Executives across Greater Boston are preoccupied with a thorny challenge right now: plotting a path to bring employees back to the workplace safely once Governor Charlie Baker gives the green light.
There’s only so much they can do, though, without the Baker administration answering several questions first.
That’s a big reason why the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce is pressing the administration for clarity on the issues of child care, transportation, and coronavirus testing. Baker appointed an advisory board last week to develop back-to-work protocols for the state by May 18. However, the chamber wants some answers, particularly on these three key issues, by the end of this week.
The city’s CEOs and HR managers can do only so much without more guidance from the state. The advisory board’s deadline coincides with the date that Baker’s shutdown of nonessential workplaces is currently supposed to end. But businesses, chamber chief executive Jim Rooney said, can’t easily open their doors the next day without knowledge of the plan well in advance.
Baker reiterated on Wednesday that this will be a gradual, phased approach, and only certain types of businesses will be allowed to reopen right away, probably “in a limited fashion.” He said the May 18 date hinges on seeing more progress toward curbing the spread of COVID-19, such as trends of declining hospitalization and deaths. He also hinted his advisory board might provide a bit more clarity before that deadline, possibly within the next few days.
That would be welcome news to Rooney and many of his group’s members as they stare out at uncharted waters. The chamber made its presentation to Baker’s advisory board last Friday, and distributed it to the media on Wednesday.
Chamber members face a big challenge on child care: Schools are closed, and day-care centers are not supposed to reopen until June 29; the chamber, meanwhile, is calling for child-care programs to open on June 1. Rooney said he doesn’t necessarily expect all child-care operations to reopen right away, but the state needs a sense of urgency about this essential piece of workplace “infrastructure.”
Plenty of questions remain about the MBTA: What kind of social-distancing rules will there be for trains and buses, and how will trip frequencies change as corporate Boston eases back into its old commuting habits? Figuring these out will help business leaders decide who should stay home and who should come in.
Of these three hot-button issues, the Baker administration probably has the least control over virus testing. Rooney said chamber officials want to see a target date for when tests are widely and easily available for employers that want them — like, say, Labor Day, or Nov. 1.
Then there are the broader issues the chamber would like to see addressed this week: the precise public-health triggers that Baker will use to give the all-clear, for example, or more guidance about the kinds of businesses that might be allowed to open in any first phase, versus later periods.
Even if the new COVID-19 cases miraculously dissipate by May 18, don’t expect crowds to return to the Financial District or Kendall Square anytime soon. Like the Baker administration, many employers are also thinking about phased approaches, for their own workforces.
Take what’s happening at PwC’s Seaport office, where more than 3,000 people worked before COVID-19 arrived. John Farina, PwC’s Northeast managing partner, is planning the return-to-office scenarios for the accounting giant’s offices across the United States; none of them will reopen earlier than June 1. And when they do, the PwC US offices will initially be only at 15 percent of their previous capacity, similar to an approach the firm has taken in Shanghai.
Eventually, that number will grow, but Farina doubts PwC’s offices will be full again until a coronavirus vaccine is readily available. In the interim, PwC will employ social-distancing measures and regular deep-cleanings, mandate masks in the office and temperature scans at the door, and put a contact-tracing network to work to inform employees if they might have been exposed by a co-worker.
Steve DiFillippo is also trying to make the same kind of adjustments for his Davio’s restaurant group, while playing a key role in the broader debate as a member of Baker’s advisory board. All Davio’s locations are closed. Even if Baker lets them reopen after May 18, DiFillippo said he’d be likely to wait a few weeks to be adequately prepared. Most companies, he said, need at least a couple weeks’ notice. He said the board members are working on some of the issues that Rooney raised.
Senator Eric Lesser, cochairman of the Legislature’s economic development committee, said the chamber makes valid points: Reopening decisions need to be made in a transparent way, with the reasoning made public as soon as possible. The debate over essential businesses, he said, has already raised questions about fairness, with many mom-and-pops closed while many big chains stay open.
The bottom line: Shutting down the state’s economy, while painful, was relatively easy. Reopening it will be far more complicated for everyone involved.