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Baker’s reopening plan attempts to balance safety, economy

Salons, barber shops, life science facilities, and car washes are among the businesses that can reopen as soon as next week.

Governor Charlie Baker spoke during a press conference announcing the start of the state's 4-phase reopening plan on Monday at the Massachusetts State House.
Governor Charlie Baker spoke during a press conference announcing the start of the state's 4-phase reopening plan on Monday at the Massachusetts State House.Sam Doran/Pool

Governor Charlie Baker detailed on Monday his road map for reopening Massachusetts, a balancing act that attempts to revive the battered economy, and restart daily life, without triggering another wave of the deadly pandemic still infecting hundreds of residents each day.

The plan’s success, Baker said at a State House news conference, will likely rest on countless everyday decisions by people across Massachusetts, as businesses begin to shudder back to life and residents decide whether they’re ready to inch back to old routines.

The highly anticipated four-phase process starts with factories and construction sites rumbling back to life this week. It ends — at some unknown point in the future — with something resembling normal life.

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By next week you can get a haircut or maybe return to the office, if you work outside Boston. In phase two — at least three weeks away — restaurants can reopen, and playgrounds, too. A third phase would allow bars, museums, and full service on the MBTA. And eventually, the “new normal": Wide-scale resumption of life largely as it was before, enabled by the development of vaccines or treatments.

Each phase will last at least three weeks. Progression from one phase to the next will be governed by data on new coronavirus cases, hospitalizations, and other health metrics, Baker said. If conditions get worse instead of better, he warned, it’s quite possible shutdowns could come back.

But two-plus months into the crisis, and after nearly 5,900 deaths and more than 1.1 million jobs lost across the state, the Republican governor acknowledged, it’s time to start moving forward carefully.

He made it clear that one thing remained certain: Even as daily life returns, it will continue to look and feel quite different.

“We’re playing this game — and it’s a real one — with the virus and the economy at the same time,” Baker said in his widely broadcast news conference. “And it’s really important for people to step up and recognize and understand that this game’s not over.”

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Indeed, many of the broad social restrictions put in place to blunt the spread of coronavirus will stay in place, in some cases indefinitely. The Baker administration is still urging seniors and people with underlying medical conditions to mostly stay home. Gatherings of more than 10 people remain prohibited, for at least the next several weeks. Masks in public, even outdoors, are still the rule if people can’t create 6 feet of distance from others.

“People need to continue to use their heads on this stuff,” the governor said. “We are still in the middle of this virus. It has not gone away.”

The four-phase plan is gradual.

The initial phase — dubbed “Start” — began Monday with construction sites, houses of worship, and manufacturing joining essential businesses such as grocery stores on the list of places that can open, while health care providers could restart “high priority” preventative and pediatric care. In Boston, where Mayor Martin J. Walsh ordered a citywide construction shutdown in mid-March, outdoor work on major development sites was also restarting Monday.

On May 25 — and June 1 in Boston — workers in office buildings and life-science facilities can start to return, though state officials are limiting office buildings to 25 percent capacity and asking anyone who can work remotely to keep doing so.

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Hair salons and barber shops may also reopen on May 25 in limited capacity and by appointment-only, while retail stores and recreational marijuana dispensaries can launch curbside pickup.

Beaches would reopen, on Memorial Day no less, but with a raft of restrictions, including 12 feet of distancing between groups on the sand, and no organized games. Sunbathing, yes. Beach volleyball, no.

Should all go well, after three weeks or more, the state would move on to phase two, which state officials, creating a new virus-age argot, have labeled “Cautious.” That period would allow inside dining at restaurants, hotels, and routine health care like dental cleanings to begin again. This phase could reopen pools and playgrounds, too, perhaps in time for some of summer, and ramped-up service on the MBTA, including a full schedule on the Blue Line and restored bus routes.

Phase three — “Vigilant” — would eventually follow, with nearly full resumption of MBTA service, gyms, and bars and places such as museums and casinos allowed to reopen. Phase four — “the new normal” — would loosen any remaining restrictions, paving the way for nightclubs and other large venues.

Public health officials said the new restrictions are broadly sensible, but they warned that flare-ups of the coronavirus are likely as mingling resumes. The state is still averaging more than 1,000 newly reported infections a day, with some of the highest rates of infection and deaths per capita in the country.

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“We’re going in the right direction but we still have a lot of cases per day," said Erin Bromage, a professor of immunology at University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. "It would be wise to get it lower before we start the interactions back up again.”

But some business leaders say the broad shutdown just isn’t sustainable and is devastating Massachusetts’ once-robust economy. Since mid-March, countless small businesses have closed as their revenue has vanished, and other nearby states, while suffering far fewer cases and deaths than Massachusetts, have moved faster to reopen.

