Massachusetts Cities And Towns Debate Mask Mandates, Vaccine Requirements

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The Massachusetts State House. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The Massachusetts State House. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

As the delta variant spreads, a growing number of Massachusetts cities and towns are imposing mask mandates or requiring government workers to be vaccinated.

But some local leaders complain there's no single statewide approach, leaving communities on their own.

"It's been a disaster," says Joseph Curtatone, the mayor of Somerville. "What we've had in Massachusetts from the very beginning was this loose guidance from the Commonwealth. As a consequence, you have 351 cities and towns trying to figure it out on their own."

Some cities and towns, including Somerville, Brockton and Framingham have reinstated mask requirement in city buildings. Others, including Belmont, Nantucket and Provincetown now require masks inside restaurants, bars, churches and stores.

There's also growing concern about the coming school year and whether kids should mask up in the classroom.

Yet Curtatone says it amounts to a patchwork of local regulations for a virus that "knows no boundaries."

State Sen. Becca Rausch, a Democrat from Needham, agrees and says school administrators across the commonwealth are desperate for guidance.

Rausch has filed a bill to require masks in schools for the coming year, arguing that the legislation is needed because Gov. Charlie Baker has failed to lead on the issue.

"It should be the governor leading all throughout the pandemic," Rausch says. "He is the chief officer of this entire commonwealth and it is his responsibility to do so."

Baker has recommended that schools require kids from kindergarten through sixth grade wear masks, but he's leaving the decision up to individual school boards.

"I'm not going to get into making decisions that I believe, in many cases, ought to be driven by the folks at the local level who know those communities best," Baker says.

Last year, Baker imposed a statewide mask mandate, but has declined to reinstate it this summer. And the governor mandated that staff in nursing homes be vaccinated, but not state workers.


Meanwhile, Aquinnah and New Bedford are among the first municipalities in the state to require local government workers get vaccinated.

"I think it's necessary as a basic public health measure," says New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell.

Mitchell notes the spread of the delta variant has caused infections to soar in greater New Bedford, where vaccination rates are low.

The city has pushed incentives, including gift cards from Dunkin', to encourage more people to get vaccinated. But only about half of residents have received at least one shot, according to state data.

So Mitchell says it's time to replace the carrot with a stick — and impose a vaccination mandate.

"As a major employer in this region it was incumbent on us to set a strong example for other employers to do the same to boost our vaccination rates," he says. "And I think this was the next logical step."

Scores of other communities are also considering imposing vaccine mandates, according to Geoff Beckwith, who heads the Massachusetts Municipal Association. But Beckwith says it's not as simple as it sounds.

He says many cities and towns would first have to reach agreements with an array of unions representing police, firefighters and other city workers, because the mandate on vaccines would be a change of working conditions.

"And there's usually a large level of resistance to even the smallest changes," Beckwith says.

Many labor unions have already raised objections to vaccine mandates, including the Massachusetts Nurses Association. Union president Katie Murphy points out the federal government has only approved the vaccines for emergency use so far and that's not enough for many of her members.

"They feel concerned about having to choose between their health and their livelihood, so we're really listening to our members as far as that goes," Murphy says.

But resistance isn't universal. New Bedford's mayor says he's already talking with the unions —and so far, there's been no push-back.

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Boston Acting Mayor Kim Janey says she's also working with labor leaders to impose a vaccine mandate for government workers. She plans to provide an update on those plans at a news conference Thursday.

But Janey has objected to the idea of imposing a vaccine passport, like one in New York City, that would require patrons of restaurants, movie theaters and other businesses to show proof that they're vaccinated.

Last week, she linked the proposal to "birtherism" and laws from the slave-era —language for which she later apologized. Janey says vaccine passports would unfairly target Black and brown neighborhoods.

"If vaccine passports were imposed today, that would shut out nearly 40% of East Boston and 60% of Mattapan," Janey says.

Some opponents pounced on her comments and says she needs to do more to contain the virus.

"We know from the New York City model of requiring folks to have proof of vaccination they've seen a 40% uptick in folks getting vaccinated," says City Councilor Andrea Campbell, who is running against Janey for mayor. "That's what we want."

And City Councilor Michelle Wu, who is also running for mayor, called for more decisive action from City Hall —including enacting vaccine passports.

"We need city government to lead, and that means taking every single possible step to protect our communities," Wu told WBUR on Wednesday.

As cases rises, several polls show most Americans generally support mask and vaccine mandates.

That's especially true in Massachusetts — where cities and towns are still deciding what action to take on their own.

This segment aired on August 12, 2021.


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Anthony Brooks Senior Political Reporter
Anthony Brooks is WBUR's senior political reporter.



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