Town fines Amherst restaurant for violating mask mandate

  • A blood orange margarita from Mission Cantina in Amherst. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 2/14/2022 7:33:37 PM
Modified: 2/14/2022 7:31:43 PM

AMHERST — A South Amherst restaurant is being fined for its employees not wearing face coverings on multiple occasions this year, becoming the first business to accrue penalties for failing to comply with the town’s mask rules.

But Mission Cantina owner Sam Kochan told the Board of Health Thursday that he is appealing the fines, that the town’s regulations have been onerous and that he has lost half of his business, and 80% of employees, during the course of the nearly two-year-long pandemic.

“Enough is enough, I’ve had it,” Kochan said. “You guys will not answer questions, but you will pass mandates, you will pass fines.”

Kochan also was one of several residents who called on the health board and Health Director Jennifer Brown at the meeting Thursday to immediately drop the mandate requiring that masks be worn in indoor spaces open to the public, a requirement in place since August.

Chairwoman Nancy Gilbert disputed that Amherst’s regulations are out of line.

“I think we’ve tried to be sensitive to restaurants knowing how difficult it is right now for them,” Gilbert said. “We don’t want to put people out of business, but we feel there are safety and health measures that are important for the public.”

Edmund Smith, a municipal inspector, told the health board that the fines, totaling $750, came in response to complaints from customers and subsequent observations of no masks being worn by employees. The first incident was on Jan. 13, with the first tickets issued Jan. 19, and an advisory to Kochan that future complaints and inspections could lead to additional citations for each instance of noncompliance.

“This restaurant we gave many chances to,” Smith said.

On Jan. 22, four unmasked workers were observed. Since then, Kochan has appealed the fines, and also told inspectors that he doesn’t intend to comply with the rules, even though he is seeking to renew his license to operate a restaurant.

Smith said while there have been other places where masks have been an issue, usually talking to a manager or owner rectifies the situation, and the focus has been on education to reach compliance.

“These were the first fines we’ve assessed during the pandemic,” Smith said.

“Overall we’ve had a lot of support from establishments and the public,” Smith added.

Kochan has maintained that if an employee doesn’t want to wear a mask he can’t compel them to, and that it would violate federal rules under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 if he asked them to provide a medical exemption.

The board offered no input on whether the license can be renewed.

Meantime, among those calling to end the mask mandate soon were resident Gavin Andresen, who said that such action would free up resources and allow officials to focus on the vulnerable through improved ventilation and protecting those living in nursing homes.

“This is going from a pandemic to an endemic, and the masks will come off, and I think the masks should come off as quickly as possible,” Andresen said.

Nicholas DeFranco, a UMass student, said the town has vaccination and booster rates that are high enough, asking the board to “follow the science” and not feelings.

“We are at the point to take masks off,” DeFranco said.

“Please know that there is support in the community for removing masks and getting kids back to normal,” said Sharon Kearney, a parent of a kindergartner and preschooler, noting that mandates may be adversely impacting her children’s education and development.

Kochan told the health board that it should prioritize making sure people are getting more supplements in their diets, and more sunlight.

“I’m here to say that the vaccines are poisoned, I’m sorry for all of you who took it,” Kochan said.

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

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