Baker’s course on virus draws fire from left and right

Gubernatorial candidates challenge mask guidance

WHEN IT COMES to mask mandates, you can’t please everyone.

Gov. Charlie Baker last week announced that he will “strongly recommend” that elementary school students wear face coverings, but he will not mandate it. Statements from two of the candidates running for governor in 2022 made clear the tough political position Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito will be in next year, facing what is likely to be steady pressure from both the left and the right. Baker has not said whether he will run for a third term. If he doesn’t, Polito is expected to run to replace him.

From the right, Republican gubernatorial candidate Geoff Diehl, a former state representative, put out a statement the day before Baker published his guidance calling on Baker to reject pressure to impose any kind of mask mandate, in schools or elsewhere.

“Children across the Commonwealth have been devastated emotionally, socially, and educationally in the past 18 months due to the mandates placed on them,” Diehl said in a statement. “To force them back into masks will disrupt their much-needed return to normal living and educational practices.”

Diehl said more broadly that Baker should reject mandates for masks and vaccines. “The people of Massachusetts are smart and capable of making their own health decisions for themselves and for their families, including whether to get vaccinated or to voluntarily wear a mask,” Diehl said.

From the left, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Downing, a former state senator, accused Baker after the school guidance was announced of failing to articulate a clear, statewide policy, resulting in a patchwork of responses that exacerbates inequality between communities. “As the highly transmissible Delta variant continues to spread, the people of Massachusetts need clarity and consistency on how to best approach protocols for vaccination and mask mandates in schools, employment, and social environments throughout the Commonwealth,” Downing said in a statement.

Downing urged Baker to adopt CDC guidelines, which require vaccinated people to wear masks indoors in areas with high transmission rates of COVID – while Diehl explicitly called on Baker to reject the CDC’s approach.

Geoff Diehl

Baker, as is typical, took a middle path. He did not mandate masks in schools, but strongly recommended them for unvaccinated students and staff, leaving the decision to local districts. The Department of Public Health recommended masks for vaccinated people indoors only if people are at particular risk of severe disease or living with someone high-risk.

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Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Baker on Wednesday did  impose a vaccine mandate on staff at long-term care facilities. The state has also required face coverings in health care facilities and on public transportation.

Baker said he does not feel the need to adopt CDC guidelines regarding indoor masking based on county-level transmission because that guidance changes frequently and people travel between counties. He has also said he believes Massachusetts is in a better place than other states that adopted statewide COVID protocols because of the state’s high vaccination rate.