Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito announces the extension of the essential services emergency order to May 18 and launched a Reopening Advisory Board at a State House press conference on April 28, 2020. The administration also announced that the Department of Public Health’s Stay At Home Advisory remains in effect and gatherings of 10 or more people remain prohibited until May 18. (Joshua Qualls/Governor’s Press Office)

Moments after the announcement of a two-week extension of the state’s stay-at-home advisory and non-essential business closure due to COVID-19, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito told local officials that their input will be an important part of developing a plan to gradually reopen the state’s economy and workplaces.

“You’re the ones that need to know that your community is safe enough for these reopenings and gatherings,” she told hundreds of local officials from across the state during a weekly conference call convened by the MMA. “And you [generally through local boards of health and health departments] can be the enforcers as well if things don’t add up.”

The administration announced the creation of a 17-member Reopening Advisory Board that includes three municipal representatives: Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera, Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle, and Kathryn Burton, chief of staff to Boston Mayor Martin Walsh. In addition, Polito said, the administration will be gathering input from municipal leaders provided through the MMA.

“It’s a very hard, complicated process to reopen in a safe way and without creating risk of another spike,” she told the municipal CEOs. “We’ll have you right there with us, as we always do.”

The MMA has formed a working group of mayors and town managers, chaired by Arlington Town Manager Adam Chapdelaine, the vice president of the MMA, to gather feedback from local leaders across the state about concerns, priorities and resource needs, and to share that information with the administration.

Polito said the Reopening Advisory Board has been tasked with producing “a plan for phasing in reopening of certain activities in workplaces throughout our Commonwealth” by May 18 – a tight, three-week timeframe. The board includes 11 business and health care leaders as well as Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel and Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack.

The administration is open to considering different reopening scenarios for different regions of the state that are experiencing varying COVID case levels, she said.

She said the state is in a plateau period in terms of its confirmed COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, but “what we’d like to see is a decline in those numbers … that will inform us about the conditions making a safe reopening in a phased manner possible.”

Still, she called today’s announcement “good news” that suggests the end of a disease surge and a pivot to the reopening process. She added that the state’s hospital capacity – bolstered by temporary field hospitals just in case – had successfully withstood the surge, and beds are now available for patients that have been awaiting treatment for non-COVID health issues.

Polito said the state will continue to work on expanding its COVID testing capacity – currently ranked second in the country on a per capita basis – and seeking federal support, but added that testing is only one tool in the toolkit, along with physical distance, face coverings, setting capacity levels and gathering size limits, and sanitization and disinfection efforts.

Asked about the feasibility of widespread testing of asymptomatic individuals, Dr. Larry Madoff, medical director at the Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences at the Department of Public Health, explained that testing is prioritized for those experiencing symptoms, followed by those in settings such as congregate housing (e.g., nursing homes, homeless shelters), to guard against spread of the disease in close quarters. Those who may have been exposed to COVID are also good candidates for testing, he said. Others should approach their doctor if they feel they should be tested.

He warned that a negative test result for an asymptomatic individual “is just a snapshot in time” that could change in days or mere hours, “so we don’t want people to be falsely reassured by that.” He also warned that antibody tests, at the individual level, are not a reliable predictor of whether someone is protected from infection in the future.

Communities that feel they need more testing, he said, should contact local health care providers.

Fiscal matters
Once again, local leaders sought clarity about the state budget picture for fiscal 2021, which begins on July 1, and the expected impact on local aid, and once again they were told there’s no news yet. Municipal officials raised the concept of a degree of relief from certain mandates and assessments if local aid levels are slashed next year.

Likewise, there has been no legislative movement as yet on the administration’s bill to reduce quorum requirements for open town meetings this spring and enable representative town meetings to be held remotely.

William Bell, senior associate commissioner/CFO at the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, reassured local officials that all state funding for K-12 public educational programs, including grants, will continue to flow to districts as promised through fiscal 2020.

He said DESE is pursuing about $214 million in funding through a grant included in the federal CARES Act specifically for emergency public educational support. He added that 90% of this grant funding would go directly to cities and towns.

Education Secretary James Peyser is pursuing another grant worth $50.8 million, Bell said.

The CARES Act also includes a Coronavirus Relief Fund with $2.7 billion for Massachusetts. These funds must be used for necessary but unexpected expenditures incurred between March 1 and Dec. 30, 2020, by state and local governments in connection with COVID-19 response, and the spending has to be for things that were not budgeted for as of March 27.

MMA Executive Director Geoff Beckwith reminded those on the call that municipal groups across the country are urging Congress to enact an additional stimulus bill that would provide aid directly to states and cities and towns specifically to help offset lost revenue and increased expenses resulting from the COVID-19 public health emergency. The state’s congressional delegation is supportive, and Polito said she’s seen “good signals” from Washington.

Schools and summer programs
Jeffrey Riley, commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education, reviewed the various steps taken to close public schools and efforts made to work with school districts to quickly establish meal distribution sites and educational programming for students.

Regarding the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s remote learning guidance, “We basically said, ‘We expected kids to engage in meaningful and productive learning,” Riley said. “We wanted staff to make multiple connections with students during the week, and we wanted staff to provide feedback to kids.”

DESE also applied for waivers at the federal and state level around nutrition, finance, educator licensure, Student Opportunity Act, regional school districts MCAS testing and the competency determination.

Without the need to spend the time usually spent on testing in May, he said, “We have the whole months of May and June to teach, and we think it’s a great opportunity” to ensure that kids are ready for the next grade level.

The next step is preparing for school reopenings in the fall.

He said DESE is working with health experts and looking at the experiences of other countries for guidance. These strategies include randomly checking students’ temperatures when they come into school, having students wear face masks, staggering schedules so that only half the students are at school at a time, continuing remote learning, and taking other measures to keep students six feet apart.

“We are hoping that we’ll have the summer, and at least some summer programs, to be able to have kind of a soft opening to try some of these things out … but that is to be determined by the administration.”

On the topic of summer activities for kids, Polito said the administration recognizes the urgent need that families have, and the DPH is taking the lead on developing guidance, which is expected by mid-May.

“Ideally, we’d like to see these camps and activities at the end of the school year,” she said.

Reopening Advisory Board members
Aron Ain, CEO, Kronos Inc & Ultimate Software
Carlo Zaffanella, Vice President and General Manager, Maritime & Strategic Systems, General Dynamics Mission Systems
Corey Thomas, CEO, Rapid 7
Daniel Rivera, Mayor, City of Lawrence
Rochelle Walensky, MD, MPH, Massachusetts General Hospital
Girish Navani, CEO and Co-Founder, eClinicalWorks
Joe Bahena, Senior Vice President, Joseph Abboud Manufacturing
Kathryn Burton, Chief of Staff, City of Boston
Laurie Leshin, Ph.D., President, Worcester Polytechnic Institute
Linda Markham, President, Cape Air
Mark Keroack, President & CEO, Baystate Health
Monica Bharel, Ph.D., Commissioner, Department of Public Health
Nicole LaChapelle, Mayor, City of Easthampton
Pamela Everhart, Head of Regional Public Affairs and Community Relations, Fidelity Investments
Stephanie Pollack, Transportation Secretary and CEO
Steve DiFillippo, CEO, Davios Restaurants
Wendy Hudson, Owner, Nantucket Book Partners

Audio of April 28 call with administration (38M MP3)

Written by