Both the Sunderland and Whately boards of health rescinded their mask mandates this week, with both towns shifting to mask advisories amid plummeting COVID-19 case counts locally.
The Sunderland Board of Health met earlier in the week and voted to rescind its mandate — which required masks inside all indoor public spaces and private businesses — after reviewing virus data. The mandate was lifted March 1.
“We base our decisions on the numbers because that way we can answer to people. … I can’t see how the numbers right now merit a mandate,” said Board of Health Chairwoman Caitlyn Rock. “The other thing I looked at is the hospitalizations. … They’re lower than they were in September 2021.”
Sunderland saw 27 new cases of COVID-19 in the two-week period from Feb. 6 to Feb. 19, according to the state Department of Public Health’s most recent data.
“In general, knock on wood, our town is doing very well,” Rock said.
The Board of Health had reinstituted its mask mandate with the arrival of the omicron variant in December, when the town recorded 100 COVID-19 cases within a 10-day period. The town’s previous record-high was around 20 cases.
Rock said the Board of Health is always looking at the most recent data and can call an emergency meeting to reconsider a mask mandate if necessary.
“We constantly review,” she said. “We keep looking and we’ll call a Board of Health meeting if we need it.”
With Sunderland’s “varied” population of University of Massachusetts Amherst students and town residents, Rock said the beginning of the pandemic saw 80% of the town’s cases being traced to the university, but now it’s down to 25%.
The Whately Board of Health also voted to recommend the Select Board downgrade the town’s mask mandate in Town Hall to an advisory.
Board of Health member Michael Archbald said Tuesday that he had “happy reports,” as the town has seen one case in the last two weeks.
Chair Fran Fortino said reducing the town’s mandate to an advisory would be a good move to “go along with case counts dropping pretty low.”
“My recommendation is we make an advisory instead of mandatory,” Fortino said, “but still strongly recommend masks indoors.”
The board had previously required masks and social distancing for anybody who was inside town buildings, while recommending masks for anybody in public places.
Health Agent Mark Bushee noted “numbers have come down,” but he was curious how much of that could be attributed to home testing.
While board members felt comfortable downgrading the mandate, they emphasized the importance of keeping their guards up against the virus.
“Within the next few weeks we might see nothing or we might see a surge if people drop their guard again,” commented board member Rebecca Jones, “because that’s what we’ve seen before.”
Archbald also noted that residents should care for their elderly and immunocompromised neighbors by wearing a mask when possible.
“We have a subset of our community who are immunocompromised for a variety of reasons,” Archbald said, “and we have to take care of them.”
The Select Board will vote on the recommendation at its March 9 meeting.