BACK TO 'NORMAL'
TO MASK OR NOT TO MASK
Health officials in Brookline and Salem said Sunday they are continuing to require masks outdoors, even after the US Centers for Disease Control cleared the way last week for fully vaccinated people to forgo them outside when they can socially distance.
Leaders in those communities will meet next week to consider whether any changes to their outdoor mask mandates would expose residents to greater risk from the coronavirus, they said.
Brookline Health Commissioner Swannie Jett said he credits the town’s outdoor mask mandate with saving lives during the pandemic. Brookline officials must consider any changes carefully, he said. “I understand that the US and the world have COVID fatigue. We have been doing this for over a year. And we want to try to give people back some normalcy, but you have to do that very cautiously,” Jett said in a phone interview. “And the data has shown, when we start reducing these restrictions, you have seen spikes in our cases.”
In Salem, a tourist destination that draws large crowds, officials are weighing the city’s COVID-19 positivity rate, the number of people who have been vaccinated, as well as the health care capacity of local hospitals, according to Board of Health chairman Dr. Jeremy Schiller.
“We have to couple an abundance of caution with the consideration that people are probably exhausted with dealing with the pandemic and want some latitude — particularly for those who are vaccinated,” Schiller said in a phone interview. “We have to follow the science and follow the [pandemic] trends in our city.”
On Sunday, the state reported that the number of coronavirus vaccinations administered in Massachusetts rose by 37,597, reaching a total of about 6,223,093.
The number of people who are fully vaccinated grew to more than 2.6 million, according to the Department of Public Health.
The department also reported 786 new confirmed coronavirus cases Sunday, bringing the state’s total to more than 647,000. The department also reported four deaths, bringing the state’s death toll to 17,270.
Governor Charlie Baker followed the CDC guidelines on Friday, easing the state’s outdoor restriction, loosening what had been among the country’s strongest statewide mask-wearing measures.
Dr. Robert Horsburgh, a Boston University professor of epidemiology, said in an interview Sunday that the science supports the moves by state and federal officials to ease outdoor mask mandates.
But it does create a complex public health message, he said, since it remains critically important for people to continue wearing masks indoors and in crowded areas.
The CDC and state guidance also requires people to be truthful, he said.
“It relies on trusting other people to be honest about their vaccination status,” Horsburgh said.
“Masks do two things: They prevent me from getting infected by other people, but they also prevent other people from getting infected by me,” he said.
Officials in Brookline and Salem, Horsburgh said, are “being appropriately cautious.”
According to state data, Salem is a moderate-risk community with a positivity rate of 2.34 percent. The city’s Board of Health will meet May 11 to discuss the outdoor mask mandate; people can submit comments for the board’s consideration to [email protected].
“We need to discuss how the new CDC and state guidelines fit into Salem specifically,” Schiller said.
Brookline is considered at lower risk for COVID-19, with a positivity rate of about one-half of a percent.
The town’s Advisory Council on Public Health is expected to discuss its outdoor mask regulation on May 13, according to the council’s chairwoman, Patricia Maher. The council will also seek public comment.
“We are trying to convene as quickly as possible, with the understanding that there are people in town who are anxious to, when they are fully vaccinated, be able to not wear masks when they’re outside,” Maher said in a phone interview.
Bernard Greene, the chairman of Brookline’s Select Board, praised Jett’s handling of the pandemic.
“Our health department director, Dr. Jett, has been effective in keeping Brookline safe during this pandemic and I trust his professional and scientific judgment on the mask mandate,” he said in a statement.
Brookline officials also will be looking at the mask policy along with residents’ concerns, said Jett, who is an adjunct assistant professor at the Tufts University School of Medicine and holds a doctorate of public health with an emphasis on epidemiology. Town officials, he said, will consider data such as daily numbers of new cases.
“We don’t just want to make a decision now and follow CDC or follow the state of Massachusetts without doing our due diligence,” Jett said.
In Brookline on Sunday afternoon, Elin Roverud and Al Momin had brought their toddler to play in Griggs Park.
All three wore masks, while Roverud and Momin said they have both had their first Pfizer shots.
“It just makes sense to keep the mask mandate until there is some critical mass of people vaccinated and numbers are low,” Roverud said.
At the same park, friends Madeline Gardner and Susannah Davis sat masked and distanced on separate blankets, knitting and talking.
“It might be nice to be able to take our masks off outside,” Gardner said. “But it’s better to feel safe.”
Davis said she has gotten used to a mask: “If that’s going to help people feel comfortable, I’m happy to do it.”
But some expressed frustration that the town was not following the guidance issued by federal officials.
Sitting on a bench at Emerson Garden, Bodi Luse of Brookline said she wished the town would go along with the CDC guidelines. As she sat alone, she kept her mask off as she read.
“It seems a little ridiculous that Brookline would take a different track from the state and the country,” she said.
Miriam Modricamin, who spent part of Sunday trimming a honeysuckle bush in her front yard, said she thought keeping the outdoor mask mandate in place was “not logical.”
She said she would continue wearing her mask on walks with her husband, though she may lower it if she doesn’t see anyone else around.
“I just think we’re not allowed to use common sense anymore,” she said.