LETTER: Make COVID Rules More Clear This Time Around

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The immediate spur for this letter is the board of health’s new order reinstating the indoor mask mandate. I have found it a big source of frustration this entire pandemic that it has often not been all that clear what the rules actually are.

I appreciate that the town’s website currently has on the front page the new mask mandate, but how long will this stay up there? Given that a mask mandate is such a sharp difference from everyday life as of 2019, whatever rules we want everyone to follow we should be shouting from the proverbial rooftops. Why can’t we have a permanent feature on the homepage, as well as on any interactive town signage and posted all over town, something like the following:

The “Last Update” part is important, because I found it just as frustrating to discover when requirements were removed as to confirm when they were still in place. The bottom line is, if there’s any hope of people following these sorts of public health mandates, it should be really, really easy for anyone to actually know what the mandate is. The Parks department in particular, has been slow at this. They admirably posted their rules on the park entrances, like so:

However, these signs remained up long long after the actual outdoor mask mandate was rescinded. I actually had to call the parks department to confirm that, after Governor Baker rescinded the outdoor mask mandate, the town wasn’t seeking to continue enforcing one. Not only were the signs still up (and are still up today), the town’s website still listed the Board of Health as having an outdoor mask mandate when it did not. Outdated websites and signs proclaiming no-longer-existing rules are in some ways even more damaging than a lack of signs for new rules — everyone I’ve ever seen at the playgrounds has become used to ignoring the outdated signs. This is a good thing, since the sign proclaims a fake rule. But if the town ever wants people to heed such signs in the future, it’s really important to take them down when they are no longer in effect. Does the town maintain any record of where town-owned signs are posted, and what they say? I wonder how many signs around town give incorrect information about these issues.

Further, I hope that the Board of Health, Parks Department, and other bodies think hard about what rules they are actually willing to enforce at least to some extent. I have been frustrated at what seems like a common equilibrium where some board enacts a strict rule, that everyone kinda knows is too strict, but figures it’s OK because “everybody knows” that the rule doesn’t really mean what it says. But this is actually really bad for four reasons. First, not everybody actually knows that the rule doesn’t mean what it says, and for those that are less plugged in, the over-strict rule can cause a lot of hardship. Second, the rule acts as a kind of tax on cooperative people, stressing them out while not actually getting whatever benefits would be achieved by everyone following the rule. Third, having a lot of rules that “everybody knows” aren’t real can, over time, systematically undermine people’s respect for rules in general, and will eventually make it very difficult to make any new rule stick. And fourth, these kinds of fake rules lodge a lot of arbitrary power in enforcers, allowing them to pick and choose who to target for other (maybe not so nice) reasons, rather than enforcing the rule evenhandedly on anyone who violates it.

Now, I understand that cases and hospitalization are rising sharply at the moment, so I do support the reinstated mask mandate for now. I think the cases number at this point is probably far less relevant than the hospitalization number, but I don’t want anyone to take this letter as opposition at this time. But I urge all of our leaders to take time periodically to carefully think about existing rules and new rules often with this in mind, continually asking:

• What are the benefits of creating or maintaining this particular rule,specifically?

• Are we willing to (continue to) actually enforce this rule, and what are the social costs of doing so?

• How can we make sure that everyone affected by this rule knows about it?

• What changed circumstances would lead us in the future to reevaluate this rule?

• When the rule is eventually changed, how will we communicate the change? What signage will we need to alter or take down?

Thanks and I hope everyone has a happy holiday.

Matt Lashof-Sullivan
Molloy Street

10 thoughts on “LETTER: Make COVID Rules More Clear This Time Around

  1. Remember when the town banned basketball in the parks last year after some kids were found to not be wearing masks?

    There seems to be no rule too ridiculous.

    Remember when Gov. Baker ordered all students to get the flu vaccine last year? Made no sense whatsoever.

    I’m still wondering: when will the Watertown Board of Health mandate flu vaccines for adults?

    By the way, a Covid “case” does not mean that the person is necessarily sick with Covid.

    It simply means they tested positive for Covid.

    The word “case” implies – to me anyway – that the person is very ill and is probably in a hospital.

    Scare tactic? I think so. You scare people, you get to control them.

  2. A case indicates that they have the virus and thus can pass it onto an another or others. I believe this is the biggest factor in knowing case count. Thus if the case count is high then the likelihood to spread higher and thus related to hospitalizations. Our hospitals are quite over worked and full.

    • Wearing a mask to walk 10ft into a restaurant and then taking it off to eat isnt going to do anything.

      The health board here doesn’t have any real healthcare experience

      This variant is weaker but spreads faster, we all knew this , and SA government confirmed and and said no real threat in fact US just lifted it travel ban, and SA is reopening after 3 weeks.

      as others said, case count means little. hospitalization do. remember flatten the curve, which is what the vax was for. but some leaders are more into politics vs common sense.

      then the CDC, MA, and NY decided to change how long healthcare workers have to quarantine, its quite obvious they are lost in their own troubles of firing workers who were heros working in worse covid times without a vax, then fire bunch and now staff sick, fired workers- Hey if you test positive you know longer have to wait, just dont have a fever but you can be positive and come to work> give me a break.

  3. Ripsty aka?
    Unsure of your point to my comment? What I said was that case counts and hospitalizations are related. Our hospitals are quite over worked and full. Please state how your statements are a reply to what I stated? Are you stating we don’t have fully hospitals and over worked staff?

  4. I asked the health department if I could get the numbers on vaccinated residents by age and was told they don’t have those numbers yet Belmont provides them for Belmont. Also when I asked about the number of cases that were from restaurants I was told they don’t have that data. So much for contact tracing.

  5. I think there are a few issues mixed in: making rules easily available to the public and keeping those rules current; the content of the rules; and enforcement. At a minimum, the Town should keep its rules (online or signage) up to date. That should be easy to solve by any functioning town government. The other items can be argued about at length. Also, I would not disparage our Health Dept. For decades, governments have not adequately funded their
    Public Health functions.

  6. What I find very frustrating is how many in our community seem to be ignoring all the information that is out there through the news about covid, the new variant, how contagious it is, and how high the numbers are now.

    First, it’s no surprise that with the colder weather here and the holidays (Thanksgiving – New Years) that more people will get the virus. What is bothersome is how many people ignore this information and still put others at risk. If you are hosting a party during a time when the covid numbers are skyrocketing then you are part of the problem and likely creating an environment where others will get sick. In the past few days I have heard of so many covid cases in town and so many potential exposures. Most of the cases I know of are due to people letting their guard down, attending a large get together and not wearing a mask. If you are hanging out inside a home with a group of 20 or more, hanging out in a bar, going massless, etc then you should expect to get covid.

    No one is saying you can’t ever do these things but when the numbers are high we should all be a bit smarter and hold off on the parties, large crowds, etc.

  7. The CDC adjusted its rules to include the concept of “masking” when in public on the 6th day of being Covid positive. Going so far as to say, if possible to mask. Meaning, the CDC has come out with no uncertainty here that masks are completely unnecessary. When will Watertown follow the CDC and the science behind its decision making?

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