Weekly Roundup – What’s Good for the Goose

The temperatures may have suggested the dead of summer, but preparations were in full swing this week to welcome students and employees back to classrooms and offices in the fall with COVID-19 still swirling in the hot, humid air.

Gov. Charlie Baker set the bar last week with a no-alternative vaccine mandate for thousands of executive branch employees, but as his administration opened negotiations with unions on the details of that policy, other public officials and agencies used the administration’s approach as a blueprint.

Senate President Karen Spilka announced that all Senate lawmakers and staff would have to be vaccinated by Oct. 15, though the Ashland Democrat said the date for a full return to the State House — a building still closed to the public — remains undecided.

The Massachusetts Gaming Commission also followed the governor’s lead and voted to require the vaccination of all its employees by Oct. 27 as it prepares to fully reopen its downtown Boston office on Nov. 1. The commission is giving its workers two weeks to either prove they have been vaccinated, schedule an appointment or make their case for a religious or medical exemption.

“I absolutely think given the state of affairs this is the way to go,” Gaming Commissioner Eileen O’Brien said, alluding to infection rates that are on the rise.

Mandating vaccinations became an easier decision to make after the Food and Drug Administration gave full approval to Pfizer’s shot, no longer authorized just on an emergency basis. Still, work-from-home and hybrid models will be very much the norm as workers return from vacations and settle into a post-Labor Day rhythm.

While businesses and government agencies consider ways to structure a more flexible work environment, education officials are crossing their fingers that the days of remote learning are behind Massachusetts students and teachers.

With all schools preparing for a full reopening to start the 2021-2022 school year, Education Commissioner Jeff Riley secured the authority he needed from the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to implement a universal masking mandate.

All students, teachers and staff over the age of 5 will be required to wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status, to start the school year as the Delta variant has fueled a resurgence of infections and students under 12 remain ineligible for a vaccine.

The board voted 9-1 to support the administration’s school masking plan, which would allow middle and high schools to revisit the issue after Oct. 1 if schools can achieve a vaccination rate of at least 80 percent.

Board member Paymon Rouhanifard cast the lone vote against masks, calling it “just, frankly, really bad public policy” to tie the proposal to vaccination rates. He said he thinks linking it to community spread of the coronavirus would have been a “more reasonable” alternative.

Republican Geoff Diehl, who is running for governor, said he believes the more reasonable thing to do would be to let parents make their own decisions about the health and safety of their children. Diehl, a former Whitman lawmaker, labeled Baker’s latest steps to control the spread of COVID-19 “government intrusion over parental and personal choices in our lives.”

Public opinion, however, is not exactly on Diehl’s side.

The most recent MassINC poll found broad support for masking in schools, even among Republicans. Democrats running for governor would like to see the boundaries pushed even further.

Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz and Danielle Allen both called for vaccines to be made mandatory for school personnel, and Chang-Diaz suggested Baker start a public process now to begin developing a vaccine credentialing system as more businesses — for both workers and patrons — are beginning to require proof vaccination.

Attorney General Maura Healey, who is still deciding whether to join Chang-Diaz on the gubernatorial campaign trail, said she thinks it’s too soon to say whether vaccine passports would be beneficial, or even necessary given the ease with which some fear vaccine cards could be forged.

“If certain things need to be designed or systems created then I think we should be open to doing that. I just don’t have a sense right now, to be honest…of how pervasive this is as a problem,” Healey said during a radio appearance.

Baker was noticeably quiet this week, but also went on the radio to donate and help raise money for the Jimmy Fund, spending more time during his WEEI interview talking about Tom Brady and Charlie Watts than any public policy.

Baker did, however, record a two-part interview with Jon Keller that will begin airing this Sunday before he and First Lady Lauren Baker headed out of town for the weekend on a “personal trip” to Tennessee.

Speaking of travel, Congressman Seth Moulton made international news when he and U.S. Rep.  Peter Meijer, a Michigan Republican, snuck away on a secret reconnaissance mission to Kabul in defiance of the State Department and other agencies.

Moulton and Meijer, both veterans, wanted to observe first hand the conditions on the ground as the United States continued to evacuate American and Afghan allies from Afghanistan, but the trip drew strong condemnation from many who accused the pair of staging a political stunt and distracting from the mission on the ground.

Moulton rebutted that criticism, and the pair was back on U.S. soil by the time the Kabul airport became the site of a deadly terrorist bombing that killed dozens, including U.S. soldiers.

The Bakers may be making the most of the waning days of summer, but chances to win $1 million by getting vaccinated are over.

The final two winners of the VaxMillions sweepstakes were drawn this week, with the prizes going to Leominster’s Cynthia Thirath and Gretchen Selva, a sophomore at Four River Charter Public School in Greenfield, who hopes to study music.

It may never be known how many of the 2.5 million entrants in the vaccine Lottery got the shot just for a chance to win, but Treasurer Deb Goldberg is convinced that at the end of the day it was a “win-win for everyone.”

Rep. Andy Vargas is hoping it will be a win-win just for him in the 2022 primary and general elections as the Haverhill Democrat first elected to the House in 2017 launched his campaign for state Senate this week. Vargas is running in the district currently represented by Sen. Diana DiZoglio, who is running statewide for auditor. If elected, he would be the first Dominican-American to be sworn into the Massachusetts Senate.

Long before that race is decided, a new state representative from the 4th Essex District will be seated in the House.

Rep. Brad Hill plans to leave next month to become the newest member of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission, and the House this week set the election dates to replace him. The primaries will be held on Nov. 2, followed by a general election on Nov. 30 as the Republican Party — down to 30 seats in the House — attempts to stop the bleeding and hold on to a seat held by Hill since he was first elected in 1998.

Trailing in new public and internal polls released this week that showed City Councilor Michelle Wu leading the pack to become the next mayor of Boston, Mayor Kim Janey pulled back the city’s waterfront redevelopment plan, casting fresh doubt on plans for 600-foot tower on the site of the Boston Harbor Garage next to the New England Aquarium.

There’s intense interest in what happens to Boston’s waterfront, and understandably so, but Hampden District Attorney Anthony Gulluni wishes just a little more attention could be paid to properties not along the eastern seaboard.

Gulluni pulled his staff from the Roderick Ireland Courthouse in Springfield on Wednesday where he said the conditions of the building had deteriorated so much that visible mold was growing in parts of the structure.

Until a remediation team could conduct a thorough decontamination of the building, Gulluni said prosecutors would only work inside on an as-needed basis for trials and other proceedings, but he also said it was time to put a more permanent solution on the books.

“I believe that if we were farther east this building would have been replaced a long time ago,” Gulluni said.