ROCKPORT — Gov. Charlie Baker may have ruled that face coverings are no longer a hard requirement when outdoors, but Rockport residents and guests will still need to wear masks when downtown for at least another month.
At a joint meeting of the Boards of Selectmen and Health on Thursday to discuss current Rockport COVID-19 measures, Board of Health members voted to keep current mask requirements in place. The Board of Health will consider lifting the requirement sometime in mid-June.
"Distancing is too difficult to enforce," said Board of Health Chairman Bruce Cohen, "and I feel the conditions aren't right now for removing mandates for face coverings in crowded areas both outside and certainly indoors and shops."
Some Board of Health members believed these requirements were unneeded now that the state entered Phase Four of Baker's reopening plan.
"I think the fear here is if we don't change anything, people will be saying, "Well, why am I getting vaccinated?" said Board of Health member Mary Beth Murphy. "Having it downtown all the time, seven o'clock in the morning when I'm walking my dogs, just seems like overkill at this point. I think we should adopt the state standards, which is you need to wear a mask when its crowded downtown and you can't be (less) than six feet from others, and trust people to do that."
Likewise, Selectmen Don Campbell believes that since residents are getting vaccinated, there should have more leniency with mask requirements.
"When does this stop?" he said. "When do we actually relax the restrictions and let people live their lives? Because people have been following the rules. ... There's going to be cases of this happening. It is going to happen. But if I have a vaccination, what benefit did it gave me? It gave me nothing."
Selectwoman Sarah Wilkinson opined about potential "mask fatigue."
"The last time we were tighter than the state, we got crushed by people saying, 'Do you not think we can be responsible?' and 'Who are you to tell us this?' My fear is that is if we stay tighter than the state that people will kind of buck us and are like, 'Forget this.' I just want people to wear a mask when they need to, so I'm trying to figure out what is the best way to get that to happen."
Cohen said that while around 30% of town residents have been vaccinated and virtually all residents have been vigilant about wearing face coverings, he is worried about those visiting from out of state.
"Salem, Boston and Somerville are three (communities) that I know that are continuing mask requirements above the state guidelines. I'm very comfortable deviating from state guidelines if it helps protects and keep our community safe, and that's what I think it does.
During public comment, Matt Wigton of Summer Street described the decision to keep the downtown mask mandate as "extreme."
"It's not actually congested most of the time," he said. "It's congested primarily on the weekends and maybe sunny evenings. So perhaps consider a way of modifying (the mask mandate) or just make it Bearskin Neck."
Laura Stevens of Marmion Way disagreed with Wigton.
"Downtown during busy hours, you're not socially distant," she said. "We're nowhere near herd immunity, so keeping the mask precautions downtown would be a wise move."
A motion was made by Board of Health Vice Chair Dr. Ron Newman to limit the mask requirement just to Bearskin Neck, not the entire downtown district. It failed to pass; Newman and Murphy voted in favor while Cohen, Barbara McCarthy and Dr. Sydney Wedmore were against. The motion to review the downtown mask mandate in a month passed unanimously.
"I think thats a reasonable compromise," said Cohen. "Things are changing rapidly. ... I think we need to stay the course right now and this would be how to do that while making it clear to everyone in Rockport that we're open to continued review."
Afterward, the Board of Health voted to end the face mask requirement at the Transfer Station while keeping the mask requirement at this year's Town Meeting unless a person is speaking into a microphone. All other Rockport COVID-19 mandates now defer to current state policies.
Michael Cronin may be contacted at 978-675-2708, or email@example.com.