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Our members are the local governments of Massachusetts and their elected and appointed leadership.
The gradual reopening of the Massachusetts economy, particularly summer activities, was the main topic of today’s weekly conference call with top-level state officials and more than 200 local leaders from across Massachusetts.
With COVID-19 health data continuing to trend downward, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito gave an update on Phase 2 of the state’s four-phase reopening plan, the first stage of which began Monday, and Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Kathleen Theoharides discussed the latest guidance for outdoor activities, from pools and beaches to sports and summer camps.
Activities that got the green light this week, with restrictions, include child care, day camps, lodgings, outdoor dining, pools, playgrounds, youth and adult amateur sports, specified personal services, driving and flight schools, and outdoor historical spaces. Guidance for these activities and more can be found through the MMA website. At a date to be determined, and depending on health data, the second stage of Phase 2 will allow indoor dining at restaurants (with limitations), and specified close-contact personal services.
The state last week also issued general guidance for businesses that do not fit one of the identified categories, and guidance for summer school programs. Polito said summer school “gives us the opportunity” to further develop the guidance that will be needed for reopening public schools in the fall, but it should not be seen as the fall guidance.
“They will be adjusted and studied further,” she said.
Polito said the state focused on outdoor activities because they pose a lower risk of COVID transmission, and youth activities because those under age 18 are at far lower risk of developing complications from COVID.
Polito also mentioned the guidance available for libraries, which were allowed to reopen under certain conditions on June 8, and recognized the work of local officials in implementing the phased reopening.
“I just want to thank everybody on this call for what you’re doing,” she said. “We could not have a safe and successful reopening of our economy without you.”
Sean Cronin, senior deputy commissioner at the Division of Local Services, announced that the first round of reimbursements through the federal CARES Act for COVID-19 emergency response during fiscal 2020 was being wired to local governments starting today. He said these federal funds don’t need to be appropriated at the local level, but need to be accepted under Section 53 as a grant.
The deadline for communities to submit applications for fiscal 2020 Coronavirus Relief Funds has been extended by one week, to June 12. The next application round is expected this fall. Complete information is available at the DLS website.
Cronin also reviewed the law signed by the governor last Friday that allows communities to change certain town meeting, election and budget processes in response to the ongoing public health emergency. The law allows towns to reduce quorums for town meetings, hold representative town meetings remotely, and delay town elections and the filing of city budgets. The law also allows cities and towns, for fiscal 2021, to suspend the dedication of revenue to a special revenue fund or stabilization fund for specific purposes and use it for general fund purposes.
The DLS has released a section-by-section summary of the law and is working with the Office of the Attorney General on guidance for municipalities, which should be released shortly, Cronin said.
Lt. Gov. Polito announced that the guidelines and application are available for the 2020 MassWorks Infrastructure Program, which could help with projects that promote economic recovery in communities facing budget constraints due to the COVID emergency. The competitive grant program for municipalities and other eligible public entities, administered by the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, assists with public infrastructure projects. The application deadline is Aug. 28.
With a bill in progress in the Legislature to fund the Chapter 90 local road and bridge program, Polito said the administration is anxious to sign a bill and get the funds out to cities and towns.
Secretary Theoharides said the state is “trying to get as many outdoor activities [as possible] safely open so that there’s a diversity of opportunities, equitable access, and a balance around letting outdoor businesses open and continue to contribute to local economies.”
The theme of the guidance for these activities is to continue to keep groups under 10 individuals, practice distancing to the greatest extent possible, avoid contact, wear face coverings when distancing may not be possible – such as when entering or exiting a pool area – and practice proper hygiene and sanitization.
“Athletic fields and courts and other playing surfaces are open for non-organized use,” she said.
Competitive sports remain on hold because of the risk of physical contact, though practices and drills may be held with small groups that are adequately spaced. Basketball courts may reopen, but only for shooting baskets and not for pick-up games, which some local officials suggested could present enforcement challenges.
Theoharides reminded local officials that state guidelines do not require the opening of any facility. She noted that many communities are taking a phased-in approach to facilities such as playgrounds and spray decks.
“You should do what makes sense for your community and make sure you have what you need in place before you open,” she said.
With the summer season around the corner, Polito said the 10-person limit on gathering sizes remains in effect until further notice, quashing plans for parades, street festivals, road races or any event intended to draw a crowd. Outdoor spaces do, however, allow for more small groups to use the same field, park or picnic area.
“It’s obviously OK to have many more than 10 people at a beach or a park,” Theoharides said, “but bringing together people at the same time and place for the same purpose is what creates the difficulties and the risk [of COVID transmission]. And those are the things we are not doing right now.”
She said the guidance for beaches is largely the same as it was for Phase 1, calling for 12-foot spacing between groups, though non-contact ball games are now allowed.
Public and semi-public outdoor swimming pools can reopen in Phase 2, but indoor pools are reopening only for supervised sports and camps for those under age 18.
“We are asking pool operators to look at the loads in terms of ensuring social distancing can be maintained on the deck areas of pools,” Theoharides said. “And we’re saying that capacity should not exceed 40% of the existing pool facility’s capacity, but pool operators are allowed to go below that, if they feel like that number doesn’t allow for safe social distancing.”
Swim teams may work with coaches, but individual swim instruction is not yet allowed. Hot tubs and whirlpools remain closed.
Guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control indicates that the risk of COVID transmission on surfaces at playgrounds and outdoor fitness areas is low, and outdoor areas generally require normal routine cleaning but not disinfection. High-touch surfaces, including grab bars and railings, tables and benches, should be frequently cleaned.
“It’s really more about parents being able to keep their kids distanced,” Theoharides said, “and adhering to guidance related to masks and proper hygiene, washing hands before and after coming to a playground, and not coming when they’re sick.”
Users are responsible for cleaning picnic tables before and after use, she said.
Outdoor fitness classes are allowed, but must be limited to 10 participants.
Today’s conference call was the twelfth in the weekly series arranged by the MMA. They are held every Tuesday afternoon.