In any other year, all three might have been a big part of people’s Memorial Day plans. And they still might be. But as the unofficial start of summer arrives this weekend, many Massachusetts residents will probably be hesitant as they begin to gingerly dip their toes back into the water, so to speak.
Gov. Charlie Baker made it possible on Monday to resume some of the activities taken for granted just a few months ago, even if you must wear a mask to do so. But the rollout of the four-phased plan to begin reopening the state’s economy from its COVID-19 shutdown was met with predicted pushback from both sides of the debate.
Either the governor was charging ahead too fast, or still holding too tight on the reins. That’s what happens when there’s a lot on the line.
Baker’s plan began with allowing construction, manufacturing and socially-distanced church services to resume immediately under strict safety rules, including six-foot berths for workers and mandatory masks. At Symmons Industries in Braintree, where Baker visited Wednesday, they pump 80s hits into the room to ease the tension as employees line up for temperature checks.
Starting Monday, even more activities will be permitted, though restaurants don’t come until Phase Two.
Beaches will be open, but sunbathers will have to stay apart and keep their blankets 12 feet from other groups. Retailers can sell products, but only to customers picking up curbside. And salons can cut hair, but be prepared for a more sterile experience than you might be used to.
This is all part of Phase One of four, which ends with a vaccine or a viable treatment for COVID-19. The metrics for advancing through the phases is a little less clear, but each one, Baker said, will last a minimum of three weeks and advancement will depend on making progress in reducing cases and deaths and hitting key testing and hospital capacity goals.
By week’s end, Massachusetts had counted 90,899 total cases and recorded 6,228 deaths from the coronavirus, and its rolling seven-day average positive test rate was 9.2 percent, still above the World Health Organization’s recommended 5 percent.
“People need to understand that we’re playing this game, and it’s a real one, with the virus and the economy at the same time,” Baker said Monday. “And it’s really important for people to step up and recognize and understand that this game is not over.”
Boston Mayor Marty Walsh told his mother not to go Sunday Mass, even if the church was open. And Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said don’t travel or ride the T if you don’t have to. In other words, Massachusetts is opening, but best to give it a little time to work through the kinks.
Walsh also took issue with the plan to let offices reopen in Boston at 25 percent capacity as soon as June 1. For the rest of the state, the starting gun at offices goes off Monday. But the mayor said for the capital city, and the engine of the state’s economy, 25 percent of employees returning to work would be “too much” to begin with, as he eyes a lower starting point.
For many parents, returning to work remains a faint glimmer in their eye as the state still has no concrete plans to reopen child care.
U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley was among the voices on the left urging Baker to reconsider how fast he was moving, which for retailers was not nearly fast enough. Repeatedly, Retailers Association of Massachusetts President Jon Hurst asked why a haircut had been deemed less dangerous than if a retail store were to invite customers in by appointment. No explanation was forthcoming.
MassGOP Chairman Jim Lyons seemed to be on the side of the retailers and critics of his own Republican governor who wanted to see the administration set some basic health parameters for businesses and get out of the way.
That message, however, didn’t work at the ballot box, where the Republican Party lost both special Senate elections on Tuesday in districts it was defending. In the special election for a seat in Plymouth and Barnstable counties, the Republican nominee was conservative attorney Jay McMahon, who had been a frequent passenger of the “Reopen Now” train, rallying with fellow gun rights activists and MAGA hat-wearing conservatives in the days leading up to Tuesday.
McMahon lost to Falmouth Selectwoman and now Senator-elect Susan Moran in an outcome that at least one elected Republican from the area, Rep. Randy Hunt of Sandwich, said he predicted.
“I don’t know how you could not think that the mood this year in Massachusetts will be turning away from Trump supporters,” Hunt told the News Service in a postmortem on the race.
The other special election took place in western Massachusetts where Democratic state Rep. John Velis defeated Southwick Republican John Cain, who at least had the support of his party’s popular governor, which could not be said for McMahon. Though it didn’t help him much.
So the MassGOP came out of Tuesday’s special elections officially down two seats in the 40-person Senate, leaving Minority Leader Bruce Tarr with just three other members to caucus with and push an alternate agenda to the one Democratic leaders serve up.
Legislators will probably begin to look at both contests now for clues as to how effective voting by mail turned out to be. Secretary of State William Galvin said at least 30 percent of the ballots cast were returned by mail, and he’s looking for a decision soon from the Legislature about what will be allowed for the late summer and fall elections.
Gov. Baker could probably help nudge this issue toward resolution if he were to take a position on voting by mail, but he continues to suggest that it’s not something that needs to be worried about now. “People think this is something that needs to happen soon?” he said in an interview with WBGH radio Thursday. “The elections are a long way away.”
Exactly two months before the Sept. 1 primary election, the new fiscal year will begin.
But the start of the economic reopening comes as state policymakers continue to struggle to understand how much damage the shutdown has done to the economy. The Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development reported Friday that unemployment was up to 15.1 percent in April after the economy shed 623,000 jobs last month, and it hasn’t gotten better in May.
The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation updated its April forecast to account for the duration of the pandemic, the skyrocketing unemployment and the uncertainty surrounding more federal financial relief. The group now predicts the state could see tax revenue in fiscal 2021 plummet $6 billion from what had been projected in January.
All of that adds up to House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Karen Spilka, and Rep. Aaron Michlewitz and Sen. Michael Rodrigues, the two chairs of the Ways and Means Committees, taking a wait-and-see approach to an annual budget that should have passed the Senate this week and been on its way to a conference committee.
DeLeo and Michlewitz both said that the situation is too fluid at the moment to even think about developing a year-long budget, lending credence to the idea that the Legislature could be leaning toward a month-to-month approach once the current fiscal year ends on July 1.
DeLeo spoke to the uncertainty in remarks Thursday to the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, via Zoom of course.
The speaker said that while it’s the administration’s responsibility for managing through the pandemic, it’s the House’s role to find ways to support an economic recovery. With that goal in mind, DeLeo tapped Majority Leader Ron Mariano and Assistant Majority Leader Joseph Wagner to lead a new special committee focused on coordinating a legislative response across subjects and committees.
He’s also asked Wellesley Rep. Alice Peisch, the chair of the Education Committee, to explore needs in the child care industry, and tapped Rep. Paul McMurtry, a Dedham movie theater operator, to find ways to help restaurants bounce back, including possibly amending their licenses to allow for outdoor liquor sales.
While that work begins, the House did vote this week on a $1.73 billion borrowing bill for information technology projects, including funding for remote learning, which may be here to stay for longer than anyone thought.
The University of Massachusetts is among the schools still considering whether to welcome students back to campus in the fall or continue with online learning, but regardless of what it decides UMass President Marty Meehan said he will ask the board of trustees to freeze tuition next year.
And for many high school seniors, there is no next year with their classmates. But the state said Friday that beginning July 19, outdoor graduation ceremonies, with restrictions, would be allowed, as long as health data trends in the right direction. So at least they can say goodbye.