Photo: Debate over creating fines for violation of Belmont’s mask mandate has been delayed ‘til Sept. 20.
The Belmont Select Board decided at its scheduled meeting Monday, Sept. 13, to delay action on a pair of recommendations from the town’s Health Board mandating vaccinations for town employees and imposing fines on businesses and managers of public spaces which don’t enforce the town’s indoor mask requirement.
“We do not disagree with the recommendations necessarily. We’d like to get a little more data,” said Select Board Chair Adam Dash.
“We’re not disagreeing with the recommendations necessarily. We’d like to get a little more data,” said Select Board Chair Adam Dash.
The first recommendation would require all town employees to receive the Covid-19 vaccine. The second would impose a fine of $300 on businesses or large residential housing complexes which doesn’t enforce the town’s mask mandate.
Wesley Chin, Belmont’s Health Department director, said the pair of unanimous 3-0 votes were approved with the understanding the Select Board, working with the town’s Human Resources Department, would consult with the Town Counsel on implementing the employee mandate which would require negotiating with 11 of the town’s 12 unions. The Belmont Education Association last week approved a mandate for its members.
But before the Board could debate the mandate, the members tabled the recommendation after hearing from Town Administrator Patrice Garvin. She said both George Hall, the town’s general counsel, and the local Labor Council were asking the Board to wait on any vaccine requirement “because they’re still running some things down, especially with President Biden’s mandate.”
While saying he “conceptionally supports” the measure, Board member Mark Paolillo wanted to know if it was even in the town’s “purview to do something like this and how employees would react.”
Chin turned to the fines saying the addition of financial penalties to violations of the town’s face mask mandate were considered after his department received a number of complaints from concerned residents that “people just not wearing masks in indoor places that the public can access.”
Under the proposed amendment, if an incident is reported to the health department and the violation is observed, the Health Department would first provide a written warning to the business owner or manager. Subsequent violations would result in the issuance of a $300 fine for failure to comply with the mandate “to put pressure and motivate businesses to enforce massive mandates … inside of their locations,” said Chin.
Dash said establishing a financial sanction is not new. The town’s emergency order number two from March 2020 which created the mandate has similar language about the $300 fine but under that order the penalty was on the individual, not the store owner or manager.
“So the rationale is to change in focus: let’s put the pressure on the businesses to remind people that they have to wear masks,” said Dash who recalled his wife telling him when she visited a large store in town where “almost nobody was wearing a mask.”
“We’ve seen exactly what you’re talking about that some of these businesses were blowing it off entirely, said Dash.
When she asked who was enforcing the mask mandate and an employee said the workers were told not to do anything about it, as managers would enforce it. “‘Where’s the manager? He’s in the back,’” Dash was told. “So they’ve signs up on the door but no one was doing anything and no one was wearing masks,” he said.
In the case of residential buildings, Chin said complaints are coming from residents in larger apartment buildings where they were concerned about unmasked residents in common areas such as lobbies, fitness clubs, lounges, and hallways. “Apparently we’re not enforcing the rule,” the resident told Chin.
While understanding the need for fines to enforce compliance of the emergency health code, Paolillo also recognized the difficulty of having “a high school kid behind the register” attempt to manage and enforce the code.
The board also highlighted the difficulty of actually catching those violating the mask mandate in the act as the Heath Department is already burdened with multiple tasks to observe a meaningful number of violations and the police are busy with public safety.
“While virtually every Belmont business does have signs but [do they have] the staffing to confront potential violators is a real open question,” said Board member Roy Epstein, who noted to the board that with the general trend of positive Covid-19 cases falling, a mandate could be unnecessary in the near future.
With questions remaining unanswered, Dash proposed a joint meeting with the Board of Health on Sept. 20 to allow for a “give and take” on the issues.
“Then we might have some information on a vaccine mandate from the town counsel and labor councils at that point, maybe we can have a more comprehensive discussion,” said Dash.