Gov. Charlie Baker announced Monday the state’s plan for reopening amid the coronavirus pandemic, sharing that several industries will be able to move to reopen upon the completion of safety standards in the coming days and weeks.
The governor stressed that getting back to work and continuing to fight further transmission of COVID-19 will be “inseparable” in the state’s approach.
“We cannot move forward unless we commit to continuing to slow the spread,” he said.
Phase 1 of the four-step reopening of Massachusetts begins Monday, May 18, with the construction and manufacturing industries, as well as houses of worship, being allowed to resume operations, Baker said during a press conference.
All reopening businesses will be required to follow public health guidelines specific to their industry or sector.
Baker emphasized that moving through each phase of the reopening will hinge on public health data tracking the outbreak.
“We’ll progress through four phases, opening more sectors of the economy and activities only when the public health data indicate it’s appropriate to do so,” the governor said. “Each phase will last at least three weeks, but may last longer if the public health data doesn’t support moving forward.”
Houses of worship will be limited to 40 percent occupancy of the building’s maximum permitted occupancy level, including attendees and staff, according to the checklist of safety requirements for the reopening of the facilities. Everyone is required to wear masks, and non-immediate household members must stay at least six feet apart. Communal gatherings before or after services remain prohibited, though food pantries and the distribution of pre-packaged food run out of houses of worship remain allowed. Child care services must remain closed.
Construction and manufacturing businesses will also be required to maintain at least six feet between workers unless the nature of the work makes doing so unsafe. The state says physical partitions should be installed for workstations where they cannot be spaced apart. All workers will have to wear masks. The state is also requiring lunch and break times to be staggered in order to “regulate the max number of people in one place” and ensure physical distancing, and that ventilation be improved for indoor and enclosed spaces where possible.
Both the businesses that are newly reopening and those that have remained open as essential through the outbreak are required to follow mandatory safety standards to reduce the risk of transmission of the virus among workers and customers. Businesses that have been open as essential will have until May 25 to become compliant with the safety guidelines.
The protocols include ensuring social distancing as much as possible between workers and customers, both inside and outside the workplace; requiring face masks for all employees; and instituting supplies and stations for frequent hand washing by workers and the frequent sanitization of high-tough surface areas.
Businesses are also required to establish plans for if an employee gets sick with COVID-19 at work and a “return-to-work” plan for ill employees. Any employee feeling ill and showing symptoms of the virus must stay home, the state emphasized.
Other business sectors that will be allowed to open their doors May 25 with restrictions on capacity as part of the first phase of reopening include office space (excluding Boston office spaces), lab spaces, and some personal services such as hair salons, pet groomers, and car washes. Following state guidelines, beaches, parks, drive-in movie theaters, and other outdoor activities will also be allowed to resume May 25. Retail businesses will be allowed to provide curbside pickup starting May 25. Office spaces in Boston are projected to be allowed to reopen on June 1.
Under Phase 1, hospitals and community health centers will be allowed to begin providing high priority preventative care, pediatric care, and treatment for high risk patients starting Monday, May 18.
The MBTA will continue to run on a reduced schedule during the first phase of reopening.
To reflect the measures taken for reopening, the governor announced that the Department of Public Health has updated the state’s stay-at-home advisory, replacing it with a new, “Safer at Home” advisory. The updated advisory instructs state residents to stay at home unless they are going to a newly opened facility or activity allowed under the first phase of reopening. People over the age of 65 and those with underlying health conditions are still advised to stay home with the exception of essential trips for groceries and health care.
Masks or face coverings are still required in public when social distancing is not possible, and restrictions on gatherings of more than 10 people remain in effect.
“In order to sustain the progress to date and to move us forward in the reopening of our commonwealth, all of us must continue to be vigilant about hygiene, wearing face coverings, and engaging in social distancing,” Marylou Sudders, the secretary of Health and Human Services, said Monday. “These very important public health and safety measures are our best tools at this time to protect ourselves, our coworkers, our families and our communities.”
The governor’s announcement follows signs that there is a downward trend in new coronavirus cases in the state, as well as hospitalized patients. As of Sunday, public health officials had reported more than 86,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Massachusetts. More than 5,700 people have died from the illness since the outbreak in the state began. On Sunday, officials reported 1,077 new coronavirus cases, 92 new deaths, and that 2,597 patients remained hospitalized.
Despite the promising trends, advocacy groups for frontline workers and Democratic state lawmakers have expressed concerns that the state is moving too quickly in reopening, risking a wave of new infections.
Public health experts have pointed out that Massachusetts is still well below the goal of daily coronavirus tests for safely reopening. Testing, along with rigorous contact tracing and supported isolation efforts, is key to reopening safely in the absence of a vaccine for COVID-19. Baker has said he plans to boost the state’s COVID-19 testing capacity to 45,000 daily tests by the end of July and 75,000 daily tests by the end of December.
With the reopening, Baker emphasized that everyone still has an individual responsibility to help battle the virus by continuing to practice the measures that have been successful in slowing the spread of the virus — social distancing, wearing masks, frequent handwashing and surfaces, and staying vigilant for symptoms and staying home if you’re sick, he said.
“This effort will hinge, fundamentally, on personal responsibility,” Baker said. “As everyone knows, we ‘re not helpless in this fight. We all have roles to play. And you have proven time and time again that you can play them.”