In consecutive unanimous votes, West Tisbury selectmen endorsed state legislation meant to strengthen local boards of health, and preemptively backed the board of health on a mask order it approved the following day.
Selectman Kent Healy expressed a wish for information on precisely what the commonwealth states board of health responsibilities are. In the face of COVID-19, “they’ve done a marvelous job,” Healy said.
He went on to say, “I would encourage them to learn more about what they should be doing. I’m not sure if the overall responsibilities of the boards of health have been clearly defined. I would encourage improvement where they deal with the major public health problems, but there are a lot of other problems that they have had to deal with, and I’m not sure what authority they have.”
For instance, they’re authorized by the department of environmental protection to ensure that wastewater cleaning systems work properly … I don’t think our local board of health should be asked to decide those issues, particularly. They certainly have done very well with deciding how to deal with COVID-19.”
Health agent Omar Johnson said the first state proposal is to “adopt universal minimum health standards.” He said he didn’t think that would “encapsulate some of the things” Healy referred to. “What they don’t do, Kent, is provide a lot of detail. So it’s difficult for me to answer your question at this time.”
“Do they talk about how much money they’re going to need?”
“It does not get that specific,” Johnson said. “It says establish sustainable state funding … to supplement ongoing local funding. That’s very general, not very specific. It doesn’t give you amounts.”
Selectman Cynthia Mitchell asked if in addition to Johnson, the board of health was in support of endorsing the legislation.
Johnson said the letters of support were due last Friday, but he would speak to an official who likely would be “more than pleased to accept the letter late.”
“Omar, is it fair to say that many of the details that Kent is requesting just aren’t available yet, but a clear direction about how to move forward and create some of the details is in motion?” Mitchell asked.
“That is absolutely correct,” Johnson said.
Upon hearing that, Healy said he was “very much in favor” of such an outcome. However, he reiterated he wanted the commonwealth to define what the specific mandates are for boards of health.
“I’m certain that between Omar and I, we can provide that to you,” town administrator Jennifer Rand said.
“So we have an opportunity, as Omar just said, to add our support to the general direction at this point,” Mitchell said. “You know the deadline did come and go. Is there an appetite to join the board of health and honor Omar’s request … ?”
The board went on to take a unanimous vote.
When the board took up the mask order issue, Mitchell made it clear the selectmen would only have the power of endorsement.
“Although we are free to vote to support a strong mask order in our community, it is in fact under the authority of the board of health to put such an order in place,” she said.
The board and Johnson went on to deliberate with Mask-Up Martha and We Stand Together members Joy Robinson Lynch and Laura Silber, among others, on where geographically the order would fall. The areas arrived at were the vicinity of the North Tisbury business district, the vicinity of Alley’s General Store, and the transfer station.
Dukes County Health Council member Michael Bellissimo asked Johnson if enforcement was on the table.
“West Tisbury is different from Oak Bluffs and Edgartown in the respect that we don’t have areas and zones where large numbers of people are walking, so I’m not really sure if it’s necessary,” Johnson said, “but I can tell you there’s always time to make improvements and to make adjustments. If that is necessary, I’d be more than happy to incorporate different groups of volunteers to assist …”
The board went on to unanimously endorse a board of health mask order. On Thursday night, the West Tisbury board of health voted in a mask order, Rand later told The Times.