Retail sales may be starting to bounce back, but the head of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce says that local businesses still have questions about Gov. Charlie Baker’s reopening plan.
“There could have been clarity along the way, even up to today,” Jim Rooney, the president and CEO of the chamber, said during a virtual roundtable Tuesday hosted by The Boston Globe.
And Rooney wasn’t the only one who thought the state should be doing more.
The discussion came just over a week after Massachusetts officially entered Phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan. And even as 21 other states experience resurgent numbers of increasing coronavirus cases, Massachusetts — which still has the third-most deaths of any state in the country — has seen positive tests, hospitalizations, and fatalities due to COVID-19 dramatically drop from their peak levels, after forcing many businesses to close for nearly two months.
While acknowledging that there was no “perfect solution” or “playbook” to respond to the pandemic, Rooney said the positive trends were impossible to ignore.
“I like the results,” the business association leader said. “I like the outcomes.”
“He made statements that he was following the data and the science, but didn’t tell us which data and science,” Rooney said.
Even when officials did identify the six categories of data, Rooney said businesses were left wondering about the specific goals and targets that determine whether the state would move forward — or back — in the four-phase reopening plan.
“There were no target dates,” he said. “Even today, Phase 2B is unknown.”
According to the Baker administration, some activities — like indoor dining at restaurants, massage therapy, nail salons, and personal training — will be allowed at a still-yet-to-be determined point during Phase 2. Rooney says that all the business community wants is a clue of when that might be.
“Treat us like adults and tell us what you’re thinking of,” he said. “We understand if you don’t get to that metric then you gotta push Phase 2B back. We can get that. We can comprehend it.”
Rooney said that businesses were frustrated about the “logic” behind allowing some close-contract services, but not others.
“The folks in the retail industry are still upset that you can get your hair done but you can’t get fitted for a dress,” he said. “What’s the scientific difference, especially given that many of those small retail outlet stores are really hurting right now?”
The Baker administration says it took input from dozens of groups representing business and workers in the formation of the plan, which is based on a framework that balances both the public health risk and the economic benefit associated with reopening each business sector.
Corey Thomas, the CEO of the Boston-based security software company Rapid7, gave credit to the Baker administration for following the science in the response to the pandemic, which he noted was “not the case in many, many states.” Still, as a member of the Baker administration’s reopening advisory board, Thomas saw the “devastation” caused by the virus, from vacation towns to working-class communities.
“You’re seeing people who worked incredibly hard their whole lives have their businesses torn apart,” he said. “You’re seeing massively inequitable experiences of people of color and the impacts on communities of color.”
Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu, who was also part of the discussion, said she felt a “great deal of frustration” that reopening was still framed as an “either-or” choice between public health and the economy.
“It’s really been a failure of government and policy … [we don’t] have to have that choice,” Wu said.
Baker has outlined ambitious goals to increase the per-capita coronavirus testing capacity in Massachusetts to levels greater than virtually anywhere else in the world.
But in a state with “such life sciences resources” and “private sector capabilities,” Wu said she was “disappointed” that the administration didn’t act to ramp up testing capabilities even sooner.
“If we knew where the virus was and had the resources to trace it, we would not have to choose between public health and who gets to reopen and when, because it would be clear what to do to manage it,” Wu said.
“We’re thinking about things, it still feels, in a little bit of a siloed way, and if anything coming out of this pandemic, [the takeaway] should be how interconnected all of us are to each other,” she added.
Wu said the public sector should be doing more to ensure that it is safe to return to work, whether it be financial aid to help childcare programs adhere to new reopening rules or paid sick leave so that workers who feel ill have the flexibility to stay home and recover. Thomas echoed those calls, noting that while his company had been able to shift to remote work, many can not.
“We have to create an incentive for if people are sick they can actually stay home and not make other people sick,” Thomas said.
In talks with the chamber’s 1,400 members in the Boston area, Rooney said he had “not had one conversation in which the safety and comfort and security of their employees has not been the number-one priority.”
Thomas agreed that’s true for most companies.
“But if you listen to lots of workers, not all of them experience that consistently,” he said.
Thomas noted that the pandemic had forced government to implement changes that weren’t expected for years practically “overnight,” from telehealth services to remote learning to — potentially — mail-in voting.
“We’re far more capable than we have given ourselves credit for, and lots of the tolerance for the problems that we actually have is just a lack of will,” Thomas said. “We looked at it as sort of a system that was unchangeable. And I think we’ve learned that the system can be changed.”