BELMONT — Massachusetts cities and towns are taking divergent paths as they try to stem the spread of the highly transmissible Delta variant, potentially leaving state residents to sort through piecemeal rules from one place to another.
The town of Belmont on Monday became the third municipality in the state — after Provincetown and Nantucket — to mandate masks in all indoor public places, clarifying choices for people who live or do business in that wealthy suburb west of Cambridge. But elsewhere, the situation remains murky.
On the heels of Belmont’s announcement, the mayor of Salem, Kimberley Driscoll, said she would ask her city’s Board of Health to impose a similar mandate.
But in Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, and elsewhere, municipal officials so far are encouraging indoor masking but not requiring it.
The Belmont mandate came amid rising worries about COVID-19 and the news that even vaccinated people may spread the virus.
“It seems like the Delta variant is a game changer. We’re again at the mercy of the virus,” Wesley Chin, director of Belmont’s Health Department, said Monday.
The state Department of Public Health has reported a statewide rise in COVID-19 cases. On June 27, the seven-day average of confirmed cases was 70 a day; by Sunday, that number had risen to 780. (That’s still far below the peak times of early January, when the seven-day average exceeded 6,000.)
Some places, such as Arlington, are taking a middle path — requiring that people entering municipal buildings wear masks. Salem will also require masks in municipal buildings starting Aug. 23. Worcester is considering doing the same, according to Dr. Matilde “Mattie” Castiel, the city’s commissioner of health and human services.
Acting Mayor Kim Janey of Boston has ordered masks to be worn in Boston Public Schools once they reopen in the fall, but she is not ready to follow the policy decisions made in Belmont and Salem because the health data is not the same, according to Caitlin McLaughlin, spokeswoman for the Boston Public Health Commission.
“All of our tracking metrics remain below threshold levels which would lead to mandates and restrictions at this time,” McLaughlin wrote in an e-mail Monday. “As we have done throughout this pandemic, we will continue to follow the public health data and use it to drive our decision making. …While the COVID-19 vaccine is the best protection we have, Mayor Janey has also strongly encouraged Boston residents to wear masks.”
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that both vaccinated and unvaccinated people wear masks in indoor public places in counties with “substantial” or “high” transmission rates of the coronavirus. In Massachusetts, that includes all but Hampshire County.
Massachusetts has its own guidance, recommending masks in indoor public places for people who have weakened immune systems or heightened risk of severe illness, or live with someone who does.
The federal and state recommendations are nowhere near as stringent as the rules in Belmont and Provincetown, which emerged for different reasons. Provincetown imposed its mask mandate on July 26 in reaction to an outbreak and plans to end it on Aug. 27. Town Manager Alex Morse told Select Board members in an e-mail Monday that active COVID-19 cases in Provincetown are declining “and the positivity rate has hit a new low” — 1.4 percent on Sunday, down from 15.1 percent on July 15.
Nantucket imposed its mandate on Thursday.
Belmont is looking to the future, hoping to avoid a deadly autumn by putting a lid on a recent rise in cases, according to Chin, the town’s health director.
“It made sense to try to get ahead of this,” Chin said. “We know where this is headed, unfortunately. COVID’s in charge. We’re doing our best to keep our residents safe and healthy.”
State data show that Belmont logged eight COVID-19 cases between July 4 and July 17. In the two weeks after that, the number jumped to 19. This happened even though 70 percent of the town’s population is fully vaccinated, according to Chin.
Those trends, combined with the CDC guidance and the finding that Middlesex County is experiencing “substantial” spread, prompted the town’s Select Board and Board of Health to reinstate the mandate. While the vaccine is effective, the town wants to protect children under 12, who aren’t eligible for vaccination, and people with compromised immune systems, in whom the vaccine is often less protective, Chin said.
Belmont’s mandate is comprehensive, applying to bars, restaurants, barber shops, fitness centers, and health care facilities — essentially all indoor activity in public spaces. It covers everyone ages 2 and older. It requires businesses to post the mask mandate, and to enforce it. The rule will be in effect whenever the CDC finds transmission to be “high” or “substantial” in Middlesex County and will be lifted whenever transmission falls to “low” or “moderate” for two consecutive weeks.
The mandate empowers businesses and their employees to tell customers or visitors to put on a mask when entering. If people refuse, businesses “are welcome to call the police department or the health department,” Chin said.
The response of the community has been mixed, Chin said.
“We’ve received some pushback from members of the community who likely feel upset and disappointed, after going through the effort of receiving vaccines, that we have to mask up again,” he said.
But conversations with people in the town’s business district Monday found plenty of support.
Kathy Crowley, 60, co-owner of Belmont Books and the Black Bear Cafe on Leonard Street, said the store has been keeping a mask mandate in place all along, and the town’s order will make it easier to enforce.
Two customers — Jean Martin, 72, of Cambridge, and Kathy Koop, 73, of Watertown — said they wear masks inside anyway, whether or not they’re required. “It’s a courtesy to everyone,” said Martin.
“The mandate makes it clear for people who can’t make up their minds. It’s simple,” said Koop.
Emilie Arkinstall, owner of Stone Hearth Pizza, said she was “happy” and “relieved” that the mandate is back, but also fears confrontations with customers who oppose them.
“It’s going to be hard because people take it very personally when you ask them to mask,” Arkinstall said. Some customers will just walk out if asked to put a face covering on, she said, adding that the majority of people are respectful.
Sam Bastille, 21, manager of Didriks, a home furniture store in the town center, also said he expects “to be put in an uncomfortable position” by a few mask opponents. But considering that his mother has asthma and his grandmother has been ill, Bastille said he feels safer coming to work with a clear rule in place.
Corrrection: An earlier version of this story omitted Nantucket as one of the municipalities with an indoor mask mandate.
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