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Pandemic takes a political toll on Massachusetts governor

March 23, 2021 GMT
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FILE - In this Feb. 24, 2021, file photo, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker speaks at a mass coronavirus vaccination site at the Natick Mall in Natick, Mass. A year of battling the spread of the coronavirus has taken a political toll on Baker as he faces slumping popularity. (Matt Stone/Boston Herald via AP, Pool, File)
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FILE - In this Feb. 24, 2021, file photo, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker speaks at a mass coronavirus vaccination site at the Natick Mall in Natick, Mass. A year of battling the spread of the coronavirus has taken a political toll on Baker as he faces slumping popularity. (Matt Stone/Boston Herald via AP, Pool, File)

BOSTON (AP) — Early last March, when the COVID-19 crisis still felt like a remote threat, Charlie Baker flew off with members of his family to a ski vacation in Utah.

It would be the last taste of normalcy the Republican governor would enjoy for the next year.

Three days later, on March 9, 2020, Baker cut his vacation short and returned as the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts shot up to the then-startling number of 41. Baker and the state that twice elected him governor were about to be tested in ways unimaginable just weeks earlier.

For Baker, the pandemic has had a kind of inverse impact on his popularity in Massachusetts, one of the hardest-hit states with a confirmed death toll approaching 17,000.

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When fear was running high in the early months of the crisis and Baker was taking dramatic steps to shut down the state, the public’s confidence in him remained high — only to fall as vaccines arrived and Baker stumbled with a botched vaccination website rollout and efforts to more fully reopen businesses like restaurants even as new variants of the virus lurked.

Other governors who were hailed early on the COVID-19 crisis — including California’s Gavin Newsom and New York’s Andrew Cuomo, both Democrats — have also seen their stars dimmed as critics questioned some of their pandemic-related decisions.

As cases shot up, Baker began holding daily press conferences to unveil a dizzying series of orders meant to limit the spread of the virus. He shuttered schools, closed nonessential businesses, set curfews, issued mask mandates, delayed elective surgeries and ordered the construction of field hospitals.

Initially, Baker’s frank approach to delivering even the most unsettling news won plaudits.

Baker would later say that as governor, he’d anticipated grappling with disasters like blizzards, hurricanes, floods and even the occasional tornado — but not a pandemic that would claim thousands of lives and upend everyday life.

“I don’t know about you, but every day to me feels kind of like a month,” Baker joked during one recent press conference. “I was 27 when this all began and now I’m 64 and it just happened like that.”

Part of Baker’s appeal was as an adversary of then-President Donald Trump.

“He was the Republican that Democrats could like,” said Erin O’Brien, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. “He made decisions that a lot of Republicans weren’t ready to do.”

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A technocrat with a background as a health care executive, Baker would ironically see his political fortunes begin to fade with the release of vaccines and the hope of an end to the pandemic.

Critics cast Baker’s plan to vaccinate the population in phases — beginning with medical workers and individuals in long-term care facilities before moving on to those 75 and older — as too cumbersome. Many other New England states have staggered vaccine availability first to at-risk populations and frontline workers before moving on to wider, older swaths of the population and eventually the general public.

They also faulted the initial lack of a single website to book vaccine appointments.

When the administration created a vaccine finder site, Baker faced new fallout when it crashed the day vaccines were made available to those 65 and older.

More recently, Baker came under pressure from teachers’ unions pressing him to bump up educators in the vaccine waiting line if he wanted to shift back to in-classroom learning. Baker largely conceded.

“This pandemic has shown the governor not to be the great manager that he convinced Massachusetts he was,” said Democratic state Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz.

She said there are many strategies Baker hasn’t tried to reach out to minority communities — like creating mobile vaccina’tion programs to reach Black, Hispanic and other minority residents, further perpetuating racial disparities highlighted by the pandemic.

Louis Elisa, one of the founding members of the Black Boston COVID-19 Coalition, said the pandemic has been “absolute hell” for the Black community, many of whom are frontline workers.

“It was just a complete failure of communication, a total breakdown,” Elisa said. “Almost every day we were being put at risk with almost no support.”

Elisa said it took months before there was a major testing center set up in Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood, the city’s traditional center of Black life. The situation has begun to improve — the state started using an athletic complex in Roxbury as a mass vaccination center — but the administration should have hit the ground running earlier, he said.

Baker has also lost focus on working class areas like New Bedford and its immigrant community, including many from Central America who work processing fish, said Helena DaSilva-Hughes, executive director of the Immigrants’ Assistance Center. As recently as early March, New Bedford was among a handful of Massachusetts communities still considered at highest risk of coronavirus transmission, although it has since dropped off the list.

“They have been hard hit. They are living five to six people in houses so there’s no social distancing,” she said. “They are getting COVID and it seems no one is listening.”

Baker has defended his efforts to increase immunizations in minority communities. He recently said Massachusetts ranks second in the country in administering first doses to Black residents, with about 16% of Blacks receiving their first jabs.

Others have praised Baker, including Sue Joss, CEO of a neighborhood health center in Brockton, a city about 20 miles south of Boston hard hit by COVID-19. Joss said her city has reduced the number of those infected with the help of the state’s COVID-19 Command Center, which helps oversee the state’s response to the pandemic.

“The governor and his team have been absolutely amazing through all of this. They’ve been nimble. They’ve tried things. Some things haven’t worked so they’ve changed,” she said at a recent press conference.

Baker recently announced the release of $27.4 million in federal money that he said will boost vaccinations among priority populations including $10.6 million for help with vaccine access, like transportation to vaccination clinics.

Frustration with the vaccine rollout has taken a political toll on Baker.

A poll released March 15 by WCVB-TV and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst found Baker’s approval rating rose to about 78% in August but has since fallen to about 52%. Baker’s predecessor, Democrat Deval Patrick, had essentially the same favorable view among voters — 52 percent — as he began his final year in office in 2014.

Mickey Edwards — a fellow Republican and former Oklahoma congressman — said while Baker’s actions compared favorably to many other GOP governors, he still failed the leadership test.

“We would sit around and laugh at his early press conferences that amounted to saying, ‘It would be great if you wore masks,’” the Massachusetts resident and visiting professor at Princeton University said. “He should have been tougher. There should have been an endorsement of some kind of penalties and enforcement mechanisms.”

At the time, Baker said he would largely leave enforcement to local cities and towns.

Baker has yet to say if he’ll seek a third four-year term next year after the greatest test of his political life.

“On a human level, it has to be exhausting,” said O’Brien, the political science professor. “If you are in leadership as a governor, you actually have to do stuff and make tough decisions. You can’t please everyone and in a pandemic those decisions are literally life and death.”