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As The Berkshires Prepare To Reopen, Risk Of Coronavirus Resurgence Looms

An empty street stretches out under a blue sky
Josh Landes
The empty streets of downtown Pittsfield, Massachusetts

As Massachusetts rolls out its phased reopening plan, Berkshire County leaders are weighing a need for revenue with a need for safety.

With Governor Charlie Baker’s announcement that the state would gradually reopen after two months of all but essential businesses ordered shut, dormant sectors of the economy will come back to life.

“A lot of people are going to be able to get right back to work with things like manufacturing and construction returning to general operations effective immediately," said Jonathan Butler the president of 1Berkshire, the county’s chief economic development agency. “I am intrigued by some of the outdoor recreational sites. It looks like some of our cultural institutions and other major players in the Berkshire economy are going to be able to open next weekend – or at least Memorial Day, it looks like May 25th. And it also is nice to see some of our retail shops being able to do curbside retail. It’s encouraging that service providers like hair salons and barbers and dog groomers are going be able to reopen. There’s a lot of small business activity there.”

But those glimmers of hope will struggle to fill one of the county’s biggest voids. 1Berkshire’s most recent data on visitor spending from 2018 found that almost 4,400 county jobs are directly related to tourism, with an associated payroll of almost $150 million. The report says that the total economic impact of tourism brings over $825 million into the region’s economy.

“We know that Tanglewood, for example, accounts for over $100 million of that spending," said Butler. "So that’s 1/8th of those dollars that aren’t going to enter our economy this summer with Tanglewood not being a player – and Tanglewood’s not the only major stakeholder that has had to either cancel or postpone their season. We’ve seen the same from Jacob’s Pillow, Shakespeare & Company, and some others.”

Butler says that between fulltime residents and second home owners – a population 1Berkshire says has largely returned to the county since the outbreak began – he endorses the idea floated by State Representative Smitty Pignatelli that Berkshire businesses refocus their models on the current population.

“There’s certainly an opportunity for a lot of economic activity there even without the visitors coming from over state lines," said Butler. "To the extent that businesses that have been heavily reliant on visitors to the Berkshires can pivot a bit and focus more on those of us that are here right now – that’s a smart move.”

In the public health sector, Allison Egan is a senior public health planner for the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission. She’s been involved with coordinating the county’s response to COVID-19 since the beginning, and gives Baker’s reopening plan her stamp of approval.

“It’s more restrictive than I was expecting, which, as a public health person, I really appreciated that," Egan told WAMC. "I think the message came through really loud and clear that people should continue to wear their face masks outside and inside when they’re not able to do social distancing, and really respect the rules laid out by businesses in grocery stores and health care facilities to really respect people’s ability to kind of function and ease into this new phase.”

She says the next big question concerns defining the terms in the guidance, and how the orders and advisories are to be interpreted on a local level.

“Even though restrictions will start to let up between today and May 25th for the first phase, there’s just going to be a lot of new issues that come up in terms of complaints and who’s allowed to open what portion of their business,” the public health planner told WAMC.

Egan says the takeaway from the reopening plan is not that the coast is clear.

“We don’t want to give people a false sense of security in terms of, now that restrictions are being let up a bit more you can go out and do XYZ that are non-essential," she said. "It’s really, really important that people understand that the best way to protect themselves and to respect their neighbors and keep their friends and family healthy is to continue wearing their mask and washing their hands diligently and respecting personal space and everything.”

Given the delicacy of the public health situation, the stakes are high as state residents react to the new plan.

“We could absolutely see a resurgence," Egan told WAMC. "I think the ease in which this phase one of the reopening is going to go is positive because it’s so restrictive, but people should certainly be aware that this doesn’t mean that we couldn’t have a resurgence almost immediately.”

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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