As Communities Reconsider Masks, Belmont Stands Pat On Coverings Indoors, In Schools

Photo: Hopkinton is the first Massachusetts school district to end mask mandates at its high school (Credit: Hopkinson High School website)

As the first town in Massachusetts has ended a mask mandate at its high school on Monday, Nov. 1, Belmont will be standing pat with requiring coverings for students and public indoor activities.

At its meeting on Monday, the Belmont Select Board heard from Health Department Director Wesley Chin who discussed Covid-19 in Belmont. Chin noted 74 total cases in October, compared to 71 in September with 35 the average age of those infected. Under CDC standards, Middlesex County “still sits in high risk for transmission and Belmont is still in substantial risk,” said Chin.

Chin agreed with Board member Mark Paolillo who said, despite a plateauing of cases nationwide, with Belmont remaining in the substantial risk level of transmission, “we’re not in the position at this point based on the statistics … to lift any mask mandate.”

But Chin did tell Paolillo he believes the town could return to the mandate after the first of the year.

“I think we’re in a sort of gray zone right now. We’re … cautiously watching and eager to see what the holidays bring us. Once we get past the New Year, we should reassess and see where things are,” said Chin.

Hopkinton lifted its mask mandate at its high school for the next three weeks on a trial basis after the school in the center Massachusetts town exceeded the 80 percent Covid-19 vaccination threshold for students and staff which Massachusetts Gov. Baker’s administration set in September to end requirements.

An Oct. 15 article in the Boston Globe found Belmont and 61 other Massachusetts school districts had reached the levels to end mandates. In fact, the Globe found Belmont far exceeding the state requirement: 90 percent of students between ages 12-15 and 89 percent 16-19 have been vaccinated.

When asked to comment on the findings, Belmont Superintendent John Phelan said the mandate “was voted on by the Belmont Board of Health and School Committee. The School Department respect the decision and are following this policy” with any discussion of ending the ban should go through the Board of Health.

But Phelan did leave the door a bit ajar on reconsidering the mandate.

“All issues are open to discussion and I am sure the decisions will be in the best interest of keeping our students, staff and community safe,” said Phelan.

Fines Out, Signs In As Select Board OKs Measured Adds To Town’s Mask Mandate

Photo: It was a full Zoom house as the Select and Health boards approved additions to the town’s mask mandate.

With opposition growing by members to a Health Board proposal to penalize store owners whose patrons repeatedly violate the town’s indoor mask mandate, the Belmont Select Board voted Monday, Sept. 20 to set aside a suggested $300 fine and replaced it with a watered-down compromise simply requiring businesses and large residential buildings to post signs informing the public of the town’s indoor mask mandate and ordering all employees to wear masks.

In addition, Belmont will delay implementing a vaccine mandate for town employees as it waits for possible action by the federal government on a proposed nationwide vaccine requirement for organizations with more than 100 workers.

The fine and employee mandate proposal was passed by the Health Board on Sept. 13 in response to the surge in positive cases of Covid-19 in town and across the country due in large part to the especially virulent Delta variant.

Donna David, the Health Board chair, said the recommendation “just gave teeth to what we were doing” in encouraging mask wearing. While admitting that enforcement could be “a little tricky’, the recommendation was no different to what the Health Department does when receiving complaints and food inspections.

“Like other health-related things in businesses, we’ve found the best to put the onus on the person who is responsible for the establishment,” said David, similar to enforcing the cigarette policy where the owner rather than the employee is ultimately the person who is held accountable.

Adam Dash, the Select Board chair, said the fine would “put a little ‘oomph’ behind what is already on the books.

While each of the board members supported some version of the fine, some where concerned the

Mark Paolillo worried that many businesses have “younger folks working behind the counter” who will be required to tell people to put on masks and they “say I’m not wearing a mask … [and] you set up a confrontation” because the owner doesn’t want to incur the fine. “That’s problematic,” said Paolillo who would rather see the individual violating the mandate fined.

Paolillo suggested the town should first discover if every business that is open to the public has been notified to have a sign at their location and if, in fact, they have one.

Epstein’s objection was the proposal was unworkable as Health Department employees would need to observe an incident with “an egregious violator” not wearing a face covering in the store.

