The Baker administration earlier this week tried to give the business community some guidance about what a reopened economy would look like. For at least one prominent business group, however, there are still too many unanswered questions.
The Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce issued a policy brief on Wednesday afternoon identifying several key details its members want to see fleshed out in Governor Charlie Baker’s reopening plan, which is expected to be released on Monday. The details revolve around medical metrics, statewide testing, child care, and public transit.
Nearly every business organization is on edge right now, because of all the uncertainties surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic and its implications. The reopening of the state’s economy is dominating the conversation, and the chamber has been particularly vocal about the issues its members want to make sure are addressed in the governor’s plan.
Chamber chief executive Jim Rooney said he’s trying to be proactive by providing frank feedback to the administration, rather than simply reacting after the plan gets released.
In response, Baker spokeswoman Sarah Finlaw said the administration has been in constant communication with a number of leading business groups and employers, and is thankful for their cooperation and ingenuity in the fight against the pandemic.
The Baker administration is racing to complete a reopening plan by Monday, when the governor’s shutdown of nonessential workplaces is currently scheduled to end. The administration has been working alongside a newly appointed task force of executives and public officials that has been fielding hours of testimony every day.
The chamber last week made public its concerns that certain key issues need to be addressed as quickly as possible, for businesses to make preparations. Those issues included access to virus and antibody tests, availability of child care, and reliability and safety of public transportation.
Baker offered some basic protocols on Monday for businesses that are planning to reopen, such as the need to require masks in the workplace and maintain 6-foot distances between co-workers when possible. But the chamber’s newest policy brief, issued two days after Baker’s presentation, makes it clear that some business leaders believe crucial details were left out.
For example, Baker said he expects a gradual, four-phase reopening, starting with businesses where face-to-face contact with outside individuals is relatively minimal. But the chamber says the administration still needs to share the precise medical benchmarks — such as specific decreases in the number of COVID-related hospitalizations — that would trigger the relaxation of restrictions in each phase.
Massachusetts has become a leader in coronavirus testing, and the administration noted on Wednesday that more than 400,000 have been conducted so far. State officials recognize that testing will play a critical part in reopening the economy.
However, the chamber wants a clear road map for how the state reaches the point of having tests available for “anyone, at any time.”
And chamber members still anxiously await more information about child care: Schools and day care operations for nonessential workers are closed through the end of June, although it’s possible Baker could allow some child care centers to reopen earlier. (Baker is already allowing many centers to stay open, but only to help essential workers who can’t otherwise get coverage.)
Among other things, the chamber is pushing the administration for a plan to spend a new infusion of $45 million from the federal CARES Act that is supposed to be used for child care. The chamber pointed to some ideas already announced in other states: subsidizing child care center payrolls, for example, or paying for personal protective equipment and testing for workers.
Then, there’s the issue of public transportation. Rooney, a former MBTA administrator, hosted state transportation secretary Stephanie Pollack and T general manager Steve Poftak for an online chamber event last Thursday. More than 1,000 people signed up, an indication of the intense interest in transportation among employers.
On that call, Pollack talked about how employers should pitch in by encouraging telecommuting.
But Rooney noted that many companies are already doing this, with some putting work-from-home plans in place through the end of the summer, if not the end of the year.
However, many workers still need to take the T, and Rooney wants the administration to be clear about changes to train and bus schedules. Commuters, he said, need as much specific information as possible. What are the protocols, say, for how many people can fit on a bus, or what happens when that limit is reached before the end of a route?
Rooney maintains that the chamber’s effort is not meant as a criticism of state leaders during a crisis. It’s about being helpful, he said, at a time when it should be all hands on deck. The approach may rub some people the wrong way. But Rooney doesn’t want to stay silent and hope for the best, not when nothing less than the fate of the region’s economy is on the line.