Chamber News

March 02, 2021 Likes Comments

Second guessing our governor

For at least ten months now, people have been second guessing Gov. Charlie Baker’s reopening plans.

But his latest loosening of some restrictions is drawing criticism from an impressive array of heavy hitters.

While not commenting on Baker’s actions specifically, both CDC Director (and Newton resident) Dr. Rochelle Walensky and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci spent the weekend warning against moving too fast to ease restrictions.

"Please hear me clearly: At this level of cases, with variants spreading, we stand to completely lose the hard-earned ground we have gained," said Walensky.
 
And then there’s Dr. Robert Horsburgh, a Boston University professor of epidemiology who is among those who believe the governor is making “a big mistake.

Baker's defense
 
But Baker thinks loosening reopening rules now is "appropriate," reports Chris Lisinski at State House News.

He noted yesterday that 1.2 million Massachusetts residents have received first doses of the vaccine and 550,000 have received second doses, including those considered most vulnerable to COVID. The state's hospitalization rate, case counts and daily case rates are all down too.

"We felt, based on that data and the success of the vaccine rollout so far, that it was appropriate to make some adjustments," Baker said. "Now, the adjustments we made that are effective today basically go back to where we were last fall before the second surge.
 
"We'll continue to review the data every day and every week, and if we see stuff in the data that concerns us, we'll make adjustments again."

What's not being said about yesterday's moves

We all how much better off we’d all be right now if our elected leaders nationwide had listened to Walensky and Fauci over the past year.

On the other hand, some perspective: the reopening moves that began yesterday, aren’t nearly as dramatic as Baker's local critics maintain. For example:
  • Boosting capacity in offices (which are mostly empty anyway) and stores from 40 to 50 percent is pretty modest, the kind of thing you'd do if cases and hospitalizations were incrementally improving, which, well, they are.
  • Same for fitness clubs where social distance rules requiring workout machines to spread out, limit capacities more than most certificates of occupancy
  • Allowing restaurants to operate at full capacity sounds dramatic too, until you consider that tables still must be six feet apart, you can only seat six guests per table and no one is allowed to linger. Those plexiglass partitions are still in place too, along with all those cleaning protocols. As for allowing live music in restaurants, it sounds like a big deal, until you find out that musicians need stand ten feet apart and be 25 feet away from customers. Not exactly time to reunite your ska band.
But stadiums?
 
More substantive – and closer to what Walensky and Fauci seem be warning us about -- are the Phase 4 measures that begin March 22, including allowing stadiums, arenas and ballparks to operate at a 12% capacity and, the one that surprised me, dancing at weddings.

Baker keeps saying -- and he said it again yesterday -- all changes are pending conditions at the time. He should be held to that and his track record shows he will retreat if needed.
 
But let's not forget, a lot of livelihoods depend on these industries reopening, many for the first time in a year. If they can be operated safely, they should.

A few more observations

My final two cents: Throughout the pandemic, Baker’s opening and closing decisions proved to be more right than wrong. The big spikes we experienced – after Thanksgiving, after Christmas/New Years – were due to private parties and informal gatherings, not business activities.
 
Contact tracing consistently told us that being in the office, shopping for shoes, lifting dumbbells, getting a hair cut and even indoor dining weren't super spreaders.

And really, Baker is only doing what he promised he would. Each time the data points took a bad turn, he imposed new restrictions that he said would remain in place until conditions improved. They have improved. And here we are.

Our biggest worry – and it is a big one – is that the public may interpret Baker’s actions as a signal that that it’s okay to let our guard down, because -- mostly -- the specific changes themselves remain restrictive.
 
Need to knows
  • UMass Amherst’s Massachusetts Small Business Development Center provides free, confidential, one-to-one business assistance and free and low-cost training to prospective and existing small businesses. Schedule a virtual meeting here.
  • World of Wellesley presents Dr. Maureen Walker speaking about her book “When Getting Along Is Not Enough, Reconstructing Race in Our Lives and Relationships” on Sunday March 7 at 3 p.m. Register.
  • Starting April 1 Newton restaurants are now be able to request permission to expand into parking spaces beyond their frontage with written support from their abutting neighbors. Applications and other information available online here.
Wellesley ends free parking program
 
Wellesley’s Select Board briefly discussed extending its free parking program last night.
 
But only Select Board Member Beth Sullivan Woods made the case for extending the program as a way to help businesses; a position the chamber also endorsed.
 
The rest of the board argued in favor of keeping to its original agreement to start collecting those quarters in March, arguing that the town is doing other things to help local merchants.
 
Metered parking remains free in Newton and Needham.
 
Alexandria eyes buying Watertown Mall
 
Add the Watertown Mall to the growing list of potential life sciences sites in Watertown.
 
Alexandria Real Estate Equities has been working on a deal to buy the Watertown Mall, Tim Logan at the Globe reports.
 
Logan’s sources say the transition could be valued at more than $125 million for the 18-acre site.
 
He said Target has a long term lease at the location and “could perhaps stay in place for some time while Alexandria builds on the adjacent parking lot.” (Other tenants of the mall are listed here.)
 
Meanwhile, Alexandra just purchased the VFW Post 1105 building at 295 Arsenal Street for $6 million. (The company is also a partner with Mark Development on a proposed project at Riverside Station in Newton.)
 
Still waiting on UI fix
 
The Legislature, once again, appears to be waiting until the last minute to stop a potentially devastating 60 percent increase in unemployment insurance.
 
Late last year, Gov. Baker proposed a two-year freeze on employer UI rates, with the Q1 bills are due to go out this month.
 
“If economic recovery is the goal, we cannot allow the employer community to shoulder the unprecedented hits to the state’s UI system in real time,” said Brooke Thomson, EVP at Associated Industries for Massachusetts.
 
...and a PPP fix
 
Many business groups are also asking Bay State lawmakers to fix a problem related to the federal Paycheck Protection Program before the March 15 Q1 state tax payment deadline.
 
PPP dollars are exempt from federal taxes but business entities in Massachusetts that pay the state’s personal income tax, including self-employed individuals, sole proprietors and pass-through entities, are being taxed on money received for these forgivable loans.
 
There’s a bill pending on Beacon Hill to address the issue.
 
However, officials at MassBudget have a column in CommonWealth arguing that i t’s a bad idea.
 
Getting a vaccine without Vax Finder
 
Finally today, while most of the focus on finding a vaccine appointment has been on the state’s maddeningly clunky vax finder site, it’s also possible to book directly through pharmacy sites, among other options.
 
But those sites feature their own "Byzantine, Hunger-Game-like systems," writes Joanna Stern in the Wall Street Journal.
 
Stern doesn’t have the answers but she has some tips, which she warns are “like a Vegas poker game: You can increase your odds with some skill and good timing, but a lot of it is luck of the draw.” Find them here.
 
And the Globe has this story about a "posse of mostly young women" who've launched Massachusetts COVID Vaccination Help. The group claims to have landed appointments for 450 people as of Monday, through a combination of technological know-how and persistence.
 
And they're doing it for free.
 
That's it for today, be back tomorrow.
President, Newton-Needham Regional Chamber
617-244-1688
Your chamber is here when you need us.
Dine out. Take out. Shop locally. Mask up. And tip generously.

 

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