Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito provide updates on COVID-19 testing and the Reopening Advisory Board at a State House press conference on May 4, 2020. (Photo: Joshua Qualls/Governor’s Press Office)

As COVID-19 public health indicators may be slowly turning the corner, and residents and businesses anxiously anticipate the reopening of the economy and public facilities, state and local leaders have an extremely tight timetable for developing and implementing plans that will continue to protect public health while slowly restarting economic activity.

The planning process, and the work of the Reopening Advisory Board appointed last week, were the primary topics of conversation among 250 local officials and top state leaders during a weekly conference call this afternoon convened by the MMA.

The state’s stay-at-home advisory, closure of non-essential businesses and 10-person limit on gatherings are currently set to end on May 18, but there are many details to be worked out before then.

“Some people think that could be a magical date where the Commonwealth of Massachusetts opens for business,” Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito said. “That’s not what it is. May 18 is the date that the advisory board will present its reopening plan.”

Polito said the 17-member board, which includes three municipal representatives, has already connected with 25 associations representing various industries as it contemplates what a “phased” reopening will look like. She said the conversations focus on the readiness of businesses to safely reopen and the “enablers” needed to get workers back on the job, such as the availability of child care services and public transit.

“There’s overarching guidance that we’re working on around what a safe workplace looks like,” Polito said. “We need to make sure it’s safe for the worker as well as the customer or visitor.”

The administration has consistently said that any reopening will depend on seeing downward trends in the COVID data over a two-week period, a place the state may now be inching toward, with COVID-related hospitalizations nudging downward and the rate of positive test results dropping.

The state will be moving away from labelling services as strictly essential or non-essential. As the board considers the full range of industries, services and activities across the state, it will be using the same criteria to evaluate each one: To what extent can the activity accommodate social distancing? Can the employer provide face coverings where appropriate, as well as sanitization and hand-washing stations?

The board will identify which activities and industries are most likely to be able to safely open in the near term, such as certain manufacturing facilities, and which may have to wait a while longer, such as bars. The board has subgroups focused on areas such as hospitals, child care, public schools, higher education, state government, recreation and outdoor activities, and municipalities. Board members include public health experts and business leaders.

Polito said some feedback to the Reopening Advisory Board has already resulted in changes. For example, retailers asked to be able to bring limited staff into their businesses only to fulfill online and phone orders, and the state quickly altered its essential services guidance establishing criteria that allows them to do so.

Representatives of the adult-use cannabis industry will be presenting to the advisory board this week, Polito said, when they are expected to make a case for allowing online and phone sales with curbside pickup.

For guidance, she said, the advisory board will also look to other states that are ahead of Massachusetts in seeing declines in new COVID cases, hospitalizations, and the percentage of positive test results.

Advocating for a “cautious” and “methodical” approach, Polito said there appears to be a consensus that “a time period is needed” between phases of a gradual reopening in order to evaluate whether “something needs to be managed better before adding more activity beyond that.” A spike in COVID cases could require closing down certain activities again.

She said feedback from local leaders about the reopening process will be important.

“So I think there’s a further conversation that we need to have with you,” she said, “so that we can assess the conditions together.”

Polito also discussed the state’s new face-covering order due to take effect tomorrow, the state’s continued emphasis on testing, reflected in its first-in-the-nation per capita testing rate, and its ambitious contact tracing program, seen as a national model.

The face mask order raised questions about enforcement – it’s the responsibility of local boards of health, with civil penalties if necessary – and what to do about individuals who claim they can’t wear a mask for medical reasons.

Dr. Larry Madoff, medical director at the Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences at the Department of Public Health, said guidance from his department makes allowances for medical exemptions, but in those cases, social distancing should be emphasized as an alternative.

He said the primary purpose of the mask order is “to stop someone from inadvertently spreading infection if they were asymptomatic and infected.” He added that those exhibiting symptoms must continue to isolate.

Madoff said the state is striving toward a goal of conducting 35,000 tests per day during May, but a lack of supplies sometimes hampers those efforts. Madoff heard concerns that communities don’t have the expertise and resources to conduct testing, many don’t have nearby medical facilities to partner with, and they would like faster access to community-specific COVID data, which is now provided weekly. He said a best-case scenario is that communities work with a local health care provider to establish a testing site, but they can contact DPH if that is not an option.

“It is something that we will continue to work on,” he said.

Municipal operations
The COVID emergency has upended the local process for passing municipal budgets in time for the start of the fiscal year on July 1, and for towns to hold annual elections.

Several new state laws have eased deadlines for enacting annual budgets and made it easier to postpone elections, but the limit on public gatherings – and its unknown future – continues to confound planners of town meetings, which are responsible for approving town budgets.

Sean Cronin, senior deputy commissioner at the Division of Local Services, discussed legislation approved yesterday by the Senate that would allow towns to lower the quorum requirement for open town meetings, allow representative town meetings to be held using remote technology, and allow towns to hold their town meeting in a nearby community if need be to achieve safe physical distancing. The bill (S. 2680) would also extend the deadline for mayors to submit fiscal 2021 budgets to city councils (to as late as July 31) and allow cities to adopt up to three one-month budgets if the fiscal 2021 budget is not in place by June 30.

Polito said the Reopening Advisory Board will be evaluating the state’s limit on gatherings with input from the Department of Public Health. She said the board understands the urgency, as the gathering limit also impacts graduations, summer camps and day care operations.

She said the advisory board is actively working with DPH on safety protocols for popular summer activities such as youth sports, summer camps and public pools and beaches. Local leaders requested expedient guidance on these activities as well as libraries, senior centers and city and town halls.

Polito said guidance can be expected around the time the advisory committee is due to file its recommendations with the state: May 18.

State and federal support
Asked about the Chapter 90 local road and bridge program, Polito enthusiastically pointed out that public works projects can continue during the current state of emergency – and can even take advantage of lighter traffic conditions. The Legislature, however, has not yet acted on the administration’s request for a new round of Chapter 90 funding for fiscal 2021. Cronin suggested that communities may use any leftover prior authorizations in the interim.

Asked if there was news about $20 million included in the federal CARES Act for Community Development Block Grants for non-entitlement cities and towns, Polito said there was no notice as yet from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development about receipt of the funds, but the Baker-Polito administration would be finalizing the notice of funding availability in the next couple of weeks and expects to proceed with the solicitation of applications from communities.

Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency Director Samantha Phillips gave an update on the distribution of personal protective equipment – MEMA focuses on municipalities, congregate care shelters and funeral homes – and ongoing work to address food insecurity, which is emerging as an area of concern due to the spike in unemployment and under-employment during the COVID shutdown.

Phillips encouraged local leaders to visit the MEMA website to register for federal assistance that will be available, as a result of the president’s major disaster declaration, to help pay for emergency protective measures (response costs) related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Polito was asked about the availability of a $130 million state appropriation for nursing homes and assisted living facilities, and whether that money can be used to help them acquire personal protective equipment.

“The need can be served,” she said, “whether it’s from that fund” or through MEMA or other means.

Audio of May 5 call with administration (33M MP3)

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