FEB. 26, 2021…..It’s the supply, stupid.
Those weren’t the exact words Gov. Charlie Baker used Thursday, but as he got barraged with criticism from Democratic lawmakers eager to show they were ready to stand up to the Republican administration, it was a defense he would return to again and again.
The new Joint Committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness’s vaccine oversight hearing was must-see streaming on Beacon Hill, even with the governor trying to offer his own counter-programming.
The state’s vaccine rollout, and more specifically its online appointment booking system, continued to be a source of consternation this week. While the system didn’t crash, per se, the experience of fighting online with hundreds of thousands of people for one of the 50,000 new appointments left an anxious public unpacified.
The math just doesn’t work, Baker told lawmakers who were seeking answers, or someone to blame. When the feds give us more doses, we’ll vaccinate more people, he said.
However, the limited-supply argument only took the governor so far as he testified for about an hour before the committee, whose members felt that just putting shots in people’s arms wasn’t a sufficient measure of success.
They weren’t there to hear the governor recite statistics about Massachusetts ranking tops in the country for first doses administered among states with more than 5 million residents, or that Bloomberg placed the state second for first doses administered to Black residents. Though he did do that.
“You’re missing how broken the system is right now,” said Rep. William Driscoll, a Milton Democrat and co-chair of the committee.
Residents — their constituents – were tired and frustrated of logging onto the state’s vaccine website day-after-day, week-after-week, only to find there are either no appointments available or, as occurred Thursday, they were in line behind 90,000 other people. There has to be a better way, lawmakers said.
“Will you say sorry to the million of people…,” said Sen. Eric Lesser, in one of the most pointed lines of questioning the governor faced all day.
“Of course, absolutely. Definitely. Yes, of course,” Baker said.
In the middle of this tense back and forth between Baker and legislators, it leaked out that Baker was about to announce that the state would allow fans to return to large venues like Fenway Park in time for Opening Day.
He would use his 1 p.m. event in Salem as a reason to duck out of the 11 a.m. oversight hearing, though he promised he would come back in a few weeks when asked.
But at the Ledger Restaurant and Bar, Baker announced that the reopening phase he first described back in May as the “New Normal” was finally on the horizon.
Beginning March 22, Baker said the state would move into Phase 4, meaning Fenway Park, Gillette Stadium and TD Garden could reopen to spectators, although at a limited 12 percent capacity. For baseball fans, that means about 4,500 people will be able to watch the first pitch get thrown live on April 1.
The push ahead into the next phase of economic activity also means that gathering size limits on indoor and outdoor events will increase to 100 and 150, respectively. So as Massachusetts mourns the anniversary of the superspreader Biogen conference this week, it can also look ahead to the return, on a much smaller scale, of conferences … and weddings … with dancing.
Even before that happens, the administration said beginning Monday most businesses will see their capacity limits increased to 50 percent. Concert halls and theaters will be allowed to reopen at half capacity, capped at 500 people, roller rinks and other indoor recreation facilities will be back in business. And restaurants beginning will no longer have a percent capacity limit and will be permitted to host musical performances, with six-foot social distancing enforced and limits of six people per table and 90-minute seatings.
“We’re almost there,” Baker said. “We’re going to continue to move forward and if all goes according to plan and the feds increase supply (of vaccine) we could be in a very different position a couple, three months from now,” Baker said.
There was that supply issue again, and it could improve soon. Pfizer and Moderna both told Congress that they planned to significantly ramp up production in March, and the FDA on Friday was considering Johnson & Johnson’s application for emergency use of its one-dose vaccine.
But in the meantime, Baker said vaccines are not required to safely bring students back to school, and wants to see that happen by April.
Education Commissioner Jeff Riley helped lay out the administration’s plan on Tuesday to bring elementary school students back to the classroom full time by April.
About 80 percent of districts have brought students back at least part-time, and the administration’s position is that the improved health conditions no longer justify waiting, at least for younger students.
The administration’s goal was a slam dunk. It was hard to find anyone who didn’t think children belong in a classroom and would benefit socially and academically from a return to in-person learning. The controversy remains about how to make that happen.
“The state’s plan to fully reopen most schools in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic shows callous disregard for the health and safety of school employees, students and families and rides roughshod over the rights and interests of local communities,” said Massachusetts Teachers Association President Merrie Najimy.
And Najimy isn’t alone in thinking teachers – who are in the next group to be vaccinated — deserve even greater prioritization. House Speaker Ron Mariano amplified the issue last weekend in a television interview when he said he thought teachers should be moved “to the head of the line.”
But this week, Mariano was all about pushing through a package of legislative rules that stopped short of the transparency-driven reforms passed by the Senate that would make sure all committee votes are published online and written testimony to committees be made public upon request Rules reformers, like freshman Rep. Erika Uyterhoeven, found more support among her Republican colleagues than her fellow Democrats for matching the Senate’s proposal. But that’s actually not an unusual phenomenon when it comes to debating the rules.
While the joint House-Senate rules sparked considerable back-and-forth, there were no objections to calling off a special election for mayor of Boston this year. The House and Senate both enacted a necessary home rule petition to make that happen should Walsh resign before next Friday, as one of their own – Rep. Jon Santiago of the South End – jumped into the race for mayor.
The new speaker also told House members that he would seek to extend voting-by-mail through June while the House works on making the option permanent in Massachusetts. An extension of the voting-by-mail rules past March 31 would ensure that all municipal elections planned for this spring would be covered.
Massachusetts Republican Party Chairman Jim Lyons, however, said he is still waiting for Secretary of State William Galvin to acknowledge GOP requests for a full review of the 2020 election and the strengths and vulnerabilities of the mail-in voting system.
Regardless of how that debate unfolds, voters in the 19th Suffolk District will choose before the end of next month who should replace former Speaker Robert DeLeo and represent them in the House.
That race got rocked this week by allegations of sexual harassment against former DeLeo and Sen. Paul Feeney aide Tino Capobianco, who quickly saw endorsements from Attorney General Maura Healey, Joseph Kennedy III and even Feeney disappear. Capobianco denied the thrust of the allegations, reported by GBH, and apologized if he hurt anyone, but voters will deliver the ultimate verdict in the primary on Tuesday.
They may be at odds over voting, but Lyons and Galvin were able to agree Friday, along with Democratic Party Chairman Gus Bickford and BC Law School Dean Vincent Rougeau, to offer Woburn City Clerk Bill Campbell the job of director of the Office of Campaign and Political Finance.
Campbell will be the first new head of the campaign finance agency in more than 25 years.
That’s less than the maximum sentence for one count of bank fraud, to which former Rep. David Nangle pleaded guilty to four of this week as part of a plea agreement with departing U.S. Attorney Andrew Lelling.
All told, the Lowell Democrat pleaded guilty to 10 counts of wire fraud, four counts of bank fraud, four counts of making false statements to a bank and five counts of filing false tax returns. Nangle’s crimes involved using campaign funds to pay for golf club memberships and his casino gambling habits, as well as fraudulently securing loans by concealing his debt and using that money to gamble.
Federal prosecutors did not make a recommendation of prison time, but the 11-term legislator who lost reelection last year while under indictment has a sentencing hearing set for June 24.