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Citing Delta variant of COVID-19, more Mass. communities consider indoor mask orders

Pedestrians wore masks out of concern for the coronavirus in Harvard Square.
Pedestrians wore masks out of concern for the coronavirus in Harvard Square.Steven Senne/Associated Press

A growing number of Massachusetts communities are set to impose local mask mandates as the Delta variant continues to drive up COVID-19 cases and new concerns about protecting public health.

Somerville joined the list Wednesday as officials announced they will consider a new mandate requiring people to wear face coverings in indoor public spaces, which could take effect as early as Aug. 20. Other communities that have reintroduced an indoor mask mandate include Belmont, Nantucket, Northampton, Provincetown, and Salem.

Doug Kress, Somerville’s health and human services director, in a statement urged residents to get vaccinated if they haven’t done so, which he said will “vastly reduce” their risk of severe or fatal illness if they become infected.

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“But the next thing we all need to do is mask up inside in public spaces again because anyone can still get the virus and spread it, and it spreads most easily indoors,” Kress said. “By masking up indoors in public, you can do your part not just to protect yourself and your loved ones. We also need to remember that children under the age of 12 and persons who are medically vulnerable have less protection against the virus right now. If we all take steps to slow the spread of the virus, we can help protect them.”

Children younger than 2 years old would be exempt from the Somerville mandate. The city’s Board of Health will take up the issue at its Aug. 19 meeting.

The University of Massachusetts Medical School on Wednesday said it will require all faculty and staff to be vaccinated, including those who work on a hybrid basis or remotely. Students are also required to get the vaccine, and the school is mandating face coverings when indoors.

In Lowell, city officials announced Wednesday that face coverings will be required in municipal buildings beginning Aug. 16. And in Brookline, health officials said masks are required in town buildings and urged residents to wear masks while visiting any indoor public spaces.

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As more communities moved toward reinstating mask requirements at the local level Wednesday, the state’s Public Health Council delayed a vote to permanently repeal a statewide order requiring people to mask up in public when they can’t socially distance. The order has been repealed on a provisional basis since June.

“I feel that, based on the CDC tracking systems and data, that we’re [at] substantial and high risk of the new variant,” said Dr. Edward Bernstein, a council member and a professor at Boston University School of Medicine, before the panel opted to delay a vote on taking final administrative steps to complete the repeal.

On Wednesday, the state reported 1,368 new confirmed cases as of Tuesday with eight new deaths, bringing the total to 17,751 confirmed COVID deaths since the beginning of the pandemic.

“We are on the verge of a resurgence of unnecessary hospitalizations and deaths that’s going on throughout the country,” Bernstein said.

The council is scheduled to take up the vote at its next meeting on Sept. 8.

The mandate, implemented last year when the pandemic was surging in Massachusetts, had required residents, with some exceptions, to wear masks when they couldn’t maintain adequate distance in public.

A number of out-of-state visitors to Provincetown were among the people infected during an outbreak of COVID-19 in July that affected hundreds of fully vaccinated people, though there were few reported hospitalizations. To date, no deaths linked to the outbreak, spurred largely by Delta, have been reported.

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State Epidemiologist Dr. Catherine Brown told the panel prior to the vote that DPH is closely monitoring the data related to Delta and said the Provincetown situation appears to be an outlier.

“I think Provincetown was a really important lesson, but it was also a very specific set of circumstances that are not necessarily replicated every day across the Commonwealth,” Brown said.

Health officials in Salem cited the outbreak in Provincetown — where a new indoor mask mandate was implemented July 25 — as a reason for adopting mask requirements in businesses and indoor public spaces, as the city prepares for thousands of visitors in the weeks leading up to Halloween. Those requirements will take effect Aug. 23 and will expire Nov. 13 unless the board takes further action.

Belmont reinstated its indoor mask policy during an emergency meeting between the Select Board and the Board of Health last Friday, following Provincetown and Nantucket, which imposed its mandate Aug. 5. The requirements in Belmont, Provincetown, Nantucket, and Salem extend to private businesses such as restaurants and bars, where patrons are required to wear masks except for when they are seated and eating or drinking.

The indoor mask mandate in Provincetown will continue at least through Aug. 21, Town Manager Alex Morse said in a Facebook post Wednesday. He said there were 12 active cases among residents as of Wednesday, and “the number of people recovering each day exceeds the number of new cases being added.”

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A new indoor mask mandate in Northampton took effect Wednesday following a unanimous vote by the community’s Board of Health on Monday.

In Waltham, the Board of Health was set to consider a new mask mandate during its Wednesday evening meeting but did not settle on a decision. The board could return to the issue at its next meeting Sept. 8 or if another meeting is scheduled sooner, said Michelle Feeney, Waltham’s public health director.

Meanwhile, Worcester said Tuesday that it will require all people to wear masks inside municipal buildings and at indoor events organized by the city beginning Thursday.

Steve Annear of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.