City officials in two densely populated cities outside Boston have issued orders requiring pedestrians to wear masks, and runners fall within the scope.
The order in Cambridge, Massachusetts requires persons 5 and older to wear masks in areas “open and accessible to the general public.” Sidewalks and streets are singled out as places where masks are required.
The order in Somerville, Massachusetts applies to persons 2 and older. It also singles out sidewalks and streets in addition to public squares and paths.
Runners are not mentioned by name as being subject to the orders, but there is little question we are. In both cities, violators are subject to a $300 fine. The orders took effect Wednesday, but the Cambridge order states enforcement will not begin until May 5. A city official told WBUR in Boston the Somerville order also will be subject to a one-week grace period.
The order in Somerville justifies the restriction on grounds “the City of Somerville is a densely populated city, making it difficult to maintain six feet of distance between people at all times in public space.”
Do the communities have authority to require masks? Based on Massachusetts legal authority dating to the 1700s, the answer appears to be yes.
Massachusetts General Laws chapter 111 section 104, first enacted in 1792 and last amended in 1938, states:
If a disease dangerous to the public health exists in a town, the selectmen and board of health shall use all possible care to prevent the spread of the infection and may give public notice of infected places by such means as in their judgment may be most effectual for the common safety. Whoever obstructs the selectmen, board of health or its agent in using such means, or whoever wilfully and without authority removes, obliterates, defaces or handles such public notices which have been posted, shall forfeit not less than ten nor more than one hundred dollars.
A Massachusetts Health Department regulation states:
Whenever an emergency exists in which the interest of protecting the public health requires that ordinary procedures be dispensed with, the board of health or its authorized agent, acting in accordance with the provisions of M.G.L. c. 111, § 30, may, without notice or hearing, issue an order reciting the existence of the emergency and requiring that such action be taken as the board of health deems necessary to meet the emergency.
The order in Cambridge provides a short window for appealing a ticket:
The person to whom a violation notice has been issued pursuant to this Emergency Order may request a hearing before the Cambridge Commissioner of Public Health or his designee by filing with the Cambridge Public Health Commission within seven days after the date of the violation notice was served, a written petition requesting a hearing on the matter.
The Somerville order specifies no method of appeal, but the same seven-day period would appear to apply.
These orders, unlike ones that have taken effect in California recently, do not single out runners on the theory we expel airborne particles with more-dangerous velocity. Rather, the orders apply to all pedestrians and are less-open to criticism.
Population density is another factor. According to WBUR: "Somerville is the most densely populated city in New England, with 80,000 residents in 4.1 square miles. City officials say that makes protective measures like this more critical."