On February 28, Westport becomes a “mask optional community.”
First Selectwoman Jen Tooker made that announcement today, on behalf of the town’s COVID-19 Emergency Management Team.
The date corresponds with similar lifting of restrictions by the state of Connecticut, and the anticipated ending of mandatory masks in Westport Public Schools.
Masks may still be required in other locations outside the municipal authority. They include healthcare facilities, those housing vulnerable populations, and public and private transit. Some Westport establishments and locations may continue to maintain a full mask policy.
Most Westporters will no longer be required to wear masks. (Photo/Topsy Siderowf)
Tooker says, “We are comfortable and confident that requiring masks in municipal buildings is no longer a necessity, with the exceptions noted. Certainly, there are those who will continue to wear a mask in certain circumstances, and we respect and encourage that personal choice.
“I am very proud to be leading this resilient community. Since early 2020, we have all had to navigate the many phases of COVID. Being mask optional is an encouraging development in yet another phase that we will navigate together.”
At last night’s Board of Education meeting, Superintendent of Schools Thomas Scarice recommended an elimination of the mask mandate for all students and staff effective February 28, the day the winter break ends.
In a community message today, he elaborated on his rationale:
The elimination of the universal mask mandate by the governor, supported by the Commissioner of the Department of Public Health, indicates that universal masking is not a necessary public health intervention at this point in time. If this were a necessary public health intervention, the mandate would continue as it was renewed in the past by the Governor when necessitated.
The infection rates in the region, and in particular the Westport community and Westport Public Schools, have dropped precipitously over the past month. Virus prevalence is a significant factor in determining the need for various mitigating measures, including masking. The prevalence rate is bottoming out, and possibly reaching a level that could be expected to be our new normal.
Average daily COVID cases in Fairfield County, May 2020 to February 2022.
Westport is among the highest vaccinated communities in the state, providing strong support against health complications as a result of contracting the virus. In addition, the widespread infection rate of the Omicron variant also provided significant levels of natural immunity to our community. Furthermore, this most recent virus strain appears to be less virulent than earlier variants, such as Delta.
Fidelity to mask wearing is critical to the success of this intervention. Throughout the pandemic our students and staff were vigilant in properly wearing masks, and most importantly, time outside of school was largely reinforced by consistency in mask wearing as this was an expectation in all settings for our students (i.e. community places, extracurricular activities, etc.).
However, for our students now, school is one of the few locations where masks are regularly worn and mandated. Additionally, the fidelity of proper mask wearing has waned significantly over the past few months according to faculty and building administrators, particularly at the secondary level. Mask quality has also been called into question during the Omicron surge.
Maintaining a mandate when proper mask wearing is limited, and when most students do not wear masks outside of the school setting while interacting with each other, provides a false sense of security and a false impression of the efficacy of mandated universal masking in our schools.
Scarice noted that mitigation measures like ventilation, social distancing and hand hygiene will continue to be implemented. Serial testing will continue through the end of March. Daily reports of new cases will also continue, and local conditions will be monitored closely.
Students, their families, and anyone on our WPS team may choose to continue to wear a mask, commonly referred to as “one-way” masking. “One-way” masking works and provides protection for an individual.
Eliminating the universal mandate does not eliminate all measures of protection. As we evolve through the stages of the pandemic, I suspect that a gradual lifting of individual choice in masking will unfold. Some will choose to no longer wear a mask and, perhaps over time, others will choose the same. In the interim, “one-way” masking will be honored and respected in our schools, and it will provide additional protection for individuals.
Some students will continue to wear masks. This painting — “Masked COVID Portrait” is by Westport teenager Dereje Tarrant.
Scarice said that the elimination of the governor’s emergency order means that school districts will no longer need to require proof of vaccination or approval of a medical or religious exemption from vaccination for prospective employees.
Also eliminated: the requirement for employees to be vaccinated or submit to weekly testing. And the district will no longer require vaccination, or proof of a negative test, for visitors.
Scarice’s recommendations apply to all students and stuff, including Stepping Stones Preschool.
Federal requirements still mandates that masks be worn on school buses.
