Worcester Board of Health votes to lift citywide mask mandate

WORCESTER — The Board of Health Wednesday voted a second time on whether to lift the citywide mask mandate. 

With the affirmative vote of a freshly sworn-in Gary Rosen, the motion to lift the mask mandate, effective 11:59 p.m. Feb. 17, passed 3-2. 

Last week, the vote at the board’s regular meeting passed 3-2 to lift the ban effective Feb. 18, but later in the week it was revealed that Rosen, a former longtime city councilor and School Committee member, had forgotten to take the oath of office that officially seats him on the board. 

With Rosen’s vote removed from the equation, the motion went from passing to failing to carry. 

That prompted the board to schedule another meeting Wednesday to revote on the measure. Rosen was sworn in on Thursday last week. 

The indoor mask mandate had been in place since September due to climbing COVID-19 numbers. A mask mandate for city schools remains in effect until at least March 7. That, too, will represent a revote for the Board of Health. It voted down a measure at the same meeting last week that would have lifted the Board of Health’s school mask ban effective Feb. 28. That matter is a little more complicated, however; the School Committee also has a mask policy in place that it has yet to lift. 

Dr. Jerry Gurwitz, chairman of the Board of Health, did not give an explanation why he changed the wording of the motion posted on the agenda for Wednesday’s meeting to 11:59 p.m. Thursday instead of the previous effective date of Feb. 18. 

Before the vote, Rosen apologized to his colleagues on the board for the mishap. He said he took full and complete responsibility for his actions, and said he alone was responsible for not having followed this long-established city rule. He said he pledges to do much better in the future. 

Gurwitz, on behalf of the board, said his apology was accepted. 

The vote stayed the same. Rosen, Gurwitz and board member Frances Anthes voted to lift the mandate; board members Dr. Khahn-Van Tran and Chareese Allen voted against the measure. 

The board initially voted on the mask mandate after hearing the recommendation of Dr. Michael P. Hirsh, the city’s medical director, and an appeal from City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. They said declining numbers from the recent surge of cases attributed to the virus’ omicron variant warranted the lifting of the mandate. 

City solicitor Michael Traynor said last week that the rules of the City Council, which specifically address how and when items can be voted on again, do not apply to boards and commissions. 

After the vote Wednesday, Tran thanked Rosen for his statement. She said she viewed Wednesday’s vote as “strictly procedural,” and she said she though the board had a great discussion at the previous meeting. She said she respected both sides of the issue immensely.