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Mayor Walsh offers sobering take on the reopening of Boston businesses

Greater Boston Chamber members brace for a slow, gradual process

The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce streamed a virtual meeting with Boston Mayor Marty Walsh Wednesday, hosted by Chamber chief executive Jim Rooney.
The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce streamed a virtual meeting with Boston Mayor Marty Walsh Wednesday, hosted by Chamber chief executive Jim Rooney.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Don’t expect to get back into the office anytime soon. And when you do return, don’t expect the workday experience to be like it was before the pandemic.

That’s the sobering takeaway from Boston Mayor Marty Walsh’s Zoom call Wednesday with some 700 members of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. It was largely a Q&A session, with Chamber chief executive Jim Rooney offering questions posed by members, and Walsh or his aides responding.

The common theme raised by chamber members can be boiled down to this: When do we go back?

Walsh, of course, couldn’t offer a definitive answer. He referred to the May 1 date suggested by President Trump as both “unrealistic” and “irresponsible,” in part because Boston is only just now entering its surge in COVID-19 cases. (They are expected to peak here, Walsh said, later in April.) Governor Charlie Baker has already extended a mandatory statewide closure of nonessential workplaces once before, pushing the shutdown to May 4. From the way Walsh talked on Wednesday, it seems like a safe bet Baker will extend it again.

Similar discussions are being held about whether to reopen schools — or, perhaps more accurately, whether to keep them closed for the rest of the school year. Walsh said he talked with Baker about this issue two days ago. The mayor said he expects a decision will be made by early next week.

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Walsh also addressed the 9 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew he instituted in Boston, saying it’s aimed in part at discouraging people from getting together socially. There’s no reason for people to be out at night during the pandemic, he said, unless they’re “essential” workers, such as first responders and health care providers.

Reopening businesses will take time, and will likely happen gradually, a “slow roll,” as the mayor put it. Walsh suggested younger people might be allowed back first — i.e. workers less at risk of dying from COVID-19. Walsh said older workers might be the last to return. There will be conversations about the right capacity for restaurants. Walsh had halved occupancy limits in Boston last month, right before Baker put sit-down dining on hold all across the state.

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Chamber members had several questions about construction and development. The Boston Planning & Development Agency has suspended all major project reviews and planning studies during this state of emergency. The agenda for its virtual board meeting on Thursday is a light one, primarily consisting of contract approvals and other housekeeping items. The hope, Walsh said, is that the BPDA staff can continue to work behind the scenes with developers and community members, so planning and development can resume and “hit the ground running” when the time is right.

Walsh has shut down all private-sector construction work in the city, going further than Baker, who has deemed housing construction to be an essential business statewide. In his remarks to chamber members, the mayor said his team will hold a call within the next few days with job-site managers and subcontractors to go over new rules and tentative return dates. These firms will need to sign affidavits with checklists for readiness before they can get back on the job, as part of what he called a “slow ramp-up.”

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Walsh said the city is trying to do what it can to help minimize the pandemic’s economic wreckage. One example is the city’s new Small Business Relief Fund, which offers grants of up to $10,000 to small businesses, i.e. those with fewer than 35 employees and less than $1.5 million in annual revenue; the city received nearly 2,800 applications by the time the fund was closed on Friday. Another example: The BPDA board on Thursday is expected to authorize the agency to enter into rent deferment agreements with business tenants affected by the public health crisis; the BPDA oversees 13 million square feet of real estate across the city, including the Charlestown Navy Yard and the Raymond L. Flynn Marine Park in South Boston.

Rooney said in an interview that he couldn’t get to many of the chamber members’ questions in the 45-minute call. Among those that didn’t make the cut: When will city officials revisit the scheduling of the Boston Marathon, already postponed from this month to September? What will employers do about getting enough hand sanitizer, masks, and related items once offices do reopen, to make their offices safer? What about jury duty? Hair salons?

Mostly, Rooney said chamber members understand the need to stay cloistered for now, but are anxious about getting back to work, and about returning to normal.

He said every business, big and small, is thinking about the context and conditions for reopening — hopefully sooner rather than later. Maybe we can start to head back to the office, under new restrictions, later in May.

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Returning to normal? That miraculous moment will be much further away — if it ever arrives.


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.