Northampton to require indoor mask use starting Wednesday as delta variant spreads

  • Employees at Marcellamoda’s office in Florence repackage some of the masks the garment business has been producing at its Bulgaria atelier, Sept. 11, 2020. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 8/9/2021 9:07:22 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Patrons and staff of businesses, and anyone else who enters a public indoor space in the city, will be required once again to wear a snugly fitting mask over their mouth and nose starting on Wednesday.

The Board of Health voted Monday night to reinstate a mask mandate in response to resurgent coronavirus infections after a presentation from public health experts who described an uptick in local cases due to the virus’s delta variant.

The board voted to authorize Public Health Director Merridith O’Leary to finalize the language of the order in consultation with city solicitor Alan Seewald, and O’Leary asked the board to give the public 24 hours to prepare. Exemptions include children under 5 and anyone who cannot wear a mask due to a medical condition.

At a virtual hearing attended by at least 80 people, the board heard from business owners and local leaders, who held different views on the importance of wearing a mask in an effort to slow the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19. Some urged a mandate to protect public health, while others expressed concern about possible economic consequences and infringement on people’s rights.

“We understand that preventive measures are necessary, but individuals have had the option to get vaccinated or not vaccinated for months,” said James Przypek, general manager of the Three County Fair. “Individuals have had the option to wear a mask or not wear a mask for months. We ask that you not take the rights of individuals away to make their own choices.”

Przybek said a mask mandate would “severely affect business at the Three County Fair, including the New England paint horse show taking place this weekend.”

Bud Neiswender, owner of Inspirit Crystals, said the downtown business started requiring masks for all customers and staff over the past several days. Other city businesses have their own mask requirements, or none at all.

“We’d really (err) on the side of caution, and also having one rule across Northampton that we can enforce, so that customers would know what to expect more easily,” said Neiswender. “The safer we keep our staff, the more likely we are to be able to stay open.”

The health department is currently investigating an outbreak tied to an indoor workplace in the city, said public health nurse Vivian Franklin, and at least half of those in the “small-scale cluster” of cases were fully vaccinated.

“All of those people did become symptomatic, and there is evidence of transmission” between people with a variety of vaccination statuses, said Franklin, who added that there are confirmed cases of the delta variant in the city. “It has become the predominant circulating variant and now accounts for over 90% of cases in the country, and at least 85% of cases in the state.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Hampshire County is considered to be at moderate risk for community transmission of coronavirus based on positive test results in the past seven days, the lowest risk level in Massachusetts. Every other county is at substantial or high risk.

“Moderate” risk means that 5 to 7.99% of COVID-19 tests are positive.

UMass vaccination order

UMass Amherst also announced Monday that all faculty and staff must be vaccinated, and an indoor mask mandate will go into effect on Wednesday, saying the policy will be reviewed in mid-September.

“Face coverings must be worn in nearly all indoor public spaces, including classrooms, hallways, elevators, restrooms,” and other locations including meeting rooms and laboratories, the university wrote in its announcement. “To further protect our community, the university will require faculty and staff to be vaccinated. This requirement follows agreements reached in recent days with our labor unions. A significant number of employees have already received shots.”

The Easthampton Health Department also issued an advisory on Monday urging indoor mask use for everyone over age 5, regardless of vaccination status.

“The Delta variant is highly contagious and is currently accounting for 80% of the COVID-19 cases in the Northeast,” wrote the department in a public notice. “However, fully vaccinated people appear to be infectious for a shorter period.”

The health department is hosting a vaccine clinic at the Easthampton Community Center on Monday, Aug. 16, from 9 a.m. to noon, and at Big E’s market from 1 to 3 p.m.

At Monday night’s meeting in Northampton, a member of the public urged the Board of Health not to implement a program similar to the vaccine mandate in New York City, which requires anyone who enters certain indoor businesses to show proof of at least one vaccine shot.

“We’re not talking about vaccine passports,” said board member Dr. Suzanne Smith.

O’Leary, the public health director, said the health department can provide masks and signs to businesses that need them.

Brian Steele can be reached at bsteele@gazettenet.com


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