Oak Bluffs leaders are creating larger signage, developing a stronger police presence, and opening public bathrooms after a busy weekend saw crowds of people at the Oak Bluffs harbor without proper face coverings.
On May 6, Gov. Charlie Baker issued an order requiring face masks or cloth face coverings in public places where social distancing is not possible. The order applies to both indoor and outdoor spaces and is enforced by the police and the town health agent. Fines for not wearing a face covering can be up to $300 per violation and people can be refused entry to businesses for not adhering to the order.
Selectmen chair Brian Packish along with selectman Jason Balboni, health agent Meegan Lancaster, and Police Chief Erik Blake spoke Monday to develop action plans to better educate the public as crowds swell throughout the summer.
Speaking to The Times by phone Wednesday, Packish said last Saturday was a “perfect storm” of issues with a limited number of stores and restaurants open, public bathrooms closed, and the police department still being in their COVID-19 staffing plan coupled with beautiful weather and calm waters.
“All of those things kind of aligned and turned into what we saw. What we saw is not something that could have been forecasted to that degree,” Packish said.
While town businesses have placed informational signs in their windows detailing proper mask and social distance protocols, Packish said it wasn’t quite enough. The town is now working on designs for banner-style signage to place around the downtown area that makes it clear masks need to be worn.
“Masks are required, end of conversation,” Packish said.
Blake also spoke to The Times Wednesday and said he will be assigning a full-time officer to the harbor and downtown area Friday through Sunday to support the board of health.
In addition to the designated officer, Blake said the town is looking at a holistic approach to educating the public such as having harbormaster Todd Alexander inform people arriving by boat and having the department’s community service officers inform people on the street that masks in town are required.
Restaurants are also required to designate a “person in charge” that oversees implementation of the state’s guidelines for restaurants.
“There’s some confusion. People think ‘Oh it’s merely a suggestion,’ well it’s not, especially if you’re outside on a three-foot sidewalk there’s no way to social distance so you have to wear your mask,” Blake said.
While fines can be issued, Blake said that’s not the approach his department is going to take especially with the negative economic impact many people have been hit with.
“We don’t want it ever to get to the point where we’re just hammering people for $300,” Blake said. “We want to flood the message that you need to do it and you will be approached and you will be asked to wear a mask.”
Lancaster, who wrote to The Times in an email, is meeting with the entire police department Thursday to go over state orders and guidelines and to discuss enforcement strategies.
“Of course I am concerned about an increase in cases. The governor’s mask order has been in place since May 1st. I would have hoped that by now, with this information readily available in various media outlets and being talked about constantly, that people would be aware of the need to wear a mask when out and about. Mask usage doesn’t replace important social distancing measures, rather social distancing is meant to exist in concert with mask use and hand hygiene. To make an analogy, our vehicles have anti-lock brakes, seat belts and air bags. We don’t rely on any one safety feature in a vehicle to protect us. Rather, we rely on them working as a system to protect us. It is the same for masks, distancing and hand hygiene – they are meant to work in conjunction with each other as a system in order to protect individuals and the community.”