25 Investigates: Enforcement of COVID-19 health orders is sporadic and varies by community

25 Investigates: Enforcement of COVID-19 health orders is sporadic and varies by community

WORCESTER, Mass. — From limits on gatherings to requiring face coverings and social distancing, Mass. Gov. Charlie Baker issued a series of executive orders and restrictions designed to help contain the spread of coronavirus across the state.

The enforcement of those orders is largely the responsibility of cities and towns. But a review of violations data in communities at high risk for COVID-19 transmission indicates that the rules are not being uniformly enforced.

25 Investigates wanted to find out how the orders are being applied and how fines are handed out. To do that, we contacted the Board of Health Departments in 26 communities designated as high- or moderate- risk for virus transmission and requested a breakdown of COVID-19-related citations by violation type, location and amount of fine.

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Only 16 responded to our request. Of those, only eight said they issued fines for COVID-19-related violations that ranged from not wearing masks, lack of social distancing, excessive crowd sizes and businesses operating when they are not supposed to.

(25 Investigates/25 Investigates)

Investigative reporter Ted Daniel recently went out with health inspectors in the City of Worcester and got a firsthand look at enforcement there.

A car rental company on Park Avenue was the team’s first stop. City inspectors were responding to an anonymous call about employees not wearing masks in the office. Health and Safety Inspector Cedric Richardson and Amanda Wilson, the director of the city’s Housing and Health Division, addressed the violation with a clerk. After explaining the health order, they presented him a checklist of protocols businesses are expected to follow, including mask-wearing, making sanitizer available and leaving sufficient space between seats so neither employees nor customers are sitting too close.

“When I do my inspection, I come at it from more of an educational place more than enforcement,” Richardson told 25 Investigates. “These business owners, they work six, seven days a week, all day, and you know, they’ve been one of the hardest hit out of everybody. So compassion at first is what I try to use rather than straight enforcement and trying to bend them to the will of what needs to be done.”

The team responds to dozens of COVID-19-related complaints a week. Complaints are mostly driven by the public. Residents call or email the health department with their concerns and it’s up to Wilson’s team to check them out.

“We want to bring our [COVID-19 positivity] numbers down, and to get our the infection rate down so, hopefully, we can get back into yellow again,” Wilson said. “We’ve also done some proactive work at night. So while we do mainly work off of the public’s information that they relay to us, we have gone out proactively to take a look at some of our outdoor dining locations and look at how they’ve been operating as well.”

Worcester is one of 23 Massachusetts communities currently in the red zone, or highest risk, category for the spread of coronavirus.

Data reviewed by 25 Investigates shows Worcester has recorded 352 violations since late April and issued eight citations. It shows health inspectors visited one Shrewsbury Street barbershop nine times since July for complaints about mask use. The city did eventually issue the establishment a $500 fine.

A cigar bar near the DCU Center was hit with multiple fines for mask and other violations, including smoking. In total, the city issued $1,200 in fines against the establishment. 25 Investigates attempted to speak with the owners of both businesses but they declined on-camera interviews.

Boston-based attorney William Gens, who represents businesses impacted by COVID-19 violations, called the pandemic orders and their enforcement “unfair” and “unconstitutional.”

“The orders, as best as I can describe them, are arbitrary and capricious,” he said. “The COVID orders fall unfairly upon different classes of people. In the business world, they fall heavily on small businesses and they unduly benefit large businesses.”

Gens added that application and enforcement of the orders vary widely from town to town. For example, he said, one town’s mayor or “zealous” health director may decide to “aggressively” enforce the orders, while a neighboring town may have lax or no enforcement.

25 Investigates contacted 25 other cities and towns that were listed as moderate- or high-risk on the state’s town-by-town COVID-19 map in early September and asked about their enforcement.

Lynn reported 84 citations; most were issued to business owners for violating rules about masks, social distancing and floor marking or social distancing. However, Lynn said it hasn’t imposed any fines yet.

In Lawrence, 26 citations totaling $7,800 in fines were issued. Most of the violations Boston 25 News reviewed stemmed from large gatherings at private homes.

The Town of Milford issued three citations totaling $1,500 to a single homeowner who threw a 200-person party in late August.

Back in Worcester, the team of inspectors responded to another citizen complaint. This time it involved an auto body shop on Park Avenue, and the person making the complaint included a photo showing the violation.

After walking into the establishment and showing one of the clerks the picture, the team opted for education instead of fines.

“We want to be as business-friendly as we can with the understanding that these are difficult times and want the businesses to be able to operate within the COVID guidelines,” Wilson said, adding that, in Worcester, citations and fines are a last resort when repeated warnings are ignored.

We asked the COVID-19 Command Center if the state would like to see more enforcement at the local level. In a statement a spokesperson said:

“The Command Center established the COVID-19 Enforcement and Intervention Team to collaborate with higher-risk municipalities on both ensuring safety guidance is followed and public messaging to raise awareness around best practices to best protect friends, families and neighbors. Over the last five weeks state inspectors from DPL and ABCC have been out in 75 municipalities. This activity includes visits to or inspections at more than 5,000 places of business, and is performed in collaboration with local police chiefs. While we have made progress in these communities, the CEIT will continue to collaborate with local leaders to ensure residents remain vigilant -- reducing gathering sizes, wearing masks, and doing their part to stop the spread.”

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