Nantucket’s outdoor mask mandate is no more. The island Board of Health voted 3-1 Friday afternoon to rescind the local outdoor mask mandate, effective immediately, following the recommendation of Nantucket Health Department Director Roberto Santamaria. Citing improving COVID-19 cases numbers, increasing vaccination rates, and little evidence of outdoor transmission of the virus, the Board of Health members took another step toward normalcy ahead of the summer.
The vote puts Nantucket in line with the new state regulations on outdoor masks that also went into effect on Friday, which Governor Charlie Baker had announced earlier this week. Municipalities still have the legal option to uphold local mask orders that are more strict than the state, but no more lenient than what Gov. Baker’s administration has established.
Within hours of the vote, hundreds of “mask zone” signs that had been posted around the island by the town had been taken down, and the news about the vote had already clearly reached some pedestrians walking the downtown streets without face coverings. Others were still masked up.
The Board of Health and Santamaria made it clear Friday that masks must still be worn outdoors if social distancing is not possible, per the state order, and at outdoor gatherings and events.
While they considered a partial rescinding of the order that would have kept the outdoor mask mandate in the core districts of downtown and Sconset, the Board of Health members ultimately decided that would have created confusion, frustration, and could simply not be enforced, especially with a lack of personnel in the Health Department. A COVID-19 enforcement position that had been posted for more than a month, Santamaria said, had yielded zero applicants.
The lone vote in opposition was Meri Lepore, a nurse practitioner who works in the schools and the daughter of longtime island physician Dr. Tim Lepore. She suggested a wait-and-see approach before voting to rescind the outdoor mask mandate, and that a spike in COVID-19 cases could be on the horizon as families returned from school vacation week.
“I’m really against this,” Lepore said. “It’s hard to take something back once you’ve done it. We’re probably shooting ourselves in the foot on this. Things could blow up in the next week and there likely will be a lot more cases a week from the end of school vacation. And then we’re going to have to say ‘we were wrong and you have to wear masks again.’ I think we’re sending the wrong message.”
Lepore and several other members of the public who participated in the virtual meeting questioned whether it was even possible for people to socially distance downtown and in Sconset during the summer months when the island’s population soars, businesses are open, and there is more traffic in the streets.
But a partial outdoor mask mandate that carved out those areas, Chair Stephen Visco said, was simply untenable.
“People are coming from all over the country and all over the world,” Visco said. “Masks or no masks in at least two different areas of the town, it’s impossible. Everyone is used to wearing masks when you go inside, or go inside a grocery store. But to police certain districts is just not going to happen. It would create havoc with people yelling at people. I’m more in line with what the state is doing and what Roberto said.”
The outdoor mask mandate had been in place in the core districts on Nantucket since June 2020, and the Board of Health made it island-wide on October 5, 2020.