PEABODY — A judge has rejected a Peabody HVAC contractor's claims that Gov. Charlie Baker's orders limiting capacity inside buildings and requiring face masks were infringing on people's rights.
"Governor Baker’s orders for all residents to wear masks are rationally related to the interest in stemming the spread of COVID-19," U.S. District Court Judge William Young wrote in his ruling, "because as the parties stipulated ... 'it has been proven that the wearing of masks can slow the transmission of the spread of coronavirus.'"
The 40-page ruling came this week, about seven months after Vincent Delaney first filed his lawsuit last spring challenging Baker's orders as the pandemic spread throughout the Northeast.
Delaney said at the time that he believed the governor's measures went too far by interfering with his right to worship and even to breathe freely — and said he believed that the risk from coronavirus was being overstated. He told a reporter in June "I haven't gotten sick. Nobody I know has gotten sick."
He hasn't changed his opinion even as deaths continue to climb — though he does now know people who have contracted the virus.
And he said he doesn't believe the numbers of deaths from COVID-19 are as high as the government is reporting, contending that hospitals are attributing other deaths to the virus to get more money. "I believe they're hyping up those numbers," he said Friday.
In his 40-page decision, Young noted that as of January, "over 20,700,000 (20.7 million) people in the United States have contracted COVID-19 ... (and) over 350,000 people have died from the virus" and in Massachusetts, there had been more than 32,000 cases and 501 new deaths in just the seven days leading up to his ruling, issued on Wednesday.
By the time the case was presented to Young last October in a jury-waived trial, only Delaney's First Amendment claims were left in the case.
Delaney contended that the rules limiting indoor occupancy and requiring social distancing and wearing masks in all public places violated his rights to practice his religion. Delaney is Catholic.
The governor, represented by two assistant attorneys general, argued that Delaney lacked legal standing for such a claim and that the orders did not infringe on his rights.
Young noted that even the set of facts that Delaney's lawyer and the government's lawyers agreed to do not show that he was ever denied access to a church or that it was the result of the governor's orders.
His complaint offered only hypotheticals, Young wrote.
"We basically lost because we couldn't show harm," Delaney acknowledged.
Beyond that, the Archdiocese of Boston set up its own COVID-19 protocols, Young noted in his ruling, including lifting the obligation to attend Mass weekly, and suspending singing.
Despite his lawyer's agreement with the government's attorneys that masks can slow the spread of the virus, Delaney remains skeptical.
Delaney said he's spent much of the past year in Florida, where, he says, he knows people who got sick while being the only people wearing masks at a wedding.
"Personally, me and my wife were exposed to 10 different people who had COVID," he suggested. "Some of them got real sick. We tested negative."
Asked whether the deaths of 232 Peabody residents last year from COVID might make him reconsider, Delaney questioned the figure, then suggested it represents a small fraction of the city's population and contrasted it against the effects of the shutdowns on others, who have lost jobs or businesses and who are experiencing hunger and homelessness.
Young said in his ruling that he believes Delaney was being sincere when he made his representations concerning his beliefs.
But the judge also said there was no evidence the governor was specifically targeting religions when he issued his order, either.
"The orders do not subtly target religious conduct for distinctive treatment, and there is no evidence that these orders are the product of animus," Young wrote.
Delaney's lawyer had also argued that the emergency circumstances that led to the order had abated with the passage of time. However, Young noted that "the number of weekly reported cases has remained at grim record highs for the last several weeks, and Massachusetts is opening field hospitals because its existing infrastructure is overwhelmed with patients."
"There certainly will be a day in the hopefully near future when this crisis’s exigency expires in Massachusetts, but it is not today," Young wrote.
Delaney raised more than $63,000 through a crowd-funding page to pay for an attorney to handle the case.
He says now he's hoping to file a class-action lawsuit.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis.