Amherst town-gown forum will discuss students flouting COVID-19 rules 

  • Univesity of Massachusetts Amherst campus GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 8/30/2020 9:21:13 PM

AMHERST — On a warm late summer afternoon, Dédé Wilson of Shutesbury made the short trip to Puffer’s Pond expecting to spend time relaxing on a raft, having enjoyed the recreation area earlier in the year under rules designed to keep people safe from COVID-19.

Unlike what Wilson had observed then — people in masks and spaced out on the beach in their own pods — what she found when she got there were numerous unmasked college-age people walking close together from their cars and then clustered on the cliff taking turns illegally diving into the water more than 20 feet below.

“There was no social distancing, no masks in sight,” Wilson said.

For Wilson, this is evidence of the continued challenges Amherst is facing in containing the spread of infection, as well as a disconnect between the town and University of Massachusetts in messaging and enforcing COVID-19 rules.

To address the community worries, the Town-Gown Fall Reopening Group, made up of UMass and Amherst town officials, will hold a virtual community forum at 5:30 p.m. Thursday. The session will cover COVID-19 testing and contact tracing, isolation and quarantine protocols, and how students and the community are being informed about measures to protect public health and mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

The session comes a little over a week into the fall semester, in which most classes are being taught virtually and a large majority of students who have returned are living off campus.

Robin Jaffin of Amherst, who launched a petition over the summer to urge university officials not to bring students back, said the response to concerns has been too slow and late, with many students moving into off-campus rentals by Aug. 1. A hotline and email for providing immediate feedback could have been in place earlier, Jaffin said, asserting that the UMass Amherst Community Agreement has insufficient penalties and watered-down language.

“It’s just a shame that there was no proactive and consistent communication with the community weeks ago — and at the least some clarity at the town level regarding who would actually answer the phone when a community member called with a concern that needed to be dealt with in real time — and what the protocol for follow-up and reporting would be,” Jaffin said.

Black Sheep Deli and Market owner Nick Seamon said the reopening group is missing the voices of residents, business and property owners, and professors, and smacks of paternalism.

“We all have an equal share in the community, so it’s disheartening,” Seamon said.

While the town is requiring masks to be worn in all areas of downtown, encouraging social distancing and enforcing state rules on large gatherings that can be COVID-19 super-spreader events, Wilson said there are shortfalls to an approach that is mostly educational. “I’m feeling very frustrated,” Wilson said.

On the remaining days when students and residents might want to take a dip to cool off, she suggests that a booth be in place to hand out masks, and that students face more serious consequences for violating town regulations and the UMass Amherst Community Agreement — up to and including expulsion.

In addition to asking students to sign the community agreement, which provides rules designed to protect themselves and others, UMass is doing regular testing of students, faculty and staff at the Mullins Center, but most students don’t have to be tested if they are studying only remotely.

UMass spokesman Ed Blaguszewski said a public health messaging campaign that will be visible to the community is being launched, and students recently received a letter from Brandi Hephner LaBanc, vice chancellor of Student Affairs and Campus Life.

“While limiting socialization is taxing, I do not want the actions of a few to ruin what we all want: a productive and successful fall semester,” she wrote. “It is imperative that those of you who returned to Amherst and the surrounding communities take your responsibility seriously — mask up, maintain appropriate physical distances, and significantly limit social gatherings.”

People who want to participate in the forum are being asked to register in advance, and to use a Google form to submit questions by Monday at noon. The livestream for those who want to view it will be at livestream.com/umassamherst/community-members.

More information about the virtual forum is available at amherstma.gov/CivicAlerts.aspx?AID=2713.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com


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