Baker, Spilka differ on response to rising COVID cases

Governor says existing tools sufficient; Senate president decries 'patchwork strategy'

DESPITE RISING CONCERNS about a surge in COVID-19 cases, Gov. Charlie Baker on Tuesday shied away from ordering any new restrictions on work and social interaction and urged the residents of Massachusetts to rely on tools they currently have at their disposal, primarily vaccines.

Baker took several actions to address hospital capacity issues, but he avoided new broad mandates and reassured residents that they already have the tools they need to deal with COVID. He said municipalities are free to pursue more aggressive policies and he said the state would support them.

“For the foreseeable future, Massachusetts and most of the country will see large numbers of new cases. But a new case today does not mean the same thing a new case meant a year ago,” the governor said. “Cases may go up but if you’re vaccinated your risk stays the same — that is, extremely low.”

Senate President Karen Spilka later in the day issued an unusually pointed response, saying the state must go beyond advisories and recommendations and apply a uniform approach across the state. She said a “patchwork strategy” will not achieve a faster, healthier recovery.

“While I thank the governor for his actions to date, today I am calling on the administration to reinstitute a statewide indoor public mask mandate, increase efforts to achieve vaccine equity, and require proof of vaccination for most public indoor social venues,” Spilka said in a statement. “Additionally, when it comes to school safety, our COVID-19 pool testing practices should be provided on an opt-out, rather than opt-in, basis to better protect our students, teachers, and staff.”

Rep. Bill Driscoll of Milton and Sen. Jo Comerford of Northampton, the chairs of the Committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness and Management, sent a letter to Baker urging him to consider a  mask mandate in indoor public spaces,  prioritize equitable distribution of vaccines, expand in-school testing, and strengthen hospitals.

Baker, at his morning press conference, acknowledged the rising case levels. “It’s easy to get anxious about all that,” he said. “But it’s critically important that we also remember what we do know for sure. We know that kids are at extremely low risk and we know that going to school is safe and in many cases it’s also healthy for children to be with each other and with trained, caring adults.”

Baker also trumpeted the value of vaccines, saying only 2 percent of the 5 million people who have been fulling vaccinated have gotten COVID. He said 97 percent of the breakthrough COVID cases never end up in the hospital, and deaths are very low among those who have been vaccinated.

“We also know testing works. They offer a little more peace of mind this holiday season,” he said.

And Baker also urged people who want a little more protection to wear masks in crowded indoor spaces.

Asked why he didn’t mandate mask-wearing, Baker said it wasn’t necessary because residents know masks are an effective tool against COVID along with vaccines and testing.

“I have no interest in putting a mandate on this issue given all the tools that are available on a statewide basis on the people of Massachusetts,” he said. “If locals wish to pursue alternative options, they can do so. We issued a mask mandate last fall because we had no other options available to us.”

Baker declined to say whether he would recommend other cities should copy Boston Mayor Michelle Wu’s decision on Monday to require patrons of restaurants, gyms, and entertainment venues to provide proof of vaccination before entering.

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Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

“I don’t want to get into the business of telling municipalities what to do and what not to do. What I want to do is be here to help them on initiatives they pursue,” he said.

Spilka, in her statement, indicated she would favor replicating Wu’s approach across the state.