Hadley rejects COVID-19 ambassador

  • The Route 9 corridor in Hadley. FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Saturday, September 19, 2020

HADLEY — Despite the Board of Health issuing a mask order for the commercial corridor aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19, people without face coverings have continued to walk on the Norwottuck Rail Trail, and socialize with each other outside Route 9 stores, according to board member Susan Mosler.

That’s what prompted the health board to seek a COVID-19 health coordinator who would enforce the mandate and educate people, and support the town and protect the business community by keeping residents, visitors and shoppers as healthy as possible.

“This is about the Board of Health wanting to hire and train a COVID-19 ambassador to go out and talk to people and pass the message about safe practices,” Mosler told the Select Board at its Sept. 2 meeting.

But the Select Board rejected the proposal, and both the discussion at the meeting, and a subsequent post placed by Chairman David J. Fill II on his official Facebook page, illustrate continued tensions among town officials about how best to control the spread of COVID-19.

Fill posted a letter Mosler sent to the community with concerns about the Select Board’s decision in which she wrote “they have put up multiple roadblocks in an attempt to stymie our efforts to educate businesses and the public about safe practices, and to ensure that the guidelines are being followed.”

When the Board of Health issued its first “COVID-19 Required Face Covering and Mask Area” mask order in late July, the initial press release had to be pulled back because it hadn’t gone through the proper channels and vetting process.

Then, once the order was in place in early August, the Select Board took a vote instructing police officers, firefighters and municipal inspectors not do any of the enforcement related to it.

Mosler said she is frequently going to businesses as part of her role on the health board, noting that this poses a health risk for her because she is over 60. Most of this work involves reminding people that wearing masks and face coverings can slow COVID-19 transmissions.

“We know that covering our face is one thing we can all do to protect our fellow human beings,” Mosler said.

The job description for the COVID-19 ambassador states that, “the Covid Health Coordinator will assist visitors, residents, students, workers and local businesses by providing health and safety information and represent the Board of Health to communicate compliance issues in a friendly and professional manner.”

Mosler explained to the Select Board that the vision would be for a part-time, 10 hours per week position, at $20 per hour, working for the next 15 weeks, with federal CARES Act money to cover the salary. The total cost would be $3,000 during that time period.

But the Select Board ended up voting 4-1, with only member Christian Stanley supporting the request, to deny the hiring.

Fill said his reasoning is that a townwide hiring freeze is in place and that Dick Tessier, former health board member whom Mosler defeated for reelection this year, already works part time for the fire department, and would be willing to do enforcement in that role.

“I can’t support spending on another position,” Fill said.

The health board is concerned that Tessier, while capable, is a senior citizen, and that the ambassador should be someone less at risk for serious health consequences from COVID-19.

Town Administrator David Nixon said Hadley does not have enough CARES Act money to fund the position and would need to draw some of the salary from the health department’s budget.

Finance Committee Chairwoman Amy Fyden said with looming financial challenges next year, she would prefer no existing money be spent from the health department budget on a COVID-19 ambassador. Instead, that money, left unspent, could become free cash next year.

Select Board member Joyce Chunglo said the mask mandate could be enforced without need to bring on staff. “They may be able to get volunteers,” Chunglo said.

Mosler said that both Amherst and Northampton are recruiting paid staff, including University of Massachusetts students, to work on COVID-19 compliance in their downtowns.

She added that it is impossible for her other two colleagues on the board, Emma Dragon and Greg Mish, to do any enforcement, as they are each putting in significant hours related to matters such as contact tracing and inspections related to restaurants and septic systems.

“We don’t have other employees who could do the same work,” Mosler said.