Attleboro area lawmakers respond to governor’s reopening plan with frustration and understanding

The Massachusetts Statehouse sits on 6.7 acres of land on Beacon Hill, Boston Mass. Oct. 25, 2019. Photo by Naa Dedei Coleman/ BU News Service

By Devyani Chhetri
BU News Service

ATTLEBORO – With the first phase of Gov. Charlie Baker’s plan to reopen the economy about to kick in, area lawmakers say the lack of detail in the governor’s outline may adversely affect how businesses prepare to get back to work.

Baker outlined a four-phase plan for reopening to begin May 18.

But Rep. Shawn Dooley, R-Norfolk, said that he was expecting the governor to give a true business plan with specific guidelines, metrics, benchmarks and goals. With small businesses facing an uncertain future, Dooley said he was disappointed that the governor’s plan did nothing to alleviate those anxieties.

“I have spoken to a lot of business owners in this area who are at the brink,” he said. “If the economy is too slow to rebound and the lockdown isn’t loosened, they don’t know if they can survive.”

Designed as a flexible step-by-step process, it isn’t clear whether the first phase of the plan will terminate the stay-at-home advisory in place from late March. Limited industries, likely to include essential services that are already operating, will continue with a renewed set of restrictions.

Baker said Wednesday that full details will be revealed May 18 when the Reopening Advisory Board led by Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito and Housing and Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealy is slated to submit its report.

With the sobering death toll in the back of their minds, Rep. James Hawkins, D-Attleboro, and Sen. Becca Rausch, D-Needham, said that they appreciated Baker’s data-driven approach.

“Public health experts, epidemiologists and medical professionals have continued to express fears about opening too quickly,” said Rausch, who has recently been developing legislation on child care services and early education interventions.

“This is definitely hard and I know that people are getting antsy,” she said. “My staff knows it; my colleagues know it –– we’re all aware that this is a very difficult time.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, testified in Congress and warned states and cities against rushing past “checkpoints” prematurely to reopen their economy before the number of cases dropped.

“There is a real risk of triggering an outbreak that you may not be able to control,” he said. Opening too soon, he warned, may be a setback that could lead to suffering and death that could be avoided, but could even adversely affect economic recovery.

Fauci also said that the development of vaccines had gained traction. The first leg of lab work, which started in January, is now going through phases two and three of the clinical trial process, he said.

With about eight vaccines in the development stage, he was cautiously optimistic for the next phase to set in by late fall and early winter of this year.

However, Dr. Rick Bright, former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, testified Thursday before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee and said there was a distinct absence of a standard, centralized and coordinated effort response.

“I still think 12 to 18 months is an aggressive schedule, and I think it’s going to take longer than that to do so,” Bright said.

That may not help the fate of many businesses shutting shop as a result of the pandemic.

“Phase four (of Baker’s plan) doesn’t go into effect until a vaccine is available,” Dooley said. “Lots of vaccines are in the works but there are quite a few steps between now and when it can be publicly vetted, mass-produced and become nationally available.”

A vague outline, Dooley said, where the return to normalcy is dependent on the availability of a vaccine was worrisome.

“There has been a tremendous amount of government overreach throughout the crisis and while well-intentioned, it is concerning that some of these measures will become permanent,” he said.

Hawkins, too, felt that the governor’s plan didn’t offer many details to help businesses prepare to resume work but said that the general concept made sense.

“We’re not over this yet and I kind of resent the pressure to open when there are still people dying,” he said.

While the numbers may seem like they have plateaued, the governor’s plan to reverse steps in case the numbers climbed again was the most important priority, Hawkins said.

“When you think that nationally more people have died in this than the Vietnam War in just six to seven weeks — what a gruesome way to die and it’s not just older people now dying from it,” he said, echoing Fauci’s concerns that new research is pointing to children being at risk as well.

“People, who may have gone two months without personal care, may want businesses like salons to open up,” Hawkins said. “But if you’re a salon owner and don’t have enough personal protective equipment, you might not want to or might not feel safe doing it.”

Recounting his conversation with an aesthetician in his district, Hawkins said that many workers couldn’t get PPE. He said that their work required them to touch clients and stand merely a foot away, breaking essential protocols of social distancing in the process.

At the same time, not opening a business also runs the risk of irrevocable loss and mounting unemployment.

“That is a big dilemma for some people,” Hawkins said.

This article was originally published on The Sun Chronicle.

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