Thursday, July 18, 2024

A Covid vaccine card. (Photo: Macy Hinds/Naval Health Clinic Hawaii)

A vaccine mandate for certain indoor businesses was defeated 2-1 by Somerville’s Board of Health on Thursday, after an earlier meeting was “bombed” by a group led by an Internet personality from Peabody and her supporters.

Board chair Brian Green voted against the mandate. Joining him was member Paula Machado, while member Robert Ciccia voted in favor of a mandate.

Before the vote, Green expressed ambivalence – a shift from past meetings where he had made strong arguments in favor, likening the order to a Kevlar vest.

“This policy, at the time of thinking about it and putting it together, made good sense. I’m just not sure tactically if this is the way to get what we want as a public health community, which is for people to trust the vaccine, to believe that the vaccine is going to help,” Green said during the meeting. “Is the community safer if people are showing their vaccine card and taking off their masks? … Does the benefit of this, and there is some benefit, outweigh the harm of this, and there is some harm. I don’t think there’s an obvious answer.”

Green said that he would like to see the issue revisited.

The experts’ takes

During the hour-and-a-half online meeting, there was no public comment and the chat window was closed, in part because of the previous meeting’s disruption by angry interruptions and messages led by Dianna Ploss, a conservative Internet personality, former radio host and declared independent candidate for governor. Ploss lives in Peabody, some 20 miles north. The board heard presentations from Tom Galligani of Somerville’s Department of Economic Development, as well as Maria Teresa Nagel, who leads the City’s immigrant affairs agency, SomerViva. Nagel said that she believed a mandate would help, rather than target, the immigrant community. 

“What this vaccine mandate would actually do is motivate folks to actually get vaccinated,” Nagel said. “We see examples at the high schools, where a lot of high school students were very vaccine hesitant. But as soon as the schools implemented a vaccine mandate in order to go to the end-of-year dance, all of a sudden, they got vaccinated … There are emotional motivators that can really help.” She added that many immigrants view their vaccine cards as “a badge of honor,” a symbol of how they overcame fear mongering and barriers.

Machado, who is also a nurse, asserted that in other cities, the issue of vaccine mandates are “dividing people, and there’s a lot of tension.” Economically, small businesses would likely take a hit, she said. Mandating the vaccine in certain indoor spaces “isn’t going to be a solution,” she added.

It is the board’s job to pass reasonable policies, even if they do not solve everything, Ciccia said: “We’re in a world of gray with this order, and that’s okay. We make orders all the time that are in the gray, and that’s just where we are.”

“Today we move on”

Mayor Katjana Ballantyne, who had voiced support for a mandate, said her administration will continue to do what it can to mitigate the effects of the pandemic.

“The important takeaway from last night’s hearing is that the board and the city are in agreement that vaccination is critical to getting this virus under control. The question for us is which tools do we use to advance that goal,” Ballantyne wrote Friday. “Naturally, we were hoping the board would support the proposed requirement, but I respect their decision and their thoughtful deliberation, so today we move on to the next effort. My focus now, as before, remains fully on using every strategy we have to take on the pandemic. Since day one in office, I’ve had staff doubling down to increase access to testing, masks, vaccines, information, and financial and health supports. This decision will not slow us down, it just adds fuel to our efforts to address the virus on every front.”

The Somerville policy would have required that proof of vaccination be shown at the door of spaces such as restaurants, gyms and entertainment venues because “vaccinated individuals are less likely to develop serious symptoms or spread Covid-19 to those near them, particularly in indoor settings where social distancing is not possible, where eating and drinking require the removal of face coverings, and where physical exercise and exertion are taking place.” The mandate was partially inspired by Boston Mayor Michelle Wu’s “B Together Initiative,” Somerville officials said; other cities have imposed them as well. Cambridge’s city manager has resisted vaccine mandates for businesses and his own staff at City Hall, repeating his rejection Jan. 11 by saying “Cambridge is different than New York and Boston … we are prioritizing education and outreach over punitive enforcement.”

This story was updated Jan. 21, 2021, with additional reporting.