It has been pointed out that students return from the February break when the mask mandate is lifted. There have been concerns about a potential spike in infection rates upon return from vacation.
I do not see the recent winter break as an appropriate comparison since that surge was driven by the Omicron variant.However, we did experience a number of families traveling during the Thanksgiving break and did not experience an increase in infection rates.
Furthermore, I believe that a continued mandate in response to the vacation break would have minimal impact in mitigation as students are largely not wearing masks in any other activities or events in the community.
As mentioned earlier, throughout the pandemic students were vigilant in properly wearing masks, and most importantly, time outside of school was largely reinforced by consistency in mask wearing as this was an expectation in all settings for our students (i.e. community places, extracurricular activities, etc.).
However, if school is the only location where masks will be mandated following the vacation, I believe that we would gain little more than a false sense of security and a false impression of the efficacy of mandating masks in schools for an additional week or two. Again, students and staff may continue with “one-way” masking.
Given our high vaccination rates, the lack of an increase in infection rates after Thanksgiving, and the inconsistency in the fidelity of mask wearing, in and outside of our school environment, I do not believe that postponing the elimination of the mask mandate is necessary.
As to enforcing “one-way masking,” Scarice said:
Individuals (i.e. students and staff) may choose to continue to wear a mask. The district, all faculty, support staff and administrators, support this choice for individuals. However, we will not have the capacity to track and enforce individual choice for each student if parents require their child to continue wearing masks. As a district, we will honor and support each family’s choice, yet we will not enforce “one-way” masking for each child.
Scarice asked that parents help with the transition away from a mask mandate:
Preparing for change by engaging in a conversation and allowing your child to ask questions can reduce any stress and anxiety.
Some students may be eager to remove their mask and return to some sense of normalcy. For others, this change can create anxiety for a variety of reasons, including health concerns and fears about being judged for wearing or not wearing a mask.
As in most situations, children follow the example of their parents and primary caregivers. Expressing your thoughts and feelings about masking and unmasking will be important to help your child understand why your family has made the choice to continue or discontinue wearing a mask in school.
Students will be reminded at school that each family is making a decision based on what is best for them, as we all have different circumstances. There is no right or wrong. We want to be sure everyone feels safe and accepted in school, whether they are wearing a mask or not.
Children should be encouraged to state that they feel more comfortable wearing or not wearing a mask and that it’s OK if their friend chooses something different. If at any time your child feels that others are making them feel uncomfortable about wearing or not wearing a mask, they should let their teacher or another trusted adult at school know immediately.
Similarly, parents are encouraged to contact their child’s teacher or building principal if they have concerns. School psychologists, counselors, and social workers are available to support students if needed.
Navigating this transition in school is new for everyone, and we will need to work together to support our children through this new experience.
As I stated in my message to the community on Friday, many issues in the modern world have become polarizing, including universal masking. The district team is committed to supporting the personal choice of each individual student and staff member, and to protecting everyone in our school community from unwelcome comments and behaviors.
Lack of respect or inappropriate comments or behaviors will not be tolerated as families consider what is best for their child and family.
We will continue to carefully monitor case rates and attendance and evaluate any new guidance issued by the Connecticut Department of Public Health. Adjustments to our approach will be made as necessary.
Masks in schools may not be required statewide after February 28.
Governor Lamont announced yesterday recommending lifting a mandate for students and staff.
The Planning & Zoning Commission also met last night. Members adopted 2 downtown text amendments. One will eliminate a prohibition on retail operations above the first floor. The other allows will allow stores over 10,000 square feet (after applying for a special permit).
The P&Z continued to tweak zoning language for permitted uses at Baron’s South.
The Gap (left) has been grandfathered in for retail above the first floor. That will now be permitted elsewhere downtown.
The Dan Woog Staples High School/LGBTQ Fund brings together my passion for high school soccer and LGBTQ advocacy, and my work with United Soccer Coaches — the 30,000-member professional organization I’ve served since 1983.
The fund will enable high school coaches who have shown commitment to the LGBTQ sports community to attend annual conventions, for education, networking and professional growth.
