The Falmouth Board of Selectmen, in a joint meeting with the board of health on Monday, April 27, voted 5-0 to require those working or shopping at an essential business to wear a face mask.
“Face masks have been the number one call these past couple of weeks,” health agent Scott McGann said. “We’ve gotten a lot of calls from businesses and summer events asking for advice on that.”
Selectmen Chairwoman Megan E. English Braga said the board has received a number of emails from Falmouth residents asking that the town require people to wear face masks in public. Board of health chairwoman Diana Molloy read an email from Davien B. Gould of Lantern Lane advocating for a mandate.
“In an ideal world, all of us would follow both the CDC and state health guidelines for wearing face masks for COVID-19,” Ms. Gould wrote. “Unfortunately, though most are, there are still businesses and many people who have either not been listening to the warnings or information on the news or just not understanding that all mitigations which people have been following for the past six weeks are what has to happen to keep our community from becoming the latest hot spot.”
Ms. Molloy said she personally observed a number of people not wearing face masks in Falmouth businesses on Saturday, April 25.
“I did a lot of drive-bys on Saturday, when the weather was warm and was surprised by the number of people without masks going into establishments,” she said.
She said face masks, or other cloth facial coverings like bandanas, help stop the spread of the virus.
“If you remember, in the beginning, it wasn’t necessary to wear masks,” Ms. Malloy said. “What we’ve learned now is that [a face mask] is not going to protect me from getting COVID-19, but it is going to help prevent my droplets from going further out. It’s keeping things in. We’re looking at protecting each other, really.”
In addition to preventing the spread of the disease, board of health member George Heufelder said, a mask mandate will keep the issue in the forefront and remind people about the situation they’re in.
“I think there will be a social pressure when they go into a store, look around, and see only one or two people without masks,” Mr. Heufelder said.
Ms. English Braga said there are some challenges that come with a mandate, including enforcement and access.
“It is very hard to enforce, and the other piece of it is not everybody has easy access to the appropriate covering or to the information about it,” she said. “I worry about mandating something people are either not in possession or it is hard for them to get possession of. We really have to make sure that information gets out there, and we know how long it takes to get information out to the public.”
She said any mandate would require thoughtful implementation and public education.
Selectwoman Susan L. Moran acknowledged that enforcement would be challenge.
“One of the reasons we have mandates is for the deterrent effect,” Ms. Moran said. “It is not necessarily expected that law enforcement is going to be around every corner and will catch every infraction, but through the greater populace, when it is publicized that it is a generally accepted requirement, you do get more compliance.”
She agreed with concerns about the availability of masks. However, she said, numerous local nonprofit organizations and groups are making masks for people who need them. People can also make their own masks, she said.
Health board member Kevin Kroeger said that while he does not like the idea of a mandate, something needs to be done.
“This is part of protecting the health of those essential workers, as well as people going to those essential businesses,” Mr. Kroeger said.
Selectman Douglas C. Brown said most people are already wearing masks or facial coverings.
“When I go to the grocery store, most of the people are wearing masks, but there are a few of them who aren’t,” Mr. Brown said. “I don’t know if they feel like they are being brave or what their point is, but I feel very bad for senior citizens who are in there who have to dodge people not wearing masks and are just breezing through the place with no gloves. I just don’t think it is acceptable, and I think there is enough information passed around out there, whether it is on television, in newspapers or the internet, about how to make the masks.”
Selectman Samuel H. Patterson said people will likely need to wear face masks in public for more than a year.
“This almost needs to be a new normal for how people act in a society in a responsible way, because it is kind of intimidating when you come upon somebody in one of the stores and they’re not wearing a mask when you are,” Mr. Patterson said.
Selectman Douglas H. Jones recommended Falmouth adopt a mask mandate similar to that in San Francisco, where people are required to wear a mask when shopping, taking public transit or getting healthcare.
Health board member Benjamin Van Mooy said cities and towns are implementing mask mandates in phases. The first requires all essential workers wear masks. The second requires anyone going inside an essential business wear a mask, and the third requires everyone wear masks in public.
“I think there is a really strong case in going to those first two levels, to require essential workers to wear a mask and to require anyone visiting those essential businesses, like pharmacies and groceries, to wear a mask,” Mr. Van Mooy said. “And then, I think we’ll have to really think about whether we want to extend that to everyone outside their home.”
Mr. Kroeger said he would be strongly opposed to requiring people to wear masks outside their homes at all times.
The boards agreed that requiring masks when at essential businesses was a good first step, as requiring masks at all times could present additional challenges for town administration.
“The one thing I don’t want to do is create a situation where we have 30 or more calls per day to Scott, [Police] Chief [Edward] Dunne or [Fire] Chief [Michael] Small saying there is a woman on the bike path without a mask on,” Ms. English Braga said.
However, she recommended people going out in public have a mask with them, even those on the Shining Sea Bikeway. Having a mask allows them to put it on when they find themselves in close proximity to another person, she said.
“To some degree, we need to tap into people’s own common sense and desire to do the right thing,” Mr. Kroeger said.
Board members recommended signs be placed at public areas around town to educate people about the requirement. Town Manager Julian M. Suso said the department of public works has placed more than 100 signs at town beaches, parks and playgrounds to remind people to practice social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic and noted additional educational signage can be installed in those areas.
“I think education is going to be a big part of this,” Mr. Patterson said.