Amid mounting pressure to reopen the state’s dormant economy, officials are warning that with COVID-19, caution remains the watchword.
Gov. Charlie Baker this week announced a strategy for gradually reopening businesses, though the timing has yet to be decided. With the Memorial Day weekend just over a week away, business and civic leaders on the Lower Cape are all ears.
An economic reopening advisory board is expected to issue its full report Monday, but Baker’s plan calls for a four-phased approach to allow certain businesses, services and activities to resume, while limiting a resurgence of new COVID-19 cases. Current “essential services” will continue operating, but in the first phase, limited new businesses will be able to resume operations under strict, mandatory workplace safety standards. The businesses included in the first phase are likely to be ones that don’t involve intensive interactions with the public. In each of the subsequent phases, more industries will be added, with new rules. The fourth phase “is what we would call the ‘new normal,’” Baker said.
Public health metrics like the number of new COVID cases and hospital statistics will help determine when the first phase of reopening begins, as well as when it is safe to move into concurrent phases.
“Keep in mind, this is a disease we’re still learning about across the globe,” Baker said Monday. The plan needs to be flexible, and regulators need to be prepared for setbacks, he added. Progress “depends almost entirely on everybody playing their roles” by continuing to socially distance, stay home when they are ill, wear masks in public, and take other precautions. “This is no time to quit,” Baker said.
Helping advise the state’s reopening advisory board is a similar task force representing Cape Cod businesses, community leaders and health care providers.
“The aim of the Cape Cod Reopening Task Force is twofold: to save lives and livelihoods,” said State Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro. A key goal of the group is to make sure the public receives uniform, consistent information about the reopening and the new rules.
State Rep. Sarah Peake, D-Provincetown, said the task force aims to help the region speak with one voice when it comes to reopening strategies. “It is a much easier process to close down the economy than to reopen it,” she said. “Reopening this economy will depend on how this virus behaves. Our decisions need to be driven by science and data.”
Among those on the task force are Harwich resident and Bourne Town Administrator Anthony Schiavi; Chatham Selectmen Chairman Shareen Davis, Cape Cod National Seashore Superintendent Brian Carlstrom, and Cape Cod Healthcare CEO Mike Lauf.
Last Thursday, Lauf announced that Cape Cod Healthcare is on track to lose $74 million before the fiscal year ends, because the hospitals have canceled elective procedures and reduced outpatient services in order to respond to COVID-19. To meet that projected revenue shortfall, Lauf announced that approximately 600 full-time equivalent employees would be furloughed for four weeks, starting May 10.
“We truly hoped by May 4 that we would be out of this crisis and begin to be able to open our economy,” Lauf said. He praised the “selfless” employees who drove the response to the pandemic, who worked with public health officials and “really stopped what could’ve been a catastrophic event on the Cape.” But in so doing, “we have purposely driven 40 percent of our revenues away from us,” Lauf said.
Cape Cod Healthcare’s “historic” $74 million loss comes despite a $26 million grant from the federal government, $7 million of which the company may have to repay, Lauf said. “I hope governments at both the federal and state level understand the heavy toll that independent community health systems like ours are facing while being there for our communities,” he said.
Cape Cod Hospital RN Shannon Sherman, who heads the Massachusetts Nurses Association local at the hospital, called the decision callous and short-sighted.
“We have been risking our lives and our families lives every day for our community and this health care system, and to now have our CEO, who has never cared for a patient, or made any of the sacrifices we have made, is now implementing staffing cuts that will threaten the safety of our patients — it is nothing short of disgusting,” she said.
Harwich Fire Chief Norman Clarke Jr. said he has concerns about the state of the Cape’s health care infrastructure, including the decision to shutter the 94-bed field hospital set up at Joint Base Cape Cod just a few weeks ago.
“The number of calls my fellow chiefs and I are concerned about are not COVID, but COVID-related. We’re seeing a substantial increase in the number of people who are very sick, even dying because we guess they are too afraid to ask for help or go to the hospital. We’ve got to see that trend stop,” Clarke told Cyr in a teleconference on Friday.
Cape Cod Healthcare met the challenge of responding to COVID-19, Cyr said. “Look at other hospital systems across the state. Many did furloughs six or seven weeks ago. Cape Cod Hospital was one of the last hospitals in the state to go,” he said. “It’s purely a function of revenue, they’re losing millions of dollars a week. It’s important for people to access healthcare when they need it.”
Asked Monday about when hospitals would again be allowed to perform elective surgeries, Gov. Baker had no firm answer. Emergency orders designed to facilitate the pandemic response remain in place, and to get to the next phase of the health care response, “I think there’s a whole bunch of conversations we need to have,” he said.
On Tuesday, the Baker-Polito Administration filed a supplemental budget bill authorizing $1 billion in spending necessary to cover incurred and expected costs during the COVID-19. Funds are expected to come largely from the federal government, and will help pay for personal protective equipment, pay increases for front-line workers, field hospitals, National Guard pay, contact tracing, childcare for essential workers, and housing authority expenses.
Meanwhile, Chatham, Harwich, Orleans and five other Lower Cape towns are applying for a regional Community Development Block Grant from the state’s Department of Housing and Community Development. The highly competitive grant would help pay for rental and mortgage assistance and forgivable loans for small businesses struggling to operate during the pandemic.
William F. Galvin contributed to this story.