In yet another sign of the city’s return to pre-pandemic life, the Boston Public Health Commission voted Tuesday to end the indoor mask mandate for businesses and other venues starting this weekend.
The seven-member board cited a dramatic decline in rates of coronavirus infection and hospitalizations and increasing numbers of residents who are vaccinated and boosted.
The unanimous vote came less than two weeks after Mayor Michelle Wu ended Boston’s proof-of-vaccination requirement for indoor dining, gyms, and entertainment venues. The face mask mandate ends on Saturday.
The commission ended the requirement inside stores, restaurants, gyms, event spaces, and municipal buildings after a brief discussion, based on the advice of the city’s commissioner of public health, Dr. Bisola Ojikutu.
“Our key city metrics are all trending downward,” Ojikutu told the board during the half-hour virtual meeting.
The community positivity rate of 2.5 percent is down from 32 percent in January. Levels of emergency room visits, hospitalizations, and ICU bed use are “well below our levels of concern,” she added, saying she is “really optimistic” about the direction the numbers are heading.
“At this point in time, based on the data that I’ve presented and the several factors that I’ve discussed,” Ojikutu said, “we [should] rescind the current order requiring face coverings in indoor public settings.”
As we monitor COVID-19 metrics in our @BostonSchools & across the city following last week’s school break, we’ll continue to require masking in BPS schools to keep students, teachers & staff safe.— Mayor Michelle Wu 吳弭 (@MayorWu) March 1, 2022
The Board of Health meets on March 9 to discuss school masks & more.
Wu said in a statement after the vote that she is “grateful that our city is ready to take this step in our recovery.”
“As we continue to make progress even while living with COVID, Boston will continue leading on public health to keep our communities safe, healthy, and prepared,” Wu said.
While the repeal was good news for businesses, the leader of the state’s largest restaurant industry trade group suggested it will have more symbolic value than financial impact. Bob Luz, president of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, said the lifting of the mandate signals more of a “mental change” than a logistical one for those dining at restaurants.
“They just wore it on the way in and way out,” he said. “This removes what has been the final dark cloud hanging over the city of Boston.”
The proof-of-vaccination requirement for patrons and staff at restaurants, gyms, and entertainment venues ended Feb. 18, after three COVID-19 metrics met previously established thresholds: a seven-day community positivity rate below 5 percent, fewer than 200 COVID-19 hospitalizations a day, and an intensive care bed occupancy rate of less than 95 percent.
Ojikutu said public health officials continue to recommend that those at elevated risk of major illness — or who regularly interact with someone at high risk — wear masks in public places. She said the proprietors of businesses also can still choose to require their patrons to mask.
Masks are still required on public transportation and in health care facilities and congregate living situations, she said. City officials are also developing a plan for reinstituting a mask mandate if infections and hospitalizations again begin to rise and it becomes necessary to take greater precautions.
The city will continue to require masks in Boston Public Schools. The Board of Health will meet next week to discuss masking in schools and other issues, officials said.
For local businesses, the end of the mandate still raises the difficult question of whether to keep some restrictions in place for employees, and indeed, even for patrons.
Bessie King, general manager of Villa Mexico restaurant in the Financial District, said she would prefer the mask mandate remain in place. Though she can tell many customers are growing fatigued with pandemic restrictions, she said, she is hesitant to favor “selfishness and personal comfort over community comfort.”
King will continue to require employees at Villa Mexico to be vaccinated and wear masks, and she has no plans to remove a plastic curtain that separates employees from customers, she said. But she will follow the city’s lead and no longer enforce a mask mandate for customers because “we can’t demand it if we don’t have support from the government,” she said.
King said she expects other restaurants will keep their mask mandates in place for staff, largely because of the labor shortages still plaguing the industry.
“We know how risky it is working together in close quarters,” she said. “We don’t have a huge staff, so you have to protect whoever is there.”
Villa Mexico only offers takeout, delivery, and catering services, but as pandemic restrictions ease in Boston, King said, she might have to consider eating inside again.
“Now that masks are going to be gone, are people going to be upset if we say they can’t sit inside?” she said. “How people are going to react is the concern.”
For sure, some businesses were quick to embrace the end of the mandate.
MYSTRYDE, a running studio with locations in the North End and South End, sent an e-mail to members Tuesday evening indicating it would quickly lift its COVID-19 vaccine and mask requirements.
“If you are more comfortable wearing a mask, we encourage you to do so,” the company wrote. “If at any time we feel we need to bring these mandates back in place to keep our community safe, we will do so.”
Though Boston will lift its mask mandate on Saturday, the mask mandate in Cambridge will still be in effect until March 13. That means a couple of tricky days for the Museum of Science, which straddles both cities. The museum will wait until the Cambridge mandate expires, though president Tim Ritchie said the institution will continue to “recommend masks” for patrons until COVID levels in the community drop to a low-risk category, based on CDC guidance.
”Require when things are bad, recommend when things are medium, and don’t recommend when things are low,” he said. “I think that kind of evidence-based approach is what you have to do in an endemic situation.”
In terms of the broad impact lifting mask mandates might have on the Boston area, Ritchie predicted “it will encourage some people and discourage others” from going out to museums, restaurants, gyms, and other indoor spaces.
Amanda Kaufman of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox. Anissa Gardizy can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @anissagardizy8 and on Instagram @anissagardizy.journalism.