Masks and distancing to become standard in workplace
Many businesses once deemed nonessential can reopen their doors in the coming weeks under a plan the Baker administration unveiled Monday, but when they do come back, they will not return to the same environment that they left.
Employers that 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 home or on staggered shifts. Workers and customers will take on new watchdog roles, urged to report any unsafe practices to trigger enforcement. Child care and public transit will operate with reduced capacity for at least several weeks longer.
As he unveiled his administration's phased reopening plan Monday, Gov. Charlie 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.
Baker 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," Baker said. "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 Monday with construction and manufacturing industries as well as houses of worship, which will be restricted to 40 percent capacity and are encourage 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 COVID-19.
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 potential 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 would 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, 'What if my employee becomes sick with COVID while working?' and to develop a plan around that as part of their 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.
The first batch of sector standards released Monday require hair salons and barbershops to provide hair services only, not any other services such as manicures or beard trimming; mandate glove usage and personal protective equipment on construction sites where distancing is impossible; and restrict office occupancy to 25 percent its maximum certified level.
Offices in Boston will remain closed longer than the rest of the state, allowed to reopen at reduced capacity beginning June 1.
John Pourbaix, executive director of the Construction Industries of Massachusetts, representing 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," he said. "We've been doing it for the last two months."
Some stakeholders have voiced concerns that businesses will face significant strain trying to acquire personal protective equipment or cleaning supplies so that they can comply with the new restrictions, particularly with supply chains disrupted.
"There are going to be expectations for staff and employees to have PPE in the workplace and in their various settings and as we know, supply chains are stretched and waiting lists are long, so the last thing we want to have happen is businesses that are finally ready to reopen can't reopen because they don't have access to basic PPE," Tim Murray, a former Democratic lieutenant governor who now leads the Worcester Chamber of Commerce, said in a Monday radio interview. "So we're trying to do what we can to try to put together some of the inventory and mix and match members who need them with some that are making them."
Housing and Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealy, who co-chaired the reopening advisory board alongside Polito, said the administration launched an online portal to connect businesses with Massachusetts manufacturers that are producing PPE and other important supplies.
While Polito said that child care and public transportation are "key components" to reviving economic activity, both fields will remain altered for weeks to come.
Most child care 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.
"Folks are continuing to work on creating what we would call the appropriately safe operating model for child care going forward," Baker said. "It's one of those issues that everybody knows they need to find an answer on, and we fully expect as we go forward, we're going to have to find one, too. But in the meantime, there will be significant capacity available through the existing system."
Public transit has also been dramatically altered by the pandemic, with ridership plummeting by more than 90 percent on the MBTA's subway lines and about 80 percent on its buses. To adjust to the depleted demand, the T scaled back service across the system, running most trains and buses on a Saturday schedule or something close to that.
Those schedules will remain unchanged through the first weeks-long phase of reopening. The Blue Line would return to its full schedule in phase two, while all other buses and trains would increase service in that phase. The administration's plan does not define the phase two service level beyond noting there will be a shorter time between trains.
The MBTA will not return to a full schedule until the third phase, which won't come until some time 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."
To help limit infection risks on public transit, the administration will encourage employers to stagger worker schedules so there are smaller rush-hour crowds and, whenever possible, to permit working from home.
"This is incredibly important to the reopening plan because reducing the number of employees in the workplace reduces the risk of COVID-19 transmission and will help reduce the number of employees that need to utilize public transit and childcare," Kennealy said at Monday's press conference.
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 child care, particularly how Massachusetts will use $45 million in federal child care funding in the CARES Act, and on transportation.
The administration's plan does not explicitly outline steps for boosting in-person state government operations, but Baker said Monday that he anticipates ramping up work "over the course of the next few weeks."
"We're going to have to open up some stuff that we either started doing online or dramatically reduced the amount of customer-facing activity that we did, and we'll be rolling that out over the course of the next few weeks," he said. "But we fully expect to put as much of what we possibly can back in service."
Decisions about reopening the State House to the public will be made in conjunction with legislative leaders, he said.
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