Across Massachusetts, COVID-19 numbers have plunged from their March and April highs, but a recent uptick of nine confirmed cases on the Island, surging cases across the country, and two more months of summer have Island towns scrambling to figure out how to get people to wear masks.
Part of the issue appears to be a lack of a unified approach on the Island — three different agencies reporting data at different times, outdated information on official websites, and the main mode of transportation to and from the Island failing to enforce the governor’s order on mask-wearing on public transportation. In March, selectmen and boards of health from each town banded together to successfully institute a construction ban and stay-at-home orders, even challenging Gov. Charlie Baker’s order that deemed construction an essential service. Since then, Island towns have been fractured in their approach to the pandemic.
On Wednesday, during a conference call with reporters, Martha’s Vineyard Hospital CEO Denise Schepici said she wants to see Island towns work together. “I believe a more consistent approach by all the towns is really better in this situation. It’s hard to do. Every town has different issues they have to deal with, but my preference obviously would be for everybody to follow suit, like Edgartown,” Schepici said, adding she’s still concerned about the number of people she sees not wearing masks. “Anytime I drove around, I was observing. We still have a lot of people not wearing masks.”
On Monday, the Steamship Authority issued a revamped policy on mask usage and enforcement, citing worldwide issues centered on masks. “In light of troubling reports received from around the world of employees being verbally or physically assaulted for attempting to enforce public health and safety policies regarding COVID-19, the Woods Hole, Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket Steamship Authority has issued updated guidance regarding cloth face coverings to its personnel to address not only their safety but the safety of the traveling public,” a release states.
The new policy specifically speaks to “noncompliant” passengers by outlining steps SSA personnel should take when mask usage becomes an issue:
- Offering a disposable mask to customers traveling without a cloth face covering for use during their bus trip.
- Requiring all passengers, when boarding, disembarking, and while onboard the Authority’s vessels, to wear cloth face coverings in interior passenger areas, including vessels’ freight decks. (This is something Gov. Baker’s order already requires.)
- Advising all passengers boarding, disembarking or onboard the Authority’s vessels without a cloth face covering that their travel may be impacted or delayed by Authority personnel.
- Obtaining the assistance of law enforcement in situations where a customer ignores the request of Authority personnel to don a mask or cloth face covering.
Supplies of disposable masks have been provided to SSA bus drivers, and are available for dockside personnel to provide to customers who may have forgotten their own cloth face coverings or otherwise be in need of one.
In a trio of memos sent to bus drivers and parking attendants, shoreside employees, and captains by Alison Fletcher, director of shoreside operations, and Port Captain Charles Monteiro respectively, the specific option of alerting a state trooper or “local authorities” was offered to counter anyone who belligerently refuses to comply with mask policy.
A recent incident on an SSA shuttle bus to Woods Hole went from argument to physical altercation when masked passengers boarded the bus to find passengers without masks.
The SSA placed the two parties on separate boats.
When asked why the maskless people were able to board the bus, SSA spokesman Sean Driscoll said, “There was nobody else on the bus, so they were able to socially distance,” and,
“It was not a fight we were going to pick.”
Michael Bellissimo, a retired healthcare consultant and executive, most recently at the Cleveland Clinic, who lives in West Tisbury and is on the Dukes County Health Council, said towns should be looking at the science and working together. “It doesn’t make any sense for one town to have it be mandatory and one town to have it be optional,” Bellissimo said of the mask orders. “It’s just indicative of the further ridiculousness of having the six towns each operating independently in a pandemic.”
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) say that COVID-19 “spreads mainly from person to person through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes, talks, or raises their voice (e.g., while shouting, chanting, or singing). These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby, or possibly be inhaled into the lungs.”
It goes on to say studies show that a significant portion of people with COVID-19 are asymptomatic.
To reduce the spread of COVID-19, the CDC recommends “people wear cloth face coverings in public settings when around people outside of their household, especially when other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.”
Last week, Edgartown instituted a mask order, requiring all residents and visitors in downtown Edgartown to wear masks between 8 am and 1 am, regardless of whether they are social distancing or not.
But Edgartown is the only town to go beyond Baker’s mask order and institute its own mandatory mask order in the downtown area, regardless of social distancing. Other towns are following Baker’s mask order, which only requires masks when social distancing is not possible.
