Berkshire County Municipalities Get Little State Guidance On Enforcing COVID Travel Restrictions
After Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker instituted pandemic-related limitations on interstate travel, Berkshire County communities say they’re struggling to comply with the orders.
For thousands, summer has often meant a trip across the Bay State to Cape Cod, or north through Massachusetts to Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.
Starting on August 1st, Massachusetts rolled out strict new rules on visitors entering the state: completion of a travel form, two weeks of quarantine, or producing a negative COVID-19 test administered three days before arrival. States deemed lower risk, like Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, and Vermont, are not subject to the restrictions. Visitors from other states could face a $500 daily fine for not complying – that is, if it was clear how any of the new laws would be implemented by local authorities.
“In real life, it’s not so easy as when you read it on a document," said Great Barrington Police Chief William Walsh. “Well, I’m guessing from the same way that I talk to some of my brother chiefs, I’m guessing that we’re – it’s complicated, and it changes seemingly every week.”
Great Barrington is in the state’s southwest corner, minutes away from New York to the west and Connecticut to the south.
“We’re actually reviewing the latest orders from the governor’s office and trying to find out some practical way or reasonable way," Walsh told WAMC. "Obviously, we have enforcement authority. But in real life, how you actually do that on the ground – that’s a challenge for police departments, I’ve been finding out.”
“I am not aware of any specific guidance the city has received," said Linda Tyer, the mayor of Pittsfield, the county’s largest and most central community. “It may be possible that the Massachusetts Department of Public Health has directed their communications to the city’s health department. Gina has not yet briefed me on those restrictions and how communities are expected to enforce. So I’m sure we’ll be talking though those issues as they arrive.”
Gina Armstrong is the city’s Director of Public Health.
To the north, the town of Williamstown – which is bordered by New York on the west and Vermont on the north – is facing similar questions.
“We’re trying to figure out what this all means, because being so close to the border, we have a lot of interstitial traffic from those states. People commuting to work, people running up to Vermont to do some shopping," said town manager Jason Hoch. “There may be an opportunity for our board of health to have access to the state database when people fill out that online travel form if they’re listing Williamstown as a location. That could be helpful, but that’s sort of – that’s about all I know about that, and then I’m not entirely sure what I do with that yet.”
He described communication about the issue with the state as intermittent.
“Which has been kind of characteristic of this whole thing, is that they are moving very quickly because everything moves quickly," Hoch said. "So it’s not a normal sort of reflective policy approach. It’s put something out, that they’ve had some good input on, and it’s about 90% there – and usually it’s that last 10% that we’re all kind of wrestling with, ‘now what do we do with this?’”
The town has the authority to enforce the restrictions on interstate travel and public gatherings. On August 7th, indoor gatherings were limited to 25 and outdoor gatherings to 50 people. But Hoch says there haven’t been new briefings with police on how to actually carry out the enforcement.
“Not entirely sure where we’re going to land with all of that yet," he told WAMC. "We very deliberately have not wanted to be writing mask tickets nor going and looking in people’s backyards and going, ‘aha, there are people without masks.’”
Hoch says the release of town-by-town COVID-19 reporting has taken some of the pressure off the deliberations on how to implement enforcement.
“I think that gives us a little bit of cushion to be thoughtful and see how these are implemented," he said. "If we were in one of the more critical zones, we’d be scrambling a lot faster.”