Reopening the state’s economy will be tough enough. Mayor Martin J. Walsh is about to find out how much tougher it will be to reopen the city of Boston.
Good thing Walsh will have some help: The mayor has put together his own reopening advisory board, similar to one assembled a month ago by Governor Charlie Baker. This one is bigger, a bit more diverse. Yes, there are some big-name executives and health experts on the 27-member Boston panel, as with Baker’s. But there are labor and religious leaders as well. A couple of college presidents, too. (Boston Globe managing director Linda Henry is among the members.)
The Boston board members met for the first time on Friday — virtual introductions, all around. They shared stories and insights about how their respective sectors are coping with the coronavirus pandemic. The board is charged with reviewing and advising on the city’s plans for the phased reopening of the Boston economy. This board will meet less often than its state counterpart; no hours of Zoom calls each day with various business groups. (Walsh also hired the McChrystal Group consultancy in April to advise the city.)
One theme emerged in Friday’s meeting: lives before livelihoods. An economic recovery needs to be twinned with a public health recovery. The former can’t happen without the latter.
Boston’s population density, influx of commuters, and heavy reliance on public transit necessitate a different approach than elsewhere in Massachusetts. The mayor generally has been more cautious about reopening than the governor. Walsh initially went beyond Baker’s statewide restrictions on the construction industry during the shutdown, for example.
Walsh also expressed concerns about Baker’s decision to limit offices to 25 percent capacity at the start. That still might be too many people for Boston’s downtown; offices in Boston for nonessential businesses can’t reopen until June 1 at the earliest, a week after the rest of the state. But a lower threshold for the city might not be necessary: It’s going to be a Work From Home summer for most major white-collar employers, after all.
On Tuesday, Walsh said he doesn’t expect the rules for Boston offices will differ much from the state standards. (Cambridge and Somerville are also waiting until June 1 to reopen offices in those cities.) Walsh also unveiled a grant program that uses federal funds to help small businesses implement public health safeguards as they reopen, and a workshop series to guide them through the process.
Martha Sheridan, head of the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau, agrees with the “lives before livelihoods” approach shared by other advisory board members. She is eager to launch a statewide marketing campaign, when the time is right. But Sheridan said she only wants to reopen the city once. A flare-up of COVID-19 caused by a premature reopening could be worse for tourism than a protracted shutdown.
As the leader of Unite Here Local 26, Carlos Aramayo is often opposite from the hotel members of Sheridan’s group at the bargaining table. But on this, Aramayo and Sheridan are in agreement. We already had one Biogen conference, Aramayo said, referring to the site of an early COVID outbreak in Boston. We don’t need another one.
Still, Aramayo doesn’t realistically expect big events to return to Boston until 2021. (Aramayo is represented on the reopening advisory board by Jaimie McNeil, a general agent with Local 26.)
To some extent, these boards are about optics, getting buy-ins from various constituencies. That doesn’t mean they are simply window dressing, or political cover. Dan Koh, a former chief of staff for Walsh, said the mayor doesn’t want to take a top-down approach to managing the reopening. Koh, who sits on the new board and is now at property tech startup HqO, said city officials will get sector-specific feedback from the board as they chart a road map for Boston’s slow return to normalcy.
The board is similar to a task force Walsh established to focus on pandemic-related public health disparities. Two people are members of both groups: Michael Curry, of the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers, and Alexandra Oliver-Dávila, vice chair of the Boston School Committee. This crossover is intended to ensure that the city’s approach to reopening takes into consideration communities that are disproportionately affected by COVID-19.
Jim Rooney, chief executive of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, said this is the most diverse “reopening” group he’s been involved with during the pandemic. He said there’s a keen awareness that Boston is unique among places in Massachusetts: So many people live in the suburbs and normally travel into the city for work, school, culture, and entertainment. The city roughly doubles in population during a typical workday, as hundreds of thousands of commuters pile in from all corners by train, bus, and car. Back in the good times, they crowded into the Longwood hospitals, the Financial District towers, the glass boxes of the Seaport.
The question facing Boston isn’t just about reopening a particular industry, Rooney said. It’s about restarting an ecosystem.
The crowds will return again, eventually. Now it’s up to Walsh and his advisers to make sure the city is ready.