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Mass. employer group seeks answers from Baker administration on reopening

Business lobbying enters new phase as state officials refine the details of their four-phase plan.

John Regan, Associated Industries of Massachusetts chief executive, outlines more than 20 questions on reopening  in a letter sent to the Baker administration.
John Regan, Associated Industries of Massachusetts chief executive, outlines more than 20 questions on reopening in a letter sent to the Baker administration.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

When Governor Charlie Baker unveiled his long-awaited plan for reopening the state’s economy, you might have thought that the lobbying on this topic from local business interests would be over.

Not a chance.

Baker’s four-phase plan provided the outlines, a road map of sorts, on May 18. But there remains plenty of room for interpretation. So the business lobbying didn’t slow down. It just entered a new phase of its own.

Case in point: a four-page letter that Associated Industries of Massachusetts sent to Mike Kennealy, Baker’s top economic development official, last week. Yes, manufacturing plants and offices had received the all-clear to reopen. That was great news for AIM, which represents about 3,500 employers across the state. But AIM still had plenty of questions for Kennealy, not to mention some hopes to influence state policy. The issues range from allowable office capacity to the need for child care to the roles employers play in testing and screening workers for COVID-19.

AIM has hardly been the only one to voice concerns. Groups representing businesses that haven’t been able to reopen yet have been particularly vocal — restaurants, retailers, and gyms, for example.

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And just because your doors are open, of course, doesn’t mean all your questions are answered. The May 27 letter to Kennealy from AIM chief executive John Regan outlines more than 20 questions about Baker’s reopening plan. Regan enjoys a good relationship with the administration; he probably has shared some of these concerns already. Putting them in writing makes them a bit more concrete, though, a sign that they are priorities for members.

Regan signaled this was coming in a separate letter on May 26 to Baker and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito. In that letter, Regan praised their reopening plan for its comprehensiveness and acknowledged the delicate balancing act they face as they reopen the economy while caring for the public’s health.

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AIM’s issues arose from internal discussions among its reopening task force shepherded by Tom Wesley, senior director of facilities at Waters Corp. Wesley was recruited for the task in part because he has been raising concerns since January: The Milford-based lab equipment manufacturer where he works employs 700 people in China, and Wesley quickly realized the interruptions that the virus could cause here in the United States.

So what’s on AIM’s to-do list? Take office capacity: New state guidelines say offices are limited to 25 percent of their pre-pandemic occupancy levels. But AIM members are not clear about whether the state will consider actual pre-pandemic employee occupancy to calculate this number, or the maximum capacity allowed by building codes. Plus, if employers meet social-distancing requirements, is a capacity limit even necessary?

Then there are questions about the requirement that companies provide COVID-19 training to employees. Does that mean actual classes, mere pointing to signs on the walls, or something in between?

AIM, like other business groups, is worried about corporate liability, particularly with respect to employees or customers who might get sick on the job or while conducting on-site business; AIM would like to see some sort of liability protection legislation advance. The association raised the issue to Kennealy, though it will likely need to be resolved at the federal level.

Other questions Regan raised reflect those shared with other business groups: Should different parts of the state be allowed to reopen sooner, if they have demonstrably fewer COVID cases? What can be done to lessen the financial burden on employers as they comply with the new rules? And what can the state do to improve access to child care?

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The Baker administration addressed some of these concerns on Monday, most notably by providing a framework for child-care centers and day camps to open, possibly as soon as next week. Officials in the administration also say they can provide some flexibility to allow employers to exceed the 25 percent office limit, if employers can demonstrate the need and the ability to do so safely. They’ve also downplayed the possibility that the state would take a geographic approach to reopening; the governor’s four-phase plan calls for changes by industry, not locality, and hinges on statewide health metrics.

Meanwhile, Bob Luz at the Massachusetts Restaurant Association lobbied the administration to allow his members to open as soon as they decide it’s safe to do so. Verdict: Still no definitive date for indoor dining, although outdoor dining could be allowed as early as next week, the soonest that Baker’s phase two could start. (The House, meanwhile, passed a bill on Wednesday that would cap fees charged by food delivery companies, and waive the interest on delayed meals tax payments.) The lodging and tourism industries are trying to influence the rules, too, as Baker looks to reopen the hotel industry in phase two.

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Jon Hurst, head of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, raised concerns about the lengthy closures of mom-and-pop shops. The result: curbside pickup is part of phase one, with stores not previously deemed essential allowed to reopen in phase two, albeit with limits on the number of customers. And Chris Carlozzi, the state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, said he’s letting his members do the lobbying; he counts about 200 letters sent to the administration since May 18, primarily from the restaurants, shops, and gyms that anxiously await their opening day.

Each phase brings more changes to the business community, as restrictions get relaxed and new rules are imposed. Baker says he will weigh the economic consequences as his administration advances the state economy toward a “new normal” while prioritizing public health — a tricky path to walk. The state’s business groups have shown they want their voices to be heard, every step of the way.


Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.