”I just seems unworkable to me,” said Epstein.

Local businesses are also concerned with the introduction of financial penalties on the establishment because a patron is willing to violate the town’s mandate.

“There’s a help issue in small businesses … were struggling to get product in our stores and we’re struggling to retain customers. And for you to fine a customer or small business to me is ludicrous,” said Deran Muckjian, owner of the Toy Shop of Belmont in Belmont Center. He reiterated Paolillo’s worry that “a 16 year old Belmont High sophomore by himself in the store” will confront a 45 year old adult who says “No, I’m not going to wear [a mask.]”

“What do you do, how do you deal with that,” said Muckjian, who called the recommendations “a bunch of crap.”

By the end of the hour long discussion, the board coalesced behind Paolillo’s suggestion to require businesses have signs visible to customers and for managers of larger residential housing complexes to have signs in common areas that residents could congregate. The Health Board joined the Select Board in approving the new language to the mask mandate.

“I can live with that going forward. If we have issues, which I don’t expect … then we will come back to you,” said David.

While the employee vaccination mandate has taken a back seat to the federal government’s proposal, the town will be polling employees on their vaccination status. “If [the poll] shows we’re 99 percent or something, then maybe this is less of a driving concern,” said Dash.

Select Board Defers Vote On Vaccine Mandate, Fines For Unmasked Patrons

Photo: Debate over creating fines for violation of Belmont’s mask mandate has been delayed ‘til Sept. 20.

The Belmont Select Board decided at its scheduled meeting Monday, Sept. 13, to delay action on a pair of recommendations from the town’s Health Board mandating vaccinations for town employees and imposing fines on businesses and managers of public spaces which don’t enforce the town’s indoor mask requirement.

“We do not disagree with the recommendations necessarily. We’d like to get a little more data,” said Select Board Chair Adam Dash.

“We’re not disagreeing with the recommendations necessarily. We’d like to get a little more data,” said Select Board Chair Adam Dash.

The first recommendation would require all town employees to receive the Covid-19 vaccine. The second would impose a fine of $300 on businesses or large residential housing complexes which doesn’t enforce the town’s mask mandate.

Wesley Chin, Belmont’s Health Department director, said the pair of unanimous 3-0 votes were approved with the understanding the Select Board, working with the town’s Human Resources Department, would consult with the Town Counsel on implementing the employee mandate which would require negotiating with 11 of the town’s 12 unions. The Belmont Education Association last week approved a mandate for its members.

But before the Board could debate the mandate, the members tabled the recommendation after hearing from Town Administrator Patrice Garvin. She said both George Hall, the town’s general counsel, and the local Labor Council were asking the Board to wait on any vaccine requirement “because they’re still running some things down, especially with President Biden’s mandate.”

While saying he “conceptionally supports” the measure, Board member Mark Paolillo wanted to know if it was even in the town’s “purview to do something like this and how employees would react.”

Chin turned to the fines saying the addition of financial penalties to violations of the town’s face mask mandate were considered after his department received a number of complaints from concerned residents that “people just not wearing masks in indoor places that the public can access.”

Under the proposed amendment, if an incident is reported to the health department and the violation is observed, the Health Department would first provide a written warning to the business owner or manager. Subsequent violations would result in the issuance of a $300 fine for failure to comply with the mandate “to put pressure and motivate businesses to enforce massive mandates … inside of their locations,” said Chin.

Dash said establishing a financial sanction is not new. The town’s emergency order number two from March 2020 which created the mandate has similar language about the $300 fine but under that order the penalty was on the individual, not the store owner or manager.

“So the rationale is to change in focus: let’s put the pressure on the businesses to remind people that they have to wear masks,” said Dash who recalled his wife telling him when she visited a large store in town where “almost nobody was wearing a mask.”

“We’ve seen exactly what you’re talking about that some of these businesses were blowing it off entirely, said Dash.

When she asked who was enforcing the mask mandate and an employee said the workers were told not to do anything about it, as managers would enforce it. “‘Where’s the manager? He’s in the back,’” Dash was told. “So they’ve signs up on the door but no one was doing anything and no one was wearing masks,” he said.

