When is the Right Time to Drop Mask Mandates? MA Towns and Cities Consider It

As COVID-19 metrics continue to trend down in Massachusetts, towns and cities are debating when to pull back on restrictions, including mask mandates

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With cases and hospitalizations both down in Massachusetts, some think it is time to ease up on restrictions, while others are still not comfortable taking masks off.

The city of Lowell and the town of Beverly are dropping their mask mandates for businesses after seeing a drop in COVID-19 infections. As of Thursday, businesses in those communities are no longer required to enforce face covering regulations.

Beverly’s mask mandate expired at 11:59 p.m. Wednesday. The owner of City Eats on Cabot Street was ecstatic to open Thursday morning with the mandate no longer in place. 

“I’m just so happy that it’s lifted because I want people to come in and feel comfortable and be able to relax,” David Bucci, the owner of City Eats said. 

Bucci said it was hard to understand why his customers had to wear a mask when they came into the diner, but could take it off the second they sat at a table. Many of his customers said they prefer the masks to be optional. 

"When I heard the news that the mandate was lifted, I just thought it is progress. It helps me relax" Anne Pofcher of Beverly said. 

Beverly is not alone in its decision. Lowell also let its mask mandate expire. They are still required in city buildings. 

"If you’re going to get your coffee or going to the gym to work out, you don’t need your mask. The omicron variant is coming to an end, we’ll wait to see what’s on the horizon," Lowell’s Health Director Lisa Golden said. 

The decision is aimed at relaxing restrictions and boosting business at places such as Purple Carrot Bread Co. in downtown Lowell.

"It's a lot easier to breathe,” said owner Alaina Bracket.

Bracket said business at Purple Carrot is still down about 50% from pre-COVID days. And although she sees the benefit in masks, she will no longer be asking for them at the door.

"I like not having to remind people, so that's nice," she said. "It's a little awkward, and I worry that I'll lose customers when I say, 'Hey, we have a mask mandate.' But overall, I think it will mean a little bump in sales."

It will be up to each business to decide whether to require masks. The mask mandate remains in place in public places like buses and city buildings.

"In city buildings, you need your mask, and in the schools, the children in schools are still wearing masks, but those may be coming to an end soon," Golden said.

Not everyone is breathing a sigh of relief that the mandates are being lifted. 

"It doesn’t make sense to me because they were so emphatic about it before and now they’re saying you don’t have to do anything? I’m not ready to throw my mask away yet. I think I will be wearing it for a while," Arlene Dacey of Beverly said. 

In Salem, which is right next door to Beverly, the mask mandate is in place until March 8. While it is too early to say if it will be lifted, Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll said they will look at all of the data before making a decision. She also said it is tough having different rules in different places.

"It would be a lot easier if we were able to move as a region, but right now the system isn’t set up that way. COVID doesn’t stop at every town line," Driscoll said. 

The moves come after COVID-19 infections have seen a sharp drop. But Dr. Simone Wildes, a South Shore Health infectious disease physician, warns of jumping the gun.

"Things are looking good, but we're clearly not out of the woods," noted Wildes. "It's a little too soon to say, 'OK, let's get rid of the masks.' I think, in general, we want to see a significant decrease in cases that is maintained over time."

Knowing which town or city has or hasn't ditched the mask rule may be confusing, which is why Hannah Ritchie, who works in Lowell, will keep the mask on.

"Probably at least until the spring," she said. "I feel like in the winter, everyone is sick with something, whether it's COVID or not. So I feel safer, like, when I go to the grocery store, just wearing one."

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has a mask mandate that runs through the end of February. 

Dr. David Hamer, a professor of global health and medicine at Boston University, said he understands why some want to ease restrictions, but when it comes to masks, he said the public should use caution. 

"Masks are one of the most important measures just because of the way the virus is transmitted. Until we get down to low levels of transmission, I think mask use is one of the last measures to be removed," Hamer said. 

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