Clarence Fanto: With Baker's virus plans, Berkshires should get a break

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LENOX — After sure-footed stewardship of the state during the height of the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Charlie Baker has stumbled by failing to regionalize reopenings and to provide prompt, clear guidance for small businesses, restaurants, fitness centers and other services many people consider essential.

Despite a Northeast regional compact organized by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New York and the southern New England states have gone their own way on beach, lake and park openings for the holiday weekend. Each state also has its own approach for restoring lodging, restaurant and small-business operations.

Cuomo and his team set up 10 distinct regions; the Capital District adjoining the Berkshires has just entered phase one of the reopening timetable.

It's crucial for states to work together, according to Wendy Parmet, a professor of public policy and urban affairs at Northeastern University in Boston, especially since a second wave of infections is possible.

"The danger is, it's a race to the bottom as more and more states reopen," she told The Boston Globe. "It will be harder and harder for governors to maintain stricter measures in their state. People are tired of the lockdowns and there is a pressure in opening up, but also a lot of risk."

Baker, who is data-driven and appropriately cautious, has taken some flak for not considering the Berkshires separately. The data shows that the county has been significantly less affected by the pandemic than Boston, Chelsea, Lowell, Brockton and Springfield, among other densely populated urban centers.

"A lot of people say to me, 'Why don't we do what New York did, separate New York City and Boston from everything else,' " Baker commented on WGBH Radio in Boston.

His answer: "We're a heck of a lot smaller geographically than New York is and we have people everywhere, we're not as open space, we're way denser than most of these other places, and that factors into whether you can do this stuff regionally or not."

Most of Berkshire County has plenty of open space, as Baker should know. Small business looms large here, and since hospitality is among our top sectors, restaurants, lodging places and family-owned stores catering to visitors as well as residents are begging for clear guidance on when they can open, and what precautions they must take.

Some of that information is becoming available, but no one is clear on when in June the state's phase two starts — a crucial date for restarting many businesses, along with day camps. Baker shouldn't wait until the eleventh hour to make the announcement.

The Berkshires' longest-serving state lawmaker, Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, has complained that mom and pop stores have taken an unfair hit while behemoths like Walmart and Target have been allowed to remain open because a portion of their superstores sell groceries and a few other essentials.

Owners of fitness centers feel aggrieved, since they're not eligible to restart until phase three, presumably in July.

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"We cannot help but wonder why our businesses were not considered for a structured opening plan that includes an earlier roll-out of the many safe options we all offer to our customers and community members," a group of owners wrote in an Eagle letter to the editor. "Overlooking our ability to work on an appointment basis, just like other businesses in our community are being allowed to do, shortchanges us, as well as our members and guests."

They're seeking a go-ahead for an earlier-phase opening for appointment-based fitness, delaying classes and full-scale operations until later.

"We strongly believe that overlooking fitness as an essential business is sending the wrong message to our community and will put the long range health of all the fitness and wellness businesses in the Berkshires in jeopardy," according to the letter crafted by Suzanne Merritt, president of Lenox Fit with her general manager, Daniel Shook and Brian Pickard, owner of Timeless Training in Pittsfield. It was signed by 10 other proprietors.

Lodging and restaurant owners are also griping about the lack of specific guidance from the state.

"The fact that the governor is forming a task force to come up with guidelines for lodging and restaurants is hard to fathom," said Wendy Littori, owner of Garden Gables, a downtown Lenox inn. "What were they doing for all the weeks before this? It's impossible for anyone to plan; there's no one to answer any questions or provide information."

Hopes for small-scale musical performances and other summertime pleasures are forlorn, stated Larry Oberwager, director of the Tanglewood Business Partners. He pointed out that, based on continuous contacts with Baker's office and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "it's 99 percent unlikely that gatherings of more than 50 people will be allowed before the fall."

State data shows that workers accounting for nearly one-third of the Massachusetts labor force have filed initial unemployment claims since March 15.

The vast majority of these jobs were in small business, retail, restaurant and hospitality sectors. Thanks to unemployment benefits more generous than any other state, with a $600 weekly federal payment added on through July, laid-off workers are getting by, and some may be reluctant to return to underpaid minimum-wage jobs, especially those that rely on tips.

Fortunately, most Berkshire residents are wearing face coverings and observing physical distancing, necessary precautions for a virus that has killed more than 6,000 Massachusetts residents in just two months.

This is, or should be, a nonpartisan issue, and it must be emphasized that health and safety are paramount. As Lenox VFW Commander Michael King pointed out when he urged residents to observe social distancing rules at Memorial Day observances: "Please do not turn a respectful moment into a selfish personal crusade because you disagree with the policies put in place in the interest of public health."

The economic disruption and Great Depression-level pain caused by the pandemic also must be confronted. We should count on our governor, who deserves great credit overall, to review his strategy and to consider giving the Berkshires a break ahead of hard-hit, densely populated Eastern Massachusetts.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.


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