Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Kathleen Theoharides provides an update on the administration’s food security plan at a State House press conference on May 26. (Courtesy photo by Joshua Qualls/Governor’s Press Office)

As the weather warms and the state begins its phased reopening process, state and local leaders discussed a range of outdoor activities during their 10th weekly conference call this afternoon.

Construction, manufacturing and places of worship got the green light to open last week on the first day of Phase 1, with additional activities allowed to reopen yesterday, including laboratories, hair salons and barber shops, auto dealers, and libraries, with certain restrictions. (Within the state reopening website is the latest expected timeline for a wide range of activities.)

In the fresh air, the rules recently changed for public beaches as well as golf and outdoor fitness classes. Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Kathleen Theoharides gave an update on activities ranging from athletic fields to youth sports, all of which are catalogued on her executive office’s website.

Activities currently allowed in Phase 1, with restrictions, include beaches, golf, parks, nature preserves, hiking trails, recreational boating, outdoor education programs (including yoga classes), ecotourism, whitewater rafting, adventure parks and wildlife reserves. (See the agency’s website for guidance and best practices for each type of activity.)

As with any Phase 1 activity, participants must comply with state orders on social distancing (staying at least 6 feet from other individuals or groups), face coverings (in instances where adequate distance cannot be maintained), and gathering sizes (no more than 10 individuals).

Theorides said most beaches stayed open during the emergency, but they were limited to transitory activities and their parking lots were closed. The parking lots are now open again, where approved locally, and restrooms have reopened at state beaches and parks. Beachgoers must comply with state orders on social distancing, face coverings and gathering sizes, and cannot play organized ball games.

State boat ramps are open to vehicles registered in Massachusetts, while municipal boat ramps are open at the discretion of the city or town.

A 60-member Outdoor Recreation Task Force, which includes municipal officials, continues its work on guidance for activities allowed in Phase 2, including playgrounds, traditional tent camping, public pools, youth sports (practice and drills), and summer camps.

Noting the importance of access to outdoor activities during the COVID emergency, Theorides noted, “That’s keeping us all sane these days.” She added that these activities also give a badly needed boost to the economy.

Large-scale gatherings such as outdoor concerts are not in the plans until Phase 3. A fireworks display could be a possibility in Phase 2 if there is not an accompanying event, but guidance is not yet developed.

Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito added that state guidance for child care and summer camp programs would be coming this week.

Graduation and return to school
With guidance released on May 21, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is taking a two-phase approach to a popular springtime outdoor activity: high school graduation.

During June and early July, DESE Commissioner Jeff Riley said, school districts may hold a virtual graduation ceremony (e.g., via Zoom) or employ “extreme social distancing” (e.g., a car parade). For non-remote activities, he said, school districts should work with the local board of health to ensure that the plan is OK under current guidance.

Beginning on July 19, districts will have the opportunity to hold in-person events meeting specific criteria, including social distancing. Hugs and handshakes will be missing from these events, except among members of the same family who live together.

Attendance must be limited to graduates and their immediate family members. Only those who have preregistered for the graduation may attend, and children under age 5, older adults, and those with vulnerable health conditions should be discouraged from attending. Food and beverages will not be permitted.

Requirements for districts include notifying participants of the ground rules in advance, providing hand sanitizers and signage, and managing entrances and exits to ensure distancing.

Riley said he hopes to make draft guidance for fall school reopening, and summer school programs, available around mid-June – “before schools get out, so districts have several months of planning time.”

Protocols that have now become commonplace are likely to be included.

“You should expect, more likely than not, that we’re going to have children wearing masks and staff members wearing masks,” he said. “You should expect social distancing to be a factor in what reopening will look like.”

He said a 44-member working group, including students and representatives of the education community, is working on the plan for fall, in part by looking at how countries that are several steps ahead of the United States on COVID reopening are handling the issue.

“I’m very optimistic about a return to school,” he said.

Riley said he couldn’t provide an update on the status of Chapter 70 education funding for fiscal 2021, with that ball in the Legislature’s court.

“We’re in a little bit of a time of uncertainty,” he said, referring to the impact that the COVID emergency is having on the economy and state revenue. “We have to be realistic about what this budget could look like going forward.”

He added, however, that some federal CARES Act funding could help school districts with technology needs related to their COVID emergency response.

Riley said it was clear early in the COVID emergency that remote learning “was going to be a necessity,” but noted there is concern about inequities across the state due to variations in reliable internet access and the availability of internet-ready devices. With some degree of remote learning potentially figuring into plans for the fall or winter – “if there’s a [COVID] spike” – he said, DESE estimates it would require about $50 million to level the playing field. He said DESE has been working with philanthropic organizations and others to “fill some of those holes,” but “there’s going to have to be a bigger push” for funding, perhaps through legislative action and the use of CARES Act funds.

Other updates
Department of Labor Standards Director Michael Flanagan touched on the new rules for office spaces, including city and town halls, effective yesterday, reminding local officials that the 25% occupancy limitation is per office, not per building.

Asked whether municipalities need to provide face coverings for employees, Polito said it may depend on the nature of the job. She said employers should focus on creating safe distancing, but should provide face coverings when and if sufficient distancing is not possible.

The DLS has created a web area for COVID-19 workplace safety rules. Questions can be directed to the DLS hotline at 508-616-0461, ext. 9488, or safepublicworkplacemailbox@mass.gov.

Asked about when and how to return to customer interactions at municipal buildings, Polito said the Division of Capital Asset Management and Maintenance, the Registry of Motor Vehicles and the Human Resources Division are working on guidance for state agencies on that matter, and the guidance may also be helpful to municipalities.

Elizabeth Denniston, the governor’s deputy legal counsel, said a visitor may be denied entry to a municipal facility if they refuse to wear a mask and lack a medical or disability reason for doing so. At polling locations, however, face coverings should be encouraged, but entry should not be denied.

Local officials and the Baker-Polito administration are united in support of a bill (S. 2680) that would ease town meeting rules and city budget deadlines, as well as legislation that would streamline the process for restaurants to be able to serve alcohol in outdoor spaces.

Polito opened the call with a reminder to local officials that the state’s Community Compact Cabinet program is accepting applications for Best Practices grants. The Community Compact is a voluntary, mutual agreement between the administration and a city or town where the community agrees to implement at least one best practice it selects from a range of areas, with state funding support and technical assistance available. Polito suggested that funds from the program could be used to assist communities with best practices related to the reopening process.

Also participating in the conference call were Division of Local Services Senior Deputy Commissioner Sean Cronin, Energy and Environmental Affairs Assistant Secretary Sean Pierce, and Dr. Larry Madoff, medical director at the DPH’s Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences.

Audio of May 26 call with administration (34M MP3)

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