Face covering mandatory in downtown Amherst starting Monday

  • Signs in downtown Amherst illustrate pandemic guidelines, such as this one on South Pleasant Street on Wednesday. People will be required to wear face coverings beginning Monday or face fines. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • People wearing face coverings walk on North Pleasant Street in Amherst on Wednesday. Everyone will be required to wear face coverings beginning Monday or face fines. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 7/29/2020 6:55:46 PM

AMHERST — People making their way through downtown Amherst and heading to stores and restaurants will be required to wear face coverings beginning Monday morning.

The Board of Health this week, at an emergency meeting, approved an order that mandates anyone over the age of 5 to cover their mouths and noses while in the “COVID-19 Required Face Covering and Mask Area.”

“Within the Mask Area, masks must be worn at all times, and no matter what the distances are between one person and others,” the order states.

The area covered by the order includes the section of Amherst bounded by the University of Massachusetts to the north, Amherst College to the south, Lincoln Avenue to the west and Triangle Street to the east. Most of the Amherst Business Improvement District, which encompasses Amherst center blocks along North Pleasant, South Pleasant, East Pleasant, Amity and Main streets, is included.

The order would allow health agents and other municipal enforcement officers to make sure people are following the order, with police officers only called in on an as-needed basis, said Town Manager Paul Bockelman.

But Bockelman said the order is mostly about education and protecting public health. The measure has escalating fines, $50 for a first offense, $100 for a second and $200 for a third or subsequent offense, but the likelihood of any penalties being issued is small.

At his Cuppa Joe with Paul community meeting last week with the leaders of the business community, Bockelman said that fines would not be prioritized.

“We will have the ability to enforce, but we don’t really want to start writing tickets for not wearing masks,” Bockelman said.

The order, and how it will be enforced, is similar to Northampton, where such an order has been in place since spring.

In Northampton, the order applies to the Central and General Business Districts, any and all parks and recreation areas open to the public and any bike path or multipurpose trail, such as the MassCentral Rail Trail’s Norwottuck section, Rocky Hill Trail, and the New Haven and Northampton Canal Rail Trail’s Manhan section.

The Northampton order has provisions for warnings and $300 fines, but Alan Wolf, chief of staff for Mayor David Narkewicz, said no fines have been issued. Instead, health agents have been issuing warnings and handing out masks to people.

Wolf said the city is also exploring jointly hiring a COVID-19 enforcement officer, with the idea that this person can help keep people safe by limiting the spread of infection.

Previously Amherst had been aligned with the state’s face-covering law that requires people who can’t safely social distance and should stay 6 feet apart, to wear a mask. The town’s rules also required masks to be worn in stores.

Signs were recently installed by the Department of Public Works in downtown to remind people to wear a mask and social distance. Bockelman said new signs showing that this is now a mandate may be put up.

Most businesses apparently support having the local order, based on the conversation Bockelman had with business leaders during his Cuppa Joe.

Claudia Pazmany, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, said the mandate will help businesses. She said some merchants have been concerned about the responsibility of telling customers that face coverings have to be worn in their stores.

Amherst BID Executive Director Gabrielle Gould observes that she gets more calls and text messages about people not wearing masks than complaints from people being forced to wear them. In fact, Gould said that she has heard customers will be more comfortable returning to downtown Amherst to shop and dine if there is assurance that people will be wearing masks.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.
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