Amherst Residents Demand End To Local Mask Mandates

Photo: mapublichealth.org

Report On The Meeting Of The Amherst Board Of Health, February 10, 2022

Present: Nancy Gilbert (Chair), Steve George, Maureen Millea, Lauren Mills, Timothy Randhir. Staff: Jennifer Brown (Health Director), Edmund Smith (Health Inspector)

The meeting was held over Zoom and was recorded.

Highlights

  • Eleven people offered public comment, most protesting the continuation of mask mandates in Amherst.
  • Board discussed non-compliance of mask mandates and failure to pay fines on the part of Mission Cantina, and how this will impact the restaurant’s application for renewal of its food license, but did not come to a decision about how they will proceed.
  • The health director’s COVID-update noted that there are 536 active cases in town and that the pandemic is still very much with us. She foresaw a likelihood of relaxing COVID restrictions in April but suggested that eliminating those cautions right now might be premature.
  • The board agreed to draft a letter supporting State Senator Jo Comerford’s efforts to ” improve and modernize mosquito control efforts in Massachusetts.”
  • The board accepted a draft of revised guidelines for recombinant DNA regulations. A formal vote on adoption will follow a public hearing, which will be scheduled for the board’s March meeting
  • Chair Nancy Gilbert reported on progress toward beginning the board’s community health assessment

Mask Mandates In Amherst: Mission Cantina
Much of the meeting was taken up with discussion of mask mandates in Amherst. Town Health Inspector Edmund Smith offered an extensive report on multiple violations of the town’s masking regulations by the restaurant Mission Cantina. That discussion was followed by an angry engagement with Mission Cantina owner Sam Kochan, who challenged the legitimacy of the masking policy and the board’s right to enforce it. Later in the meeting, eight residents, including Kochan, offered public comment condemning the town’s mask regulations and appealing for their immediate cessation.

Smith reported on multiple complaints to the town from the public about the failure of Mission Cantina to comply with the town’s masking bylaw and citing employees who were working in the presence of patrons while unmasked. Inspectors have reached out to Mission Cantina 12 times since June of 2020 and five citations have been issued. Smith noted that inspectors have had ongoing conversations with Kochan, but the restaurant continues to be non-compliant, which is a violation of Board of Health codes. In addition, Mission Cantina has failed to pay the $700 of accumulated fines levied for the citations issued. Smith also reported that the restaurant’s license is up for renewal and the issue before the board is whether to renew the license despite the  non-compliance and unpaid fines. Smith further reported that inspectors have recently discontinued site inspections, and the town has not received new patron complaints. He noted that local restaurants have struggled during the pandemic, and the board has tried to use inspections as an educational tool to enforce the town mandate,  while acknowledging the difficulties restaurants face. 

Gilbert noted that although the board does not want to make things harder for local restaurants,  it has an obligation to enforce safety measures and protect the public.

Smith noted that Kochan claims that all of his employees have invoked medical exemptions to masking, but has not responded to multiple requests for documentation of these.  Kochan has responded that HIPAA privacy regulations prevent that..

The board then took public comment on the Mission Cantina report.

Kochan reviewed Covid-related struggles that he has endured, including the loss of $2 million in revenue and 80% of his employees. He said that he has paid his license fees for 2022, except for his food license. Then he demanded to know if there were any “qualified scientists” on the board, and became hostile when the board did not engage in discussion. He stated that he cannot violate his employees’ civil rights by asking them to prove that they have a medical exemption. He said, “All around the country and across the state, mask mandates are being repealed—so why should we still have one in Amherst?” He said that he intends to file a grievance against the board and that the mask mandate is a violation of his rights. He further argued that the regulations are an unreasonable burden, and signaled that he did not intend to comply with them or pay his fines. 

Other Requests For Repeal Of Mask Requirements
Objections to masking were raised again during public comment,  when eight of eleven speakers protested the existing requirements and requested their immediate repeal. 

UMass students Ishaan Kurhana and Nicholas DiFranco argued that there is no need for masking because of widespread vaccination, particularly on the UMass campus, and because the Omicron variant is not as dangerous as previous variants. (Note: Amherst’s Board of Health has no jurisdiction over UMass masking policies).

