While Tufts students were away over the break, local officials were enacting new policies — and reintroducing old ones — to govern vaccination proof and mask use in public settings.
Just as finals were wrapping up last month, the Medford Board of Health voted unanimously to reinstate a citywide indoor mask mandate. The order requires individuals, regardless of vaccination status, to wear masks in public indoor spaces in Medford.
That includes, among other places, grocery stores, fitness centers, bars and even restaurants — except when seated. Individuals with a medical condition or disability that prevents them from wearing masks are exempt from the order, as are children under 5 years old.
The mask policy comes alongside a limited vaccine mandate, which orders individuals ages 12 and older to show proof of vaccination before entering the city’s largest indoor performance center, the Chevalier Theatre.
The theater, like other businesses around the country, has struggled throughout the pandemic to retain employees, according to Raul Morales, the venue’s general manager. Morales said some staff members have stepped down from their posts fearing the virus itself, while others have stopped working because they are unwilling to get the vaccine, which is now required.
He applauded the new mandate nevertheless.
“It’s for the best and the safety of everyone, so we don’t mind,” he said.
The order went into effect as single-day case totals in the city began to shatter previous highs with regularity, reaching triple digits six times over a 10-day span in late December. Medford had reported over 100 cases in a single day just once before then.
“This spike is no joke, and it’s certainly made an impact on residents and affected them greatly,” MaryAnn O’Connor, public health director for the city, said at a Medford Board of Health meeting on Tuesday.
The order also came just days after the omicron variant became the dominant strain in Massachusetts, according to estimates by researchers at the Broad Institute in Cambridge. Medford’s surge came alongside mounting case totals around the Boston area, though experts now say the surge’s peak may have passed.
The Boston Globe reported last week that wastewater data had begun to indicate a decline in cases locally, even as numbers continued to soar in most parts of the nation.
Despite encouraging data, the mask mandate in Medford will remain in effect through at least the end of January, officials confirmed during Tuesday’s Board of Health meeting.
“The numbers are definitely going down, the wastewater is definitely down,” Kathleen Charbonnier, a registered nurse and member of the board, said at the meeting. “But we’ve got to wait. We’re not out of this yet.”
The board is scheduled to revisit the mandate in February.
“Hopefully we’re cresting now — this seems to be the top of the wave as we speak,” David Pladziewicz, cardiologist and chair of the Board of Health, said at the meeting earlier this week. “Between the number of infections and the immunizations, there should be a fair amount of herd immunity, if you will, out there.”
O’Connor said that about 76% of Medford residents are fully vaccinated. She also said the majority of new COVID-19 cases identified in the city are occurring in people in their 20s.
The new mask policy in Medford aligns the city with Somerville, which has mandated masks in public indoor settings since late August. Medford’s vaccine policy, however, has not been adopted by the city’s neighbor, which rejected a bid Thursday evening to implement a sweeping policy that would have required eligible individuals to show proof of vaccination before entering entertainment venues, restaurants, gyms and indoor recreation facilities.
The proposal in Somerville received strong pushback from the city’s Chamber of Commerce.
The slew of mandates and proposals come as university students return to campus from around the world and continue to test positive at unprecedented rates. Over 130 students on the Medford/Somerville campus tested positive in the week between Jan. 11 and Jan. 18, according to the university’s COVID-19 dashboard.
The city of Medford is holding free vaccine booster clinics from 3–6 p.m. on Wednesdays at Medford High School and from 9–11:30 a.m. on Fridays at the Council on Aging. Individuals can find the nearest vaccination clinic at vaxfinder.mass.gov.