Baker plays catch-up on vaccines, masks

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. 

A day after his vaccine order, Baker reversed his opposition to a statewide mask mandate for K-12 schools. The governor didn’t announce the change himself. Instead, state education officials said Jeff Riley, the commissioner of elementary and secondary education, would bring a proposal to the state education board on Tuesday to require masks for all students age 5 and older and staff in K-12 schools through October 1. After that date, the proposal would allow vaccinated students and staff at middle and high schools to not wear masks at schools where at least 80 percent of students and staff have been inoculated. 

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. 

MICHAEL JONAS

FROM COMMONWEALTH

Symbols and speech: The Northampton School Committee banned the Confederate flag in March, and is now preparing to go much further — banning swastikas and nooses while creating a system for reporting and investigating various types of bias. Under the new policy, schools with Indian mascots could pose a problem when their sports teams come to play Northampton schools.

— The new policy raises free speech issues. The American Civil Liberties Union’s Western Mass. office isn’t opposing the new policy, but Cambridge attorney Harvey Silverglate doesn’t mince words, saying a ban on symbols of hate, no matter how offensive, is unconstitutional. Read more.

Mask mandate: In another COVID policy shift, the Baker administration mandates that masks be worn in schools through at least October 1. Read more.

Grant to Somerset: The Massachusetts Clean Energy Center steps up with an $18,000 grant for Somerset to build consensus for long-term development of Brayton Point for offshore wind. While helpful, the grant isn’t what the town has been asking for — that Gov. Charlie Baker halt a scrap metal export business on land at Brayton Point owned by the state. Read more.

Hill on move: Rep. Brad Hill of Ipswich, the second-ranking Republican in the House, is appointed to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission by Gov. Charlie Baker, Attorney General Maura Healey, and Treasurer Deborah Goldberg. Hill replaces Bruce Stebbins, who moved over to the Cannabis Control Commission. Read more.

OPINION

Abolish vaccine exemption: Four doctors representing the Massachusetts chapter of the American College of Physicians call on the Legislature to abolish the vaccine religious exemption. The doctors, Shela Sridhar, Zoe Tseng, Meredith Haley, and Elisa Choi, say they see the dangerous consequences of the exemption and point out that no major denomination specifically prohibits vaccines. Read more.

DCR optimism: Doug Pizzi, the executive director of Massachusetts Conservation Voters, sees a lot of problems, but also a lot of hope, at the underfunded Department of Conservation and Recreation. Read more.

 

FROM AROUND THE WEB

 

MUNICIPAL MATTERS  

Boston’s acting mayor, Kim Janey, orders an indoor mask mandate beginning Friday regardless of vaccine status. (GBH)

Construction is set to begin on the first phase of a large-scale affordable housing project in Holyoke. (Daily Hampshire Gazette)

HEALTH/HEALTH CARE

Striking nurses at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Worcester are poised to accept the hospital’s “last, best and final offer,” but a few sticking points remain, including whether all nurses can return to the same position they held. (Telegram & Gazette

WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL

The Food and Drug Administration gives full approval to the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. The vaccine previously had been approved only for emergency usage; full approval may convince more people to get vaccinated. (USA Today)

The Pentagon is asking six US airlines to help with the evacuation of people from Afghanistan. (NPR)

ELECTIONS

Globe columnist Marcela Garcia asks why there isn’t an education candidate in the race for mayor of Boston. 

Outgoing Boston city councilor Matt O’Malley endorses Mary Tamer in the race to succeed him in District 6, which covers West Roxbury and Jamaica Plain. (Boston Herald

EDUCATION

Child care facilities are facing dire staffing shortages, leading some agencies to close classrooms or entire centers. (Boston Globe)  

TRANSPORTATION

The Patriot Ledger examines how the city of Quincy survived and thrived, thanks to the arrival of the MBTA’s Red Line 50 years ago.

Bostonian Maya Jonas-Silver rode into transit history on Friday by beating the previous record for fastest time traveling to every MBTA station, completing the circuit in 7 hours, 4 minutes, and 29 seconds. (Boston Herald)

PASSINGS

Harry Spence, a committed public sector administrator who specialized in leading the turnaround of distressed agencies, died at age 74. (Boston Globe

Former superior court judge and state insurance commissioner Nonnie Burnes died at age 79. (Boston Globe)