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Our members are the local governments of Massachusetts and their elected and appointed leadership.
The weekly conference call with top-level state officials and hundreds of local government leaders from across the state this morning focused on preparations for the second phase of the state’s four-phase reopening plan, and the impending return of popular services such as child care and summer camps, retail stores and outdoor dining.
Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito reviewed executive orders signed by the governor last Friday and yesterday that enable these businesses, plus lodgings, amateur sports organizations and other services, to bring back employees and prepare for meeting new safety standards in order to reopen.
Child care, including summer day camps, has been identified as an “enabler” that’s necessary for the state’s workforce to fully return. Requirements for non-emergency child care services and summer camps were published yesterday by the Department of Early Education and Care.
Restaurants may provide outdoor dining service, with restrictions, upon the start of Phase 2, with indoor dining coming later in Phase 2, Polito said. Dining tables will be 6 feet apart and limited to parties of six. Reservations will be encouraged, and bar service will not be allowed. Restaurant workers will be required to wear face coverings.
Restaurants and local officials across the state are currently working together to explore viable options for the businesses to expand their outdoor capacity, particularly during the summer months.
To help this effort, the executive order provides flexibility to local licensing authorities to grant approval for a change for any type of license that permits the sale of alcoholic beverages for on-premises consumption – bypassing the three-step, and usually lengthy, process involving the state Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission. The MMA is recommending that cities and towns involve municipal counsel in this process.
Polito said the restaurant guidance allows “outdoor dining in places that are maybe contiguous to the restaurant but also remote from the restaurant,” which may include public ways. Restaurants may use tents and canopies to provide cover for patrons, but they must not impede the flow of fresh air.
“So I think you will have a lot of tools to work with in order to support your restaurants,” she said.
She said the state’s working group on restaurants, lodging and tourism will be addressing “the kinds of attractions that might be ready to open sooner than Phase 3, under certain capacity restrictions and safety protocols,” and will be providing guidance for museums and cultural facilities.
Phase 2 is anticipated to begin on June 8 if the latest COVID-related public health data indicate that it’s safe to move forward. The administration is saying that there will be stages of reopening within each phase of the state plan.
Polito said the administration will be evaluating the latest data on Friday, with an announcement about the beginning of Phase 2 shortly thereafter.
Hotels, motels, bed and breakfasts, and short-term rentals may now begin taking reservations again and will be able to reopen sometime during Phase 2, which is good news for cities and towns that count on revenue from a local-option lodging tax.
Retail stores may transition from curbside pickup and delivery-only to in-store browsing and transactions, with restrictions. Retailers will need to monitor customer entries and exits and limit occupancy, and all stores are encouraged to offer exclusive hours or other accommodations for high-risk populations.
Polito said additional guidance for outdoor recreation activities – including pools, playgrounds, miniature golf, batting cages, golf courses and driving ranges, some organized youth and adult amateur sports activities and programs, and recreational day camps – is expected today or tomorrow.
Funeral homes will be permitted to resume holding services with a capacity limit in Phase 2, and warehouses and distribution centers will fully reopen.
Polito said personal services “that do not include close contact,” such as photography, window washing, and career coaching, will be opening early in Phase 2, with services like massages and nail salons opening later in Phase 2.
She also went over the current Safer At Home Advisory in Phase 1, which progresses to a Business and Recreational Travel Discouraged Advisory in Phase 2. She said the advisory urges people to self quarantine for 14 days when they have traveled out-of-state, but those who live outside of Massachusetts but commute to the state for work are exempt.
Operators of lodging are responsible for informing those making a reservation of the travel policy, but do not need to enforce it.
Child care and camps
Samantha Aigner-Treworgy, commissioner of the Department of Early Education and Care, went over new guidance for the state’s 8,000 child care facilities as well as summer camps.
“This is a hard time,” she said, “and child care is going to look different than we traditionally have seen it.”
The guidance defines group sizes and staffing ratios by age group as well as “the operational procedures that our programs will have to abide by in order to ensure that we are stemming the spread of the virus … and making sure that child care programs don’t become exposure sites as we move forward.”
There will be no intermingling between groups as well as limitations on shared spaces and “non-essential adults in the building.” Children will be screened for symptoms at drop off and pick up.
Infant and toddler staff ratios and group sizes have remained the same as pre-COVID levels, while preschool groups are cut roughly in half, to 10 children with two adults.
“We are encouraging people to think about space differently, to be able to split space, add different groupings,” Aigner-Treworgy said. “We’re hopeful that the group size of 10 helps maintain some control over those [safety] standards in the classroom.”
Providers licensed by the Department of Early Education and Care will need to submit a safety plan and a self-attestation to be able to reopen, “but we will not require site visits or any sort of time delay so that we can get child care up and running as quickly as possible to meet the needs of your families and your communities.”
Summer day camps will have a different process to reopen because their regulations come from the Department of Public Health, but their safety standards align with those for child care, she said.
Camp spaces will need to be prepared to ensure physical distancing, and campers and counselors will need to stay together in their groups. Staff will not be able to move between groups either during the day or from day-to-day, unless needed to provide supervision of specialized activities such as swimming.
Campers and counselors will need daily health screenings, and camps will need plans in place for when a staff member or child becomes sick. Camps must develop safe pickup/drop off procedures to maintain social distancing, and may not take campers on off-site travel.
“We know that this will be a summer of transition, both for programs deciding whether they can come back to the market over the summer or wait for the fall, and parents also deciding what services they need as work changes,” Aigner-Treworgy said. “So we’ll be monitoring the information and data carefully … to understand where we may have gaps across the state over the summer.”
She said the Department of Early Education and Care will be continually updating online FAQs as questions come in. She said her department will also provide videos and training on how providers can encourage distancing practices among young, energetic children.
“What we hope is that the professionals, both in camps and in child care, can really use their expertise to design the day in ways that encourage those kinds of [distancing] behaviors,” she said, “although we recognize that it is hard to require children not to touch.”
Public health update
Dr. Catherine Brown, state epidemiologist at the Department of Public Health, explained recent changes in the weekly reporting of city and town data in the state’s COVID dashboard. In order to provide more context, the state recently began reporting the total number of residents in each municipality that has been tested for COVID (using the PCR molecular test, not antibody tests), the population-adjusted testing rate, and the percentage of residents that tested positive.
“The number of cases that are identified in a particular municipality is really also dependent on the amount of testing that’s happening within that municipality,” she said.
The new data helps to address questions like, Are you seeing a large number of cases in your community because there’s been a lot of testing in that community, or is there potentially an indication of a hotspot?
“There is still a need for us to be able to expand access to testing sites across the state,” she said. “We can see from this that there are clearly communities where less testing has occurred.”
She added, however, that a recent drop in people seeking testing is likely due to reduced transmission of COVID.
“Because of all the social distancing measures, the stay at home, all of the hard work that we’ve all done, we did actually bend the curve, and so we are right now in this moment reaping the benefits of that,” she said. “There are fewer people getting sick right now, and so fewer people need to get tested.”
Anyone who is identified as a close contact of someone with COVID is recommended for testing, however, even if they don’t have any symptoms. She said recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services also support ongoing testing in long-term care facilities, which house vulnerable populations and “have been hit particularly hard during this pandemic.” The DPH, in partnership with the COVID Command Center and the Massachusetts National Guard, will continue its close monitoring of these facilities.
“These populations … are going to continue to be high-risk and very vulnerable,” she said.