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Should face masks be required for shoppers of essential businesses?

GREAT BARRINGTON — The local board of health will not be mandating shoppers to wear masks while in essential businesses, like grocery or hardware stores.

Instead, the board has given its blessing to local stores that remain open amid a global pandemic and wish to implement their own in-store policies, including requiring a face mask.

At the Great Barrington’s Board of Health Thursday, April 23 meeting held via Zoom video conferencing software, Health Agent Rebecca Jurczyk told the board that local grocers have asked if they would have the board’s approval if stores were to institute certain requirements on their shoppers.

Jurczyk also relayed messages from local grocery stores that were having issues with supplying and finding masks for their employees.

The board discussed sending out a message of support to all essential businesses, while strongly reiterating the state and federal social distancing guidelines to all of their shoppers.

Michael Ranoue, chair of the Great Barrington Board of Health, said he would be in favor of putting up a general advisory in each store, but cautioned against a town-wide mandate.

“I don’t know if anything beyond an advisory to do that is useful or prudent at this point,” Ranoue said. “If stores want to have their own policies, I think that’s up to them. I think we can be supportive of that, but I don’t think we’d go any further than the general advisory.”

On Tuesday, April 21, the Springfield-based Big Y Foods Inc. grocery store announced that its stores would start requiring customers to wear face masks while inside the store.

Big Y’s updated store policy includes the recommendation for shopping trips to be limited to one person per household, as well as observing the one-way aisle directions.

No one from Big Y was available for comment when asked by this newspaper.

A statement from Darcy Young, a digital public relations and video producer for the Springfield-based Garvey Communication Associates Inc. reads, “We are working with Big Y during this difficult time. Their entire team is focused on operations and serving customers right now. Therefore, no one is available for [an] interview.”

Other local grocers, like Guido’s Fresh Marketplace and Price Chopper/Market32 have not implemented an official face mask policy yet, but one-way aisles and limits on in-store shoppers have been among the common practices made by businesses deemed essential by Gov. Charlie Baker.

Board of Health member Dr. Ruby Chang said she was in favor of the board supporting local grocers and their decisions, while further educating the public about the existing recommendations by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

“I think it’s important for the public health for everyone to feel safe when they do go out so that they feel protected,” Chang said. “It is advised that face covering is helpful. Is it very helpful? We don’t really know. It depends on the type of face covering.”

Chang said she had recently been researching and making different kinds of face masks through various techniques of cutting and folding different cloths and materials. She suggested the board’s advisory message include advice for handling masks, including the proper way of using the mask’s back strap to take it off.

“How you use the face covering is also an issue. If you touch the front of the face covering with your hands, you’ve already contaminated your hands and where your hands touch,” Chang said. “Having said that, I do think the advising government policy is that they are recommending anyone who can not guarantee a six-foot distance between the next person, that you need face covering. I think the advisory from our town should reflect that.”

She said choices made by individual businesses will be supported, but not something mandated by the board.

“That I think is a personal store decision, and not something we can enforce,” Chang said.

Board of Health member Peter Stanton suggested a mandate couldn’t be put on shoppers if equal access to masks was not made available.

“Even if we wanted it to be mandatory, we can’t really do that if people don’t have access to the masks,” Stanton said. “All I can imagine we can do now is emphasize that it is a strong recommendation.”

Agreeing with Stanton’s point, Chang also mentioned that if a mandate was made, repercussions would have to be made for people who don’t follow through with it.

“I think it’s way beyond what any town should be able to do,” she added.

Under the board’s advisory to essential businesses, which will be drafted by Jurczyk, customers could be turned away from grocery stores if they don’t have a mask, if in-store policies are put in place like at the Great Barrington Big Y.

Outside of the Berkshires, municipalities like Chicopee and Holyoke have instituted mandatory mask policies.

Concerns of access to food were brought up by Jurczyk and Selectboard member Ed Abrahams, who questioned whether the advisory could prevent someone with a disability from buying food.

Chang responded that by issuing an advisory, rather than a mandate, exceptions could be made to the individual store’s policies. She suggested the board’s advisory include exceptions for children under the age of 2 and for people who cannot breathe with a mask on due to medical issues.

Similar language was used in Baker’s advisory, which called for face masks to be worn by those for the protection of themselves and others in public places.

In the advisory sent out on Friday, April 10, the recommendations included that, “Cloth masks should not be placed on young children under age 2, anyone who has trouble breathing, or is unconscious, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance.”

Ranoue and Chang both said they would be supportive of stores that make the call to implement in-store policies that could include the wearing of face masks. Ranoue added that the local effort against the spread of the novel coronavirus could be seen in his occasional trips to essential businesses.

“The vast majority of people that I see when I’m out in stores are wearing masks,” said Ranoue. “I think that is at least an encouraging sign.”

Although no formal vote was taken by the board, it was agreed that Jurczyk would draft the advisory memo and have it proofread before sent out.

The next Board of Health meeting is scheduled for Thursday, May 7 at 6:30 p.m.

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