Northampton health board’s vaccine passport plan draws fire

  • Kyle Anderson, manager of The Dirty Truth in Northampton, talks about implementing a vaccine mandate at the Main Street pub. Photographed on Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO

  • Kyle Anderson, manager of The Dirty Truth in Northampton, talks about implementing a vaccine mandate at the Main Street pub. Photographed on Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021. —STAFF PHOTO

  • Northampton City Hall in June 2021

Staff Writer
Published: 12/28/2021 9:45:35 PM

NORTHAMPTON — A proposal to require everyone 5 and older to show proof of full vaccination against COVID-19 before entering restaurants, bars, gyms and other indoor businesses in the city drew more than 300 people to the Board of Health’s emergency meeting Tuesday night.

The public comment period in the beginning, during which each speaker was given two minutes, lasted more than three hours.

“This is a decision that has not been made, by any means,” Dr. Joanne Levin, the board’s chairwoman, said at the conclusion of public comment.

When the meeting formally opened, Public Health Director Merridith O’Leary suggested continuing the meeting to next week to give members time to read written public testimony and consider any possible “unintended consequences” before a vote. The board agreed and will meet again Monday, Jan. 3, at 5:30 p.m.

The city’s Health Department released a draft of the proposed order earlier Tuesday that defines full vaccination as both shots in a two-shot series — or one shot of Johnson & Johnson vaccine — plus a booster shot if eligible. Anyone 18 and older would have to show ID in addition to their vaccination record.

The businesses that must abide by the order would include all indoor dining establishments, bars, nightclubs, catering halls, hotel banquet rooms, gyms and fitness centers, dance and yoga/Pilates studios, concert venues, museums, bowling alleys, adult entertainment locations, arcades and pools, among others.

Businesses would have to enforce the order themselves and post a notice about the vaccine requirement. The order would apply to all workers at the covered businesses, as well.

The draft includes exemptions for locations that provide charitable food service and businesses that offer food and drink for off-premises or outdoor consumption only. People would be able to enter a covered business without showing proof of vaccination if they are there for a limited purpose like using the bathroom, placing an order or making a delivery.

The overwhelming majority of those who spoke at the virtual meeting were against the draft order.

Resident James Boddy said he is vaccinated but is “adamantly opposed to a vaccine mandate.” He said the city has a reputation for tolerance of different viewpoints, which should extend to the “minority” who choose to go unvaccinated for personal reasons. A mandate, he said, would disproportionately affect marginalized communities and children.

Sarah Blais, general manager of Spare Time Bowling, said her staff “have been assaulted physically and verbally due to the mask mandate, which we support.” She expects those incidents “to get way worse” with a vaccine mandate and “the support from the Board of Health has been nonexistent.”

Many called the mandate “discriminatory” due to racial disparities in vaccination rates and because there are no exemptions for religious and medical reasons, while others said it would make them feel more comfortable patronizing city businesses.

“We don’t need concerts right now. We want them. We don’t need to eat indoors right now. We want to,” Colin Ward, a local guitarist and music teacher, said. “Public health is way more important than the profit of a few small business owners who (disagree with the mandate). … It’s a pandemic. It’s crazy time and nothing is normal about what we’re dealing with, what we’re going through, and how some of us are acting.”

Record case counts

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) reported 9,228 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, the second-highest single-day case count since the start of the pandemic. The four highest single-day case counts were all recorded in the past week and the state has now recorded more than 1 million cases in total.

The seven-day test positivity rate was over 11%. The rate has risen steadily since Oct. 25, when it was 1.67%, according to DPH data.

DPH also reported 20,247 new breakthrough COVID-19 cases in the week that ended Dec. 25, which is about 2.7% of fully vaccinated residents; there were also 70 additional deaths among fully vaccinated people, bringing the total to 854.

About 75% of Massachusetts residents are fully vaccinated, but the percentage is 63.8% in Hampshire County, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Staff as ‘COVID cops’

Georgianna Brunton, owner of Miss Florence Diner, told the Gazette that she found out about the proposed vaccine mandate on Tuesday morning while clearing out her email spam filter. The Health Department sent a draft of the order to local business owners just before 8:30 a.m., about nine hours before the start of the meeting, and invited them to comment.

The new order “targets the weakest sector of small business in the area,” she said, affecting “restaurants, delis, entertainment venues, but not every other business where you have close contact with others. Why just limit it?”

Brunton said she took an “informal poll” of 25 diners on Tuesday morning, and even though all of them said they were fully vaccinated, they unanimously agreed that they would not patronize a business that requires proof.

“Showing a vaccination card does not mean you aren’t a carrier or even can’t have (COVID),” Brunton said. “It simply means you are less likely to die from complications of COVID.”

Brunton said she has spent significant money on antimicrobial cleaning products, hand sanitizer, air purifiers and other safety measures since the start of the pandemic, and she faithfully enforces the city’s mask mandate and the recommendation that customers put their masks on when walking to the bathroom.

“We all have COVID fatigue. Let’s not add to that by forcing business owners and managers to be COVID cops, too,” she said. “Frankly, I have no desire to confront someone about their ID and a card. To be honest, I can’t even find mine.”

‘It just had to be done’

On Dec. 21, The Dirty Truth craft beer bar and restaurant on Main Street became what appears to be the first business in Northampton to announce a vaccine mandate of its own for customers. General manager Kyle Anderson said “we’re still in the thick” of the pandemic and it didn’t make sense to wait for the city to impose a mandate.

“It just had to be done,” Anderson said during an interview on Tuesday. “I don’t feel like an individual restaurant should be the one leading that … but if we can help other people feel comfortable, and get the Board of Health having these emergency meetings, then great.”

The business has not had “any issues” when enforcing previous orders like the citywide mask mandate, he said, and The Dirty Truth’s early vaccine mandate did not lead to any confrontations between staff and customers.

Anderson said 10-15% of his business is now takeout orders, compared to less than 1% before the first pandemic-related business closures in March 2020. The Dirty Truth closed for five months and reopened in August 2020 with a newly renovated kitchen and an outdoor seating option; regular customers returned and remain loyal to this day, Anderson said, regardless of the vaccination requirement.

“I knew I would have the backing of our regular customers,” Anderson said. “The brunt of the negativity has come from” comments on social media and in online reviews of the business.

He added that “out of 200-plus comments, I recognized two names. I’d guess that 99% of the negative feedback has been from people who don’t come here.”

Regionally, some other restaurants have imposed vaccine requirements for their patrons, like The Blue Heron in Sunderland and The Ashfield Lake House in Ashfield.

Similar mandates are going into effect, at varying paces, in major cities around the country, such as Boston, New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Chicago.

Brian Steele can be reached at bsteele@gazettenet.com.
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