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Massachusetts needs another mask mandate

At best, a statewide mask mandate could make a meaningful difference — life or death for some — to stymie the current COVID surge. At worst, it may present a minor inconvenience. The choice for Gov. Baker should be clear.

A person wearing a mask emerges from a shop in Provincetown on July 30.Christiana Botic for The Boston Globe

There may be a lot of uncertainty about Omicron, but what we know about the new COVID-19 variant so far isn’t very promising. It appears to be more transmissible than Delta, it’s causing more breakthrough infections in vaccinated people, and it’s quickly spreading across the globe. Some data also suggest that this variant may cause less severe disease — but that, too, is a preliminary finding.

Here’s where the pandemic now stands in Massachusetts: New cases are on the rise, hospitals are filling up, and COVID deaths are also trending in the wrong direction. While the state’s vaccination rate is high, millions of eligible residents have yet to receive a booster shot — despite data suggesting that boosters are a critical defense against Omicron. Add to that the creeping winter temperatures, which will drive people to more indoor activities, and the pandemic forecast looks pretty grim — at least without intervention.


Put two and two together and what comes next should be pretty straightforward: more precautionary measures imposed by the state government. That doesn’t mean a massive economic disruption like business closures and lockdowns, but it means reinstating a policy like a statewide mask mandate. At best, such a step could make a meaningful difference — life or death for some — to stymie the current COVID surge, and at worst, it presents a minor inconvenience.

Except it’s not so simple. In an ideal world, the state’s elected lawmakers on Beacon Hill would pass legislation authorizing a mask mandate. But the Legislature is out of session for the rest of the year, which means that any real hope of bringing back a statewide mask mandate in a timely way is in the governor’s hands. And Charlie Baker has so far said that he has no plans to do so.


That’s most unfortunate, because while it’s certainly true that masks won’t bring an end to the public health crisis on their own, requiring people to wear masks in indoor spaces is a sure way to reduce coronavirus transmission and, consequently, death. And that’s ultimately one of government’s principal duties: to prevent as many of its people as possible from getting sick or dying. That’s why more and more experts are calling on the state to reinstate an indoor mask mandate, as a growing number of states are doing, and it’s why Baker should move quickly to do just that.

This is not a recommendation made lightly because, in order to impose a statewide mandate like the one he issued last year, Baker would have to invoke the governor’s rarely used emergency powers, as he did earlier in the pandemic. Any power has the potential to be abused, especially if it’s unilateral, and so emergency powers should be used as rarely as possible and be strictly reserved for real, life-threatening emergencies. But they exist for exactly this reason.

When the Supreme Judicial Court upheld Baker’s decision to use his emergency powers around this time last year, Justice Elspeth B. Cypher cited the significant human toll of the pandemic, and added that state-level intervention was necessary to save lives. “The distinguishing characteristic of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it has created a situation that cannot be addressed solely at the local level,” she wrote. “Only those public health crises that exceed the resources and capacities of local governments and boards of health, and therefore require the coordination and resources available under the [Civil Defense Act], are contemplated for coverage under the CDA.”


That’s precisely the situation that Massachusetts finds itself in now. Though Baker told reporters Monday that “we’re in a very different place than we were in before” because so many people are vaccinated, the reality is that the number of new cases is comparable to what it was this time last year. And what is known of the new variant is that it so far seems to be less inhibited by people’s first two doses of the vaccine than other variants, including Delta, have been.

A mask mandate can be temporary — California, for example, has instituted theirs only until Jan. 15 — until there is more clarity on how out of control this surge might get. And Massachusetts doesn’t have to follow the exact guidelines issued by other states. But requiring people to wear masks in indoor spaces that are open to the public and have the potential for crowding is the least the state can do.

Some reservations about mask mandates include the fact that they’re difficult to actually enforce, and it’s no secret that they are. But setting a standard from the top — one that doesn’t leave room for confusion given the varying mask requirements from city to city or county to county — makes it easier for businesses to ask patrons to mask up, and for residents to raise their expectations of one another. Will some people violate the mandate? Of course. But imposing it statewide would help establish a norm, and more people would be adding that extra layer of protection in their daily lives. In some cases, that will be life-changing.


Though Baker has taken some helpful steps to manage the current surge in recent weeks — he announced the distribution of more at-home COVID tests, for example — he’s been slow to use more tools at his disposal like mask mandates or vaccine passports. But with only a year remaining in office, no reelection campaign to worry about, and COVID on the rise yet again, the governor should be more nimble than ever. A statewide mask mandate is a good place to start.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.