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With Mass. starting the reopening process, Walsh strikes a cautious note

Construction workers returned to work near Government Center as Governor Charlie Baker began to ease restrictions and start to gradually reopen the Massachusetts economy.
Construction workers returned to work near Government Center as Governor Charlie Baker began to ease restrictions and start to gradually reopen the Massachusetts economy.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

A day after Governor Charlie Baker detailed his plan for economic reopening, Mayor Martin J. Walsh was among the local leaders urging caution Tuesday, while one congresswoman flatly stated that Massachusetts is not yet ready to reopen.

“Until we meet the guidelines established by experts for widespread testing and decreased infection rates, we should not be reopening,” said Representative Ayanna Pressley, a Boston Democrat.

With Boston’s COVID-19 rate dropping to a new low for the pandemic, Walsh on Tuesday expressed worry about the state’s green light to reopen of houses of worship. And he hinted that the city may chart a more cautious path than the one outlined in the state’s plan when it comes to the return of white-collar workers to their offices.

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“We have to get it right because I don’t think we can afford a second close-down,” said Walsh during a news conference outside City Hall.


Walsh acknowledged that when offices reopen in the city, they may do so under more stringent restrictions than those featured in the state’s plan that was unveiled on Monday. The state’s plan calls for offices to initially reopen with a 25 percent capacity limit. Walsh on Tuesday suggested that limit may be lower in Boston.

“I’m personally not comfortable with the 25 percent number, to be quite honest with you,” he said.

He added that he was not sure what the city’s office capacity number would be.

Walsh also offered a rationale for why Boston offices have a later date for reopening offices than the rest of Massachusetts. The state’s plan said that offices and lab space in the Commonwealth can reopen starting May 25. Boston was the exception. In the city, offices can open a week later, on June 1.

On Tuesday, Walsh said the extra week allows Boston authorities to prepare extra guidelines should officials feel they are needed — particularly important for a densely populated city where, he said, an influx of workers roughly doubles the number of people in Boston during an average workday.

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Last week in Boston, the citywide positive rate for novel coronavirus was 13.9 percent, which marked a new low since the city began tracking cases amid the pandemic, according to the mayor’s office.

The reaction from the state’s congressional delegation was mixed. While Pressley knocked the reopening, Representative Seth Moulton, a Salem Democrat, had a different view. He said, "A smart plan is responsive to the pandemic as it evolves since we can’t possibly predict where it will be in the future.”

“Every scientist and medical professional I hear from says we need the same six things, four Ts and two Ps: testing, tracing, treatments, time, PPE, and proof that what we think we know about the virus is accurate," he said in a statement. "From everything I’ve seen, the governor’s plan takes that advice seriously.”

The reopening discussion comes amid a downward trend for positive test rates in Massachusetts. While the number of confirmed coronavirus cases statewide climbed by 873 to 87,925 on Tuesday, the seven-day weighted average of positive test rates showed a slight decrease to 9.9 percent on Monday, down from 10.2 percent a day earlier, and a sharp decline since April 15. The state has said it will be closely monitoring that key metric during the reopening process.

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Public health officials reported Tuesday that the Massachusetts death toll from the coronavirus outbreak had risen by 76 to 5,938, and a new forecast from the University of Massachusetts Amherst predicted the toll would rise to more than 8,100 in the next four weeks. The Department of Public Health also reported 7,741 new tests had been conducted, marking a total of 476,940 in the state.

Questions, meanwhile, continue to persist regarding the Boston Marathon. The public health crisis prompted authorities earlier this year to postpone the race, which can draw a million spectators, from Patriots Day in April to Sept. 14.

Race organizers said Tuesday they are “actively exploring all options for this year’s race and will continue to follow public health and safety guidance.”

The Marathon has never been canceled in its 124-year history.

Walsh said Tuesday the city is in conversations with the Boston Athletic Association about the best way forward, adding that he has no specific updates regarding the race.

Walsh said the data show the city has been “moving in the right direction” for three weeks in terms of new coronavirus cases, positive tests, and hospitalizations. Next week, the city will start testing all of its first responders for COVID-19 as well as antibodies, according to Walsh’s office.

Houses of worship in Massachusetts are allowed to open this week with conditions, including a 40 percent capacity restriction, and distancing and face-covering requirements. Walsh said he shared the concerns of some faith leaders who do not feel they are ready to reopen and encouraged seniors to hold off on going back to services. He urged religious authorities who have doubts about implementing the guidelines to not reopen.

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He is not the only Massachusetts mayor wary of the prospective dangers posed by reopening society.

In Somerville, the tightly packed city of 81,000 that weathered a coronavirus caseload of 795, including 23 deaths, Mayor Joseph A. Curtatone said the city will enact some aspects of the state reopening plan and modify and assess others. That city may have a longer timeline for the reopening of specific industries than other locales, he said.

“This is no easy task,” said Curtatone during a Tuesday phone interview. “There’s no playbook.”

Curtatone did not anticipate houses of worship would open in Somerville this week, as the state reopening plan allows for, nor did he think hair salons and barbershops in the city would be open next week, which would be permissible, with conditions, under the state’s road map.

While the state plan allowed for construction businesses to reopen Monday, Curtatone indicated that this week, only essential projects like public works and utility jobs, or the renovation and expansion of the city’s high school, were allowed to continue. On June 1, additional municipal projects and some private construction will be allowed in the community, he said.

Curtatone stressed the importance of a sustainable recovery; he wanted to avoid a resurgence of the virus that would cause the economy to "tank even further."

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“Although we are on the downward slope of the surge, we are not done,” he said.

In Western Massachusetts, Pittsfield Mayor Linda M. Tyer said she was pleased that the state’s reopening plan included very specific protocols for various industries. She also commended the enforcement structure under the plan, which she described as a joint partnership between local boards of health and state authorities.

“I am quite relieved that it isn’t just a mad dash to reopen everything all at once,” she said in a phone interview.

Pittsfield, a community of just under 45,000 residents near the New York state border, has had 154 positive COVID-19 cases, a caseload that includes five deaths. Tyer said she did think there were areas of the plan that do require further explanation, but expected more details to be forthcoming about later phases of the reopening.

“I don’t anticipate Pittsfield deviating from the plan at this point,” said Tyer.

Jaclyn Reiss, Victoria McGrane, and Martin Finucane of Globe staff contributed to this report.


Walsh responds to state's reopening plan
Boston Mayor Marty Walsh laid the groundwork for the city's reopening in response to Governor Baker's plan for Massachusetts. (Photo: Blake Nissen/For The Boston Globe, Video: Handout)

Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.