Restarting the Massachusetts economy is starting to feel more fraught than shutting it down.
Just ask Charlie Baker. The governor is doing everything he can to buy himself more time. He extended the stay-at-home coronavirus advisory until May 18, and openly worries that reopening the state too soon will renew the deadly spread of the virus. He’s assembled a business advisory council that will deliver a report that day on how to safely reopen the economy.
Which means that come a week from Monday, most of us will still be hunkered down at home.
It wouldn’t matter so much if everyone across the country was in shut-in mode, but many states are starting to move to the next phase of the pandemic: saving their economies. Most notably, Rhode Island and New Hampshire are on a schedule that will allow people to start shopping and dining out again over the next two weeks. Meantime, it’s status quo here, and for many people it’s grown awfully old. We just want to get out of this place.
No wonder New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu is worried about hordes of Massachusetts residents driving up north to enjoy a few hours of normalcy.
The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce laid down the gauntlet on Wednesday by publicly urging Baker to detail criteria for an economic reopening and release a phased-in game plan by Friday, to give employers ample time to prepare.
“You have to rip the Band-Aid off and get people back to work,” said Tuscan Brands owner Joe Faro. He’s preparing to reopen two restaurants in New Hampshire for outdoor dining next week.
He is hoping Massachusetts, where he operates a Tuscan Kitchen in Burlington and another in Boston’s Seaport District, won’t be far behind. After furloughing 450 workers, Faro stands ready to reopen with masks and gloves for employees, new sanitizing procedures, and the observance of social=distancing measures. (Think tables spaced far apart, and no seating at the bar.)
An economy propped up by government rescue packages “is not really sustainable,” Faro said. “What’s sustainable is getting people back to work, getting the economy standing on its own . . . There’s got to be a process to piece this back together.”
Residents have given the governor high marks on his handling of the pandemic, but defiance is in the air like a gathering storm.
Some may say Cautious Charlie is exactly what we need now. Better to be safe than sorry. But if the rates of hospitalizations and new infections continue to fall for the next two weeks, it will be hard for him to keep the economy in hibernation for much longer.
The governor had leverage in March: If you don’t want hospitals to get overwhelmed, stay home.
And we did. Turns out we’re good at being shut-ins. Doctors didn’t have to do what they did in Italy: Choose who gets to live and who dies because there weren’t enough ventilators.
We’re past the surge — at least this one. But even with glimmers of hope, Baker keeps raising the caution flags, as if to incrementally lower expectations about reopening the economy any time soon. So far, he’s had widespread support. A recent Boston Globe/Suffolk University/WGBH News poll found 84 percent approve the governor’s handling of the crisis, and 85 percent back his decision to extend the stay-at-home advisory and closure of nonessential businesses until May 18.
But people are getting restless. Hundreds showed up outside the State House on Monday to protest restrictive measures to contain the virus. The owner of Wachusett Country Club and Kettle Brook Golf Club outside of Worcester plans to reopen despite Baker’s ban on non-essential businesses, according to Fox News.
Some businesses have run out of patience because the financial pain has not been shared equally, creating economic winners and losers.
Dave Delancey, owner of the Lobster Trap in Bourne, laid off about 65 workers in March, when restaurants were restricted to takeout and delivery only. Like many other restaurateurs, he opted to shutter completely. He decided to open for takeout two weeks ago and brought back 25 workers. But Delancey really wants to welcome back diners to sit on the outdoor patio and enjoy the waterfront views while they eat.
If he could open tomorrow, he would. “I’m ready to go,” Delancey declared.
He supported the decision to shutter the economy in March but now questions, rightly so, how the state can severely restrict operations at a place like his, but allow companies such as Home Depot to be pretty much conduct business as usual.
“I don’t think it’s fair,” Delancey said. “Nothing makes sense.”
During the pandemic, Baker and economists have used science as their guide to balance public health with commerce. So I asked Dr. Helen Boucher, the infectious disease chief at Tufts Medical Center, to predict when the state can put out the “open for business” sign.
Boucher monitors the three T’s: treatment, testing, and tracing. Massachusetts, she points out, has been making progress on all three fronts, with hospitals able to treat patients without operating in crisis mode and the state becoming a leader nationally in testing and tracing.
Still, she’s not ready to declare we’re out of a viral spiral. “The bottom line," Boucher said, “is we want to see these trends continue for two weeks."
So how likely is it that by Memorial Day we can grab a beer and sit on the outdoor patio of our favorite restaurant?
“I think it is possible,” she said.
In the age of the coronavirus, reopening the economy will feel as scary as shutting it down. But Baker shouldn’t act like he wants to delay the inevitable. Otherwise he’s going to lose his grip on the state.
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.