Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Indoor dining should require proof of vaccination, city councillors say, but the city should look at providing financial help to businesses. Pictured is The Dial, a restaurant in Lafayette Square. (Photo: Marc Levy)

The last orders of business from the full City Council for 2021 were Monday’s attempts to grapple with the resurgent coronavirus, including an indoor mask mandate for common spaces of all buildings and a proof-of-vaccination requirement for activities and establishments such as indoor dining and gyms.

Councillors also called for many City Hall workers to be able to work remotely.

All now go to the city manager for action, with councillors asking for reports back by their next regular meeting, Jan. 10.

The policy orders were driven by the coronavirus’ omicron variant, which health officials say has quickly come to account for most new infections, and concern that residents’ behavior hadn’t caught up with its presence in the city. “There’s been a huge number of complaints coming in, particularly in our larger buildings, because folks are coming through the common areas and not wearing masks,” said councillor E. Denise Simmons, who introduced the indoor-mask order.

Such an order was already being looked at, said City Manager Louis A. DePasquale, who sent inspectors to 300 businesses on Friday and Saturday to spread the word about masking up. When it came to mask mandates for residential buildings’ common spaces such as lobbies and laundry rooms, “I don’t believe any city has that in their mask ordinance, [but] it’s something we talked about this week that could be another thing we would revisit as we attempt to tighten things up,” DePasquale said.

Wearing masks in common areas of residential buildings had been required before in Cambridge during the pandemic, including from Oct. 2, 2020, to May 29.

Proof of vaccination

Based on conversations with other city leaders, proof-of-vaccination requirements for indoor dining and activities would likely be enacted first in Somerville, Arlington and other nearby communities, most going into effect in mid-January or later, “and I really think it’s important we have that discussion,” Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui said. Boston Mayor Michelle Wu announced a phased full-proof-of-vaccination order Monday to go into effect starting Jan. 15.

Though DePasquale has resisted some strong anti-pandemic measures he feels would hurt the city’s economy, she believed this would come up in his meetings with the business community.

U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley spoke on this during a Monday tour of the Cambridge Economic Opportunity Committee with Assistant Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Katherine Clark, the mayor said. “She stated really eloquently that she thinks this is a part of our economic recovery too, and that people would be more comfortable going inside indoor venues if there was some kind of vaccination requirement,” Siddiqui said. “This is to get the process started.”

It suggested a need to parter with the restaurants and other parts of the business community to get them through the next phase of the pandemic, said Siddiqui and vice mayor Alanna Mallon.

Allowing remote work

The final order, that all city employees who can perform their duties remotely should be allowed to work from home “until further notice,” came from councillor Quinton Zondervan and was another return to a theme sounded by the council in 2020.

It followed the appearance Sunday afternoon of a now-deleted Twitter thread from someone identifying themselves as an employee of the city. The Twitter user was “beyond fed up with their continued refusal to let office staff work from home during the pandemic,” even though workers were might as well: They were required to commute to the office “just to sit at desks and communicate with our coworkers on Microsoft Teams,” a video conferencing system.

There is a Future of Telework Committee that will make recommendations to the city manager in the coming year, but he “cannot ignore the urgency that comes with an explosion of cases and a new variant. Never mind that there is no mandate for staff to be vaccinated,” said the Twitter account. “Lots of city employees retired since the pandemic, and these positions remain empty because no one wants to work for an employer with these policies.”

Some support for the case made by the “Anonymous Cambridge Employee” on Twitter was heard Monday. “What we are definitely hearing is that by not having a remote work policy, we are losing candidates,” councillor Patty Nolan said, noting that the council had encouraged the telework committee.

Still, Simmons wondered if this order were in the council’s purview, or whether it was “sort of a feel-good kind of an order.”

Since all the council’s orders were actually requests under the city manager form of government, this one didn’t overstep bounds any more than many others, Zondervan said.

The telework report was expected in mid-January, but if it was that close to being finished while omicron was raging now, “this would just be asking the city manager to pull those recommendations up in light of the variant,” Mallon said. “I’m having deja vu. We’re really right back in some sense where we were a year ago. But at the same time, all of our employees are working full time from their offices.”

The late orders were all adopted unanimously.