CHATHAM — Taking no joy in the vote, selectmen Monday canceled the 2020 Independence Day parade, fireworks, and weekly Chatham Band concerts. In a further effort to control the spread of COVID-19, the health board issued an emergency order requiring people to wear face masks while strolling downtown.
The decisions came on the heels of last week’s widely attended virtual forum where many citizens expressed the need to control summertime crowds in Chatham for the benefit of public safety.
Having heard many comments and having received 265 pages of emails, “I think we got a good sense of what the town is feeling,” Selectmen Chairman Shareen Davis said.
Town Manager Jill Goldsmith said there are simply not enough town employees or parade volunteers “to keep people socially distanced the way the governor’s requiring us to do.”
Even if the parade were to happen, Police Chief Mark Pawlina said many of the participants “would not even show up, and would not want to be part of a large crowd.”
Board member Cory Metters, who owns a downtown candy shop, said he and his fellow merchants have given the cancellation of the parade and weekly band concerts careful consideration.
“We want to do the right thing for our families. We want to do the right thing for the community,” he said. The only feasible approach is to cancel the parade, he said. “It’s a tradition. It kills me to have to say that.”
The board voted unanimously to cancel the parade as well as this summer’s band concerts and Independence Day fireworks.
“It’s a heartfelt tradition for the town,” Davis said. “We’re trying to do our best to be as safe as possible.”
Meeting in joint session with selectmen, the board of health approved an emergency order immediately requiring people to wear masks while walking in downtown Chatham between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. The order applies to outdoor spaces — masks are already required for indoor public spaces — along Main Street between the rotary and School Street. It also requires people to practice social distancing.
“We’re not the first town that’s doing this,” health board member Dr. Noble Hansen said. The Provincetown board of health imposed a similar order for a portion of their commercial district, though their experience has been mixed. State Representative Sarah Peake, speaking to the board, said a dispute over masks nearly erupted into fisticuffs outside Provincetown Town Hall Saturday.
“Hopefully those things don’t happen very often,” she said.
Selectmen and health board members supported issuing the emergency order, but some members wondered whether it goes far enough.
“What about Lighthouse Beach?” Selectman Jeffrey Dykens asked. The fish pier and town landings are all places where people are also likely to congregate this summer as well, he added, urging the health board to consider expanding the order to include such areas, “before we get overrun with folks.”
Downtown business owner Brian Voelkel spoke against the order, calling it “an overreach.” If people maintain proper social distancing, the downtown area will be safe for pedestrians, he said. As the father of a three-and-a-half-year-old daughter, Voelkel said he knows parents of young kids will have difficulty keeping masks on them for any length of time.
Resident Stephen Buckley suggested that masks be provided to visitors who don’t have them as they enter the downtown area, an idea health board Chairman John Beckley said would be “win-win” for merchants and their customers.
“It would be a goodwill gesture and send the right signals to be given one,” he said.
Health and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson said the idea poses some logistical challenges.
“They cost money and they’re tough to get,” he said.
Approved unanimously by the health board, the emergency order will remain in effect until it is rescinded. The mask requirement applies to people over the age of two, and provides an exemption for those who cannot wear face coverings for medical reasons.
At the selectmen’s next meeting on May 27, the board will deliberate options for managing vehicle and pedestrian traffic along Main Street to better allow for social distancing. Town officials have heard various options, from one-way sidewalks to a partial parking ban to create more room for pedestrians. Others have suggested making vehicle traffic one-way through the area, creating additional space for people on foot. On May 27, selectmen are also expected to discuss how the town will manage the beaches this summer.
Under state guidelines, the health board has the authority to enforce the new mask rule, along with other infection control requirements announced as part of the state’s phased reopening plan this week (see related story, Page 5). On the advice of town counsel, the health board voted unanimously to designate Chatham police officers as their agents for the purposes of enforcing those COVID-19-related rules.
Selectman Dean Nicastro expressed worries that expanding police authority might threaten civil liberties. “I’m sure our police department will handle this in a very respectful manner,” he said.
There is also the concern that police might be overwhelmed investigating reports of people not wearing masks, Davis said.
“I’d really hate to see this turn into people being upset about somebody not wearing a mask, and our police resources are overwhelmed,” she said. People have the expectation that the police will respond immediately to calls for service, Davis said.
Health Agent Judith Giorgio said the enforcement of the new rules will begin with verbally redirecting offenders.
“The goal is to educate and promote compliance,” she said. Shopkeepers already have the right to deny service to people who don’t wear masks indoors as required.
Enforcement strategies are something Chief Pawlina has already discussed with department members, he said. While they have the ability to issue fines for repeated non-compliance, they are eager to avoid doing so.
“They do not want to get into a big mess with citizens over some of these issues,” he said.
Region-wide, public health statistics strongly indicate that the pandemic has passed its peak, and officials credit the stay-at-home advisory and social distancing requirements.
“In Barnstable County, we continue to do a great job in flattening the curve,” Duncanson said. As of Monday, Cape Cod had 1,155 cases of COVID-19, an increase of five from the previous day. There were 95 deaths reported on Cape Cod, up two. Chatham has 14 laboratory-confirmed cases, and over the weekend received word of its first reported death.
“We extend our condolences out to that family,” Duncanson said.