A sign stating the requirement to wear a mask hangs on the door of a nail salon on the main street in Peabody. (Jacob Menendez)
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The towns of Lynnfield, Marblehead, Nahant and the town of Peabody became the latest local communities to rescind their mask mandates.
This follows decisions by officials in Lynn, Salem, Saugus and Swampscott, who voted to end their communities’ respective indoor mask requirements earlier this week.
In a joint Zoom meeting on Thursday, the Lynnfield Board of Health and Select Board voted to rescind its Aug. 18, 2021, bylaw mandating masks in all city buildings. The terminations took effect immediately. When offered the opportunity to comment during public participation, residents remained silent.
Ahead of the votes, Lynnfield’s Director of Emergency Management and Fire Chief Glenn Davis delivered a COVID update.
“There has been a dramatic decrease in positive cases,” Davis said. “We are following the rest of Massachusetts in seeing a decline in positive cases.”
Davis said the number of cases over the past seven days had fallen from 98 on Jan. 28 to 26 on Monday. The number of cases in the past 14 days has risen from 195 to 110 out of a population of 13,000. Davis also noted that the number of hospitalizations for COVID has dropped significantly, which is a key indicator with testing. wastewater at the Deer Island plant.
Board of Health Chairman Dr. Rocco Iocco highlighted the many “painful sacrifices” that have been made over the past two years and praised the work of the emergency management team under Davis.
“We are certainly not done with the pandemic, but things are moving in the right direction because we have more tools to fight against it with testing, high vaccination rates and some antiviral (treatments), ” said said Iocco. “I think it’s appropriate at this point to return to as normal a life as possible.”
Board chairman Dick Dalton said the community still needed to exercise caution.
“Until the pandemic is over, we must continue to be vigilant about routine best practices,” he said. “I think it’s time to take the necessary steps to return, as much as possible, to our normal lives.”
The Marblehead Board of Health took some heat from residents in the audience before unanimously voting to overturn the mask mandate with a strong recommendation to continue masking indoors until the next time the council in will discuss on March 8.
More than 125 people, in addition to the three-member board of directors and director of public health Andrew Petty, tuned into the virtual meeting on Friday afternoon.
Petty gave the latest update on COVID-19 cases at the start of the meeting, saying the city had recorded 120 cases in the past 14 days. As of February 11, Marblehead, which has a population of about 20,500, had 61 active cases of COVID-19. The highest number of cases were in 5 to 11 year olds and adults 40 to 69 years old.
Petty said the number of positive cases and seven-day weighted average positivity rate in Massachusetts are currently at their lowest since November 2021. Citing the Feb. 7 letter from Salem Hospital President Dr. David Roberts, on the board of Salem Health, Petty said the hospital’s intensive care unit (ICU) capacity had returned to baseline and there was a 5% drop in COVID patients hospitalized since early January.
“Given current trends, we would not be opposed to a removal of COVID mitigation restrictions in the local community,” the letter states.
Health Board member Joanne G. Miller said it was reasonable to reverse the masking measure based on the data and the letter.
“I’m very grateful that we’re moving in this direction to mitigate the push,” Miller said.
Board member Helaine Hazlett moved a motion to rescind the mask mandate based on the “letter of commendation” and recent statistics; however, she said 20% of all COVID-19 cases in the city occurred during the recent omicron wave, starting Dec. 27.
“So we did the community a service by having the mandate for those six weeks,” Hazlett said.
“I respect our mandate 100%. We did 100% the right thing to protect our community and I’m glad we did. I think it’s time to move on,” said Board of Health Chairman Todd Belf-Becker. “Overwhelmingly, I’ve had positive responses from the public, from business owners, from the community thanking me for doing this.”
Marblehead residents who had the chance to speak before the vote on the motion thought otherwise. Resident Will Monks called the mask mandate an “abuse of power” and complained that the council reinstated the mask mandate without speaking to business owners.
“Many of us will never forgive or forget your actions on this,” Monks said. “From June, many of us will work together to begin a process to remove all three of you from your positions.”
Resident Tom McMahon shamed Hazlett for staying in Florida at the time of the meeting and not allowing Marblehead residents to make their own adult decisions. Resident Kevin McKernan said basing decisions on case data made scientific sense; it had nothing to do with monitoring the pandemic and constituted a “show of incompetence”.
Nonetheless, Belf-Becker suggested adding a strong recommendation to wear masks indoors to the motion since COVID-19 was not over. The Board of Health voted unanimously on the two-part motion.
The decision came into effect on Saturday at 12:01 a.m.
Nahant City Administrator Antonio Barletta announced that the city’s indoor mask mandate was lifted immediately on Friday.
“I think our residents, not just in Nahant but also elsewhere, welcome the cancellation of a warrant,” Barletta said. “Many of our residents will likely continue to wear masks. Many of our residents wore masks indoors before the mandate. I think eliminating the mandate will be welcome, but I still think our residents are going to use their best judgment about when and where they want to wear a mask.
According to city data, 55% of Nahant’s population received a booster shot. In the past two weeks, the town of about 3,500 people has had just 25 reported cases.
The waiver of the mandate does not apply to Johnson Elementary School.
“The city will remain in communication with the school administration and the school committee regarding the masking in the coming weeks,” read a statement from the city.
The Peabody Board of Health voted unanimously to immediately scrap the mask mandate in the city on Friday as well.
“I want to thank the members of the Board of Directors, Sharon Cameron (Director of the Department of Health) and her team,” said Mayor Edward A. Bettencourt Jr. “It has certainly been a difficult task for all of us and I really appreciate and am grateful for your help in these very difficult times.
“There has been a lot of information presented to us by doctors, hospitals, citizens, different reports and very diverse opinions. We’re all trying to do the right thing and figure things out.
Bettencourt noted in his statement to the board that Peabody has faced an increase in COVID cases and is feeling optimistic for the first time in a long time regarding the pandemic.
“The sun is shining and I feel like the world is returning to some normalcy, and I wanted to speak up today to call for the mask mandate to be lifted and to allow people to wear masks outside. future here in our city,” Bettencourt said.
The latest data from Friday’s Health Board meeting shows there have been 425 cases in the past 14 days. In addition, 73% of the city’s population of 54,500 people are fully immunized and 38% of the population have received their booster dose. Seventy-six percent of women are fully vaccinated while only 70% of men in the city are vaccinated, according to city data.
“I think it’s appropriate to lift the warrant at this point,” Cameron said.
The council took public comments. A registered nurse and Peabody resident, Kristen Liwanag, supported the decision to rescind the mask mandate. She also asked that masking be voluntary in the future.
Another resident, Joe Riley, also supported removing a mask mandate.
“My theme on this would be specifically about the disproportionate impact on businesses of different sizes of a single solution,” he said. “You think about going into restaurants and putting on a mask when you walk through the door, walk 10 feet, get to a table, take the mask off, then go the next hour and a half without a mask. It never seemed like that made a lot of sense to me.