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Williamstown Board of Health Stops Short of Mandating Masks
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
12:37AM / Tuesday, September 14, 2021
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Board of Health on Monday decided against mandating an indoor face-covering policy but instead strengthened the language in an existing town advisory that masks be worn indoors regardless of one's COVID-19 vaccination status.
 
The board met with a single-item agenda to consider its course in light of last week's directive issued by the Lee-Lenox-Stockbridge Tri-Town Health Department, which instituted a mask mandate for all indoor spaces and "crowded outdoor public events."
 
The members of the Williamstown board decided that a similar directive is not warranted by the current COVID-19 infection rate in the North County town, and some members indicated that mandates, per se, are both difficult to enforce and less effective than strongly worded advisories from the body.
 
"I think it's a great idea to have a list of known, scientifically-backed statements about masking, hand-washing, etc., that we should have publicly available," Dr. Devan Bartels said. "I wonder if there are individuals who choose to get their information elsewhere and don't believe in it. And it might not have an effect there. But we still should have it available."
 
Dr. Jim Parkinson agreed.
 
"People who live in a parallel universe are not going to change their minds no matter what we say or do," Parkinson said. "I think we should address the intelligent people and make obvious statements and support them the best we can with the science."
 
The Board of Health last month advised face-coverings for all people in town when indoors. On Monday, it reaffirmed that recommendation and added to its language.
 
"The motion would be, 'Based upon the science as provided by peer-reviewed medical research, the Board of Health continues to strongly support indoor masking for people who are vaccinated or unvaccinated, supports any establishment that chooses to mandate it, supports masking for school children and at-risk populations and recommends highly that anyone eligible be vaccinated,' " Health Inspector Jeffrey Kennedy said in recommending a motion to the board on Monday.
 
That statement was quickly endorsed unanimously by the four members present: Bartels, Parkinson, Dr. Win Stuebner and Chair Ruth Harrison.
 
"I don't think a mandate will change the behavior of anybody," Parkinson said. "In fact, I think it puts it into a political realm. This is our considered opinion of what people should do. … We've seen that [mandates] don't work.
 
"In a place as close as Adams, at their recent Board of Health meeting, there was a lot of angst and pushback. I don't think we need that in Williamstown."
 
Stuebner raised concerns about enforcement.
 
"I don't think anybody in town government has the resources to do that," he said. "It also puts the onus on shop owners, restaurant owners. That's tough for those people to have to handle, particularly if you have someone making a real fuss about not wearing a mask."
 
As an alternative, the Williamstown board Monday decided to print signs that business owners can choose to hang in their storefronts if they can and do want to announce that all of their employees are fully vaccinated. The board briefly discussed whether it wanted to establish a process for confirming the claim but the members decided they were comfortable relying on the honor system.
 
The board also discussed reaching out to the Williamstown Chamber of Commerce to ask if it would be comfortable signing on to the mask recommendation issued by the BOH.
 
At the start of Monday's discussion, the board noted that the COVID-19 numbers in town have remained relatively flat in recent weeks.
 
Kennedy reported that the town currently has 19 cases of the disease, five or six were 14 days beyond the initial positive test. 
 
"You can basically say we have 13 cases that I'd consider to be active right now," Kennedy said.
 
As of Monday morning, Williams College was reporting two positive cases in 3,895 tests conducted over the last seven days, a 0.1 percent seven-day positivity rate.
 
Stuebner told his colleagues that based on reports from Berkshire Health Systems, the only vaccinated individuals currently hospitalized with COVID-19 are "elderly patients with significant co-morbidities," and none of the COVID-19 patients with so-called breakthrough infections have needed to be placed on ventilators.
 
Although the Williamstown board is not choosing to take the same step as its colleagues in South County, it did not disagree with the Tri-Town Health Department's decision.
 
"While we're not enforcing a mandate, I don't think that should be construed as us, as a board of health, not supporting the Tri-Town's decision to enforce a mandate in South County," Bartels said. "I think they're doing what's appropriate for their communities. They have different numbers and different populations than we do.
 
"Looking at our numbers, I agree that, psychologically, strongly supporting masking for vaccinated and non-vaccinated individuals, hand-washing, social distancing, vaccination — it's really a multi-pronged support that we're all supporting. We're not twisting anyone's arm here, but we're also not saying that what they're doing in South County is inappropriate."
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