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As other states declare emergencies over coronavirus, Baker was on vacation

Governor Charlie Baker, shown with other city and state health officials at a press conference Friday on coronavirus preparedness and planning, left the state that day for a family vacation in Utah. The governor returned to Massachusetts Monday.
Governor Charlie Baker, shown with other city and state health officials at a press conference Friday on coronavirus preparedness and planning, left the state that day for a family vacation in Utah. The governor returned to Massachusetts Monday.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker cut short his family’s Utah ski vacation and flew home Monday night as the fallout from coronavirus deepened, raising questions about Baker’s handling of what has become a global crisis.

Since Baker left Massachusetts Friday, the total confirmed coronavirus cases in Massachusetts quintupled to 41, and a growing number of states have declared public health emergencies, including Rhode Island, New Jersey, and New York.

In light of what some see as a sputtering response from the Trump administration, state leaders such as New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo have aggressively stepped into the void. Cuomo pledged $40 million to combat coronavirus before New York had its first case, has held 16 press conferences since the start of February, and Monday after a shortage of hand sanitizer unveiled “NYS Clean,” a disinfectant made by prisoners and distributed to schools, public transportation hubs, and elsewhere.

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In Massachusetts, Baker has held three press conferences dedicated to coronavirus, the last being on Friday, and he scheduled another for 2 p.m. Tuesday upon his return from Utah, which declared its own public health emergency last week.

The Baker administration defended its efforts, saying it had, “taken numerous steps to activate public health tools and enforce the CDC’s guidance aimed at keeping the public safe and informed.”

"The administration is in daily contact with federal officials, local officials, and stakeholders across the Commonwealth and will take additional actions to help protect people’s health and mitigate the spread of coronavirus.” said Baker’s communications director, Lizzy Guyton.

In an apparent attempt to blunt criticism, Baker’s office made the rare move Monday morning of releasing a media advisory for Baker while he was on vacation and had no public events. It showed he had an evening conference call about coronavirus, which was closed to the press. By the end of Monday, Baker’s staff said the governor was returning home.

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“Baker is well positioned given his support in the state to fill a gap that [President] Trump is mentally incapable of filling,” said Juliette Kayyem, a former homeland security official under President Obama who teaches at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. “I think Baker’s presence here would be beneficial, not just for political reasons. I think people are scared.”

Professor Paul Watanabe of the University of Massachusetts Boston said Baker’s visibility as the state’s top official was particularly important, “in the absence of a lot of trust and confidence at what is happening at the national level.”

“It’s better to monitor this from Beacon Hill," Watanabe said, "rather than some hill in the Rocky Mountains.”

Marylou Sudders, Baker’s health and human services secretary, said she keeps a list in her office of which states have declared public health emergencies in the wake of the virus’s spread, a tally that includes at least 10 states after Rhode Island’s declaration Monday.

Baker used the tool as recently as September in the face of an explosion of vaping-related illnesses, when he ordered a months-long ban on the sale of vaping products.

But Sudders cautioned that a declaration of a public emergency can mean different things in different states, including what powers it grants to the governor.

In Massachusetts, state law gives the governor, through his health commissioner, broadly defined authority in such emergencies to “take such action and incur such liabilities as he may deem necessary to assure the maintenance of public health and the prevention of disease.”

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Sudders said there’s no finite number of cases that could prompt a declaration here.

“If we need to, we will. And we have done it,” Sudders said of a declaration. “At this time, the risk to the general population remains low. And obviously if circumstances change, we will prepare to make decisions to protect the public health of the Commonwealth.”

Baker last week signed a supplemental budget that directs $95,000 specifically to addressing the rise of coronavirus, namely to cover overtime and clinical costs for the state’s epidemiologist. Sudders did not indicate the state would seek more, but officials are expecting to get federal funds through the $8.3 billion aid package President Trump signed last week.

“We will not be shy, either advocating at the federal level or with our state partners. That should not be a worry,” she said.

She defended the state’s response to date, saying that as a former social worker, she prefers to refer to use the word “assertive” when asked if the state has been aggressive enough.

“We are very assertive and proactive and try to get the information out as quickly as possible,” Sudders said. “We will continue to message [to the public] and evolve as the Covid-19 continues to evolve.”

As of Monday morning, the state’s Public Health Laboratory had tested 185 specimens since it was given federal approval on Feb. 28, and currently has the ability to test 40 to 50 every day, Sudders said. State officials are also “pretty certain” that at least one commercial lab in Massachusetts will also get federal approval, which would expand capacity, she added.

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The state doesn’t regularly report such data publicly, which New Hampshire does, and Sudders described the figure as ever-changing amid a “24/7 process.”

“We think we’re one of the very few states that actually puts out this level of detail, in terms of county, gender, exposure,” she said of the information Massachusetts does make publicly available on cases. “I think every state is doing it differently.”

Rebecca Ostriker of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Andrew Ryan can be reached at andrew.ryan@globe.com Follow him on Twitter @globeandrewryan. Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout