As new COVID-19 related public health orders from Governor Charlie Baker go into effect today across Massachusetts, Berkshire County communities are getting ready to implement them.
With COVID rates spiking in the Bay State, Baker’s new mandates – issued Monday – went into effect at 12:01 Friday morning. State residents are required to wear face-coverings in all public areas, even when maintaining a six-foot buffer from others is possible. A stay-at-home advisory is in place between the hours of 10 p.m and 5 a.m., and indoor gatherings must be capped at 10 people and outdoor gatherings at 25. Businesses like restaurants, fitness centers and casinos must close at 9:30 p.m. As with past COVID related orders, enforcement falls on municipalities.
“One of the things that we have consistently done in Pittsfield around enforcement is educate first, educate second, follow up with a written warning or a visit, and then in rare cases, we’ve issued fines," said Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer. She met with the city’s COVID-19 taskforce Thursday to review the new orders and discuss implementation in the community of around 42,000 in the heart of Berkshire County.
“I can’t imagine that we would change our strategy in terms of the progressive enforcement that we have already been using here in the city of Pittsfield," Tyer told WAMC. "We will certainly be notifying, as we have done many times throughout the COVID pandemic, our licensed establishments to reinforce what’s contained in the governor’s orders so that they’ll have plenty of time to comply.”
Berkshire Medical Center – the county’s largest hospital, based in downtown Pittsfield – reported 28 new COVID-19 cases over the past week as of Thursday, with top county public health officials pointing to out of state travel and social gatherings as the source of the spread. Tyer says the rising numbers are concerning.
“It should certainly reawaken everybody in the city of Pittsfield to the truth of the matter, which is COVID is still with us, people are still getting sick, it’s highly infectious, and we really must ask everyone to recommit themselves to all the safety precautions we’ve been talking about since last March,” said the mayor.
Despite the rising COVID numbers both in Pittsfield and statewide, the mayor says there are no plans to close the city’s public schools, which have returned to partial in-person education for their 5,200 students.
“I can understand both the school community, the families, the community at large being concerned about public schools being open," said Tyer. "What we have seen so far in our own local data is that the public schools have not been affected. If there is a situation that should arise, we have a plan to address that.”
Similarly, Tyer says she isn’t reconsidering the city’s broader reopening plans even though cases are rising.
“I think that point would be an ongoing, significant increase in positive cases over a period of time,” she said.
Tyer specifies that period of time would be two to three weeks.
In North Adams, Mayor Tom Bernard says the city’s public health and police departments are standing by to enforce the new regulations.
“Let’s think about something like the gatherings, which is the trickiest one," he told WAMC. "I would say, when you think about these, we are going to be likely reactive to those. I don’t know that there are going to be a lot cases where we’re going to have advanced notice of a party or a gathering happening, so it will be response to something that is in process. And so the effort to disperse the gathering will include, obviously, necessarily, having to take counts and determine how many people over the limit the gathering is at to the degree that’s possible, and assess fines from there.”
Bernard says outdoor gatherings pose a specific challenge to the city of around 13,000, 20 miles north of Pittsfield.
“People scatter or they don’t give an accurate accounting of who they are," said Bernard. "It can be hard to both identify people, but also then due to contact tracing if that becomes an unfortunate spreading event. But that would be public safety stepping in.”
As far as the new 9:30 p.m. closure rule for some businesses in North Adams, he’s willing to extend the benefit of the doubt.
“We will expect businesses to first and foremost follow the guidelines that have been clearly laid out, and then we will respond when we understand that that’s not happening,” said the mayor.