“Melrose – Back in Business” is the tagline of the Economic Development Task Force formed by Mayor Paul Brodeur to support the re-opening of Melrose’s small business sector.

Massachusetts’ local economies are many and varied – from seaside communities dependent on seasonal tourism and rural towns peppered with tiny family firms to centers of industry and commerce that serve national and international markets. As COVID-19’s grip on the state ebbs, the tactics cities and towns are using to help local companies get back to business vary as well.

There are some common threads, however. Across the state, businesses large and small are seeking clarity about state and local rules for reopening and how to do so while protecting both employees and customers. For their part, municipalities have been gathering information to ensure that they tailor assistance to actual needs, with months of conversations, surveys and virtual meetings designed to elicit business owners’ questions and concerns. They’ve also moved quickly to remove red tape and consider and implement new ideas.

“Early on, like many cities and towns, we wanted to set up clear lines of communication with our business community,” said Salem Mayor Kimberley Driscoll.

Salem’s Economic Development and Recovery Task Force, convened by the mayor this spring, surveyed more than 100 small business owners to discover how the city could be most helpful during the reopening phase. Answers echoed concerns heard in other communities around the Commonwealth: worries about how to obtain and pay for enough personal protective equipment to protect staff and the public; desire for streamlined regulatory changes to expand outdoor shopping and dining; and the need for marketing so residents and visitors know what’s open and what the business community is doing to keep people safe.

In addition to expedited permitting for outdoor dining, Salem provided businesses with “pandemic kits” containing a month’s supply of masks, gloves, face shields and hand sanitizer, and created the “Salem Together Pledge,” which states each business’s commitment to follow the Baker administration’s sector-specific reopening guidance and asking customers and guests to commit to personal safety recommendations.

“We all have this duty to protect each other,” Driscoll said. “It’s been a real esprit de corps within the community.”

About 12 miles south, Melrose Mayor Paul Brodeur faced similar challenges as he worked with the Melrose Chamber of Commerce and a raft of municipal officials to restart Melrose’s vibrant restaurant scene.

“It wasn’t hard, but we just hadn’t done it before,” said Brodeur, whose city now has several restaurants offering outdoor seating, as well as curbside pickup with dedicated parking spots.

Brodeur convened a Melrose Reopening Task Force that surveyed local businesses about how the city could help. Responses, he said, focused on “the uncertainty. … ‘How is this going to work?’.

“It was great to get their perspective,” Brodeur said. “I’m not a business owner. I would rather lean on their expertise to come up with something that would make sense for them.”

In addition to expedited permitting for expanded outdoor options, the city partnered with a medical marijuana dispensary and a local business association to provide Melrose businesses with “reopening packages” containing hand sanitizer and disposable face masks, an example of “a lot of public-private partnership stuff that’s been going on in Melrose that’s helped us get on track.”

‘Tell us what to do’
In New Bedford, hundreds of the city’s core businesses, such as seafood processing, commercial fishing and manufacturing, remained open as “essential” services throughout the pandemic. Safety concerns led the city to close eight businesses temporarily, and Mayor Jon Mitchell in early May issued an emergency order with “a number of measures to reduce risk of transmission while allowing continued operation of the business.” Strategies deployed in New Bedford included communicating safety protocols to employees in their native language, requiring the construction of barriers between workers at industrial facilities, and COVID-19 testing on the waterfront for commercial fishermen heading to sea.

Mitchell said the city’s approach to restaurants has been “a continuation of our efforts to manage risk.” He convened a Restaurant Reopening Advisory Group, chaired by City Planner Tabitha Harkin and local restaurateur Stephen Silverstein.

“The restaurateurs wanted clarity on the rules of the game,” he said. “That’s what we have tried to provide to them. This cuts across industries, from the fish processors and manufacturers to the restaurants: ‘Tell us what to do and we’ll do it.’”

Getting feedback directly from the business community was a tactic also used in Hampden and Hampshire counties, where seven towns joined forces on a state Microenterprise Assistance and Social Services grant that will provide small companies (fewer than five employees) with up to $10,000 to help pay for rent, utilities and other expenses as they recover from financial losses due to COVID-19.

“The livability, economic health, and sense of community of a small town depends greatly on independent local family businesses,” Hampden Board of Selectmen Chair Donald Davenport said.

The grant application came in the wake of a business survey revealing that 88% of respondents lacked sufficient resources to cover basic business expenses. Funds will help 70 small businesses in Belchertown, Hampden, Hardwick, Ludlow, Monson and Palmer.

Marketing matters
On Cape Cod and the Islands, municipal officials are luring wary summer tourists with the message that businesses are open and safe, as they help small shops and galleries reconfigure their space and adopt measures enabling restaurants to add outdoor tables.

Early on, Provincetown Town Manager Robin Craver formed an economic recovery group comprising 18 representatives of business, town government, health care, public safety and social services.

“I think some of the businesses are still waiting to see,” Craver said, adding that some businesses may decide to “skip a season.”

“Their first concern is to keep themselves, their workers and visitors safe,” she said.

An Economic Recovery Task Force on Nantucket has been working for months to pave the way for reopening, aided by input received during eight roundtables with various economic sectors.

Assistant Town Manager Gregg Tivnan said Nantucket has implemented several recommendations, including frequent radio public service announcements, loosening outdoor dining restrictions, and offering professional design help for shops trying to accommodate one-way traffic and social distancing. The town is also hiring staff to hand out masks and educate summer visitors about public health rules while also distributing maps and promoting local businesses that rely on July and August for the lion’s share of their revenue.

“This summer will be unique,” said Nantucket Culture and Tourism Director Janet Schulte, “but still fun.”

Written by Lisa Capone

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