Democratic Gubernatorial Candidate Ben Downing Would Reinstate Emergency, Issue Mask Mandate

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By Katie Lannan
State House News Service

Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Ben Downing is calling on Massachusetts  Governor Charlie Baker to issue a mask mandate that aligns with new federal guidance and believes the governor acted prematurely in ending the state’s COVID-19 state of emergency.

On the heels of updated federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations laying out situations in which people who have been vaccinated for COVID-19 should continue wearing masks, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health on Friday, July 30 issued new guidance advising that vaccinated people who are at higher risk for COVID-19, or who live with an unvaccinated adult or someone who is immunocompromised, mask up when indoors and outside of their own home.

Health and education officials also said they “strongly recommend that all students in kindergarten through grade 6 wear masks when indoors, except students who cannot do so due to medical conditions or behavioral needs,” stopping short of requiring face-coverings for the younger students who are not yet vaccine-eligible.

As of Monday, August 2, nine of the state’s 14 counties meet the Centers for Disease Control’s criteria for “substantial” or “high” virus transmission, making them areas where the federal guidance recommends everyone, including vaccinated individuals, wear masks in indoor public settings.

Downing on Monday said the Baker administration’s new guidance “both leaves school district administrators on their own to decide best practice on mask mandates and ignores the CDC’s updated guidance that vaccinated people should return to wearing masks indoors in parts of the country that are experiencing substantial or high COVID-19 transmission.”

“I urge Governor Baker to implement a mask mandate that mirrors the CDC’s updated guidance on COVID-19 transmission rates, affirmatively work with school districts on guidelines for mask mandates across the Commonwealth, and require vaccination of all state employees,” the East Boston Democrat and former Pittsfield state senator said in a statement. “Parents, workers, and families deserve much better than haphazard public health guidance from state leadership on Beacon Hill.”

To make sure the state can adhere to the the Centers for Disease Control’s masking guidelines, Downing thinks Baker should issue another state of emergency, according to his campaign.

“Ben believes the Governor prematurely terminated the state of emergency and must declare another order to ensure Massachusetts can follow current CDC guidelines and keep our people safe,” deputy campaign manager Christina Gregg said in a statement to State House News Service. “Based on CDC data released on Friday, four Massachusetts counties meet the criteria of a hot spot, while Gateway Cities across the state continue to struggle with high case rates due to early inequities and failures in vaccine distribution. Unlike the hands-off approach of the current Governor, a Downing Administration would work hand-in-hand with local community health partners to ensure they have the resources they need to implement a mask mandate and stay proactive in the wake of new data.”

The state’s mask mandate, in place since May 2020, came down on May 29, 2021 and the Baker administration replaced it with an advisory that unvaccinated people continue covering their noses and mouths in most indoor settings, with everyone required to wear masks in places like hospitals and public transportation.

The state of emergency Baker declared around COVID-19 ended on June 15.

Baker said Friday, July 30 he is not considering declaring a new state of emergency. Asked that same day if guidance is as far as he is legally able to go without a state of emergency, Baker said, “I guess what I would say in answer to that question is, you know, talk to the lawyers.”

Baker, who has not yet said if he plans to seek a third term, said Friday that the state “is moving forward in this new normal and we’re moving forward safely” and that he expects “cities and towns to make adjustments to do what’s right for their specific school districts.”

He also spoke to the Centers for Disease Control’s choice to base its recommended protections on transmission levels county-by-county.

“What if you work in one county and live in another? What if you decided to go to vacation or out to dinner in one county and live in another?” Baker said in explaining why he opted for a statewide advisory. “And by the way, how is anybody supposed to keep track, given all the stuff that’s going on in their daily life, with a rolling seven-day average in which one of four elements is going to determine, based on whichever one is highest, whether or not a district is substantially at risk or significantly at risk?”

There were 4,366,853 people in Massachusetts fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as of Monday, August 2, according to state Department of Public Health data. State health officials recorded 844 new COVID-19 cases on Friday, July 30, bringing the cumulative caseload to 672,488, with 197 patients hospitalized across the state with the virus.

Downing’s stance is at odds with another former lawmaker running for governor in 2022, Republican Geoff Diehl.

Diehl last week called for Baker to “reject” the Centers for Disease Control’s revised guidance on masks.

“The people of Massachusetts are smart and capable of making their own health decisions for themselves and for their families, including whether to get vaccinated or to voluntarily wear a mask,” Diehl said Thursday, July 29. “There is no need for government to keep interfering in our lives. Enough is enough.”


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