Gov. Charlie Baker, wife talk candidly about big decisions, pressure and hidden blessings in coronavirus outbreak

SWAMPSCOTT, Mass. — Gov. Charlie Baker and First Lady Lauren Baker spoke to Boston 25 News anchor Vanessa Welch from their home in Swampscott over the weekend. They talked candidly about the struggles Massachusetts is facing and how it’s affecting the people in the state. Below is the transcript of portions of that conversation:

WELCH: You’ve faced challenges before in the governor’s office, but certainly nothing like this. What are your days like right now?

GOV. BAKER: My days are pretty much are like a lot of other people’s days I think. It’s pretty much phone or video conferencing all day long. The human interaction and the human engagement that makes being in public life fun... is just gone. And I miss that part a lot. I do this because I like to embrace people figuratively and literally and we don’t do that anymore.

WELCH: Mrs. Baker, are you able to have family time? Is it possible to unwind at all?

LAUREN BAKER: The days kind of blur together and we’re working a lot. Charlie’s working all the time. We do take time to unwind every night, we’ve had dinner with our daughter, who has been living with us and her roommate who is also living with us a lot of nights and it’s really, really fun.

GOV. BAKER: I think Caroline said the other day, she’s had dinner with me more in the past 50 or 60 days than she’s had with me in the past 5 years. There’s no question that kind of family time is something people have a lot more of and I hope for the vast majority of people that’s been a blessing.

WELCH: Talk about the pressure that goes into decision making right now?

GOV. BAKER: The biggest issue of course is that coronavirus is new, so it’s not like we have 10 years or 20 years-worth of data collected by scientists and health care experts and everybody else so you have some idea of what to expect next and where it’s all going. We’re constantly learning about this thing as time goes by and having to make adjustments which is difficult. I get the fact that there really are HUGE tradeoffs associated with whatever decision you make. If you close this... you’re creating economic calamity for a lot of people no doubt about that. If you don’t do it… you’ll be creating a public health crisis that’s already bad and make it worse. Generally what you do is try to take the best advice from experts, try to be clear about what you’re communicating about and why. Stay in front of people, take advantage of the fact that the media is willing to come show up every day at the State House to hear what we have to say. Let’s face it, for all of us this is a brand new experience with not a lot of great choices and I try to make clear to people that I understand that all of these choices all of these decisions come with consequences.

WELCH: Mrs. Baker, your husband is under a tremendous amount of stress and pressure.

LAUREN BAKER: By the time he gets home most nights, he’s pretty spent. I learn a lot about what’s going on in his life by watching the press conferences honestly. We try to text now and again. I send him text messages, asking how he’s doing.

GOV. BAKER: She does text about what’s going on with the Massachusetts Covid Relief Fund too, which is, that’s a little bit of positivity in my day, I can tell you that.

WELCH: I wanted to ask you about that, the relief fund is something near and dear to your heart, what has been the response so far?

LAUREN BAKER: This relief fund is such a personal blessing for me because I get to work with an incredible team of people and we’re making a big impact. I get to see first-hand the generosity and the compassion of people from all over the Commonwealth. We’ve had 12,000 people donate to this fund and we’ve raised more than $25 million in 3 weeks which is in my life, unprecedented and it’s because the people of Massachusetts step-up everyday to help each other out. That is a huge bright silver lining to this dark cloud.

WELCH: Gov. Baker, you just committed another $130 millon to our nursing homes, will this be the thing slows the spread and save lives, do you think?

GOV. BAKER: There’s a bunch of elements to this program. Part of it’s about the money which is going to be very important. But part of it’s also about infection control and getting a standard in place for everybody. It’s also about making it possible for teams that really understand how to create Covid positive units and how to separate Covid negative from Covid positive people. This whole issue is incredibly painful for families and especially given the lack of visitation which I think everybody intellectually understands but emotionally is brutal. It’s yet again another great example of the insidiousness of this virus. First of all, it’s brutal on old people and senior citizens and people with pre-existing conditions. But just as importantly, as time has gone on, since this first started some 90 days ago, we’ve learned just how many people can carry this virus around for days and never know they have it and have no symptoms, and share it with all sorts of other people for whom it could be a terrible disease. The commitment to infection control and PPE and testing everybody: those are three of the big elements of this along with the money.

