Editorial Roundup: New England

Boston Globe. September 5, 2021.

Editorial: A new MBTA board of directors should be a priority for Governor Baker

A new board helped improve the T’s performance after ‘Snowmaggedon.’ It’s no less necessary now.

With the Delta variant upending life in general, along with back-to-the-office plans, Massachusetts is heading into a period of great uncertainty about the future of public transit. We need leadership that’s flexible, far-sighted — and focused on transparency, accountability, and safety.

For those reasons, establishing a new MBTA board of directors should be a priority for Governor Charlie Baker. But right now, if he or the T leadership feels any sense of urgency about it, it’s hard to tell.

On July 29, Baker signed a law creating a new seven-member board. It gives him the power to select five board members, which he has not yet done. One of the five must come from three nominees selected by the Massachusetts AFL-CIO. Under the law, Secretary of Transportation Jamey Tesler will be a member when the board convenes. The law also authorizes the MBTA Advisory Board, an independent group representing the cities and towns that contribute revenue to the T, to select one member; it has done so, selecting Mayor Thomas Koch of Quincy for the position.

With a new board still unformed, the T has been without its own oversight board since June 30, when the Fiscal and Management Control Board officially went out of business. (For now, the MBTA is being overseen by the MassDOT board of directors.)

Some history is useful here as a reminder of why this kind of oversight is so important. The Fiscal and Management Control Board was established in July 2015, after the catastrophic winter that came to be known as “Snowmageddon” revealed deep systemic deficiencies that led to massive service disruption. That public transit disaster coincided with the first months of Baker’s first term in office, leading him to convene a special panel to investigate what happened and why. The panel recommended forming a board to closely monitor the T’s finances, management, and operations. Out of that was born the board, which has played an important role in providing regular updates about the T’s operating budget, progress on capital projects, and general customer service issues.

As the Baker administration sees it, considerable progress has been made since Snowmageddon in terms of improving service and delivering on capital projects. For example, the T just marked the successful completion of a major capital improvement project on the E branch of the Green Line — just one example, a spokeswoman said, of how the T has used the period of low pandemic-era ridership to accelerate major infrastructure work throughout the system. According to the Baker administration, in fiscal 2021, the T made $1.92 billion in capital improvements. In 2014, the year before Snowmageddon, the T’s capital investment spending was only $600 million. Through partnerships with the cities and towns that own the region’s streets, there are new bus lanes. In fiscal 2022, there are also plans to procure electric-hybrid buses; upgrade track infrastructure; implement contactless fare payments and rear-door boarding; improve transit signals; and upgrade passenger information and amenities, and many other projected improvements.

Of course, there’s a big difference between completed projects and promised new ones, and accountability for meeting deadlines and budgets is critical. There are also pending safety-related questions. Nearly six months after a new Orange Line train derailed, the T recently announced that two of the four new trains that were pulled from service in March are now back online; the others are set to be reintroduced sometime this month. The new board should demand a full accounting for what exactly happened. Meanwhile, the new 152-car fleet of Orange Line trains are now set to be fully delivered by April 2023 — 15 months later than initially planned. And 252 new Red Line cars are scheduled to be fully in service by September 2024 — a year later than the original completion date. What’s causing the delay? The new board should want to know that, too. A July crash between two Green Line trains also remains under investigation and raises more questions about the system’s longstanding lack of safety technology.

And speaking of safety, what about enforcement of the T’s mask policy? All riders and T employees are required to wear face coverings to stop the spread of COVID-19. But the policy is not always enforced. The head of the T’s largest union has also said that Baker’s mandatory vaccination policy is something that must be negotiated, raising another immediate safety concern for riders.

Whatever progress has been made at the T came in part because there was a demand for transparency and accountability, via the Fiscal and Management Control Board. Transparency and accountability are needed as much now as before. Baker, now in his second term and contemplating a third, should bring the same sense of purpose and urgency to dealing with public transit during a pandemic as he did after a record-breaking snowfall.

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Boston Herald. September 8, 2021.

