By Matt Murphy
State House News Service
MAY 17, 2021…..For the past 13 months, Massachusetts residents have grown accustomed to wearing a mask almost everywhere they go.
Gov. Charlie Baker first advised residents to wear a “face covering or cloth mask” in public when social distancing was not possible on April 10 of last year, 10 days ahead of what public officials officials expected to be the peak of the initial COVID-19 surge. The advisory became a mandate on May 1, 2020.
But with the state’s ever-evolving mask mandate set to be rescinded in just 12 days for all residents who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, the facial accessory can’t be retired just yet.
Baker said Thursday the Department of Public Health will update its mask guidance next week to “advise all vaccinated residents that it’s safe to go back to doing the things we all used to do before this pandemic…” But that order won’t apply to all things.
When the mask order ends, Baker said the Department of Public Health will issue a new public health advisory urging unvaccinated individuals to continue to wear masks in “most indoors settings.” The enforcement mechanism, Baker said, will be “personal responsibility.”
Masks will also continue to be mandated in nursing homes, health care settings like hospitals and physicians’ offices, inside schools and day care centers, in prisons, jails, and homeless shelters, on public and private mass transit and in transportation hubs, like commuter rail and bus stations.
The continuation of the mask mandate for public transportation is consistent with CDC recommendations on travel, and covers MBTA trains, subways and ferries, as well as private taxis, limos and Uber and Lyft rides. Baker said he would continue to take his cues for masks on mass transit from federal health authorities.
“If they change their guidance, we’ll obviously make our own decision at that point, but I support the decision that the CDC made on transit,” Baker said.
The Centers for Disease Control last week set the stage for Massachusetts and other states that still had mask mandates in place let go of the requirements. The agency said Thursday it was safe for vaccinated Americans to be around other vaccinated and unvaccinated people, both indoors and outdoors, without social distancing.
Some states, like Connecticut, Vermont and Rhode Island, acted almost immediately to adopt the CDC mask guidelines, while Baker, who was in Washington, D.C. at the time, took the weekend to consider the options. Massachusetts boasts one of the highest vaccination rates in the country, and it will be the last state in New England to lift its mask mandate, also trailing its neighbor, New York.
Dr. Carole Allen, president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, said the administration’s updated mask policy was “consistent with the administration’s thoughtful and data-guided approach to reopening, and the positive trend in key COVID-19 metrics which drove this action underscores the safety and efficacy of vaccines.”
Allen, however, said the state must continue to push to vaccinate those who live in underserved community where vaccination rates are lower and COVID-19 has continued to spread.
“While data confirm that those who are vaccinated have a high level of immunity and present a low risk of infecting others if they do become infected, it is critical to recognize that because of access challenges or hesitancy, many in the Commonwealth have yet to be vaccinated. That can be especially dangerous for those who live and work in locations where they have frequent close contact with others,” Allen said.
Baker also said there was nothing stopping cities and towns or businesses from enforcing stricter mask-wearing rules.
“Businesses may choose to set their own requirements for vaccinations and masking. We encourage them to do whatever works for them, for their employees and for their customers. And we also encourage everyone to be respectful and to follow those requirements if a private organization puts them in place,” Baker said.
While the statewide mask order won’t be rescinded until May 29, Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito said that effective May 18 youth athletes under 18 will no longer be required to wear a mask when participating in outdoor sports. Mask requirements for youth and amateur athletics will be lifted completely on May 29.
Starting Tuesday, masks will also no longer be required at early education facilities and K-12 schools for outdoor activities like recess, but all students, teachers and staff must continue to keep their faces covered inside school buildings beyond May 29.
Rep. William Driscoll, a Milton Democrat and co-chair of the Committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness, said he’s fully vaccinated, but has friends, family and co-workers who are either not vaccinated or have other reasons to be “continually cautious.”
“For those reasons I’ll still be wearing a mask in many indoor settings. Be patient w/ those that will continue to mask even w/o a mandate,” Driscoll tweeted.
The governor acknowledged that many people continue to wear masks outdoors even after the state relaxed that requirement several weeks ago, and Baker said he wouldn’t be surprised to see some businesses also continue to ask employees and customers to cover their faces, if not all year then at least during cold and flu season.
“I have talked to a number of small business owner operators who basically think that wearing a mask and in some cases their customers wearing a mask has had a positive impact on the transmission of other kinds of things, like flus and colds and that kind of stuff, and I would imagine that some of them may just on their own decide they will continue to wear a mask, at least during that season, as they go forward,” Baker said.
Additionally, the governor said it would take some convincing for him to pull back on mask requirements inside long-term care facilities, such as nursing homes, where COVID-19 exacted a harsh toll early in the pandemic and where staff have worked to put in place safety protocols that are keeping a vulnerable population safe.
“I would be really cautious about doing much of anything on that unless I got a lot of really positive feedback from the experts that it was OK to move in a different direction,” Baker said.
Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association President Steve Walsh said the governor’s adoption of the CDC mask guidelines is “proof that vaccinations are working,” but he said hospitals would continue to require face covering, in compliance with the state’s updated rules.
“Our hospitals and healthcare organizations will closely follow all state guidance and employ universal masking within their facilities,” Walsh said. “Safety remains the number one priority for our providers, so anyone entering their local healthcare facility should expect to wear a mask and follow the safety protocols designed to protect patients, caregivers, and visitors.”
Asked about the vulnerability of children under 12 who are not yet eligible for a vaccine, Baker said the state would continue to make pool testing available to school districts and noted that masks will continue to be required indoors until a vaccine becomes available.
“We’ll certainly have a vaccine program for that community if the feds granted an emergency authorization,” he said.