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Surge renews debate in Massachusetts over indoor mask mandate

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker.
Jessica Rinaldi
The Boston Globe / Pool / State House News Service
Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker in a file photo.

Nearly seven months ago as he declared the COVID-19 pandemic "pretty much over," Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker lifted the state's indoor mask mandate, along with most other pandemic restrictions, with the belief that the state's strong vaccination rates would keep the virus in abeyance.

But with COVID-19 again on the march, pressure is building for the governor to revisit the idea of requiring masks in all indoor public settings, regardless of vaccination status, as the holidays and colder weather push people inside and bring friends and families together for shopping, dinners, parties and other festivities.

Leading doctors in Massachusetts are now recommending that residents wear masks in public indoor spaces, and some legislators are speaking up about their desire to see a more uniform approach to masking statewide, rather than the mishmash of rules that exist from community to community.

A number of states, including New York and California, have brought back their statewide mask mandates, but so far Baker has resisted calls to revisit the policy, preferring to allow cities and towns to set their own requirements for masks, with some exceptions.

"There are no plans to bring back the statewide mask mandate," Baker said Monday, asked about the idea at a press conference where he announced plans to send 2.1 million rapid at-home COVID-19 tests to 102 cities and towns for free distribution this holiday season.

Baker noted that masks are still required in most public schools, long-term care facilities, health care settings and on public transportation. The school mask mandate is set to expire on Jan. 15.

"Keep in mind that we're in a very different place than we were in before. Five million people are fully vaccinated. A million and a half of those are boosted. Over 6 million people have at least one dose," Baker said.

Still, Dr. Carole Allen, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, said Tuesday that the growing number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations point to "an alarming upward trend" that is straining the state's health care system. The Department of Public Health on Monday reported 11,078 new cases from over the weekend, and hospitalizations from the virus climbed to 1,355, while the positive test rate dropped back below 5 percent to 4.79 percent.

The Massachusetts Medical Society urged all residents, regardless of their vaccination status, to resume wearing masks in indoor public settings.

"Masking is a public health measure proven to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Wearing masks while indoors is an effective and appropriate way to slow transmission of the disease, especially with the holiday and cold and flu seasons upon us. We must all work together to take steps to confront and stem what could be a continued rise in cases, hospitalizations, serious illness, and death," Allen said in a statement.

California and New York are among the states that have already taken the step to mask up once again, with California's new statewide mask mandate going into effect on Wednesday, and New York's having begun on Monday. In the Empire State, the masking requirements do not apply to businesses that require proof-of-vaccination for entry, and the policy will be revisited on Jan. 15.

Oregon, New Mexico, Washington, Hawaii and Nevada have also put statewide mask mandates back into place as cases surge around the country, and the omicron variant poses a new, and not-well-understood threat.

Baker is not alone, however, in trying to navigate the latest surge without requiring all residents to once again don masks as they go about their daily lives. Rhode Island Gov. Dan McKee is expected to announce a set of actions on Wednesday to combat the recent surge of COVID-19 cases in his sate, but said last week he was "not ready" to return to an indoor mask mandate.

Jon Hurst, president the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, said his organization opposes a return to mask mandates.

"Choice should prevail, because no one store, restaurant, etc., are the same," Hurst said in an email. "The views of employees, customers, the size of your facility, the average time of customers in your establishment; it's all over the map. The small business owner knows better than government, particularly one year into vaccinations, and nearly 2 years into restrictions and public messaging that has cut sales AND raised costs."

Hurst said that because state and federal grant and loan programs for small businesses have expired any new COVID-19 restrictions must be accompanied by tax cuts, grants, health insurance premium cuts, or other benefits for business owners.

The Joint Committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness and Management plans an oversight hearing on Thursday where lawmakers will get a chance to probe the Baker administration's latest responses to the pandemic, including at-home testing, limits on non-essential hospital procedures and masks. Health and Humans Services Secretary Marylou Sudders and state Public Health Acting Commissioner Margret Cooke are among those invited to testify.

Rep. William Driscoll, the committee's House chair, recently said he supports a new universal mask mandate, according to the Boston Herald, and other members of the committee have expressed similar sentiments.

"Disappointing news given that the interest in preventing community spread which underlies today's decision around distributing rapid tests could also be used to justify a statewide indoor mask mandate," tweeted Rep. Mindy Domb, a committee member, after the governor's press conference on Monday.

"Why haven't we learned that a patchwork response, forcing cities and towns to make this decision doesn't work...," Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa echoed on Twitter.

While masks are still required in most public schools, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said that as of Monday it had received 36 requests to lift the mask mandate in schools that achieved at least 80 percent vaccination, including 27 public high schools, five public middle schools and four special education schools serving primarily high-school age children.

Of those requests, DESE had granted 28 waivers, though the department said it is aware anecdotally of a number of districts that have decided to keep their mask mandates in place at least through the holidays despite their approval for students and teachers to drop the masks.

A spokeswoman also said the department was unaware of any districts that had returned to requiring masks after dropping their local mandate, and the Hopkinton School Committee voted earlier this month to extend that town's mask-free policy for another three weeks after experiencing success with its initial trial.

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