PITTSFIELD -- A 4 p.m. ban on driving on roads, announced shortly after noon Friday as part of a storm emergency declaration by Gov. Deval Patrick, apparently spread confusion and angered many business owners and others in Berkshire County, a place accustomed to winter storms and not in this storm's path.
When first announced at a press conference, the travel ban seemed to indicate motorists could be subject to stiff fines and possible imprisonment if they violated the ban. An Associated Press report said, in part, "Patrick said the travel ban will apply statewide and bans all motor vehicle traffic until it is lifted."
Weather reports had predicted a blizzard that might dump nearly three feet of snow on eastern sections of New England amid high wind gusts. The impact in the Berkshires was not expected to be as significant: The highest snowfall prediction was up to 18 inches; the lowest was nine inches.
By 6 p.m. in the Berkshires, less than an inch of snow had fallen.
"Right now, we are feverishly trying to close down," said Dan Flynn, the assistant manager at the Dakota Restaurant in Pittsfield at about 4 p.m. He said management had been in contact with staff members all day because of the approaching storm, trying to adjust the staff for Friday night based on the need.
"But when they [state officials] make a statement like that," the decision was made to shut down, he said.
Suzanne Morelle, owner of the ‘6 House Pub and motel on Route 7 in Williamstown, said "they really jumped the gun" in declaring a complete travel ban.
At 4 p.m., there were no plows in sight, she said, and little snow along Route 7.
"This will really tax a small business in the Berkshires," Morelle said, adding that she still expected some guests to arrive and would remain open until all those were served.
She also wondered what would be the effect on any motorist traveling through Massachusetts during the ban.
A spokeswoman at Mazzeo's Ristorante in Pittsfield said Friday night is their busiest night and closing early "definitely is going to hurt."
At Mount Greylock Bowl in North Adams, a spokesman said the bowling facility would close at 6 p.m., rather than the usual 10 p.m., mostly because of the travel ban. "We just want to play it safe," he said.
Several other businesses called Friday afternoon apparently were already closed and did not answer phone calls.
Schools had closed early on Friday, while banks, museums and other businesses cut the day short.
Local police and other emergency personnel were, at least initially, unsure exactly how to enforce the travel ban. They also said they were fielding numerous calls from residents seeking more information.
Lt. William Blackmer, commander of the state police barracks in Cheshire, said shortly before 4 p.m. that troopers were focused on normal storm-related duties. He said he was hoping for more information from officials at the state level. The barracks had already received calls from residents, he said, wondering if they could get home or to work after 4 p.m.
While exceptions were listed in the governor's executive order for the ban, there initially were no further details about police enforcement. In addition, at the governor's press conference, a Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency official referred to possible fines and jail time for violations that could be imposed with such a declaration.
Around 2:30 p.m., the MEMA website posted a notice advising drivers to use "best judgment in determining if travel is permitted under an exception to the ban."
Police were being "asked to interpret the exceptions broadly; the objective is to limit traffic as much as possible while allowing critical public and private sector services and functions to use the roads as necessary," according to the statement posted by MEMA.
"I think they are encouraging people to use common sense in driving in a storm," Lt. Blackmer said.
Pittsfield Fire Chief Robert Czerwinski, the city's emergency management coordinator, also said prior to 4 p.m. that he was hoping for more information from the state.
"I don't foresee mass ticketing, but we haven't been told," he said.
Asked if he has ever heard of such a complete driving ban declaration, he said, "I can't say I have."
The governor's order listed as exceptions to the ban public safety vehicles and workers, officials conducting business, utility crews, health care workers, the news media, and travel necessary to main critical private sector services such as "energy, fuel supplies and delivery, financial systems and the delivery of critical commodities ... including gasoline stations, food stores and hardware stores."
Commenters on The Eagle's Facebook page were also riled by the 4 p.m. driving ban declaration.
"This is ridiculous!" one person wrote. "Here in Pittsfield, there is barely any snow and my daughter is a direct-care worker that doesn't get out of work until 4! How can he issue such a ban for the entire state when the entire state is not having any weather problems as of yet!?"
Another said, "It might seem unreasonable now, but later on conditions are expected to be much worse. I also believe that since Eastern Mass. is getting it worse than us and there are a lot more people out that way, they chose an earlier time."
One painted the ban as "Moscow, winter 1986!"