WHITMAN — The Board of Selectmen, voted on Tuesday, Jan. 11 to reject a Board of Health consensus that all municipal employees be vaccinated in the wake of the omicron variant of COVID-19 and the rise of positive cases in the town.
It was one of four recommendations from the Board of Health, which met earlier in the day. Selectmen had asked for guidance from the health board at the Jan. 4 Selectmen’s meeting.
Selectmen also voted against the health board’s recommendation to continue the closure of buildings — except by appointment — until Jan. 25, and said buildings would be opened on Thursday, Jan. 13 and therefore not require remote meeting participation. But approved a recommendation to mandate masks in public buildings.
“[The health board] require masks in all town-owned buildings, including individual work spaces … and, by implication they said the building should remain closed,” said Selectmen Chairman Dr. Carl Kowalski, acknowledging that health officials had not voted on the appointment-only provision.
The vaccine mandate recommendation — that employees would have a six-month leave time to comply, with only medical or religious objection — met with considerable objection by some Selectmen.
“I am against this,” Selectman Brian Bezanson said. “This particular information is before the Supreme Court even as we speak and I think it is a bit premature for us to make a decision without hearing [the high court’s] decision.”
Selectman Justin Evans, as an employee of the state who is required to be vaccinated, said he had no objections to mandating it as he knows of no one who has left their job because of it.
“It was a minor inconvenience to prove we were vaccinated at the time,” he said, asking if the board would consider a strong recommendation with the requirement of weekly tests for those who object.
Selectman Randy LaMattina, who is fully vaccinated and has received a booster, also objected to the vaccine mandate, both as a policy decision that rests with Selectmen and argued that not only is the science changing on COVID, the town could be financially crippled by a lawsuit.
“I do think people should be vaccinated, it’s a personal protection,” LaMattina said. “Why is this town, at this time, going to get into that, when we know there’s severe legal fights already out there with this, that are in the courts, with people with far deeper pockets than we have from the federal level on down.”
He agreed with incentivizing vaccination, but not a mandate.
“If you haven’t done it by now, you’re not going to do it,” Bezanson said.
LaMattina asked what the benefit of a mandate would be, to which Selectman Justin Evans said the vaccines are literally life-saving.
“I agree with it,” LaMattina said. “I agree that the vaccine is providing protection, absolutely, but if you don’t want that … I don’t see a situation to win for us.”
Regarding the reopening of Town Hall, Town Administrator Lincoln Heineman said no other town he has contacted on the South Shore has indicated they are open by appointment only.
“What matters to me are the employees, and I have not had one employee say they are happy with the building being closed,” Bezanson said. He also noted that residents are noting that stores and restaurants are open.
Grocery stores, however, never closed — while, at the height of the pandemic, they limited numbers of people inside at a time — because they were deemed an essential service.
“I think this board made a fantastic decision Christmas week – a slow week,” LaMattina said. “That being said … the risk is worth the reward.”
He said there has been enough time to see how omicron was going to go and it is time to open again.
A health board’s recommendation that attendance be permitted at the senior center by pods of 10 people at a time, if public buildings continued to be closed except for appointments was passed by Selectmen, but rendered moot by the building opening vote.
Selectmen did vote in agreement with the health board’s unanimous recommendation to require masks be worn at all times in public buildings at least until the next Board of Health meeting on Jan. 25.
Bezanson, however, said he was not “100 percent on board” with keeping buildings closed, since other area towns, and especially the regional school district, are open.
“I don’t see our consistency in our methodology in how we’re looking at this,” he said. “While the district is not part of our purview, it is still part of the town and, for me, we should be consistent. If it was such a risk, those children wouldn’t be there and they’d be on virtual learning.”
While he said town employees are equally valued, Bezanson argued Selectmen need to be consistent.
“I think the mask mandate is perfectly fine because, when you go around, when you are out in your Stop & Shops and Walmarts and the liquor stores, you’re wearing a mask,” he said. “It’s certainly your choice, but we have to decide about being in the building as an employee.”
Evans moved to separate the mask recommendation and building opening into separate votes.
Selectman Daniel Salvucci asked if an employee is in an office by themselves and why.
“Remember that [Selectman] Randy’s [LaMattina] original motion a couple of weeks ago was to protect the infrastructure, protect the workers” Kowalski said. “We don’t want to have DPW guy out sick, we don’t want to have it in the police department. We don’t want to have it in the fire department. What this does, is it gives us another two weeks of insurance.”
LaMattina said he was more concerned with someone deciding their own level of comfort, and their own medical decision on what’s safe for someone else. If someone is in an office alone and are sneezing or coughing, people who walk in are walking into those droplets.
“It’s continuity of a decision-making process,” LaMattina. “If you are going to induce a mask madate, you are doing it all the time.”
Health Board member Danielle Clancy had told Selectmen on Dec. 21 that there have been “incidents” with town employees in recent days, that made her reconsider the desirability for a vaccine mandate.
But LaMattina strenuously disagreed with vaccine or remote meeting requirements.
Selectmen also, in voting to open Town Hall, effectively negated the Health Board’s decision to require remote meeting sessions, which is already permitted by the state until April 1.
“With a couple of these, you’re seeing a drastic overreach by the Board of Health,” LaMattina said. “They’re getting into policy decisions, and not health decisions.”
Determining how meetings can convene and noted that the determination on opening buildings would steer the decision on meetings.
“I think what they are doing, though is what we discussed last week,” Kowalski said.
Heineman said he informed the health board what Selectmen had advised last week, even as the Board of Selectmen had not voted on with attention to following the Open Meeting Law. He said he spoke with the health board to ensure, whatever they chose to recommend about meeting protocols, that they were in compliance with the Open Meeting Law.
Senior Center Director Mary Holland spoke about the importance of opening that building to help combat the isolation many seniors are experiencing who live alone and far from family.
“The choice for the seniors to be able to come is their choice,” said Senior Center Director Mary Holland. “The social isolation of leaving these seniors shut out of the building is a greater detriment than opening the doors and allowing them that option.”
Kowalski said, while he favored allowing small groups of seniors back into the center, he argued that the staff holds a responsibility to protect the health of the elder population.
More than 95 percent of people over 65 are vaccinated, Heineman said. Holland said they also have a scanning system to track attendance at the senior center, which has been in place before COVID, so they can track any positive cases that occur.
“I respect what you are saying, but I have trouble opening that door to people who may hurt themselves if they enter that door,” Kowalski said.
“They make their choices of where they want to go … No one is forcing them to come to that building, they can chose to come,” she said.
“The most vulnerable people in the pandemic are the people who are older and have other conditions,” Kowalski said. “And what we are saying is, ‘Let’s open it up to the most vulnerable people because, heck, they are lonely,’” Kowalski said.
Holland countered that elders are adults who can choose what they want to do.