Oak Bluffs ran into issues in June when its downtown area was flooded with people not wearing masks. Since then, Oak Bluffs leaders have added more signage, a stronger police presence, and other action plans to make sure people are complying.
Speaking on the concern of masks in a COVID-19 informational alert Friday, Oak Bluffs health agent Meegan Lancaster said, “This is the area where we have the most concern, and we need to get people wearing masks in the downtown and around the harbor, where social distancing is difficult at best.”
The board of health has determined that “better education and enforcement of the existing order could have the most immediate impact on helping to limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus in the town,” according to the informational alert.
While the mandatory mask order “remains on the table” for Oak Bluffs, the board of health is adding eight new two- by six-foot banners in downtown and harbor areas requesting people to wear masks. The board of health has mulled the idea of a mandatory mask order, and is meeting July 16 at 1 pm to take a vote on a mandatory mask order.
In addition to the signs, three COVID-19 health ambassadors — trained by the police, but working for the board of health — will be assigned downtown. Their job will consist of providing guidance and education to the public. They will also be able to write enforcement tickets if necessary.
At a Tuesday selectmen’s meeting, Oak Bluffs selectman Brian Packish said the town has seen a “solid amount of compliance,” but is not at 100 percent.
“We probably never will reach 100 percent,” Packish said. “I personally have seen people flat-out just look at the police officers and say no, they’re not going to wear a mask. With that said, we have a variety of reasons people come up with: Their health wouldn’t allow it, their religion doesn’t allow it, they’re a sovereign citizen, or they’re just flat-out not going to wear one … personal responsibility is a big piece of this.”
Packish added that one of the several difficulties around a mandatory mask requirement is that a situation could escalate from a police officer asking a person to wear a mask to that person refusing and being arrested.
Oak Bluffs selectmen chair Jason Balboni said the amount of people wearing masks fluctuates. “There’s times I go up Circuit Ave. and I see 90 percent compliance, and then there’s other times where I see large groups of people not wearing them. Very, very difficult I think to force certain people to put the masks on, but we just have to keep trying to do our best.”
Oak Bluffs is also offering an email hotline for the public to register complaints and concerns about public gatherings, social distancing, and masks in the community. That email is email@example.com.
Tisbury leaders have yet to discuss a mandatory mask order at a selectmen’s meeting, and instead have placed signage in their downtown urging people to wear masks, wash their hands, and socially distance themselves.
Along with a fractured approach, information distributed to the public has been difficult to grasp.
The Martha’s Vineyard boards of health website states its mission is to “[showcase] the joint efforts of the Vineyard boards of health and the Island-wide programs they implement together,” but the coronavirus updates section of the website has not been updated since March 5. A link to coronavirus frequently asked questions leads to an outdated March 5 document from the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, which recommends people feeling well should not wear face coverings.
In addition to the outdated links, links to the Aquinnah and Chilmark boards of health pages lead to pages that say “page not found” and “website not found.”
After an inquiry from The Times on Wednesday, boards of health spokesperson and Tisbury health agent Maura Valley said the outdated information would be removed.
Valley wrote in an email to The Times that no one has been available to update the website, and instead the boards of health have partnered with Island Health Care (IHC) to report COVID-19 data.
IHC, which is operating the TestMV site, which is testing asymptomatic individuals, has created a page on its website detailing confirmed and probable cases from the hospital, TestMV, and the town of Aquinnah — all agencies conducting their own tests.
With patients getting tested at both the hospital and TestMV, and each organization releasing its own reports, confirmed cases can be difficult to calculate. On Saturday, for example, the boards of health issued a release saying there were two new cases on the Island. On Monday the hospital updated its numbers (they no longer update on weekends), but made no indication that the two cases reported Saturday were the two cases reported by the boards of health. It wasn’t until Tuesday night that the boards of health clarified the data.
The TestMV site also says that each positive test does not necessarily represent a new infected individual.
“For example, a positive test reported on July 1, 2020, by Martha’s Vineyard Hospital was a second test for an individual who had previously tested positive. The total cases number reflects the most current accounting of unique individuals with confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19 on Martha’s Vineyard,” the site states.
Rich Saltzberg contributed to this report.