Fines Out, Signs In As Select Board OKs Measured Adds To Town’s Mask Mandate

Photo: It was a full Zoom house as the Select and Health boards approved additions to the town’s mask mandate.

With opposition growing by members to a Health Board proposal to penalize store owners whose patrons repeatedly violate the town’s indoor mask mandate, the Belmont Select Board voted Monday, Sept. 20 to set aside a suggested $300 fine and replaced it with a watered-down compromise simply requiring businesses and large residential buildings to post signs informing the public of the town’s indoor mask mandate and ordering all employees to wear masks.

In addition, Belmont will delay implementing a vaccine mandate for town employees as it waits for possible action by the federal government on a proposed nationwide vaccine requirement for organizations with more than 100 workers.

The fine and employee mandate proposal was passed by the Health Board on Sept. 13 in response to the surge in positive cases of Covid-19 in town and across the country due in large part to the especially virulent Delta variant.

Donna David, the Health Board chair, said the recommendation “just gave teeth to what we were doing” in encouraging mask wearing. While admitting that enforcement could be “a little tricky’, the recommendation was no different to what the Health Department does when receiving complaints and food inspections.

“Like other health-related things in businesses, we’ve found the best to put the onus on the person who is responsible for the establishment,” said David, similar to enforcing the cigarette policy where the owner rather than the employee is ultimately the person who is held accountable.

Adam Dash, the Select Board chair, said the fine would “put a little ‘oomph’ behind what is already on the books.

While each of the board members supported some version of the fine, some where concerned the

Mark Paolillo worried that many businesses have “younger folks working behind the counter” who will be required to tell people to put on masks and they “say I’m not wearing a mask … [and] you set up a confrontation” because the owner doesn’t want to incur the fine. “That’s problematic,” said Paolillo who would rather see the individual violating the mandate fined.

Paolillo suggested the town should first discover if every business that is open to the public has been notified to have a sign at their location and if, in fact, they have one.

Epstein’s objection was the proposal was unworkable as Health Department employees would need to observe an incident with “an egregious violator” not wearing a face covering in the store.

”I just seems unworkable to me,” said Epstein.

Local businesses are also concerned with the introduction of financial penalties on the establishment because a patron is willing to violate the town’s mandate.

“There’s a help issue in small businesses … were struggling to get product in our stores and we’re struggling to retain customers. And for you to fine a customer or small business to me is ludicrous,” said Deran Muckjian, owner of the Toy Shop of Belmont in Belmont Center. He reiterated Paolillo’s worry that “a 16 year old Belmont High sophomore by himself in the store” will confront a 45 year old adult who says “No, I’m not going to wear [a mask.]”

“What do you do, how do you deal with that,” said Muckjian, who called the recommendations “a bunch of crap.”

By the end of the hour long discussion, the board coalesced behind Paolillo’s suggestion to require businesses have signs visible to customers and for managers of larger residential housing complexes to have signs in common areas that residents could congregate. The Health Board joined the Select Board in approving the new language to the mask mandate.

“I can live with that going forward. If we have issues, which I don’t expect … then we will come back to you,” said David.

While the employee vaccination mandate has taken a back seat to the federal government’s proposal, the town will be polling employees on their vaccination status. “If [the poll] shows we’re 99 percent or something, then maybe this is less of a driving concern,” said Dash.

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