WELCH: As the Republican governor of a “blue” state, you’ve enjoyed such high approval ratings… the success of our state’s economy is so important. How are you balancing the pressure of business owners to reopen with the public health?

GOV. BAKER: I am well aware of the impact, financially as well as sort of spiritually and emotionally that comes with not being able to work and I’ve talked to a lot of people who feel both a tremendous loss of something that was deeply important to them besides the money. The money is obviously a huge issue for lots of people. But there’s more to it than that, which is work, oftentimes, creates purpose. And all I’ve been able to say to people is look: we’re taking the best advice we can get from the smartest people that are out there on this, we’re trying to learn about this virus as knowledge and information grows and we will work with you. Which is one of the reasons we put together a reopening committee with the lieutenant governor… …to talk to colleagues in businesses in other parts of the world, what they’re hearing from colleagues in their industry. What some of the best practices look like with respect to how to operate safely in this environment. Most businesses get the fact that this is a very dangerous and insidious virus and that you can’t ignore it. You have to respect it and you have to come up strategies and plans to deal with it accordingly.

WELCH: What would you say to the people who are getting antsy, who are frustrated right now?

GOV. BAKER: I’m antsy and I’m frustrated. Listen: this is hard for everybody. And what I would say is that I’m not going to do something here that doesn’t follow the guidance and advice from the experts with respect to how we reopen. To reopen badly, will feel really good for 2 days. And then 30 or 50 or 60 days from now, we could be right back in a really bad place. My view is: when we reopen here we need to do it on terms that are consistent with what public health and other experts are saying. We need to put the protections in place that need to be there, and we need to make sure that we have the ability to manage this thing going forward. The whole reason we created this tracing program... first in the country effort… to follow some of this stuff that they’ve used in other countries to contain the virus was because I want to contain this thing when we open up. I want to be able to identify people who have it, I want to support them in isolation, I want to know who their contacts were and be able to make sure that we help those folks isolate too so that this thing stays under control. I don’t want to end up in a situation where we open, it feels really good you know for 25 days, and then all of a sudden we realize that we’re in really bad place with respect to this thing heading into the summer and the fall.

WELCH: Mrs. Baker, we’ve seen the frustration with protests. What was it like to see that right outside your home?

LAUREN BAKER: Honestly, we’ve had the occasional protest a few times in the last five years. I’m happy they can get out there and say what they think. We’re all frustrated we all want this to be over and we all want to get back to normal, whatever that is, I think we all have do our part and work together and we know that if we all do our part and stick together. Focus on the positive stuff, we will all get through this, and it’ll all be maybe not what we remember but the new normal will be much better if we work together on solving it.

GOV. BAKER: I mean the frustration is real and believe me we know that. The other thing I would say to sort of echo what Lauren said is we are made aware constantly through all sorts of channels about the really kind generous, grateful things that people do on behalf of their neighbors and their friends and coworkers every single day in this state. I mean it is unbelievable. And I think sometimes in the midst of all the gloom we forget that there are thousands and thousands of small acts of greatness that take place here every single day.

WELCH: Some experts say this could go on for another 18 months to 2 years. With what you know… with what you know Gov. Baker, what do you think daily life will look like going forward? What will the new normal look like? Will we never shake hands again? What are some of the things you think we can expect, based on what you know when things do open up? How will things be different?

