Protestors slam vaccine mandate, delay vote at Somerville Board of Health meeting

A Somerville Board of Health meeting regarding a local vaccine mandate was interrupted by several protestors last week. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The Somerville Board of Health suspended a virtual public meeting Friday after dozens of protestors stormed the call, interrupted deliberations and prevented a vote on an order that would require individuals 12 and older to show proof of vaccination before entering select indoor spaces in the city starting Monday. 

The session, which was attended by local residents, small business owners and city officials, was the second in less than a month that ended without a vote on the proposal. In December, the vote was first tabled after facing opposition from some community members. 

The board is set to reconvene this week, according to Denise Taylor, a Somerville spokesperson.

The order, which was initially proposed by former Mayor Joseph Curtatone late last year, mirrors Boston Mayor Michelle Wu’s “B Together” initiative, which launched Saturday and requires individuals 12 and older to show proof of vaccination to enter restaurants, bars, fitness centers and entertainment venues in the city. Leaders in Medford, Allston and Cambridge have also proposed similar policies.

The current Somerville proposal applies to indoor venues like those in the Boston initiative, though it exempts individuals entering an indoor facility “for a quick and limited purpose,” like picking up takeout food or making a delivery.  

Facilities on Tufts’ Medford/Somerville campus would be exempt from the order, as would other schools and universities in the city. 

The Somerville mandate would require individuals 12 and older to show proof of one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by Jan. 24 and to be fully vaccinated by Feb. 15. Individuals aged 5 to 11 would have to show proof of being fully vaccinated by May 1 and of one dose by March 1. Valid forms of proof of vaccination status would include a vaccination card, an immunization record, a letter from a doctor or a mobile app similar to the one rolled out in Boston.

Roughly 80% of Somerville residents were vaccinated as of Tuesday, Jan. 18, according to the city’s public dashboard, with just over 43% having received a booster dose.

“The vaccine requirement is important for helping to keep our businesses open and their staff and customers safe, so my hope is that it will pass,” Somerville Mayor Katjana Ballantyne wrote in an email to the Daily. “And if it does, the City is ready to assist businesses in rolling this out because we’ve got to fight this virus on all fronts.”

Many restaurant owners voiced strong opposition to the mandate on Friday. Some said the order would put their staff in danger and drain resources from their businesses, which are already reeling from staff shortages, supply chain woes and plummeting revenue.

“We would not be able to survive,” Joe Carreiro, the business manager of El Potro Mexican Grill in Union Square, told the Daily. “And that’s not something that, I think, would be a unique story.”

If the mandate passes, Carreiro said he would have to hire an additional worker to check vaccine cards at the door, which he said would cost him more than $1,000 a week and tens of thousands of dollars across several months

The city will be distributing relief funds to businesses this month, according to Mayor Ballantyne’s chief of staff, Nikki Spencer, who spoke at the meeting Friday. But Carreiro said he doesn’t expect the funds to fully offset the costs he would incur as a result of the mandate. 

He also cited the potential disruption due to the political divide the issue has exposed. At the meeting Friday, several members of the public continuously interrupted the Board of Health, using obscene language and accusing the medical professionals of acting in their own self-interest.

“What happened at that meeting could happen in our restaurant,” Carreiro said. 

Several other restaurant workers who spoke at the meeting Friday echoed Carreiro’s concerns, with some saying the order would exacerbate existing staffing shortages by forcing unvaccinated workers out of their jobs. Carreiro said he and most of his employees are fully vaccinated.

Businesses are a member of your community,” he said to the Daily, referring to the city. “You have to help us out.”

Tufts first-year Jack Perenick, who lives in Somerville and serves on the municipality’s Democratic city committee, expressed support for the vaccine mandate at the meeting last week. He said the decision should be made with public health in mind, citing evidence that a mandate could increase vaccination rates and save lives, and that questions of practicality, including the economic impact of the order, should be left up to the city — not the Board of Health — to decide. 

The proposed mandate raises tensions amid Somerville’s most gripping virus surge yet —the over 3,000 positive test results in the first two weeks of this month have already eclipsed the previous monthly high, according to city data. It appears the city’s current surge has already reached its peak: Daily indicators have declined between Jan. 10 and Jan. 17, which is the most recent day for which data has been made available. 

However, public health officials at the Somerville meeting Friday cautioned that the current wave would continue to cripple local hospitals for some time. Roughly 94% of hospital beds in Middlesex County were occupied as of Tuesday, according to a Harvard research study. The vaccine mandate, if passed, would not have an immediate effect on the current surge and hospitalizations, said Chairman of the Board of Health Brian Green at the meeting.