Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito speaks with local officials virtually on July 7.

Phase 3 of the state’s four-phase reopening plan may be new – it began on Monday – but we best get used to it, because it’s going to be here for some time to come.

Unlike Phase 1, which began on May 18 and lasted just three weeks, and Phase 2, which began on June 8 and lasted four weeks, Massachusetts is not likely to progress beyond Phase 3 until there are reliable medical treatments and antibody testing for COVID-19, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito said during the 16th weekly conference call with the state’s municipal CEOs convened by the MMA.

“We anticipate Phase 3 to be where we are for a long while,” she said. “There is just so much that we don’t know about this virus.”

Step 1 of Phase 3 did, however, mark the return of popular activities such as health clubs, museums, movie theaters and professional sports, with limitations, and a relaxation of state limitations on gatherings. (In Boston, Phase 3 is delayed one week, and Somerville opted to begin on Aug. 3.)

Under the updated gatherings order, indoor gatherings are now limited to eight people per 1,000 square feet, with a maximum of 25 people in a single enclosed space. Outdoor gatherings in enclosed spaces are limited to 25% of the facility’s maximum permitted occupancy, with a maximum of 100 people in a single space. The order does not apply to outdoor, unenclosed gatherings if proper social distancing measures are possible. Face coverings remain a key part of the state’s strategy to control the spread of COVID, whenever proper distancing cannot be maintained.

Polito gave an overview of Phase 3 and reminded local officials that some guidance, such as for summer youth and adult amateur sports activities, has been updated as recently as yesterday.

The lieutenant governor again credited local officials and boards of health for their “extraordinary” efforts in ensuring compliance with state rules, and acknowledged that Phase 3 creates further challenges.

“This is challenging,” she said, while urging local officials to become familiar with the Phase 3 rules. “We have a lot more activity.”

She said recent COVID outbreaks in southern and western states, some of which are traced to crowded bars, serve as cautionary notes for Massachusetts, which has seen two solid months of decreasing case numbers, hospitalizations and positive test rates.

Step 2 of Phase 3 will include indoor venues for live performances, with limitations, and recreational activities like laser tag, roller skating and obstacle courses. Bar service and larger concerts and events will need to wait until Phase 4.

Polito urged local officials to review the recently updated guidance for a broad range of indoor and outdoor events, including private parties, weddings, and other gatherings at parks and indoor spaces.

Sports guidance
The Phase 3 sports guidance takes into account both the risk of transmission of COVID-19 inherent in the sport or activity and the level of risk associated with the “type of play.”

Sports and activities included in the lower risk category, such as tennis, swimming, fishing and yoga, can participate in all four levels of play, including competitions and outdoor tournaments. Sports and activities included in the moderate risk category, such as baseball, softball, track and field, and field hockey, can participate in the first three levels of play, which includes competitive practices and competitions, but not tournaments. Sports in the higher risk category, such as football, wrestling, soccer and basketball, are restricted to individual or socially distanced group activities (no-contact workouts, aerobic conditioning, individual skill work and drills).

Polito said a working group that includes sports league associations, the Department of Public Health and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, is developing guidance for fall school sports.

Indoor spaces
Phase 3 doubles the occupancy limit for office space – from 25% to 50% – which includes city and town halls. Michael Kaneb, the governor’s deputy chief legal counsel, said, however, that the rules give municipalities wide latitude, since many of their offices are central to public health, safety and other essential operations. He said local officials are “fully authorized to make that determination on their own – there’s no advance certification required.”

Polito said many employers are making adjustments and encouraging work from home, which takes some of the pressure off for increasing occupancy further. She added that the status of “enablers” – public transit and child care – will also be a factor in future decisions about increasing capacity.

Libraries may reopen but must limit the number of visitors to 40% of maximum occupancy and require face coverings for patrons and employees. Physical materials must be quarantined for 24 hours after being returned.

Movie theaters are also subject to the 40% occupancy limit, with a maximum of 25 in a room. Health and fitness centers are subject to the 40% limit, with 14 feet between people exercising.

Dr. Larry Madoff and Jana Ferguson from the Department of Public Health explained that the occupancy limits consider whether people will be mostly stationary, such as at a movie theater, which makes it easier to ensure that they are adequately distanced.

If a restaurant or other business has a confirmed COVID case, Madoff said the response would be similar to that for a food-borne illness, likely meaning a one-day closure for thorough cleaning and ensuring that any sick individuals don’t return to work. An added piece, he said, would be contact tracing. He said DPH staff are always available for consultation at 617-983-6800.

Fiscal matters
Polito pointed out that the DESE’s Remote Learning Technology Essentials grant application is now available, with a due date of July 21. The $25 million matching grant program will provide supplemental funds to support “local education agencies” in addressing students’ remote learning technology needs for the 2020-21 school year.

On the prospect of new mail-in voting procedures to be used this fall under new legislation, and the associated costs to municipalities, Polito said a portion of the expenditures could be considered related to COVID emergency response and therefore eligible for reimbursement under the federal CARES Act, but the Secretary of the Commonwealth will need to provide additional guidance.

Regarding the emergency’s impact on state tax collections and the budget, Polito said the administration – like cities and towns across the country – awaits decisions in Washington, D.C., about additional aid. She added that state leaders will have more solid information about tax collections in the next week or two.

Sean Cronin, senior deputy commissioner at the Division of Local Services, said his agency has issued updated FAQs regarding eligibility for reimbursements under the CARES Act, including in the area of capital expenditures. Generally speaking, he said, capital expenditures would need to be “smaller scale” projects in order to qualify.

Audio of July 7 call with administration (30M MP3)

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