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Somerville to launch on-demand coronavirus testing, fines for people who don’t wear masks

People could be issued a $300 fine for violating the order

Mayor Joe Curtatone of Somerville joined Governor Charlie Baker and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito to tour the Battelle Critical Care Decontamination System set up to decontaminate N95 masks in Somerville on April 11. Somerville on Monday announced on-demand coronavirus testing for residents.
Mayor Joe Curtatone of Somerville joined Governor Charlie Baker and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito to tour the Battelle Critical Care Decontamination System set up to decontaminate N95 masks in Somerville on April 11. Somerville on Monday announced on-demand coronavirus testing for residents.Nicolaus Czarnecki/BH

Somerville officials on Monday announced a sweeping set of initiatives to combat the continued spread of COVID-19, including offering free testing to any resident who wants it and requiring people to wear masks in both indoor and outdoor public spaces — under the threat of hefty fines.

Taken together, the city’s slate of efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus is believed to be the most comprehensive in the state, officials said.

“For the last several weeks, we have separated ourselves from one another, closed up much of our society because left unchecked, the coronavirus would overwhelm us,” Mayor Joseph Curtatone said during a news conference about the city’s mitigation plans. “And that’s what we are working furiously to change. We are working tirelessly to interrupt the transmission of the virus from person-to-person.”

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The order on masks came on the same day that officials in Cambridge issued a similar directive to residents. Both cities’ measures are punishable by fines up to $300.

Somerville is rolling out what it’s calling a “testing, tracking, contact tracing, and safe social isolation” strategy that will begin with drive-through COVID-19 testing for anyone who lives in Somerville, regardless of their insurance or immigration status and whether or not they’re exhibiting symptoms of the illness.

Tests will be administered at the Cambridge Health Alliance’s Somerville Hospital location Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. People hoping to get tested are urged to call ahead to set up an appointment. They can do so using a special hotline set up by the city at 617-665-2928.

City officials said they’ve secured roughly 3,500 test kits, which were provided by the state. Curtatone said he’s advocating for additional supplies.

“We cannot get ahead of this virus unless everybody — and I mean everybody — is tested. We have heard over and over again we need three things to get our arms around this crisis: testing, testing, and more testing,” Curtatone said. “At the national level it’s been an abysmal failure, and here in the state we’re barely catching up.”

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Later, the opportunity to get tested will move beyond just motorists and be offered to both pedestrians and people on bicycles, officials said.

The city also plans to open a satellite testing location in East Somerville, a neighborhood “at the heart of our highest concentration of lower-income residents . . . bringing testing to where the people with the greatest need live,” Curtatone said. A date for that portion of the initiative has not yet been set.

Doug Kress, director of the city’s Department of Health and Human Services, said getting tested is just the first step to fighting the virus.

“What happens next," he said in a statement, “is critical to ensure that we can identify and prevent further spread.”

As part of the citywide approach for achieving that goal, officials will give people who get tested a set of guidelines about how to protect themselves and their families while they await their results.

In the event a person tests positive for the coronavirus, public health nurses from the city will reach out to them to conduct contact tracing. Information about people identified during that process will be shared with Partners in Health, a nonprofit conducting an ambitious statewide effort to track down anyone who comes in close contact with an infected person and then help isolate them.

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If a person can’t physically separate from their families or the people they live with while recovering from the illness, they will be given the option to stay at a Revere hotel being used for other COVID-19 patients who can’t otherwise self-isolate. Transportation to and from the hotel and medical intervention while there will be provided.

State data released last week show the number of confirmed cases in Somerville jumped from 280 to more than 400 between April 14 and 21. Nearby are some of the hardest-hit cities in the state, including Chelsea and Everett.

The city also announced the launch of a pilot program to be tested at the Massachusetts Bay Veterans Center. While there are no known or suspected COVID-19 cases at the residential complex, residents will begin using special biosensor patches to proactively track their vital signs. The project is being conducted in partnership with Cambridge-based technology company Cherish Health and Health eVillages, a nonprofit.

“We have all heard the chilling stories and reports about mass deaths at veterans facilities in other parts of our state,” Curtatone said, “and we are all committed to make sure that is not repeated here.”

Additionally, Curtatone and the Board of Health announced on the city’s website Monday that residents must wear face masks in public, whether they’re inside or outside. The city previously had an advisory about face coverings in place, but it will now become mandatory for anyone over the age of 2.

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"I know this feels strange for many of us, but it is the best way you can prevent yourself from inadvertently spreading coronavirus to others when you’re out in public,” Curtatone said in a separate statement. “Not everyone who has COVID-19 shows symptoms. You can be carrying the virus and infecting others without knowing.”

The order, which goes into effect Wednesday, will have a one-week grace period before it’s enforced by police. After that, people will be subject to anything from a written warning to a $300 fine, officials said. It applies to joggers, cyclists, and pedestrians. Businesses that are still open will need to post notices reminding people about the new rules before they enter.

Somerville and Cambridge aren’t the first communities to threaten to fine people who don’t cover their faces in public. In Brookline, people who leave their homes without a mask could face a $50 fine, a rule that’s enforced by the town’s health department. Malden also approved an order requiring people to wear facial coverings in certain public places. Not doing so can lead to a warning for a first offense, and varying citations for subsequent offenses.

Officials in both Somerville and Cambridge said Monday that they considered fines to be a last resort and that police would be focused on educating people who are not wearing masks. Cambridge authorities said fines would be reserved for “those who willingly refuse to comply.”

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“We must all do our part in flattening the curve and make sure we are preventing the further spread of COVID-19,” Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui and city manager Louis A. DePasquale said in a joint statement. "This mandate emphasizes the importance of wearing a face covering, not as an option, but as a requirement in our effort to combat this pandemic together.”

Andy Rosen of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.