When Public Space Access Can Threaten First Responder Safety


In an emergency meeting last week by teleconference, the Essex Board of Health and the Board of Selectmen restricted access to Conomo Point to only residents and those with a valid clamming license.  They also eliminated all public parking areas (including roadside parking starting at Conomo Point Road) except for two small areas adjacent to Clammers Beach. 

The restrictions will remain in effect until at least May 4 when it’s expected Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker will lift public stay-at-home safety restrictions associated with the COVID-19 emergency.  Unfortunately for the residents of Conomo Point with seasonal occupancy permits, these include delaying the official April 15 access to their properties.

The meeting drew a virtual “crowd” of more than 50 people, overloading the conference line at one point and causing the entire call to be dropped. 

On one side, residents of Conomo Point (many of whom have leases with the Town Of Essex the go back more than 100 years) feel the local government shouldn’t stop them from accessing their properties.  On the other hand, public safety officials say crowds that gathered at the popular (and beautiful) spot the weekend before put first responders in harm’s way as they tried to regulate social distancing compliance when they should be reserving their health, safety, resources and time for when it could really matter.

“It’s just dangerous,” said Essex Police Chief Paul Francis.  “We don’t have much time to pull back from this and we should err on the side of public safety.”

In the end the BOS and BOH struck a compromise, backing from their initial proposal to “enforce” the delayed occupancy by not turning on the public water supply out to Conomo Point (winter residents rely on cisterns to get them through the hard winter months) until the ban is lifted.  In the end, the town will turn on the water on time on April 15.  Year-round occupants can stay and have access to the area.  The town will also allow clammers with a license to continue making their living. 

But seasonal residents must delay their return to their homes by at least two weeks.

As of April 13, there were 26,867 confirmed cases of COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts, 3,013 of them here in Essex County and there were six in Essex and nine in Manchester.  The next update of cases locally will be on April 15.

This is the latest in a familiar string of incidences triggered by police raising a flag when their safety is threatened while regulating compliance to public safety mandates to slow the spread of COVID-19.  First, in Manchester, Police Chief Todd Fitzgerald prompted the BOS there to close all public parks and beaches after an unseasonably warm Saturday (and closed public spaces in neighboring towns) pushed high numbers of people to Singing Beach.

“We don’t have a big police force,” Fitzgerald said.  “If I’m down three officers because they were chasing after people ignoring social distancing recommendations and two weeks later we need all our first responders, we’re in trouble.”

Fitzgerald got what he needed.  The spaces were closed (they still are), the next day a state of emergency was formally declared in Manchester, and Fitzgerald installed a novel dual schedule for the force that split his roster of officers in half, alternating them in a 12-hour, seven days on/seven days off schedule.  Two weeks later, the department is running smoothly, at capacity.

In Gloucester, Police Chief Edward Conley made his own changes to the city’s procedures and enforcement protocols during the COVID-19 emergency.  The city’s  playgrounds are closed to the public, but other public spaces remain open, as long as they can be accessed by foot.  The Gloucester Dog Park remains open through walk-in access only. Parking is not allowed at Stage Fort Park and parking at three Gloucester beaches—Wingaersheek Beach, Good Harbor Beach and Niles Beach—is temporarily prohibited. Temporary parking restrictions are in place along nearby roads as well, including Dogtown Road which abuts a lot of popular walking trails and old quarries. 

Fitzgerald, who was installed as police chief just last year after more than two decades on the force, said these are truly unique times for the communities of Cape Ann.  For his part, he takes it one step at a time, connecting regularly with other chiefs in neighboring towns.  He expects things will incrementally return to normal access to public spaces, but first, he said, we have to pass the predicted peak of the pandemic on or around April 20.

“I think shortly we’ll start to see things slowly open up,” he said.  “Let’s all just take it day by day.”