Massachusetts is going to see a painfully slow reopening process, business leaders say

May 2, 2020 | Boston Globe, Council in the News

May 2, 2020
Boston Globe
By Larry Edelman and Shirley Leung, Globe Staff

Don’t iron those business clothes or reactivate that monthly T pass just yet.

Safely resuscitating an economy laid low by the coronavirus likely will be painfully slow and require a gradual return to the workplace supported by mandatory face masks, social distancing, and an expansion of state testing that could cost $720 million a year.

That is the sobering assessment of a high-powered Massachusetts business group — backed by research from top medical academics and professionals — that has the ear of the advisers who Governor Charlie Baker will rely on as he weighs how and when to begin lifting COVID-19 restrictions.

Stephen Pagliuca, the private equity investor and co-owner of the Boston Celtics, has been circulating a 70-page report that details the necessary conditions for reopening and recommends that companies bring back workers in phases, based on age and industry, with white-collar employees who can work remotely the last to come back.

“It’s going to be a while before we get back to normal,” Pagliuca, cochairman of Bain Capital, said during an online presentation to business leaders Friday. The report was put together by the Massachusetts High Technology Council and incorporates research from Bain Capital, McKinsey & Co., and a long list of academics including Brandeis professor Michael Rosbash, who won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2017.

As states such as Georgia and Texas push to reopen quickly, the council’s report said a cautious and methodical approach is needed in Massachusetts absent universal testing or a COVID-19 vaccine, which is at least 18 months off. There is no guarantee that Baker would follow any or all of the recommendations, but the report does echo his generally cautious approach to managing the crisis.

The state’s rates of new infections and deaths have remained stubbornly high despite six weeks of social distancing measures that forced the shutdown of thousands of businesses and kept many residents indoors except for trips to the grocery store and some exercise and fresh air. In a clear sign that normalcy is a ways off, Baker issued an order Friday requiring everyone to wear face masks in public when they can’t remain 6 feet away from others.

The report also made clear how many lives and livelihoods are at stake. According to the council, the jobs of at least 40 percent of workers making less than $40,000 a year are at risk.

The state said Thursday that nearly one in four workers filed for unemployment benefits in the past six weeks, and economists forecast the jobless rate will soon top 25 percent.

Determining when to reopen hinges in part on ensuring that there are enough hospital beds and health care workers to handle anticipated caseloads even as the pandemic ebbs. The timing also depends on whether the state can effectively test for and trace the infection, according to the council presentation.

Massachusetts, like many other states, is far from universal testing its 6.8 million residents. Pagliuca said testing centers would need to be built to handle the volume, and the effort would be costly — $600 million a month for weekly testing of everyone.

Acknowledging that isn’t feasible now, the report sets a goal of reaching 100,000 people in the state each day, up from about 10,000 in the week ended April 25. That would include people with mild or stronger symptoms and anyone they have come into contact with. It would cost about $60 million a month to achieve.

The state has done a good job managing hospital capacity, the report said, with just more than half of intensive care beds filled by COVID-19 patients.

But the group cautioned against rushing back to work, which could lead to a second, more severe wave of infections. Baker recently extended his stay at home advisory to May 18.

The council’s report envisions a phased return to the workplace, beginning with the most essential jobs that are impossible or difficult to be done from home. These would include workers in health care and social services, retail, and transportation. A second phase could include construction, manufacturing, education, and government workers, who may find it difficult or impossible to work from home.

Last to return would be sectors where employees can easily work remotely, including information technology, financial services, and professional services.

Importantly, the report recommends that workers most at risk — those over age 60, or with health-compromising conditions — should remain home in the first wave.

The report also warns that young workers living in multigenerational households may need to take extra precautions if they return to the workplace, or consider alternative living arrangements, especially if they live in a hot spot. As much as 40 percent of the over-65 population could be living in a multigenerational household.

The report also called reopening schools and child care centers a “precondition” to parents returning to work, and that it may require older students wearing masks and the disinfecting of schools twice a day.

The report said that testing and tracing efforts should reach 70 percent of all contacts within two days. The state is at the forefront of tracing nationally, with 1,000 tracers already hired. But 5,000 to 10,000 tracers will be needed, according to the council.

How employees commute will also need to be reimagined. Public transit could be a source of infection, and employers may need to consider car pools and private vans. Subways and buses may operate at reduced capacity in order to adhere to social distancing measures — or even consider assigned seating.

Pagliuca has emerged as a bridge between Massachusetts business and government leaders and Scientists to Stop COVID-19, a national ad hoc group of academic medical experts that also has formulated a detailed plan for ending the pandemic and returning some normalcy to civic and business life.

The committee — put together by Tom Cahill, a Boston doctor turned venture capitalist, and including scientists from Harvard, MIT, and other local schools — laid out four key steps and a time timetable that partially informed the council’s game plan:

  • Find existing drugs to treat COVID-19 patients, a process that has already begun, most notably with remdesivir, which the Food and Drug Administration cleared Friday for emergency use
  • Develop therapies that use the body’s own antibodies to ward off the virus, with testing through the summer
  • Develop and deploy vaccines by the fall of next year
  • Begin to gradually reopen the economy as soon as this month

Pagliuca emphasized that all the strategies outlined in the council’s work need to come together to allow a reopening.

“Everything is interdependent on everything else,” he said in an interview. “If you don’t have tests, you’re going to have more people in the hospital. If you don’t have tracing, you’re going to have more people in the hospital. … If you’re going to go back to work, you have to try not to overwhelm the hospital capacity. If you overwhelm that capacity, you’re going to have to shut down again.”

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