“It just seems like there’s a lot of bureaucrats making decisions that are under no economic stress themselves,” said Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts. They “can’t relate to these small businesses and what they’re going through.”

Small-business owners were mixed on the plan, with some hoping for a quicker return to business than Baker outlined, while others counseled reopening once and doing it right.

“What I hope most of all is that consumer confidence in a group setting can be restored,” said Jess Fracalossi, owner of The Handle Bar chain of indoor cycling studios. “I’d rather this and wait than have gyms reopen unsuccessfully and have to close and then reopen a month later and everyone is scared to go.”

Indeed, a big unknown amid all this discussion of reopening the economy: How consumers and workers themselves will behave.

Other states that have eased restrictions have seen consumers slowly trickle back to restaurants and shopping malls. And a Suffolk University/Boston Globe/WGBH News poll of Massachusetts residents released earlier this month found that only 42 percent would feel comfortable eating in a restaurant once they reopen, while only 18 percent said they’d feel comfortable riding mass transit.

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Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito said she hoped that new safety protocols, including checklists and posters that businesses must sign and post certifying they’ve completed a COVID-19 control plan, would help give both consumers and workers confidence to venture out again.

Enforcement of those protocols would be left up to local health officials, with fines, she said, only issued after repeated violations.

“We don’t want to have to fine,” she said at the State House news conference.

Meanwhile, companies that are getting back to work are doing so with a host of new safety protocols. Construction giant Suffolk restarted many of its Boston job sites on Monday, with lots of training for workers, extra hand-washing stations, and even sensors that will monitor workers and beep when they get within 6 feet of one another. Suffolk spent much of the shutdown planning for this day, said Jeff Gouveia, the company’s general manager for the Northeast.

“The last couple of months have been very intense,” Gouveia said. “We’ve had to re-engineer the logistics of many of these sites in order to do our work the safest way possible."

Still, there are areas where the planning remains unclear: Such as child care.

The Baker administration said they’ll continue to offer emergency day care to essential workers who need it but noted that only about 3,500 of 10,000 available seats in those programs are currently being used.

General day cares remain closed until June 29, while summer day camp programs could open in phase two, and overnight camps in phase three. Officials promised more guidelines “in the coming weeks.”

Child care was one of several areas Attorney General Maura Healey said she found lacking in the report, along with worker safety and enforcement, and she urged more specifics before businesses start reopening.

"It is important that these things be addressed before our residents start going back to the workplace,” Healey said in a statement.

Then there are schools. State officials said only that they’re working on plans for summer learning and the 2020-21 school year, with details to come soon about fall classes. Massachusetts’ many colleges and universities can reopen research facilities and health labs, while devising their own plans for in-person or distance learning once the state reaches phase two.

“The discussion there is ongoing,” Baker said when asked about on-campus classes in the fall. “I would expect that to get resolved over the course of the next four or five weeks.”

The guidelines Baker put in place Monday ran the gamut, depending on the industry. Barber shops and hair salons, for example, can provide haircuts, color treatments, and blow drying, but beard trims and lip waxing remain off-limits.

People are encouraged to go outside, but pick-up soccer or basketball games, organized games, or tournaments are still prohibited under outdoor activity guidelines. Dog walkers are also being told to keep pups who are not part of the same household at least 6 feet apart and they should avoid sharing toys or treats.

And churches, temples, mosques, and other places of worship are limited to 40 percent of building capacity, including congregants and staff. Families should sit 6 feet apart from others, and religious leaders are encouraged to consider distributing “prepackaged communion or sacraments" and holding outdoor services.

The guidelines quickly invited scrutiny that buffeted Baker from all sides. As scientists warned it appeared too early to begin easing restrictions, some business and conservative groups criticized the plan for moving too slowly in loosening restrictions.

At the same time, several Democratic state lawmakers openly worried the plan didn’t provide enough protection for workers who could bear much of the brunt of reporting violations.

“This foolish plan clearly shows the real priority of the board — [money] and not the health of employees,” state Representative Tami Gouveia charged on Twitter.

As Baker left the podium from his news conference Monday, he also was asked a perhaps impossible question to answer: Could all these guidelines, recommendations, and plans ultimately end up in court?

Baker lifted his hands over his shoulders. “We’ll see.”

Jon Chesto, Naomi Martin, Hanna Krueger, Martin Finucane and Travis Andersen of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.

Construction workers returned to work in the Seaport District.
Construction workers returned to work in the Seaport District. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff
Mario Carvalho prayed inside the Blessed Sacrament Chapel attached to the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston. Ropes were added to the pews to cut down on the number of people who can be inside at one time.
Mario Carvalho prayed inside the Blessed Sacrament Chapel attached to the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston. Ropes were added to the pews to cut down on the number of people who can be inside at one time. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout. Tim Logan can be reached at timothy.logan@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bytimlogan.