Goodbye masks? As of Monday, no Connecticut town or city will have a broad mask mandate

Mark Mirko/Hartford Courant/TNS

As Connecticut’s COVID-19 metrics improve following a devastating winter surge, the era of community-wide mask mandates in the state appears to have reached an end — or at least a pause.

On Monday, New Haven will officially lift its requirement that people in the Elm City wear masks in public, indoor settings. At that point, no municipality in Connecticut will have a mask mandate that applies to its broad population.

“Cases are going down. ... We’re going into warmer months. Hospitalizations are down,” New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker said. “So as we continue to see this trend, we’re in a much, much better place than we were many months ago, or even three weeks ago.”

Connecticut has not had a statewide mask mandate since spring 2021, but during the worst of the state’s delta and omicron variant surges, many towns and cities implemented requirements of their own. Gradually, in recent weeks, those local mandates have disappeared, with even the most cautious town officials moving on from universal masking.

Mansfield, for example, has been one of Connecticut’s most COVID-conscious towns throughout the pandemic, implementing a mask mandate almost immediately after gaining the power to do so last summer.

But with COVID-19 transmission dropping, Town Manager Ryan Aylesworth said, officials “did not see a compelling public health basis” to continue requiring masks.

“Now that the public health situation has gotten a lot better, we think it’s time to ... [promote] our local businesses and make sure our local businesses aren’t experiencing any unintended negative consequences as a result of perpetuating the mask mandate,” Aylesworth said.

In Hartford, where a citywide mask mandate expired at the end of January, Health Director Liany Arroyo said people who wish to continue wearing masks should feel free to do so but that current conditions no longer make it necessary.

“Masking was never intended to be something that we did forever,” Arroyo said. “It is meant to be something that is used when needed.”

Of course, the end of citywide mask mandates doesn’t mean the end of masking rules altogether. Many of Connecticut’s largest school districts, including Hartford, have continued to require masks in classrooms even as the statewide mandate has expired.

In Arroyo’s view, schools are different from grocery stores or restaurants in that people spend long periods of time there, in close proximity to each other.

“The schools right now are where you have many people for many, many hours all together,” Arroyo said. “That is a big difference.”

In New Haven, masks remain required not only in schools but also in municipal buildings. Elicker said this is to protect high-risk residents who can’t easily avoid those settings.

“For the vast majority of public spaces, people can choose to go there or not,” Elicker said. “But people have to go to school, and they have to go, in many cases, to our municipal buildings to access things that they need.”

Loosening guidance

Both locally and nationally, public health authorities have softened their stances on masking as COVID-19 numbers have improved. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has changed the thresholds for its county-by-county mask guidance, classifying most of the country as having “low” transmission.

Under the CDC’s old guidance, every Connecticut county would currently qualify as having “substantial” COVID-19 spread, meaning people there would be recommended to wear masks. Under the new guidance, all eight of the state’s counties are in the “low” category, meaning masks are not necessary.

Local experts, including those who have previously advocated for widespread masking, say Connecticut’s numbers are now low enough to justify removing mandates.

“We’re seeing declining cases, declining hospitalizations,” said Dr. David Banach, hospital epidemiologist at UConn Health. “I think that’s encouraging and supports pulling back on the broad public health measures that have been in place, including the masking.”

Banach said he would still recommend individuals wear masks in certain situations, particularly if they are at a high risk of severe COVID-19 illness or if they are around people who are.

“Being mindful of those who I’m around will probably guide my decisions about masking rather than a universal plan for masking in all public-facing situations,” he said.

Dr. Ulysses Wu, chief epidemiologist at Hartford HealthCare, said he still worries about COVID-19 spread at parties, concerts and other large indoor gatherings but that going mask-free at, say, a supermarket is “totally fine.”

Even as mask mandates disappear, officials say they are open to bringing them back if cases rise again, perhaps in the event of a new COVID-19 variant.

“I don’t think I can tell you no, we will never wear masks again,” Arroyo said. “Masks are always part of our toolkit.”

Alex Putterman can be reached at aputterman@courant.com.