The Watertown Board of Health voted to require that people wear face coverings when out in public, indoors and out, or face a fine. The order is a measure to prevent the spread of COVID-19, said Town Health Director Larry Ramdin.
The board voted to approve the order, which will take effect Monday, May 4 and requires anyone age 5 or older to wear something that covers their nose and mouth while in public places, but not necessarily a face mask. Other options include bandanas or scarfs that cover the nose and mouth.
Exceptions will be made for children under age 5, as well as people who have health conditions or disabilities that prevent them from wearing a face covering. To read the Emergency Order follow the link in the Town Manager’s Update by clicking here.
Public places include indoor spots such as businesses and other locations open to the public. Outdoors, it includes all publicly owned land, such as streets, sidewalks, parks and playgrounds. It does not include outdoor spaces on people’s properties, such as yards. Face coverings do not have to be worn while people are inside cars, Ramdin added.
The fine would be $300, but whether to levy the fine would be at the discretion of the town health official or police officer enforcing the order. The fine is the same as in other nearby communities, such as Cambridge and Somerville, which have passed similar measures.
The latest COVID-19 figures in Watertown are 266 positive cases, 11 fatalities, 58 recovered and 197 active cases, Ramdin said.
The board received numerous letters and comments during the meeting with the majority of letters in support, Ramdin said, while others opposed it. Those participating in the meeting, which was held remotely using the Zoom app, mostly opposed putting a requirement for people to wear masks.
Ramdin said that the Coronavirus is a very unusual situation, and he does not believe enough people are complying with the face covering advisory issued by the CDC.
“We as a community need to move past own needs and wants and really think together. We are in this together,” Ramdin said. “This is extremely unusual. We have not seen a disease of this virulence since maybe the 1918 Spanish Flu or maybe Smallpox. We have to keep each other away from each other to keep this down. We have to understand is an unusual circumstance. Doing the things we usually do is not something we can afford to do right now. We all have to do our part to reduce the spread of the virus.”
Multiple people who commented during the meeting said they believe people are practicing social distancing when the go out, and believed the order unnecessarily forces people to wear face coverings. Some residents who participated in the meeting online said they believed it violated personal freedoms.
More than one person said that they did not think just because other communities, such as Cambridge and Somerville, required face coverings, that Watertown should follow suit. People noted that Watertown is not as dense as, say, Somerville.
Also opposed to the measure were people who run or bicycle. One man who said he has run the Boston Marathon several times, compared wearing a face covering while running to being waterboarded. A woman who bicycles frequently and does so in the street with other vehicles, said a face covering causes her glasses to fog up. She said that makes it dangerous because she cannot see other vehicles.
Several people said that they have seen the number of cases begin to drop in Massachusetts, and some said they have not seen any studies showing that not wearing face masks spread COVID-19.
A physician who lives in Watertown commented that he has never seen a disease like COVID-19 and described the impact on those infected as devastating. He favored the face covering requirement.
Board of Health Comments
One of the Board of Health members, Dr. Barbara Beck, said that she recently read about a study that when people run it causes a vortex around them which makes the droplets with the Coronavirus inside in the air smaller and they linger in the air longer. The study, which looked at models of air currents around runners but did not look specifically at COVID-19 droplets, was reported on by the New York Times.
Board member Richard Arnold noted that many people who have been exposed to the Coronavirus do not show any symptoms sometimes called asymptomatic carriers, and may not know they could infect others.
“I have been at Watertown resident for 35 years, and my family is based here. I understand, truly, we are all being asked to do significant hardship in various forms,” Arnold said. “Whether or not we have a close relative who is ill or passed away, we understand this is an unusual time, and this will pass and we will come out of this. But, we need to support each other, and this can create further hardship for me as an individual but we have to look at the community at large. We do have vulnerable people in the community who are at risk.”
Dr. John Straus, chair of the Board of Health, said that he believes that the requirement to wear a covering or mask will help people feel safe when they go out. He added that wearing face coverings could be a long-term thing, even after more businesses open and restrictions are lifted.
“When people to go out we want them to feel safe,” Straus said. “They are not going to go out if they do not feel safe.”
Board members did not want the fine to be required any time that people are seen out without a face covering. Ramdin said that the fine will be for those who do it multiple times, or who are judged to be flagrantly violating the order.
“They will not be chasing people down or waiting behind a bush looking to give a fine,” Ramdin said. “It gives us the ability to fine if people who are multiple violators.”
Some of the commenters said they thought the $300 fine was too high, and could be hard for some people to handle financially. Ramdin said that the fine needs to be large enough to get people’s attention, and not too small that people would feel it is worth just paying it and not wear the face coverings.
“If make a fine that is payable then it becomes a cost of doing business,” Ramdin said. “Then violations continue. The fines have to be a deterrent.”