Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito announce a four-phase approach to reopening the Massachusetts economy amid the COVID-19 pandemic at a State House press conference on May 11. (Photo: Joshua Qualls/Governor’s Press Office)

In a weekly conference call with hundreds of local officials from across the state, administration officials outlined the framework of a reopening plan for Massachusetts.

Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito discussed the four-phase approach first announced by Gov. Charlie Baker yesterday, a process that will have to rapidly take shape between now and next Monday, when the Reopening Advisory Board is due to present a roadmap and certain businesses classified as “non-essential” over the past two months are expected to be able to reopen.

With key public health data continuing to show COVID-19 in slow retreat, Polito said the reopening process will be contingent on direction from the Department of Public Health and the COVID-19 Command Center, and any spike in cases could necessitate taking a step backward.

As the advisory board develops specific guidance for particular industries and portions of industries, Polito presented the broad strokes of the plan.

The four phases of reopening are:
• Start: limited industries resume operations with severe restrictions
• Cautious: additional industries resume operations with restrictions and capacity limits
• Vigilant: additional industries resume operations with guidance
• New Normal: development of vaccine and/or therapy enables fuller resumption of business and social activity

New Mandatory Workplace Safety Standards – addressing social distancing, face coverings, access to hand-washing facilities, cleaning and disinfection, and signage and training – will apply across all sectors and industries, including state and local government entities.

Businesses and services that were deemed essential and have remained operational during the state of emergency, such as grocery stores, will have about a week to comply with the new safety standards. Other businesses and activities with a lower risk of COVID transmission will be the first allowed to reopen.

Polito said the state will be providing every employer with checklists and a template “so a workplace, an employer, can say, ‘OK, I know what these standards are.’ That template, in essence, will be your safety plan.” She said the guidance will be specific enough to ensure “self-compliance.”

State agencies (DPH and the Department of Labor Standards) and local boards of health will have the authority to investigate complaints from employees or customers, and can demand to see an employer’s safety plan, but they are not expected to proactively inspect workplaces.

“This has to be a self-compliance process in order for businesses to reopen with these safety standards,” she said.

The Mandatory Workplace Safety Standards were developed by the DPH and COVID Command Center in consultation with the Reopening Advisory Board and incorporating feedback from industry, labor and community coalitions.

The standards, for example, call for all employees, customers and vendors to remain at least 6 feet apart “to the greatest extent possible,” both inside and outside workplaces, and require face coverings or masks for all employees.

These two criteria, in particular, generated a number of questions from the leaders of local governments, where many employees work in cramped spaces in historic buildings.

Polito said the standards recognize that people will find themselves in places, such as hallways, stairwells and elevators, where it is not possible to keep a distance of 6 feet, and that is one reason why face coverings remain part of the path forward.

Dr. Larry Madoff, medical director at the Bureau of Infectious Disease and Laboratory Sciences at the DPH, said, “Our hope is that people will continue to wear face coverings … because it’s not always possible to maintain the 6 feet of distance.”

Madoff acknowledged that there is still a lot to be learned about the legal and ethical implications of the safety standards, particularly with regard to public events such as town meetings and voting, and what to do about those who refuse to wear a mask. MMA Executive Director Geoff Beckwith encouraged the DPH to work with the administration’s legal office to explore these issues when formulating guidance.

Returning to work
Local leaders also sought clarification about ensuring that employees who might be infected with the coronavirus – even unknowingly – do not enter the workplace. The safety standards call for employees who are feeling ill to stay home, but how do employers determine whether someone is not feeling well? Are temperature checks effective?

Madoff said temperature checks present a resource challenge for employers, and are less effective at determining someone’s state of health than asking employees, as they enter the workplace, if they’re experiencing any of the 12 identified symptoms of COVID-19. (Presenting the 12 symptoms is more effective than a general, “How are you feeling?”)

“But,” he added, “this is something that we’re going to have to look at more carefully,” possibly on an industry-specific basis.

He said it is inadvisable to require a doctor’s note or evidence of a negative test before allowing an employee into the workplace.

