Baker’s new economic recovery panel faces a daunting task: Advisory board has three weeks to come up with a report on restarting business

Apr 28, 2020 | Boston Globe, Council in the News

April 28, 2020
Boston Globe
By Jon Chesto, Globe Staff

So now it is official: Governor Charlie Baker won’t reopen the state’s economy next week, a delay that had been widely expected. Set your sights for May 18 — if we’re lucky.

When Baker revisits the issue, he’ll have some extra help: a new advisory board of businesspeople, public health experts, and municipal leaders.

The panel members didn’t waste any time. Within hours of their launch announcement on Tuesday, they were meeting — virtually, of course — with a goal of reporting back to the governor by May 18 on how best to reopen the economy. Baker said the group will work every day, until the report is done.

The administration deliberately sought a diverse mix, in terms of industry and geography. There are software firms represented (Kronos, eClinicalWorks, Rapid7), manufacturers (General Dynamics, Joseph Abboud), higher education (WPI), transportation (Cape Air), financial services (Fidelity Investments), hospitality (Davio’s), and small businesses (Cisco Brewers/Nantucket Book Partners).

The mayors of Lawrence and Easthampton are on board, as is Boston Mayor Marty Walsh’s chief of staff.

Health experts include an infectious disease specialist from Massachusetts General Hospital, the CEO of Baystate Health in Springfield, and Baker’s public health commissioner, Dr. Monica Bharel (back on the job after her own brush with COVID-19). Also representing the administration: Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack, and panel cochairs Karyn Polito and Mike Kennealy.

Baker had previously extended the shutdown for all nonessential workplaces until May 4, and he may do so yet again. COVID-19 hospitalizations in the state have flattened, but Baker wants to see a definitive declining trend before giving the green light.

More like a yellow light. When Baker does reopen the state’s economy, it will happen in phases, not all at once. What that means, exactly, is still to be determined. Perhaps some industries will gain more freedom, similar to what has already happened with the governor’s “essential services” exemptions. Or maybe major white-collar employers will be encouraged to keep shifts of workers at home well into the summer. But one thing is sure: The economy will look quite different from the one that existed before the shutdown.

Jim Rooney, chief executive of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, said he hopes the advisory panel will provide the framework for new regulations, such as restaurant occupancy limits, as well as guidance for employers, like when to wear masks in the office or how far apart each desk should be. The chamber will be asked for input, much like many other major business groups.

The Retailers Association of Massachusetts will be among the first ones at the table. During his presentation to the panel on Wednesday, president Jon Hurst plans to plead for some leniency: He said Massachusetts is the sole state that allows only store owners to go into shops during a statewide business shutdown. He would like a limited number of employees to be allowed back, to help fill online and phone orders, even while the doors remain locked to the public. Some big chains, Walmart and Target among them, have stayed open because they sell essential products (namely groceries), an option many of Hurst’s members don’t have.

In a speech to the Greater Boston Chamber on Tuesday, Senate President Karen Spilka emphasized that dependable child care should be considered essential “infrastructure” for reopening the economy, much like roads and trains. Baker recently closed all non-emergency child-care centers through through June 29. Asked about this on Tuesday by a reporter in light of Spilka’s speech, he appeared to leave open the possibility of an earlier reopening.

Child care isn’t just important for people who want to go to the office. JD Chesloff, head of the Massachusetts Business Roundtable, noted that many parents will need it if they continue to work from home for much longer. Chesloff is informing his members that even when the reopening date finally arrives, they’ll need to brace for significant workplace changes — at least until a vaccine is readily available.

For the Massachusetts High Technology Council, Baker’s advisory board offers a sign of hope: that state government now has a mechanism in place for reopening the economy, Vice President Mark Gallagher said.

Board member Wendy Hudson, who runs the Cisco brewery and two Nantucket bookstores, said the group recognizes the urgency of the situation. But the members also share the desire, she said, to get it right.
Figuring out the best way to reopen the state’s economy while protecting the public’s health will be a tricky balancing act, a task made more daunting by the fact this group has less than three weeks to pull it off.

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