A STANDING-ROOM ONLY crowd attended the joint Board of Health, School Committee and Select Board meeting on Aug. 18. The three boards voted to implement a mask mandate for municipal buildings. (Dan Tomasello Photo)
By DAN TOMASELLO
LYNNFIELD — Tensions ran incredibly high after the Board of Health, School Committee and Select Board unanimously approved a mask mandate for municipal buildings during a joint meeting on Aug. 18.
The regulation will go into effect on Monday, Aug. 23. The order stipulates that people age 3 and older will be required to wear masks inside town-owned buildings, including schools. People who violate the mandate can be fined $200 for each violation. The mandate does not apply to people who have certain medical conditions.
While the mandate applies to municipal buildings, it does not apply to local businesses. The vote occurred two days before Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) Commissioner Jeff Riley announced that he will be seeking approval from the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education to authorize him to require students and staff to wear masks inside school buildings through Oct. 1.
Select Board Chairman Dick Dalton said the Board of Health has the authority to issue a mask mandate to all town-owned buildings even if the Select Board and School Committee objected to the mandate.
Fire Chief/Emergency Management Director Glenn Davis gave an overview of the rising COVID-19 cases that have occurred in town over the past month. While Davis was speaking, a number of mask mandate opponents sitting in the audience at the Al Merritt Media and Cultural Center talked among themselves instead of listening to the data the chief presented.
Davis said the town has had 67 new cases of COVID-19 over a 28-day period. He said there have been 1,291 novel coronavirus cases in Lynnfield since the pandemic began in March 2020. Tragically, 29 residents have lost their lives to the virus.
“Lynnfield has been averaging 20.9 average cases per 14 days,” said Davis. “That is almost double the rate across the entire state of Massachusetts. We are seeing a large uptick.”
Davis said the state’s positivity rate is 2.69 percent.
“Essex County is slightly higher at 2.99 percent,” said Davis. “Currently in Lynnfield, we are almost double the state average at 4.18 positivity.”
Davis said 76 percent of residents are fully vaccinated and 67 percent of children age 12 and older are fully vaccinated. Superintendent of Schools Kristen Vogel added that 72 percent of Lynnfield High School students and 54 percent of Lynnfield Middle School students are fully vaccinated.
“Those are good numbers, but they probably need to be higher,” said Vogel.
While the town had almost 70 days of zero COVID-19 cases earlier this summer, Davis said the delta variant has been surging across the country, state and town.
“Ninety percent of the new cases we are now seeing is the delta variant,” said Davis. “The delta variant spreads twice as easily from one person to another compared to previous variants. New evidence shows that vaccinated people can get or spread the delta variant. The CDC recommends everyone in areas with substantial or high spread, which Lynnfield is, to wear a mask indoors whether they are vaccinated or unvaccinated. Most of the spread is among unvaccinated people.”
Davis said children can get the delta variant and spread it to other people.
“Because the delta variant is more contagious than past versions of the virus, the concern is that more kids will get COVID-19 and spread it to others,” said Davis. “We know — based on national antibody studies — some children don’t have symptoms, but are infected and can spread the virus. Protecting people from COVID-19 is more important than ever, especially those who are unvaccinated and those too young to be vaccinated.”
Davis said the CDC recommends “universal indoor masking for all teachers, staff, students and visitors to all K-12 schools regardless of vaccination status.”
Board of Health Chairman Dr. Rocco Iocco said the board’s mission is to “prevent illness, promote wellness and protect the environment.”
“The Board of Health will make reasonable policies and regulations to protect and promote the public health and well-being of our citizens,” said Dr. Iocco. “The data coming from Glenn is very concerning to me. I am also concerned that we have not reached the peak of this current surge. This along with the upcoming colder months and school returning puts us in a very vulnerable position.”
Dr. Iocco also noted that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all students wear masks while indoors.
“The mask mandate for the schools worked last year,” said Dr. Iocco. “In addition to the schools, I think the use of masks will reduce community transmission. I think that is the ultimate goal.”
Board of Health members Dr. Gail McCausland and Dr. Kelly Migliero both said they supported implementing a mask mandate in all town buildings.
“Based on Chief Davis’ presentation and the recommendations from the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics, I am in favor of the recommendation that students in school wear masks,” said Dr. McCausland.
Dr. Migliero agreed.