GOV. BAKER: I think the handshake which has been sort of a common custom for people in public life is probably going to go away for a while. I also think the social distancing, the physical distancing stuff – that’s going to be with us. Customer-facing businesses are going to have to plexiglass or something like plexiglass that protects the customer from the employee and vice versa. I think people are going to be wearing masks or face coverings when they’re inside a building where they don’t think they can distance from people. And the same will be true for people when they’re outside and I think those are things that just come with the territory until we have progress on treatments hopefully at some point down the road - progress on a vaccine. The most important thing I’ve learned from watching what’s happened in countries that have succeeded in containing this as they started to reopen is they wear masks, they physically distance and they are brutal about disinfecting surfaces and hygiene. That is a huge part of how you respect this virus and how you contain it.

WELCH: Gov. Baker you’ve made it clear… you’re happy the federal government is leaving re-opening to the state. You’ve also mentioned government’s role in testing and treatment. Where do you feel the government has let the states down?

GOV. BAKER: Hindsight’s 2020. So some of this is you’ve got to put it that sort of a context. All of us at the state level have been scrambling to find personal protective equipment for our workers our frontline workers, healthcare workers, transportation workers, first responders, emergency management people. And there’s a lot of people out there who have day to day contact with the public. And we’ve all struggled, collectively as a country to find the protective equipment that they need. The Feds are making progress on that, I do believe that will get better. On the testing stuff, and on the treatment piece in particular... only one entity in the entire United States can really put the foot on the accelerator and make things happen when it comes to testing and treatment, and that’s the federal government. In the fourth Covid response bill there was a significant amount of resources in there for testing and treatment and thank God, because even in the long run, and the medium term and hopefully in the short term, the federal government’s role in amping up our ability to test identify and then hopefully at some point is put treatment to work is paramount. I can’t do that. States can’t do that. States shouldn’t do that. It’s the sort of thing that the federal government needs to drive policy on. And make investments in and find solutions and answers on.

WELCH: This whole situation has been so unpredictable. Knowing what you know now, is there anything that you would’ve done differently?

GOV. BAKER: I think the fact that there is this large number of people who carry this virus without knowing it. Which was sort of something that as researchers and experts started to peel the onion, became more and more apparent to them. But it took a long time to get there. I think it was just unbelievable in some respects that you could have so many people who carry this as asymptomatic contagions. I think that in particular would’ve changed the decisions not only we would’ve made, but that a lot of people would’ve made. This whole thing started with, well we’ll test people’s temperatures before they enter hospitals or nursing homes… or we’ll make sure that people who are symptomatic get tested. Normal, traditional public health response would’ve dictated that. And then it turned out that you had huge numbers of people who contracted this virus and carried around and gave it to lots of other people without ever demonstrating any type of outward symptoms at all that they had it. That created, I think, a huge learning experience for everybody.

WELCH: If you could make one request of the people of Massachusetts, what would it be?

GOV. BAKER: I think the biggest request would be to recognize and understand that because of the dangerousness and invisibility in so many cases of this virus, people are going to have to understand that we are going to have to crawl before we walk, and we’re going to have to walk before we run and we’re going to have to be more patient in the way that we deal with this than a lot of people would like. We’re just going to have to be careful about how we deal with this and how we reopen.

LAUREN: We’re all in this together and to be patient, and kind to each other. Because this is really difficult for everyone... and if we all try to be kind and compassionate and patient, we’ll do what Massachusetts always does, which is step up for each other.

WELCH: (On a scale of) One to ten… how are you feeling?


LAUREN BAKER: I’m a hopeful 7.

WELCH: Why a 6, governor?

GOV. BAKER: I just know that this is hard. And I’m not talking about that for me. I’m talking about it for everybody. It’s just hard. I’ve gotten some unbelievably beautiful mail from healthcare workers. Honestly, the strain and what they see every day and how they deal with this is just beyond. And you take that, and you incorporate the letters that we’ve gotten from other people that are also in key roles that we don’t always think about and you just read that stuff and think about how much how you’re affected by this and what you think about it, is driven by your own very personal experience. The small business owner who wrote me a letter and said: ’70 years this has been our family business and it’s gonna die, and it’s your fault.' And I completely understand the frustration and the anger and all the rest that comes with that. The trade-offs here and the consequences are real. And they absolutely affect what it means to people and how they see through their own eyes.

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