Updated 6:55 pm
In an eleventh hour decision, Oak Bluffs selectmen rescinded their vote to close Vineyard Avenue to vehicle traffic for trick-or-treaters on Halloween night amid concern about the growing number of confirmed COVID-19 cases over the past week. The board of health is also asking businesses to refrain from handing out candy on Circuit Ave.
During a tense emergency meeting Thursday afternoon, health agent Meegan Lancaster pushed for the changes. “This is an inherently high risk activity and should likely not occur,” Lancaster said.
Selectmen approved the street closure on Oct. 13 and again defended the decision on Tuesday, despite concerns from the board of health who said under Baker’s order no. 52, 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.
The original request to close the street to allow Halloween festivities came from Vineyard Avenue residents Joe Mikos and Guenivere Cramer, but on Thursday Mikos said the troubling rise in cases, the recent cluster from a wedding, and the Oak Bluffs School’s decision to bring students back for in-person learning was more than enough reason to not have trick-or-treating on the popular Oak Bluffs street. He said several neighbors on the street agreed to not have their lights on and would not pass out candy.
“It just seems insane to go against the wishes of the board of health,” Mikos said. “A lot has changed in three days.”
At Thursday’s meeting, the board of health recommended having no Halloween activities including no door-to-door trick-or-treating.
“We have to understand this is risky behavior and we should not be condoning it,” board of health member James Butterick said.
The board also recommended people stay at home with their children and celebrate at home.
In addition to putting the kibosh on Vineyard Avenue, the board also recommended that businesses on Circuit Avenue not post signs or promote trick-or-treating on the busy street.
Oak Bluffs Association executive director Christine Todd said businesses would follow the board of health’s recommendations, but said no formal event was being created, only an opportunity for children to get candy. Todd also brought up the Sunday street closures during the summer, but Lancaster said that was an unreasonable comparison.
“When we had summer we also didn’t have rates where we were up in yellow, we didn’t have kids in school,” Lancaster said. “Is this an optional activity? Yes. Should we be participating in optional activities right now? No, not really.”
“I think that the Island has done an excellent job staying clean and safe from this so far. There are instances where people have not and we’re seeing that,” selectmen chair Jason Balboni said. “But I find it really sad we don’t think we can continue being safe with this.”
Michael Hugo, a member of the Massachusetts association of health boards, a state group that gives legal and technical advice to local boards of health, stressed the need for the Island to continue keeping its numbers low, saying the Island “dodged several bullets” during the summer.
“What you’ve been lucky enough to avoid happen on the Island all summer, which was amazing that you didn’t have outbreaks with what was going on on the Island. This is not really something you should be playing around with right now. You don’t want people gathering right now,” Hugo said. “You’ve come so far and you’ve been so lucky, I don’t know why you’d even be thinking about pushing it right now.”
Hugo also said Martha’s Vineyard is on the state’s radar in terms of receiving significant grant funding and that the Island has consistently been held up as a “gold standard” of keeping COVID-19 cases low, but said that could change if the uptick in cases gets worse.He called the recent cluster of cases linked to a wedding “heartbreaking.”
“Don’t mess it up now, please don’t mess it up now. There’s so much at stake,” Hugo said.
Businesses are also subject to $500 fines if they exceed gathering limits and promote an event that isn’t submitted with a plan to the board of health.
Erin Tiernan, who owns Basics, said she would work with other businesses to make sure signs promoting trick-or-treating were taken down. Board members did say that if children wander in the stores giving them candy would not result in a fine only if the store promoted trick-or-treating.
“When we see all the other towns on the Island saying this isn’t a good idea, our business communities in other towns are saying we don’t want to participate in this,” Lancaster said. “It’s about protecting the Island as a whole it’s not just not what any one community feels they would like to do. Acting together as one Island is part of what’s protected us here.”
Four new cases on Island
The Oak Bluffs decision comes as the Island’s recent uptick in cases continues with three new positive cases of COVID-19 reported Thursday by Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, one new case at TestMV. One of the new cases is linked to the cluster from a wedding earlier this month.
The hospital has tested 6,160 individuals and now has a total of 59 positive test results since testing began in March. There are 45 tests pending at the hospital and at this time there are no hospitalizations.
