Health Board Expands Outdoor Mask Requirement

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: COVID-19

A sign at the top of the Lighthouse Beach stairs telling people to stay six feet apart will soon be joined by another warning that masks must be worn at the overlook and on the stairs, following a vote Monday by the board of health. TIM WOOD PHOTO

CHATHAM — Admitting that it will be very difficult to enforce, the board of health Monday issued an order requiring people to wear face masks at the lighthouse overlook, the fish pier observation deck and the town transfer station in a bid to prevent transmission of COVID-19.

The initiative builds on a previous order requiring people to wear masks outdoors along Main Street in downtown Chatham. Public reaction to that order has been mixed, Health Agent Judith Giorgio told the board.

“We’ve had pro and con on this whole mask thing,” she said. Some people feel that the mask rule has been effective, and others say it is being flouted. The health board received an email this week asking it to consider expanding the order to include the Old Village, where there are few sidewalks, many pedestrians and people parking vehicles and walking to Lighthouse Beach.

“I don’t think a group of one or two people walking by a home, outside, is really a public health concern,” Giorgio said. The key concerns are places where people congregate and are unable to stay six feet apart from others, like the new observation deck at the fish pier, she said.

Chairman John Beckley asked whether the new deck has been completed, and Health and Natural Resources Director Robert Duncanson said that, with the exception of some accessibility requirements for the new elevator, the structure is essentially complete. But there are no plans to open it to public access, at least until the governor lifts the limit on gatherings of 10 or more people.

“Right now we could not open it anyway unless that order is changed,” Duncanson said.

Health board member Ron Broman said while the town is waiting for the state to act, it’s clear the fish pier deck presents a problem.

“You can’t keep your distance up there,” he said. On peak summer days, hundreds of people visit the deck to watch the seals and fishing boats.

“They’re all going to want to crowd to the same spot,” Beckley added.

Town staff also raised concerns about the transfer station and recycling center, where people tend to congregate while unloading vehicles, Duncanson said.

“It’s difficult to maintain that six feet,” he said.

The Lighthouse Beach overlook is another congested spot the health board was asked to consider. Board member Dr. Noble Hansen proposed including the mask requirement for the parking lot and the walkway, but not Lighthouse Beach itself. There, state rules presumably apply which already require people to wear masks except while sunbathing and swimming.

Giorgio said that, like the mask requirement downtown, the order covering the new locations will be difficult to enforce and will rely on education and peer pressure. The police department is particularly concerned about enforcement “in light of what’s going on around the country. We are trying not to have confrontations where they’re not needed,” she said. The thrust of the order will necessarily be education rather than enforcement, she said.

Duncanson said he spoke with Police Chief Mark Pawlina earlier in the day, who reinforced that message.

“Minimizing enforcement activities may not be a bad thing to be doing right now,” Duncanson said.

Old Village resident Bob Lear said it makes sense to extend the downtown mask zone up Main Street to the lighthouse, a route used by many visitors.

“Nobody turns around at School Street and walks back into town,” he said, and the neighborhood's sidewalks are narrow and crowded. “You have to get out in the middle of the street to get around people in order to maintain distance,” Lear added.

Duncanson said the danger of passing another person on a sidewalk is limited. Where pedestrians downtown are lingering to look in shop windows or talk, walkers elsewhere are generally moving. Passing another walker under those circumstances means having the person within six feet for only a few seconds, and “a mask is not necessarily required under those circumstances,” he said. Likewise, the danger on the stairs leading to Lighthouse Beach is small, he added.

“The governor has not said you need to wear a mask 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Duncanson said.

The board of health approved the new order unanimously. Giorgio said the town will publicize the new mask requirements using signs similar to those used downtown.