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COVID-19 Roundup: State’s new mask order sparks enforcement debate

4The order, meant to prevent the spread of COVID-19, went into effect May 6. It applies to all public areas, including businesses, outdoor spaces, and public transportation. Violators could face fines of up to $300. Face masks must cover the nose and mouth; those who can’t comply because of a medical condition are exempt. For more information about getting and using face coverings, see “In a Nutshell: Complying with the face-covering mandate”.

The new order will add to the frustration Harvard police are already feeling as residents look to them to enforce these health-related orders. Police Chief Ed Denmark said his department is having a “terrible time” trying to keep people from congregating at the overlook on Prospect Hill Road and other places in town. He mentioned personally coming across a group of about 30 motorcyclists in the parking lot of Dunkin’ Donuts Sunday afternoon, and said he met with “significant resistance” advising them to move along.

Denmark said social distancing is an advisory, not an order, so the police have no authority to enforce it. Enforcement authority for public health orders such as those banning groups of 10 or more people and the new face covering order lies with local boards of health, and Harvard’s Board of Health has not yet agreed on how enforcement will work.

At its May 5 meeting, the board reviewed a letter drafted by member Sharon McCarthy to Denmark giving his department authority to enforce the order for wearing masks in public and breaking up groups of 10 or more people. But Chair Tom Philippou was adamant that the board should not hand that power over to the police unilaterally. “I don’t want to make this town a police state,” he said.

Instead, Philippou advocated giving the police power to enforce the orders on a case-by-case basis. McCarthy asked what would happen if someone came into Town Hall without a mask? Philippou said the person would be asked to leave, and if they became belligerent, the police would have the power to deal with that. “People in this town are intelligent; they’ll do the right thing,” he added.

McCarthy said if the board doesn’t empower the police to enforce the governor’s public health orders, that responsibility will fall to Sanitarian Ira Grossman, an employee of Nashoba Associated Boards of Health (NABH). Grossman said NABH gets calls every day regarding people in stores who are not wearing masks, and they deal with it by calling the store manager. But as businesses and town offices start to reopen, the volume of calls could increase dramatically, and response to an escalating situation could be delayed.

Grossman said he was in favor of empowering the police. “It’s a matter of perception of authority,” Grossman said. He added that board members may not be around when needed and could get pulled into court cases related to order enforcement. “The police are better equipped to handle this than we are,” he said. He added that the board should discuss the matter with Chief Denmark to see if the two parties could come to an agreeable solution.

Phillipou said he would meet with Denmark later that week and report back to the board at its next meeting, scheduled for May 12. Denmark told the Press that in the meantime, police will continue to advise people who are either gathering in groups greater than 10 or not wearing masks that there is a state order, and it would be in their best interest to comply with it. He added that fining people for not wearing masks is a punishment, not a solution. “Even if we fine them, they still won’t have a mask on,” he said.

The board also discussed the possibility of opening the McCurdy Track for exercise, and members agreed it was a good idea provided exercisers maintain social distance or wear a mask. It will ask the Select Board to put the item on its agenda for its next meeting, scheduled for May 19. A representative of the Board of Health will attend that meeting to present its position.

By the numbers: COVID-19 weekly data update

Harvard’s cumulative number of COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began—as reported by the state—increased from 14 on April 29 to 15 on May 6. No new deaths were reported to the Press during that time. Statewide, the increase in numbers of confirmed cases, hospitalizations, and deaths is finally starting to slow. In the week between April 28 and May 5, the number of confirmed cases grew by 20%, down from 41% the previous week. The number of deaths caused by the disease increased by 34%, down from 60% the week before. And the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations across the state, which had remained at a plateau during the second half of April, finally dropped about 8% in the week ending May 5.

Worcester County is an exception. WCVB news reported that UMass Memorial Health Care in Worcester had reached a new high of hospitalized COVID-19 patients on May 1, and the numbers were still at that level three days later. ICUs were full, and about two dozen patients were being treated in the field hospital at the DCU Center.

Locally, on May 5, Emerson Hospital reported 44 COVID-19 patients, up five from a week earlier on April 28. Emerson’s ICU patients with COVID-19 also increased during that week, from two to six.

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