After some lengthy discussion and hearing from members of the public the Burlington Board of Health opted not to issue a mask mandate for public buildings and businesses during Tuesday night’s meeting.
The idea was floated by Chair Dr. Ed Weiner who said he had some concerns about the growing number of cases of COVID-19 in the area and the different variants. However, he acknowledged the board and Health Department had received over a dozen emails and letters from the public with most being against the measure.
“I know for some people this is a very sensitive issue,” he said. “For some it’s an issue of freedom and for others it’s an issue of health and for me and the whole board it’s an issue of concern for the community. There are points to develop a mask mandate and there are others not to.”
Dr. Weiner turned to Dr. Wayne Saltsman, a medical doctor and PHD, for his thoughts on the proposal.
Dr. Saltsman started by saying that currently over 1,400 people in the state are currently in the hospital with the virus with more than 300 of them being in the ICU. He also noted that over 60 people in Massachusetts had died in the past 24 hours and across the country the death toll from the pandemic is close to 800,000.
“For people who were naive like me who two years ago said this was another flu, this is not another flu,” he said. “It has become a partner with us and has remained significant.”
Dr. Saltsman said he too had heard from members of the community, with some of them expressing anger at the possibility of a mask mandate. He stressed that his decision was not based on any political considerations but simply the facts as he sees them.
“My concern with a mask mandate is that we can’t enforce it,” he said. “Unless our Town Administrator and the Select Board wish to instruct our police force to respond to our malls, our markets, our independent retailers when someone is not wearing a mask, it’s just not going to work. What I do believe in is education. I believe in the responsibility of our residents to each other … I believe folks should use their own common sense, knowing what we know and knowing what our hospitals are dealing with, to take every precaution they can to make sure they and the community are safe.”
Board member David McSweeney said he agrees.
“I don’t see a mask mandate in the town of Burlington working,” he said. “I know some other communities that have instituted mask mandates have backed off. They are very hard to police and manage. I think our staff is better served focusing on other parts of the pandemic than whether someone wears a mask to a restaurant.”
Member Andrea Sheehan said she could see both sides of the issue.
“I have mixed feelings,” she said. “I know it’s difficult to wear a mask but the numbers are not going in the right direction and anything additional we can do to prevent the spread is something we should consider. It doesn’t have to be indefinite but I just see this getting worse and I don’t see an end in sight. When it’s a mandate people do adhere more so than if it is their choice.”
Health Director Susan Lumenello said her department has resumed its regular work that were mostly put on hold during the height of the pandemic. She said because of this they do not have time to enforce a mandate.
“I don’t see how we could enforce the mandate as well as doing everything else we are tasked with,” she said.
Dr. Weiner said he was leaning towards having a mandate.
“I have to tell you I am concerned about the community and the numbers,” he said. “I know this is not very popular but I’m starting to think that maybe we should. I worry about the people in this community. I was on the fence but I think maybe we should consider the mandate.”
However, no motion was made by any of the other board members so no vote was taken.
Finally, they all agreed the possibility of a mask mandate was still on the table and they could revisit the issue if the situation with the pandemic gets markedly worse.
“It’s a continued discussion with the board and it’s a continued discussion with the town,” Dr. Saltsman said. “We want to hear from the community is a respectful and productive way. You elected us to maintain the public health of this community and we take that very seriously but it’s a relationship.”