Governor Charlie Baker on Tuesday night sought to reassure Massachusetts residents who’ve weathered a tumultuous year that better days are coming, using his annual State of the Commonwealth address to tout his administration’s plans to roll out COVID-19 vaccinations and navigate the crisis still ahead.
Devoid of the usual trappings, Baker addressed the state’s nearly 7 million residents from behind a lectern in his ceremonial office, dedicating the vast majority of his 24-minute speech to recount sacrifices of front-line workers and residents and the steps he and lawmakers have taken to address the pandemic.
The second-term Republican governor did not lay out any major new initiatives in the address, instead largely promoting the state as well-positioned to weather the months ahead, from providing coronavirus testing in schools to meeting residents’ economic needs.
“Everyone has shown tremendous patience throughout this yearlong ordeal and many are justifiably running out of it. I am, too. That’s why this cannot happen fast enough,” Baker said of vaccinating the 4 million eligible adults in Massachusetts.
“The end is in sight, but for the next few months, we must continue to stay vigilant and take the steps that we all know to stop the spread,” he added. “And know this: We will beat this virus, and life will begin to return to normal.”
Baker said the state must also adapt to what is a changing business environment — including more people working from home — and how that could affect everything from housing to transportation policy going forward.
“Make no mistake, we have always lived by our wits. Figured out the future and got there first. This time will be no different,” he said.
The speech offered the governor an annual primetime platform to tout his administration’s accomplishments and lay out a vision for the coming year. But this year’s address did not feature its usual pomp and circumstance — the setting of a packed House chamber or the regular interruptions of applause.
Instead, Baker delivered the televised address from the quiet of his office, straight to the camera, to a distant audience at home in front of computer screens or televisions.
Baker cited the streaming TV show “Ted Lasso” about a football coach, played by actor Jason Sudeikis, who coaches a Premier League soccer team, and features a quote often attributed to Walt Whitman, urging people to “be curious, not judgmental.” And he pointed to a series of anecdotes about local residents and organizations overcoming the pandemic’s challenges to help others.
During tonight’s #MASOTC address, I referenced a scene from @TedLasso where Ted shared some wise words from Walt Whitman: “Be curious - not judgmental.”— Charlie Baker (@CharlieBakerMA) January 27, 2021
These words are important for all of us to keep in mind during these stressful times. https://t.co/BaoHF3KtQR
Perhaps more than any other year, Baker’s address came at a time when the state’s biggest challenges have never been so immediate.
COVID-19 has killed nearly 14,000 people and sickened more than 480,000 in Massachusetts alone, and the full extent of economic damage wrought by the health crisis remains to be seen.
On Tuesday, Baker spoke in emotional terms of the pandemic’s toll, of how he couldn’t see his father for more than 100 days or how his best friend lost his mother since the pandemic first took hold of daily life last spring.
“Back then, our mission was, and still is, clear and compelling: Do the best we can to protect the health and well-being of everyone, keep our economy as open as possible and keep our kids in school,” Baker said.
Baker is now juggling a state rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations that has been halting, putting Massachusetts behind most other states as hundreds of thousands of doses sit waiting to be used. Baker on Monday announced a new distribution plan, pushing those age 65 and older ahead in line.
But he’s also repeatedly said the state’s ability to put shots in people’s arms will depend on the federal supply, which the Biden administration said Tuesday it intends to boost in the coming weeks.
“As the federal vaccine distribution program kicks into high gear over the next few months, anyone who wants a vaccine will be able to get one at a site near them,” Baker said Tuesday.
The spotlight has been trained squarely on the governor throughout the crisis, as he wields vast emergency powers. Even before he addressed the state Tuesday night, the Massachusetts Democratic Party circulated a memo charging that the state’s response has been “disjointed and inconsistent.”
Shortly after his speech, Senate President Karen E. Spilka and House Speaker Ronald Mariano, both Democrats, said in separate statements they’re committed to working with Baker.
But others criticized the picture Baker painted of the state’s response, seizing on his decision, for example, to put forward a rental relief plan instead of extending the state’s eviction moratorium.
“The ‘good management’ skills Baker touts have been nowhere on display during COVID, but management skills were never enough,” the group Progressive Massachusetts said in a statement. “We need good management and good values.”
Baker, who has said he hasn’t decided whether to seek a third term in 2022, has used his speech in past years to emphasize his pragmatic and bipartisan approach to governing.
On Tuesday, he offered a “special shout-out” to lawmakers, saying they overcame a series of challenges to deliver major legislation on policing and health care. But Baker and the Legislature also have been at odds on several major policy issues, with Baker vetoing a proposed fee hike on Uber and Lyft rides and a marquee climate change bill in recent weeks.
Hours before Baker’s address, Spilka and Mariano said their chambers will take another vote on the climate change package on Thursday, potentially sending it back to his desk by week’s end.
Baker did not directly address the bill Tuesday, instead touting among other things the state’s commitment to the Transportation Climate Initiative, an ambitious plan to reduce carbon emissions from cars and trucks that could also raise gas prices.
“There’s no question more needs to be done — on environmental justice, transportation, resiliency, conservation, and energy efficiency,” Baker said Tuesday, adding he looks “forward to working with our legislative colleagues to make this happen.”