Local parents Mathew Lackner, Steven Brevik, Cole Fitzpatrick, and Sharon Kearney spoke of the harm that masking has inflicted on small children and argued that it exceeds the risks associated with the virus, which some residents said is significantly lower than it was a year ago. Others said that their younger children have spent “half their lives in masks.” Lackner reported that masking has impacted his two-year-old son’s speech development. Some said that Governor Charlie Baker will not renew school masking mandates that expire on February 28, and said that communities across the state are lifting COVID restrictions. They asked that Amherst immediately repeal its town and school system mask requirements and that an April target (suggested earlier in the meeting by Health Director Brown) was unreasonable. (Note: the Board of Health can offer recommendations on masking in schools but the decision is the purview of the school committee).Gavin Andersen asked that masks come off as quickly as possible, ideally in the next couple of weeks, and said that the focus should be on vulnerable people such as those in Nursing Homes.

Mission Cantina’s Kochan joined the public comment to condemn not only masking regulations but vaccines as well. He stated that there is overwhelming opposition to the mask mandate and that the board of health should limit its involvement to offering guidance. He asked why the board of health is “ pushing masks and vaccines” and not educating the public about things like (health food) supplements. “Vaccines are poison,” he claimed, “and harmful to everyone who has taken them.”

The town’s existing mask order can be found here.

Four other people spoke during public comment. Darcy DuMont offered an update on efforts to create new regulations for trash haulers, which have  been supported by the board.

And Kathleen Bridgewater and Eric Bachrach reminded the board that large scale ground mounted solar projects can have deleterious effects on local groundwater, citing an example from nearby Williamsburg, and asked the board to consider the threats to local watersheds posed by such developments, in particular, the threats to the Atkins Reservoir,, as a public health concern.

Ground Mounted Solar
Gilbert reported that landowner Cinda Jones is subdividing the lots on which she wishes to construct large ground mounted solar (LGMS) installations, near the Shutesbury town line. The board has received a copy of her plan, but apparently no action is required of it. Steve George noted that he was contacted by an abutter who is concerned that the deforestation of the land will have an impact on Amherst’s water quality. Gilbert pointed to water quality problems that were experienced in Williamsburg after LGMS were permitted and installed, and said the board will keep an eye on  Jones’  plans. Board member Lauren Mills asked whether people with expertise on the impacts of LGMS on water wells could be invited to talk to the board, and suggested that  people on the water protection committee might have such expertise.. 

Heath Director’s Report
Health Director Jennifer Brown’s report focused on the state of COVID in town. She said that there are currently 536 active cases of COVID-19 in town, including 135 new cases reported the previous day, (February 9.). Case counts are coming down across the state but the accuracy of these numbers is in doubt because they don’t include results of rapid antigen tests. She said that hospitalizations are coming down but are still high. Governor Baker announced on February 10 that he will let the state indoor mask mandate expire on February 28, reducing masking regulations from a mandate to an advisory. Brown offered a comparison of where we were last August and where we are now. On August 2, 2021 we had five active cases in town and the 14-day Incidence rate was 1.4/100,000. Both counts have climbed continuously since then. The current active case count is 536 and the incidence rate is 77/100,000. Those numbers need to come down before we can relax precautions, she said. Brown offered that if we can give the public another five weeks to vaccinate the soon-to-be eligible age group (i.e. children under age five) and continue to educate the public, we can get closer to normal but we need to be careful for a few more weeks. April seems like a better time for scaling back the requirements, she said.

Board member Maureen Millea asked if there is a discernable pattern in where the cases are coming from. Brown reported that 44% of new cases in Amherst are between the ages of 17 and 21, but she was unsure of where the cases originated.

Mills objected to assuming that vaccination rates will go up by spring because she believes that many parents will resist having their young children vaccinated and that parental concerns about the safety of COVID vaccines for young children are widespread.

Brown also reported that the department had participated in activities commemorating Black History Month.

