With the surge in coronavirus hospitalizations apparently reaching a plateau in Massachusetts, planning has started for what comes next –the gradual lifting of restrictions that shut down large parts of the state’s economy and social life.
After extending the COVID-19 state of emergency until May 18th, Governor Charlie Baker announced the formation of a new reopening advisory board – a 17-member panel of health, municipal, and business leaders -- to draw up the rules of the road for revving up the state’s economy.
Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito chairs the board, which held its first meeting Tuesday.
"Our plan to reopen will include guidence for things like sanitized shared spaces, realistic social distancing protocols for customers and employees and expanded access to testing," said Polito.
Baker on Wednesday expanded on the process the advisory board will follow for its decision-making. He said businesses in each industry sector should develop a consensus on how to safely operate and then pitch their proposals to the panel.
" That puts the ball in the court of all these different employers to talk to one another, work together and come up with a set of proposals and ideas that they can then bring to the advisory board," said Baker.
Health data will dictate when the reopening plan will be implemented, Baker stressed.
"When we take a step forward we don't want to take two steps back," said Baker.
Other states that have so far announced reopening plans differ in their approaches.
Rhode Island, for example, is planning to gradually increase from 5 to 10 the number of people allowed in workplaces and at social gatherings, open some child care centers, public parks, beaches, and dentist offices in early May. A second phase would reopen hair salons and allow some dining-in at restaurants.
Vermont has given the go ahead for some businesses to reopen including outdoor retail operations, but with no more than 10 people allowed on site.
On May 1st in Maine businesses that can reopen will include hair salons, dog-groomers, car dealerships, and drive-in theaters. Beginning on June 1st, all retail businesses, restaurants, and gyms can reopen with a gathering size limit of 50 people.
Local governments in Massachusetts are also beginning to plan for reopening municipal buildings, senior centers, and libraries.
Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno said he has instructed department heads to plan for the eventual reopening of the city.
"We can't wait," said Sarno. " We are in the business of helping the public and we love to do that day in and day out."
Patrick Sullivan, the city’s director of parks, buildings and recreation offered a preview this week of what to expect when public buildings do reopen.
" Everyone should not be surprised," said Sullivan. "It will be a very slow opening. It will be limited access. When you approach a building, as you enter, your temperature will be taken, and if it is not the appropriate temperature, you will be asked to leave."
Also, there will be hand sanitizer dispensers at the building entrances and inside offices that people go to for city business. Sullivan said safe social distancing will be practiced at all times.
"At times, it may look like Costco or the Home Depot. If the building has too many people, there will be a line outside," said Sullivan.
School buildings are closed for the rest of the academic year with education now taking place remotely. State education commissioner Jeff Riley said planning for the next school year is beginning.
Riley told a meeting of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education that he has an advisory group of educators and public health officials looking at options including what other countries have done.
"Some countries are having children wear face masks, some are staggering schedules, some countries have thier kid's desks six-feet apart," Riley told the board.
The Massachusetts Trial Court is also working on a reopening plan. Court buildings are closed to the public until June 1st.