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State Reopening Architects Emphasizing Safety Over Speed

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, center, faces reporters as Mass. Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, center left, looks on during a visit to a coronavirus testing site in a parking lot at Gillette Stadium, April 5, 2020, in Foxborough, Mass. (Steven Senne/AP)
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, center, faces reporters as Mass. Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, center left, looks on during a visit to a coronavirus testing site in a parking lot at Gillette Stadium, April 5, 2020, in Foxborough, Mass. (Steven Senne/AP)

After spending the last few days hearing from groups representing more than a million workers, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito on Monday cautioned against viewing May 18 as a "magical date" on which the state's businesses will fully bounce back into operation following weeks of mandated closures.

Instead, she said, that's the day the advisory board she co-chairs with Housing and Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealy is set to issue plans for a "phased-in reopening" designed to safely build up to full capacity.

"It doesn't mean that the economy across our commonwealth will just reopen," she said. "It's just not possible. As everybody knows, safety's first, employers are engaged, and it's of paramount importance that we make sure that that the workforce is safer, that people who do business with these employers are safe in their transactions, and that we continue to move forward and not have a reverse effect as we reopen in that safe manner throughout our commonwealth."

The Baker administration's original stay-at-home advisory and business closure order were set to expire on Monday, but last week Baker pushed back the end date another two weeks until May 18, at the same time announcing the formation of the advisory board and giving it a May 18 deadline to put forward recommendations.

Some states, including New Hampshire and Maine, have released or embarked on their own plans for gradual economic reopenings. Baker said Massachusetts is in "a very different place than most other states."

With 68,087 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 4,004 deaths linked to the respiratory disease as of Sunday, Baker said Massachusetts falls third behind the hard-hit states of New York and New Jersey in both cases and deaths.

States that haven't had "a significant penetration with respect to COVID" are operating on different timetables than Massachusetts, he said.

"I don't want to bring this thing back," he said. "You know, whatever we do here, I want to make sure it doesn't happen again."

Baker said different regions of Massachusetts also appear to be in different stages of the pandemic.

COVID-19 hospitalizations and intensive care unit stays have gone down in western Massachusetts and on Cape Cod, but remain high in Worcester and on the South Coast and are staying flat in Boston, he said.

As of Sunday, Baker said, 3,617 patients statewide were hospitalized with COVID-19, for a hospitalization rate of about 5%.

"COVID hospitalizations have actually been decreasing in the past several days, with very few spikes in new admissions," Baker said. "The number of patients dealing with COVID in the ICU has also dropped to under 1,000, to 904 patients. There are obviously still thousands of people who are being hospitalized due to this virus, but the numbers have started to trend in the right direction."

With 15,652 new tests reported, Sunday marked "the highest number of tests we've ever processed in a single day since the pandemic began," Baker said. A total of 314,646 people have now been tested for the coronavirus, accounting for about 4.5% of the state's population.

Baker said ramping up testing remains "one of our highest priorities" and is an issue officials will likely be talking about "for months to come." He said testing and tracing the contacts of people who test positive "will have a lot to do with the new normal once we get there."

The threat of future transmission "will continue to be with us for a very long time," Baker said, and until a vaccine is developed, conversations about reopening the economy will be about what can be done most safely.

Since its formation last week, the reopening advisory board has received more than 475 submissions of written testimony and spoken with representatives from 23 different industry groups and community coalitions, which together represent more than 100,000 businesses and more than 1.4 million workers.

Fields represented in the conversation so far include retail, the high-technology sector, life sciences, restaurants, travel, tourism and lodging, banking, construction and recreation, Baker said. The panel plans discussions in the coming days with representatives from labor, gaming, museums, cultural organizations and sports organizations.

The advisory board has also met virtually with the Black Economic Council, the NAACP and the Latino Chamber of Commerce, Baker said.

The governor said child care and transportation will be "key enablers" of a safe and successful reopening, and the board is developing next steps for those sectors as well. The state's public transit system has been operating during the pandemic, but not at its full scope, and non-emergency child care programs in Massachusetts are closed until June 29 under a Baker order.

"As we've discussed we're planning to reopen in phases — just as advised by the federal government and others, and as other states are already starting to do — when the time is right," Baker said.

"What that means is that the only sectors of the economy that can implement the appropriate health guidance will be opening in the first phase," he said. "There won't be anyone firing a starting gun on May 18 and saying everybody's off to the races, but we do hope that certain types of businesses and workplaces will be able to begin resuming operations, under the guidelines established through this process, and based on the fact that we will have hit certain triggers with respect to the status of the virus here in Massachusetts."

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