WHITMAN — The Board of Selectmen on Tuesday, Sept. 28 engaged in a terse discussion about mask mandates, during which one derogatory name for the protective face coverings was tossed out in an argument supporting CDC mask and vaccine guidelines.
While the Board of Health’s recent recommendation in accordance with the CDC, to wear masks in Town Hall and it’s two main meeting rooms and limiting the number of public attendees, was in place, three Selectmen — Randy LaMattina, Dan Salvucci and Brian Bezanson — did not wear masks at the Tuesday meeting. Selectmen Chairman Dr. Carl Kowalski, Selectman Justin Evans and Town Administrator Lincoln Heineman wore masks and all were seated at six-foot intervals.
“We’re not in the torrid zone, but we’re not in the easy zone, but we still have to be careful and we have to remember that this is something that is still with us,” Kowalski said in opening the meeting.
No one in the public gallery wore masks at the meeting.
Heineman said Fire Chief Timothy Clancy continues to provide weekly updates about positivity rates. There are 52 new cases in town out of 1,220 tests administered as of Sept. 22.
The town’s COVID positivity rate is now 4.28 percent, the same as the week before, but higher than the state rate of 1.99 percent and while there has been an increase in vaccination rates of all ages between 16 and 74 over the past three weeks, the town’s vaccination rate is only 57 percent, compared to the state’s 67.8 percent percent rate of fully vaccinated persons and 77.3 percent for those having received at least one dose. All ages from 12 to 110 are tracked, but 12 to 74 was the only range showing an increase in vaccinations.
“No rise, so take your masks off,” Salvucci joked, but Kowalski chided him for making a silly remark.
“You can not follow the advice of our Board of Health, that’s on the front door,” he said. “It’s OK, Dan, it’s fine.”
The discussion became more tense after that.
Heineman noted there are signs around town, most notably on the message board out front of Town Hall, the urging in conjunction with the Board of Health to be fully vaccinated — for those in eligible age groups.
“I’d like to think the outreach effort has had some effect over the prior three and a half weeks,” Heineman said.
While there is a Pfizer vaccine booster available to ages 65 and over or persons in certain occupations, the Moderna vaccine, which the town administered — and is still being used now —because it was the one available, has not yet been approved by the FDA for boosters.
Clancy has been working toward being able to administer the boosters once the FDA green-lights it.
“As this board knows, there was an OSHA [vaccine] mandate that has not been issued officially yet,” Heineman said concerning an earlier discussion by the board about vaccine mandates. “We know it’s coming, that will certainly apply to private businesses with 100 or more employees. What’s not clear … is whether or not it may apply to public employers, municipalities, in Massachusetts.”
Heineman said there is some question as to whether the OSHA mandate even exists. Most municipalities are awaiting the outcome of legal challenges with the state’s mandate for public employees before taking any action.
“Throughout the pandemic, the board [Selectmen] has been choosing to follow the Board of Health’s advice with respect to COVID-19 issues,” he said. That morning the health board voted to recommend that in the Selectmen’s meeting room and another in the basement attendance be limited to the board members and support staff — and no more than eight members of the public at one time.
Town counsel said the Selectmen have the authority to enforce that recommendation.
“I think administering this would be difficult, because … while the board may have the authority … I think the reality is I don’t know how we would enforce that absent having a police officer [do it],” Heineman said. He said the ability to meet remotely is in effect until April and suggested that might be an option or individual members could choose to attend remotely.
Kowalski wondered why those two meeting rooms were chosen, when the Finance Committee meets in a much smaller room.
“They’re packed in like sardines,” when holding budget discussions with departments, Kowalski noted. “I’d like you to find out from the Board of Health how did the Finance Committee room escape?”
He also noted that planning and zoning board meetings can attract a lot of people.
“I understand the spirit of worrying about capacity, but the logic, frankly escapes me,” Kowalski said.
Bezanson then remarked on the number of school board meetings, especially, around the country that have become flash points for people angry about masks, and football games are fully attended with masks rarely seen.
“I’d hate to see us go down that road,” Bezanson said of the mask protests. “I’m typically not a mandate person, I think it’s personal responsibility, and I think as we get higher vaccination rates … I would like to ask more questions of the Board of Health.”
LaMattina, like Bezanson, pointed to the Select Board’s continued adherence to Board of Health and CDC recommendations, but using a derogatory term for masks, he expressed his frustration with the issue.
“We have no change in our positivity percentage, but now we start enforcing stronger restrictions,” he said. “Why? … I don’t think we need to argue each other’s personal feelings or personal comfort level during the pandemic.”
He stressed the CDC also recommends vaccinations, which 47 percent of the town is not doing. He said he was not wearing a mask “for theater at this meeting,” because he doesn’t wear one anywhere else.
LaMattina said he and his family have been fully vaccinated so they wouldn’t have to wear masks.
“That is my comfort level with the vaccine,” he said, adding he was in favor of vaccine mandates, but would never vote for one. “I feel the mask is being used, not as a tool, but a pressure point right now to get people vaccinated.”
He argued that vaccines should be incentivized.
Evans noted that the Board of Health has been in step with DPH and the CDC, but seem out of sync with state and federal recommendations here.