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As COVID cases rise, Charlie Baker back in unenviable position: Should he impose new restrictions or not?

So far, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker has struck a deliberate tone as the queries, and the accompanying anxieties, begin to pile up again.
So far, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker has struck a deliberate tone as the queries, and the accompanying anxieties, begin to pile up again.Elise Amendola/Associated Press

Charlie Baker is starting to get the questions again.

Governor, should Massachusetts reinstate its mask mandate? Governor, what restrictions should be in place when schools return this fall?

Governor, how scared should we all be?

As COVID-19 cases rise in Massachusetts and across the nation, triggering new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Baker finds himself in a familiar, unenviable position. Six weeks after Massachusetts’ state of emergency ended in what residents hoped would be a return to normal, the popular second-term Republican must dictate the state response to the threat, and — in what is perhaps the greater challenge — assuage the fears of residents struggling to assess the risks. Again.

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He faces pressure from all sides: businesses that oppose new restrictions, state lawmakers who want more insight into his decisions, parents unsure whether they can send their kids back to school safely, and 7 million residents who wish he could whisk them back to pre-pandemic life.

So far, the governor has struck a deliberate tone as the queries, and the accompanying anxieties, begin to pile up again. Asked at an appearance in Gloucester Wednesday about new CDC guidance that even those who are vaccinated should wear masks indoors in areas where cases are surging, Baker’s response was to take a beat.

“We just got it, we’re reviewing it, and we’ll have more to say about it later,” he said.

It was much the same story when Baker was asked about mask guidance at the State House on Thursday. “We’re still looking into it,” he said. When would he have a decision? “Soon.”

As he mulls his options, Baker has been consulting public health experts in and outside state government, keeping a close eye on trends in public health data, and talking regularly with education officials — activities that have never really receded from his schedule, according to advisers. But as Delta has become an increased threat, he has also returned to speaking regularly with hospital leaders and fellow governors, resuming conversations he had regularly during the depths of the pandemic but less frequently as it waned. Still, with so many residents vaccinated, the state is in nowhere near the crisis it was months ago.

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While teasing more news to come, Baker has already made some firm statements. He said earlier this year he does not favor mandating vaccines for state executive branch employees, a step other Massachusetts officials have taken for their employees along with leaders in New York and California.

Baker made clear this week he does not intend to impose travel restrictions. He traveled to Colorado earlier this month and told reporters he has not changed his own behavior in response to the rising threat of the Delta variant.

And he continues to tout Massachusetts’ high vaccination rate, which leaves the state comparatively well-positioned to weather whatever storm may be coming.

But for some, Baker’s approach has been lacking.

COVID “requires a lot more political leadership than he may want to provide,” said state Representative Marjorie Decker, a Cambridge Democrat who co-chairs the Legislature’s public health committee. “He needs to have a more nuanced public conversation” about how he assesses the new CDC guidance and what he plans to do about it, she added. “And he hasn’t given that to us and he owes it to us.”

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While cases, some tied to the national rise of the Delta variant, have been increasing in Massachusetts, experts say those figures are less concerning now that so many people are vaccinated and so many cases are mild or asymptomatic.

There are far more new cases being reported now than there were the week of June 15, when the state of emergency lifted. But the number of individuals hospitalized with COVID-19 is actually lower now than it was then, according to state data.

That’s why state officials need to look at all health metrics, not just rising case counts, as they weigh their next steps, said Dr. Shira Doron, an infectious disease physician and hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center.

“Will masks get us out of this? I don’t think so. What will get us out of it is to do a lot better with vaccinations,” she said. “If we’re going to go down the mandate route, it should be a vaccine mandate.”

Acting Mayor Kim Janey this week said that if it takes a mandate to “keep the city of Boston employees safe, that is what we’ll do.” Baker still has no plans to mandate vaccines for state executive branch employees, a spokesperson said, even as states like California and New York have said state workers must prove vaccination or be tested regularly.

State Treasurer Deborah Goldberg and Auditor Suzanne Bump announced Thursday that all their employees must get vaccinated or take weekly COVID-19 tests. But each oversees under 1,000 employees, a tiny fraction of the tens of thousands under Baker’s purview.

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Massachusetts, as Baker proudly notes at his public appearances, is in a better position than nearly every other state in the country, with higher vaccination rates and a strong public health infrastructure. In Massachusetts, the proportion of COVID-19 tests returning positive results is still under 2 percent; in some parts of the country, it hovers around 25 percent.

That good standing nationally leaves Baker under pressure from many who say Massachusetts should stay on its current course, while allowing local officials to set stricter standards as necessary.

“We don’t want to see any backsliding” in terms of reinstituting business restrictions, said Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts. “We’re at a point of personal responsibility and choice.”

Complicating matters: The COVID-19 landscape varies dramatically across the state and across racial lines. Vaccination rates are higher among white residents than among people of color. Baker should empower leaders in communities of color who are guiding their neighbors toward vaccines, said state Representative Nika Elugardo, a Jamaica Plain Democrat.

“It doesn’t matter what Governor Baker says if your pastor or your imam is saying XYZ,” Elugardo said. “His focus should be making sure that those community leaders are . . . getting the resources that they need.”

Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, praised Baker for allowing local officials to set the standards for their own communities and said he believes that remains the best course of action for now. In Provincetown, where tourist season has coincided with a rapidly expanding cluster of COVID-19 cases, local officials approved an indoor mask mandate; but that may not be necessary in rural parts of Western Massachusetts, where case counts remain low, Beckwith said.

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“We’re not at the stage where one size fits all,” Beckwith said.

Among the trickiest issues Baker must confront is how to handle school this fall. The CDC recently recommended universal masking in schools, regardless of vaccination status. And the American Academy of Pediatrics is advocating for the same. Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, called on state officials to adopt the CDC recommendations “without delay” and to respond “forcefully and prudently” to COVID-19 community impacts.

Baker has said he is weighing the CDC guidance about masks in schools. The subject also has the attention of state lawmakers, not to mention parents wondering what the fall will hold.

“It’s time for the governor to focus on masking kids going back to school, and I think we need to have a statewide response,” said state Senator Cindy Friedman, an Arlington Democrat. Baker could set uniform statewide thresholds for when masks should be required in schools, she said, saying it’s unfair to leave those decisions to local school officials.

Baker is expected to announce some COVID-19 decisions soon. As he weighs his options, having been tested by the pandemic for much of his second term, “he definitely has a playbook,” said Erin O’Brien, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

“It’s nothing new — it’s the same old, same old,” O’Brien said. “Only the same old’s horrific.”


Emma Platoff can be reached at emma.platoff@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emmaplatoff.