The Island has been dealing with the effects of a cluster of cases caused by a wedding over the Columbus Day weekend. That cluster is now gaining national attention with a story published on the Daily Beast website.
As of Thursday, the number of cases from that wedding is at 10, eight of which were reported on Martha’s Vineyard, and two of which were reported in out-of-state wedding guests who were diagnosed after leaving the Island. Of the seven cases the Martha’s Vineyard boards of health are following, two are no longer symptomatic, and have completed their isolation and been released. The other five cases are still being monitored by public health officials.
The Island boards of health release information at the end of the day.
Contact tracers have reached out to the individuals connected to the wedding to advise them of their exposure and their need to quarantine and be tested.
At a meeting Tuesday night, the Tisbury select board expressed disappointment with news of the cluster. “It’s pretty discouraging to me,” chair Jim Rogers said, noting what a good job the Island has done to get businesses open and keep COVID-19 infections down. “And in one weekend, a group of people come down and have a wedding, and we have the largest cluster we’ve had since this whole thing started. We need to stay vigilant. We want our restaurants to be able to stay open, even in a limited fashion, and we want our businesses to be able to stay open.”
The cluster of cases from the Island comes as the Island and the state have seen upticks in positive cases of COVID-19.
This week, a Tisbury firefighter tested positive for COVID-19, forcing members of the department to quarantine as a result.
“I can confirm that an asymptomatic individual involved with firefighter training has tested positive for COVID-19,” Tisbury health agent Maura Valley, the spokesperson for the Island boards of health, wrote in response to an inquiry from The Times. To date, no other firefighters have tested positive.
The name of the firefighter is not being released, to protect the individual’s privacy. Tisbury Fire Chief Greg Leland told The Times the positive test result is not related to any other cases on the Vineyard.
The hospital also reported a hospitalization this week, its second this month. Both patients have been discharged.
In April, the hospital transferred three COVID-19-positive patients off-Island. One of those patients died in Boston, “due to medical complications not proven to be related to COVID-19,” according to a hospital spokesperson at the time.
As of Thursday, TestMV has tested 18,300 individuals with 43 positive tests, 17,761 negative tests, and 496 pending results. The town of Aquinnah has tested 305 individuals. Of those, 301 have tested negative, and four are pending results.
The Martha’s Vineyard boards of health have confirmed three other cases, bringing the Island’s total number of confirmed cases since March to 103.
Of the Island’s 102 confirmed COVID-19 cases, 84 are no longer symptomatic and have been released from isolation. Five are still being monitored by public health officials, and information is not yet available for the others.
Through contact tracing, the cases of 33 individuals, or 37 percent of the Vineyard’s cases, have been linked to another individual.
Due to the hospital, boards of health, and the town of Aquinnah all reporting their own data at different times of day, and due to some people being tested at multiple sites, exact numbers can be difficult to calculate. Also, due to some patients being tested at the hospital and TestMV, the number of confirmed cases from each testing site and the total number of cases can not add up.
Of the 102 confirmed cases, 58 are female and 44 are male. Nineteen of the cases are 50-59 years old, 22 are 20-29 years old, 13 cases are 60-69 years old, 19 are 30-39 years old, 14 are 20 years old or younger, eight are 40-49, and seven are 70 years or older.
The boards of health are also reporting on probable cases. The Island’s total number of presumed positives is 24. Of those, 21 were positive antibody tests, and three were symptomatically positive.
Of the probable cases, 14 are female and 10 are male. Of the 24 presumed positive cases, seven are aged 60-69, five are aged 50-59, three are aged 40-49, five are aged 20-29, two are under 20 years old, and two are over the age of 70.
The Island’s new cases come as Massachusetts has seen case totals this week that have rivaled April and May during the pandemic surge. On Wednesday, the state reported 1,137 new cases — the third day in a row of more than 1,000 new cases — totaling 150,498 cases since testing began. The state is also continuing to see COVID-related deaths, with 36 new deaths on Wednesday, totaling 9,700 since the pandemic began.
Updated with a correction from the boards of health. There are only four new cases today. – Ed.