Recap and analysis of the week in state government
It’s the exact situation public health officials had been hoping to avoid, after spending months begging people to get vaccinated so that they could go back to living life normally.
The spread of the Delta variant and new research into breakthrough infections in Provincetown prompted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to issue updated guidance Tuesday recommending that even the fully vaccinated resume wearing masks in indoor public spaces in areas of “high” or “substantial” COVID-19 transmission.
In Massachusetts — ground zero for the pandemic once again — that meant Cape Cod and the islands, as well as all of Suffolk and Bristol counties.
“We’re looking into it,” Baker would say repeatedly throughout the week, back in the position of being grilled daily on whether he would order Massachusetts residents to go back under cover of masks.
The push-and-pull only got stronger as the week wore on, and finally on Friday the Department of Public Health and Department of Elementary and Secondary Education issued new recommendations for vaccinated residents.
Masks are now being recommended by DPH in public indoor spaces, though not necessarily at home, for both the unvaccinated and the vaccinated who have weakened immune systems or who live with someone unvaccinated or with health conditions that put them at higher risk from the virus. Education officials also advised that all students grades K-6 wear masks indoors this fall, while vaccinated students in grades 7 and up should be allowed to go maskless. The unvaccinated, including staff in all grades, students in grades 7 and above, and unvaccinated visitors are being advised by health officials to mask inside schools.
Baker’s guidance seemed to split the difference between people like Geoff Diehl, the former Republican lawmaker running for governor, who urged against a return to mask mandates and Rep. William Driscoll, co-chair of the Committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness Management, who said Baker should give direction that “meets or exceeds” the CDC’s recommendations.
But for some in the Legislature, like Sen. Becca Rausch and Rep. Mindy Domb, the guidance did not go nearly far enough to protect students preparing to return to school in a month.
All of this came as the Baker administration continued to impress upon people that the best way to protect yourself is by getting vaccinated.
Enter Darrell Washington, a 63-year-old Blue Cross Blue Shield case worker from Weymouth.
Clad in a T-shirt, suit and sunglasses (indoors), Washington became the first winner of the VaxMillions sweepstakes, presented by the governor and Treasurer Deb Goldberg with a giant check worth $1 million before taxes simply because he rolled up his sleeve, got a couple shots, and had his name drawn from a hat.
“I think that people should really just probably turn off like a lot of people on TV, and just really ask yourself, ‘Is your child, is your spouse, if your grandparents, are they worth you getting the vaccination?'” Washington said.
The other winner of the first $300,000 college scholarship was 15-year-old Chelsea High School sophomore Daniela Maldonado, who said she got vaccinated to help protect her community, and now sees Boston University or the University of Massachusetts as something within her grasp.
The next drawing takes place on Monday, by which point lawmakers on Beacon Hill will be several days into their summer recess.
Before the break, House and Senate leaders dialed up roll call after roll call to override and reject the governor’s vetoes and amendments to the fiscal year 2022 budget, including one veto that would have allowed taxpayers to again take a deduction on charitable donations.
The Legislature also extended simulcast and horse racing laws for another year before they expired on Saturday, and held a second hearing on how to spend American Rescue Plan Act funds as they work to schedule four more hearings after Labor Day.
Baker said he was “deeply disappointed” that House and Senate Democrats opted to delay for another year the implementation of the donations tax break voters approved in 2000. In 21 years, the benefit has been available to taxpayers only once in 2001.
Democrats said the tax deduction, worth as much as $300 million annually, deserved further study and consideration. But House Minority Leader Brad Jones said the decision to delay should leave voters with no reason to trust Beacon Hill next year when they’re asked to approve a surtax on millionaires with the promise that the money will be spent on education and transportation.
“It doesn’t mean no, just not now,” said Rep. Mark Cusack, House chair of the Committee on Revenue.
Whether Baker will use the tax deduction as a campaign issue remains to be seen because, of course, the governor hasn’t said whether he’ll seek a third term. But with Baker approaching the final year of his second term in office and the worst (fingers crossed) of the pandemic behind the administration, Public Safety Secretary Tom Turco finally cashed in on the retirement he’s been planning since last year.
Turco agreed in December to stay on into 2021, but now gives way to Undersecretary for Law Enforcement Terrence Reidy, who the governor named acting secretary of public safety on Friday.
While Reidy gained the acting title this week, Transportation Secretary Jamey Tesler shed it when Baker put him permanently in charge of the transportation bureaucracy. The governor also signed a spending bill that created a new MBTA oversight board and extended voting-by-mail and early voting options through mid-December to apply to upcoming municipal elections.
Baker never looked too far to find people to take over for the short- or long-term at the departments of public safety and transportation, but the scrutiny of who he picks next to lead the Suffolk District Attorney’s office could be a different story — unless Sen. Tom Cotton gets his way.
President Joe Biden this week tapped Suffolk DA Rachael Rollins to be the next U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, which would put a criminal justice reformer in the federal prosecutor’s office and leave it to Baker to name her successor until the 2022 election.
Baker congratulated Rollins and said he’d listen to recommendations she might have as he looks for someone with “experience, intelligence and some degree of support from the community” to replace her.
The more immediate question, however, is can she get confirmed with Cotton, an Arkansas Republican, vowing to do what he can to block her nomination in the U.S. Senate.
STORY OF THE WEEK: The choice used to be between a mask and a vaccine. Now you might need both.