Editorial: Massachusetts Dems should walk the talk on workers

The workers attending the Greater Boston Labor Council rally across the street from the Marriott Copley Place this weekend held signs reading “Boycott Marriott Copley.”

A moot point — the pandemic did that already.

And not just the Marriott: The coronavirus kneecapped the hospitality industry across the country.

What’s more, hotels in the Boston area were hit harder by the coronavirus pandemic than just about any other major U.S. city, and the recovery could take years, hospitality industry officials said.

The occupancy rate in Boston and Cambridge plummeted to less than 26% last year (a good rate is considered in the 70% range), which drove revenue per available room down more than 80%, according to the hotel consultant Pinnacle Advisory Group.

Hotels laid off workers or eventually fired them as the pandemic dragged on and business didn’t snap back.

Boston’s hotel occupancy rate crawled back to 40.4% in April of this year 2021 — the lowest among major hotel markets nationwide, according to Pinnacle.

At the Labor Day rally, the five candidates for mayor and members of Massachusetts’ Congressional delegation called on the Marriott to rehire the workers and called on all employers to treat employees fairly.

“This past year has shown us just how many people are close to being pushed over the edge… families that are on the precipice, that are forced to choose between paying for medical care or rent,” said Rep. Ayanna Pressley, who worked three part-time jobs, including on the wait staff at the Marriott, when she first came to Boston.

“I know what it’s like to be overlooked,” Pressley said. “You deserve systemic, transformative, lasting support.”

They deserve jobs, all the workers who lost theirs during the pandemic do.

But rallies aren’t going to bring tourists back to Boston, ready to book hotel rooms and spend cash and take in shows and visit museums and eat in our restaurants. The sight of demonstrators chanting, “Don’t check in, check out” as two people rolled their suitcases near the Copley Marriott during the rally was baffling. The very thing choking the hotel industry is lack of visitors — if people don’t check in, then how will the business rebuild?

But for all the “we’re with you” speeches delivered by Sens. Ed Markey, Elizabeth Warren, Rep. Pressley and the mayoral candidates, the direction was misplaced.

The rally shouldn’t have been marching outside the Marriott, they should have been marching in front of our Democratic delegation.

It is they who have a seat at the table in Washington.

They are in the position to push for funding to help the struggling hospitality industry in Massachusetts.

And whoever emerges victorious from the race for Boston mayor, and those on the city council, can collaborate with the Boston Chamber of Commerce, Greater Boston Convention and Tourist Bureau and other groups for ideas on how to revitalize the city’s economy and bring people back to our streets.

The result can well be transformative.

The ball is in their court.

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Portland Press Herald. September 10, 2021.

Editorial: Maine CDC should speed up processing of COVID tests

Along with the nationwide shortage of tests, the backlog of positive results is making it harder to fight the virus.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention has been unable to keep up with the positive COVID tests coming in to its lab.

At the same time, a shortage of tests nationwide as the delta variant spreads means they aren’t always available when they’re needed.

Both shortfalls are obscuring the reality of the latest COVID surge – and making it harder for us to fight it.

The problem at the Maine CDC is about manpower: The agency doesn’t have enough resources dedicated to processing positive tests to keep up.

The CDC reported 732 new cases of COVID-19 over the four-day Labor Day weekend, fewer than 200 a day.

But the agency’s director, Dr. Nirav Shah, said Wednesday that it is actually receiving more than 400 positive test results a day. Each of those tests requires individual review to sort out duplicates, which takes time.

As a result, as of Wednesday morning, the CDC was sitting on 2,441 unsorted test results. As many as 2,000, the CDC says, will be found to be unique tests.

In short, while the surge of the virus in Maine is not as extensive as it is in other states, it is much worse than the seven-day average of new cases would indicate.

The Maine CDC certainly is not trying to hide the cases – the agency provided the numbers, after all. However, the slow processing of positive tests lessens the impact and usefulness of the daily case numbers. All the cases will eventually be incorporated into the average, but the increase will appear to be more gradual, and less alarming, than it is.

