Members of the Board of Health deliberated—at times agonized—for almost an hour-and-a-half during a special meeting held on Zoom last Monday night before voting to rescind its indoor mask requirement on Feb. 28, the same day state education officials made masking optional in schools.
And even though the vote was 3-2, there was agreement that the time has come.
Member Ann Kiessling, who has consistently opposed the mandate, moved that the requirement be lifted. Susan Schwartz, who at the Feb. 7 board meeting successfully suggested that the town align with a ruling by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, seconded.
Maureen Richichi was the swing vote. She added a provision requiring a detailed advisory concurrent with the transition—stressing masking as an option when transmission rates are moderate or higher. Kiessling said she welcomed the amendment.
Anita Raj, board chair, and Bea Brunkhorst were the negative votes. Both indicated that if the data continue to trend down as of the board’s Feb. 28 meeting, they could support rescinding on March 7.
Raj invited each member to comment on their positions, and some of them wavered even as they tried to articulate where they stood.
Brunkhorst indicated her concern about premature rescinding. “I would love to see testing be more robust,” noting that Feb. 28 will be an opportunity to update data. “Personally, I’d love to keep it until after March 7.”
She anticipates a post-vacation increase in cases. Brunkhorst also recognized the need to align with the practice in the schools, and to advise the School Committee about concerns about large gatherings. She recommended identifying a specific metric, such as hospitalizations, “It’s good to get something in place so a mask mandate can come back as needed.”
Kiessling commented, “People have an unrealistic expectation about how helpful the masks are.” She acknowledged that they “might help a little,” but referenced data during the January surge that showed no statistical difference in cases among towns with or without a requirement.
Case numbers are no longer meaningful, she said. “The logic behind that is there are too many people testing positive who are not sick. The only realistic metrics are hospitalizations and deaths,” and perhaps percent positivity. Referring to the elderly, Kiessling said, “I don’t think we have good messaging for people who are really at risk—but they certainly shouldn’t depend on the mask.” She advised that before visiting someone who is compromised, get tested.
“My goal is low transmission,” said Maureen Richichi, noting her concern that the superintendent of schools announced acceptance of the DESE decision without consulting the Board of Health. “I was hoping that there could be a discussion to be consistent moving forward.”
Initially, she was leaning toward a one-week delay. Richichi quoted an epidemiologist about the importance of “the choices we continue to make in terms of caring for ourselves and for each other.” She said she was surprised that DESE didn’t provide for a week’s leeway after vacation, “The important thing to keep in mind [is] we still have a reason to care for one another.”
She also expressed concern about what she called the town’s low vaccination rate, saying 19 percent of residents aren’t vaccinated.
Schwartz proposed linking the Bedford mandate to the DESE policy at the Feb. 7 meeting. Now, she admitted, “I don’t know if that makes sense.” She also expressed concern “that residents aren’t taking advantage of the whole series of vaccines. And I’d love to see the school testing numbers be higher.”
“Masking is just one of the protective measures, and we didn’t mandate all of the other protective measures,” she pointed out. Schwartz urged that residents “assess your risk, your immediate community, and the greater community,” adding that people should not be judgmental about individual mask-wearing.
Raj cited a “classic” theme of “individual rights vs. community rights.” She said she would like to evaluate hospitalizations at the next meeting. But other members discouraged hard numbers. “Either align with DESE or come up with a date. Put a stake in the ground,” Schwartz declared.
Heidi Porter, director of health and human services, commented, “From a public health perspective, I want to be the most conservative. To have a little more time is not a bad thing.”
She stressed that the DESE recommendation was made in consultation with its own medical experts and the state Department of Public Health.
She cited low case numbers from August and wondered why the board won’t consider that as a baseline for rescinding. Richichi pointed out that those data were before the Omicron variant, She said she preferred a “consistent decrease” over numbers.
The board accepted a dozen comments during the meeting and acknowledged receiving many emails.
As expected, they were polarized. Emily Prince said she collected 119 signatures in 24 hours calling for continuing the mandate to March 7, “to be sure that there are no post-Super Bowl and post-vacation surges. Michaela McCormick added that maybe the board can extend a continued mandate into the schools “so we can really make a plan for going forward on metrics and data.” Jeremy Singer said the decision should be based on numbers, not “sentiment.”
Jane Patterson declared, “Kids should not be masked at school. It’s gone on long enough.” Angela Winter said teachers have told her that students’ “phonetic awareness is falling way behind.” Dr. Michael Indelicato said, “If someone feels they are at risk, wear a mask, It’s time to let kids be kids.”
John Mitchell urged retaining the requirement for large gatherings such as the high school musical Other speakers were familiar to the board.
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at email@example.com, or 781-983-1763