For more than a year, Governor Charlie Baker has required that masks be worn indoors and in crowds, making it one of Massachusetts’ most enduring mandates as he’s rejiggered rules on businesses, gatherings, and travel.
Then came the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s new guidance Thursday, which said fully vaccinated Americans may forgo masks in most settings.
The surprise pronouncement immediately prompted questions about whether Baker should ease Massachusetts’ rules but also how he should do it, layering in potential new complications to what’s largely been a straightforward order.
To date, Baker has resisted creating separate rules for vaccinated and unvaccinated residents, at one point calling it “almost impossible” to impose different standards without more finite federal guidelines. Boston’s acting mayor, Kim Janey, has stuck to a slower timeline than Baker to reopening businesses but has kept New England’s largest city in line with Baker’s rules on mask-wearing.
Baker had eased the state’s mandate at the end of April, saying masks would no longer be required in many public outdoor settings but that people still have to wear them in indoor public settings and in crowds where people can’t socially distance. He also set a separate timeline for lifting limits on gatherings and businesses by Aug. 1, with the potential of shifting the date depending on public health data.
While Baker has maintained the status quo on masks for now, other states, including Connecticut and Pennsylvania, embraced the CDC’s new stance on mask-wearing. Officials in Maine, Rhode Island and Vermont both said Friday that they, too, would follow suit. New Hampshire lifted its mask mandate last month.
Massachusetts policy makers and advocates urged caution Friday about entirely lifting Massachusetts’ rules. But some infectious disease specialists said Baker should adopt the CDC’s guidance.
”The state and country would benefit from a sense that there’s uniform guidance,” said Dr. Howard Koh, a former federal health official and former Massachusetts health commissioner who is now a Harvard professor.
The CDC’s decision was informed by science, Koh said, including recent studies showing the vaccines’ effectiveness, even against the new variants, as well as rapidly declining COVID-19 case numbers.
Dr. Sarah Fortune, chair of the Department of Immunology and Infectious Diseases at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, called the guidelines “reasonable” and “appropriate” and urged the state to go along with them.
“It’s really useful if the public health machine can march in lockstep,” she said, emphasizing that the public needs clarity on how to behave.
Fortune noted that mask-wearing has become socially acceptable in Massachusetts and regardless of whether they’re required, “there are going to be lots of people wearing masks.”
But, she said, “it’s different to say, ‘This is for my personal comfort,’ versus, ‘This is a mandate.’ ”
Baker, who was in Washington, D.C., on Friday, touted on Twitter that the state is on track to vaccinate 4 million and called the CDC’s new guidance “great news.” The Republican governor indicated no changes to the state rules would come before Monday at the earliest, saying he’ll update “reopening plans early next week.”
Aides said Friday that Marylou Sudders, the governor’s top health official and the head of the state’s COVID-19 Command Center, was not available to answer questions about the state’s plans.
State Senator Jo Comerford, the Senate chairwoman for the Legislature’s Committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness and Management, said she trusts that Baker and Sudders will consider the state’s own public health data before reshaping the rules, even if federal officials are offering their own clear direction.
“This is definitely the CDC [saying] we should take a position here on noting who’s vaccinated and not vaccinated, and make separate policies for those cohorts,” the Northampton Democrat said. “If we do, our first step is to ensure we’re fulfilling an equity mandate in the Commonwealth. We have to make sure that every single person who wants the vaccine gets the vaccine.”
Massachusetts has emerged as a national leader in vaccination rates. More than 3 million people are now fully vaccinated in the state, and only in Vermont has a greater share of the population received at least one dose, according to some metrics.
Still, at the local level, where public health directors and boards often enforce the state’s pandemic-era rules, there may not be an easy answer.
If the state deviates from the CDC guidance, it runs the risk of sowing confusion among people taking their cues from President Biden’s pronouncements, instead of the state’s own rules. But to embrace parallel guidelines for those with and without shots also creates an almost impossible task of enforcing what would be a mandate for some but not all.
There’s also the question of whether all Massachusetts communities will embrace whatever new rules Baker sets. He’s long allowed cities and towns to keep more stringent restrictions in place should they choose, and some were slow to follow his lead in lifting the mask requirement in most outdoor settings earlier this month.
“When we’re talking about the general population at our Fourth of July parade, I don’t know who’s vaccinated or not. It is easier to say, ‘Hey everybody: Still wear a mask,’” said Sigalle Reiss, president of the Massachusetts Health Officers Association and Norwood’s health director.
“I don’t think anything is easy,” she said of rule-making.
Despite the statewide decline in COVID-19 cases, certain communities may still be at high risk and need to continue requiring masks, said Dr. Carole Allen, the newly elected president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, but the governor may be reluctant to single out those communities for a mask requirement.
Allen declined to offer advice for Baker, but said he “is erring on the side of caution. It’s hard to argue with that.”
Baker has throughout the pandemic been buffeted by sometimes contradictory criticisms of his decision-making, with some saying he’s moved too slowly to ease restrictions on hard-hit businesses while others needle him for moving too fast in reopening parts of the economy.
It’s a dichotomy that is playing out again, if not being accelerated by the CDC guidance and the optimism it imbues, as businesses hope Baker loosens various restrictions more quickly, namely on when many can open.
“I think next week’s announcement is one of the most anticipated” so far, said James Rooney, chief executive of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.
But some officials are also urging Baker to not move too quickly, including on easing the rules on masks.
State Representative Tami L. Gouveia, an Acton Democrat who holds doctorate in public health, said lifting the mask mandate would almost certainly lead to unvaccinated people ditching their masks, even in a state where the practice has been largely embraced.
“So many people in our state do see the value,” Gouveia said. “It’s important at the government level to encourage that moving forward.”