We’ve seen in other areas where rising case numbers have convinced previously unvaccinated people to get their shot. To do the same here, it would help if Mainers saw the real scope of the virus reflected in the numbers as soon as they happen.

The CDC says it has redeployed resources and hired new staff to deal with the backlog. As cases continue to rise, and as schools reopen and cold weather returns, it needs to be enough to handle an ever-increasing load.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s in the value of real-time information on what the virus is doing in our communities. The shortage in COVID tests, particularly the at-home, fast-result variety, fits in the same category.

After trouble with manufacturing and supply early on, the companies that make the tests had ramped up production during the latter part of the pandemic. But with demand falling as COVID cases decreased earlier this year, they cut back on capacity.

One of the companies, Abbott Laboratories, with plants in Maine, even destroyed rapid tests, according to The New York Times. Abbott disputes the claim.

Such shortfalls raise questions about the wisdom of putting private enterprise in charge of a critical component of preserving public health.

They also raise questions about how the Biden administration allowed such an important piece of fighting COVID to fall apart now, repeating the mistakes of the Trump administration.

In any case, now that demand is once again rising, the manufacturers are again building up capacity.

But in the meantime, it can be difficult to find an at-home test. In just one example, the shortage is keeping some Maine schools from starting a pooled-testing program, in which groups of students, teachers and staff are regularly tested for COVID-19, their individual swabs “pooled” together into one batch to save on testing costs.

Pooled testing, which has already caught outbreaks at Maine schools in their infancy, is a critical part of keeping kids safe and schools open. Any delay in starting a program leaves them vulnerable.

To see these kinds of shortfalls so far into the pandemic is frustrating.

As Maine heads into fall with cases rising, uncertain of what the next few months will bring, we’ll need to know exactly what we are facing as we are facing it.

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Hearst Connecticut Media. September 9, 2021.

Editorial: UConn again paying big salaries not to work

If it was a scandal for the University of Connecticut to pay presidential salaries for two people not to be president, what does it mean to pay a significantly higher salary to a football coach not to coach?

It’s not a pretty situation, but that’s where the state’s flagship public university finds itself.

UConn has had a run of negative publicity in high-profile jobs. Earlier this year, university President Thomas Katsouleas surprised nearly everyone by resigning only two years into a five-year contract, which subsequent reporting has pinned to a disagreement with the university’s board of trustees over a variety of cost-related issues. The result is Katsouleas will stay on the university payroll at his presidential salary, but with an instructor’s workload.

He is joined at that level by another former UConn president, Susan Herbst, who herself continues to teach at a presidential salary.

Now they are joined by Randy Edsall, who until recently led the hapless UConn football team. Edsall, in the face of two embarrassing losses to start the season, this week announced his intention to retire at season’s end. That was quickly followed by news that he would step down as coach immediately, while staying on the payroll as a consultant.

It’s a pretty good deal if you can swing it. He’ll take home his full salary of $1.256 million this year but not have to do much of anything.

In contrast to its high-profile basketball teams, UConn football has never made much of a mark, except as a punchline. Still, there is so much money invested in the system — with millions of dollars at stake down the road — that pulling the plug on the whole enterprise is likely not in the cards, tempting as that might be at times.

The truth is that UConn football is never going to reach basketball-like heights. There are too many factors stacked against it, and the team is starting at the absolute bottom. The problem is that it has been starting over time after time in the past decade.

UConn needs to get its next coaching hire right. Enough with the retreads and the has-beens. Find a young coach who wants to make a mark, someone willing to take on the challenge of turning around one of the worst teams in America. If that coach leaves in a few years for greener pastures, that’s the nature of the game. If that happens, there’s a good chance UConn would be in a much better position to find a replacement.

What can’t happen is more of the same. The state can’t continue to shell out millions of dollars for empty stadiums and blowout losses. The university’s athletics budget runs at a major deficit, and a large portion of the difference is made up with student fees. If UConn is going to be charging high tuition, it needs to ensure that money isn’t wasted.

