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Baker hopes to launch phase one of Massachusetts reopening plan ‘around May 18’

“We have to ensure that when we take one step forward, we do not end up taking two steps back,” Governor Charlie Baker said at a news conference Monday.
“We have to ensure that when we take one step forward, we do not end up taking two steps back,” Governor Charlie Baker said at a news conference Monday.Blake Nissen for the Boston Globe

Governor Charlie Baker on Monday offered a broad outline of what reopening Massachusetts would look like, warning the process would be gradual and could face heavy revisions should the novel coronavirus again run rampant in one of the country’s hardest-hit states.

With an order closing nonessential businesses due to expire next Monday, Baker unveiled a four-phased approach that will mandate steps businesses would have to take to reopen.

The first wave will likely focus on industries that rely on few face-to-face interactions with customers, though Baker didn’t cite any examples, with the goal of launching phase one “around May 18″ depending on the progress in controlling COVID-19, Baker said.

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The state on Monday announced 129 new deaths, pushing the coronavirus death toll past 5,100. It also reported 669 new confirmed cases, the lowest one-day total the state has seen since March 26 — a span of 46 days. But the number came as the state reported that roughly 6,300 new tests were performed, one of lowest amounts in the last three weeks.

As he announced the plan at a State House news conference, Baker did not disclose several key details, including which industries would likely reopen when, how long each phase is expected to last, or what industry-specific requirements would govern how business is to be conducted.

The Republican governor said much of that information would be released by early next week, when a report is due from an advisory board that has met with dozens of industry groups and is weighing how the state should reopen.

Baker repeatedly cautioned that scientific data would largely determine how the state progressed through the reopening, and the basic details his administration released hinted at a prolonged process. After phases dubbed “Start” and “Cautious” and “Vigilant” — with more industries opening in each step — the final phase of “New Normal” hinges on the development of a therapy or vaccine, something officials have said could take anywhere from 12 to 18 months.

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“We have to ensure that when we take one step forward, we do not end up taking two steps back,” Baker said, later adding: “There isn’t going to be a hard-and-fast on a lot of this. People are going to want to see what happens.”

Baker’s outline came as New Hampshire continued to ease back into normal life, with retail shops, salons, and malls reopening Monday under new restrictions. Also on Monday, Major League Baseball owners approved a proposal to be put before the players’ union that could lead to the season starting around the Fourth of July in ballparks without fans.

Baker has moved cautiously toward lifting restrictions on daily life amid what’s been a daily drumbeat of wrenching news that, only in recent weeks, has begun to improve. Roughly 3,100 people remained hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Sunday, a near 22 percent drop from the peak nearly three weeks earlier, but still a big number. Baker on Monday said the state had “flattened the curve,” meaning the outbreak may finally be easing.

Pressed on a timeline for this plan, Baker noted that other states have split their reopening plans among phases lasting three to four weeks, with the caveat that shifting data could change them.

He said Massachusetts would probably follow a “similar model,” but Baker did not commit to a specific timetable and warned that a spike in new cases could undercut any reopening plan.

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Meanwhile, some limits on daily life have already eased, if in a piecemeal fashion. Baker last week relaxed the rules for retailers to help restart online orders and, on Thursday, allowed golf courses to reopen with restrictions.

The incremental, data-based plan unveiled Monday rankled the head of Baker’s own party. “The new guidelines will drive businesses elsewhere,” Jim Lyons, the chairman of the Massachusetts Republican Party, wrote on Twitter. “The new normal in Massachusetts will be more regulations and more bureaucracy.”

Around New England, it’s a patchwork of approaches. In Maine, hair salons and barber shops were among the first businesses to welcome back customers, and in Rhode Island, some stores were allowed to open this weekend.

Massachusetts, however, has juggled far more cases than its New England neighbors, and its 78,462 confirmed cases are the fourth most in the country, behind only New York, New Jersey, and Illinois.

Baker first ordered nonessential businesses to shutter their physical doors starting on March 24, roughly a week after restaurants and bars were told to cut off in-person service.

The restrictions here and around the country have sparked massive economic hardship, and nearly 1 million people have filed for unemployment pay in Massachusetts since the outbreak began, accounting for roughly one-quarter of the state’s work force.

It’s left employers and workers hungry for direction. A set of safety standards the Baker administration released Monday includes mandating that employees and customers remain 6 feet apart “to the greatest extent possible” and that employers provide enough opportunities and supplies for employees to frequently wash their hands.

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Baker also indicated that his orders going forward won’t hinge on which businesses have been considered essential or nonessential, but who can meet the safety standards his administration releases.

In Boston, Mayor Martin J. Walsh said Monday officials are discussing possible options including widening sidewalks in some business districts to aid social distancing.

Major business groups, some of whom have been pushing Baker to release details, welcomed the parameters described by the governor, even though they were also left hoping for more specifics. These initial protocols, at least, were within the range of what most employers expected: a phased approach, for example, and distancing and masks required in the office.

“It’s the first step toward getting that clarity, to open the doors in a safe and efficient way,” said Chris Geehern, executive vice president at Associated Industries of Massachusetts. “Employers are taking this seriously and what they’re looking for is some clarity. They don’t want to establish a protocol and have the government say, we don’t want you to do ‘A,’ we want you to do ‘B.’”

The return to work will in all likelihood be a slow process, regardless of the precise timing of the phases implemented by the Baker administration. An increasing number of white-collar employers expect work-from-home to continue as a matter of course for their employees through the end of August.

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It could be more challenging for mom-and-pop retailers. Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, said he is still waiting to hear from the administration whether stores can open their doors to customers in phase 1, or whether they’ll need to wait until phase 2.

At the very least, he hopes merchants will be allowed to do curbside sales and by-appointment sales in their stores, like their counterparts in many other states, during the first phase, Hurst said.

He also hopes that businesses aren’t called upon to enforce the governor’s mask rules with their customers.

“We continue to say that we believe the businesses should not have to act as a police officer or a public health officer,” Hurst said. "With a lot of short fuses out there, [they] don’t want to create the potential for confrontations.”

At the news conference, Baker expressed hope that people would do the “right thing” to help keep their friends and neighbors safe. “There is a certain amount of socialization that comes with this as well,” he said. “I do believe that most people will get there."

Travis Andersen, Jaclyn Reiss, and Martin Finucane of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

Baker unveils four phases to reopening the state’s economy
Speaking during his daily State House briefing, Governor Baker said the four phases will be dubbed, Start, Cautious, Vigilant, and The New Normal. (Photo: Blake Nissen/For The Boston Globe, Video: Handout)

Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout. Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.