Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito and Secretary of Housing and Economic Development Mike Kennealy, co-chairs of the 17-member Reopening Advisory Board, discussed the release of Reopening Advisory Board’s report at a State House press conference on May 18, 2020. (Photo: Joshua Qualls/Governor’s Press Office)

A day after Massachusetts tiptoed into restarting regular activities, a weekly conference call with top-level state officials and hundreds of municipal leaders indicated the complexity of reopening a state that’s been at a virtual standstill for two months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The administration and its special Reopening Advisory Board released a library of guidance and safety standards yesterday for a wide range of businesses and services, but assigning sector-specific requirements for nearly every facet of activity is a monumental task, and one that will require continued work.

For example, guidance and safety standards are still being developed for (non-emergency) child care, summer camps and restaurants. The Safety Standards for Office Spaces, presumed to include city and town halls and effective May 25, limit occupancy to 25% of maximum, but it’s not quite clear what that means in real-life municipal scenarios. Three state agencies are developing standards for state government workplaces and services, and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito suggested that this guidance could be helpful to city and town halls as well.

Polito and Housing and Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealy, co-chairs of the 17-member Advisory Board, urged local leaders and others to explore the wealth of educational materials available through mass.gov/reopening. They said the intent of the detailed guidance is to enable businesses to “self-comply” with new safety standards and reopen without prior authorization from either state or local government.

“We provided an incredibly robust set of standards and protocols to workplaces,” Kennealy said. “It’s certainly our hope that companies are going to do the right thing and implement these.”

Businesses are expected to download the appropriate forms, use a sector-specific template to develop a COVID safety plan, acquire the required supplies, and display posters and checklists to assure both employees and visitors that the business is in compliance. In addition, new Mandatory Workplace Safety Standards apply across all sectors.

“A company has to be able to go through that process in order to be able to open,” Kennealy said.

Inspections would be required only if there is a complaint filed by an employee or visitor, at which time the local board of health, or representatives from the state Department of Labor Standards or Department of Public Health, could ask to see the company’s forms and safety plan.

A progressive enforcement mechanism will scale from verbal consultation, to written redirection, to fines, and finally to cease-and-desist letters. Local boards of health that need assistance can call the Department of Labor Standards hotline at 508-616-0461, ext. 9488, or send an email to safepublicworkplacemailbox@mass.gov.

The state has opened a new online portal to help employers obtain required hygienic and protective supplies such as face coverings for employees.

“Shared responsibility”
Polito and Kennealy said the four-phase reopening plan is intended to balance public health and economic health – and lean on “shared responsibility” – in a state that ranks third in the nation for COVID cases.

“No one has ever been faced before with trying to reopen an economy in a strategic way,” Kennealy said. “A phased, thoughtful, data-driven approach is what we’re after.”

He said the state’s progress through the four phases will be strictly guided by several key public health measures.

“If we open too much too fast, those health indicators will tell us we’ve done the wrong thing,” he said, and a retrenchment could be required. “Success in getting to Phase 2 is so much predicated on how we all behave and interact in Phase 1.”

Each phase is set to last a minimum of three weeks, and possibly longer. There’s no telling when the state will emerge into the fourth phase, named New Normal.

“There’s a lot of difficulty in predicting this stuff,” he said. “This is a brand new phenomenon.”

He said general guidelines such as social distancing, face coverings, and limits on gathering sizes will be around for the foreseeable future.

The state’s 10-person limit on gatherings remains in effect, though an exception has now been made for places of worship, which must limit occupancy to 40% of the building’s maximum permitted occupancy. Municipal and state legislative bodies (e.g., city councils and town meetings) have been exempted since the original order of March 23, but other municipal meetings and hearings should continue to be held remotely, said Elizabeth Denniston, the governor’s deputy legal counsel.

The executive order suspending certain provisions of the open meeting law during the public health emergency remains in effect. The order relieves public bodies from the requirement that meetings be conducted in a public place that is open and physically accessible to the public, provided that the public body makes provisions to ensure public access to the deliberations of the public body through adequate, alternative means.

Polito directed local officials to the reopening website for information about “customer-facing” services, such as libraries, that can recommence in Phase 2.

She said the emergency child care system established at the beginning of the emergency to serve families of first responders and health care workers has the capacity to serve more families of employees who must report to work in Phase 1. But safe congregate child care standards remain a vexing problem for state officials and are still in development.

In the meantime, employers are being urged to allow as many employees as possible to work remotely from home.

Asked about making “reasonable accommodations” for those who cannot wear face coverings in the workplace for medical reasons, Polito reminded local leaders that distancing remains part of the general guidance, and enabling a worker to stay at least 6 feet from others would mean that a face covering is not necessary.

Denniston said an employee should present evidence of a medical condition or disability that precludes the wearing of a face covering before the employer needs to make an accommodation. She said businesses should “do their best” to accommodate customers who cannot wear a mask, such as by offering curbside pickup.

Recreation and restaurants
The arrival of warmer weather signals the start of vacation season and increases the need for guidance for outdoor recreation and summer camps for kids. The Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs yesterday released guidance and directives related to reopening of outdoor recreational activities and businesses. Polito said guidance for summer camps would be coming this week or next so that camps can be ready for late June.

Outdoor historic sites may reopen, but not indoor attractions, which must wait until Phase 3.

Asked about restaurant activities in Phase 2, Polito said the Reopening Advisory Board has established a working group that includes leadership from the restaurant industry, lodging and tourism, as well as municipalities to develop the industry protocols, which “will be ready for when the public health people tell us it’s safe to begin to reopen restaurants and more lodging opportunities. … It’s possible that some of that could activate sooner than the start of Phase 2.”

She added that the administration’s legal team is working on what can be done to streamline local permitting, because of the time needed to process approvals. “That’s all under analysis now as part of the restaurant, accommodations and tourism workgroup,” she said.

Polito said the guidance on outdoor recreation addresses the rules for golf, with an adjustment coming on May 25 around single use of golf carts, with proper sanitization and cleaning protocols in place.

“On an organized event like a summer concert, that is something I’ll bring to [Energy and Environmental Affairs] Secretary Katie Theoharides and see if we need to be clearer in our guidance on that.”

Asked about local discretion where state guidance might not be clear, Polito said, “We’re here to partner with you to call the balls and the strikes. And then there might be some areas that you feel comfortable as local enforcers to make the decision on your own. And there will be areas where we just have not drafted specific guidance. If you bring that to our attention, we will update and refresh guidance as needed.

“The complexity here of everything that we’re all dealing with is real, and your questions go to the specifics of the guidance and all of the decisions that we’re making. … And by raising the questions, you’re helping your colleagues across the state, because we can update whatever we need to on our end, and put it on our website.”

CARES Act
Administration and Finance Undersecretary Catharine Hornby shared the news that funding from the federal CARES Act, enacted on March 27, can be used to cover the 25% match required for emergency aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Until today’s guidance from the U.S. Treasury Department, it was unclear what the relationship was between the two programs.

Hornby said rules against using CARES Act funds for non-COVID related purposes, such as revenue loss, have not changed as yet. For fiscal 2020, anything that wasn’t budgeted and is COVID-related, “is a potentially appropriate use of those funds.”

The application and complete CARES Act information can be found on the DLS website.

Audio of May 19 call with administration (34M MP3)

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