Phased Economic Reopening Begins, But Virus Precautions Still Critical

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: COVID-19

Cape Task Force: Expect Muted Summer Season

With COVID-19 numbers starting to improve, the state took the first steps toward reactivating Massachusetts’ mothballed economy this week.

On Monday, Gov. Charlie Baker announced the start of a careful process of reopening shuttered businesses and restarting public activities, with the goal of reaching a “new normal” by the end of July. But for that schedule to hold, COVID-19 cases need to continue declining, which means people need to continue maintaining social distancing, washing their hands, wearing masks, and taking other personal precautions.

Essential businesses that are already open have until May 25 to comply with new safety standards. But as of May 18, manufacturing and construction businesses can resume operations provided that they comply with the requirements posted at www.mass.gov/reopening. Churches can also reopen under special guidelines, though they are encouraged to hold services outdoors. Gatherings of 10 people or more are still prohibited. On May 25, offices, hair salons and certain other businesses can resume service under the new rules, as can beaches, parks, drive-in theaters, fishing, boating, and most other outdoor activities. As of next Monday, retailers can provide curbside pickup and remote order fulfillment.

“This effort will hinge fundamentally on personal responsibility,” Baker said Monday. If people don’t continue to wear masks when they cannot stay six feet away from others, if they do not frequently wash their hands and frequently-touched surfaces, and if they do not stay home when feeling ill, the reopening plan will stall. But if all goes well, each of the four phases of recovery will last three weeks. By that schedule, Phase 2 would begin on June 8.

At that time, retailers, restaurants and lodging establishments would be allowed to open provided they comply with the new requirements posted by the state. There would be an expansion of health care services and outdoor activities, and state officials would revisit the prohibition of gatherings of 10 or more people.

In Phase 3, which begins no earlier than June 29, bars, museums, fitness clubs and all other business activities except for nightclubs and large venues would resume operations, and youth sports with games and tournaments would be allowed to resume with limited crowd sizes. The final phase, happening no earlier than July 20, would represent the full resumption of all activities under new rules.

Businesses are required to self-certify that they have complied with the regulations, rather than requiring the health department in inspect each business before it reopens. State Representative Sarah Peake, D–Provincetown, said that was a system suggested by business owners. If local officials had to sign off on each business, “we wouldn’t have anybody open until Christmas time,” she said. When alerted to problems by a business’ employees or customers, local officials will investigate and help them correct the problems so they can be open safely. Businesses that repeatedly decline to follow the rules are subject to fines from the local health board, the state public health department and the Massachusetts Department of Labor Standards.

The existing stay-at-home advisory has been modified slightly and renamed “Safer at Home,” but people are still encouraged to remain at home as much as possible and to work from home whenever possible. Vulnerable populations are particularly encouraged to stay home.

“Everyone is safer at home,” Baker said. “The virus will be with us throughout the reopening process.”

The decision to advance from one phase to the next will be based on public health data, the governor stressed.

“If we don’t keep up the fight and don’t do the things that we all know we have to do, and know we can do, we run the risk of creating a second spike in the fall,” Baker said.

“We need people to be complying, taking personal responsibility here,” said Cape and Islands State Senator Julian Cyr, D–Truro. Enforcement of the rules will be challenging, but if people don’t follow them, “there will need to be conversations about revisiting what’s accessible.”

In a press availability for the Cape Cod Reopening Task Force Tuesday, Cyr said the Cape’s summer visitor season will likely be muted and will start later. Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Wendy Northcross said visitors to the Cape this weekend will have no place to stay, since the ban on leisure accommodations remains in force until at least June 8. They’ll be able to enjoy take-out food from restaurants, but will have trouble finding public restrooms, since restaurant buildings are closed to the public and town facilities remain closed.

“It’s going to feel a lot more normal in a few weeks,” Northcross said.

By a quirk of the calendar, this year’s summer season will be longer than normal. Memorial Day falls as early as possible this year, and Labor Day is as late as it can be. The “extra 14 days of summer” will certainly help seasonal businesses that rely on summer earnings to survive the rest of the year.

Efforts are underway to support local businesses with grant programs and the potential for a revolving loan fund similar to one established after 9/11, Northcross said. Restaurants, which will be required to drastically reduce their indoor dining capacity to allow for social distancing, face a particular challenge. The chamber is working on ways to encourage towns to relax regulations and provide fast-tracked permitting for outdoor seating to help restaurants through the next year or two, she said. But the economic impact of the pandemic isn’t limited to the hospitality industry.

“There’s just no sector that we can find that’s been untouched,” she said.

One safe activity for the Memorial Day weekend involves outdoor family gatherings, county Health and Environment Director Sean O’Brien said. His own family is planning a gathering with extended family members who live in different households, “and we still do some social distancing,” he said. Even in such settings, it’s wise to use masks if people can’t stay six feet apart, and to provide hand sanitizer for guests.

“All of those prevention methods are really important,” he said. “We are still in a situation with a public health emergency.”