Boards of health combine education, enforcement

Fines are a last resort as businesses reopen

AS BUSINESSES START to reopen this week, local boards of health are both educating firms about the state’s rules on COVID-19 and policing them.

The goal is to keep businesses and their patrons safe, so education and compliance are the top priorities. Fines of $300 would only be issued for the third, fourth, and fifth offenses. After that, a cease and desist order is possible.

“The last thing we want to do is issue a fine or worse to a business that has been closed and is trying to get back on its feet,” said Derek Macedo, the sole agent for the board of health in Freetown, a community of 8,870 residents.

Boards of health vary in composition across the state. Some are made up of volunteers while others have full-time paid agents. The boards are the local arm of the state Department of Public Health and the Department of Environmental Protection, enforcing state and local regulations dealing with disease prevention and control and environmental protection.

The reopening presents unique challenges. Businesses are only required to develop plans affirming they are in compliance with the state’s COVID-19 standards and mount posters explaining to workers and customers the procedures in place. The standards all place a priority on face coverings, social distancing, hand-washing, and sanitizing. They also require businesses to have a plan in case an employee contracts the virus.

A company’s documents have to be available in the event of an inspection, but they don’t have to be shared with and approved in advance by the board of health. State officials say boards of health will answer questions from businesses and respond to complaints from employees and customers.

Worcester’s 25 inspectors were busy on Wednesday responding to about 35 complaints about a variety of COVID-19 related issues, including a retailer limited to curbside delivery who was allowing people inside the establishment and patrons of other businesses not wearing masks.

“In that case we have an inspector from our office visit the location, speak to the store manager, or whoever is in charge on site, and bring the state guidance along with them to specifically show them exactly in the new guidance where it says specifically they can’t be doing the activity they are doing,” said Amanda Wilson, Worcester’s director of housing and health.

In Lawrence, businesses are being asked to register with the local board of health to receive emails providing updated information on state requirements. Michael Armano, director of Inspectional Services and the Board of Public Health, said the city is also translating documents from the state Department of Public Health into multiple languages.

“If we’re not communicating in more than one language, then we’re not communicating,” he said.

The 20 agents employed by Armano’s offices have expanded contact tracing efforts with help from the state and Lawrence Public School nurses, hoping to get a jump on any COVID-19 business hotspots.

On Cape Cod, Mashpee-based Polar Cave Ice Cream Parlour made national headlines when its owner decided to close one day after reopening, due to customers refusing to follow social distancing rules and harassing employees. While the board of health wasn’t involved in that specific incident, it has been keeping an eye on complaints regarding employees and customers not wearing masks.

“We’ve had to go out there and remind people to wear the masks,” said health agent Glen Harrington.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a bilingual journalist reporting across New England. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, social justice, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

Like many boards of health across the state, Mashpee’s board has many other duties to perform beyond those related to COVID-19. It recently began enforcing registration requirements on short-term rentals.

“That’s been held up a little because of COVID-19,” said Harrington. “We’re trying to get inspections done and people registered. We’re still doing regularly scheduled work, food establishment openings, and permitting. This is all being done on top of our normal schedule. It’s taking a huge chunk of time.”