The Somerville Board of Health voted unanimously on Thursday to end requirements for masking indoors, propelling the city into the next phase of the pandemic and aligning its policy with Medford, Cambridge and other municipalities in the Greater Boston area.
The move comes as new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests over 90% of Americans can shed their masks indoors, up from 70% just over a week ago. Middlesex County, which encompasses Somerville, Medford and Cambridge, is considered by the CDC to be at low risk for transmission.
The Board of Health’s decision on Thursday was to formally repeal the city’s mask mandate, which had been in effect since August 2021 and required individuals two years and older to wear masks in indoor public spaces. With the mandate being lifted, restaurants, fitness centers, supermarkets and other establishments no longer have to require their patrons to wear masks, though they may continue to do so if they choose.
Masks will still be required on public transport and in health care facilities, per state and federal guidance. The city’s public schools, too, will continue to require masks, though city and school officials are reviewing the current guidance, and a decision on a policy change is due shortly, Mayor Katjana Ballantyne said in a statement after the meeting.
“The good news is that the omicron surge continues to decline, the majority of eligible Somervillians are vaccinated, and mounting research shows that being up to date on your vaccines offers strong protection against serious illness,” Ballantyne said in a statement. “So we will take this next step based on the data, the science, and the guidance, as we continue to help residents who remain without protection to get vaccinated.”
At the Board of Health meeting on Thursday, officials cited recent modifications to federal and state guidance and policy changes in neighboring towns as some of the factors driving the board’s decision. Medford, Cambridge and Boston had all announced before the Somerville health board meeting that they would end their mask mandates.
Medford’s new mask guidance went into effect in mid-February, while Somerville’s and Boston’s went into effect on Saturday, March 5. Cambridge’s relaxed guidance is set to go into effect on Sunday, March 13.
Boston University and Northeastern shed their mask mandates for most indoor spaces last week, The Boston Globe reported, and Harvard is expected to announce looser restrictions soon, according to the Harvard Crimson.
Infections have dropped precipitously at Tufts in the last two weeks after reaching an all-time high in mid-February, but numbers still exceed pre-omicron averages and students have continued testing positive at a rate higher than in surrounding communities and some nearby schools, such as BU and MIT.
Tufts logged 142 cases among Medford students in the week leading up to Friday, March 4, reflecting a positivity rate of 2.36%. The positivity rate in Somerville over the last two weeks was just over 1.7%, according to the most recent data on the city’s dashboard.
In the meeting last week, Somerville’s Director of Health and Human Services Doug Kress said the city had seen a slight uptick in infections in the zip codes affiliated with Tufts. Kress said he spoke with university officials, who attributed the high caseload to students’ letting their guard down and not wearing masks in residence halls or after being released from isolation in The Mods.
In response to these observations, the school altered its isolation policy last week, sharing in an email to students that moving forward, individuals will have to remain in isolation for 11 days or until they test negative — whichever comes sooner. The new policy is a reversal from previous guidance, which required students to isolate for five days after testing positive for COVID-19.