UConn football is going to be around for a while. But it doesn’t have to be as bad as it’s been. It’s up to the administration to turn things around.

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Rutland Herald. September 8, 2021.

Editorial: Who can we trust?

What were the three Vermont state troopers thinking?

In an era when the public is hypercritical of the police, why would they decide it was in their best interests, having sworn an oath to protect and serve Vermonters, to create fake coronavirus vaccination cards in the nation’s most vaccinated state?

It remains unclear why and for whom the troopers allegedly made the fake cards.

Cops committing federal crimes. Great. How do we trust them moving forward?

Shawn Sommers and Raymond Witkowski resigned Aug. 10 — a day after a colleague raised concerns about the alleged fraud to supervisors. David Pfindel’s resignation took effect last week after an investigation by Vermont’s Department of Public Safety, according to a police statement.

According to published reports, authorities said the three men, who were reported to supervisors by their fellow troopers, “are suspected of having varying roles in the creation of fraudulent COVID-19 vaccination cards, which may be a violation of federal law.”

The entire scenario has generated questions, eroded trust and offered the next best layer of mocking since Super Troopers (and Super Troopers 2). Cue, Saturday Night Live.

Col. Matthew T. Birmingham, director of the Vermont State Police, said the accusations against the officers “involve an extraordinary level of misconduct.” He added that he is “embarrassed” about a situation that has tarnished the department’s reputation.

“I could not be more upset and disappointed,” he said in a statement. “If these allegations are proved to be true, it is reprehensible that state troopers would manipulate vaccination cards in the midst of a pandemic, when being vaccinated is one of the most important steps anyone can take to keep their community safe from COVID-19.”

That feels like an understatement.

But the feds are involved now. So do we all feel reassured?

The Vermont State Police said they were unable to announce the resignations before Tuesday, or provide any additional details about the case, because the FBI is investigating the matter.

Clearly, making or buying a counterfeit card violates federal laws, as it entails the unauthorized use of an official government agency’s seal, according to the FBI. Those linked to a fake vaccination card can face a fine and a prison sentence of up to five years. The FBI warned unvaccinated people earlier this year: “Do not buy fake vaccine cards, do not make your own vaccine cards, and do not fill-in blank vaccination record cards with false information.”

But there’s a missing piece in this whole conundrum: the why?

More than 68% of Vermont is fully vaccinated, the highest rate of any state. More than 86% of all eligible Vermonters have received at least one vaccine dose.

Were they for Vermonters, or did these jokers have a side industry going with other states with crappier percentages? It’s a pandemic — and most opportunists are not the guys hunting the scammers.

According to The Washington Post, more counterfeit vaccination cards are popping up across the United States in what has become a “cottage industry,” as some unvaccinated people try to evade restrictions requiring proof of the shot to enter public spaces, schools and concerts. Officials with U.S. Customs and Border Protection announced last month that its officers seized more than 3,000 fake vaccination cards that were passing through Memphis, a shipping hub, according to The Post.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer, the New York Democrat, recently pushed for a federal crackdown to curtail the sale of fake vaccination cards with coronavirus cases on the rise due to the highly transmissible delta variant and the millions who remain unvaccinated.

“Some people, rather than get the vaccine, which is free, are paying money for a fake card and risking prosecution because it’s against the law,” Schumer said. “Who could be that dumb?”

Well, we have an answer for you, senator. Their badges read: Moe, Larry and Curly.

According to The Post, arrests have been made in recent months of homeopathic doctors, bar owners, pharmacists and others accused of selling fake cards.

But not cops. Another first in the nation for Vermont.

Vermont Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling said in a statement that an internal review did not indicate the police could have prevented the alleged fraud. Schirling applauded the troopers who alerted State Police to the alleged scheme.

Vermonters are not clapping, commissioner. This is embarrassing at so many levels.

Here’s some advice: Get vaccinated to protect yourselves. Serve your community by doing the right thing for the greater good. Because at the moment, we need to put all — and we mean all — our trust in each other.

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