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Why Mass. is rolling back its mask and vaccine mandates06:03
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People wearing protective masks stand on the corner during a busy day on Newbury Street, July 11, 2020, in Boston. (Michael Dwyer/AP)
People wearing protective masks stand on the corner during a busy day on Newbury Street, July 11, 2020, in Boston. (Michael Dwyer/AP)

A growing number of cities and towns across Massachusetts are rolling back their mask and vaccine mandates as COVID-19 cases decline.

The rules are changing daily, depending upon where you live. But here are answers to some common questions about the shifting landscape.

Why are so many communities dropping their restrictions now?

Key numbers from the state Department of Public Health show infections, hospitalizations and positive test rates peaked in January and have been steadily dropping since. In fact, some measures are back to where they were last fall — before a surge in infections related to delta and omicron variants. So many public health officials across the state believe it's safe to ease up restrictions.

What steps has Gov. Charlie Baker taken? 

Earlier this month, the governor announced the statewide school mask mandate would expire on Feb. 28. Baker said that's possible largely because of the state has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country and testing is widely available.

"It's time to give our kids a sense of normalcy and lift the mask mandate on a state-wide basis for schools," Baker said.

Dozens of schools across the state are already mask-free. But while the state mandate will end soon, some school districts may continue to require masks for now. That includes Boston, Chelsea and Northampton schools. 

Also, this week, the state Department of Public health relaxed its guidance about who should continue to wear masks and where: DPH now says people who are fully vaccinated no longer need to wear masks in most public places, unless they or someone in their household faces a higher risk of a severe case of COVID. Finally, mask mandates remain in force on public transportation — including MBTA buses, trains and ferries —as well in state health care facilities.

What about masking rules for cities and towns?

It's complicated. Some towns and cities have community-wide mask requirements. Others only require masks in public buildings. And some cities and towns have no requirements at all. And the details are changing quickly. For example, Worcester voted to end its indoor mask requirement starting Friday.

"We feel we are in a fairly safe position to do this rescission," said Dr. Michael Hirsh, Worcester's medical director, citing declining infections, hospitalizations and test positivity rates.

Under Worcester's new policy, masks will still be required on public transportation, in the airport and at some other public spaces. The city also recommends that the unvaccinated and people who are immune-compromised or who live with people who are immune-compromised continue to wear masks.

What's happening in other communities?

A number of other cities and towns have dropped their mask mandates, including Lowell, Beverly and Mansfield. So has Salem, where the Board of Health voted unanimously to end both its mask and vaccine mandates. Meanwhile, lots of other cities and towns still require masks, though policies are changing almost daily. So, if you are unsure of what the requirement is where you live, you should check your local health department's website.

What about the rules in Boston?

Boston requires all city workers get vaccinated, which has prompted push-back and legal fights from some public employee unions. An appellate court justice has temporarily blocked the city from enforcing the mandate for police and fire departments.  Boston also requires proof of vaccination to enter indoor restaurants, as well as fitness and entertainment venues. But this could all change: according to Mayor Michelle Wu, based on the latest data, the vaccine requirements could be lifted very soon.

And what about vaccine requirements elsewhere?

This is also complicated: a number of cities and towns in the Boston area don't have vaccine requirements, including Arlington, Cambridge and Somerville, but lots of business owners have imposed their own rules. For example, many restaurants in Cambridge require proof of vaccination. So again, you need to check out what your community — or favorite restaurant or gym — require.

With infection and hospitalization numbers coming down, are we finally turning a corner in the pandemic?

The latest numbers are good news. But keep in mind that we've had three big spikes since this pandemic began two years ago — and we could have another one.

'"It's wonderful to see people's smiling faces," said Lenny Marcus, who directs the Program for Health Care Negotiation and Conflict Resolution at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Marcus said it's understandable that we want to leave mask requirements behind. But he is worried some communities might be rolling back these protections too soon.

"I'm just concerned that there are places that are getting a little bit ahead of the curve, and could inadvertently create a situation where those cases go back up," he said.

So, while the numbers are trending in the right direction, Marcus counsels patience.

This segment aired on February 18, 2022.

Related:

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

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