WINCHESTER - Mask up, Winchester!

Thanks to a rise in COVID cases around the country, state and even in town, the Board of Health along with the Select Board voted to reimpose a mask mandate for all indoor establishments (excluding school buildings). That mandate started at midnight.

Health Director Jennifer Murphy informed the two boards Winchester saw an increase in the number of COVID-19 cases, up to 32 with a 2.26 percent positivity rate last week (that town reached as low as one percent or less previous to this rise) and steadily climbing.

Although the numbers shot up, it still puts the town below the state average, around 2.8 percent, and below neighboring communities like Woburn (3.14 percent). Burlington and Arlington, however, remain below Winchester at 2.18 percent and one percent, respectively.

In July alone, the town saw 44 cases. In July of 2020, it only saw eight cases. With so many people now vaccinated, this is a troubling trend (especially when vaccines didn't exist last year). Clearly, the Delta variant is highly contagious even to those already vaccinated (though the amount of "breakthrough" cases remain very small, it's still concerning to health officials including at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

This "new" mandate should hopefully, according to the Board of Health, keep children in school and help out businesses.

While the mandate passed both the Board of Health and Select Board, it wasn't unanimous. Board of Health member Maureen Pimentel voted against it, saying, "I'm not sure we are there yet" regarding the need for a mask mandate.

She added how the town imposed the mandate last time due to Governor Charlie Baker's order; he hasn't issued any new orders and said he wouldn't at this time. She also noted Woburn hadn't issued a new mask mandate (though the School Committee did approve one for students returning to class in the fall).

"Businesses could suffer with the mandate," she argued.

Board of Health member Catherine Donaghey said she understood that perspective, but noted how some businesses want the mandate. Select Board member Rich Mucci asked for a staff recommendation from Murphy who said she agreed they need to protect the vulnerable (Town Manager Lisa Wong already implemented a mask requirement for the town hall).

"If we don't institute preventative measures, it could be more troublesome," the health director acknowledged. "This (new Delta variant) is transmitting fast."

Murphy did note how the vaccines appear to be fairing well, but stressed the town must protect the vulnerable (the elderly and those immunocompromised). She said the mandate is a good tool.

The mandate the two boards agreed to reads similar to language recently authorized by Lexington and Belmont. It allows businesses/establishments to refuse entry to anyone not wearing a mask and it imposes fines (on businesses/establishments) for non-compliance (after an initial warning).

While the two boards approved the mandate, no one seemed excited or even happy to do it. Select Board member Michael Bettencourt called it an "unfortunate" situation, but said it was critical the town keeps kids safe.

"I've seen school closures around the country already," he stated, though noted the town must pay attention to the students' mental health, as well. "We had low transmission rates (last school year) due to mask wearing and compliance."

He expressed some concern with the Delta variant and "breakthrough" cases; therefore, he favored some sort of mandate. He also suggested by waiting too long to reimplement one, "we might regret it."

Select Board Chair Susan Verdicchio acknowledged how the virus became more transmissible. She said while she disliked being in this position again, a mask mandate made things simpler.

"This is not to be draconian, and I sympathize with businesses," the chair exclaimed, "but it's prudent to have a mandate now."

She said the town did a good job before, noting (bringing back the mandate) is the least they could do to protect the vulnerable.

The Board of Health plans to review the mandate at each subsequent meeting, meaning they could rescind it within weeks if the data shows it makes sense to do so.

Both boards and the town manager suggested using best practices and education first, with a warning given out before any fines are levied and handing out masks to those without them. Wong said she's not looking to catch anyone with an immediate violation.

"Let's give people the benefit of the doubt," the town manager said.

Language

The mandate reads as follows:

1. Effective at 12:01a.m. Thursday, Aug. 19 , 2021, face coverings are required for all individuals aged two years and above in all indoor public spaces, houses of worship, or private spaces open to the public except where an individual is unable to wear a face covering due to a medical condition or disability. 

2. Food service establishment customers may only remove face coverings when seated.

3. Indoor performance venue customers may only remove face coverings in the actual act of eating and drinking, if permitted in the venue. 

4. Lodging guests and workers are required to wear face coverings when inside hallways and common areas.  

5. Fitness Center/Health Club workers, customers, and visitors are required to wear face coverings during fitness activity, including strenuous activity. 

6. At Personal Services establishments, including, but not limited to, barber shops, hair and nail salons, all customers and workers are required to wear face coverings, except for skin or beard care that occurs on the face, where the customer may temporarily remove the face covering but must immediately put the face covering back on for the remainder of the visit. 

7. Masks remain mandatory for all individuals on public and private transportation systems (including rideshares, livery, taxi, ferries, and buses), in healthcare facilities and in other settings hosting vulnerable populations, such as congregate care settings, as directed by the governor and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. 

8. All entry doors of businesses open to the public must post notice advising customers that face masks must be worn inside the establishment. Establishment staff must supervise and enforce this requirement. If a customer refuses to wear a mask or face covering for non-medical reasons, a business may decline entry to the individual. 

9. The Winchester Board of Health and authorized agents pursuant to MGL chapter 111, § 30, are authorized to enforce this Regulation and if necessary, may do so with the assistance of the Winchester police and other designees appointed by the town manager. Violations of this Regulation may be punished by a civil fine, if after a verbal education and written warning, of up to $300 per violation in the manner provided for non-criminal disposition of violations of Board Health Regulations by MGL Chapter 40, § 21D and Chapter 8, § 35 of the Code of Bylaws of the Town of Winchester.

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