Baker critics now sharing some of his optimism

Boston Statehouse

BOSTON (SHNS) – Days after Gov. Charlie Baker laid out a months-long strategy to fully reopen the economy by August, the response from Democrats on Beacon Hill has been mostly muted, while some business groups have lamented having to wait that long.

Baker on Tuesday outlined a multi-step process to begin rolling back public health restrictions on individuals and residents starting Friday when people will no longer be told to wear a mask outside unless they are in a crowd and can’t social distance.

Two weeks from now stadiums will be allowed to increase their capacity and amusement parks can open. By Memorial Day, the governor said, gathering size limits will climb to 200 people indoors and 250 outdoors, with street festivals and parades back on the calendar and bars and beer gardens cleared to reopen.

All of this, including the total elimination of businesses restrictions by Aug. 1, is contingent on continued progress in controlling the spread of the virus, case counts and hospitalizations, Baker said.

“The plan Governor Baker announced on Tuesday to ease restriction’s across Massachusetts is a step in the right direction for the people of the Commonwealth,” said Rep. William Driscoll, the co-chair of the Committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness and Management. “Giving the public anticipatory guidance and a calendar with his plan is good practice. Our current health data is trending the way that we want it to and everyone continuing to mask when appropriate will help us navigate closer to normal again.”

The cautious optimism from many leading Democrats and some vocal critics of Baker stands in contrast to the reaction the governor has received at other moments during this pandemic when he has been accused of moving too quickly to peel back the restrictions that have been layered onto businesses since last March.

House Speaker Ron Mariano and Senate President Karen Spilka have said nothing about the governor’s plan to end economic restrictions by August, and other lawmakers usually quick to share an opinion in person or on social media have been relatively quiet.

“I am so hopeful that the end of this pandemic period is in sight, but we cannot miss the boat when we’re so close to the shore,” Sen. Becca Rausch told the News Service.

Rausch, a Needham Democrat, has been among the most critical of Baker’s approach to economic reopening. In late February as new cases were on the decline, the governor announced plans to allow indoor performance and recreational venues to open at half capacity on March 1 and large venues like Fenway Park later in the month. Rausch at the time said Baker’s move was another “in a very long line of irresponsible, dangerous decisions.”

But as Baker this week relaxed outdoor mask-wearing requirements and outlined a series of steps to allow remaining business to gradually increase capacity and fully reopen this summer, Rausch said she was willing to see how the next few weeks and months play out.

“We know that this will fail unless we have widespread vaccine acceptance, widespread and equitable access to the vaccine, mask wearing compliance indoors, and data informed flexibility and modifications to the reopening plan as necessary to avoid another surge,” Rausch said.

The senator said she had reached out to public health experts to get their opinion on Baker’s approach before fully forming her own opinion, but already her response contrasted with her sharp rejection of the Republican governor’s previous steps forward.

“Saving lives and protecting public health must remain our top priority,” she said, adding, “I’ve asked the questions, so I obviously have some concern, but the experts should be driving the bus.”

While many policymakers are holding their breath as the state ventures into the next phases of reopening, some business groups say their members are gasping for air and worry that Massachusetts is falling behind.

Connecticut is moving toward a full reopening by May 19, while Rhode Island has set the date for Memorial Day. New York City Mayor Bill deBlasio said his city would be fully open by July 1, declaring it “the summer of New York City.”

Retailers Association of Massachusetts President Jon Hurst said Massachusetts businesses can’t afford to wait while their competitors in neighboring states start welcoming back customers.

“So even NYC will be 100% on July 1st. #Smallbiz #MABiz shouldn’t have to wait til August 1. Our higher than natl unemployment rates show we need to open our economy particularly as our vaccinations lead the nation,” Hurst tweeted Thursday.

Rausch said she also worries about small businesses, but noted that even as vaccination rates climb there is still no approved vaccine for children under 16.

“This is really hard and we have to find the right balance,” she said.

Rep. Mike Connolly, a Cambridge Democrat, has been equally critical at times of Baker’s approach to reopening, particularly indoor dining.

But Connolly told the News Service that “as someone who helped lead the call for the initial stay-at home order last year” he believed the latest guidance on masks and other outdoor activities “makes sense” and is supported by the CDC and other public health experts.

“I can say that we are at a point now where I want to be cautiously optimistic — but at the same time we must continue to remain diligent, and we must take further action to address all the systemic issues that made the pandemic so bad in the first place,” Connolly said.

Both Rausch and Connolly said they remain concerned about equity for communities of color in the state’s vaccine distribution effort, though Rausch said the administration recently has made some positive strides.

“We have a lot of work ahead of us to get to herd immunity, so I think one of the key parts of the Governor’s announcement is the part that says a full reopening is contingent on vaccine distribution and public health data,” Connolly said, expressing his desire for the governor to be more clear about the benchmarks he will use to make reopening decisions over the next three months.

Driscoll also said he wished Baker would more clearly spell out the data points he will use to guide his decision-making.

“This would help all of us understand when it is appropriate to move from one phase to the next in what will continue to be a shifting environment regarding testing and case data. It would also provide the protection afforded by vaccines as masks are used less and more people return to workplaces indoors,’ Driscoll said.

He added, “With that said I do feel encouraged by the Governor’s plan to lift COVID restrictions in the coming weeks and months and I am hopeful that the people of Massachusetts will continue to work together to stay safe and healthy.”

The governor’s office said that since the last step forward in reopening on March 22 case rates have fallen 20 percent and the positive test rate, which is currently at 1.71 percent, is the lowest it’s been since last summer.

The March reopening steps were the last taken before this week, and were announced at a time when new confirmed cases and hospitalizations were trending downward from the peak of early 2021. But by mid- to late-March, the state endured another rebound in new cases and hospitalizations as the seven-day average of new cases climbed from 1,322 on March 8 to over 2,000 by the start of April.

Centers for Disease Control Director Rochelle Walensky, a former MGH infectious disease specialist who had advised the governor during the pandemic before joining the Biden administration, was cautioning governors not to back off restrictions, particularly mask mandates.

And Sen. Jo Comerford quoted Walensky, asking, “Who is advising Gov. Baker now?”

The numbers, however, soon began to fall again as more people became vaccinated, and today the average number of daily new cases confirmed in Massachusetts sits at 915.

Comerford, who co-chairs the COVID-19 oversight committee with Driscoll, has not publicly reacted to Baker’s announcement this week, and was unavailable for an interview.

Rausch, however, said Baker’s portrayal of the success of his reopening plan doesn’t fully take into account many of the complexities of the public health landscape.

“I think a lot has happened between February and March and numbers were going up for a while so to say this was a whopping success would be inaccurate,” Rausch said. “There are still places in my district that are getting shut down. We still have transmission. People are still not fully able to access vaccine.”

Rausch said she probably won’t fully be able to relax until everyone has equal access to a vaccine, and she can be confident everyone from the elderly to her children can be safe.

“I want to take my kids to a museum or the aquarium and not worry whether their mask is falling down or someone is standing too close to them,” she said.

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