Virus Outbreak-Massachusetts

The author says that Charlie Baker, the nation’s most popular governor — at least, he was in the past — has been taking his lumps not only for mismanaging the coronavirus inoculation drive in Massachusetts, but also for relaxing restrictions on restaurants, other businesses and public gatherings too quickly.

LENOX — “Lumpy and bumpy.” That’s Gov. Charlie Baker’s often-repeated description of the abysmal rollout and distribution of coronavirus vaccines across the state.

“Incompetent” and “absurd” are a few of the more polite terms voiced by residents and some lawmakers to describe the botched online registration “system” for finding available appointments here in the Berkshires and to our east.

The nation’s most popular governor — at least, he was in the past — has been taking his lumps not only for mismanaging the inoculation drive, but also for relaxing restrictions on restaurants, other businesses and public gatherings too quickly.

Public health specialists are warning that the moves could backfire, reversing the state’s progress against COVID-19 and risking a new surge in cases.

“I’d say, ‘Charlie, you’re making a big mistake,’ ” Dr. Robert Horsburgh, a Boston University professor of epidemiology, cautioned. “Opening up these restaurants is going to prolong the epidemic and increase the number of Massachusetts residents that die.”

That’s subject to debate, but Baker’s most damaging error has been his failure to put school staffers and day care workers at the front of the vaccination line while pushing for a full-time reopening of in-person education, a goal that’s widely supported as long as it’s safe to do so.

Baker bowed to pressure this week and announced that about 400,000 educators and their support staff across the state can start signing up for shots next Thursday. Massachusetts was one of only 16 states that had failed to put school employees into the earliest phases of the vaccination drive.

At the same time, the state’s top education official, Commissioner Jeff Riley, is demanding that school districts reopen full time next month, starting at the elementary level.

The governor knows all too well that with 1 million eligible people, including over-65s and other groups, competing for only 150,000 available doses in Massachusetts next week, outrage will explode even further.

Baker has indicated that there may be special weekend clinics set up for school staff at the state’s seven mass-vaccination sites in the near future. But, Berkshire County has no such sites — it has three so-called regional collaboratives, at Berkshire Community College in Pittsfield, the W.E.B. Du Bois School in Great Barrington and St. Elizabeth’s of Hungary Church in North Adams. Those locations had better be added to the list for special clinics.

The frustrating experience many residents have endured trying to sign up for slots at the state’s unmanageable website has been well-chronicled by investigative reporter Larry Parnass in The Eagle’s Checkup column and special coverage last weekend.

Another nonsensical aspect of the mess is the incomprehensible opening of our county’s three major sites to statewide registrants. Of course, they should have been reserved for legal residents of the Berkshires.

Last week, two-thirds of the people (some using high-tech workarounds such as “bots”) who signed up for our three regional collaboratives were from out of county. No wonder some Berkshire folks registered for available appointments in the Pioneer Valley and further east.

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Charlie, this makes no sense, in my view. With testing down 60 percent in Massachusetts, we don’t even know if the state has contained the virus as much as case counts and hospitalization figures suggest.

Of course, Baker is not the only governor whose political future is imperiled by mismanagement of the pandemic.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a fallen hero to many, may be forced to resign because of an alleged pandemic scandal involving the number of nursing home deaths last spring, as well as recent sexual harassment accusations. He certainly can’t run for a fourth term.

Gov. Gavin Newsom of California also is navigating dire straits. On Thursday, he urged people to wear two cloth masks or one filtered mask when going out in public. Not a popular recommendation.

“We are encouraging people basically to double down on mask wearing, particularly in light of what I would argue is bad information coming from at least four states in this country,” he said. “We will not be walking down their path; we’re mindful of your health and our future.”

Like Cuomo, Newsom was a superstar in the early days of the pandemic. Last March, he was praised for issuing the first statewide stay-at-home order. But, by summer, things in California got quickly worse, and the governor seemed to lose control.

The handsome, charismatic leader, often mentioned as a Democrat headed for national office, made a serious misstep in November when he and his wife were photographed violating sheltering orders by dining, without masks, at a posh restaurant in Napa Valley wine country.

Meanwhile, California has done poorly in coordinating vaccinations for its roughly 40 million residents.

Newsom now faces a recall election — a popular political device in California since 2003, when Gov. Gray Davis was recalled and replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Newsom’s opponents claim to have gathered the signatures necessary for a recall and, if those are validated, the recall would be decided by voters this fall.

Closer to home, Baker faces no such imminent jeopardy. His personal integrity remains unimpeachable, but many voters may find it difficult, if not impossible, to overlook, much less forgive, his managerial missteps and stubborn resistance to prioritize educators for vaccines.

In the Before Times, our governor’s sterling reputation was based on managerial skills. But, remarkably, for a state known for its high-tech profile, technology has been his Achilles heel — the unemployment benefits website is a mess and the online health insurance marketplace was a mockery of effective government, though much improved in recent years.

Now, it’s hard to know whether Baker has been overrated or whether the pandemic simply was too much for him, or any governor, to handle capably.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.