Mosquito Control
A task force is looking into the local opt-out option for communities that wish to forgo aerial spraying for mosquito control.  Brown reported that on May 17, 2021 the Amherst Town Council voted to opt out of participation in statewide mosquito control efforts. She noted that this is a complex process that includes coming up with a local alternative to spraying and the town has only completed the first two steps. So, it’s unclear what the current status of the town is in relation to mosquito control policies. The question is whether the town now wants to join a regional effort with the Pioneer Valley Mosquito Control District. That would bring additional mosquito control services to the town and comes with an annual membership fee of $5,000. Millea noted that none of the low-risk districts that applied to opt out of spraying last year were given permission to do so. State Senator Jo Comorford is part of a group that is pressing to clarify the criteria for opting out of spraying and specify what an alternative plan must look like. Steve George will draft and send a letter to Comorford “supporting the efforts to Improve and modernize mosquito control efforts in Massachusetts”. (The proposal to send the letter of support passed by a unanimous vote of 5-0)

New Guidelines For Recombinant DNA
The board accepted a draft of revised guidelines for recombinant DNA regulations. A formal vote on adoption will follow a public hearing to be scheduled for the board’s meeting in March.

Community Health Assessment
Gilbert reported that plans for beginning the community health assessment are moving forward. Two UMass public health students have joined the team that will conduct a non-interactive assessment of community health, relying exclusively on census tract data,. The students are Emily Conners, a senior enrolled in the fifth year masters program, and graduate student Bailey Glenn.  The two students, along with Gilbert and Anita Sarro, who will be assisting with the assessment, will meet with the health director on February 22. Gilbert noted that the group organizing to make Amherst an age and dementia friendly community, led by Maureen Pollock, is planning a senior assessment, and that the African Heritage Reparations Assembly, chaired by Town Councilor Michele Miller, is doing a separate health assessment for the African American community. Gilbert has been in touch with both groups so that the three efforts “don’t end up with a silo’d result.”

Next Meeting

The next meeting of the Board of Health is March 10 beginning at 5 p.m.

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11 thoughts on “Amherst Residents Demand End To Local Mask Mandates

  1. Thank you for covering this, Art — and (read between the lines!) thank goodness this meeting was held over Zoom!

  2. Patrons who complain about Mission Cantina’s no mask policy do have the choice to patronize competitors who follow the rules.

  3. What the article does not say is that the people who wish to end the mask mandate and who spoke at the meeting so not necessarily represent the majority of us people living in Amherst. There are others who take a longer term view on the pandemic instead the the one propagated of short term financial gains because this is what is really behind it. I have run my destination restaurant with even stringier rules than required and most people have accepted it and some have not and we are still in business.

  4. As a person with pre-existing conditions, I welcome Amherst’s continued mask mandate. I notice that Amherst Pharmacy has retained its plexi-glas protection for its personnel. So have Amherst Books and a few others. These measures make me more confident about living a more normal life. Our medical facilities are not out of the woods yet with this pandemic. Neither are we.

  5. Considering the facts that vaccinated people can spread the virus as much as un-vaccinated people and that people assess their own risk when they enter a restaurant where they are unmasked for a significant portion the their time while with others eating and drinking (except, obviously, when visiting the facilities) and that most masks that people wear do not work to curtail the spread, I kind of find it a bit ridiculous that a mandate is still in place. If one feels they have a high risk factor do not go into an establishment. If you want the food order through door dash, etc. If you are waiting until there is no more spread you will be waiting for a very very long time. If Amherst has approx 500 cases in a population of 20k plus the university community of 20k+ you are talking an extremely small percentage. Karen Ann Keenan

  6. Jack, what is the name of your restaurant? It will be good for those of us who appreciate the importance of COVID protocols to know that yours is a dining option where we will feel safe.

  7. With the note “(Note: Amherst’s Board of Health has no jurisdiction over UMass masking policies)” do you mean to imply that the Amherst Board of Health policy does not apply on the UMass campus?! How can that be so? If UMass were to adopt less-stringent masking policies than the town, would those on campus not still have to abide by the stricter town policies?

  8. Like Jeff Lee, I too would love to know what local restaurants are following and enforcing the mask mandate. I’m almost ready to try dining indoors again but it would have to be in places that I felt were minimizing the risks to patrons.
    Anyone know where locally is enforcing COVID-safe protocols?

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