The City enters into a new phase of the pandemic
On Feb. 18, the day that Boston Mayor Michelle Wu decided to lift the B Together Initiative that required visitors to show their vaccine cards at certain indoor, public spaces, Irene* went to Aeronaut Brewing Company, a place that she frequented. When she was turned away for not confirming vaccination status or wearing a mark, she took matters into her own hands and organized a sit in at the beer hall on Feb. 20. A group of about 12 protesters arrived at Aeronaut, refusing to follow procedures. According to a police report from SPD Officer Randy Isaacs, the group said that providing a vaccination card violated their HIPPA privacy rights and that they were medically and religiously exempt from wearing masks. Irene argued that, in addition, Somerville had never enforced a vaccination card policy, as Boston had.
“If the infection rate was low enough to cancel the mandate in Boston, it’s certainly not any higher in the city of Somerville. It made no logical sense,” said Irene, in a conversation with the Wire. Aeronaut could not be reached for comment.
The protesters told the police that they were being discriminated against. When an SPD street supervisor, the supervising superior officer on duty, spoke to the group, the individuals would not identify themselves. Eventually, the supervisor was able to convince the group to leave without any incidents. Although the melee at Aeronaut took place not very long ago, Somerville is now in quite a different place. The local Board of Health made the decision to lift the mask mandate, a change that came into effect on March 5. Indoor locations such as restaurants, stores, theaters, and gyms will now no longer require that visitors wear face coverings. Masks are still required on mass transit, rideshares, at medical settings, and adult daycares. But now that Somerville is undergoing this moment of change, how should we reflect on the protesters’ actions? Or do still others feel the decision to unmask was premature?
Dr. Daniele Lantagne, a community health professor from Tufts University, said that this is a complicated time of policy changes. During the omicron spike, which lasted from the end of December into February, there was a lot of circulating virus, and indoor, unmasked activities were “quite risky.” She added, “Now that the omicron spike has descended to below where we were before there was omicron, is there a day that it was safe? You can debate the exact day that it’s safe, but I think that’s not the concern right now. The concern is when do we change the social norms we’ve been living under, and how do people accept that? Some people think we should have changed those social norms a month ago, and some people think it’s not time yet. There needs to be a balance.” While protesting can be a valid form of dissent, said Lantagne, disruption of local businesses, many of which have been struggling throughout the pandemic, should be “very considered.”
Lantagne said that she believes this was the right time for Somerville to lift its mask mandate and that it should not have been sooner, because many individuals were traveling over spring break, and the City’s timeline gave time for things to settle down after that period. In addition, the School Committee determined on March 7 that masks will be optional for students and staff, beginning on March 14. Now, we are entering into a moment that she called an easing of the regulations and requirements that we had previously lived under.
“There’s very, very low viral transmission in the community right now. The amount of virus in the community is lower than we’ve seen in a long time, in this pandemic,” said Lantagne. “The combination of low viral load plus vaccination that we have in our community means that it is unlikely to see transmission. It is safer now to go to a restaurant, to travel. I also talk about pandemic windows. Because of the natural immunity that we have from omicron, because of the high vaccination rate, we’re going to see in these next months, unless there’s a new variant, a little bit of a pandemic pause, a window where we can do things more safely. There’s no zero risk. But it’s a time when we can consider doing things we haven’t done, because there is lower viral load, higher vaccination, and higher natural immunity.”
Councilor Judy Pineda Neufeld said that while she does not feel concerned by the City’s timeline in lowering the mask mandate, she does not think it is wrong for people to exercise caution. In particular, she said that she felt there could have been more conversation about the safety of immune compromised individuals.
“I don’t think there was a robust discussion about our immune-compromised neighbors and residents. In particular, I’m thinking about some of the indoor buildings that [they] might have to enter and feel at higher risk if they are surrounded by people who are unmasked, places like grocery stores and pharmacies,” said Pineda Neufeld. She added, “My second concern was, the [Board of Health] meeting lasted 27 minutes. Given that this remains the biggest public health crisis of a lifetime, and while so many are experiencing COVID fatigue … Our elected officials are role models and are supposed to be ensuring that we’re doing everything we can to protect our most vulnerable. … I understand and have looked at the data as well, where our case numbers are falling, and hospitalizations are falling. But I think there was a piece of this puzzle that wasn’t discussed. … The other piece that’s missing is, what are those benchmarks that would require us to have to reinstate a mask mandate? … Having that level of transparency about how our local government decides when to reinstate it [would be beneficial]. What numbers are we looking at, case numbers, hospitalizations, ICU capacities? There’s so many data points that we’ve been collecting, but what’s the threshold to really think about, because there’s a lot of fear.”
Mayor Katjana Ballantyne released a statement, urging community members to be mindful of people who may not feel comfortable lowering their masks.
“As we shift into this new phase of the pandemic, let’s respect and have compassion for the fact that each of us will make choices according to our own comfort level and health status,” wrote Ballantyne. “So while the City is no longer requiring masks, some may still wish to mask for their own protection or for others who remain at higher risk. And some may just need more time to make this transition. Together, we will find our way forward, and we will continue to monitor the situation.”
*This person’s name was changed by the Somerville Wire because they requested anonymity
Shira Laucharoen is a reporter based in Boston. She currently serves as the assistant director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. In the past she has written for Sampan newspaper, The Somerville Times, Scout Magazine, Boston Magazine, and WBUR.