Perspectives: Is Newton ready to reopen both socially and economically?

graphic by Kaila Hanna

Yes – Mike Sun

No – Alexa Zou

With over three months of quarantine in the rearview, Massachusetts has begun the long road to reopening. Already many businesses and institutions are opening up while following the government’s phase-based guidelines. While some believe that it is a health hazard for businesses to reopen, others find it imperative to improve the staggered economy, even accounting for health risks. Although both sides of the debate hold merit, Newton is ultimately ready to reopen socially and economically. By reopening, Newton can prevent its economy from spiraling even further, and also avoid a health crisis at the same time.

 Trends in the infection rate are the most telling sign of whether or not a city is ready to reopen. According to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, as of June 16, the weekly positive test rate average in Massachusetts is down 90% from April. Newton’s statistics showed a similar trend: on April 6 alone, Newton had 58 new positive cases. Compare that to the week of May 25, which saw at most only about five new cases daily. By those dates, Massachusetts was well into Phase 1 of reopening, with offices, manufacturing and personal services like hair salons reopened. Although these non-essential services were able to reopen, they did not increase the rate of infection by following safety guidelines and social distancing.

While these trends indicate that Newton is ready to reopen, it is imperative that Newton does so cautiously and adopts strategies that have been proven to reduce COVID-19 spread in other reopened communities. For example, New Zealand allowed businesses to reopen but forbade them from physically interacting with customers and limited gatherings to 10 people, resulting in economic growth without an increase in COVID-19 transmission. Similarly, by using testing and tracing programs combined with social distancing, South Korea hasn’t even had to lock down.

Massachusetts is indeed learning from the successes of other countries; The state’s contact tracing system has 1,000 workers to identify and contact people who have been exposed to the coronavirus. Programs like this would prevent a spike in cases, even with increased social interaction.

Additionally, hospital systems have been vastly upgraded. Notably, hospitals throughout the state have constructed emergency facilities (such as the 1000 bed Hope facility in Boston), bought more ventilators, and upgraded their workers’ Personal Protective Equipment. Even if transmission reduction plans in Newton are not yet functioning with 100% efficiency, the improvements to our medical systems since March will mean that hospitals would be ready to accommodate the potential increase in patients once Newton reopens more fully.

The potential health ramifications of reopening are manageable; the sure economic ramifications of remaining closed, however, are not. If we do not reopen, many already-vulnerable small businesses will suffer further and close. Small businesses in Middlesex County lost 53% of their revenue as of May 1 due to the coronavirus lockdowns, according to Harvard’s Opportunity Insights Economic Tracker, In April, Newton’s unemployment rate was at 8.6%, compared to 1.9% percent in April of last year, showing just how much the coronavirus has affected unemployment. This economic downturn is not sustainable and reversing — or, at the very least, minimizing — it must be of held paramount.

Though “business as usual” is a long way away, Newton is at the perfect moment to begin reopening in earnest; our economy needs a recovery, and our city has sufficiently strong preventative measures to prevent a health catastrophe. Reopening allows our economy to regrow but does not risk lives.

Until we can ensure that our community can adhere to all Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for mitigating the spread of the coronavirus, including but not limited to maintaining social distance, practicing good hygiene and protecting the immunocompromised, Newton should not reopen. 

As of June 9 and 11, the CDC stated that in Newton, there have been 771 new cases of COVID-19 and 118 deaths since the start of June. The CDC has advised avoiding meeting in large groups or crowded spaces.

With the school year coming to a close, officials are faced with conceiving a plan for school next year. South alone will have over 2,000 students, making adhering to the current CDC guidelines near impossible in a regular school setting. Another challenge will come from students and teachers who might opt not to return to school for personal or health reasons. These issues can be avoided by keeping schools physically closed. 

A CNN report from May 6 said that “removing all interactions … in schools for children up to 14 years old would [reduce] the average daily number of new cases [by] 42%.” Dr. Sophie Vergnaud reporting for GoodPX stated that, “[the percentage of] 15 to 17 years [catching Covid-19 is] 32% [since April from the CDC]”, there is scientific evidence of students not being an extreme source of transmission.

The option to return to work is especially unsafe for adults and the immunocompromised. Chalkbeat said that “one in five of the nation’s public schools teachers are 55 or older.” Reopening schools is simply not feasible health-wise. Keeping businesses and schools closed is the only way that the government can effectively protect everyone, particularly those who are at increased risk.  

In addition to the impracticality and impossibility of reopening schools, Governor Baker’s decision to reopen workplaces mandated that “workers must wear face coverings indoors or outdoors whenever workers are unable to maintain a distance of more than 6 feet.” Many workplaces, however, do not have the proper infrastructure in place to allow social distancing and effectively slow transmission. Businesses are not prepared to prevent their workers from passing on the virus, and, thus, they should not yet open.

Indeed, Thomas Frieden, former director of the CDC, said that certain states’ decisions to reopen sooner and more rapidly have ignored health concerns: “We’re not reopening based on science, we’re reopening based on politics, ideology and public pressure.” 

The Boston Globe wrote that, “Massachusetts doctors say a severe shortage of tests for COVID-19 is hindering efforts to control the local coronavirus outbreak.”

 Ultimately, the health and safety of all members of our community must be held paramount. Thus, the only safe path forward is to refrain from reopening until there’s a real defined way of protecting everyone.