As founder of United Soccer Coaches’ LGBTQ & Allies member group, I’ve worked closely with Black, Latino, Native American, AAPI, disabled and faith-based groups. I’m honored to give back to this inclusive, progressive organization, which helps grow the sport of soccer for all coaches and players.
For the full press release, click here. To contribute to the fund, click here; then click “Select for a list of funds to support,” then “Options,” then scroll (way) down. (You may have to click “View More” at the bottom of the list …)
This poster greeted visitors to last month’s annual United Soccer Coaches convention in Kansas City.
Speaking of Staples soccer : As Westporter’s celebrate the silver medal of our neighbor, Julia Marino, in slopestyle at the 2022 Olympic Games, we’ve got another nearby athlete to cheer for too.
Freestyle skier Mac Forehand grew up in Southport. His father — Ray Forehand — was on the Staples soccer team in 1976. Click here for details. Click here for a story about Ray and his wife, as they watch Mac compete half a world away.
Mac also competes in freeski slopestyle. (Hat tip: Rick Leonard)
You know Earth Animal for its steadfast commitment to dogs and other creatures.
But since 1979, the local business has cared for people too.
Last year, the Post Road East store’s Mitten Project raised $40,000. Thanks to CT Foodshare, those funds will help local residents who struggle with food insecurity.
The Mitten Project began in 2007, with Earth Animal founder Susan Goldstein. She raised $300 that year.
Now, there’s plenty of help from area businesses, neighbors, friends, proceeds from the Earth Animal store, and matching contributions from Earth Animal Ventures in Southport.
Special thanks go to J. McLaughlin, Millie Rae;s, Farmer Sal, Outdoor Design & Living, Appleberry Farm, BP Provisions, Pine Creek Deli, KL & Sam, and Westport Hardware.
Voices Café honors Black History Month with the noted duo Reggie Harris and Greg Greenway. Their signature performance — “Deeper Than The Skin” — comes to the Westport Unitarian Church’s long-running live music venue on Sunday, February 20 (7:30 p.m). It will also be livestreamed.
“Deeper Than The Skin” is a deeply personal presentation, in story and song. of race in America. Harris and Greenway face down racial injustice with creative resistance, friendship, music and joy.
Proceeds from Voices Café’s performances benefit local social justice causes. Future guests include Westporter Suzanne Sheridan (March 12) and Connecticut’s creative artists Caravan of Thieves (April 9).
Click here for more information about Voices’ spring season, and for tickets.
The Westport Library’s strong support of the arts continues. A generous grant from the Drew Friedman Community Arts Center will support upcoming exhibits.
Next up: “Stepping Out on Faith: The Art and Journey of Charles Joyner.” The event — with the world-renowned (and Staples High School graduate) artist opens with a panel discussion and reception on March 10.
This exhibit, with a corresponding podcast series and musical performance, is also supported by a grant from CT Humanities.
Speaking of shopping: Shop local! In fact, shop Local to Market!
Need a nudge to head to the food/gifts/and more store on Main Street at Parker Harding Plaza? Here’s what they’ve got:
This Saturday (December 11, 1 to 4 p.m.), Sam from Locavore Kitchens will have artisanal shortbread cookies to taste (and buy). Luke Molina — like Sam, from Westport — will play guitar. And there’s a 10% discount all day, in honor of the 4 to 7 p.m. Holiday Stroll.
Next Saturday (December 18, 2 to 5 p.m.), Netown’s Neviana’s winery is on hand for the Market’s first “Sip & Shop.” Plus, Luke Molina returns with his guitar.
The next day (Sunday, December 19, 1 to 4 p.m.) there’s more wines. These are from Stappa Vineyards in Orange. Jim Saxon provides musical entertainment. Santa will show up too, from 12:30 to 2.
Every day through December 17, orders are taken for Michele’s Pies (apple, apple crumb, pecan and chocolate bourbon pecan). Delivery (at Local to Market) is midday December 22.
Oh yeah: Local to Market also sells art, created by members of the Artists Collective of Westport. The current show features works by Nina Bentley, Miggs Burroughs, Louise Cadoux, Lynn Carlson, Susan Fehliinger, Jane Gilman Fleischner, Holly Hawthorn, Amy Kaplan, Julie Leff, Fruma Markowitz, Guy Phillips. Katherine Ross and Lee Walther.
