By Chris Lisinski
SEPT. 3, 2020…..Midway through an answer about steps taken to relieve the financial burden restaurants face, Gov. Charlie Baker uttered two words relatable to virtually every resident of Massachusetts six months into the pandemic: “It stinks.”
“It stinks. It stinks,” Baker said at a Thursday press conference. “A lot of this stinks. But it comes with — it’s part of what comes with COVID, and honestly, it’s why we’ve been so aggressive about trying to get this notion across that the most important thing we need to do as a commonwealth is beat this thing back.”
The outbreak has led to more than 9,000 confirmed or probable deaths in Massachusetts, and its upheaval on daily life pushed the country into a recession. Even with many businesses now allowed to resume some degree of in-person activity, Baker said the economic consequences have been “profound and significant and, in many cases, incredibly distressing.”
His reflection was prompted by a question about whether he would relax restrictions on restaurants amid a period of comparably low infection rates across the state, given the recent closure or sale of high-profile establishments such as Boston’s The Pour House.
Baker pointed to drops in business among restaurants that depend on live sports viewership and on restaurants within walking distance of the State House, the latter of which are suffering because so few people are in the building — and therefore looking for a nearby lunch — during the workdays.
“They all relate to COVID, but they relate to COVID in different ways,” Baker said. “It’s heartbreaking to see some of this, the way it plays out, but if the customers aren’t there, then the rules, on some level, at the end of the day, aren’t going to solve the problem.”
He did not commit to any further changes such as a revision to current occupancy limits, but said his administration continues to talk with industry representatives and had signed several bills earlier in the outbreak to expand use of outdoor dining and to-go drinks.
Massachusetts has topped the national list for unemployment rate in each of the past two months at 17.7 percent in June and 16.1 percent in July.
Employers laid off record numbers of workers amid government-ordered physical closures and the business slowdowns that have lingered even after reopening.
“That has a ripple effect all over the economy,” Baker said. “The fact that most people don’t travel much anymore has huge ripples on our economy. Logan Airport was doing 450,000 passengers a day before this. Now they do about 50,000. Just think about all the people that means aren’t coming in and out of the airport and staying in hotels and going to conferences and going to restaurants and making presentations.”
Asked if there was any grain of hope amid the worrying outlook, Baker pointed to the state’s progress since the administration started its gradual reopening process on May 18 — a date when “basically nothing was open,” he said.
In February, about 3.7 million people were employed in Massachusetts. That figure dropped to 2.85 million in April and has since grown to about 3.24 million in July, recovering more than 390,000 of the jobs lost.
“In the beginning of the summer, we were in a really rough place,” Baker said. “Half a million people who weren’t working in Massachusetts at the beginning of the summer are working now. That’s progress. And we should be proud of the fact that that’s happened because it wouldn’t have happened without the people of Massachusetts stepping up every day and doing the things they need to do to stop the spread.”