Somerville hasn’t been hit as hard by the coronavirus as some neighboring cities. However, officials in New England’s most densely populated municipality aren’t taking any chances.
Mayor Joe Curtatone announced Monday morning that he and the city’s Board of Health are issuing a new order requiring everyone in Somerville over the age of 2 to wear a face covering at all times in public — inside or outside — to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
The order applies to indoor public spaces, like stores or the shared entrances of Somerville’s many multi-unit homes. It also applies to sidewalks, streets, paths, and squares. And there are no exceptions for joggers and cyclists.
“I understand that this step may feel strange or burdensome,” Curtatone said in an alert sent to Somerville residents Monday morning. “But this is necessary to help stop transmission of this disease.”
The mandate goes further than the statewide advisory asking Massachusetts residents to cover their face in public places where social distancing isn’t possible, as well as most other local orders requiring individuals to wear a mask or face covering when inside grocery stores and other businesses. Boston has gone as far as issuing an advisory asking residents to cover their face in public, while Brookline recently threatened to fine people $50 if they were caught out without a mask.
Somerville’s order — which takes effect on Wednesday, but with a one-week grace period — comes with a potential $300 fine. And unlike in Brookline, city officials say it will be enforced by Somerville police.
That said, police will “aim to first educate violators and issue warnings” and carry masks to provide to the city’s most vulnerable residents, such as people experiencing homelessness or living with mental illness. Exceptions will also be made for people unable to medically tolerate a face covering. However, those who willfully refuse to comply may be hit with the $300 fine.
“Ticketing for this is our last resort, but we do have to put public health first,” David Fallon, the chief of Somerville police, said in a statement. “So for those individuals who willfully fail to comply, we will reserve this option.”
Somerville officials also noted that it is up to police, not residents, to enforce the face covering order.
“Please just worry about yourself and your family,” Curtatone said.
Appropriate face coverings must cover the nose and mouth and be made from a clean material, according to the city’s announcement. That includes homemade masks, as well as scarves, bandanas, or “any piece of clean cloth.” Officials have also generally advised residents against buying medical-grade masks, which are in short supply for health care workers and other employees on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As of Sunday afternoon, there had been 522 positive COVID-19 cases and six deaths due to the disease in Somerville — both of which are far less than the numbers in other nearby dense cities like Chelsea, Everett, Lynn, and Revere.
However, the city’s website says Somerville’s numbers are likely an undercount, due to a testing shortage; Curtatone’s office also announced Monday that the city is making COVID-19 testing available to all residents at the Cambridge Health Alliance hospital in Somerville, as all as at a satellite location in East Somerville.
With regards to the new face covering order, Fallon added Monday that it was “encouraging” to see how many Somerville residents are already wearing some sort of mask in public.
And while there is little evidence that people in outdoor, open spaces pose a serious risk of transmitting the coronavirus, Somerville officials stressed that the city’s density — with more than 80,000 residents in just 4.1 square miles — make preventative measures all the more critical.
Curtatone pointed to evidence that a significant percentage of people with COVID-19 never show symptoms and could unwittingly fuel the pandemic’s spread.
“You can be carrying the virus and infecting others without knowing,” the mayor said. “No one wants to be the one who infected the grocery store clerk, or the bus driver, or the family out for a stroll. Wearing a face covering is one way to avoid that.”
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