BOSTON (State House News Service) —Two days after telling some types of businesses how they could reopen after a prolonged public health closure, Gov. Charlie Baker on Wednesday emphasized that there's no need for any company or religious institution uncomfortable with the idea of reopening to come back to work right away.
"I think we want people to do whatever they're most comfortable doing here," Baker said.
The governor also said that cities like Boston are free to put additional restrictions on how fast offices reopen, addressing a concern levied by Boston Mayor Marty Walsh a day earlier that had frustrated some figures in the administration. Walsh said he thought the state's guidance allowing offices to reopen on June 1 in the city at 25 percent capacity was "too much" on the first day.
Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito on Monday released a detailed, four-phase strategy to reopen the economy after more than two months of ordering most businesses to shut their doors and to let their employees work from home, if possible.
The shutdown was designed to control the transmission of the deadly coronavirus, which has killed 5,938 people in Massachusetts so far. But it has also led to more than 1 million state workers filing claims for unemployment benefits, and many businesses, including popular restaurants and retailers, closing for good.
Still, Baker told business owners and faith leaders not quite comfortable yet with the idea of returning to the office to keep away for now.
"No one who's part of phase one has to do anything," Baker said. He said he's heard from some faith leaders who want to continue offering services outside before moving back into churches, and the Dorchester Reporter reported Tuesday that no Catholic churches in Dorchester or Mattapan plan to offer liturgies this weekend.
Baker and Lt Gov. Karyn Polito visited Symmons Industries, a plumbing parts manufacturer in Braintree, on Wednesday to see firsthand how a local business is implementing new workplace safety standards required by the state in order to resume some normal operations. The governor had no public events on Tuesday, making it the first time he took questions since unveiling a reopening strategy that has been criticized both for going too fast and too slow.
Manufacturing was one of three sectors, including constructions and houses of worship, that were allowed to go back to work immediately under the first phase of the reopening plan.
Symmons Industries CEO Tim O'Keeffe said the company recently rehired 25 employees after implementing layoffs during the shutdown. As orders for plumbing valves declined, Symmons shifted production to begin making things like ear-savers for masks and copper, antimicrobial tools for people to open doors and push elevator buttons without touching surfaces.
Now, the third-generation family businesses is trying to ramp back up its traditional manufacturing of producing water valves and other precision parts, and hopes to get back close to full workforce capacity.
Throughout the process of figuring out how to keep worker safe on the job, O'Keeffe said the company has learned techniques to make employees feel comfortable with new rules, such as temperature checks when they arrive for a shift. Symmons now pumps '80s music into the hallway where employees wait to have their temperatures taken to lighten the mood, he said.
While employers like Symmons are ramping back up, Baker also said he was encouraged by the number of companies that said they would continue to have employees work from home, calling it "absolutely the right thing to do."
But he acknowledged the consequences of remote work.
"That will create some distance and it won't just be physical distance. There will be a lost opportunity there for people to engage with one another," Baker said. "And I think in some ways, that's part of what the next act associated with all of this will be about."
Part of the governor's reopening plan allows for offices to reopen in most parts of the state on May 25 at 25 percent capacity, while observing social distancing, wearing masks and taking other precautions. Boston, where many employees use public transit to reach their jobs, was given an additional week to prepare.
However, Walsh on Tuesday said he thought bringing 25 percent of the office workforce back to Boston as a starting point would be "too much" and potentially overwhelm the city's child care system, which is still largely shut down. He said he was considering a lower level for the capital city to start.
Asked about the mayor's comments, the governor pointed out that the mayor's chief of staff Kathryn Burton served on the reopening advisory board led by Polito.
"The decision the city has to make, Boston has to make, is whether they want to go up to 25 percent on June 1, or up to some other number," Baker said. "But that was considered from our point of view a cap with respect to phase one. And we're expecting people will make decisions based on a variety of issues with regard to how far they want to go and how fast on that one."
City Hall would not say whether Burton raised the mayor's concern with the 25 percent capacity limit during the development of the reopening plan, but acknowledged some concessions made to the city, such as the later June 1 office reopening date.
The governor and lieutenant governor were joined at Symmons by Braintree Mayor Charles Kokoros and state Sen. Walter Timility. Kokoros said he has reassigned his team of building inspectors to the city's health department to assist with enforcement of the new workforce safety standards as places like Symmons begin to reopen.
Baker also addressed the lack of plans to reopen child care centers to make it possible for more people to return to work, saying his administration is continuing to work with providers to allow day care centers to reopen safely, and reiterating the existing capacity in the emergency child care system that's available.
"I am fully confident we will figure this out, but this is something we all believe we need to get right and if this takes a little longer, I think that's the appropriate thing to do," the governor said.
By Matt Murphy, State House News Service