In a decision met with both praise and pushback, Acting Mayor Kim Janey announced a mask mandate for indoor public places in Boston, a move that takes effect next Friday as the city continues to battle the worrisome Delta variant of COVID-19.
The mandate applies to everyone over the age of 2 when inside a business, club, place of assembly, or other location open to the public. That includes retail outlets, restaurants, bars, performance venues, social clubs, event spaces, and municipal buildings.
People will be permitted to remove face coverings when actively eating or drinking. But masks must be worn for all other indoor activities, including ordering at a bar or dancing. Janey’s office said the order does not apply to gatherings in private residences where no one is being paid, private buildings inaccessible to the public, places of worship, or performers who maintain 6 feet of distance from spectators.
Janey cited both public health data and the imminent return of the city’s sea of college students as factors in her decision. Bostonians who haven’t been vaccinated should get the shots, she said.
“We have seen an increase of positivity in terms of the rate” of positive COVID tests, the acting mayor said Friday. “The good news is that for COVID-related hospitalizations, they are still well below threshold, well below what they were even when we reopened the city last May.”
The city of Boston was averaging more than 111 new COVID-19 cases per day as of Aug. 14, with a positive test rate of 3.4 percent, which is down slightly from earlier this month, officials said Thursday. As of Aug. 10, 61.4 percent of residents, or 417,064 Bostonians, were fully vaccinated against the potentially deadly virus, according to the city.
In a statement, Kate Walsh, chief executive of Boston Medical Center, commended Janey, saying the mask mandate would help “protect the safety of our families and neighbors”
The acting mayor’s announcement came as the state’s education commissioner released a proposal that would require Massachusetts K-12 students and staff members to wear masks indoors through at least Oct. 1; the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education would have to grant permission for the mandate. Masks are already required for schools in Boston.
Janey, in the midst of a competitive and crowded mayoral race, has faced pressure to act more swiftly to combat the virus in recent weeks. Much of the criticism has come from her political rivals in the mayoral race, who have critiqued her handling of the pandemic in an effort to portray her as an ineffective executive.
Matt O’Malley, who became the City Council’s president pro tempore after Janey assumed the mantle of acting mayor in March, has also been a thorn in Janey’s side regarding the pandemic, calling for swifter action and bolder regulations in recent weeks.
This week, on the council floor, O’Malley, a 10-year veteran of the council who is not running for reelection, called for an indoor mask mandate and a vaccine requirement for health clubs, indoor dining, and large-ticket events, saying that there is “a lot more that we have to do that we’re not doing.”
In the wake of Friday’s announcement, he struck a more conciliatory tone, saying he supported and appreciated the mayor’s plan she detailed at her news conference and looked forward “to additional strategies and action to keep our families, friends, and neighbors safe.”
Not everyone was supportive of Janey’s plan. Jon B. Hurst, president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, said his group was disappointed with Friday’s indoor mask announcement, adding that members wondered “whether this is more about election politics than science and economics.”
“Positivity numbers are not the same as hospitalizations and deaths,” he said. “And the public schools are not the same as small businesses, including stores, restaurants, gyms, and offices.”
Hurst said unnecessary restrictions “will mean even fewer small businesses will have sales growth and positive margins in the fourth quarter, meaning more failures will occur come early 2022.”
Frank Nash, president of Massachusetts Independent Fitness Operators, called the new regulations unfortunate, saying that a mask mandate for gyms could curb membership and deter people from working out at fitness clubs. Gyms, he said, are already struggling.
“It’s hard enough to get people to join gyms as it is,” he said.
Bob Luz, CEO of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, said he was unsure how a mask mandate would change the mind of someone who does not want to get vaccinated or don a face covering.
”Intended or not, this action unfairly puts enforcement back on restaurant employees,” he said.
Before Friday’s announcement, Janey had already made some significant moves regarding the pandemic. She had required some 50,000 public school students to wear masks when they return to classrooms next month. On Friday, she said she was committing $30 million to improve heating, ventilation, and air conditioning in Boston Public Schools buildings as part of the city’s COVID-19 response.
And, earlier this month, she announced that the city’s 18,000-strong workforce would have to show proof they had been fully vaccinated or submit to weekly testing.
Janey has so far declined to issue blanket vaccine mandates for indoor spaces such as restaurants, bars, and gyms. But this week, she left open the door to proof-of-vaccine requirements, telling GBH she will use “every tool in our toolbox.”
Some private establishments are already undertaking such measures on their own. On Thursday, more than a dozen Boston-area theaters announced they will require patrons to present proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test to attend indoor performances.
Boston’s newest pandemic measure comes as cities across the US continue to wrestle with how best to combat and mitigate the highly contagious Delta variant.
San Francisco has among the most stringent new COVID-19 rules in the country. There, patrons of bars, clubs, theaters, and other entertainment venues, as well as gyms, health clubs, and yoga studios, must show proof of vaccination if they are over 12 years old, with limited exceptions, according to the city. Those requirements went into effect on Friday.
Similarly, in New York City earlier this month, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city would require proof of vaccination to enter restaurants, gyms, and indoor entertainment venues. Not everyone is in favor of that new mandate. CNN reported Wednesday that a group of restaurateurs and small business owners is suing over the new rules.
Additionally, The Mercury News reported this week that San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo unveiled new requirements that mandate people attending and working events of 50 or more at city-owned facilities show proof of full vaccination. There was no testing option in that new plan, the paper reported.
Closer to home, Arlington and Somerville have adopted indoor mask mandates, and Brookline will follow Boston’s lead in requiring masks in indoor public spaces as of Friday, Aug. 27. Officials from 17 Greater Boston communities released a statement Friday encouraging people to mask up in indoor spaces, among other steps.