Mask up coughing

MASK UP READING - This image from the National Institute of Standards and Technology illustrates airflow when coughing with and without a mask.

READING - A new universal masking mandate is coming to Reading.

During a virtual meeting last night, the town’s Board of Health stopped just short of officially declaring a new pandemic-related emergency order that will require all residents over two-years-old to wear a facial covering whenever congregating at a public indoor space within the community.

The last-minute hiccups over the masking mandate came after Board of Health veteran Kevin Sexton, who is currently serving as an associate or non-voting member of the local government body, implored his colleagues to run the text of the would-be order by legal counsel.

According to Sexton, he was particularly concerned about language that would have made the proposed order effective as of midnight this morning, as well as questions about whether the Board of Health motion would apply to private social clubs and businesses like fitness centers where visitors must technically have a membership to walk-in.

'It gives zero time for anyone to prepare,” said Sexton, who insisted that the business community deserved at least some notice of the order before it went into effect.

Board of Health members, who want to put the new emergency health regulation into effect as soon as possible in light of a surge in local COVID-19 caseloads, generally agreed it made sense to have legal counsel review the text of the masking order.

“I’d rather delay and get it right than have to do this twice,” said Board of Health Vice Chair Kerry Dunnell.

However, with all three voting members of the board fully supporting the reimposition of a townwide masking order, Board of Health Chairman Dr. Richard Lopez forewarned the general public and local business owners that the masking proposal will be acted upon during a virtual meeting scheduled for Thursday, Jan. 6 at 7 p.m.

“People ought to be aware of our sentiments tonight and the direction we’re moving in,” said Lopez, who later asked that new Reading Health Director Adeokunbo Solarin send out emails to local businesses advising them about the near certainty that a new masking directive will be voted on later this week.

The latest discussion about a masking order comes nearly eight months after the Board of Health ended a similar facial covering requirement instituted within Reading at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March of 2020.

According to proponents of re-introducing a masking mandate, Reading is seeing local infections climb at rates not seen since last winter, and with various area hospitals seeing ICU and emergency room beds filling up, the mandate is a practical way to curb transmissions.

“I have been more conservative [in regards to restoring a masking mandate] over the past two or three months becausee our case rates were low, even in September and October when the surge was revving up,” Lopez said. “Since Thanksgiving, things have escalated and hospitals are reaching capacity. It’s a much different situation here.”

According to Solarin, over the past two weeks, nearly 68 percent of the 281 Reading residents who just tested positive for COVID-19 reported contracting the virus within their own homes.

Though Sexton later questioned whether an indoor masking order would have any impact on new infection trends in light of that evidence, which suggests most cases come through so-called household transmissions, other Board of Health members insisted that a mask mandate would prevent family members from contracting the virus in the first place and then bringing it home.

Board of Health member Kerry Dunnell also pointed out that the most COVID-19 variants, including the newest “Omicron” strain, appear to be the most infectious during the pre-symptomatic incubation period - or before any symptoms of the illness are manifested.

“A mask mandate is a huge opportunity to cut down on those household transmissions, if we can stop people from picking up the virus when they’re out and about,” Dunnell reasoned.

Prior to the Board of Health’s deliberations, at least a dozen members of the public gave their takes on the masking proposal - with the majority of public commenters coming out against the would-be public health directive.

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