From the Beacon, May 2020

The COVID-19 surge continues in most parts of Massachusetts, with tens of thousands of confirmed cases, thousands of deaths, and thousands more under intensive hospital care. While this is the grim and tragic reality, it is clearly true that the leadership and actions of our local and state officials have saved thousands of lives, and protected us from much greater agony and loss.

The public health interventions that cities, towns and state agencies have put in place have “flattened the curve,” and protected our health care system from being overwhelmed. First responders, essential municipal employees, and local leaders have been on the front lines of this effort, and every resident of our state is abidingly grateful.

The past 60 days have brought unprecedented change that has disrupted everyday life for virtually every person we know. And all of us are realizing that the new COVID-19 reality will be with us for a long time, which means that this change will continue to impact every aspect of our economy, society and government.

Even when we get past the surge, and infection rates start to fall, the novel coronavirus will continue to be a deadly threat, especially to our most vulnerable neighbors and family members. That’s why the next year – or more – will certainly include physical distancing, face coverings and PPE, limits on social and public gatherings, intense regulation of businesses and public spaces, testing, intense hygiene and sanitation, quarantine and isolation, and more.

We cannot relax our commitment to the public health interventions and strategies that have succeeded so far. If we retreat on what works, the loss and heartache that has hit Massachusetts will become unimaginably worse.

Yet we cannot stay at a standstill forever, sheltering in place for months and months. The lost income, lost businesses and increased poverty and financial pain would lead to many other damaging health and social declines, touching millions of our neighbors. As the surge recedes, Massachusetts must do what it can to re-engage our economy. But this must happen carefully, without endangering workers, customers, neighbors, families, and ourselves.

A safe and sustainable path
We have come to a natural tension point in this crisis, where the desire to return to normal days is increasing faster than the COVID-19 threat is falling. It will be important to moderate the impulse to run too quickly, and instead to move forward with a clear roadmap, following a path that is safe and sustainable.

This past week, Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito announced their intention to do just that, creating a statewide COVID-19 Reopening Advisory Board of health experts, business leaders and municipal officials to present a framework for a phased-in economic re-entry that will be guided by public health indicators and practices.

We applaud the administration for including three top municipal leaders on the state panel – Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera, Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle, and Kathryn Burton, chief of staff to Boston Mayor Martin Walsh – to provide an essential municipal perspective as we begin to phase-in economic and social re-engagement as thoughtfully and cautiously as possible.

The MMA has been anticipating this planning effort, and under the leadership of MMA President Cece Calabrese and our Board of Directors, had already established its own COVID-19 Reopening Advisory Committee, bringing together municipal CEOs from across the state, including the top leaders of the Mayors’ Association, and town and city managers representing a cross-section of Massachusetts. Arlington Town Manager Adam Chapdelaine, the MMA vice president, is chairing the group.

Of course, the MMA will coordinate and communicate with all local officials to make sure we include and reflect the diversity of our membership. The committee will collect all this information and provide the Baker-Polito administration and the state Reopening Advisory Board with input and feedback regarding the critical on-the-ground policy, administrative, implementation, enforcement and resource concerns and priorities of municipalities.

Even a slow and gradual reopening process will create very big challenges for cities and towns. At the same time, no reopening process will be successful or safe without cities and towns at the center. At the very beginning of this process, we have identified a number of high-level priorities to ensure that communities have the information, resources and policies they need to facilitate and lead our recovery, and there certainly will be more.

Local priorities
• First and foremost, communities will need strong, clear and detailed guidance from the state on what will and will not be allowed in each phase of the re-opening, and what specific conditions and actions will be required to ensure public health and safety in each sector or segment of activity. This is necessary so that we can achieve consistency across communities and within regions, and avoid unnecessary variance and confusion among residents. In addition to private business activity, this includes clear guidance on public services, operations, buildings and spaces such as libraries, recreation programs, parks, pools, golf courses, beaches, senior and youth centers, indoor and outdoor sports, summer concerts, parades, holiday celebrations (including Memorial Day and the Fourth of July), summer school programs, elections, and more.

• The plan should provide clear and specific guidance for private businesses, and provide adequate enforcement and resource capacity at the municipal level. This will enhance consistency and avoid cross-boundary differences, confusion and unintended burdens or conflicts in regions as business activity resumes. Communities will need a clear understanding of how and when construction, retail, restaurants, bars, farmers markets, event venues, hair and nail salons, private golf courses, and others can operate safely.

• Cities and towns will need adequate lead-time and flexibility in responding to the needs of businesses that will be restarting operations, especially in the area of inspections and permitting. Communities will be facing the challenge of bottlenecks, resource constraints and employee safety concerns as demands for outward-facing municipal services increase.

• Municipalities must have access to equipment and supplies. This goes beyond PPE to include cleaning and sanitation supplies (communities are reporting an inability to purchase Lysol and restaurant-grade gloves, for example) for buildings and public spaces. Without equal access across the state, some regions/communities will be able to open buildings and spaces, and others will not.

• Testing and health data will be paramount. There must be ubiquitous testing for municipal employees and residents in every region, and localities will need real-time access to critical public health data (test results, hospitalizations, contact tracing, and so on) to identify and manage outbreaks and hotspots, and to inform local, regional and state decision-making.

• Some variation between communities is inevitable, given our state’s diversity in density, downtown development, commercial development, ease of access, and other factors. These differences will inform local decision-making and interest regarding the speed or level of reopening. This is in the context of the need for overall caution in re-engaging, because moving too quickly may trigger a second wave and force another shutdown, which would expose more people to the virus and undermine public confidence and buy-in to the process. Establishing a strong statewide baseline would minimize this tension, and still leave open some local or regional variance.

• The state must continue to provide clear and strong statewide policies and communication to guide public behavior, including requirements and expectations in following public health guidelines and personal responsibility for social distancing, face coverings, per-person limits on gatherings, and more during each phase of the reopening.

• As managers, cities and towns will need guidance on challenging equity issues for public and private employers, such as how to address the lack of daycare that will inhibit the ability of some workers to return to work, or how to address the issue of those with underlying health conditions.

While the path forward will not be easy, we know that progress and recovery will and can happen. Throughout this crisis, the Baker-Polito administration has partnered with communities in every corner of our Commonwealth. A strong reopening and recovery plan that places cities and towns at the center, answering these questions and delivering essential resources, will continue this partnership and ensure a safer and faster recovery for every person.

Written by Geoff Beckwith, MMA Executive Director & CEO