In the case of residential buildings, Chin said complaints are coming from residents in larger apartment buildings where they were concerned about unmasked residents in common areas such as lobbies, fitness clubs, lounges, and hallways. “Apparently we’re not enforcing the rule,” the resident told Chin.

While understanding the need for fines to enforce compliance of the emergency health code, Paolillo also recognized the difficulty of having “a high school kid behind the register” attempt to manage and enforce the code.

The board also highlighted the difficulty of actually catching those violating the mask mandate in the act as the Heath Department is already burdened with multiple tasks to observe a meaningful number of violations and the police are busy with public safety.

“While virtually every Belmont business does have signs but [do they have] the staffing to confront potential violators is a real open question,” said Board member Roy Epstein, who noted to the board that with the general trend of positive Covid-19 cases falling, a mandate could be unnecessary in the near future.

With questions remaining unanswered, Dash proposed a joint meeting with the Board of Health on Sept. 20 to allow for a “give and take” on the issues.

“Then we might have some information on a vaccine mandate from the town counsel and labor councils at that point, maybe we can have a more comprehensive discussion,” said Dash.

Schools Mask Mandate Will Stay Until The New Year: Board Of Health Chief

Photo: A sign you’ll see in schools by the holiday break

Parents and students hoping for a quick end to the mask mandate in Belmont schools – specifically for high school students – saw their wishes dashed as the head of the Belmont Board of Health believes masks will be a part of the school day up to the holiday break in the last weeks of December.

The declaration by Chair Donna David came during the Board of Health’s Aug. 16 meeting during which the board clarify aspects of the town-wide indoor mask mandate that passed on Aug. 6 as well as make clear that the schools and town will have different standards of when to end mask requirements.

Based on public feedback after the previous week’s Belmont School Committee’s, there was a desire to clarify the confusion of when the town-wide mask mandate would end in the Belmont schools, said Wesley Chin, Belmont’s Health Department director. Under a sunset clause in the town-wide directive, the face covering requirements will be lifted when Middlesex county records two consecutive weeks of lower infection rates.

In the board’s new plan, the schools’ mask mandate is now a separate from the town’s document. “Pretty simple and straightforward,” said David.

The new regulation states: “Face coverings are required for all individuals aged two years and above except where an individual is unable to wear a face covering dude to a medical condition disability.”

Under the new regulation, the board will incorporate guidance and data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the state’s Department of Health to decide when the mask mandate will be dropped.

While the board will be monitoring the data and taking daily advice from the town’s health department, David said until the Covid-19 vaccine is available to children under 12 – both Pfizer and Moderna say they anticipate sharing results and seeking authorization for their vaccine in ages 5 to 11 as early as September or October – and the number of overall cases are declining, she doesn’t see a reason to remove the mandate and “this could easily be in effect through December.”

”This brings a little stability to what we’re doing and what our line of thinking is,” said David. Until the under 12 vaccine is available, “‘we’re kind of in a holding pattern because, in the schools particular, we’re doing this to protect those who cannot be vaccinated.”

The board also voted to bring greater clarity to the town’s mandate after receiving public comments on the document the Select Board approved last week.

The four clarifications are:

  • Indoor performers at public spaces such as the Beech Street Center, restaurants or schools are required to wear face coverings,
  • Private residences are excluded from the mandate,
  • Residents and employees in multi-unit homes and apartments are required to wear face coverings when inside common hallways and spaces, and
  • Members and employees in private membership clubs are required to wear face coverings while indoors.

“It’s not drastically different, just more detailed,” said Adam Dash, chair of the Select Board which reviewed the changes at its Monday night meeting.

Belmont Schools To Open Year Under Universal PreK-12 Mask Mandate

Photo: Belmont students will start the new school year wearing masks.

Belmont students and teachers throughout the district will be wearing masks to start the new school year beginning on Thursday, Sept. 9, after the Belmont School Committee at its Monday, Aug. 9 meeting accepted a town-wide universal mask mandate approved by the Board of Health and the Belmont Select Board on Friday, Aug. 6.

The committee will “revisit the mask policy and discuss strategies to increase vaccination rates” with the Health Board sometime at the end of September, according to the policy.

“I believe it’s really important to provide Belmont school families and staff with clarity about the masking plans and requirements for the beginning of the 2021-22 school year,” said School Board Chair Amy Checkoway.

