By Laura Hayes, Senior Community Reporter
SHREWSBURY – Face coverings will be once again required indoors in Shrewsbury following a vote by the Shrewsbury Board of Health during a special meeting on Oct. 5.
Specifically, the order requires face coverings in all indoor private common spaces in the workplace and in indoor private spaces open to the public in town.
This includes restaurants, bars, houses of worship and fitness establishments, except when a person is alone in a workplace, alone with a closed door or socially distanced from other people.
This order will go into effect on Oct. 12, alongside an order requiring employers to report positive COVID-19 cases in the workplace. There’s also a mandate requiring facial coverings in all schools.
Regional memo prompts mandate
Board Chair Stephen Vigeant said the Oct. 5 special meeting was called after the Worcester Division of Public Health sent a memo to all of the communities in the Central Massachusetts Regional Public Health Alliance (CMRPHA), advising them to adopt emergency orders.
In addition to Worcester and Shrewsbury, the alliance includes Grafton, Millbury and West Boylston.
The Shrewsbury Board of Health had already strongly encouraged people to wear masks in indoor spaces. Worcester Medical Director Michael Hirsh said, though, that they wanted to see masking as a policy instead of just being a recommendation.
Experts detail reasoning for mandate
Hirsh said that some people may be wondering why Shrewsbury is masking up while COVID-19 infection numbers are going down.
Hirsh and Worcester Commissioner of Health and Human Services Matilde Castiel recalled the end of emergency orders and subsequent reopening earlier this year.
“We underestimated what [the] Delta [variant] was going to do over the summer,” Hirsh said.
Looking at numbers from India and the United Kingdom, where the Delta variant has hit hard, experts say Delta-driven infection spikes have a propensity to fizzle out after three to four months. But Hirsh said they still don’t know if any of the many other COVID-19 variants currently circulating around the world will take over.
“We are in a situation where there’s going to be a lot of family gatherings, whether it’s over the Columbus Day holiday, the Halloween holiday and then, of course, the big one is Thanksgiving and Christmas,” Hirsh said.
Last year, there was a surge of cases after the holiday season, he said.
“I think we just have to keep our foot on the pedal and not let up our guard yet,” Hirsh said.
‘This virus doesn’t respect…the boundaries that we write’
As the Board of Health voted to mandate masks, Castiel said Shrewsbury was doing “fabulously” in terms of its vaccination numbers. Her presentation indicated that 76 percent of residents had received at least one dose of the vaccine, and 70 percent of residents were fully vaccinated.
“The thought process is to continue being able to mask, even though numbers are good for Shrewsbury, thinking that how we should handle a pandemic shouldn’t be by neighborhood by neighborhood or by town by town,” Castiel said. “It truly should be a statewide issue until numbers are doing better throughout the state.”
That’s how pandemics should be handled in the future, she added.
“This virus doesn’t respect the Burns Bridge and the boundaries that we write for where Shrewsbury is and where Worcester is,” Hirsh said.
The entirety of Worcester County reported a rolling average of just six COVID-19 cases on June 26 according to New York Times visualizations sourced from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. By Sept. 16, though, that number had spiked to 276 cases. The number has since remained high, only dipping to 222 cases on Oct. 7
Worcester implemented its own mask mandate last month, establishing similar rules as those recently enacted in Shrewsbury.
The orders do not have a specific end date.
Hirsh said that officials may revisit the orders in December or January if data indicates that COVID-19 spread is diminished and if case numbers are low.