BOSTON – With his administration pursuing mask and vaccine mandates on two fronts, Gov. Charlie Baker has found himself in recent days a target of both conservative Republicans and progressive Democrats who see the incumbent as guilty of either government overreach or being too passive in the face of a COVID-19 resurgence.
Baker last week rolled out one of the strictest vaccination policies in the country for public employees, requiring those under his control to be vaccinated or face disciplinary action.
His administration this week has begun negotiating the details of that policy with public employee unions, while it separately secured the authority through the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to impose a masking requirement for all students, teachers and staff in public schools.
Baker has yet to publicly decide whether he intends to seek a third term in 2022, but the decisions he has made navigating yet another chapter in the COVID-19 pandemic is fueling the early campaign for his job.
All three Democrats running for governor support masking in public schools, regardless of vaccination status, while Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz and Harvard professor and political theorist Danielle Allen have said they would support extending the vaccine mandate for public employees to school personnel.
Former Sen. Benjamin Downing has called for universal masking indoors in public, and believes Baker should declare a new state of emergency to deal with the Delta variant.
Meanwhile, Republican candidate for governor Geoff Diehl has come out against Baker’s vaccine mandate for public employees and his policy requiring universal mask-wearing in public schools, accusing the incumbent administration of “disregarding the civil liberties of its citizens.”
Diehl said he was not opposed to vaccines, but stated that “when state government has to go so far as to create million-dollar lotteries or threaten firing as incentives and punishments for compliance, you have to step back and ask what is really going on here.”
Diehl joined a small protest in Billerica on Tuesday night before a school board meeting where parents gathered to voice opposition to Baker’s decision to require all students, teachers and staff to wear masks inside to begin the new school year. Diehl’s campaign said some of the parents were focused on pushing for breaks from masking during the school day or other accommodations.
“It seems that under Baker and Polito there is no end to government intrusion over parental and personal choices in our lives,” Diehl said in a statement. “My goal is to re-empower the individual and bring choice and common sense back to the people of Massachusetts.”
The former state lawmaker and U.S. Senate candidate provided links to information about child masking from Children’s Health Defense, an advocacy group founded and chaired by known anti-vaccine activist Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.
A recent poll conducted by MassINC Polling Group found that support for masking in schools crossed party boundaries. Eighty-one percent of respondents said they backed a mask requirement to enter school buildings, including 85 percent of Democrats, 69 percent of Republicans and 84 percent of independent or other party voters.
While Diehl challenged the Baker administration from the right, Allen re-upped her call on Wednesday for the Baker administration to implement a system of routine COVID advisories, similar to the idea of weather alerts, that would regularly update residents on risk levels in the state and their region, and trigger responses like indoor masking.
Schools could also use such a system to toggle between health and safety protocols as COVID-19 conditions change, the Democrat said.
“As our teachers and school staff continue to adapt their COVID response protocols in the best interests of our students and school personnel, the Governor’s office and DESE need to deliver effective coordination across the whole Commonwealth by equipping our schools with the knowledge, tools, and resources necessary to keep everyone safe,” Allen said.
Allen also said the Massachusetts School Building Authority should survey all schools to assess ventilation, and that contact tracing and free, pooled testing in schools should continue.
Chang-Diaz put out a six-point plan of her own to respond to the threat from the Delta variant, starting with universal masking in schools and indoor public spaces, consistent with the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control.
“The Baker-Polito Administration has taken an inconsistent, path-of-least-resistance approach to pandemic safety that seems to be based more in politics than in — and puts the health of Bay Staters in jeopardy as a result,” Chang-Díaz said. “This pandemic has shown exactly what happens when our leaders abdicate their responsibility and hope for the best.”
Before embracing a mask mandate in schools, Baker repeatedly pointed to infection data showing that Massachusetts is among the national leaders in vaccination rates and the rate of people being hospitalized or dying from COVID-19.
He has said at this time he is not considering a statewide indoor mask mandate, which Boston Mayor Kim Janey decided to impose in her city last week.
“The best thing all of us can do to keep people safe, keep people healthy and to give people the ability to continue to live their lives in a relatively normal way is to get vaccinated. That’s going to be the focus,” Baker said Wednesday during an appearance on WEEI.
In addition to masks, Chang-Diaz said schools should be required to notify families of positive COVID-19 tests in classrooms and districts should be allowed to offer remote learning options for students in quarantine.
Health care workers should also be required by the state to be vaccinated, Chang-Diaz said, and Baker must be forced to comply with legal requirements that he set vaccine equity benchmarks and track and report COVID-19 cases based on occupation and key demographics.
Finally, Chang-Diaz said the governor should initiate a public process to develop a vaccine credentialing system that can be used to easily and securely verify vaccination status as businesses and employers increasingly move toward vaccine requirements for in-person returns to work and recreation.