Baker eases tight restrictions on retail, car dealers

State House News Service file photo. Gov. Charlie Baker today described a phased reopening of the Massachusetts economy.

BOSTON  Factories, construction sites and churches can reopen beginning this week, but other businesses will have to wait, Gov. Charlie Baker said Monday as he rolled out a plan to revive the state's coronavirus-battered economy.

Baker said the road map for restarting the state's economy will allow "essential" businesses that have remained open during the pandemic to continue to operate, with restrictions.

Other, higher risk businesses will have to wait. Baker and other state officials outlined a gradual process that will unfold in four phases over several months.

"The toll this virus takes and continues to take on many of us is staggering, but the response, the fight, the millions of people who are doing what they have to do to push back, has been brave and bigger," Baker said during a briefing.

"We are going to ask people once again to rise to the occasion as we continue to fight this virus."

Beginning on Memorial Day, hairstylists, pet groomers, car washes and some other retail businesses can reopen with restrictions on capacity and social distancing.

A statewide ban on parking at beaches will be lifted, while hunting, fishing and other outdoor activities will be allowed to resume.

Offices located outside of Boston can reopen after May 25, but must operate at 25% capacity. Baker is also encouraging businesses to let employees continue working from home, if possible.

Hotels, dine-in restaurants and other retail outlets such as nail salons and day spas will be allowed to reopen in the second phase. It's not clear when that will get underway.

The second phase would also see playgrounds, pools, summer day camps and athletic fields reopen in a limited fashion.

Any businesses that reopen will need to provide masks and other protective gear to workers, install signage about preventing spread of the virus and require customers to practice strict social distancing by staying 6 feet apart.

Employees must also practice good hygiene and allow employers to monitor their temperatures.

As of Monday, the state is also replacing its "stay-at-home" guidance with a "safer at home" advisory that eases some restrictions on outdoor activities, but keeps in place a requirement to wear masks or face coverings in public when social distancing isn't possible.

Baker declared a state of emergency March 10 and imposed a number of aggressive restrictions aimed at preventing spread of the virus. Two weeks later he ordered all "non-essential businesses" to close for two weeks and advised people to stay home.

He has extended the shutdown twice, warning that the state must see a continuing decline in COVID-19 cases before taking steps to restart the economy.

Public and private schools across the state, including universities and colleges, have been closed for the remainder of the academic year.

Pressure has been growing on the Baker administration to reopen the economy. Protesters gathered outside the Statehouse, as well as Baker's Swampscott home, demanding that he "end the lockdown" by lifting a stay-at-home advisory and other restrictions.

Over the past several weeks, a swath of industries from restaurants to pot shops pitched their reopening plans to a 17-member advisory board led by Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito.

The push to reopen has been fueled by public frustration as unemployment skyrockets, businesses struggle to survive, and fears of a prolonged recession mount.

Massachusetts is one of a half-dozen states — including New York and Connecticut  that has kept restrictions in place as other states have eased lockdowns.

Even as it begins to reopen the economy, the state remains a national hot-spot for COVID-19 infections, with 86,010 cases as of Sunday and 5,797 deaths.

Baker said there have been "positive developments" in the COVID-19 data, but the state isn't out of the woods yet.

He said reopening plans could be delayed if there is a resurgence of virus-related deaths or new infections.

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhi.com.

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