Baker: Despite pandemic trauma, Massachusetts remains strong

BOSTON (AP) — Gov. Charlie Baker delivered his annual State of the Commonwealth address Tuesday evening, acknowledging the trauma Massachusetts has endured battling a deadly pandemic, but praising residents' resilience and promising brighter days ahead.

“If there is a silver lining in all this, it’s how organizations and individuals from every corner of Massachusetts stepped up to confront the pandemic and care for each other," Baker said. “These heroes are the most beautiful part of this most difficult experience."

Baker spent much of the speech focused on the state’s efforts to combat the coronavirus pandemic, which had become a nearly all-consuming task for the Republican — first struggling to obtain needed personal protective equipment for those on the front lines and more recently working to administer vaccines to millions of residents.

He said during the early months of the pandemic, the state “with minimal help from the federal government,” found a way to provide health care workers with masks, gloves and gowns by obtaining seven planeloads of personal protective equipment from around the world — the first provided by the Kraft family and New England Patriots.

“We also set up a program to help Massachusetts companies pivot their operations into mask and gown making mini-factories,” he said. “Now we have a stockpile of masks, gloves and other protective gear.”

Baker acknowledged the devastating toll the pandemic has taken on the economy of the state and the health of its citizens.

Since the beginning of the outbreak last year, nearly 14,000 people in Massachusetts have died from COVID-19 while the confirmed caseload has topped 481,000.

“The pandemic changed everything. And it was much more than just the worst public health crisis of the last hundred years," Baker said. "It came with economic calamity, severe job loss, business closures, anxiety, fear, civil unrest, riots, racial injustice, isolation, death and loss.”

The pandemic even altered the pomp and circumstance that typically surrounds the address itself. Instead of talking to a packed Massachusetts House chamber, Baker addressed the state from his office in a largely empty Statehouse.

Baker also used the speech to defend his vaccine distribution plan, which some have criticized for being confusing and not aggressive enough.

Baker said the state is prepared to distribute and administer all the vaccine shots delivered by the federal government and is rapidly expanding the number of vaccination sites.

“Vaccinating four million adults in Massachusetts as the doses are allocated by the federal government is not going to be easy. But be assured that we will make every effort to get this done as quickly and efficiently as possible,” he said. “We can only move as fast as the federal government delivers the vaccines.”

Baker also renewed his call to keep and maintain in-person learning for schools despite fears of the virus.

“Study after study makes clear that kids need to be in school. Their educational and emotional development depends on it," he said. “And while in person learning is especially challenging during this time, many schools have found a way to get it done.”

Baker said the pandemic and the rise of remote working will also give the state a chance to rethink transportation.

Despite all the challenges imposed by the pandemic, Baker said the state of Massachusetts is strong.

While COVID-19 has eclipsed much in the past year, the work of state government continues.

Baker pointed to other signature pieces of legislation approved during the past year, including a sweeping policing overhaul law that creates a civilian-led commission with the power to certify officers, investigate claims of misconduct and revoke the certification of officers for certain violations.

The new law also bans the use of chokeholds and limits the use of so called no-knock warrants.

In the speech, Baker pointed to the impact that the killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer had in spurring the push for the new police law and prompting difficult but needed conversations.

“I‘m so proud to be able to say that these reforms were discussed, debated and passed here without the rancor — and in many cases, the lack of progress — that dominated this discussion in so many other places,” Baker said.

There are other non-COVID-19 priorities still waiting final action, including a sweeping climate change bill that lawmakers approved in the waning hours of the last legislative session but Baker vetoed. Lawmakers vowed to return the bill to Baker's desk as soon as this week.

At the end of the speech, Baker took a moment to urge everyone to ask questions, be curious and practice empathy — and resist getting drawn in by social media, politicians and talking heads who he said thrive on division.

“If we do, I believe we will all grow. And hopefully, we’ll all learn a few things we didn’t know before and be glad that we did,” Baker said. “We’ll also be happier and healthier.”