Walsh may move slower than Baker on reopening

Says reopening offices at quarter of capacity is too much

STATE HOUSE NEWS SERVICE

WITH THE STATE’S economy beginning to wake up on Tuesday, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said he has no plans right now to lift the city’s curfew and worries that allowing offices to reopen at a quarter of normal capacity next month might be “too much” to start, drawing one of the brightest lines between the city and state approaches to reopening.

Walsh stressed the importance of moving cautiously in the capital city into this first phase of jump-starting the economy. The mayor outlined a more deliberate approach to resuming construction activities in Boston, and said the city was working on a plan that could be ready in the next week or two revolving around outdoor dining once restaurants are allowed to reopen.

The mayor spoke outside City Hall on Tuesday for the first time since Gov. Charlie Baker detailed his four-phase strategy to reopen the Massachusetts economy after two months of being mostly shut down due to fears over the spread of COVID-19.

The mayor said he thought Baker took a “thoughtful approach” to reopening, but differed with the governor over the reopening of offices downtown. The governor said offices in Massachusetts can bring 25 percent of their workforce back starting next Monday everywhere except Boston, where activity can resume on June 1.

“I’m personally not comfortable with the 25 percent, to be quite honest with you, and we’re looking at it now. I just had a conversation before I came down about what the number would be, but I think 25 percent on the first day would be too much,” Walsh said, noting that some large companies like State Street have said they won’t reopen offices right away.

The mayor said that Boston is unique in that it is the third most densely populated major city in the country, and roughly doubles in population size every day as people commute in to work. The city’s diversity and identity as a hub of tourism, higher education and health care also creates unique challenges, he said.

“Overall, the data tells us that we’re moving in the right direction on new cases, on positive tests and in hospitalization for about three weeks here now, and that is good news. But every day the trend also gives us reason for caution in the terms of how gradual it is, in how necessary our precautions have been and how much potential there is for new outbreaks if we don’t keep doing the right thing,” Walsh said.

The city of roughly 700,000 people has had 11,958 cases of COVID-19 and 587 deaths attributed to the disease. The most recent report showed a daily uptick of 92 positive cases and 10 deaths. Boston’s positive test rate over the past week of 13.9 percent is slightly higher than the state’s overall 10.2 percent rolling seven-day average, but it has been trending downward.

The first phase of Baker’s reopening plan began Tuesday with manufacturing, construction and houses of worship allowed to reopen under strict hygiene, capacity and social distancing guidelines.

In Boston, Walsh said construction on schools, hospitals, smaller residential projects and open-air construction will begin this week with contractors required to submit COVID-19 safety plans before returning to work, while all other work allowed by the state won’t resume until next Tuesday, after Memorial Day.

The city is also working with employers to develop more specific guidance and support structures to help businesses bring workers safely back to office buildings throughout the city on June 1, but Walsh said he may reduce the initial capacity to lower than 25 percent.

In addition to the risk of viral transmission with more people commuting into Boston for work, Walsh said he worried that the return of 25 percent of the office workforce to the city could overwhelm the city’s child care capacity as day care centers remain closed under the governor’s order.

As for churches, Walsh said choir singing “should not happen” and house of worship should not feel compelled to reopen if they can’t do it safely. The governor’s protocols require masks and strict social distancing between households seated in places of worship, but Walsh urged older residents vulnerable to COVID-19 to stay away for now.

“I want to speak directly to seniors today, including my mother and aunt and uncles. I know for many of you your place of worship is the heart of your community, and you’re missing it. I want you to hold off,” Walsh said.

Baker on Monday described his reopening plan as a balancing act between protecting public health and the health of the economy, on which families depend to pay their rents and mortgages and buy food. Walsh reinforced that tension on Tuesday, saying he wouldn’t do anything to risk the health of Boston residents, but also talking about his concern when he sees long-time city establishments like Stella restaurant in the South End closing for good.

“We have to get it right because I don’t think we can afford a second closedown,” Walsh said.

Restaurants won’t be allowed to open until the second phase of Baker’s plan, which won’t be for at least three weeks, depending on the public health trends. But Walsh said City Hall was working on a plan to help restaurants be ready for outdoor dining, if possible, and did not rule out closing down portions of city streets to make space for tables and chairs.

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State House News Service
The city’s barber shops and hair salons will also begin to reopen on Monday, and though Walsh said he feared those businesses, as well as churches, mosques and synagogues, could be the most at-risk for outbreaks as they reopen, he did not rule out a trim for himself.

“I certainly would like to get a haircut,” Walsh said. “I haven’t gotten one in awhile, so the answer to the question is you’ll see me Monday.”