Boston coronavirus cluster curbs campaigning

Thursday, March 12, 2020

BOSTON — It’s not just shaking hands and kissing babies that’s falling by the wayside as campaigns adapt to a world with coronavirus. Even passing a pen to sign a candidate’s petition is a potential danger.

Campaigns in Massachusetts are eyeing virtual town halls and increased digital ad spending to keep their bids afloat as voters hunker down at home to avoid the spread of COVID-19.

The Bay State has seen a steep rise in coronavirus cases over the past week, with 95 patients testing positive for coronavirus. Seventy seven of those cases are linked to a Biogen conference held at a Boston hotel in late February. Several of the remaining cases were linked to international travel, but a number of illnesses cannot be traced and are assumed to have spread person-to-person.

With most political events canceled and in-person meetings screeching to a halt, it’s going to be virtually impossible for candidates to shake hands — or bump elbows — with prospective voters or donors. Boston's big political St. Patrick’s Day Breakfast is off, the Massachusetts Democratic Party canceled the rest of its state caucuses until further notice, and the state Legislature is looking at ways to operate “virtually" in the weeks ahead.

A Senate Democratic primary debate between Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Joe Kennedy on March 18 is on for now but will no longer include a studio audience due to coronavirus concerns, according to a spokesperson for Western Mass News, one of the organizations hosting the debate. Markey, who is 73, is at increased risk of contracting the virus due to his age.

Candidates are limited to three guests who must remain in the green room during the debate, and supporters and protesters may not congregate on the sidewalk outside the building. Outside media are barred from the debate, meaning candidates will not take questions from reporters after the event.

In the face of the viral outbreak, Kennedy will “double campaign efforts in every way we can” including phone calls and “digital efforts,” according to spokesperson Mike Cummings. Kennedy held a coronavirus roundtable in East Boston last week.

Sen. Ed Markey’s campaign is banking on “relational, friend-to-friend organizing,” his campaign manager said. | Cliff Owen/AP Photo

Markey’s campaign is banking on “relational, friend-to-friend organizing,” campaign manager John Walsh said. That means supporters reach out to people they know, which can be done over the phone — and far away from crowds.

Republican Gov. Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency in Massachusetts on Tuesday, and the state Legislature plans to take up a $15 million supplemental budget bill next week to establish a "fund" to help mitigate the outbreak, but offered few details about what the fund would do.

The virus is particularly challenging for the nine Democrats running in the crowded race to replace Kennedy. Campaigns are grappling with how to reach voters during the coronavirus outbreak as the state's September primary creeps closer.

"We're all preparing for the worst," said Alex Vuskovic, campaign manager for Newton City Councilor Becky Grossman. "A lot of campaigns are concerned about losing out on prime retail politics time. It's a crowded primary and a small electorate.”

Grossman is part of a crowded field of Democrats running to replace Kennedy.

"I think it will force campaigns to be a little more creative in how they're organizing and how they're getting out there," Vuskovic added.

Grossman announced three "virtual town halls" planned through April 23, which will be hosted on her campaign Facebook page. The first virtual town hall on March 19 will focus on public health.

Lately, campaigns have been trying to gather the 2,000 signatures necessary to appear on the ballot, which are due in early June. But even sharing pens comes with extra concern. Others running in Kennedy’s district echoed similar plans to cancel gatherings or hold virtual events if necessary. Campaigns are also eyeing more online outreach to voters, meaning paid digital ads.

Brookline Democrat Jesse Mermell, who is also running for that seat, is “elbow-bumping rather than shaking hands” according to spokesperson Karissa Hand, and carrying extra hand sanitizer. Her campaign put a halt on events with more than 50 people, and the office will no longer share food.

Mermell canceled the opening of her campaign headquarters planned for Saturday, and is orgnizing a "fun-filled virtual headquarters opening" that day instead, according to a Medium post from her campaign.

"Details are coming but you aren’t going to want to miss this one — from the safety of your home," Mermell said.

POLITICO