Photo: This sign could be obsolete in March.
With nationwide positive rates of Covid-19 infection are falling as quickly as they skyrocketed two months ago, the Belmont Board of Health declared it will take a vote on lifting the town-wide and school mask mandate in the next month.
“That’s our intent,” Board of Health Chair Donna David said affirming the board’s decision. “We see masking coming to our March meeting” after the board appeared ready to change how it will determine the green light for ending the mandate.
When David asked the town’s Health Department Director Wesley Chin if he will provide a heads up to Belmont Superintendent John Phelan to prepare for a possible lifting of the school mandate put in place when students came back to class in March 2021, an unknown resident who had not muted themselves after speaking earlier, spouted out “Yes! Yes!”
The Board of Health has sole responsibility on imposing and ending mask mandates in public schools; the Select Board will take the Health Board’s recommendation into consideration whether to move on cancelling the mandate for businesses, town buildings and other public locations.
Starting the portion of the meeting, David proclaimed “Let’s talk about masks, Wesley” who said his office has been receiving “a number of calls” on the subject.
The Health Board’s “update” comes as states and municipalities across the country have suddenly begun dismantling mandates and other preventive measures.
Health Agent Lindsey Sharp told the board the latest Covid infection data is showing “a definite down swing” in the past month as the number of positive cases has fallen from more than 200 a week two months ago to 156 last week and 86 for the current seven days while 80 percent of those infected have been vaccinated.
But while saying the “numbers are better, we’re not there yet,” said Chin, stating he would not recommend voting Monday to take down the mask mandate as February vacation week is about to occur and Chin wanted to see the numbers of infections. He also noted that there has not been a vaccine approved for the youngest residents under the age of five.
The meeting witnessed a coordinated group of residents whose mission was to press the point that requiring masks indoors in buildings and the six town schools had passed its expiration date. Pat Whittemore, who said his opinions on masks “are very well known” claimed children with positive cases are not likely to be hospitalized when infected with Covid. He advocated “a nice middle step” of making mask wearing voluntary in schools.
John Link said mask wearing is not effective for children as “kids have zero chance to die” when they catch the coronavirus. He also said mask wearing by children can potentially lose 10 points from their IQ. Rather than an “onerous regime of wearing masks,” he also believes masks should be up to the discretion of the parents. In the same vein, David McLaughlin said there is a greater danger for children to be masked than being stricken by the Covid Omnicron variant. (Board member Adrienne Allen noted approximately 800 pediatric deaths in the US have been caused by Covid “so it’s not trivial.”)
Other residents was concerned about the town mandating vaccine passports (the Health Board and Select Board have not considered a vote on these regulations currently used in Boston) while other pointed to the high rate of student vaccination – in the higher grades up to 90 percent – as being enough to deter Covid’s debilitation effects.
Some residents wanted to take a slower approach on ending the mask mandate. “Thank you for following the science,” said Marina Atlas who felt really confident by the board’s appropriate use of data that show that masks work on Covid and other air pollutants.
It soon became clear that the board would not take action at its meeting but “we should consider another few weeks” after the February break to review the Covid data in Middlesex country.
“But [mandates are] not going on forever,” said David, who suggested taking a vote at the board’s next meeting in a month’s time.
“I agree this is not forever, as long as [the data] improves,” said Allen. Member Julie Lemay suggested the board change the data rubric for ending the mandate from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rates and rely on one which uses number of hospitalizations to cases as a possible standard.
”I like that,” said David.