“I think it is paramount that our kids are in school as much as possible,” said Dr. Migliero. “The way we do that is to mitigate our risk of transmission. The ways we do that is by vaccination and wearing masks.”
Vogel and Town Administrator Rob Dolan both said they supported implementing a mask mandate in all town buildings. After the two officials made their recommendations, several parents yelled at the three boards since a number of officials were not wearing masks even though all of them are vaccinated.
A tense discussion
The vast majority of the standing-room only crowd spoke out against implementing a mask mandate for town buildings.
Hampton Court resident Karen O’Brien said she supported implementing a mask mandate in all of the town’s buildings.
“I don’t know what happens to young kids who have the flu and the COVID delta variant on top of it,” said O’Brien. “I am a scientist, and I don’t like it when I don’t have data. Last year we wore masks and it worked. While the vaccine is not available for parents who choose it, masks are a great way to protect kids.”
Powder Hill Road resident Suzeanne Guertin claimed that requiring people to wear masks is unconstitutional.
“Millions of Americans have died fighting for our country and our freedom,” said Guertin. “Because of their sacrifices, each citizen has the legal right to make his or her own choices, including choices about medical treatment. Mandating our children to wear masks and mandating the vaccine is unconstitutional. Vaccines and masks do not stop the spread.”
Chatham Way resident Kelly Regan urged the three boards to “make masks optional.”
“You must allow parents to choose what is best for their children because parents know what is best for them,” said Regan. “A one-size-fits-all approach does not make sense. Studies show masks don’t stop COVID transmission. They come with significant risks of medical, emotional and developmental impacts. Forcing students to wear a mask infringes on their freedom.”
Jordan Road resident Dr. Natasha Shah, who has worked as a physician for over 30 years, encouraged the three boards to implement the mask mandate. She said a number of health organizations have strongly recommended that people, including children, wear masks while indoors.
“I agree that children don’t get very sick and the death rate is low,” said Dr. Shah. “Children can transmit the virus to others, and we are seeing vaccinated people get COVID. Masking is a simple thing to do. This is a public health emergency that doesn’t seem to be going away. We don’t want new variants to pop up that are vaccine resistant. We don’t know when the vaccine will be available to children under the age of 12. This is a simple measure that will benefit all of the citizens of Lynnfield in a positive way.”
Yorkshire Drive resident Carly Caggiano concurred with Dr. Shah’s point of view. The nurse noted that she has treated COVID-19 patients over the course of the pandemic.
“For all of you that believe masks don’t work, I have remained COVID negative through all of this,” said Caggiano. “I actively treated COVID positive patients even before I was vaccinated. We are in a position to prevent this illness that is now affecting our children who are not eligible for the vaccine. Currently, one-fifth of all COVID cases in the U.S. are children. Mississippi just had its fifth pediatric COVID death. Can you even imagine if one of those children were in our school district? These deaths are preventable. Is it worth your child’s life to keep them unmasked? The latest numbers in Lynnfield are alarming. We know what we need to do and the data is sound. Masks work, vaccines work and handwashing works. After everything our children have been through in the past year-and-a-half, they deserve to have a safe school environment.”
Barnsley Road resident Bill Gardner said parents should be able to decide whether to send their child to school with or without a mask.
“Data without context is essentially noise,” said Gardner. “Looking at the number of cases is not enough. I think that making decisions for our small town with an exceptionally high vaccination rate based on national recommendations is ill informed. It is driven by panic and endless what ifs. As we make decisions related to COVID, we continue to approach everything with the broadest possible brush.”
After the discussion, the Board of Health voted to implement the mask mandate for all residents age 3 and older regardless of their vaccination status. The School Committee and Select Board also voted to back the mandate.
While School Committee member Kate DePrizio voted to support the mandate, she said she was “struggling that we haven’t discussed what the off-ramp is, the metrics of that and the timeline for that.”
“I still stand behind the science and I think it is imperative that our next discussion is open and transparent about exactly those things,” said DePrizio. “My vote is yes.”
After the three votes occurred, the mask mandate opponents started screaming at the three boards. Several residents said the three boards were committing “child abuse.” A woman in the audience said the town was turning into Cuba.
“Put your mask on you hypocrites,” shouted another man in attendance.
“Vote them out,” another man stated.
A woman in the audience went up to the School Committee after the meeting and started screaming at them.