Montclair to consider indoor mask mandate — vote expected Tuesday night
By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
Tuesday night, the Montclair Township Council will consider implementing an indoor mask mandate for all individuals, regardless of vaccination status.
Councilman Peter Yacobellis, who plans to introduce the mandate via a resolution, has been advocating for a mask mandate via social media for several days, citing increasing cases of COVID-19 and the growth of the omicron variant of the virus. A resolution only takes one vote of the Township Council, unlike an ordinance, which would require two votes over multiple meetings.
Update, Dec. 22: The resolution requiring a mask mandate passed unanimously.
The mandate would require masks indoors in businesses and entertainment venues for either the next 30 or 60 days. Yacobellis said he and peers he's spoken to are still working out issues of timing, and whether the township manager might have the authority to extend the requirement further. They're also researching what penalties might apply.
Yacobellis said he's spoken to enough peers on the council who are in favor of the requirement that he expects the resolution to pass, though he urged concerned residents to "still make sure their council members know how they feel."
"This decision does not come lightly, but I feel that the simple act of putting on a mask while one is indoors in a public place is the least we can do to ensure we are protecting our most vulnerable residents," Yacobellis said in a press statement Monday evening. "We simply do not know enough about the omicron variant and the efficacy of our existing vaccines and it is better to be safe than sorry."
He said he hoped the move would save lives "and that Montclair will be seen as a safe place to come to shop, dine or see a show, knowing that we take both the virus and safety very seriously."
Gov. Phil Murphy in May lifted the 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," it states.
The executive order remains in effect until Jan. 1. The governor's office has not yet returned a message sent Monday asking whether it expects to extend that authority for municipalities in the New Year.
Newark on Monday announced its own indoor mask mandate, under an executive order from Mayor Ras Baraka.
“We are still in the midst of a pandemic and need to take whatever steps are necessary to safeguard and best ensure the health, safety, and welfare of our residents,” Baraka said.
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 52 new cases Monday, and 222 over the week, according to the township tracking. By contrast, on Nov. 20, there were just three new cases, and 29 in the week leading up to that date.
Montclair had seen 3,640 cases by Monday, in all.
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 53 new student cases and 9 staff cases in the seven days leading to Monday, up from 21 student cases and 7 staff cases the week prior, according to the district's own tracking.
And Monday was the fifth straight day New Jersey announced more than 6,000 positive cases, exceeding records from early in the pandemic, though lacking test availability at that time likely kept numbers artificially low.
Lags in state data make it hard to know how many of New Jersey's new cases are caused by the omicron variant, but the Centers for Disease Control reported Monday omicron accounted for 73% of all new infections nationwide last week.
Yacobellis said the resolution he'd introduce Tuesday would likely exempt houses of worship as well as individuals who cannot wear masks for health reasons. It would not, though, likely make allowances for businesses and entertainment venues that require vaccination or a recent negative coronavirus test for entry, as many Montclair venues do, he said.
He noted the Centers for Disease Control recommends mask-wearing indoors in public places for areas with substantial or high transmission. All 21 New Jersey Counties are currently considered areas of high transmission.
Gov. Phil Murphy late last week said he feared New Jersey could be returning to capacity limits as cases continue to rise. He hasn't announced a new mask mandate, but has said "everything is on the table."