Bill aims to bolster COVID-19 safety precautions, enforcement

  • Greg McManus cleans the entry doors at Herrell’s Ice Cream and Bakery in Northampton, Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Halle Boyce waits on a customer at Herrell's Ice Cream and Bakery in Northampton, Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Hand sanitizer rests on a table at the entry to Harrell's Ice Cream and Bakery in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Greg McManus waits on customers at Herrell's Ice Cream and Bakery in Northampton, Wednesday, July 22, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Halle Boyce waits on a customer at Herrell's Ice Cream and Bakery in Northampton, Wednesday, July 22, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Bri Eichstaedt, who is the health agent for Easthampton, on Cottage Street, Thursday, July 16, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Bri Eichstaedt, Easthampton health agent on Cottage Street, July 16. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • State Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst  FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 7/23/2020 6:53:46 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Judy Herrell has a few stories of customers at her ice cream shop throwing COVID-19 safety precautions to the wind.

She distinctly remembers one person at Herrell’s Ice Cream & Bakery a few weeks ago who refused to wear her mask while standing inside the store. Employees tried to reason with the woman to put her mask back on, Herrell said, but the woman, who said she was tired of wearing it, refused and caused a scene. But just before Herrell confronted the woman herself, a customer turned around and said something she’d never forget.

“He wasn’t quiet, he was loud. And he said … ‘Lady, all you have to do is follow the rules, and act like a grownup. Now if you can’t do that, you really need to leave and let the rest of us enjoy our day,’” Herrell recounted. “And she just turned around and walked out the door in a huff.”

Mask wearing in public where social distancing is not possible is the law per order of the governor, and businesses must follow a series of mandatory opening safety standards for workplaces in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus among employees and customers.

But as elected officials hand down more orders and standards, enforcement of such rules largely fall on local and regional boards of health, many of which are already underfunded and understaffed. A bill introduced on Beacon Hill by state Rep. Mindy Domb, D-Amherst, aims to mitigate a potential COVID-19 resurgence in part by coming up with plans to invest state resources into helping municipalities enforce state rules, while also developing ways to improve the efficiency of boards of health across Massachusetts.

“The state should be helping with enforcement where it can, where it’s welcome and where it’s needed,” Domb said. “And at the same time, they should be identifying the ways in which they can directly build the capacity of our public health infrastructure to take on this task, and fund it.”

Domb’s bill, which she introduced along with state Rep. Jon Santiago, D-Boston, addresses a few key issues. It further codifies the face-mask wearing order and has the state provide resources for extra masks and a public information campaign on the benefits and use of face masks. In addition, it codifies potential punishments for people who do not quarantine if traveling from a state with a high infection rate – and identifies new “high priority populations” for prioritized COVID-19 testing.

The bill also calls for state officials to come up with a plan by Sept. 1 for “proactive enforcement” of the governor’s workplace safety rules, including estimates for funding for state and local agencies to conduct “education, inspections, and other enforcement activities.”

As of now, enforcement of many of these workplace standards is done on a complaint basis, meaning a customer or employee has to inform health officials of non-compliance before an inspector is sent out to observe, according to Bri Eichstaedt, Eathampton’s health agent. And since it’s just Eichstaedt and an on-call inspector taking these complaints in her city, it’s easy for the health agent to feel like she’s overloaded — especially since she’s still responsible for many other pre-COVID duties. Not to mention, the city’s health department just simply does not have the resources to do random workplace standards inspections, she said.

“It gets overwhelming,” Eichstaedt said.

Domb said it shouldn’t be up to an employee or customer to enforce workplace safety standards by filing complaints. That’s where she sees the benefit of “proactive enforcement” between state and local agencies. Domb said having the state assist localities with education and enforcement before non-compliance occurs helps identify the ways in which local boards of health need their capacities built, and then fund it.

“The reopening is a lot of words strung together without a lot of capacity to match the words,” Domb said. “We need to start matching our language when it comes to capacity — we literally need to put our money where our mouth is.”

Eichstaedt said the pandemic shone a light on the deficiencies of the public health system in Massachusetts. The Department of Labor Standards is helping triage workplace standards complaints, but the work mostly falls on the city’s health department that’s strapped for resources. Eichstaedt has received 80 complaints since March. She said more state assistance would drastically improve her department.

“If we could get funding, just as little as one full-time person, it would change our department completely,” Eichstaedt said.

In regard to face-masks, Domb said the bill goes farther than Gov. Charlie Baker’s order mandating the use of masks in public, as it has a provision for free masks to be distributed to local boards of health, as well as for state resources toward a public information campaign. She sees enforcement of fines as a last resort, instead arguing that greater investment by the state will result in higher participation.

“If we start to deal with mask-wearing on a much higher level of public health priority, compliance and adherence will be much higher,” Domb said.

Herrell said she believes a public information campaign on mask-wearing is a good idea though it may be difficult for a small board of healths to effectively reach those who may need education or a mask.

“I think it’s going to be difficult to enforce because of the logistics of it,” Herrell said. “Do I think the boards of health need the additional financing to try and put out some campaign about masks? Yeah, absolutely.”

Michael Connors can be reached at mconnors@gazettenet.com.


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