Face masks will remain mandatory indoors on Martha’s Vineyard until at least mid-January, after the six Island boards of health declined Friday to lift the mandate they imposed last August.

While Covid-19 case counts have declined on the Island over the past couple of weeks, the pattern of infections this year indicates that similar quiet periods haven’t lasted, Tisbury health agent Maura Valley said during a joint meeting of the health boards on Zoom.

“We have several weeks of low cases, and then we tend to have a spike,” Ms. Valley said, displaying a chart that showed weekly Covid cases shooting from seven in mid-March to 101 three weeks later, and from none in late June to 97 in late August.

Epidemiologist Michael Stoto, a faculty member at Georgetown University and Harvard’s school of public health who summers on the Vineyard, and Island physician Henry Nieder both urged the health boards to stay the course on masking through the upcoming holidays, when the Island attracts visitors and homecoming college students and most activities take place indoors.

“Masks are really to protect the community, much more so than to protect the wearer,” Dr. Stoto said. “That’s why we have to really think about it.”

Dr. Nieder said claims of a near-100 per cent vaccination rate on the Vineyard are overstated, because that rate is based on an underestimate of the Island’s population. While the most recent census numbers indicate 20,000 year-round residents, Dr. Nieder said he believes 25,000 is a more reasonable number.

“That gives us a 70 per cent vaccination rate,” he said. “That means there are a lot of people not vaccinated. Those people are more contagious [and] more easily infected.

“Wearing masks really makes a difference.”

Dr. Gerald Green,a retired physician who serves on the Aquinnah board of health, said the board met earlier this week and agreed unanimously that the mandate should stand.

“This organism is looking for victims and if you let your guard down we will lose, so I think it’s important to continue the mandate,” Dr. Green said.

Oak Bluffs Library director Allyson Malik, mother of a five-year-old who is just becoming eligible for vaccination, noted that it will take time to get the Island’s children fully vaccinated.

“It’s easy to foget this huge part of the population,” she said. “There are thousands of kids . . . it’s going to take weeks just to get through them all, and there’s three weeks between doses.”
Asked what metrics the health board should apply to determine whether it’s safe to scale back the mask mandate to an advisory, the doctors suggested an infection rate of no more than 10 new cases a week — based on the federal government’s definition of moderate transmission levels at 50 cases per 100,000 people — for several weeks on end.

Michael Santoro suggested that with 12 cases reported last week and, according to Ms. Valley during the meeting, three this week, the Island already is meeting that threshold.

“Our goal, Mike, is to preserve those good numbers,” said Matt Poole, who serves on the Chilmark board of health and as Edgartown’s health agent.

Data that recent is not sufficient to change the board’s approach, Mr. Poole added.

The health boards agreed to review the mandate again by Jan. 15, the current horizon date for mask mandates in Island schools.

“Maybe by January we will see eight or 10 or 12 weeks of low case loads,” Dr. Nieder said.

Out of some 45 participants on the Zoom conference, only one had strong objections to continuing the mandate: Edgartown property owner and Connecticut businessman Bret Furio, who Zoomed from off Island to call it “infuriating.”

“Just go one ferry ride to Falmouth and nobody’s wearing masks,” Mr. Furio said. “Nobody’s wearing masks on the whole south shore.

“I’m really frustrated,” he said. “I find that to be very Big Brother. It’s time to get back to normal.”

But Michael Hugo of the Massachusetts Association of Health Boards, who joined the meeting while visiting Island health departments Friday, said Mr. Furio was incorrect that all of the off-Island towns had dropped mask mandates.

“It is a fallacy . . . That is just not the case,” said Mr. Hugo, adding that Nantucket — which recently ended its mandate — may have to reimpose masking if an expected rise in cases occurs.

“You always have to expect a spike when people are moving indoors,” Mr. Hugo said.

According to Mr. Hugo, the mask mandate on Nantucket has been hard on local health inspectors.

“They’ve been getting threatened. They’ve been getting screamed at. They’re being accosted on the street [and] taking intense heat from restaurant owners,” he said. “It’s not a pretty sight.”

While Islanders seem to be more understanding of the rules, Mr. Hugo said, there are enforcement powers that can also be brought to bear with a $1,000-per-violation fine.

Nantucket health director Roberto Santamaria lowered the boom early on with a $10,000 penalty for a shop found with 10 unmasked customers, Mr. Hugo said.

While the board of health subsequently slashed the fine to pennies on the dollar, Mr. Hugo said the message to the business community was clear.

“That got their attention on that island and it was successful,” he said.

“There is enforcement available to the boards, [but] by all means don’t do it alone,” Mr. Hugo added. “Have an officer with you for that.”