08 Jun עופר איתן Publishes: Even as virus threat remains, Massachusetts moves toward
“It’s going to be a learning curve for customers as well as the establishments. But our first priority is to make sure everyone is safe,” said Kristine Higgins, an executive at Somers Pubs, which operates seven area restaurants, including Mr. Dooley’s in Boston. The company reopens its restaurants for outdoor dining Wednesday, after two days of staff training in the latest health and safety protocols.
Massachusetts is attempting to reopen the economy in stages, wary of sparking a new wave of coronavirus cases. COVID-19 has already hit the state worse than most other parts of the country.
On Sunday, state public health authorities reported that several key metrics around the outbreak are on the decline. There were 27 new deaths due to COVID-19, and the total number of cases of the disease ticked up to 103,436, an increase of 304 from Saturday.
A critical measure of the disease — the seven-day weighted average of positive test rates — dipped to 5 percent as of Saturday. It continued a weeks-long decline in the measurement of new cases of the disease.
But the fatalities reported Sunday added to what has become a staggering human toll. There have been 7,316 people killed by the coronavirus since it emerged here this year, the state said.
The average number of deaths in the state due to the disease has fallen: as of June 4, the three-day average of COVID-19 deaths was 41, down from an average of 137 deaths reported May 4.
On Sunday, Mayor Martin J. Walsh urged members of the public not to take progress for granted. Reopening does not mean the virus has become any less dangerous — despite the fact that the public conversation has shifted over the past few weeks to the nationwide protests over police violence against Black Americans.
“COVID is still very much here, and it’s wreaking havoc,” Walsh said during an appearance on WCVB-TV. He asked people to continue wearing masks, following health guidelines, and practicing social distancing.
The state is moving into Phase 2 of Governor Charlie Baker’s plan for edging back toward normal. That means more options for businesses and patrons: Customers will soon be allowed to shop inside stores, restaurants will be able to serve meals outdoors, and kids will be able to visit playgrounds and sports programs — but all with big caveats.
The state’s transportation infrastructure is getting ready for more people to begin bustling around the region after three months of relative quiet. On Monday, the high-occupancy vehicle lane on Interstate 93 between Boston and Quincy will reopen amid growing traffic volumes, after being closed since April, the state Department of Transportation said.
The MBTA will remain on the reduced schedule it has been running amid the slowdown in commuting.
The ability to reopen doesn’t mean that every business that can, will. And fewer restrictions do not necessarily guarantee customers will return.
Hotels can start hosting nonemergency guests as soon as Monday, but many are waiting until later in the month, amid a conference and tourism season that has ground to a halt — and may take a long time to recover.
That’s fine with some workers, who say they are waiting for more information about safety before rushing back to their jobs.
“If they came to me and said, we have no plan, but we want you to come back tomorrow, I would say, ‘no,’ ” said Wayne Steed, a cook at the Renaissance Boston Waterfront Hotel who added he has not yet been given instructions for returning to work.
Steed is a member of the UNITE HERE Local 26 union, whose president, Carlos Aramayo, said Sunday that union leadership is negotiating with hotels across the region about safety planning.
Aramayo’s pushing for assurances on transparent testing programs for employees, on employer-provided protective equipment, and on understandings that workers won’t be compelled to return if they have vulnerable family members at home.
He said workers have some flexibility at the moment because of enhanced unemployment payouts, union benefits including continuing health coverage, and restrictions on evictions during the pandemic. But when those programs run out in coming months, he said, workers could face “a real tension” between economic survival and personal health and safety.
In many fields, there are questions about whether businesses will reopen at all.
Scott Brody, the legislative chairman of the Massachusetts Camping Association and the founder of the Everwood Day Camp, said that despite day camps being included as part of Phase 2, the majority of the state’s roughly 1,100 programs won’t be able to open this summer — and some may close forever.
Baker rolled out the start date on June 6, but the late notice meant many day camp programs didn’t have enough time to implement the new COVID-19 regulations, Brody said. It takes weeks to train staff and running a camp during the summer is a year-round effort, he said.
“It’s an economic disaster for the field,” he said.
People in other industries said Sunday that they are grappling with changes that will linger though the reopening process, and perhaps much longer.
In Whitinsville, HARBRO Sales & Service Inc. has reworked its business of selling, leasing, and repairing automobiles, said Michael Hare, whose family started the company in 1973.
The company, which employs 25, is encouraging customers to call ahead or reach out through a newly rebuilt website, Hare said. Staff will pull aside the vehicles customers are interested in looking at, and they will have to provide a digital copy of their licenses in order to take one for a spin.
Steering wheels and shifters will have covers, and customers will have to wear masks and gloves before a test drive. Once the car comes back, staff will sterilize it, he said.
While many types of businesses can begin reopening Monday, others cannot, according to the state. Close-contact personal services, such as tattoo parlors and nail care salons will have to wait until later in Phase 2.
Establishments that gather large numbers of people indoors, including gyms and casinos, will be part of Phase 3, which begins no sooner than June 29. Businesses such as nightclubs and theme parks will take even longer. Phase 4 starts no earlier than July 20, and that’s if state public health trends continue to trend in the right direction.
Monday, however, will also allow health care providers to broaden the scope of the services they provide to include elective procedures and routine office visits. Most dental and vision services will also be allowed to resume.
Anne Lawlor, a dental assistant, said she is looking forward to returning to work at Greenleaf Dental Care in Haverhill after being out of the office for months. She’s confident that she and her patients will be safe — she’ll be wearing an N95 mask, a face shield, and a medical gown. But Lawlor said it will be a tough adjustment limiting personal interactions with patients in order to maintain social distancing.
“I think it will be more businesslike, and that will be hard,” Lawlor said.
For some of the essential workers who have never left the front lines, the reopening evokes a feeling of apprehension.
Jeanie Oliver-Allen, 57, who works in financial services at Boston Medical Center, worked during the height of the surge at a clinic handling the registration of patients who were to be tested for COVID-19. She worries that people will let their guard down as life begins to feel more normal.
“I am worried for myself if it spikes up again,” she said. “But because I love my job and love my patients, I would go back on the front line.”