Large groups of maskless kids jumping off Big Bridge at State Beach has the county concerned about the spread of COVID-19.
Normally considered a rite of passage for Island kids, and a major attraction for Vineyard visitors because of the bridge’s affiliation with “Jaws,” jumping off the bridge is technically illegal, but is tacitly accepted by the community and town officials.
But with a pandemic ongoing, Dukes County commissioners are worried that people gathering at the bridge are coming in very close proximity to one another, and aren’t wearing masks.
According to commission chair Tristan Israel, he believes that the Island is doing a good job at making sure people are adhering to social distancing and mask-wearing protocols, but the situation at Big Bridge is “inexcusable.”
“I spoke with officials in Edgartown, and they are sympathetic to the issue. They are thinking about this too, of course,” Israel said. “I think in a lot of cases, the Island is doing a very good job overall. Most of what I saw on State Beach was social distancing to some extent, with people trying to cluster separately. But the bridge — one time I went by, and there were about 40 kids on the bridge, all jammed together, no masks.”
Israel said he isn’t looking to put a damper on summer fun, and understands that taking the plunge off Big Bridge is a major Island tradition. But he said a stronger message needs to be sent about adhering to health guidance in that area.
“I get it no one wants to stop kids’ fun from jumping off the bridge, which is illegal by the way, not that I didn’t do stuff like that when I was a kid,” Israel said. “If there was no COVID, we wouldn’t talk about having people not jump off the bridge.”
Commissioner Christine Todd said that if some sort of enforcing body does not start fining people for noncompliance with health guidelines, people might not take mask wearing and social distancing seriously.
“If we don’t start fining people, the message is going to come out weak, unenforceable, ineffective, and potentially dangerous,” Todd said. “Not only that, but it sends the wrong message to people driving by that situation.”
Todd said that if the county has no jurisdiction over the matter, and the towns are not willing to enforce the health guidance, she would like to go on record saying that the commissioners are aware of the problem, and are not in support of that behavior.
“We would encourage our local officials to take a stronger stance on this. They shut down the basketball courts in Oak Bluffs for the very same reason that the behavior at the bridge is displaying,” Todd said. “These are critical issues that are being ignored, and are not being dealt with by local officials.”
Todd stressed that she is not denigrating local enforcement agencies, and suggested that there is more leadership and financial support needed from the state and federal government.
“I am not at all dissing our local enforcement agencies; they are following the lead of our state and federal government,” Todd said. “I know their hands are tied in many ways, especially financially, to be able to have the staff to enforce this and pay them.”
Commissioners advocated for more meetings of the All-Island selectmen — an unofficial governing body composed of selectmen from each Island town.
Commissioner Keith Chatinover said a meeting of the All-Island selectmen is past due, with the most recent one having been in November.
“If there is going to be a time for this, isn’t this the time? To talk about messaging and rules. If we are going to have six towns, we should at least have some coordination,” Chatinover said.
Todd said there needs to be a “groundswell” of support from local constituents to push for the Island selectmen to meet together as a group and “tackle this issue en masse, not individually town by town.”
Israel said that the All-Island selectmen cannot take any official action except through their individual boards, although he agreed it is a valuable forum to disseminate information to the entire community.
“The boards of health do have the ability to take actions that would be able to shut down the non-social-distancing at the bridge. They have the statutory ability to do that,” Israel said. “We will try and reach out to Cyr, Fernandes, the governor’s office, the state Department of Transit [MassDOT], and the state Department of Public Health [MassDPH], and put together a memo.”
Israel said that he would continue his ongoing dialogue with the Edgartown board of health, but Todd said she tried that already.
“I hate to say this, but we have been spinning our wheels with that all spring and summer,” she said.
Edgartown health agent Matt Poole said in an email to The Times that there must be a multi-jurisdictional, coordinated effort if there is going to be any lasting, season-long change in the tradition at Big Bridge. He noted signs at the bridge that prohibit jumping and diving, but also said the design of the bridge railing doesn’t discourage this kind of activity.
“The issues of COVID-19 safety with respect to bridge jumping and diving are going to have to be taken up over the fall, winter, and spring in preparation for the next swimming season,” Poole wrote in the email. “The issues of beach management in general, including ‘bridge jumping,’ are cross-jurisdictional, and need to be taken up with some coordination by all entities that have a role.”
Todd suggested going through the proper channels and reaching out to Rep. Dylan Fernandes, D-Falmouth, and state Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Truro, expressing “dire concern” over this issue. “We want them to push this forward at the state level,” she said.
Commissioner John Cahill wondered if it would be worth contacting the state to see if they could send a trooper to be a presence at the bridge to dissuade people from noncompliance.
“Maybe just the presence of a state trooper could appear at the bridge. I think we ought to continue this topic, because we are probably going to see this next year too,” he said.