Island’s Indoor Mask Mandate Lifted By Board of Health

The island’s indoor mask mandate has been rescinded in favor of a mask advisory.

The Nantucket Board of Health voted unanimously this afternoon to drop the emergency order, effective immediately, while vowing to monitor cases and the presence of the virus in island wastewater moving forward to determine if the mask mandate should be restored in the future. 

Specifically, if Nantucket’s wastewater testing shows an increase above the median prevalence of the virus compared to other communities that conduct sewage sampling, the board voted that it would automatically trigger a return to the indoor mask requirement. The island is currently in the 13th percentile of communities that use the company Biobot to test their wastewater. 

Health Department Director Roberto Santamaria said yesterday that Nantucket had the highest vaccination rate in the state for communities with populations above 10,000 people, which was one of the  factors that prompted his recommendation to the Board of Health to remove the mandate in favor of an advisory.

“We have to start learning to live with it,” Santamaria said. “We’ve gotten to the point where everyone knows what’s necessary, everyone knows what we have to do. The vaccines are there. The treatment is there. We have treatments that work, we have facilities that are able to handle it. We have to start treating it like the flu.”

The lifting of the local indoor mask order does not affect state and federal mask mandates on public transportation like ferries and planes, nor does it impact the existing state mask requirement in public schools. 

Beyond the island’s high vaccination rate, Santamaria cited the expected FDA approval of COVID-19 vaccines for children ages 5 to 11, which could happen by the end of the month, along with the anticipated emergency use authorization of Molnupiravir,  an antiviral pill manufactured by the pharmaceutical company Merck that has shown promise in treating people with COVID-19. 

Santamaria also noted the challenges of enforcement, the workload on his department, as well as the politicization of mask mandates and the misinformation surrounding the virus and the vaccination effort as other factors in his recommendation to the board. 

“Enforcement of it (the mask order) is getting violent, it’s getting nasty, it’s really not conducive, and what I want to say about this topic, I really can’t say on camera,” Santamaria said during the meeting, which was conducted via Zoom. “I can’t push them (Health Department staff) anymore. I don’t want to push them anymore. This is a disease of personal responsibility and people need to take responsibility for their own actions. And if they want to take a horse pill to treat it, then so be it, but the vaccine will always be your best bet.”

While the indoor mask order is rescinded, Santamaria stressed that the advisory means the Health Department will still be encouraging people – especially those who are immunocompromised or unable to get vaccinated – to continue to wear masks in public indoor areas. 

“Those of us who subscribe to actual science, we understand that masks do prevent the spread of droplet transmission of the virus,” Santamaria said. “For those who believe junk science, they think masks are going to kill you. And if you believe masks are going to kill you, then I don’t recommend helmets either. What it really comes down to is we know that masks work. Masks prevent the transmission and prevent you from giving it to someone else and prevent someone else from giving it to you. So what we’re saying is, if you’re in a situation where you need a mask, whether you’re indoors, you’re immunocompromised or you don’t have a vaccine for any reason, you should be wearing a mask when you’re in public.”

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