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Berkshire legislators press Baker for statewide mask plan as COVID-19 cases continue to surge

A KN95 mask.
Josh Landes

As COVID-19 cases continue to surge in Berkshire County heading into the holidays, legislators are expressing frustration with the lack of a statewide masking mandate from Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker.

With municipalities struggling to contain a post-Thanksgiving explosion of COVID-19 cases and Christmas just days away, the governor’s inaction on a statewide policy strikes a sour chord with some Berkshire elected officials.

“I'm a little surprised that he's been kind of wishy washy," said 2nd Berkshire District State Representative Paul Mark. “I think that was one of the reasons he stated for why he's not running for reelection, is he didn't want to deal with the politics of every decision he makes on COVID. So I thought there'd be something a little more forceful coming out of him. So, a little surprised that he's taking that tack after seeing yesterday on the COVID Task Force committee hearing, the Mass Hospital Association calling for this, talking about how the hospitals are starting to fill up again, are starting to get to capacity, and that we're hitting another surge- which I don't think should be a surprise to many people as we head into the cold weather, and as people are gathering more indoors these days. So yeah, kind of surprised that the governor hasn't taken a stronger stand and hasn't issued some kind of a statewide directive.”

Mark, a Democrat running for the Western Massachusetts State Senate seat next year, favors a statewide order.

“I think it makes more sense than having a patchwork of systems throughout the state where you go into one town and you're in a store there, and you don't know- are the rules here, wear a mess, don't wear a mask?" Mark told WAMC. "And then he's- I’m not going to say the governor is doing this specifically, but by not making a uniform policy for the entire state, putting the burden on these individual businesses to make that call is pretty unfair. Because if you're a business owner, I don't think you want to have to deal with, you know, this is my fault, I'm enforcing this and people are coming in complaining. Or on the other hand, I'm not putting in a mask mandate, and so people are coming in complaining, and one way or another, this is hurting my business. And so, again, to me, the benefit of the governor not running for reelection to avoid the politics of COVID policy is, make me the bad guy as the governor, and you can blame me, I'm going to put in one statewide policy. That way, no business has to suffer, no town has to suffer and worry about competing with other communities. So yeah, to me at this point, it seems to make the most sense that he should adopt the statewide policy.”

Mark’s Democratic colleague Tricia Farley-Bouvier, state representative of the 3rd Berkshire district, agrees.

“Quite frankly, I think there's a disconnect, in that we have seen this governor over the last seven years, long before the pandemic, have a close relationship and always advocating for local officials," she told WAMC. "And in this case, he is putting local officials in a terrible situation. The idea that each local board of health, each school committee has to be coming up with policies on their own when he could make this decision and have everybody rely on that would make it easier for the public, make it easier for small businesses, and certainly make it better for local officials. With the news of Omicron coming, of course, it’s clearly much more contagious than even the Delta variant. Wearing a mask indoors we know works, and we need to have that be consistent.”

Farley-Bouvier noted that the burden of enforcing disparate masking policies also falls disproportionately on the state’s workers.

“The people who work in these establishments, their job isn't to enforce a mask mandate, right?" said the state representative. "Like, that's not really fair for them to have to do that kind of work. And you won't be surprised to hear from me, Josh, that it’s especially true when it comes to tipped workers. They shouldn't have to be the ones enforcing a mask mandate. It should just be the same across the state.”

Calls for a statewide mandate are also coming from local public health officials. In an interview about the arrival of the Omicron variant in Massachusetts earlier in December, Amy Hardt, a public health nurse serving Southern Berkshire County under the Tri-Town Health Department, made the same argument.

“Without having sort of a statewide emergency declared, local, municipalities and health departments like Tri-Town are kind of put in a tough position," said Hardt. "We don't have always the resources, and in some cases, it feels like even less resources than if the height of the pandemic, or what felt like the height of the pandemic, to enforce things like that. So in some ways, we really do rely on our community members, our businesses, our local government, and individuals to do the right thing and help protect other people who may be more vulnerable than we feel ourselves.”

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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