reopen at 40 percent of capacity with social distancing restrictions in place. Manufacturing and construction businesses were allowed to reopen, but Baker acknowledged that most of those businesses are already open. He said some of those businesses will need to bring their operations into compliance with new industry-specific guidelines by May 25.
Hospitals and community health centers were also allowed starting Monday to provide some non-emergency care, including high-priority preventative care, pediatric care, and treatment for high-risk patients and conditions.
A week away, on May 25, hair salons and pet groomers will be allowed to reopen by appointment only. Car washes will reopen. Lab and office space outside of Boston can reopen, at up to 25 percent of capacity. Retailers, including recreational marijuana vendors, will be allowed to sell through curbside pickup or remote fulfillment only.
Outdoor recreational activities will also be allowed to open May 25, including beaches, parks, zoos, fishing, hunting, drive-in theaters, and some athletic fields and tennis courts. Additional health care providers will also be allowed to expand the non-emergency care options.
On June 1, Boston offices will be allowed to reopen.
Each phase will last for at least three weeks. When to advance to the next stage – or go back to an earlier one – will depend on six categories of public health data, including new cases as a percentage of new tests, deaths, COVID-19 patients in hospitals, healthcare system readiness, testing capacity, and contact tracing capabilities. The positive test rate and the testing capacity are the only ones positive at the moment and assigned a green light. The others are defined as in progress, a yellow light. None have a red light, meaning they are exhibiting negative trends.
Routine medical care, like dental cleanings and some elective procedures, will be allowed to resume.
Campgrounds, playgrounds, pools, and youth sports would resume in phase two. Children’s day camps could begin, although overnight camps could not yet resume until phase three.
Phase three – which would be no sooner than June 29 – envisions the opening of more entertainment businesses: casinos, bars, gyms, and museums. Again, there will be conditions imposed and capacity restrictions. Large venues and nightclubs would not be allowed to reopen until the final phase four.
At Cedardale Health and Fitness in Haverhill, co-owners Ada Veasey McKenzie and Carolyn Jackson have seen all their income disappear and 187 of their 200 employees laid off. Veasey McKenzie, who watched Baker’s State House press conference live, said the facility’s summer camp could open during phase two but the fitness center wouldn’t open until phase three. It was unclear how many people could use the facility’s five swimming pools. “We were a little disappointed in phase three for our indoor club,” she said.
As Baker previously announced, all businesses will have to abide by certain precautions related to social distancing, face coverings, hygiene, and cleaning. Individual businesses will also have to abide by industry-specific guidelines.
Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, who co-chaired the governor’s reopening advisory board, said companies would have to attest that they are complying with all the guidelines. She said enforcement would be handled by local boards of health, the Department of Public Health, and the Department of Labor Standards, responding to complaints from workers or consumers.
“The goal of enforcement is to educate and promote compliance,” she said. “We don’t want to have to fine.”
Baker has banned gatherings of larger than 10 people, and those will continue to be prohibited during the first phase of reopening, other than when explicitly allowed, for example in a worship service. The ban could be adjusted in future phases.
Baker deferred any decision on when daycares can reopen and whether summer school will happen. Polito said parents returning to work during phase one can tap into the emergency daycare system that is currently being used by medical and other essential workers. The emergency daycare system has 10,000 openings, of which only 35 percent are currently filled, Polito said.
Higher education institutions will be able to develop their own reopening plans, but Baker said no decisions have been made yet about reopening schools in the fall.
The MBTA’s service levels, currently at Saturday levels, are not changing during phase one. During phase two, additional service will be added on high-demand bus routes, ferry service will start to resume, additional trains will be added off-peak to the Fairmount commuter rail line, and more service will be added to the subway lines. The Blue Line will be restored to regular, pre-COVID levels.
In phase three, all operations will revert to pre-COVID levels assuming staffing availability exists. The one exception is commuter rail, where service may be tweaked to reflect changed travel patterns.Instead of a “stay at home” advisory, the Baker administration is issuing what it calls a “safer at home” advisory. Baker said the difference is minimal. People are still encouraged to limit their outside trips when possible and to avoid close contact activities, like contact sports and play dates. People who are over 65 or have underlying health conditions are encouraged to remain at home except for essential errands. Individuals will be required to wear face coverings when they cannot remain six feet apart from others.
Sarah Betancourt contributed to this story.