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How A Statewide Mask Mandate Is Playing Out In Massachusetts

sailboats in Boston
Denis Tangney Jr.
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Vermont Edition spoke with Boston Globe reporter Milton Valencia about how a statewide mask wearing mandate has played out in Massachusetts.

Since the beginning of COVID-19, we've received many questions about masks. This hour: We heard about how a facial covering mandate is panning out in neighboring Massachusetts.At a press conference on June 30, officials from the Scott administration announced a multipronged approach to educating and encouraging more mask wearing in Vermont. But Gov. Scott has so far resisted calls to make a statewide rule.

In Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker issued an order in early May requiring the use of face masks or coverings in public spaces where social distancing is not possible. Jane Lindholm spoke with Boston Globe reporter Milton Valencia about how the facial covering mandate is playing out there.

Our guest is:

Broadcast live on Wednesday, July 1, 2020 at 1 p.m. Rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

The following has been edited and condensed for clarity. You can find more conversations from this episode here, along with the full audio.

Jane Lindholm: Let's talk about this statewide mandate. What are the basic requirements and the rule in Massachusetts?

Milton Valencia reporter headshot
Credit Milton Valencia, courtesy
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Milton Valencia is a metro reporter at The Boston Globe, where he covers the policy and politics of Boston city government.

Milton Valencia: What was interesting is a lot of communities started to do this on their own first.

So the governor followed up here and that should be noted. But the governor's order pretty much said, "If you can't social distance, then you need to be wearing a mask," and that left it up to interpretation for people out in the community.

However, when it came to the stores that are opening – and these stores are opening based on his reopening plan after the shutdown – if you're in a store, if you're in a restaurant, a grocery store, you in fact needed to wear a mask in those facilities. So outside is the social distancing, which is up to interpretation, but inside, there was a mandate for mask wearing.

And listening to your callers, I think it actually did make lives a lot easier for businesses that wanted to reopen and reopen safely.

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I was thinking of my neighborhood coffee shop, which announced on Instagram that it was opening at that time and had quick messages: “Please be in and out. Please be kind to the staff. Make sure to wear your mask.” They actually started offering some for donation, so if you want to donate to a charity, you can grab the mask while you’re there. So it didn't leave it up to the customer. And not only that, it says, “Hey, we're glad to open, but here are our conditions for opening and our requirements for opening.”

And so really, there was no way it wasn't left to interpretation. Everyone wanted to have this coffee shop to reopen, just like I'm sure everyone wants to head to the creemee stand. But if you want to go, you have to wear a mask.

I'm curious to hear, and interested to hear, Milton, that some places are offering masks, because that's been a question for me, too. If the state or even if retail establishments are requiring masks and someone either forgets theirs or doesn't have one, or can't afford one, what is the way to make sure that people have access? So it's interesting to note that your local coffee shop is offering masks to people by donation, like: “Look, we want you here. You just have to wear a mask.”

Right. There was a big campaign in the city of Boston and statewide that had two things. [One]: How to make a mask – it almost became a game, an Internet sensation through local social media accounts, Facebook accounts. You don't need that specialized Etsy mask or J.Crew mask that everyone's buying. You really can put a mask together with a T-shirt. And [two]: There was a big educational campaign on what people could do, what they needed to do, the effectiveness of a mask.

"I think it actually did make lives a lot easier for businesses that wanted to reopen and reopen safely... it didn't leave it up to the customer." — Milton Valencia, reporter for The Boston Globe

So, again, we're not talking about going out, buying $20 masks, even if some people chose to do that. There was a way to educate about what was needed and what are we talking when we're talking about wearing masks.

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There wasn't much enforcement in the form of fines, but there was enforcement in the form of police officers actually handing out masks in parks. In part, we saw that protest, but we also saw it in everyday events, someone sunbathing in a park or just taking a stroll through the park or the neighborhood. A police officer would be right there with the mask and saying, “Just so you know, this is our requirement and here's a mask.” So I think it was more of an educational campaign than anything.

I was on the phone with a coworker just the other day and when he realized he didn't have a mask on him [to run into Home Depot], he grabbed this T-shirt from his car and made a makeshift mask. Again, we're not talking about surgical masks – where we're talking about covering that has been proven to be effective and healthy.

In terms of enforcement, you mentioned that police officers, law enforcement are sometimes handing out masks to people and saying “This is a requirement, here's a mask,” but there is an enforcement mechanism that includes a $300 fine, right? Are those actually being given out?

We didn't find any community that actually did issue a fine. What they told us, was that they didn't need to, that once this educational campaign came out, everyone was on board to the point really in Massachusetts where if you're not wearing a mask in these situations, you can't get into the store, you're being asked to leave the store. You're not being served in the local coffee shop and you're just not allowed in.

So there haven't been any fines given. But not only that, at some point, people become the outlier if they're not wearing a mask. And so they almost get guilted into wearing one.

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So I think the public awareness campaign has been more far more effective than the threat of a fine. I wouldn't say that was the rhetoric that I was hearing at the time, but it turned out to be true. 

Some of the earlier communities that did this – Brookline, Lawrence – they were satisfied with their mask wearing practices and they didn’t need to hand out masks, largely because of these educational campaigns. And again, one of the big things I heard from the experts was: If more people are wearing masks than not, it comes to the point where the non-mask-wearer is the outlier and he or she feels the guilt and wants to take part in and be part of this new norm.

"I think the public awareness campaign has been more far more effective than the threat of a fine. I wouldn't say it was rhetoric that I was hearing at the time, but it turned out to be true." — Milton Valencia, reporter for The Boston Globe

So you're not seeing polarization or politicization in the same way that we are seeing in some parts of this country, and sometimes in Vermont?

No, and I think a lot of it has to do with the practice but also with the environment. So the reporter I worked with, David Abel, when we worked on the story, he had just came back from a beautiful Cape Cod seashore community, and people were not wearing masks. However, he recognized that they were they were practicing social distancing. They stayed 20 feet away and people will cross the street.

I myself live in a suburb 10 miles outside Boston, and people will cross the street without putting a mask on. However, anytime I go downtown or go into the store, I put my mask on. That's because of that mask-wearing a requirement. People are putting masks on, so people get it.

And not only that, those people who were walking across the street and didn't put a mask on – when we approached them, they had masks ready to go in their pocket. So they realized the effectiveness of it, the need for it, the community requirement. They had one ready to go and they were still abiding by the spirit of the law. And whenever we approached, they were the first to put their mask on.

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