With increasing vaccination rates among all residents over age five, and in the face of pushback from local businesses that say Manchester’s town-wide mask mandate is hurting business at a critical time, the Manchester Board of Health voted last Thursday to let the mandate, in force since early September, expire December 2.
The board will meet on Tuesday, November 30 as a cautionary check in to determine if lifting its policy is still appropriate.
“The Board doesn’t want to impose hardship on anybody,” said Paula Polo Filias, chairman of the Board of Health. “But they want to be conservative.”
At the Manchester meeting, local businesses in attendance said the policy is too conservative. They say the policy oversteps the state’s public health policy that stops short of a mandate and “highly recommends” mask wearing, especially going into the cold weather season when more people are indoors. In the meantime, vaccination rates are climbing (81 percent of residents over 12 years old are fully vaccinated, and 77 percent of residents over five years old are fully vaccinated as of November 17).
“Rates are good. Kids are being vaccinated. Boosters are working,” said Ken Reihl, CEO of the Greater Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce, whose 1,000+ member association asked the town Wednesday to lift the mandate in time for holiday shopping. “At this point, Manchester is an island, the only community in the region with a public mask mandate. Even Salem has lowered its mandate after Halloween. It’s time.”
Separately, Essex held its own joint BOS/BOH meeting Thursday night to review its policy on masking, and determined the town will maintain a watchful stance on COVID rates, and track with the Massachusetts Dept. of Public Health’s policy. The town will continue its mask mandate in municipal buildings, and masks are required within the Manchester-Essex School District schools.
“We will have a huge problem with enforcement,” said Essex BOS Chairman Ruth Pereen. “With our businesses, we need to communicate that while there is no mask mandate, we strongly encouraging people to wear a mask. We will check back in two weeks and monitor progress. In the end, the state will make the decision.”
It was 12 weeks ago that, anticipating an expected fall surge of the COVID Delta variant, the Manchester BOH installed the mandate, starting in early September. At the time, board members said they would monitor rates in Manchester, surrounding communities, and look for vaccination booster rates among residents age 65+ and FDA approval of vaccinations for those under 12. It was a conservative approach, said Martin Hahn, the BOH’s physician member.
“Our job is to provide regulations to keep people safe,” he said, pointing to Manchester’s “most vulnerable populations” that include children under five (until they can be fully vaccinated) and the elderly.
Hahn presented national and statewide data that showed rates were comparable to key period peaks in the last year, including hospitalization rates and breakthrough COVID cases.
But the consensus among business attendees was the policy was having an impact, an adverse one. On Wednesday, the BOH received two letters from the business community asking that the mandate be lifted—one signed by local downtown MBTS businesses and the other from the Greater Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce.
Andrew Hankinson, general manager of the Manchester Athletic Club that employs 150 people, said the mandate is the second blow to the MAC’s business. Since 2019, Hankinson said, the MAC has lost more than 1,000 members due to COVID and the mask mandate.
“Since the mandate, we’ve flat lined,” he said. Fall is typically the beginning of a seasonal push for gym memberships. Not this year. “The mandate has been an ongoing drag for people’s motivation to join a club. … Comparable businesses two minutes away don’t have the mandate. That hurts us.”
Resident Brian Sollosy said he has personally experienced the mandate’s drag to local business. Recently, Sollosy said he drove a van full of five teenagers into the Dunkin Donuts parking lot at Harbor Point. When they got there, some were missing their masks.
“We drove right out, and went to another Dunkin Donuts,” he said.
Since tracking began in March 2020, 300 Manchester residents have tested positive for COVID-19. As of the town’s November 17 report, there are 10 active COVID cases, none of them requiring hospitalization. Manchester town nurse Pamela Crehan also said of the 420 at home COVID tests sold and registered to Manchester residents, 10 have come back positive (which have been factored into the weekly reports), which means “people are being proactive.” Crehan also said 241 flu vaccines have been distributed in town clinics this fall.
Early in the meeting, Filias said it was the Thanksgiving holiday and its expected surge in out-of-town college students returning home that guided the BOH to time reconsideration of the policy to early December. Riehl countered that for local retailers on Greater Cape Ann, holiday shopping season are three critical weeks. For them, “the holidays are very, very important.”
Cheryl MacGuire, owner of Madam Had’em, a consignment shop on Summer Street, said her business is “barely hanging on at this point” of the mask mandate. She said most responsible business owners already manage mask wearing through good old fashioned customer service. The mandate is a problem, she said.
“There are people avoiding Manchester shopping because of the policy,” said MacGuire.
Selectman John Round asked about the specific criteria the BOH would look for to lift the mandate. He said numbers seem to be cycling up and down everywhere in communities without public mask mandates and here in Manchester, where there is one. “That’s where COVID is now,” he said. How can data guide a decision, he asked?
Hahn said he is looking for a “reasonable” number. The next surge may be coming, he said.
In the meantime, the BOH is willing to relax the mandate and members voted unanimously to expire the policy on December 2, the day before Manchester’s annual Christmas By The Sea holiday weekend celebration, which kicks off Friday, December 3 with a “Holiday Stroll” designed to support local retailers and restaurants.
It’s a move that businesses welcome.
“The mandate does impact our businesses financially, and for many of them, they’re managing things along a close edge,” said James Brown, who serves as landlord to many downtown businesses. “And it’s important, because these are the businesses that make our town, ‘our town.’”
The next meeting of the Board of Health is Tuesday, November 30 at 8:30 a.m. when it will determine if the expiration is appropriate given data on COVID rates, vaccinations and hospitalizations. But, said Filias, barring a dramatic change in the rates, the mandate will likely give way to a strong recommendation for mask wearing in buildings open to the public.