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Gov. Baker, Now Is Not The Time For Incrementalism

Gov. Charlie Baker wipes his eye after saying "I haven't had a meal with my Dad since February" during a press conference in the Gardner Auditorium in the Massachusetts State House in Boston on Dec. 7, 2020. (Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Gov. Charlie Baker wipes his eye after saying "I haven't had a meal with my Dad since February" during a press conference in the Gardner Auditorium in the Massachusetts State House in Boston on Dec. 7, 2020. (Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Nearly 260,000 Massachusetts residents have been diagnosed with COVID-19. Almost 11,000 have died. Those numbers have been dramatically rising for weeks — as predicted following a baffling flurry of Thanksgiving travel — and don’t seem to be slowing down.

After weeks of insisting no significant new restrictions were necessary to stem the spread of this deadly virus, how did our governor respond? By keeping indoor dining open, but asking us to eat faster.

Earlier this week, Gov. Charlie Baker announced that Massachusetts would be moving back to Phase 3, Step 1 of our COVID plan. Here’s what that means: As our hospitals crowd and loved ones are lost, outdoor gatherings of up to 50 people are still permitted. Arcades, gyms and golf facilities remain open, though at reduced capacities. Eating inside at a restaurant is just fine with our governor, but now he wants you to take less than 90 minutes to eat your meal (note that the Centers for Disease Control considers “close contact” with someone with COVID-19 to be a cumulative 15 minutes of exposure). Trampoline parks and obstacle courses, you’re out of luck. As of Sunday, the governor is shutting you down in the name of public health.

I want more than anything to be able to meet up with friends, hug upon arrival and linger over good food at my favorite neighborhood spot. What I wouldn’t give to casually browse the racks at this little shop I love in Coolidge Corner, or hold a meeting in person as opposed to over my seventh Zoom of the day! The way to make those dreams come true is to put public health first in these darkest days of the pandemic. And yet “public health first” does not seem to be Gov. Baker’s motto — or his driving principle.

Last week Dr. Ashish Jha, the dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, posted on Twitter that he was “aghast” at the governor’s inaction as COVID numbers rose, calling Baker sitting on his hands “incomprehensible.” The reaction is fair and particularly notable given Dr. Jha’s standing and his previous defense of the governor’s pandemic response.

Days later, the Boston Globe reported that nine months into the crisis, Gov. Baker was playing catch up regarding equitable access to COVID testing. As Northeastern University professor Sam Scarpino put it, “Solving the equity problem also solves the COVID problem.”

While COVID surges at home, this Republican governor has been unwilling to truly flex his muscle nationally to help Massachusetts weather this crisis.

How is a governor who marketed himself to the state as a good manager — and who pledged to be driven by the data — addressing the greatest public health crisis of the past century with mere incrementalism anything other than staggering?

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While COVID surges at home, this Republican governor has been unwilling to truly flex his muscle nationally to help Massachusetts weather this crisis. He has not used any allies in his party or across the aisle to lobby Washington for what we need: an equitable stimulus package that helps small businesses and workers on the front lines stay above the water line with direct cash assistance, and ensures health care heroes have the equipment they need to survive and do their jobs. Taking to the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal earlier this week, Gov. Baker simply called on national leaders to “do something big,” without offering any specifics as to how Washington can alleviate suffering here in the commonwealth.

Gov. Baker is, understandably, concerned with the future of the Massachusetts economy. But a thriving economy requires healthy workers and consumers, something that will not be possible if our workforce is further diminished by a seemingly endless string of positive COVID test results.

A thriving economy requires workers to have roofs over their heads, and yet the governor did not extend the eviction moratorium in October.

A thriving economy requires a bustling independent restaurant scene, and yet the governor has stayed silent about a “Distressed Restaurant Fund” or caps on third party delivery fees that would make it possible for restaurants to profit on the deliveries they need to survive as we await a vaccine.

A thriving economy requires a transportation system that is safe and reliable, and yet the Baker administration wants to cut MBTA funding so that essential workers will have to wait longer for trains and buses that will be more crowded.

In the midst of a global pandemic, investing in workers and communities not only creates growth, it creates better health outcomes overall.

I know the pressures the business community faces. For nearly five years, I led the Alliance for Business Leadership, the Massachusetts business organization committed to social responsibility and sustainable economic growth. We advocated tirelessly for a wealth tax, for paid family and medical leave, for equal pay and equitable investments in public transit. We did so both because those policies are fair and just, and because investing in workers and communities creates growth for more people in the long run. In the midst of a global pandemic, investing in workers and communities not only creates growth, it creates better health outcomes overall.

If we grade Gov. Baker on the measures he asks to be graded — data-driven management and a sober, common sense analysis — he is failing us.

He is putting the people of our state at further risk, and making an equitable recovery harder to achieve. Not putting public health first could have a disastrous long-term impact on our economy and, worst of all, on the workers and families who power it.

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Jesse Mermell Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Jesse Mermell is the former president of the Alliance for Business Leadership and a former candidate for Congress in Massachusetts' 4th Congressional District.

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