Amherst eyes tighter rules on gatherings, face coverings

  • A view of Main Street in downtown Amherst. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 8/11/2020 10:36:50 PM

AMHERST — Before off-campus college students return to Amherst, the Town Council is considering a bylaw to reduce the size of indoor and outdoor gatherings beyond Gov. Charlie Baker’s latest order.

The council on Monday asked the Board of Health to examine how to effectively prohibit get-togethers that might increase the transmission of COVID-19, and to look at expanding the areas where face coverings are required beyond just the downtown to all village centers and the University Drive corridor.

District 3 Councilor Dorothy Pam said the governor’s order on gatherings, which went into effect on Tuesday, is too permissive.

“There’s a lot of concerns about masks all over the town of Amherst, and about groups,” Pam said. “I’ve been receiving a lot of mail about limiting the groups to 10, 20 at the max, outdoors.”

George Ryan, who also represents District 3, said he would like to see the health board and Health Director Julie Federman discuss the issues at a meeting Thursday and then report back to the Town Council.

“I really would like to hear from them to weigh in,” Ryan said, noting that he wants to know whether the Town Council should accept the governor’s numbers or if public health guidance would dictate tighter limits on gatherings.

Baker’s order limits indoor gatherings to eight people per 1,000 square feet of accessible indoor floor space, with a cap of 25 people, and outdoor gatherings to 25% of the maximum permitted occupancy, or eight people per 1,000 square feet, with a cap of 50 people.

Even if the council adopts a bylaw, Town Manager Paul Bockelman said the big challenge will be creating what he calls “a culture of compliance.”

Bockelman said having a bylaw would address both college students playing drinking games in the yard of a rental home, as well as parents who invite several people over for a 5-year-old child’s birthday party.

There also are concerns about who will be enforcing the bylaw, as the Board of Health is looking to revise its face coverings order so the responsibility doesn’t fall to police officers.

Bockelman said the town will use federal CARES Act money to hire what will be known as ambassadors, which could be college students and other residents, who would speak to individuals about the bylaws, reminding people about social distancing and handing out masks.

The PartySmart registration program will continue to be used by the University of Massachusetts, meaning students wishing to host parties can inform both UMass and Amherst Police in advance.

Tony Maroulis, executive director of External Relations and University Events, said that under this program, students are being informed that any gatherings should be kept under 10 people.

In addition, the town and university are partnering on creating a hotline and email that people can call when violations of social distancing or mask wearing are observed. Bockelman said this system will allow the complaint to be directed to police, code enforcement officers, inspectors or the university.

Police would continue to be the primary enforcement for serious noise complaints and parties that create safety concerns beyond COVID-19, including ones with property damage or personal injuries.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at


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