Attended by approximately 200 via Zoom, the meet showed no sign of contentiousness or rancor seen at school committee meetings across the country – notably one held on Tuesday in Franklin, Tenn. – that resulted in anti-masking protests and threats of violence, while a Fox Entertainment personality claimed masking students is done to “terrify” them and anti-mandate decrees being issued by a handful of governors.

During the three hour meeting, Superintendent John Phelan presented the district’s proposed “Back to School Health/Safety Protocol Plan” for the 2021-22 school year created by the district’s Health Team. Its recommendations include:

  • Implement indoor masking for staff and students in accordance to the Aug. 6 town-wide decree.
  • Masks required on buses and at health clinics.
  • No mandate for outdoor activities or while students are at lunch.
  • Maximize distances in classrooms and cafeterias at the elementary and middle schools including providing outdoor space.
  • Encourage vaccinations for staff and students 12+ and host vaccination sites at schools.
  • Testing, quarantining and contract tracing is also recommended; the district is waiting for state guidance.

Phelan told the committee the district would be seeking direction on creating an indoor mask mandate for the entire student population and staff. The Health Team’s guidance would be provided by the state – using the Department of Public Health (DPH) and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) – the federal government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Phelan noted “there’s a lot of similar guidance” from the three sources and that included masking for all preschool and elementary school students as they currently can not be vaccinated. The one area Phelan said where the three entities differed is in-school masking for vaccinated student in 7th through 12th grade. While the AAP and CDC recommend masks, the state’s DPH advise masks if the student lives with someone who is not vaccinated or immunocompromised while DESE would allow vaccinated students to remain maskless while indoors.

Masking challenge for High School students

Since half of the grades at the Belmont’s Chenery Middle School fall under the elementary policy and the other half in the 7th to 12 range, Phelan said it was best that all students remained masked as the four grades will come in contact throughout the day. This left the School Committee to determine the masking in the traditional 9-12 high school grades.

Adrienne Allen, the Board of Health’s observer at the School Committee, told the committee that as a physician she was “very hopeful” two months ago that vaccinations would create a situation where mask use could safety be reduced. “But then things rapidly changed before our eyes with [the] Delta [variant],” she said, with the most disconcerting part being vaccinated people can spread the variant which is nearly as contagious as chickenpox.

With the overriding goal of the School Committee and district is to “keep kids in school as much as possible” while mitigating harm as much as possible, said Allen. And masking protects people from a source; for example, “if I had Covid and I’m wearing a mask, you’re protected. But it also protects other people.”

So if you want to keep students in school and protected, the schools should have a universal mask mandate, said Allen.

It soon became clear the Committee’s consensus was to start the school year with grades Pre-K to 12 masked. And each of the members agreed there will likely be a time when the mandate will be modified or ended. Coming to what that point was where the committee split.

For Jamal Saeh, the answer, for at least 7th to 12th grade pupils, was already baked into the town-wide mask mandate. Rather than reinvent the wheel, Saeh pointed to the town policy that says the mandate will end when the level of community transmission for Middlesex county as recorded by the CDC is designated as either low or moderate for two consecutive weeks.

But the other members pointed to the unique nature of the schools where, unlike the town-wide impact on stores, eateries and offices in which people may spend a few minutes to an hour, students and staff in schools are inside and interacting with dozens of fellow students for six hours or more.

Committee member Mike Crowley what masking does is helps the district “avoid disruptions that so rattled the community last year.” And while it’s impossible to know with any certainty what the coming year will bring but masking seems to be a fairly effective strategy.” For Crowley and others, rather than have a “ridged” standard as the town-mandate, the policy should be reviewed on a regular basis.

The committee did agree with Saeh that the first review of the mask mandate should take place in late September and also to advocate for increased vaccinations among students – those in 9th to 12th grades have about a 80 percent fully vaccination rate – with future discussion on a possible requirement that staff be vaccinated.

”If we learned one thing from last year, it’s that people value in person schooling,” said Committee member Andrea Prestwich, and masking not only tamps down Covid spread but also the flu and other respiratory illnesses “and takes some of the load off of our nursing staff.”

