Local legislators react to governor’s four-phase reopening plan

  • A pair of workers from GP East Steel Company in Wareham erect structural steel for the new Easthampton K-8 school at the site of the former White Brook Middle School, Monday, May 18, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 5/20/2020 10:47:07 AM

NORTHAMPTON — Legislators representing the Pioneer Valley gave a mixed assessment of the four-part plan the governor presented Monday for reopening the state amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think it’s a good start,” said Rep. Dan Carey, D-Easthampton. “I don’t think it’s perfect, but I don’t think anything in a pandemic is perfect.”

Phase 1 of Gov. Charlie Baker’s plan started Monday with manufacturing facilities, construction and houses of worship being given the OK to reopen. Next week, also as part of the first phase, hair salons and barbershops, pet grooming and car wash services, will be given the go-ahead. Phase 2 is set to allow the opening of retail and restaurants, while Phase 3 includes the reopening of bars and casinos. Phase 4 would be contingent on a vaccine or effective treatment for COVID-19 and would see the full resumption of activity in the state.

Each phase will be at least three weeks long, and moving beyond a given phase will be subject to continuous improvements in coronavirus-related metrics. If public health conditions worsen, reopening could be scaled back, with the possibility of returning to previous phases.

The plan transitions the state from a stay-at-home order to a safer-at-home advisory. However, the advisory and the order have a lot in common, with all residents advised to “leave home only for health care, worship and permitted work, shopping and outdoor activities.”

The governor’s plan also outlines safety guidelines such as face-covering, hand washing, socially distancing and staying home if one feels sick or shows symptoms associated with COVID-19.

While several legislators appreciated this public health approach, including Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst, she noted that the health indicators are about flattening the curve of the pandemic, not eliminating the virus.

“We still have to practice prevention,” she said.

Criticism and concerns

Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa, D-Northampton, was critical of the governor’s plan, stating that she wished there had been more of a lead-up before businesses started to reopen.

“That’s going to make it very, very hard for people in some industries,” she said of the lack of prep time for workers in the industries reopened Monday. She specifically noted the difficulty in finding child care for affected employees, a concern shared by other local legislators.

Sabadosa was also among the lawmakers who expressed concern about putting the onus of reporting safety violations on employees and customers of reopening businesses.

“What’s going to protect the worker in that situation?” asked Domb, who argued that there need to be protections in place for workers who report safety violations.

Domb said the state is expecting workers to go to local boards of health and report their employers for violations, such as not providing masks, and that protections such as anonymity and job security need to be explicitly outlined.

“I don’t think that should be a secret,” she said. “Employers need to know it.”

Sabadosa, meanwhile, said that reports of violations should be going to the state, not to local boards of health.

On Wednesday, Attorney General Maura Healey announced new resources for people to report workplace safety concerns, including a new online complaint form and hotline to call. 

Carey and Domb expressed frustration that the transit section of the reopening presentation referenced the MBTA but didn’t address transportation locally.

“Western Massachusetts isn’t served by the MBTA,” said Carey.

A number of the legislators also pointed to Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) as another area of the reopening plan that could use improvement. 

Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, said she would like to see the state’s stockpiles of PPE, which have been made available to frontline health care workers, be offered to workers in other sectors of the economy as it opens up. She also said that the state must ensure that a steady stream of PPE is coming into the commonwealth.

“This whole thing is about vigilance,” said Comerford. “It’s about painstaking vigilance.”

Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, said that the plan was the result of “an incredibly thought-through process,” while also expressing concerns about child care, PPE and enforcement issues.

Hinds noted there is an opportunity for the Legislature to step in and supplement what the governor is doing. As examples, he pointed to creating a bulk purchasing program for PPE and the creation of a system for employees anonymously reporting safety violations.

“That’s the type of thing you could imagine the Legislature stepping in on,” he said.

Domb has introduced legislation that would have the Department of Public Health contract with a Massachusetts manufacturer to make masks, which the DPH would distribute them to municipalities.

Domb worked in public health during the HIV epidemic, and she said that crises like that epidemic and the COVID-19 pandemic reveal weaknesses in society and the health care system.

“Ensuring that people have equal access to health care resources … all of that makes a difference when you’re in a pandemic,” Domb said.

It’s essential for communities to play an active role in responding to public health crises and asking for resources when they’re needed, she added. “We can always ask for more, and we can always be willing to work for more.”

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com.
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