Baker delivers ‘very different’ State of the Commonwealth

Measured look back at what the state has endured

A RESTAURANT OWNER feeding needy families, prompting his competitor to do the same. Aid groups feeding the growing number of economically insecure families. Grocery store workers, who checked people out even at the height of the pandemic.

Those were some of the many Bay Staters Gov. Charlie Baker thanked during his annual State of the Commonwealth address. The pandemic loomed large as his theme, even before the first words were uttered.

Instead of his usual address in a crowded House chamber flanked by Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, the House speaker, Senate president, and other constitutional officers, Baker was alone in his office, bookended by the Massachusetts and American flags. The moment, he said, was not unlike the solitude people have come to experience in their own homes — far from their family and colleagues while striving to remain safe.

Baker’s speech had no big news or policy proposals as in past years. It offered no indication of whether the governor will seek reelection next year and, aside from a lament at the divisiveness of social media, there was no mention of former president Donald Trump or the insurrection in Washington.

Overall, Baker’s speech was a measured look back at what the state has endured over the past year, hailing the successes and minimizing or glossing over some of the setbacks.

2020 was a year like no other,” Baker said. “The pandemic changed everything. And it was much more than just the worst public health crisis of the last 100 years. It came with economic calamity, severe job loss, business closures, anxiety, fear, civil unrest, riots, racial injustice, isolation, death, and loss.”

Through it all, Baker said his priorities are still clear — “Do the best we can to protect the health and well-being of everyone, keep our economy as open as possible, and keep our kids in school.”

Baker lauded the health care system in the state as “the envy of the world,” acknowledging that hospitals were under-equipped, overwhelmed and struggling from the get-go. “They have and continue to give this battle everything they have,” he said. The coronavirus pandemic has killed 13,889 people in Massachusetts since it began last March, and infected over 479,000 people.

The governor touted Massachusetts’s spot as the second largest per capita tester in the US, with over 13 million tests conducted. He marveled at the expansion of telehealth services after an emergency order last spring.

Once the federal vaccine distribution program kicks into high gear over the next few months, Baker said, “anyone who wants a vaccine will be able to get one at a site near them. And we can start to put this pandemic behind us.”

Although some have criticized him for the slow rollout of vaccines in Massachusetts and his decision to prioritize who receives the initial doses, Baker called it “common sense” to steer doses to the state’s most vulnerable and to vaccinate health care workers first to keep the system operating. He said the state can only “move as fast as the federal government delivers the vaccines.”

Baker said the state responded to the impact of the virus in long-term care settings with financial support, aggressive testing, and infection control audits. He did not mention the massive loss of life early on in nursing homes or the tragedy that unfolded at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, where 76 veterans died last year, in part because of alleged mismanagement of the facility.

Baker also beat the drum for keeping schools open during COVID, saying that studies make it clear kids need to be in school for educational and emotional development. “While in-person learning is especially challenging during this time, many schools have found a way to get it done,” he said, singling out parochial schools for special praise.

Baker praised the Legislature for passing a wide assortment of laws dealing with health care, transportation, police reform, and economic development, but he glossed over climate change legislation the Legislature passed and he vetoed. The Legislature on Thursday is preparing to pass the exact same climate change bill again and send it back to the governor.

He echoed previous years’ themes of collaboration and respect, pointing out that too many politicians and talking heads in media “thrive on takedowns and judgment.” He said he wished he could shut if all off for a month and see if public discourse would change.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

“In the end, this makes it harder for us to understand one another, to learn from one another, and, most importantly, to grow,” said Baker.

The governor said his interest in filing a police accountability bill stemmed from conversations with people whose life experiences were different than his own. “I listened, I learned, and I grew,” he said.