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COVID-19 Roundup: State to begin reopening May 18, police empowered to enforce orders

As Massachusetts barrels toward the governor’s plan to begin the first phase of a four-phase opening of the state on May 18, town administration has already made a plan for possibly reopening Town Hall that day, and the Harvard Board of Health has empowered the police to enforce Gov. Baker’s executive public health orders.

According to a presentation by the governor’s Reopening Advisory Board this week, the first phase will allow limited industries to reopen with “severe restrictions.” Those restrictions will include mandatory safety protocols to protect both employees and the public. So far, the state has not provided any information about which industries will be permitted to reopen.

At its May 12 meeting, the Harvard Board of Health (BOH) bemoaned the fact that it has yet to see any details of the governor’s plan, and it is not scheduled to meet again until May 19, a day after the first phase begins. The Board of Health would be responsible for enforcing whatever standards are put into place as well as educating the public on safety protocols for reopened businesses or activities. Sanitarian Ira Grossman said he will be glued to his computer looking for guidance from the state, but based on that day’s conference call update from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, he said he is not hopeful that any information will get to local health boards before May 18.

Town Administrator Tim Bragan sent a letter to Town Hall employees on May 4 stating that if the governor allows it, Town Hall will reopen on a trial basis May 18. Regardless of when Town Hall opens, multiple safety precautions will be in place to protect town employees and the public. No more than six members of the public will be allowed beyond the lobby, and those seeking help in the land use, town administration, or building inspector areas must make appointments the day before. Appointments are encouraged for other areas in Town Hall, too. If opened on May 18, public hours would be 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. for the first week, and hours for the following week would be determined on Thursday, May 21.

In anticipation of a possible opening, Department of Public Works Director Tim Kilhart told the Press that Harvard is contracting with a company to sanitize Town Hall, the library, and Hildreth House on Friday. The company will use an atomizing electrostatic spraying machine that doesn’t damage electronic devices or paper. Buildings must be vacated during treatment. Kilhart said the town is discussing purchasing its own electrostatic sanitizing machine for use in town buildings and the schools, but it will take time as the machines are currently on backorder everywhere.

Authority to enforce

Police Chief Ed Denmark attended the BOH meeting to discuss police empowerment to enforce the governor’s public health orders, which include banning gatherings of more than 10 people and wearing masks in public places when social distancing cannot be maintained. Up until this meeting, only the Board of Health had the power to enforce those orders, but it lacked the manpower and expertise to do so.

The board voted unanimously to empower the police to identify anyone in violation of the public health orders and report violations to the Board of Health, which will then issue a fine at its discretion. The police will maintain this power for the duration of the COVID-19 state of emergency or until the Board of Health rescinds it.

Chief Denmark told the board he agreed with the plan, and that it would give the police the power they need to stop violators and ask for identification. Denmark said the procedure will be to show violators a copy of the executive order that applies to the situation and ask them to comply. If it is a mask violation and the person doesn’t have a mask, the police will provide one and ask that they put it on. If violators refuse to comply, police will report them to the Board of Health.

Denmark said his department has sufficient information on what constitutes a violation from the Attorney General’s office. “It’s heavily tilted toward education and compliance,” he said. As for the number of reports the BOH might expect to see, Denmark said, “I don’t see us having to go that far very often unless someone’s setting out to make a point.”

The board will meet again May 19, and Chair Tom Philippou will also remotely attend the Select Board meeting that same night to discuss reopening McCurdy Track with social distancing.

By the numbers: COVID-19 weekly update

Harvard’s cumulative number of confirmed COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began—as reported by the state—increased from 15 on May 6 to 16 on May 13. No new deaths were reported to the Press during that time.

Statewide, the increase in numbers of confirmed cases, hospitalizations, and deaths continued to slow for the second week in a row. In the week between May 5 and May 12, the number of confirmed cases grew by about 9,000, down from a 12,000-case increase the previous week. The number of deaths caused by the disease increased by 929, down from an increase of 1,059 the prior week. During that same week, the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations across the state dropped by 415 after dropping by 333 the week before.

Locally, the story is different. Emerson Hospital’s COVID-19 hospitalized patient numbers were at their highest over the week between May 5 and May 12—44 or higher every day, reaching a peak of 52 on May 10. Worcester hospitalizations continue to rise also. At the Memorial and University campuses of the UMass Medical Center in Worcester, the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients climbed from 168 to 183 for the week ending May 12, with a peak of 192 on May 11.

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