New Covid-19 Mass. Mandates Affect Amherst Community Beyond the Bubble

On Nov. 2 and Nov. 6, Governor Charlie Baker rolled out two sets of restrictions in an effort to slow the rise of Covid-19 cases in Massachusetts. The orders took effect on Friday, Nov. 2 and include a stay-at-home advisory, an order for restaurants and other businesses to stop their services at 9:30 p.m. and a curfew from 10 p.m to 5 a.m., among others. There are exceptions for individuals that must  travel to work, seek medical care or pick up food during the curfew. Baker’s orders have altered the college’s operations as it adjusted to the new safety guidelines, along with other community members currently residing in Massachusetts.

The orders come amid a resurgence in Covid-19 cases in the commonwealth. On Sunday, Nov. 8, the State Department of Public Health reported 1,809 new cases and 20 deaths. The state’s current, cumulative case count is 171,399 with 10,163 deaths as of Nov. 10.

Additional restrictions involving face coverings and physical distancing followed the Nov. 2 announcement. All residents above five years of age must wear a face mask or cloth covering in indoor and outdoor settings, even when physical distancing is possible.

Baker also mandated Massachusetts residents to limit outdoor gatherings to 25 people and indoor gatherings to 10 people. Violations of the distancing mandates come with a hefty fine; those who do not wear a face covering will be required to pay $300.

The mandates have had a direct impact on those who reside outside of the Amherst bubble. For many staff members, life in Massachusetts is not all that different from the on-campus experience. Director of Student Health Services Dr. Emily Jones believes that the restrictions have monumental potential to reduce cases if followed. “There is ever increasing evidence that if we had universal mask compliance — it would significantly decrease the spread of Covid — so I am glad that Governor Baker is now mandating this,” she wrote in a statement to The Student. “Closing bars and restaurants earlier makes sense as these are areas where people are indoors eating and drinking (and therefore not wearing a mask) in close proximity and often talking loudly. These are all factors we know can increase the likelihood of Covid transmission.” 

“The new restrictions have only officially been in place for a few days so I don’t have a good sense of the overall compliance,” she added. “The town of Amherst has had a mask mandate in the entire downtown area for a while and I have only rarely seen people in these areas without masks.” 

For some remote students residing in Massachusetts, the mandates have brought noticeable changes. Eline Laurent ’22, who is currently living in Concord, Mass. said that she thinks that the restrictions have changed the behavior of many. “Prior to Friday people would be outside with no mask on while maintaining distance and that was OK, but yesterday [the first day since the new regulations were enforced], people were wearing masks outside constantly, regardless of a six-foot distance. This is not to say that there aren’t people at the moment who are wearing their masks under their nose—or even not at all—or who disregard the distancing protocols. But by and large, people do follow the protocols.”

Laurent also believed  Baker made the right call. “I would rather follow stricter protocol for some time and still be able to go places and do things rather than be on complete lock down, which could then happen in a few months if we would not keep our cases under control,” she said. “It can be a little frustrating having to wear a mask constantly when outside, especially when you are able to maintain a six-plus foot distance, but again I understand the abundance of caution.”

For other students, however, there have been no significant changes since Friday. Andressa Silva ’23, who is living in Newton, Mass., admitted that she hasn’t noticed any changes in response to the orders. “To be honest, I haven’t noticed much of a difference as I haven’t been going outside unless absolutely necessary,” she said. “I do think these restrictions are good as they help prevent the spread of Covid. Where I live, people have been pretty good about following regulations which is nice. I do live in a ‘Newton bubble’ where a lot of people agree with the regulations.” 

Similar to remote students, staff have had varying experiences in light of the restrictions. Chris Boyko, the head strength and conditioning coach and fitness center director noted that life has not changed much since the mandates were instated. “We have been consistently practicing mask wearing in public and have followed this practice during the entire pandemic, so a mandate is not that much of a change for us,” he said of his family. “We are fortunate to live in an area of the country where it seems to be common practice for most people to wear masks and be fairly responsible in my opinion, so I can’t say I have noticed much in terms of a change in others behavior as well.”

Boyko expressed his gratitude for the fact that he has a safe space to spend time with his wife and children. He said, “I live in a quiet neighborhood with the ability to not feel too restricted to our home. I would like to think that we try to keep our circle of friends and family small and only try to go out and about only when necessary.”

For some staff members, however, this time has been especially challenging. Edward McGlynn, a physician’s assistant at the health center, said that life has been “mostly dull, scary at times, this past week was the exception. No changes, trying to continue to put one foot in front of the other.”

Though their interaction with the Amherst community is limited, on-campus students have observed that more people are wearing masks on the rail trail, which is directly behind the campus and is used by many students. Mia Rahn ’23, a cross-country and track athlete, explained that she has noticed an uptick in mask-wearing when on the path. “I’d say that I usually recognize the people who are not wearing masks — I go around the same time in the mornings so I see familiar faces,” she noted. “There are a few that consistently don’t wear masks, but I did not see them as much this weekend. There were definitely fewer maskless faces.”

Oliver Spiva ’22, another member of the cross country and track teams, mentioned that the unseasonably warm weather has caused an increase in bike path activity. “It definitely seemed like more people had masks on when I was running yesterday,” he said, “but otherwise I hadn’t noticed much of a difference.”

Decreasing Covid transmission rates is critical for the reopening of the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass) in the spring. Three days after the mandates were announced, officials from UMass Amherst sent an email to members of its community stating that adherence to the new measures is the only way that the university will be able to host an in-person spring term. “As the fall semester nears its end and we prepare for a spring semester with increased on-campus activity, it is important to remember that the actions we take now impact our ability to open more fully in the future,” the email said. 

Generally, local businesses expressed an indifference to the restrictions. In particular, Amherst restaurants have not had to change their day-to-day activity. For most eateries, closing time is well-before the curfew and in-house dining options were already limited. An employee for The Works Cafe said, “We close at 7 p.m. every night, so the orders have made no difference. Also, people are wearing masks — just like they did before [Baker] instituted anything.”

A statement from The Lone Wolf, a breakfast and brunch restaurant on Main Street, expressed the same sentiment: “People have always been pretty good about wearing masks and social distancing. Occasionally we have to remind someone, but it’s rare. We don’t conduct business past the afternoon, so the closing time wasn’t an issue for us.” 

Even though business has proceeded as usual, the restrictions indicate that life will not likely return to normal in the near future. Laurent pointed out that, by and large, her life has not changed in light of the restrictions. The hardest thing for her, like many, is “the isolation from other people,” she said. “I have had very minimal social interaction and with the rise in Covid cases, I do fear we may get to a point where we really can not see anyone for some time.”