January 7, 2022 By Carol Britton Meyer
During a well-attended emergency Zoom meeting Friday morning, the Board of Health issued a health advisory -- effective immediately -- regarding the "strongly recommended use of facial coverings by all patrons, visitors, and employees" within all indoor spaces that are open to the public in Hingham. The advisory does not apply to residences but includes local businesses.
The advisory -- which is not a mandate -- is directed to all visitors and employees within any indoor space in all public spaces, public housing, assisted living facilities, membership organizations (places to which the public is invited for events and other activities), and workplaces in Hingham," the advisory -- unanimously approved by health board members Chair Kirk Shilts, Elizabeth Eldredge, and Peter Bickford -- states.
The advisory -- which Shilts said is for the benefit of everyone -- is in response to the unprecedented number of COVID-19 cases in Hingham and the region.
"Aside from personal vaccination, the wearing of a facial covering is the next best step to protect our population from being exposed to, or unwittingly exposing others to, the COVID-19 virus," the advisory states.
Hingham's Executive Health Officer Susan Sarni explained that there has been "a significant uptick" in the number of COVID-19 cases in January. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health has stated that about 95 percent of reported cases involve the Omicron virus, which she said is "highly contagious, versus the Delta variant. Masks are part of our model as we offer more testing and booster shots."
Sarni supports the face mask advisory as a way "to stop the spread of the virus" at this time. "People who got Delta can also get the Omicron virus -- even with a vaccination it doesn't mean you can't [the virus] again."
Bickford strongly supported the issuance of the advisory, stating that because of the high number of COVID-19 cases currently, he has had to "virtually shut down my construction business. We've been handcuffed the past two weeks" due to the spread of the virus. "I can't express enough the need for [this advisory]."
Eldredge, a pediatric anesthesiologist, said that she and other staff members where she works wear masks 24/7. "I know they get hot sometimes, but it can be done. We need to do everything in our power to try and prevent [the spread of COVID]. While some people don't get sick, there are others in ICU units -- some vaccinated and some unvaccinated -- whose lives are on the line."
The Board recommends the use of an N-95, KN-95, or a (non-woven, multi-ply) surgical mask. "Woven cloth masks, gators, and bandanas provide significantly less protection against this airborne respiratory virus," according to the advisory. "Also remember that any facial covering should be fitted closely to one’s skin to prevent unwanted gaps and leaks."
Part of the discussion centered around whether children under a certain age should be excluded from the face mask advisory to coincide with Centers for Disease Control advice when Sarni brought up the subject, but the board decided that wasn't necessary.
"I think everyone should wear one," Shilts said. "The advisory is for everyone." Eldredge didn't have a preference, and Bickford had left the meeting due to a prior commitment.
Suzanne Garland -- owner of the Bar Method -- noted that "we all know [that being physically fit] is one of the best things people can do for themselves" and expressed concerns that "exercising wearing a N-95 mask is nearly impossible."
Her request for an exclusion for her and similar businesses was denied, although her concerns were understood. "We're just starting to see a bright future for the business [and we don't want to go backwards]," Garland said.
Shilts explained that the face covering advisory is not a mandate. "No one is required to wear N-95 masks," he said. However, "the risk of becoming infected or distributing the infection to others in a gym [setting] is significant. [Bar Method clients] could wear a woven facial mask that doesn't restrict breathing. I plead with you that for the next six weeks [or so] you recommend that people in your facility use face coverings. People can also increase their cardiovascular health by participating in other activities outdoors."
Shilts, a chiropractor, noted that his own business is also suffering due to the pandemic. "My hope is that all Hingham businesses with public patrons would encourage the use of a face mask," he said.
Barbie Lynch asked if because this is not a mandate, does this mean that businesses such as restaurants and grocery stores couldn't mandate that the public wear face masks or that the public could refuse to wear a face covering if required by a restaurant or grocery store, for example.
No, Shilts said, because private businesses "can have their own requirements. It's their prerogative." He noted that there is currently no face mask mandate in place for restaurants or supermarkets.
Resident Matt Cosman asked what would cause the board to lift the advisory. One factor, Shilts said, would be a "rapid" decline in the number of cases.
Shilts offered the following from his perspective: "Every winter we have a flu season, and this is a respiratory virus following the flu season. We're in such a better position [with COVID] than we were last year. I envision this will go to the point where we see a significant decrease in the case numbers as the flu season winds down."
On a related subject, those who administer COVID-19 home tests are asked to notify the health board regarding positive results so the board will have more accurate case numbers. Sarni also said that the state recommends that those administering home tests follow them up with a "highly-sensitive" PCR test.
Hingham Downtown Association Executive Director Lynn Barclay asked for a copy of the advisory to share with HDA members. She also asked if the health board would consider setting a timeframe for when the advisory will be revisited.
However, since the board meets regularly and could always call a special meeting, this would not be necessary, Shilts said.
The meeting ended on a positive note, with Eldredge remarking, "My understanding from what is going on in South Africa is that the Omicron virus spikes quickly and then drops off quickly."
The advisory will be posted on the town website. Visit https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/cloth-face-cover-guidance.html for CDC guidance on face masks.
Shilts referred to the Hingham Board of Health smoking regulations, which clearly define what "public spaces" means and includes, for those who would like more information in that regard.