West Springfield enacts mask mandate as Big E fair opens

Associated Press

Boston — The Board of Health in West Springfield has approved an indoor mask mandate that takes effect the same day as the opening, for the first time in two years, of what's billed as the largest agricultural fair on the East Coast.

The mask mandate starts Friday, the first day of The Big E, a more than 100-year-old multistate fair that typically attracts about 1.6 million visitors over its 17-day run.

Last year's fair was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“While I understand that there are many viewpoints on this, as a physician, I do feel that the science on this is fairly clear,” board member Dr. Nathan Somers said at Wednesday's virtual meeting. “Vaccines, social distancing, contact tracing and masking are effective at slowing the progress and the spread of this virus.”

The mandate requires face coverings in all indoor public places, as well as private places open to the public, regardless of vaccination status, for everyone ages 2 and older.

Board Chair Dr. Heather Sankey stressed that the fair was not being targeted, but that the masking rules apply to all businesses and events.

West Springfield is in Hampden County, which is last in the state for COVID-19 vaccinations, according to state data.

Several people at the meeting spoke against a mask mandate, saying it would hurt their businesses.

The Big E, which features agricultural exhibitions, a midway, concerts, food vendors and more, has both indoor and outdoor spaces.

Fair organizers had been anticipating a mask mandate, Big E President and CEO Eugene Cassidy told The Associated Press on Thursday.

“We actually had started preparing for this a couple of weeks ago," he said.

The fair is putting up more signage reminding people about the mask requirement and staff will be giving "gentle reminders" to people not complying, he said.

He's also counting on the goodwill of attendees.

“Hopefully, the fair-going public is used to these mandates and protocols and will respond in a positive way," he said.

Baker-Biden Vaccine Plan

Gov. Charlie Baker said Thursday that he’s waiting to hear more details about President Joe Biden’s proposed rule that would require employers with at least 100 workers to force employees to get vaccinated or produce weekly test results showing they are virus free.

“I’m obviously a big fan of people getting vaccinated and I’m obviously comfortable with employers creating programming for their own people to get vaccinated,” the Republican said during an appearance on GBH News.

But Baker said he’s not ready to comment on Biden’s proposal until he can see more details.

“The proposal the feds have made at this point was you either get vaccinated or you get tested on a regular basis, but we have not seen yet any details on what this looks like,” Baker said.

Biden has directed the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to write the proposed rule

Baker said he's waiting to see what they come up with.

“I hesitate to comment on it until we actually see something,” Baker said. “For something that’s as significant, widespread and complicated as this I would really to see like how this would work, who qualifies, who doesn’t, what the rules are and all the rest.”

Baker also said his administration has been talking to other states about how to create a universal system for residents to prove they’ve been vaccinated.

Baker said it’s already possible for an individual to check their vaccination status through their health provider.

“But obviously there are states and municipalities that have done something more universal than that,” he said. “And we’ve been talking to those folks and working through how that would work here in the commonwealth.”

More than 4.5 million Massachusetts residents have been fully vaccinated.

Teachers and Vaccines

Two major Massachusetts teachers unions are criticizing Gov. Charlie Baker over the state’s lack of a statewide coronavirus vaccination policy for schools.

“A statewide mandate requiring educators to be vaccinated, in accordance with what President Biden is calling for, would best protect our communities — including communities of color, which have been hit the hardest by the pandemic,” Massachusetts Teachers Association President Merrie Najimy said in a statement Wednesday, according to the Boston Herald.

“Educators and our students cross town lines every day, and the virus isn’t contained by municipal boundaries,” American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts President Beth Kontos said. “Public health decisions during a deadly pandemic are too important to be left to politicized local decision-making. On masking, testing and vaccination policy, we need statewide leadership guided by public health experts.”

Baker, a Republican, is letting each school district make its own decisions.

“The accountability, authority and responsibility rests with the municipal governments and they therefore need to figure that one out,” Baker said this week.