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Grab bag of businesses will be part of state’s contact tracing network

Barber Lannie Hale cut Bob Mitchell's hair at his Waveland Barber Stylist shop in Des Moines earlier this month.
Barber Lannie Hale cut Bob Mitchell's hair at his Waveland Barber Stylist shop in Des Moines earlier this month.Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

As they get the green light to reopen their doors Monday, barber shops, car washes, zoos, and white-water rafting companies are being tasked with another job: Help provide eyes and ears for the state’s contact tracers.

Among the rules a slew of businesses must follow during the first phase of Governor Charlie Baker’s reopening plan is keeping a log of customers who cycle through their doors and sites. The protocol affects a grab bag of industries, from fishing charters and mountain-side zip lines to botanical gardens and nature centers, all of which are allowed to return to business Monday.

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The goal, state officials say, is to create a record that could help local boards of health track down those who came in close contact with a person infected with COVID-19 and who had visited the business. The Baker administration has said it’s also committed $44 million to an ambitious tracing program that, according to state officials, has so far made contact with 40,000 people sickened with the disease.

But the new guidelines offer a view into how even our slightest of movements, from getting a haircut to having your minivan cleaned, could begin to be tracked as the state reemerges from its self-imposed economic hibernation.

Exactly what information some businesses will collect is unclear. The guidance the state released for several industries, such as zoos and ecotourism companies, include a single line instructing them to “log everyone,” customers included, “to enable contact tracing.” Requirements for others, such as car washes and hair salons, specifically direct them to gather contact information with a person’s name and the date and time they visited.

Manufacturers and company offices are also being told to keep a log of temporary visitors, including those delivering materials, while guidelines for laboratories and construction sites include no such directives.

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Public health experts who spoke with the Globe said that in order to be effective, logs would need to list the exact times of customers’ visits and, even more importantly, phone numbers where case workers can contact people who may be infected and instruct them to stay at home.

“The intervention that counts here is the isolation or quarantine," said Barry Bloom, a professor and former dean of Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “That’s the intervention that stops transmission.”

Officials at the state office of Housing and Economic Development said the “best information” for contact tracers would be names and phone numbers. In a statement, a spokesman also suggested addresses could be used in the Department of Public Health’s Massachusetts Virtual Epidemiologic Network, which contains data the state uses in case investigation and surveillance on infectious diseases.

But officials said the state is not creating any type of centralized database to store what businesses collect. The businesses themselves would keep their logs of customers, and local public health officials, once aware someone who tested positive had visited the salon or shop, could then request them.

“The logs would give contact tracers a head start, rather than waiting for a confirmed case to identify contacts," the statement said.

For some industries, that type of data collection is already part of the job. White-water rafting tours and zip-line companies already have people sign waivers or make reservations. Berkshire East Mountain Resort in Charlemont, for example, asks for a name and contact information, including address, on its electronic waivers, said Gabe Porter-Henry, its chief activities officer.

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Hair salons, now restricted to appointment-only amid Baker’s reopening plan, also have traditionally tracked who visits and when through appointment books.

“Just in case the city needs it, we will have it,” said Betty Wong, a manager at Avanti, a Newbury Street salon, where employees plan to keep a paper log of clients’ names each day, along with their temperature, although they are not required to take it. The salon bought a touchless thermometer, she said.

But the guidance — and its sometimes scant details — quickly raised concerns with civil liberty advocates, who warn the act of logging customers, even in a good faith attempt to respond to the pandemic, could drive people away from businesses if they fear their personal information could be misused or fall into unexpected hands.

Some barber shops, for example, have long operated on a walk-in, and sometimes cash-only, basis, making the switch to requiring appointments and logging all customers a sea change in how patrons interact with the business.

It’s a serious privacy issue,” said Kade Crockford, director of the Technology for Liberty Program for the ACLU of Massachusetts. “We have to remember anything that we do during the pandemic under the guise of protecting public health that potentially causes people to mistrust the public health system could actually backfire.”

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Crockford said the state should provide more specific guidelines for not just what information will be collected but express limitations on how it would be used, by whom, and how long it could be stored. Plus, Crockford said: “People have to have the option of not providing their information.”

As more businesses rely on virtual transactions, that may not be possible. For example, zoos are instructed to cap overall outdoor capacity at 20 percent and to use “timed ticketing” — which dictates specific times zoo-goers can arrive — to help reduce crowds.

Zoo New England, which operates the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston and Stone Zoo in Stoneham, doesn’t plan to open its facilities Monday, said spokeswoman Colleen McCormick Blair. But when it does, members and guests will be required to reserve tickets online, where they’ll need to give their name and contact information as part of the purchase, she said.

“Businesses will need to change the way they operate on many different levels. Part of that will be capturing personal information,” said Christopher Carlozzi, the Massachusetts director of the National Federation of Independent Business, who described many long-shuttered businesses as “willing to take whatever steps that are necessary to start operating again.”

“We don’t want to see it lead to any negative situations,” he said of the data collection. “They’re trying to do the right thing, and they’ll capture as much of the data as possible without upsetting the customer.”

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To public health experts, the benefits of collecting customers’ information vary greatly depending on the type of business. Hair salons, for example, “make a lot of sense” because customers and stylists are in close contact, meaning they spend 15 minutes or more in close proximity, said Dr. Sarah Fortune, chair of the department of immunology and infectious diseases at Harvard’s Chan School.

“That’s not like if I went to the zoo, and I walked past 400 other people," she said. “If the zoo is doing its business right, no one should be in close contact.”

In some cases, Fortune said, tracking might not be worth the resources. “Thinking about where real risk lies, and then making sure that people are logging contacts in places of common risk, I think, is probably where the effort is best expended,” Fortune said.

Cristina Viselli said she will adhere to tracing guidelines when she opens her Newbury Street hair salon on Tuesday. But she is unsure how helpful it will actually be in capturing the extent of a person’s whereabouts.

“It is kind of tough — they could have been at a party, grocery shopping,” Viselli said. “It’s so hard to say,”

Globe correspondent Anissa Gardizy contributed to this report.


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout Dasia Moore can be reached at dasia.moore@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @daijmoore