Westborough Board of Health issues mask advisory

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Westborough Board of Health issues mask advisory
Westborough Board of Health members Nathan Walsh and Alan Ehrlich sit during a Board of Health meeting this week. Board member Melissa Mahr participated in the meeting remotely via Zoom. (Photo/Laura Hayes)

WESTBOROUGH – The Westborough Board of Health has issued an advisory urging community members to wear masks when in crowded public places or where social distancing isn’t possible.

The advisory will go into place on Monday, and it may be revisited at a subsequent Board of Health meeting. 

Speaking during a meeting on Thursday, board Chair Nathan Walsh cited an uptick in cases and hospitalizations in explaining his position on an advisory.

“It’s not rising by a threshold of wanting a mandate, at this point,” Walsh said. “But I might not be opposed to putting out another advisory that people should be masked indoors, especially in cases where we think there might be higher risk.” 

COVID-19 case rates increase

Walsh described the advisory as an indication to the public that COVID-19 is worse now than it may have been a month or two ago.

The advisory is appropriate, he continued. 

“I was hoping that the summer was going to be completely flat and it’s not,” Walsh said, referencing coronavirus case rates. “Depending on what metric you’re using, it’s still here.” 

Board of Health Director Jennifer Sullivan noted on Thursday that there had been 73 positive cases between May 6 to May 12 reported in Westborough through Maven, which is a disease surveillance software platform. 

As Maven reported that data, Sullivan said Westborough schools documented 109 cases among their school communities over the same period.

In conversations about the Board of Health and school’s COVID-19 reports later in the meeting, however, Sanitarian Ray Gauthier noted that the school reports may include staff members who live outside of Westborough.

“Anecdotally, I’ve heard that there are large numbers of students that are missing from school,” said Walsh.

“I don’t know if it’s being passed around at the school, but it’s being passed around in the community at least,” he later added. 

Sullivan said that COVID-19 was “widespread” in at least one kindergarten and one fourth grade classroom.

Board discusses details of advisory 

Board of Health member Melissa Mahr initially proposed an advisory to recommend masking in indoor public spaces.

Other members suggested changes.

“It’s easier for me to buy into it if you say ‘crowded indoor spaces,’” said member Alan Ehrlich.

He noted some indoor settings, such as a grocery store late at night, would pose a lower COVID-19 risk than others. 

“Given the volume of that space and the number of people who are there being told, ‘Please bring your food to the checkout line,’ I’m less concerned about that than I am if you’re talking about let’s say a high school play or something like that where it is crowded for a prolonged period of time,” Ehrlich said. “You’re getting much greater risk in a situation like that.”

Although Mahr expressed concerns about confusing people, the Board of Health unanimously adopted its advisory recommending masking in public spaces that are crowded or in which social distancing cannot happen.

Staff discuss community’s response to advisory

Continuing discussion after the board’s vote, Walsh asked town staff members how they believe the advisory will be received.

“I’m going to probably guess that it’s not going to be well-received,” Sullivan said. 

Sanitarian Ray Gauthier said residents know the cases are on the rise, but they have told him that they hope the Board of Health doesn’t implement masking. 

“Even an advisory, people scoff at it,” Gauthier said.

Sullivan and Gauthier said people already know about mask guidances. 

“The guidance is already there,” Gauthier said. “So, they’re getting nervous like, ‘Oh jeez, the numbers are going up. The town is going to do this again.’ They’re preemptively upset.”

“Even better would be if some of those people were to preemptively take precautions to prevent the spread of the virus,” Walsh said. “That way, the numbers would actually not go up. I think that would be an ideal situation.”

The Westborough Health Department is offering free rapid COVID-19 test kits during normal business hours at its offices, at the Westborough Public Library and at the Westborough Senior Center.

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