MBTS BOS: Lots Of Data, Mask Mandate Enforcement Challenge


A big theme for Monday’s marathon Board Of Selectmen meeting (that went past 10:30 p.m.) was “data.” 

First up, the decision on whether Manchester would move its local public safety dispatch operation managed within the Police Dept. to the state’s regional dispatch center in Middleton.  It’s no secret that the Police Dept. wants to keep Manchester dispatch services where they are—local.  And although the two have avoided discord over the issue, the Fire Dept., which houses ambulance services, supports the move to the Middleton regionalized center.  Monday was the third public BOS meeting addressing the topic.

MBTS Fire Lt. Timothy Crosbie opened the discussion to present a series of  requests from the Fire Dept. union.  First, he said the union supports completion a comprehensive feasibility study that would offer a quantitative, factual comparrison of costs and benefits of regionalization vs, localized dispatch.  That said, if dispatch services were to be kept local, he said, Manchester’s dispatch center should be its own department, managed equally by the Fire and Police Departments with a baseline commitment from the town that two dispatchers would be on duty 24/7.  Currently, a single dispatcher is used, making simultaneous emergency calls a dangerous challenge. Finally, Crosbie said, if locally managed, the dispatch operation needs to be supported with current hardware and software technology.  After much discussion, the BOS determined the feasibility study by a third party consultant was the way to go, to arm it with necessary data to weigh the pros and cons of a move.

The other agenda item under the “data” theme: traffic calming.  Several months ago, the BOS charged the Department of Public Works and the MBTS Police Dept. with addressing spot complaints about speeding in the village neighborhood.  DPW Chief Charles “Chuck” Dam presented a new protocol, setting out a process for residents seeking to alert an area for traffic calming.  Once an area is reported, the police will assess the situation, said Dam, and place one of the town’s portable four speed trailers in the area and collect motor vehicle speeds for a set period of time.  The police department would review the data (they’ll look for average speeds that go above the 85th percentile of the area speed limit), and weigh in other relevant considerations like traffic volume, or whether the area is in a school zone.  If the data shows the area is a problem, the departments would install “traffic calming” measures, such as adding enforcement resources, signs, and keep watching the data.  If things don’t improve, measures would be escalated.  “Everything is supported by data,” said Dam, rather than perception.

In the weeks before Monday’s meeting, unbeknownst to Dam, a Norwood Ave. neighborhood group circulated a petition about dangerous drivers.  In response, Chief Fitzgerald sent Lt. Mark McCoy to meet with the group and installed a mobile speed trailer to Norwood.  That data is currently being collected.  Meanwhile, members of the neighborhood group plan on attending the Manchester Bike And Pedestrian Committee meeting later this month where that committee plans to addresses a complementary initiative to pursue bike lanes in the area of School Street.

Pressure for the Manchester police to escalate enforcement of speeding violations is tempting, Fitzgerald told the BOS, but he assured them that officers already spend two hours per shift writing tickets and warnings.  The current strategy of coupling data monitoring with written warnings (which are officially registered in the state’s public safety database) works, he said.  Escalation follows data, he said.

Onto the Board Of Health and its meeting last week with the BOS regarding the town’s mask mandate.  When the mask mandate was first implemented on September 1, it received pushback from local businesses that maintained the town was unnecessarily preemptive in moving to a mandate instead of a strong recommendation, which is the state’s current policy.  At the time, of 351 Mass. municipalities, approximately 50 instituted mask mandates.  Government buildings such as Post Offices, town halls, etc. have federally mandated mask policies.  Salem instituted a mask mandate in August, anticipating the Halloween season, and the city enforces the policy with fines up to $300 for anyone violating the ordinance, depending on the number of violations.  Last Thursday, the BOH and the BOS voted to extend the Manchester policy, and agreed to address enforcement at Monday’s BOS meeting.

But on Monday, the issue wasn’t so easy. First, targeting violators (or even investigating complaints) prompts the question of how the mandate will be enforced.  Since the Sept. 1, the town has received one complaint against a local business for a mask mandate violation.  Further, COVID rates have remained low in Manchester, and in line with rates of neighboring municipalities that don’t have mask mandates.

The BOS seemed to be focused on employers who allow employees to work without a mask.  Patrons who refuse to wear a mask are covered by trespassing laws, said Selectman Eli Boling, and be theoretically kicked out of establishments expected to carry out the town’s mandate and, if necessary, contact the police.  

Employer violations, however, could also be hard to manage, especially if employees are exempted due to medical or religious reasons.  Salem’s BOH enforces that city’s mandate, but Manchester’s BOH has nothing beyond restaurant health inspectors, who can’t inspect retailers, offices or government buildings.  Lack of enforcement aside, the BOS explored fines.  Selectman John Round said he was uncomfortable fining local businesses still getting through COVID.  Selectman Anne Harrison was unpersuaded, suggesting a local business in violation of the mask mandate might be “pilloried” with a public sign advertising its violation.  Boling fell somewhere in between, leaning toward fines while acknowledging the enforcement challenge.  

In the end, the Selectmen punted the issue to its next meeting, when a decision on enforcement will be made, with the BOH.

On a lighter note, at the spot of the old Al’s Café and, most recently, Black Arrow on Central Street, a new restaurant called “Boo Bird” has successfully applied for a liquor license.  The eatery will open early in 2022.  Maryann Wood, owner of the building and business, will hold the license.  Wood told the BOS the restaurant will serve healthy salads, healthy sandwiches, and pizza, all made in house.  And the liquor license covers the restaurant and bar seven days a week, through midnight.  Unanimously approved.

board of selectmen, national responses to the covid-19 pandemic, face masks during the covid-19 pandemic, mark mccoy, board of health, manchester bike and pedestrian committee, timothy crosbie, eli boling, department of public works, maryann wood, john round, anne harrison, selectman eli boling, manchester police