Belmont Enacts Town-Wide Indoor Mask Mandate Starting Monday

Photo: A town-wide mask mandate takes effect in Belmont at midnight, Aug. 9.

Belmont will enact a town-wide indoor mask mandate starting at midnight, Monday, Aug. 9, after the Health Board voted unanimously to approve the requirement and the Select Board endorsed the decision 3-0 at an emergency meeting held on Friday morning, Aug. 6.

The mandate will impact all establishments that has public indoor spaces including stores, eateries and offices. (See the order below) The town-wide regulation comes days after the Select Board placed a mask mandate on town buildings.

Belmont’s order mirrors the order passed by the community of Provincetown after the Cape Cod community saw a significant surge in infected residents despite having a 95 percent vaccination rate.

The return of the covering ordinance comes as the Covid-19 Delta variant is sweeping across the country increasing the number of positive coronavirus cases. After nearly a month when the town saw a single positive infection, Belmont has seen a significant uptick of 18 new cases over the past two weeks, with several being “breakthrough”, in which a fully vaccinated person is infected. The CDC has designated Middlesex county as having substantial level of infection.

The town-wide mandate will end when the level of community transmission for Middlesex county as recorded by the CDC is designated as either low or moderate for two consecutive weeks. That information is released by the CDC on Sunday afternoon.

Indoor Mask Mandate At Town Buildings Return Wednesday; ‘Emergency’ Meeting Friday To Discuss Possible Town-Wide Order

Photo: Belmont welcomes back masks to town

Beginning Wednesday, August 4, visitors and employees in town offices and buildings will be required to wear a mask as Belmont responds to a recent surge of positive cases of Covid-19.

“It’s erring on the side of being cautious. It’s the best thing for the public health and safety of everybody,” said Health Board Chair Donna David as the Select Board approved the sudden return to a mandate after speaking to health and town officials at its Monday meeting. In addition, public meetings will revert back to being held via Zoom or other virtual software.

At this time, there is no scheduled date for the mandate to end.

On Friday morning, Aug. 6, the town’s health and select boards will hold an emergency meeting to discuss expanding the indoor mask mandate to local stores, offices and restaurants. While the town building mandate was a straightforward call, the Select Board appeared less eager to re-establish a full town-wide indoor mask requirement.

“I think the business community’s going to be really upset with us” if masks make a return, said the Select Board’s Mark Paolillo.

It appears Belmont’s schools will continue requiring masks indoors at the district begins the new school year in mid-September, according to Donna David, chair of the Health Board. “They are onboard,” she said.

Adam Dash, chair of the Select Board, told the meeting that in the past when cases were on the rise the town had followed closely recommendations from the state’s health department on mask “but now the state’s basically saying ‘it’s on you’. So here we are.”

At Monday’s meeting, Health Department Director Wesley Chin told the Select Board that after going more than three weeks without a case in early summer, the town has seen 20 Covid cases since July 4, half of which are “breakthrough” cases; when an individual tests positive after they’ve been fully vaccinated against the disease.

“So far, we’ve been lucky we haven’t had any hospitalizations or deaths with these breakthrough cases,” said Chin, noting that those exposed were in their 40s and 50s and relatively healthy. While Belmont has not entered the state’s designated “red” zone of new cases, David said it is moving into that range, with the added complication that within the next three weeks, children – many under 12 and unvaccinated – will be returning to town from family vacations and trips as they settle in before heading back to school.

David said since it has made a “very strong” recommendation to the School Committee to continue its mask mandate, he said her board was “pretty much in alignment that [masks] should extend to the town buildings and offices, whether you are vaccinated or not.”

The reason for being vigilant even with a majority of adults being vaccinated, said David, is due to what is being learned about the variant on a daily basis.

“Each day unfolds new information in terms of the viral load and how it spreads to others,” she told the board. “If you’re at work and you’re exposed and asymptomatic and take it home to your unvaccinated child or somebody who’s immunosuppressed.”

Paolillo said he would support masks for workers and those visiting town-owned facilities “as a way of protecting our employees” especially since the town will not ask who is vaccinated inside a building.

While Town Administrator Patrice Garvin had hoped to give the employees a level of expectation of when the order may cease, it will be up to the Health Board working closely with the town to determine when the mandate will end.