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With the Delta variant on the rise and kids going back to school, the City takes cautious steps

(Somerville Wire) – The Somerville Board of Health approved a mandate requiring people to wear masks in indoor public spaces at an August 19 meeting, and it went into effect on August 20. Face coverings can be removed when individuals are eating or drinking, but otherwise, anyone two or older must be masked. The mandate was influenced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on a national level, but also, in Somerville, case numbers have been steadily increasing since mid July. The spread of the Delta variant made City officials decide that the regulation was necessary, even for people who have been vaccinated.

“There’s a few things—one is the case rate, but the other is the transmissibility of the Delta variant and the illness that we’re seeing in children, that we weren’t seeing before,” said BOH Chair Brian Green. “[Another reason] is the fact that schools will be starting soon.” He added, “Only 66% of kids aged 12-15 are vaccinated, and 0% under the age of 12 are vaccinated. I know, at this point, only 45% of 16-19 year old’s are vaccinated.”

The mandate is different from past recommendations or orders in that on July 30, the City only made an advisory, strongly recommending that people wear masks in indoor public settings, regardless of whether they had been vaccinated. In April 2020, the City had required face coverings in all indoor and outdoor public spaces. This current mandate also makes several exceptions: a person with a medical or disabling condition or a hearing impairment may decline to wear a mask and need not produce documentation verifying their condition. In addition to being able to be unmasked when eating or drinking, a person who is swimming or receiving dental or other health care does not need to cover their face. The order is enforceable by a fine of $300. Somerville’s Director of Health and Human Services Doug Kress said that he does not know how long this mandate will last for.

“We wish we had a crystal ball so that we could take a look at some of those things,” said Kress. “Unfortunately, we don’t. It really is looking at … where the numbers are at, where the spread of the virus is at, what are the hospitalization rates, what are those important factors that we look at.” He added, “It’s a combination—there’s not just one thing that we can say, once we get to this point in vaccinations or once we get to this point in our percent positivity rates. It’s really a combination of all of those things coming together.”

Some businesses, like Daddy Jones Bar in Magoun Square, have already responded to the mandate. The restaurant recently announced that it would put a pause on indoor dining, while still offering outdoor patio dining and online ordering for takeout. Owner Dimitra Murphy said that she is concerned by the increase in cases and “to be honest, even being vaccinated right now doesn’t feel safe.”

“The thought of everybody wearing masks to come inside, the thought of that is that it’s to make everybody feel safer,” said Murphy. “In our industry, you cannot exist without having your mask exposed. I just don’t want to deal with this. It’s kind of like a mental game, that we’re supposed to put on a brave face and be okay all the time, and it’s exhausting. … I’m not against the mask mandate, but for what we do, it just feels like a no-win situation.” She added, “I do think the City is doing the right thing, and hopefully it’s an overreaction. I feel like my business has been in transition for quite some time now, where we’re not offering full service.”

Green said that the idea that the City could either be doing vaccines or masking—one or the other—is insufficient. While there is a greater problem in the world at large that many people are still unvaccinated, the mask mandate is not a direct response to this issue.

“There is some connection that having people who are not vaccinated means that the virus is more dangerous,” said Green. “But the mask mandate is not because people in Somerville didn’t go out and get vaccines. Both the citizens did a tremendous job of going out and getting the vaccines pretty early, and the Health Department did a terrific job of reaching out to as many communities within Somerville as possible, to provide opportunities for people to get vaccinated. It’s not a punishment for people not getting vaccinated.”

Murphy said that prior to the mandate, she had seen a downward shift in indoor dining, with customers being more worried about the variant. The restaurant had only just opened up indoor dining this past July.

“We opened it because it started to rain so much. Rain is obviously terrible for an uncovered patio,” said Murphy. “We were like, we’ll open up the inside, because we kind of have to survive. Inside started to get a little busier, and then even before the mandate, we started to see it slow down. I think people are starting to be a little bit more concerned, a little more scared. It’s just kind of like, what are we holding on to, right now?”

This article is syndicated by the Somerville Wire municipal news service of the Somerville News Garden project of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.

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Shira Laucharoen is assistant director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and assistant editor and staff reporter of the Somerville Wire.

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