Boston plans City Hall reopening, police listening sessions

A day after his city moved into its newest stage of reopening, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh on Tuesday detailed plans to "very carefully" begin to reopen City Hall to the public as he cautioned residents that the coming days would be critical to avoiding the plight of other states across the south and west where COVID-19 cases are surging.

Walsh said that beginning next Thursday City Hall would open by appointment three days a week to members of the public needing to transact business with the city. Services offered at City Hall pre-pandemic included everything from paying and challenging parking tickets to obtaining marriage licenses.

The building will be open Tuesdays, Thursday and Fridays to start, Walsh said, and all guests will be screened for symptoms of COVID-19 and elevated temperatures to gain entry. Government meetings will continue to take place virtually.

Up the hill from Government Center, legislative leaders and Gov. Charlie Baker have no plans yet to reopen the State House to the public, which is a building used less frequently than City Hall for transactional business and more as a museum for tourists and place for residents to participate in public debates.

Many members of the Senate and staff, however, were in the State House until after 4 a.m. on Tuesday morning working to pass a sweeping policing reform bill.

Asked about that policing legislation, Walsh said no one from the Senate ever reached out to the city to get its feedback on the proposed reforms, fueling the criticism heard in recent days that Senate leaders did not adequately involved stakeholders in the development of the bill.

Walsh said the Boston Police Department has already implemented many of the reforms under consideration by the Legislature, and he looked forward to working with the House, of which he was once a member, as they consider the Senate's bill.

"I'm looking forward to working now with the House of Representatives to see how it moves forward, but there's no question there's need for reforms in policing," Walsh said.

The city's own police reform task force, Walsh said, plans to hold online listening sessions over the next two weeks on the use of police body cameras, implicit bias training, civilian oversight and use of force policies.

Boston entered Phase 3 of its reopening on Monday a week after the rest of the state, allowing businesses that include gyms, museums and theaters to reopening their doors to patrons. As that happens, Walsh said the early days of the new phase will be critical to avoid going down the path of other states like California, where the governor has started rolling back some of the steps taken to restart that state's economy as coronavirus cases surge.

Walsh, at a press conference outside City Hall on Tuesday afternoon, said parts of the country are in the "worst place" they've ever been in fighting the pandemic, mentioning how the state of California has started rolling back some of the reopening steps that it took as coronavirus cases surge.

"We've worked our way into a strong position to control our own destiny here in Boston by precautions we have taken, but as soon as we stop doing that work and taking these precautions we are at risk of moving backwards," Walsh said.

With that in mind, Walsh announced a new youth summer jobs initiative and a plan by the city to open up 23 new sites in city neighborhoods near parks, playgrounds and other outdoor public locales for food trucks to set up shop this summer.

Walsh said food trucks, which have traditionally been concentrated in downtown areas, offer a "natural outdoor dining experience that aligns with our public safety precautions." The city will also be boosting funding for its youth summer employment program by $4 million to $12 million, and launching a new career development program that will pay students to take college-level courses with participating area schools.

The city of Boston has been averaging about 16 new cases of COVID-19 a day over the past week, according to the mayor, and it recorded 50 new cases since Friday bringing the total in the city to 13,723 cases.

Walsh said public health officials are closely monitoring caseloads and positive test rates and he's "ready to make whatever adjustments are needed" to the city's reopening process to avoid a second wave of the virus.

"Right now the United States is in the worst place its ever been in dealing with the pandemic," Walsh said, adding, "We need to do everything we can to avoid going down that same path that many of these states and cities are going down."

While the state has lifted the moratorium on single-use plastic bag bans, Walsh said he intends to keep the city's suspension of its plastic bag ban and the pause on its 5-cent paper bag fee in place until Oct. 1 to allow small businesses to use the inventory they had purchased.

Reusable bags, however, are safe to use, Walsh said.