Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito speaks with local officials virtually on June 23.

As Massachusetts continues on its slow and steady course toward reopening, details are coming this week to guide the reopening of K-12 public schools in the fall, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito told local officials from across the state during a weekly COVID-19 briefing call arranged by the MMA.

Education Commissioner Jeff Riley shared a draft school reopening framework with superintendents late last week to gather feedback, and the rules are now being finalized, Polito said.

“We hope that the [public health] data will continue to show that having kids back literally into schools will be the way things go,” she said. “And if it changes, we will have a backup relative to remote learning or a hybrid model that we could all pivot to.”

Polito said the administration is also working on refinements to its executive order limiting gathering sizes, both for the remainder of Phase 2, and to clarify expectations for Phase 3, which would start no sooner than July 6.

The current order, which took effect on June 6, limits gatherings to 10 people and prohibits large civic, entertainment, and sporting events, including parades, street festivals, road races, or any event intended to draw a crowd. A number of groups may use outdoor spaces, such as parks and playing fields, as long as they stay at least 6 feet apart.

The current rules prohibit traditional 4th of July activities and fireworks displays typically held in many communities, as well as summer concerts. Polito said the public health risks related to large-scale gatherings remain too high, and forthcoming guidance is likely to focus on small- to midsize gatherings in outdoor settings where sufficient distancing can be maintained.

“So maybe this week [or] into next week, you might see some changes there,” she said. “That is under review.”

She said special consideration is being given to events that would enable seniors – many of whom have endured months of near-isolation – to safely assemble outdoors.

Polito and Sean Cronin, senior deputy commissioner at the Division of Local Services, both discussed the interim budget bill for fiscal 2021 that the governor filed last week and the Legislature quickly passed, sending it back for his signature today.

As the state awaits a clearer picture of the public health emergency’s impact on tax collections, and talks continue in Washington, D.C. about the possibility of direct aid to state and local governments, the temporary budget will allow the state to pay its bills in the first month of the new fiscal year, with the distinct prospect of an additional one-month budget for August.

“The plan is to – at least for July and August, unless a state budget is passed before that – to basically level-fund Cherry Sheet aid and assessments for the first two months of fiscal 2021,” Cronin said, referring to an explanatory bulletin that the DLS sent to local officials yesterday.

He said funds for Unrestricted General Government Aid, Chapter 70 education aid, payments in lieu of taxes on state-owned land and other accounts will be wired on schedule.

“So you should expect to see those in your accounts at the end of July, and again, if we’re still without a budget, for August as well,” he said.

Many businesses have been given additional time to forward sales, meals and lodging tax payments that would have been due from March through August, so communities that have local-option meals and lodging taxes are likely to see significantly lower revenue from these sources. The Department of Revenue has issued emergency regulations to implement these measures.

“There will be some reduction in your local aid revenues, from meals and lodging, and then there’ll be a catchup, once those companies pay their taxes,” Cronin said. “It doesn’t happen often, but if communities have cash flow problems, they can request an advance” from the state under a provision in the interim budget bill.

Moving forward
At a time when half the states in the country are seeing increases in COVID cases, Polito highlighted the success thus far of the Massachusetts reopening plan, including the addition this week of indoor dining and personal services such as nail salons and massages.

“Our key public health metrics continue to head in the right direction, which has allowed us to have this safe and successful reopening,” she said, adding that continued vigilance is necessary to ensure success moving forward. “Our seven-day weighted average of positive molecular COVID test rates is down 93% since April 15. … The three-day average of the number of COVID patients in the hospital is down 74% since April 15. … And we’ve had fewer than 1,000 patients hospitalized since June 18.”

State officials were encouraged by the results of testing late last week of more than 17,000 individuals who had taken part in large gatherings, primarily marches and demonstrations related to racial injustice and the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Only 2.5% of these individuals tested positive, which aligns with the overall state average, indicating that most participants in these gatherings observed safety protocols, Polito said, while adding that it was helpful that the events took place outdoors.

Despite recent progress on health indicators, Dr. Larry Madoff, medical director at the Department of Public Health’s Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences, reminded local officials that it is not yet time to ease up on precautions.

“We need to continue to be mindful, we are still in a pandemic,” he said.

He said the state continues to bolster its testing and contact tracing efforts. The DPH recently launched a Get Tested website that provides maps and guidance.

As additional activities come back to life, Polito said the state remains focused on providing specific guidance for each.

“We don’t want to be in the business of shutting businesses down,” she said. “We want to be in the business of helping businesses comply to make their place safer for the workers as well as the customers.”

Audio of June 23 call with administration (28M MP3)

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