A Divided Board Of Health Turns Down Mask Mandate In Favor Of Advisory

As the island faces another surge in new COVID-19 cases, the Nantucket Board of Health endorsed a mask advisory while turning down a mask mandate on a split 3-2 vote. Health Department director Roberto Santamaria recommended the mask advisory to the board rather than a mandate, citing the difficulty of enforcement, the burden it places on businesses, and advocated for island residents to take personal responsibility.

“My suggestion, and I don’t take this decision lightly, would be that we remove the emergency order and go to a permanent mask advisory,” Santamaria said. “We need to put the burden where it lies. People need to take personal responsibility.”

The Board of Health had voted last month to use the island’s weekly wastewater sampling as the primary metric to determine whether to impose an indoor mask mandate or not, and set the threshold trigger for virus concentration at the 50th percentile in comparison to other communities. The latest wastewater report shows a significant spike in virus concentration in a sample taken from the Surfside Wastewater Treatment Facility, putting the island in the 67th percentile.

But as Santamaria emphasized on Thursday, using that metric as the sole basis for policy decisions is a volatile proposition.

“We are using the wastewater reports to inform policy and going back and forth between the mask mandates,” Santamaria said. “What we’re noticing is we’re getting a lot of this whiplash from the back and forth.”

Masks have been one of the most divisive issues locally and nationally during the pandemic, and that dynamic was on display during Thursday’s Board of Health meeting. As it concluded, a motion to reimplement the island’s mask mandate was defeated 3-2. Chair Steve Visco, along with Jim Cooper and Melissa Murphy were all opposed to the mask mandate.

“So long as we have access to treatment that is unimpeded, I can’t justify a mask mandate at this time,” Board of Health member Melissa Murphysaid. “A mandate does more harm than good. We get as much compliance with an advisory as we do with a mandate. The enforcement, which is essentially unenforceable, it’s put completely on businessesA mandate is a bit of fool’s errand.”

Board of Health members Meredith Lepore and Malcolm MacNab both argued passionately in favor of a mask mandate in light of the rising number of cases, and the potential for Nantucket Cottage Hospital to become overwhelmed.

“I’m in favor of a mask mandate, and maybe it needs to be longer than two weeks,” Lepore said. “We put it in, the numbers go down, we take it away, and I wonder how much of this current spike is related to Stroll. The kids are still wearing masks all day in school, so I don’t think it’s too much to ask adults to wear a mask. I don’t understand an advisory versus what we’re doing nowSaying it’s just an advisory is sending the wrong message.”

MacNab agreed.

“I have yet to be convinced we do not need a mask mandate,” MacNab said. “Let’s not wait to the point where we have a lot of hospitalizations and problems. Let’s get ahead of it.”

But Cooper and Visco stressed the difficulty in enforcing a mask mandate, and said that people who do not wear a mask simply aren’t going to.

If you can’t enforce anything, you can’t make it work,” Cooper said. “The people who won’t wear a mask won’t do it. We don’t have the people to enforce what we want them to do. The burden has to be on the people themselves. They have to realize they need to wear their masks.”

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