Baker plays catch-up on vaccines, masks
Governor reverses course on state workers, school reopening
CHARLIE BAKER has fashioned a Teflon political brand by bringing a drama-averse, middle-of-the-road bearing to issues that often incite passions and polarization. That approach seems closely tied to his persistent high favorability polling, projecting an image of the state’s two-term governor as someone operating above the partisan fray.
But sometimes that approach comes off more as a politician putting his finger to the wind than one staking out a deliberately measured position. So it was that on successive days at the end of last week, Baker reversed his opposition to vaccine mandates for state workers and to a statewide masking requirement for K-12 schools this fall.
On Thursday, Baker announced that all state employees must be vaccinated by October 17 or face disciplinary action that could include dismissal. There will be an exemption for those with medical conditions that make vaccination unwise or sincerely held religious beliefs. But the announcement marks a sharp pivot from Baker’s previous comments that he opposed a mandate, particularly while COVID-19 vaccines are still only approved by the Food and Drug Administration on an “emergency use” basis. (The Pfizer vaccine received full approval on Monday.)
It’s one thing to issue a broad vaccine order and another to have it fully in place, and several unions representing state employees, including corrections officers and State Police, are making it clear that any vaccine requirement must be put on the bargaining table as a change in working conditions. But Baker has put down a strong marker on the side of a vaccine mandate — going farther than the City of Boston or New York or California leaders, who have given state workers the option of getting vaccinated or submitting to regular COVID testing.
Public health experts, other state leaders, unions, and some school committee members had been urging Baker for weeks to issue such an order. And public opinion polling showed strong support for a blanket requirement in schools.Baker had insisted that COVID was playing out differently in different communities and that a mask order was a decision best left to local school leaders. Until now.