Communities take different approaches to relaxing mask requirements

  • Guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

  • Northampton’s top health official said this week she is “within days” of relaxing the city’s mask-wearing rules, which require people, like those pictured here, to wear masks downtown. The state relaxed its mask-wearing rules as of Friday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Northampton is about to relax its mask-wearing rules, which require people, like those pictured here, to wear masks downtown, in parks and on the bike path. The state relaxed its mask-wearing rules as of Friday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • People in downtown Northampton following mask-wearing requirements. Massachusetts relaxed its mask-wearing rules on Friday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • People in downtown Northampton following mask-wearing requirements. Massachusetts relaxed its mask-wearing rules on Friday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • People in downtown Northampton following mask-wearing requirements. Massachusetts relaxed its mask-wearing rules on Friday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 4/30/2021 5:41:38 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Three of Hampshire County’s largest communities are taking different approaches to relaxing mask-wearing rules, a move recommended for fully vaccinated people by the federal government this week and OK’d at the state level as of Friday.

While Easthampton is following the state guidelines and has relaxed rules for mask-wearing within its borders, Amherst said its mandate will remain in place until at least mid-May. Northampton, meanwhile, is within days of relaxing its rules.

On Tuesday, Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, said fully vaccinated people don’t need to wear a mask outside unless they are in a crowd. And starting Friday in Massachusetts, statewide mask rules were relaxed — face coverings are no longer required outdoors for people who can safely social distance 6 feet from each other. Masks, however, are still required in indoor public places and at events unless eating or drinking.

Most communities have established their own rules.

Since last spring, Northampton has required that people wear masks — with some exceptions — at all times downtown, in city parks and recreation areas, on the bike path, and any place where 6 feet of social distance isn’t possible.

That will likely soon be lifted. “I think I will probably rescind it in the next couple of days or so,” Northampton Health Department Director Merridith O’Leary said on Thursday. The statewide rule, which is less strict, would still be in effect.

“Now is a different time,” O’Leary said. Community transmission is at “one of the lowest levels since the beginning of COVID in Northampton.”

Nineteen percent of the city’s residents are fully vaccinated and 36% are partially vaccinated, according to April 23 data from the city’s health department.

“I would have liked us to have a higher vaccination rate before lifting all of the restrictions,” she said. Her department will continue to monitor the data and if necessary, can make the mask rules stricter.

In Amherst, a mask order put in effect in early August still stands.

“Presently the order remains in effect and will be reviewed on May 13th at the next Amherst Board of Health Meeting,” Health Department Director Emma Dragon said in an email on Wednesday.

That order states that anyone over the age of 5 must wear a face covering while in a specific area in downtown Amherst. There are some exceptions, such as when seated outdoors for dining.

Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle said the city is following Gov. Charlie Baker’s rules relaxing mask requirements.

Like other places, the city is seeing fewer COVID cases, LaChapelle said.

“We’re in a good place. It wasn’t too long ago we weren’t in a good place,” she said. “We’re going to keep an eye on our public health indicators.”

In the past two weeks, Easthampton has had 18 cases of COVID-19, while Northampton has had 15 cases, according to state Department of Public Health data released on Thursday. Seventy-nine cases have been detected in Amherst in the past two weeks, according to state DPH data. As of Thursday, there were 39 active cases at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, according to the university’s dashboard.

Although the rules are being relaxed, many people may still wear masks outdoors, O’Leary said.

“I honestly feel like even though it’s not going to be a requirement, we’re still going to see a lot of people downtown wearing masks,” she said. “It’s become part of our culture now until we’ve got more vaccinated and good data behind us.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.




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