Walsh says Boston will move slowly as it begins reopening

With the state’s economy beginning to wake up on Tuesday, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh stressed the importance of moving slowly in the capital, stating that he has no plans right now to lift the city’s curfew and that he worries that allowing offices to reopen at a quarter of normal capacity might be “too much” to start.

The mayor also outlined a more deliberate approach to resuming construction activities, and said the city was working on a plan that could be ready in the next week or two revolving around outdoor dining once restaurants are allowed to reopen.

Walsh spoke outside City Hall on Tuesday for the first time since Gov. Charlie Baker on Monday detailed his four-phase strategy to reopen the Massachusetts economy after two months of being shut down due to fears over the spread of COVID-19. The mayor said he thought Baker took a “thoughtful approach” but differed with the governor over the reopening of offices downtown.

Baker said offices can bring 25 percent of their workforce back starting next Monday everywhere except Boston, and on June 1 in the city.

“I’m personally not comfortable with the 25 percent, to be quite honest with you, and we’re looking at it now,” said Walsh. “I just had a conversation before I came down about what the number would be, but I think 25 percent on the first day would be too much.”

Walsh said that large companies like State Street have said they won’t reopen offices right away. He noted that Boston is unique in that it is the third most densely populated major city in the country, that it doubles in population size every day as workers commute into the city, and that it is a diverse hub of tourism, higher education and health care.

“Overall, the data tell us that we’re moving in the right direction on new cases, on positive tests, and in hospitalizations for about three weeks here now, and that is good news,” Walsh said. “But every day the trend also gives us reason for caution in the terms of how gradual it is, in how necessary our precautions have been, and how much potential there is for new outbreaks if we don’t keep doing the right thing.”

Employers that do revive operations face a range of mandatory protocols to mitigate the risks of COVID-19 transmission and an administration that wants them to keep employees at home or on staggered shifts. Workers and customers will take on new watchdog roles; they are being urged to report any unsafe practices to trigger enforcement. Childcare and public transit will operate with reduced capacity for at least several weeks longer.

As he unveiled his administration’s phased reopening plan,  Baker stressed that key features of the pandemic response – wearing face coverings in public, frequent hand-washing, and social distancing – will remain a necessity to stave off a rebound in cases of a virus that has already killed more than 5,700 Massachusetts residents.

He described the process of shuttering almost every facet of the economy and then reopening with new practices as “something no one’s ever done before. This guidance asks people to change behaviors, and it changes the way some of our favorite places look and feel. This is not permanent. At some point, there will be treatments and, ultimately, a vaccine. But for the foreseeable future, everyone needs to continue to do the right things to bring the fight to the virus so that we can continue to move forward.”

The four-phase reopening process began with construction and manufacturing industries as well as houses of worship, which will be restricted to 40 percent capacity and encouraged to make changes to services, such as using pre-packaged communion. More businesses, including laboratory space, hair salons, and car washes, can reopen with additional restrictions starting May 25.

Under the administration’s outline, every business in Massachusetts will need to draft a written plan in the next week for how it intends to operate without spreading the coronavirus.

Businesses do not need to submit the plan for approval to reopen, but they must keep a copy at the physical location for inspection at any time. Employers must visibly post fliers describing rules for social distancing, hygiene, and cleaning that apply to all workers and customers.

State officials expect employees and patrons to lead the charge in maintaining safety requirements. Enforcement actions, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito said, will be triggered by worker and customer complaints about possible violations of the new restrictions.

Local boards of health, the state Department of Public Health, and the Department of Labor Standards will share responsibility for enforcing the requirements. Employers who do not comply will receive verbal consultation and redirection for a first offense, written redirection for a second offense, fines up to $300 for the three subsequent offenses and then a cease and desist letter as the strictest punishment, according to the administration.

“It’s about developing confidence for workers to feel safe in returning to their jobs,” Polito said. “And as part of that standard, the employer needs to address [the question] ‘What if my employee becomes sick with COVID while working?’ and to develop a plan around that as part of the reopening strategy.”

Some of the rules, including a requirement that all employees wear face-coverings, will apply to every business in Massachusetts. The administration also plans industry-specific guidances to dictate further restrictions.

John Pourbaix, executive director of the Construction Industries of Massachusetts, which represents tens of thousands of workers, said in an interview that he views the reopening proposal as a “great plan.” The industry-specific guidelines will change conditions on the ground, he said, pointing to practices already implemented by essential construction projects that were not halted.

“It will definitely be different, but I think our industry has proved it’s doable and workable,” said Pouirbaix. “We’ve been doing it for the last two months.”

Housing and Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealy, who co-chaired the reopening advisory board alongside Polito, said the administration has launched an online portal to connect businesses with Massachusetts manufacturers that are producing PPE and other important supplies.

While Polito said that childcare and public transportation are “key components” to reviving economic activity, both fields will remain altered for weeks to come.

Most childcare facilities in Massachusetts had been ordered to close until June 29 under a previous Baker executive order. The reopening plan does not bring those back online immediately. During the Phase One reopening that began Monday, the emergency child care system originally set up for essential workers will stay in place, and still has about 65 percent of its 10,000-child capacity available “to serve more families, to provide care options, as more workers head back to work and sectors become active again,” Polito said.

K-12 schools will remain physically closed through the end of the academic year.

The Department of Public Health and the Department of Early Education and Care are working to plan guidelines to reopen summer camps, potentially as soon as Phase Two, if the state observes positive trends in key public health metrics.

The MBTA will not return to a full schedule until the third phase, which won’t come until sometime in July at the earliest. Once that hits, commuting will still look different.

Social distancing “will limit effective capacity on vehicles even after full service schedules are restored,” according to the plan, and riders will be required to wear face-coverings on buses and trains, though MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said last week that the T “will not be refusing service to people who are not wearing face masks.”

In its initial reaction to the reopening plan, the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce praised the administration for its work but said employers across the region need clearer information on childcare, particularly how Massachusetts will use $45 million in federal childcare funding in the CARES Act, and on transportation.