By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
For at least the next 30 days, masks are required at indoor public places in Montclair.
The requirement, put in place by a unanimous Township Council vote on a resolution Tuesday night, follows an executive order to the same effect in Newark Monday. South Orange’s village president signed an executive order requiring masks Tuesday as well, and the Maplewood Township Committee instituted its own mask requirement Tuesday night, TAPinto.Net reports.
“I think we’re going to see this cascade and potentially be adopted at the state level,” Councilman Peter Yacobellis, who’d spearheaded the measure, said at Tuesday night’s Montclair Township Council meeting.
All 21 New Jersey counties are currently considered areas of high coronavirus transmission by the Centers for Disease Control. The CDC recommends indoor masking in areas of at least substantial transmission, the category one step down from high.
New Jersey has seen more than 6,000 new cases for each of the last six days, and last week beat records for new cases set early in the pandemic, though a less robust testing infrastructure at the time likely kept numbers artificially low. The surge is thought to be driven at least in part by the highly transmissible omicron variant of the coronavirus, though lagging state data makes it difficult to tell just how much of the spread is directly attributable to it.
Gov. Phil Murphy in May lifted a statewide indoor mask mandate, but his Executive Order No. 242 allows counties and municipalities to institute their own.
“While New Jersey’s statewide COVID-19 numbers have progressed far enough in the right direction so that we can safely relax the statewide indoor mask mandate, we know that there is considerable variation in vaccination rates among different localities, and for that reason it is appropriate to allow counties and municipalities to retain an indoor mask mandate if they so choose,” the executive order states.
Various drafts of the Montclair resolution had considered a 30-day or 60-day period for a mask requirement. Yacobellis said township officials agreed on a single month, for now, so they could revisit the matter at a January council meeting. He said he hoped increased availability of boosters, newly approved pills to treat coronavirus when caught early after infection and other measures might soon render a mask requirement unnecessary.
“This is very temporary,” Yacobellis said. “It’s to bridge the gap between now and that better place I don’t think we’re too far from.”
Mayor Sean Spiller Tuesday night said the mask requirement “doesn’t mean we’ve set up a situation where we can guarantee everybody doesn’t get this virus,” but said proactive steps could help mitigate it. Councilwoman Lori Price Abrams said she’d received several emails from residents supporting the measure, and that she hopes it sends a message Montclair is a place where residents and visitors can feel safe.
“There’s so many ways one can wear a mask … the ones you make, the ones you get,” she said. “It’s not overly onerous. I hope people will understand it.”
The Montclair resolution says a business or venue open to the public must require that both staff and patrons wear face coverings or face shields when indoors and within six feet of others. It does not make exceptions for businesses or entertainment venues that require proof of vaccination or recent negative coronavirus tests for entry.
It does exempt children under the age of 2 and people with disabilities who can't wear masks. It also exempts anyone for whom wearing a mask would create a risk for the individual under regulations or workplace safety guidance. And it allows masks to be removed while eating and drinking at an establishment that serves food or beverages.
The requirement doesn't apply to religious gatherings and political activities.
The resolution doesn't lay out specific penalties, only saying violations are "subject to penalties as provided for by law." Township Manager Timothy Stafford said Tuesday night that enforcement would be up to the township's code enforcement office or police, but didn't say what would happen to an individual who violates the mandate or a business that fails to enforce it.
Yacobellis said Wednesday morning that if a patron of a business refuses to wear a mask and is asked to leave, but refuses, that person would be trespassing, and subject to criminal penalties.
The resolution, as written, puts the onus on businesses to enforce the mandate among their customers. It wasn't immediately clear what would happen if a business refused to comply with the mandate.
"There's a little bit of grey area," he said. "We're trying to work within the restrictions of an executive order that gives us very little guidance. Ultimately, it's really the state's role to be stepping in and giving us municipalities the guidance and cover to make this work."
The township could have established a refusal to wear a mask in a public place as a disorderly persons offense under an ordinance. But it instead moved forward with a resolution, which only takes a single vote and can go into effect immediately. An ordinance takes two votes over two meetings, with a 20-day period after the second vote before its rules go into effect.
Multiple residents who called into Tuesday's council meeting said they supported the measure, which came the same day Montclair schools announced their first schedule adjustments and virtual learning or the school year tied to increasing coronavirus spread.
Lani Sommer-Padilla told the council she thought Montclair "needs to do everything it can to slow the spread of this."
"I think if we can slow the spread it would be really helpful to keep our schools open and also to alleviate pressure on our front-line workers ... who have been really bearing the brunt of all of this," Sommer-Padilla said.
Another caller, identifying herself as Carol, said she was against the rule.
"We're just skipping the legislature to mandating that everybody has to do something because everybody's afraid," she said. "Being afraid is not a real reason to make sure everybody can't breathe."
She noted that omicron has been spreading quickly, but told the council "however, it's not as severe."
Some reports have suggested omicron results in less serious illness than the delta variant of coronavirus that dominated spread before it, but those reports haven't been universal. Researchers at Imperial College London, in a report issued Monday and described by Reuters, found "no evidence of omicron having lower severity than delta, judged by either the proportion of people testing positive who report symptoms, or by the proportion of cases seeking hospital care after infection." Researchers found patients in South Africa were less likely to suffer severe symptoms from omicron than from previous strains, but, as described by NPR, their research didn't take into account the country's high rates of previous exposures and resistence that may have resulted.
Councilman Bob Russo, responding to Carol, said he blamed the continued spread of the pandemic on people who denied its severity, and on the strong political resistance in many parts of the country to mandates.
"It's a shame," he said. "The country should pull together like we did in the Second World War, like we did in 9/11."
The Montclair Health Department’s tracking registered the township’s most recent coronavirus death on Dec. 14, the first in more than a month, for a total of 77 to date.
Cases in Montclair have risen sharply in recent weeks — with 64 new cases Tuesday, and 272 over the week, according to the township tracking. By contrast, on Nov. 21, there were just three new cases, and 28 in the week leading up to that date.
Montclair had seen 3,704 cases by Tuesday overall.
Montclair State University, which mandates indoor mask use on campus, was also seeing increases. Its weekly tracking showed 63 new cases for the week ending Friday, up from 43 the week before and just 13 the week prior to that.
The state’s coronavirus dashboard shows nearly cases doubled in schools the week ending Dec. 12, compared to the week prior. Cases are sharply rising in Montclair schools as well, with 64 new student cases and 17 staff cases in the seven days leading to Tuesday, up from 19 student cases and 6 staff cases the week prior, according to the district’s own tracking.
New York currently requires individuals to wear masks in all indoor public places, unless a business or venue requires proof of vaccination to enter. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy has said as recently as a week ago he wasn't expecting a similar rule for the Garden State, but that all options remain open.