Polito and Madoff stressed that the state’s ambitions to broaden COVID testing, and its groundbreaking tracing program, are key components of the reopening plan. Polito said news will be coming soon about an expansion of testing abilities, including “random serology testing” – a blood test to check for coronavirus antibodies. Madoff said the state – reflecting a shift in policy – is beginning this week to test asymptomatic individuals, prioritizing those who have been in contact with a known COVID case.

“We really want to get ahead of this virus, and this is one way of doing so,” he said.

Work to be done
Polito said the 17-member Reopening Advisory Board, which includes business leaders, public health experts and three municipal officials, has met with 44 industry associations and community coalitions representing more than 10,000 businesses and 2 million workers. The MMA is scheduled to give a presentation to the board tomorrow to discuss municipal concerns.

Polito said the administration will be contacting local officials shortly “to provide a way for interacting with you … [and] to make sure that you’re informed, that you have as much notice [as possible] and access to materials that you’ll need to be able to be ready when we say let’s go on some things.”

The lieutenant governor said state agencies and a working group of the Reopening Advisory Board are formulating guidance for summer camps and recreational facilities, including playgrounds.

On the topic of “enablers” that are needed in order for workers to return to workplaces, she said child care is a difficult problem to solve in the COVID environment, but there remains capacity in the currently operating emergency child care system that can handle the first phase of reopening, as “we develop new models of child care.” She added that the success of remote work for many employers, which the state will encourage to continue, may lessen the demand for child care services.

“Transportation also falls into that category of issues not easy to solve with these kinds of safety standards,” she said, but the Department of Transportation and MBTA are working on it.

Federal aid and fiscal matters
Housing and Economic Development Deputy Secretary Tim McGourthy provided an update on the range of federal aid his office has been working to get out to communities, particularly the popular Community Development Block Grants. He said billions in CDBG funding nationwide will be coming in three phases, both to entitlement communities and to non-entitlement communities through the state. His office has been awaiting guidance and the release of funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and a notice of funding availability will be coming out shortly.

He advised local leaders to also tap the Economic Development Assistance Fund, providing about $1.5 billion nationally, with $259 million going to the Northeast region.

“We do want to encourage local communities to look to EDA funding as well for the types of strategic or infrastructure needs that they might have,” McGourthy said. “The funding can go toward planning and technical assistance, capital and recapitalization of revolving loan funds, construction of infrastructure, or other economic development projects and innovation grants.”

The EDA started accepting applications on May 7, and communities are encouraged to work with their regional planning agencies.

He said the Paycheck Protection Program from the Small Business Administration faced implementation challenges, but is now proving successful, providing funding to more than half of businesses in Massachusetts.

McGourthy agreed to participate in an upcoming webinar to explain the complex array of federal funding programs, rules and application processes. He also advised local officials to check his agency’s website for details and updates.

Sean Cronin, senior deputy commissioner at the Division of Local Services, mentioned an administration webinar, arranged with the MMA and set for Thursday afternoon, on distribution of federal CARES Act funding to municipalities.

Communities that are unable to meet deadlines for state earmarks and grants due to the COVID emergency should contact the state agency involved to get extensions, Cronin said.

For local officials bracing for a wave of abatement requests following economic losses due to the COVID shutdown, Cronin reminded them that evaluations for fiscal 2021 tax bills are as of Jan. 1, 2020, which is pre-COVID.

“I think the real issue is for fiscal 2022, because that’s when the impact on valuations will come into play,” he said.

Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency Director Samantha Phillips discussed her agency’s efforts to boost access to personal protective equipment. She said nursing homes and other health care facilities can request PPE through their health and medical coalitions, though the federal government has also begun shipping PPE directly to nursing facilities.

She said MEMA has been working on “demand modeling to ensure that we have adequate supply [of PPE] to continue to serve essential services through the duration of this and well into the fall.” The Operational Services Division has sent information to local procurement officers about how to leverage state contracts for PPE.

“So there will be more information coming in the next couple of weeks,” Phillips said, “but we’re encouraging local communities to start to explore PPE procurement now that we’ve seen some stabilizing of the supply chain.”

Conferences to continue
The call was the eighth weekly conference with top state officials convened by the MMA. The calls are expected to continue each Tuesday afternoon for the duration of the COVID emergency in order to facilitate idea exchange and answer pressing questions.

Audio of May 12 call with administration (36M MP3)

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