The Baker administration should announce its phased economic reopening plan by Friday to give employers and workers at least 10 days to prepare for a potential reawakening of activity, according to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, which flagged testing, child care, and transportation as the three major barriers to reopening amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
Chamber officials worked with the organization's nearly 1,500 members and Boston-area CEOs to come up with a policy brief and economic reopening agenda that outlines the information employers and employees need from government. The chamber's brief, titled "The Massachusetts Way Forward" and obtained by the News Service, was presented Friday to an economic reopening group led by Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito.
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Gov. Charlie Baker recently extended his stay-at-home advisory and order closing non-essential workplaces to employees, customers and the public to May 18, beyond its already-extended May 4 end date. Baker has not said when he plans to permit business reopenings, saying he'll be guided by public health data and driven by the goal of preventing a resurgence of COVID-19.
In seeking a plan by Friday, chamber officials argue that most other states in a multi-state regional compact have already announced the criteria necessary for an initial economic reopening, and Massachusetts should release "data criteria the state must meet and what activities will be permitted and under what conditions" as well as target criteria or dates for additional reopening phases.
To address the biggest barriers businesses see to reopening, the chamber wants the state to commit to a statewide goal of COVID-19 testing for everyone, aim to reopen child care centers by June 1, and announce changes to the MBTA's capacity, including information on planned service frequency for bus, train, and commuter rail lines and maximum passengers permitted on each type of service.
By May 18, the state should announce universal testing availability as its goal and "detail what it will take to reach that goal, including but not limited to costs and the capacity necessary to manufacture, administer, and analyze tests."
"A rapid increase and expansion in both diagnostic and antibody testing is a top priority for all businesses," the brief says. "Massachusetts should have a statewide goal testing for anyone, anytime meaning that anyone can get a test, at any time they want one."
Massachusetts is a leader among states in testing, but still only a small fraction of residents have been tested and governors are pressing for the federal government to take a greater leadership role in making testing availability more widespread.
On April 28, Baker extended school closures through the end of the academic year and non-emergency child care closures until June 29. In eyeing the June 1 day for child care center reopenings, the chamber is calling on the state to detail restrictions that might be in place, precautions care providers should take, and guidance on capacity so that providers can communicate with their clients. The chamber is also suggesting that the state plan for "creating alternative or additional childcare, including resources for older children who would have participated in camps, summer school, or other activities."
The MBTA looms as a major challenge. The system, according to the chamber, "carried over a million riders each day and social distancing will change that." T officials this week discussed budget proposals that would be sufficient to return to pre-pandemic service levels, although a final budget is not set yet.
An executive order takes effect Wednesday requiring people over the age of 2 to wear face masks in public if social distancing may not be possible.
"Many T customers are already wearing face coverings while in stations and onboard vehicles," MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said in a statement Tuesday night. "This new measure is one more important step in our continuing efforts to protect our workforce and our riders."
The T says it is currently disinfecting its fleet vehicles every 24 hours and cleaning high-contact surfaces such as handrails, fare gates, and fare vending machines in subway stations once every four hours.
Business leaders stressed that rather than regulation, they prefer guidance and clear information from the state about reopening and addressing barriers.
"Major employers are looking to build consensus among themselves on things like when and how employees return to physical workspaces, adjusting to new building layouts and procedures, procuring PPE, and training employees for the new workspace," the brief says. "They're also thinking about how their decisions will impact small businesses near their offices. A unified response from business, combined with information and guidance from government, will put Massachusetts on a path forward for a strong economic reopening."
With COVID-19 transmission still occurring, liability is a concern among employers, the chamber said, and some exposure "should be dealt with federally" while other concerns could be mitigated by guidance from the government.