May 6, 2020

Boston business leaders see 3 ‘major barriers’ to reopening the economy


Local business leaders are taking stock of what needs to happen to get Boston’s economy up and running again in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic — and they have some requests for government officials.

The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce presented its agenda for getting the economy functioning last week before the state’s Reopening Advisory Board, the 17-member group Gov. Charlie Baker convened to assist his administration in putting together a phased reopening.

The agenda, crafted with input from regional CEOs, hundreds of chamber members, and the organization’s Executive Committee and Board of Directors, puts forth the business community’s clear asks from the government, including that the state release its criteria for a reopening by Friday.

The group also suggests officials put in place a two-phase reopening plan: one phase that launches on May 18 with “incremental change to current restrictions” that allows select industries and activities to return, and a second phase that ushers in a “more comprehensive reopening” beginning June 1.

Baker has extended the state’s stay-at-home advisory and the order that shut down all nonessential businesses in Massachusetts through May 18.

The governor said Wednesday that his administration has a goal to begin a phased reopening at that time, so long as the state sees sustained, downward trends in case numbers and fatalities as well as the number of hospitals still operating under “surge conditions.”

The state has seen some data showing positive change recently. For several days, the percentage of positive coronavirus cases identified through daily testing has dipped below what it was last month, according to Baker. Of over 9,000 tests reported Tuesday, only 13 percent were positive.

The number of hospitalizations has been essentially “flat” in the past few days, with 3,564 hospitalized cases reported Wednesday, Baker said.

The state has logged 72,025 coronavirus cases and 4,420 related deaths so far.

“We’re still very much in this fight with COVID-19, but it is encouraging to see some positive progress,” Baker said. “As we come through the other side of this and determine our next steps for a path forward, we need to continue to see those numbers drop.”

The administration’s goal is to begin reopening “certain types of businesses in a limited fashion” on May 18 — industries where a return to work can be done with more safety precautions than typical, he said.

“But this phased in process can’t begin until we see sustained downward trends in many of the data elements that we talk about every day,” Baker added.

The Chamber of Commerce, in a policy brief released Wednesday, says the state should provide specific criteria necessary for a reopening.

“Most other states in the multi-state regional compact have done this,” the brief says. “For example, New York state has 12 criteria that a region must meet prior to an economic reopening including a 14-day decline in COVID-19 hospitalization rates. The state should also announce its phased reopening plan on Friday, May 8, to allow businesses and employees at least 10 days to prepare before the potential expiration of the essential services order.”

That information, the group says, should include what “data-based criteria” Massachusetts must meet in its fight against the coronavirus and what activities will be allowed under what conditions moving forward. Officials should also release target criteria, dates, and other details for additional phases of any reopening plan.

Furthermore, businesses surveyed by the chamber have indicated three “major barriers” to reopening the economy:

Testing 

The increase and expansion of coronavirus and antibody testing is “a top priority for all businesses,” the group said.

The state should have a goal to test anyone whenever they request a test, the agenda says.

“By May 18, the state should detail what it will take to reach that goal, including but not limited to costs and the capacity necessary to manufacture, administer, and analyze tests,” the group says.

Widespread testing initiatives have launched in cities across the country, including in Somerville, which announced testing for any resident “with and without symptoms” late last month.

Child care

Early childhood education programs, with the exception of emergency care centers for certain children, are closed across the state through June 29.

But the chamber says many employees cannot return to their workplaces without child care in place, and so, the governor should seek to reopen those programs on June 1.

The state “should detail what restrictions will be in place, what precautions providers should implement, and provide guidance on capacity so the providers can communicate with existing clients,” the policy brief says. “Given that capacity may be limited, the state may need to plan for creating alternative or additional childcare, including resources for older children who would have participated in camps, summer school, or other activities.”

Transportation 

Before the pandemic hit New England, the MBTA shuttled over a million riders every day — and surely social distancing would have to change that going forward, the Chamber of Commerce says.

“In addition to its plan for implementing social distancing, the state should announce changes to the MBTA’s capacity,” the chamber wrote. “This would include information on planned service frequency for bus, train, and commuter rail lines and maximum passengers permitted on each type of service.”

MBTA General Manager Steve Poftak said last week that the agency was beginning to look at what its post-economic-shutdown operations will look like and is putting together a working group to develop transition plans. Part of that effort includes looking at “future service scenarios” for the summer and fall so the system has flexibility to meet the conditions, he said.

However government leaders decide to get the economy running again, they should look to provide guidance to the business community, rather than a string of new regulations, according to the chamber.

Businesses and employers are already working on a “unified reopening response” — a process that would be better informed with criteria and plans around those major issues from state officials, they say. Guidance with an eye on public health will allow each employer to determine an appropriate and flexible transition back, rather than rigid mandates to follow, according to the chamber.

“Major employers are looking to build consensus among themselves on things like when and how employees return to physical workspaces, adjusting to new building layouts and procedures, procuring PPE, and training employees for the new workspace,” the group says. “They’re also thinking about how their decisions will impact small businesses near their offices.

“A unified response from business, combined with information and guidance from government, will put Massachusetts on a path forward for a strong economic reopening.”


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