There won’t be a vaccine mandate in Somerville, at least for now, health board says

Somerville City Hall is pictured. Nicole Garay / The Tufts Daily

Individuals in Somerville will not have to show proof of vaccination to enter businesses in the city, at least for now, a health panel said in late January. 

Mayor Katjana Ballantyne’s bid for a vaccine mandate was rejected by the city’s health board by a vote of 2–1 at a Jan. 20 meeting

The order would have required eligible individuals in the city to show proof of vaccination to enter gyms and theaters, or to dine indoors.

Board of Health Chair Dr. Brian Green voted against the order, as did board member Paula Machado. The third member, Robert Ciccia, voted in favor.

“I think this policy is a really good idea for what we were facing with delta, and I’m worried that it’s less of a good policy for omicron,” Green said at the meeting.

The policy was drafted in December, when the delta variant was still the dominant strain circulating locally. Amid a massive wave of infections triggered by the highly infectious omicron variant, Green said the mandate would have been unlikely to curb transmission, given that vaccines have been shown to be less effective against the new variant.

He also feared that the lack of a uniform regional policy — with cities like Cambridge and Medford opting not to implement vaccine mandates — would have stifled the order’s effectiveness of boosting the city’s already-high vaccination rate.

Roughly 80% of Somerville residents were fully vaccinated at the time of the meeting. City data shows that the number has remained roughly stationary in the weeks since.  

“Vaccines really are helpful to decrease illness and death, and that’s true of every strain of this virus,” Green said. “I really think the punchline right now, the most important thing we need to be focusing on, is masking and testing.”

Multiple members of Ballantyne’s administration including her chief of staff, Nikki Spencer, pushed hard for the mandate at the Jan. 20 meeting, assuring the board that the policy would be part of a holistic approach to battle the pandemic. 

Still, Green expressed doubt that the mandate would successfully quell vaccine hesitancy, fearing it would force restaurant workers, some of whom opposed the mandate, to shoulder the burden of enforcement

“The important takeaway from last night’s hearing is that the Board and the City are in agreement that vaccination is critical to getting this virus under control,” Ballantyne said in a statement after the meeting. “We were hoping the Board would support the proposed requirement, but I respect their decision and their thoughtful deliberation.”

Prior to the vote, a group of businesses in the city expressed strong opposition to the proposed mandate. Many were convinced it would discourage customers from patronizing their establishments, and some feared losing employees from their already short-staffed teams.

“This [vaccine mandate] is going to necessitate a lot more investing without necessarily a return,” Joe Carreiro, business manager of El Potro Mexican Grill in Union Square, told the Daily prior to the vote. 

Carriero is fully vaccinated, wears a mask indoors in public and supports mask mandates and other efforts by the city to promote public health. But the mandate would have run him out of business, he said

“There are lots of other places where the spread of COVID is a lot more problematic than in my restaurant,” Carreiro said.

The health board’s vote came just a week after a community meeting was disrupted by anti-vaccine protestors who pummeled Dr. Green with verbal attacks and flooded a virtual chat box with misinformation about the virus vaccines. The disruptions forced the board to adjourn the meeting early and delay the vote another week.

The proposed mandate in Somerville largely resembled the City of Boston’s vaccine requirement for public indoor spaces, which had gone into effect just days before the Somerville Board of Health convened for a vote

Boston’s mandate was announced in December, and in the weeks since, roughly 29,000 residents of the city received their first dose of the virus vaccine, raising the city’s vaccination rate for at least one dose by nearly 4 percentage points, according to the latest city data. 

Infections in Somerville have declined in recent weeks following a rapid omicron-fueled surge, the city’s COVID-19 dashboard shows.

At Tufts, 166 students on the Medford/Somerville campus have tested positive in the past week and more than 350 are in isolation. 

The university has relaxed public health restrictions on campus, Dr. Michael Jordan, who oversees Tufts’ pandemic response, announced last week. The gym and all dining centers will reopen fully for the first time since December, and visitors will once again be allowed on campus

Jordan said the changes come in response to falling infection rates throughout the state, including at Tufts.

Information from previous Daily reporting was used in this story.