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Gubernatorial rivals take aim at Baker over COVID-19

From left: Ben Downing, Danielle Allen, and Sonia Chang-Díaz. All three Democratic gubernatorial candidates are calling on Governor Charlie Baker to enact more COVID-19 restrictions in Massachusetts.
From left: Ben Downing, Danielle Allen, and Sonia Chang-Díaz. All three Democratic gubernatorial candidates are calling on Governor Charlie Baker to enact more COVID-19 restrictions in Massachusetts.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff, Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

All three Democratic gubernatorial candidates are pushing Governor Charlie Baker to enact stronger COVID-19 restrictions, a signal that the highly transmissible Delta variant has emerged not just as a public health threat but as a potentially dominant issue in the 2022 governor’s race.

The calls for Baker to take more aggressive steps foreshadow the central role that virus response could play in the still-uncertain gubernatorial contest. The popular second-term Republican has yet to say whether he will seek a third term as governor, but political rivals on the left and right are taking aim at his administration’s COVID-19 response, charging that he’s done either too little or too much — and hoping their criticisms dent his enviable approval ratings.

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Two Democratic candidates, Harvard professor Danielle Allen and state Senator Sonia Chang-Díaz, released proposals this month outlining more aggressive steps to combat the uptick in COVID-19 cases. Ben Downing, a former state senator who is also running, has been vocal over the past few months on COVID-19 protocols, too, including calling for Baker to declare a new state of emergency to address the Delta variant.

“The governor has been too reactive to the virus and to its many ripple effects,” Downing told the Globe on Friday. “It’s going to require a variety of proactive steps to not only beat back the virus but to start to return to something that looks like normal in our day to day lives. I think on the whole the governor hasn’t shown the urgency.”

All three Democrats say Baker should require public school educators to be vaccinated. But administration officials said Baker has already imposed a vaccine mandate on all the public employees under his purview, and has encouraged all other employers to adopt similar requirements.

On the Republican side, conservative former lawmaker and gubernatorial candidate Geoff Diehl has slammed Baker for going too far in his response to the growing threat, arguing that a vaccine mandate for state workers that Baker enacted Aug. 19 encroaches on their civil liberties.

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For his part, Baker has touted a flexible response to the virus and pointed to the state’s national standing as evidence of the wisdom of his approach.

“Under Governor Baker, Massachusetts has been leader in battling COVID, from testing to contact tracing to vaccine distribution,” said communications director Sarah Finlaw. “The administration will not respond to attempts to politicize COVID-19 response efforts.”

Despite the criticism from his rivals, Baker can earn major political points while continuing to lead the state through the COVID crisis, analysts say. Rarely are leaders more visible to their constituents than in times of emergency, when news conferences and speeches draw the attention of worried residents. And he’s likely to collect credit for any positive developments in the state’s COVID-19 recovery, such as its nation-leading vaccination effort, particularly as neighboring states fare worse.

Data show Massachusetts is better positioned than nearly any other state, with lower hospitalization rates and a higher share of vaccinated residents than most parts of the country.

Acting Boston Mayor Kim Janey said that the city’s cases and the positivity rate have leveled off during the past week. And Massachusetts’ seven-day average of confirmed cases has dipped in the last week, too, but COVID-19 hospitalizations are on the rise. The state is in a far better position than it was this past winter, before vaccines were widely available, but case counts have climbed from June and July lows recorded before the Delta variant descended on the state full force.

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Baker’s Democratic rivals say there is more the administration could be doing — and insist that doing better than other states isn’t good enough. All three say masks should currently be required indoors everywhere in Massachusetts.

In a plan earlier this month, Allen called for the administration to establish clear thresholds that would trigger mask mandates and other safety protocols for schools as COVID-19 trends fluctuate across the state. The administration needs to be more systematic in its approach, she argued.

“We just kind of careen from crisis decision-making point to crisis decision-making point,” Allen said. “Can we transition from that to regularized processes for dealing with an ongoing and increasingly understood public health challenge?”

Chang-Díaz has also panned Baker for “an inconsistent, path-of-least-resistance approach to pandemic safety that seems to be based more in politics than in science — and puts the health of Bay Staters in jeopardy as a result.”

Baker administration officials pointed out that some of the steps his critics are calling for, like free pooled COVID-19 testing for schools and mask mandates in schools, are already in place.

On Baker’s right flank, Diehl has slammed the governor’s mask requirement in schools and vaccine requirement for state workers. Diehl attended a Billerica protest last week to voice his opposition to the administration’s school mask mandate.

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Mary Anne Marsh, a veteran Democratic political strategist, said Baker’s approach shows that he’s trying to guard himself from political attacks on both sides. Pointing to two recent decisions on which Baker has reversed his position — a mask mandate in schools and a vaccine mandate for state workers — Marsh summed up his approach as “waiting and downplaying.”

Baker resisted requiring masks in schools for weeks even as pressure mounted from fellow politicians. Then, with school about to start and public support for such a mandate high, he reversed course.

“Instead of getting in front of it, he waited until after the fact,” Marsh said.

Those political considerations aren’t going away, analysts said. The challenge for Democratic challengers will be to dent Baker’s popularity even as he enjoys a more prominent political position.

Baker holds a cash advantage over his potential rivals, with $533,110 in the bank as of the end of July. That’s a fraction of what he had at the same point ahead of his 2018 campaign.

As of the end of July, Allen had $335,527 on hand, Chang-Dίaz had $277,165, and Downing had $95,577. The Republican Diehl had $17,191.

Hanging over the Democratic field is the question of whether Attorney General Maura Healey, who has higher name recognition than the other Democrats, will enter the race. Healey, who has said she would consider her options over the summer, had nearly $3.3 million on hand as of the end of July.

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