The Salem Board of Health has issued a new public health emergency which requires everyone to wear a mask in some of the city's busiest areas, including parks. WGBH Morning Edition host Joe Mathieu spoke with Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll about the new requirements. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.
Joe Mathieu: I realized this morning we haven't spoken since we were really in the throes of the surge when there was so much uncertainty. And it's great to have you back as we talk about the way forward here. What went into this latest order to cover up, even outside?
Mayor Kim Driscoll: I think in the city, as we're seeing the phased reopenings occurring and the weather is getting nicer, we're definitely seeing more people out and about. And unfortunately in some areas, it really is hard to maintain the physical distance that you need. It's really hard to enforce, finding somebody without a mask as they're passing somebody on a busy sidewalk or in a busy park. And I think the Board of Health just felt like we want to diminish any opportunity to spread the virus and make it really clear: If you're in the downtown, busier area or in any of our city parks, you need to have a face covering or a mask on.
Mathieu: This is becoming more of an issue with the heat, as I mentioned. A lot of people are out. We saw some pretty crowded beaches over the weekend.
Driscoll: Yes, absolutely. I'd say we've got two fronts here. One, it's nicer weather and Salem's a great place to hang out. We've got some beautiful spaces, so we're seeing not only residents, but a mix of tourists, visitors [and] people from other places, which you can understand can cause some trepidation within our community. And then the beaches and the parks, this is the first time in recent memory this weekend [that] both of our beaches and Winter Island Marina were at capacity before noon. So we know we also have to look at how we can make sure those spaces are available, as well.
Mathieu: The whole concept of face coverings becomes a bit abstract once you get it wet, right? You see people at the beach, it's wet, it's hanging off their face, [and] they wonder, 'What am I doing? This thing doesn't even work anyway.' We have to be deliberate with this, according to medical experts.
Driscoll: And I do think at the beach, there are separate guidelines. So if you are at the beach practicing that 12-foot distance that you're required to under the guidelines and in and out of the water, we do not believe a mask is something that you should have to wear, but on your way to the beach, we've got droves of people walking in close proximity to each other. And it's hot and it's sticky and it's messy. You don't want to wear it when you're just out of the park, when it's 90 degrees.
On the other hand, when you're in close proximity to other folks, we've got a mix of people now, with the reopenings occurring, and there are people taking their vacation in Massachusetts. So we're just trying to keep everybody safe, and the best way to do that is to just have a requirement. It's easier for us to enforce.
And we are, I will say, really trying to be good stewards and ambassadors. We are handing out masks. We are not doing this because we're trying to fine anybody. We just want to make sure that everyone is safe when they're coming to our community, whether you're a visitor heading downtown or a resident heading downtown.
Mathieu: Tell me more about tourism. This is an interesting component with so much uncertainty heading into the summer for places like Salem, Cape Cod, Cape Ann and so on. What kind of traffic are you seeing? And are there concerns about the coronavirus still getting in the way?
Driscoll: Yeah, I would say that we're definitely diminished from where we normally would be as a community, in terms of visitors and tourists that would be here to enjoy the New England summer. We'll see how fall plays out. And I can tell you that the city [is] not marketing or promoting tourism any place else but locally. We really are trying to focus on staycations [and] people who live in Massachusetts or the general New England area, which tend to have the same health benchmarks as we do here.
But that doesn't mean our borders are closed, so we do see people from a broad cross-section. And it's definitely something we're mindful of as a community that relies on tourism and hospitality that normally is welcoming to visitors. I think we need to make sure when people get here what the rules are, and that means wearing masks [and] practicing distancing. Some people are coming from places where they didn't have these regulations and frankly, they haven't been or maybe are just now going through some of the worst throes of this virus. Not to indicate we're over it by any chance, but when we were having our lockdown and hospitals were full, they haven't necessarily experienced that. So we're trying to educate people: If they're here, make sure they know the rules. Our business community is a real partner in that effort.
Nobody wants to do this twice, so we need people to remain vigilant. And that's part of this order. If you're in downtown Salem, it's a mask-up zone. If you're in a city park, especially during these really hot days when lots of people are out, it's a mask-up zone.
Mathieu: How are the numbers in Salem, Mayor, at this point?
Driscoll: So our benchmarks are below 2 percent, which is terrific. We're really grateful that the state shares that information so we can do our own separate tracking. We could do on a daily basis, [but] it's a lot more valuable when you're looking at it in week and two-week snippets.
We are hoping to engage with the DPH on becoming part of a city that allows for a broader cross-section of community testing. We think that's really important, especially in a place where we know there are visitors and tourists coming, that we need to do more testing in order to really have a handle on surveillance, monitoring and understanding where we're at.
And we're prepared to act. If we see an uptick in our activities, we'll act unilaterally knowing that we are seeing people from other communities and other states in Salem.