Of course, not every delivery goes as planned. Jeanine Esposito sent this photo:
She writes: “Given the stories of late deliveries and drivers going rogue, we were curious to see this U-Haul truck parked in the Imperial Avenue lot. Its entire contents were spread around the parking lot, including packages marked Zappos, Away, and other retail and online outlets.
“A person sat on the passenger side looking relaxed and texting, but there was no sign of a driver. I’m not sure what’s up, but would love to know if there’s a story there.”
Christmas is 2 weeks away. New Year’s follows a week later.
Which means Martin Luther King Day is not far behind.
On Sunday, January 16 (3 p.m.), Dr. King’s life will be celebrated at the Westport Library by Heather McGhee. She’s the author of The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can ProsperTogether; her TED talk, “Racism Has a Cost for Everone” reached 1 million views in just 2 months.
The free event is co-sponsored by the Library, Westport Country Playhouse, TEAM Westport, Westport/Weston Interfaith Council and the Westport/Weston Interfaith Clergy.
The program also features a recital by the Bridgeport Boys Choir, and a dance performed by the Regional Center for the Arts.
To register for either the in-person event or the livestream, click here.
Allegra Gatti Zemel is a Westport resident of 8 years, and mother of 3. She works in healthcare. In her spare time, she writes about real life.
Real life includes the pandemic. Allegra says:
1st Selecctman Jim Marpe and the Westport Weston Health District lifted the indoor mask mandate on Thursday. That means if you’re vaccinated you don’t have to wear a mask at Trader Joe’s, CVS or any other place you frequent on regular (in my case, daily!?) basis.
(There are exceptions. Check local and individual policies.)
Alas, gone are the days of picking up a cantaloupe and trying to assess its ripeness without the telltale aroma at the stem. Pineapples, tomatoes, peaches — I rely on my nose for selecting all of them. Without my sense of smell, over the last 20 months, I’ve arrived home with a handful of duds.
The blast of coffee aroma that greeted me at Starbucks has been reduced to a mere hint seeping through my mask.
Allegra Gatti Zemel
And remember when you didn’t touch your face or mask without hand sanitizing first? You certainly didn’t lower it. My mask ensured my bubble of safety, for a long time.
But Friday, with the indoor mask mandate just lifted, I liberated the lower half of my face. Here’s what happened.
I toured a friend’s new space, partially renovated for sale but being renovated further, and was overwhelmed by the dampness. My nose smelled wet wood, wet plaster. Not wet paint. I wonder how many new homeowners took their masks off to smell their potential new home.
I got my hair cut in a salon with a hairdresser I’ve seen 3 times in the past 20 months. Any adult with hair remembers the urgency of that first time back in the chair, and the ability to subsequently maintain what just felt like self-care,
Despite our hours together, she had never seen me without a mask. As I sat in front of the mirror she looked at me, really saw me, and said “Oh my goodness – I’ve never seen your whole face. You’re so pretty!”
I blushed, said thank you, and panicked. Did I have anything in my teeth!? I haven’t worried about that in a while. But as we talked, she got to see my expressions – my reactions, my smiles, my thinking face.
While she painted rows of hair and sculpted an impressive tin foil head piece, my eyes watered from the smell of ammonia. As she masterfully unwrapped my hair and washed it all out, my head tilted back in the sink, sniffer straight up to the air,
I was overwhelmed by the chemicals – familiar, but daunting. Is this the best thing to be putting on my head? My nose was looking out for me again.
I headed to Sono Fieldhouse for pick up (my daughter is playing on a new team in another town this year so I hadn’t spent much time in the field house before masking.
Ripe is not the word. Hordes of sweaty (masked) children and teenagers, hour after hour, increasing with age. They ran, trapped and passed the ball on artificial turf that doesn’t aerate or circulate air under a dome, with not enough windows to open to purge this intense use of space (and the smell that accompanies it(.
It was rank. Musty. Foul. Dare I say putrid? Let’s just say very, very smelly.
Lots of bodies. Not a lot of air circulation.
