Up-Island seniors and the West Tisbury select board found themselves at odds at a Wednesday Zoom meeting over the necessity of a vaccine mandate for Howes House staff.
Several seniors who use Up-Island Council on Aging services at the Howes House insisted staff must be vaccinated. The select board didn’t agree. The board voted unanimously to require masks in publicly accessible town buildings, including Howes House, but declined to bring the subject of vaccines to a vote.
The mask vote comes after West Tisbury resident Susan Silk came before the board June 16 at the West Tisbury Free Public Library to allege some Howes House staff may not be vaccinated, and that triggered burdensome mask use by seniors.
On Wednesday, select board chair Skipper Manter made it clear that leadership at the up-Island Council on Aging cannot establish a vaccine mandate, that such a mandate was the purview of the select board and the board of health.
West Tisbury health agent Omar Johnson told the board that the board of health recently voiced unanimous opposition to a vaccine mandate for the up-Island Council on Aging and Howes House. Johnson said it was “strongly advised,” however, that people wear masks at Howes House.
“I just want to be sure for the benefit of everybody who was good enough to come to the meeting that you are requiring seniors who have been vaccinated, and can prove it, and come to Howes House for exercise two, three, four times a week, to actually be wearing a mask while they’re exercising,” Silk said. “I want to be sure that we’re very clear that that’s what your mandate is going to be requiring.”
Silk said she hoped the town health department would agree that such a mandate places seniors “at risk.”
Johnson said the board of health discussed the notion of being “flexible” about where exercise classes are held — specifically holding them outside, where masks wouldn’t be required.
“So there are things that we can do to make these individuals safe,” Johnson said. “But we are strongly, strongly encouraging, advising that masks be worn indoors.”
“Don’t you think you are just making it more difficult to have to start scheduling classes outdoors, and God knows where, when you could simply mandate everybody to be vaccinated, period?” West Tisbury resident Cathy Minkiewicz asked.
Manter said the town can’t mandate “everybody,” and pointed out the mask rule applies to all town buildings, not just Howes House.
Minkiewicz countered that the board could mandate all town employees be vaccinated.
“We’re following the advice of the board of health and the health agent — what we’ve been doing ever since the pandemic began,” Manter said.
Select board member Cynthia Mitchell, who is CEO of Island Healthcare, said Island Healthcare “doesn’t require that our employees be vaccinated,” but that employees are “strongly, strongly” encouraged to get vaccinated.
West Tisbury resident Bea Phear told the board she thought town employees should be vaccinated, and “can work from home if they don’t want to comply with that, or they can choose to work elsewhere.”
Phear described a vaccine mandate for town employees as a “reasonable” mandate. “I personally will not go into the senior center [Howes House] unless you establish a mandate,” she said.
The board wasn’t able to muster a motion on a vaccine mandate.
Minkiewicz asked if supporters of a vaccine mandate for town employees could bring the issue to a town meeting. Manter said voters could petition to do so.
In other business, Mitchell expressed a wish to receive a Vineyard Trust update on the progress of the Alley’s General Store transition. “I think we should request their presence,” Mitchell said. “I mean, we are now in the high season, and the place is shuttered.”
Town administrator Jennifer Rand said she already reached out to Vineyard Trust because she had concerns akin to Mitchell’s. “The answer I got back was, ‘We plan to open as soon as possible,’ but that wasn’t a clear answer.” Rand told a Vineyard Trust representative to visit the select board “as soon as possible,” because the trust’s response concerning “the centerpiece of our town” was insufficient.
Manter suggested the Vineyard Trust acting directo, Sally Rorer, come before the board next week. Rand said she’ll work to try to make that happen. Vineyard Trust, which manages several historic properties, including Alley’s General Store, is the subject of a police probe into grant application irregularities. Vineyard Trust president and CEO Funi Burdick resigned shortly after The Times revealed altered paperwork for a taxpayer-funded project. Rorer has taken over the role of president and CEO in the wake of Burdick’s departure.