O.B. puts together Halloween working group

The last-minute group is charged with creating a plan and appointing a manager, per state guidelines.

A Vineyard Avenue house decorated for Halloween. The street will be closed to vehicle traffic. — Brian Dowd

Oak Bluffs is calling for a last-minute working group to organize safety protocols for Halloween night, following concerns from the board of health about the safety of trick-or-treating.

Selectmen and health agent Meegan Lancaster debated whether or not the street closure constituted an “event” under state guidelines. According to Lancaster, the closure is an event under state definitions, which requires a manager and a plan for how to keep people in compliance with COVID-19 safety guidelines.

“The Halloween note that’s saying, ‘Hey, it’s subject to the gathering limits,’ the governor’s order, No. 52, that’s saying you need to adhere to the gathering limits, and the gathering order from the governor stating you need to adhere to the event guidelines — I think it’s pretty abundantly clear what the state is trying to put forth,” Lancaster said.

The concerns stem from the selectmen’s Oct. 13 decision to close Vineyard Avenue to vehicle traffic. At that meeting, Lancaster voiced the same concerns.

Board of health members along with Lancaster did not say Halloween should be canceled, but said there needed to be a plan in place, and someone to manage the vast number of people expected to flood the street.

“We’re more concerned with having some kind of organization within some of these events. Something that can track or limit the amount of people going near, or to make sure they are wearing their masks,” board of health member Tom Zinno said. “We just want somebody to be responsible, to make sure everyone knows what the game plan is for this.” 

Selectmen chairman Jason Balboni reiterated his comments from the earlier meeting that the town closed down Circuit Avenue on Sundays throughout the summer.

Under Baker’s orders, outdoor gatherings are limited to 100 people, and require a manager for the event, notification to the board of health, and a plan submission to the board of health if there will be more than 50 participants. Lancaster said her office had not been notified of an event manager for Halloween.

Police Chief Erik Blake offered to have two community service officers stationed at the street. 

“In the absence of a concrete event manager, who’s ultimately responsible for the planning and execution of the event, I don’t know how state compliance with the safety protocols such as social distancing for non-household members can be effectively monitored and overseen,” Lancaster said. 

Board of health chairman William White said there was a lack of communication between the board of health and selectmen. “Maybe there should have been a little tighter communication with our health agent,” White said. 

Despite concerns, selectmen stuck to their decision to close the street off. Selectman Brian Packish said it would be safer than other trick-or-treating spots on the Island, since a closed street would allow for more social distancing.

“For public safety, we thought it would be the smartest thing to do,” Balboni said. “I don’t consider us creating an event; you can read it however you want to read it.”

Over the past several years, the town has closed down the street. Blake said whether or not the selectmen close the road, the police will decide if the road should be closed off if it’s considered a public safety hazard.

Board of health member James Butterick stressed the risk of closing the street. “Under the CDC guidelines, trick-or-treating is one of the highest-risk things that can be done,” Butterick said. “Who’s going to maintain the social distancing? Who’s going to make sure they’ve got masks on? And are we going to limit it to 50 kids on the street at one time?

“This is a high-risk thing that we’re promoting, we just have to understand that.”

Balboni admitted he only informed Lancaster about the street closure the day of the meeting when selectmen made the decision.

“You’re closing the street, crossing your fingers, and hoping for the best — this isn’t the time to do it. This is a historic pandemic, and now’s not the time to hope,” Lancaster said, citing the uptick in cases and the recent cluster of cases linked to an Island wedding. 

Packish said trick-or-treating would still happen regardless of the street being closed, and asked what the board of health was doing about other popular trick-or-treating spots such as Pennsylvania Avenue and Alpine Avenue. “This step creates social distancing, which is what you’re asking for,” Packish said. “Quite honestly to me, looking at this — I want to work together with you, I want to come up with solutions to keep people safer — but I’m seeing this looked at under a microscope of somehow we didn’t notify you effectively, so somebody’s upset about it. It’s pretty easy to see that’s what this conversation is about.”

Packish continued: “[Vineyard Avenue] is the safest place that trick-or-treating is going to take place, because people can actually socially distance now.”

Other Island towns have altered their Halloween activities due to the pandemic. Edgartown canceled its regular Main Street trick-or-treating, West Tisbury canceled its annual Halloween party, and several residents of William Street in Vineyard Haven — a premier Island trick-or-treating hub — have decided to keep their lights off this year, and town leaders there are discouraging visitors.

While Balboni and Packish vehemently defended the street closure, selectmen Ryan Ruley, Greg Coogan, and Gail Barmakian felt closing the street would essentially amount to inviting people.

Coogan suggested a working group consisting of Lancaster, Blake, himself, board of health members, and town administrator Robert Whritenour work to make Vineyard Avenue safer on Halloween night with guidelines on trick-or-treating.

“Now we’re saying it’s a controlled event pretty much sponsored by the town, and I think that would be inviting people, and that concerns me,” Ruley said.

Lancaster added that with three days’ notice, she could not be the sole planner of the event, and would need others to draft a plan. “To plan something like this in three days is concerning,” she said. 

In other business, selectmen approved a social media policy for all paid, elected, special municipal employees and appointed employees, officers, committees, and commission members. The policy states that those working for the town shall not post support or opposition for ballots, campaigns, or permit applications.

Selectmen did not refer to a specific incident, and instead said the policy has been in the works for several years.

“This has been a concern for quite a while, and we’ve been slowly coming to this,” Coogan said.

Selectmen also appointed Patrick Hickey as the new wastewater department facilities manager, and approved the special town meeting warrant for Saturday, Nov. 14, at the Oak Bluffs School at 12 pm.