Then Friday night, as I walked from my car to the sliding door entrance to Trader Joe’s under a dark cold sky, I saw my breath in front of me. I wished I had a face covering for warmth.
When I got home I called the second person I’d heard that day who had a terrible stomach bug. Isn’t it flu season now?
I remembered my masked hair dresser, who is in nursing school. She said she’ll continue to wear her mask; she lives with her mom, and doesn’t want to bring anything home to her.
I realized: I too will probably continue to wear my mask, for at least a bit longer. It’s gotten so wonderfully commonplace. Safe.
My nose had a day out, indoors. That was enough for now.
Still, maybe I’ll start lowering my mask from time to time. I’ll smell the good stuff — and the bad — now that I can.
COVID knocked us to our knees. Westporters lost jobs and businesses. Our kids lost the benefits of in-person school; adults became part-time teachers and full-time counselors. We all lost our sense of security; fearing at times for our lives, we wondered how the world had suddenly gone so askew.
Slowly, we’re emerging from the darkness. COVID is still here, and — particularly among the stubbornly unvaccinated — rampant. We’re learning to live with the pandemic.
But we’re gathering again, in all the places we used to, for work and commerce and pleasure. We’re dining and traveling. We’re welcoming newcomers to town, and their energy makes Westport even more vibrant and wonderful than it was before March of 2020.
Of course, we still have a long way to go. Just ask anyone in the service industry.
The other day, a friend described his recent experiences. He works locally. It doesn’t matter where. His experience is not unique.
He’s exhausted from asking people to wear masks — a mandate that lacks real enforcement power.
He’s tired of asking those with masks to wear them properly. Covering the neck — or even below the nose — will not help stem the virus’ spread.
He’s also tired of trying to change the behavior of the self-centered, pig-headed customers who come into his store. After 18 months, he realizes, they will not listen.
They won’t listen to Dr. Fauci. They won’t listen to the CDC. And they certainly won’t listen to him.
So when I asked him to write an “06880” story about his experiences as a front-line worker, he declined. It’s not worth it, he said.
The ones who are not helping corral the virus have a zillion reasons. “I’m vaccinated.” “I’ll let my immune system work for me.” “It’s my body. Don’t tell me what to do with it.”
The ones who need to read his words won’t, he said. And if they do, they won’t heed them.
They’ll just rage on, berating him and his colleagues. Mocking them. Putting his health in danger, and his nerves on edge.
He has no more strength to tell that story. So I’m telling it instead.
And now — like him in his store — I’ll wait for the abuse.
“Do you know if there’s any enforcement of the mask mandate here in Westport, and if there are any fines for noncompliance?”
(Masks are currently mandated indoors — including town facilities and schools — though there are certain exemptions.)
“It seems that, except for supermarkets and drugstores, a lot of businesses aren’t paying attention to the rule.
Masks are once again mandated indoors in Westport. (“Mask Quilt” by Amy Schneider)
“For example, one of the regular employees at Organic Market never wears a mask, and the boss often wears his under his nose. I love that place, and the people there, but I won’t go in again until the mask mandate is rescinded or COVID is under control.
“Same with the Exxon gas station at 1510 Post Road East. The employees were not wearing masks the last — and I mean last — time I went inside.
“And it’s the same with Hook’d on the Sound. People are in line without masks and employees are behind the counter without masks- even though there’s a sign that says masks are required.
“Employees were wearing masks last time I went down to Joey’s by the Shore, at Elvira’s.”
“Is our only option to avoid those places? Or can something be done?”
It’s a great question. Enforcement of the mask mandate — nationally, throughout the pandemic — has been difficult. The town website page on the subject makes no mentions of consequences, though a link to Governor Lamont’s executive order indicates a fine of $100, and empowers “local health directors, district health directors, and their designees; state and municipal police officers and peace officers” to enforce it. Fines go to the state’s General Fund.
“06880” readers: What do you think?
Should Westport enforce the mask mandate more vigorously? If so, should there be dedicated patrols, or a reliance on citizen complaints? Or is this one of those squishier rules, like picking up dog poop or rolling through stop signs?
Click “Comments” below. And if you’ve had a personal experience involving someone without a mask indoors, please let us know too.
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