When local restaurants get approval to open, Mayor James Fiorentini said he will do whatever he can to support them — including designing ways to help them adapt to new social-distancing rules.
Gov. Charlie Baker has said he expects restrictions on some businesses will be eased starting next week, and his stay-at-home advisory is also scheduled to be lifted. It was unclear Tuesday at the Gazette's press time what restrictions will be eased and which businesses will be affected. The governor is scheduled to unveil more information later this week or by the start of next week.
But as the mayor talked early this week about Haverhill's long-range plan to rebound from the coronavirus crisis, much of his focus was on helping restaurants, which are central to the city's economy, especially downtown.
Fiorentini, who has weekly calls with other mayors and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, said Haverhill is in the first phase of the governor's four-phase approach to reopening the state.
Baker said earlier this week the goal of the phases is to allow certain services to resume, while protecting public health and limiting the spread of the coronavirus.
Businesses to receive guidelines
More details will be coming from the governor, but his phases move from "start" to "cautious" to "vigilant" and finally "new normal." Each phase could last a month or longer, he said, with the final phase requiring the widespread availability of a vaccine against the virus.
The governor has said the state must see a 14-day drop in virus cases and deaths before business restrictions and the stay-at-home advisory can be lifted. Those rules are currently in place until May 18 — the start of next week.
Fiorentini said as businesses prepare to open, they will be given guidelines, templates and checklists from the state, with enforcement left up to the city's Board of Health. Strict hygiene standards will also be instituted for employees of businesses.
"Businesses will be allowed to open when they've read and gone through the template and checklist, but it'll be our job as the Board of Health to enforce it," Fiorentini said. "We understand that it's very, very frustrating for our businesses. People are coming to us for guidance and we just don't know (specifics) yet."
The governor said he expects to offer additional guidance to small businesses and local governments late this week or on Monday of next week.
Fiorentini said he expects to open City Hall on Monday for employees only and hopes to invite the public to do business there later in the week.
Keys to resurrecting restaurants
Fiorentini plans to meet with restaurant owners and small business owners during a session organized by the Greater Haverhill Chamber of Commerce to discuss merchants' concerns.
"We know there's going to be more social distancing required with restaurants," the mayor said. "(The state has) already told us that everybody's got to be six feet apart, so restaurants have to retool. They certainly aren't going to have the same capacity and the only way they're going to be able to survive is if they're able to expand."
Fiorentini plans to ease the burden for restaurants by helping them quickly build outdoor dining areas called parklets, creating more space for customers. Fees charged by the city to build such facilities will be waived for several months, Fiorentini said, and grants will be available to help construction.
"We don't anticipate a big parking problem right now — we anticipate a problem with the restaurants having a place to put their customers," the mayor said.
Whether restaurants can serve alcohol outdoors is up to the state's Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission, Fiorentini said. He said he hopes to petition the state to speed up approvals needed for Haverhill restaurants so they can serve liquor to customers dining outdoors.
"We're going to do everything we can to save as many of our restaurants as we can — we know it's going to be a struggle," the mayor said. "We know it's going to be a struggle for the people who work there, too, and we'll do everything we can to help."
Virus brings 'frightening numbers'
As of the Gazette's Tuesday press time, 920 Haverhill residents had tested positive for the virus and 29 had died. One of the local people who died in the last week was a school crossing guard and another was a nursing home worker, Fiorentini said.
"These are frightening numbers," he said. "I never thought we'd see them in Haverhill. I want the people who tell me (COVID-19 is) a hoax to be on the phone when I call the widows and widowers."
There are, however, some bright spots, the mayor said.
"The rate of increase (in cases) is going down,''he said, praising residents for practicing social distancing. "The public really should be commended.''