Sunday, June 23, 2024

Diners at Felipe’s in Harvard Square demonstrate a rule coming into effect for Cambridge: Patrons can remove masks only when seated. (Photo: Marc Levy)

City officials are returning to strict mask requirements that mandate face coverings outdoors whether or not people can maintain social distancing of 6 feet, as well as a more stringent directive requiring masks inside hallways, stairs and other common areas of all residential buildings except single-family homes.

“Finally!” city councillor Patty Nolan, who has been urging the change for months, said Friday. “Mask up indoors, keeping us all safe,” she said online.

The new mask order goes into effect at midnight Oct. 2 – it is unclear in a city press release whether that means all of Oct. 2 is included or none of it – and carries a potential fine of $300 if violated. It came as the Cambridge Public Health Department reported that a 100th resident had died of Covid-19, the first death announced since July 21. Cases of the virus have also showed a “slight uptick” compared with last month, Chief Public Health Officer Claude Jacob said in a city press release.

The city’s original mask order took effect April 29 and required face coverings for anyone 5 and older unless they had a medical reason, including disability, that they were unable to wear one. It applied in all situations outdoors. Masks were also required inside businesses and two- or more-family buildings, but the mandate for multifamily buildings was immediately updated to allow people to take off their masks if they could maintain social distance.

Then in June, the city relaxed the rule to allow people to go without masks outdoors if they could keep 6 feet apart. That was to give residents a break during summer weather and was to expire on Wednesday,

The new rules

Now the previous restrictions have returned and children down to the age of 2 must comply, the new directive says. There are also no exceptions for social distancing inside multifamily building common areas. All mask requirements include an exemption for people with a disability or other medical reason they cannot wear one. Restaurant patrons indoors and outdoors may take off their masks when they are seated, but not any other time, the order says.

A city spokesman was asked in June about the scientific basis for allowing a different set of rules for a few months at a time, and replied only that it was “a recognition that it can be challenging to wear masks in the heat for prolong periods of time,” declining to clarify further. As it was announced Friday that the stricter mask rule would be going back into effect, spokesman Lee Gianetti was asked again to identify the scientific basis of the change, but did not reply.

Another new Covid-19 order issued Friday requires that restaurants seat no more than six customers at a table, stricter than the state limit of 10 people. Bars can provide seated food service only after city inspectors verify that the tavern has a plexiglass barrier between customers and workers behind the bar. The plexiglass isn’t required if there aren’t workers behind the bar or if employees are at least 6 feet from all customers.

And bars can’t seat more than six people in a party; groups must be at least 6 feet apart, the order says.

Hundredth resident death

The additional death reported Friday was for a resident living outside a long-term care facility. The number of coronavirus cases and deaths inside nursing homes and assisted living centers hasn’t changed for weeks, according to the city.

“My thoughts are with their loved ones,” Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui said online after learning of the death. “We must continue practicing social distancing and wearing masks for our loved ones, our neighbors and ourselves – we cannot lose one more Cantabrigian.”

Cambridge this week began reporting the number of cases among students and staff at the city’s reopening colleges and universities, but only for people whom the city believes are residents of Cambridge. Because of this distinction, the city’s numbers are lower than those being reported publicly by at least two higher-education institutions: Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Figures differ

The city’s rate of positive tests reported by the state is also lower than the percentage of individuals testing positive because the colleges are testing students as often as three times a week. As the colleges and universities perform more and more tests, this divergence should get larger.

State death figures for Cambridge differ from the city’s. The state says 106 residents have died of Covid-19 through the end of July. In August and September, the state has reported on several days that one to four Cambridge residents have died of the virus. (The state health department does not report the exact number of deaths or cases under five to preserve privacy, it says).

City health officials have said state figures can differ from the city’s count for numerous reasons and there’s no way to tell which is correct.