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State by state, region by region, it’s a patchwork approach: Here’s what reopening the economy looks like

May 9, 2020Boston Globe, Council in the News

May 9, 2020
Boston Globe
By Larry Edelman and Shirley Leung, Globe Staff

As states across the country take their first steps to reopen, one pattern emerges: a patchwork of approaches with each region taking a different path.

In Maine, hair salons and barber shops were among the first businesses to welcome back customers, but not in New Hampshire when it began opening its economy last week. In Rhode Island, some stores were allowed to open this weekend, but public beaches remain closed. In Michigan, auto factories are reopening before a stay-at-home order is lifted. In Ohio, construction and manufacturing sectors returned first, while restaurants open for dine-in service later in May.

Meanwhile, within New England, Connecticut will come closest to flipping the on switch, allowing dine-in restaurants, hair salons, museums and zoos, university research, and malls to open on May 20.

“It is really a checkerboard,” said David Adkins, executive director of the Council of State Governments, a nonprofit that provides policy guidance to states. “It’s about public pressure, industry pressure, and health concerns.”

Massachusetts has yet to unveil a reopening plan, even though restrictions on daily life to contain COVID-19 have so far kept hospitals from being overwhelmed. Governor Charlie Baker finds himself under growing pressure to begin releasing details so businesses can prepare. The stay-at-home advisory and ban on nonessential businesses is in effect until May 18, which is also the deadline for a board appointed by the governor to deliver recommendations on how to restart the economy.

About three dozen states have issued reopening plans, according to the National Governors Association. Restaurateur Steve DiFillippo, a member of Baker’s business advisory board, said the experiences and procedures in other states will help the board draft protocols for a safe, gradual reopening.

“The more knowledge you can get from other states and countries I think is good,” said DiFillippo, chief executive of the Davio’s restaurant group.

Commerce across America will look different in the wake of the pandemic: Employees and customers alike will wear masks, and social distancing measures remain in place. Restaurants in Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Connecticut, which have been restricted to delivery and takeout, can reopen only for outdoor dining. Office workers are likely to be among the last to return to the workplace; Connecticut, for example, will restrict offices to 50 percent capacity, and employees who can continue to work from home are encouraged to do so. In Rhode Island and elsewhere, dressing rooms in clothing stores will be closed. In New Hampshire, haircuts are allowed, but not blow drying. Want to catch a movie on the big screen? The only option in Maine is a drive-in theater.

Georgia was among the first states to jump-start its economy, and Rich Clark was among those restaurateurs who welcomed back customers on April 27, the first day people could sit down to eat and drink.

Clark, who opened two of his three restaurants in the Atlanta area, recalled how the first week was busy but the second week was slower. So far, Clark has hired back about 80 percent of employees at his high-end seafood restaurants, which include Hugo’s Oyster Bar.

Revenue is not what it used to be, he acknowledged. Georgia has severely restricted capacity, which for Clark means his 190-seat restaurant can hold only about 75 patrons at a time. But Clark said he’s doing OK because a forgivable loan from the Small Business Administration is helping underwrite his payroll through June.

“We’re spending house money,” he said. “What it is going to look like when July rolls around when we have to stand on our own two feet, that’s what is keeping me up right now.”

In Georgia, not all businesses opened up right away, and that has been the experience in other states as well. Faced with new restrictions and spooked consumers, some companies might not think it’s worth opening doors now. The economy is expected to remain in low gear because without a vaccine or viable treatment many people will not feel comfortable returning to their pre-pandemic routines, whether it’s sitting in a restaurant, getting on an airplane, going to the theater, or commuting into the office.

Sometimes the tension is within a state with one region ready to open but not another. In California, Governor Gavin Newsom is opening the economy in phases, but Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has said the city is not ready. A similar dynamic could play out in Boston, where the infection rate remains high.

And when COVID-19 cases spike again, government could announce another round of restrictions to contain the virus.

Part of the reason plans and timing vary widely is that no one knows how to restart the economy without risking a rise in infections. The whole world, it seems, is figuring it out together.

The Pioneer Institute recently reviewed reopening plans from around the world that could serve as a guide for Massachusetts. In particular, the Boston think tank highlighted the experiences of Austria, Denmark, and Germany, which began loosening restrictions in April. Those countries are all opening up their economies in phases and with social distancing measures and restrictions on capacity. Small shops and businesses came back in the first phase, while restaurants and hotels tended to open later in the cycle. Large public gatherings, including sports games, concerts, and cultural events, have been banned through the summer.

In Massachusetts, businesses are anxious to get back to work because some 60 percent of the economy has been shuttered for two months. More than 960,000 people have filed for unemployment pay over the past seven weeks, or nearly 26 percent of the state’s pre-pandemic workforce. The Commonwealth’s output of goods and services fell 6.1 percent in the first quarter, compared with a 4.8 decline nationally.

A recent report by the Massachusetts High Technology Council outlined a painfully slow reopening of the economy with companies bringing back workers in phases, based on age and industry, with white-collar workers who can work remotely the last to come back.

Baker is hesitant to allow people back to work because COVID-19 remains a public health emergency. The Commonwealth lags behind most states in being ready to reopen, according to data tracked by the University of Maryland, which has created a website that ranks states by a range of health, economic, demographic, and social distancing measures.

The University of Maryland data show that Massachusetts excels at social distancing, ranking fifth in the country after Washington, D.C., New York, New Jersey, and Hawaii as of May 1. Still, burdened by a stubbornly high number of new cases, Massachusetts compares poorly in categories such as hospital bed and ICU capacity. And the percentage of positive COVID-19 tests and the death rate remain elevated.

On the other hand, a computer model of the pandemic by the University of Texas indicates there is a 90 percent probability that Massachusetts has already passed its peak of confirmed deaths — a much higher probability of some states that are already reopening.

Last week the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce urged the Baker administration to set criteria for an economic reopening and release details sooner than May 18, when the stay-at-home advisory and ban on nonessential businesses expire.

“The business community is not trying to be reckless,” said chamber CEO James Rooney. “We’re not trying to rush to opening, but we’d like to see the plan and the triggers and the data that is being considered.”

Baker said he has been working with other governors on reopening scenarios, but given the wide range of pandemic conditions from region to region, there are bound to be differences in timing.

Baker said he and his counterparts have tried to approach decisions so they don’t “do things that create difficulty for our neighbors.” He cited recent discussions with about 20 governors about how to reopen summer camps and day care centers.

“It’s a matter of days, OK, between where they are and where we are,” Baker said Friday of neighboring states. “I don’t expect everybody to move in lockstep because everybody’s not in the same place.”

Count Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh among those who may want to move more slowly.

Walsh and his staff are working closely not only with the Baker administration, but with other cities and towns to share ideas and coordinate reopening plans. Still, Walsh said the city may lag the state on some fronts.

Like Baker, Walsh said data will drive his decision-making. Among the key metrics he is watching: hospitalization rates, percentage of positive cases each day, and number of people being tested. He said the city has a way to go before reaching satisfactory levels, noting how 30 percent of tests in Boston are coming back positive. Public health experts say the rate should be about 10 percent before social distancing measures are relaxed.

When it comes to opening up the economy, Walsh said there is little room for error. “We have to get it right,” he said. “It has to be thoughtful and phased in.”

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