ON MONDAY, MASSACHUSETTS entered Phase 3 of its reopening plan, which Gov. Baker’s people have code-named “Vigilant.” It includes movie theaters, gyms, entertainment venues, casinos, and larger gatherings. This is on top of indoor dining, which recently reopened.
We’re doing this as we watch COVID-19 numbers spike all around the country in states that were haphazard about their reopenings and as new evidence mounts that the disease is spreading via airborne transmission. More locally, Massachusetts sits on the cusp of where the virus once again spreads quickly. If our decisions were primarily being driven by the data, we would be pumping the brakes on reopenings, practicing actual vigilance.
As someone who is attempting to make sense of these regulations, their staging, and the larger public health factors at play with our response to coronavirus, I have to report that what we’re being handed is a hot mess. We’ve watched other states bungle their reopenings and we seem to be following in their footsteps.
We do not have the public health scaffolding in place to respond when, not if, the virus rebounds. We have not built a culture where everyone wears face coverings. We are treating schools like an afterthought in our reopening plans rather than the centerpiece they should be. Simply put, we continue to underestimate COVID-19 even after it’s killed more than 8,000 people in our state, killed more than 130,000 people across our country, and dealt a blow to our economy we haven’t seen since the Great Depression. I want to be clear that we are trying to implement the state plan as best we can and there are good pieces to it (for instance, the guidelines around youth activities), but the plan as a whole leaves us susceptible to a resurgence of this disease.
Let’s talk for a moment about what counts as vigilant. New Jersey just required that face coverings be worn everywhere in public, indoors and outdoors. That’s vigilant. New York decided against opening up indoor dining due to the national surge in COVID-19 cases. That’s vigilant. Connecticut just put Phase 3 of its reopening on an indefinite pause. That’s vigilant.
In Massachusetts, we’re getting marketing slogans instead of a substantive, informed, coordinated response to a disease with a staying power we need to learn to respect. If we want to chart a different course, it starts with a face coverings order that mirrors New Jersey’s. Everyone everywhere needs to have a face covering. We have to build a culture where wearing face coverings is standard. Whatever we attempt to do in terms of reopening our society in the middle of this pandemic, wearing a face covering will be an essential piece of it. Currently, we have a toothless order that gets interpreted differently by each community. Having a new set of rules every time you cross a city or town line creates the disordered conditions this disease needs to thrive.
Consistent face covering rules backed up by state support for compliance will make it easier for our businesses and services like the MBTA to operate. Right now the private sector and essential workers are in a tough spot. We’ve all seen videos of aggressive customers insisting they do not need to cover up. If it’s a clear and enforced state mandate, that ends the argument. It removes chaos from our response. The state, not some lone waitperson or bus driver, must bear the weight of ensuring compliance.
Our economy also will benefit from people covering up. A team of Goldman-Sachs economists has estimated a nationwide face covering requirement would salvage $1 trillion in economic activity. It would create consumer confidence that we’re currently lacking. We can declare things reopened all we want, but few will go if they worry their health is only as secure as the least responsible person around them. When everyone is in face coverings, people are better protected and feel more confident conducting business.
The state could help communities by sharing best practices and making sure communities have access to the supplies they need to be successful. Distribute face coverings to public transit riders and at state recreational areas. In Somerville, we’ve seen success with an educational enforcement approach and distributing over 100,000 masks to residents. We found that when residents had easy access to face coverings and received information in multiple languages that explained how wearing a face covering keeps others safe, most were happy to do the right thing.
And our testing regime still isn’t what it needs to be. I’m happy the state has established free testing in eight underserved communities, but it’s late on getting these sites running. Somerville established free testing for all city residents more than two months ago. While I’m glad the state prioritized communities with the greatest need, we need free and easy-to-access testing everywhere, regardless of symptoms, if we want to catch another outbreak in its infancy. Also, the plan in these eight communities is to shut down the testing sites in mid-August, shortly before the start of the school year. That makes absolutely no sense. This isn’t strategic, it’s insufficient. It’s a scaled-down, short-term version of the more serious testing regimen we need in place.
On top of that, the state is scaling down contact tracing efforts even in the midst of all these reopenings. This is exactly the time when we need our test-trace-isolate fully functioning to handle any potential rise in transmission caused by reopenings. We’re acting like this disease has gone and left us when every indication is it will come back. When it does we’re going to need to rehire and retrain a whole new set of contact tracers, which will cost us time we don’t have. In Somerville we’re building out our own contact tracing system to cover the gap, but our overall response to contact tracing cannot be telling 351 cities and towns in Massachusetts that they’re on their own.
Finally, there’s the elephant in the room that is our schools. It is the linchpin to reopening our society. If children can’t physically go to school (and to childcare), parents can’t physically go to work. Without operational schools we don’t have anything like economic normalcy, and our students will miss out on a vital portion of their education.
Currently, we’re trying to navigate all the risk factors I’ve mentioned in devising a school opening plan: national outbreak, potential airborne transmission, and the possibility of the virus spreading quickly again in Massachusetts. Harvard University, which has the money to make decisions based solely on health factors, and certainly has the best available information at its fingertips, has ruled out in-person classes for the fall semester.
There may be a limited number of activities in which we can engage at this point in time while keeping COVID-19 at bay. We need to admit that to ourselves and to the public. I’m the mayor of a city with a $400 million a year local restaurant industry. We would love to have indoor dining fully up and running. It would do wonders for our local economy, restaurant owners, and employees. Yet this disease forces us to make difficult choices. The safety and operational capacity of our schools should come first. If we can run one extra thing and then try to build around it, that thing should be our schools.
Instead, the state has put schools at the back of the line. We reveal our priorities with what we do. And Massachusetts just entered a new phase of reopenings called Vigilant that opens casinos in advance of opening schools. That’s where our priorities currently reside.
With reopening comes responsibility. Our state is charting a nonsensical path that flies in the face of the data and does not put in place the public health shield needed to protect us from a potential second wave of coronavirus. The plan right now is a smattering of different activities with little regard for where our priorities should be, and it is completely devoid of actual vigilance.
Joseph Curtatone is mayor of Somerville.