LEE — The crowd of men, about eight of them, hopped out of their vehicles and stood in a semicircle in the parking lot, talking and stretching.
They then strode into the Massachusetts Turnpike Service Plaza in Lee — all without face masks.
The men could be seen going into a bathroom, then strolling through the gas station's convenience store. Throughout the plaza, they passed messages requesting that visitors abide by the state's public safety guidelines, including the use of facial coverings.
Still, none of the men reached to put on a mask or returned to their cars — all of them had Maine license plates — to grab one.
During the time The Eagle monitored the scene, no staff members approached the men to ask them to put on masks.
A regular visitor to this service plaza recently reported to The Eagle that she has witnessed this sort of behavior more than once. To investigate her concerns, The Eagle performed 30-minute spot checks at four service plazas: in Lee, eastbound and westbound, and in Blandford, eastbound and westbound.
In addition to the men observed in Lee, The Eagle also spotted customers without masks inside the plaza in the eastbound plaza in Blandford.
Mass Pike service plazas, which are owned by the state, are hubs for road-weary travelers to stop, grab a bite and freshen up before hitting the road again. Because they attract people from all over, rest stops are a potential point of disease transmission.
Beginning today, new orders go into effect requiring those entering Massachusetts to either produce evidence of a negative COVID-19 test or to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival or return. The orders include a few exceptions. Travelers stopping at highway rest stops are not subject to the new rules.
In just a few hours, The Eagle noted license plates from Massachusetts, New York, Iowa, Maine, New Hampshire, Florida, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Pennsylvania at the four plazas.
Spokespeople for the state Department of Transportation said the facilities have remained open to the public since March to serve essential workers traveling on state roads. They point out that signs are hung in the plazas to remind patrons of the state's safety requirements.
According to the state's social distancing safety standards for retail businesses, businesses must "require face coverings for all workers and customers, except where unsafe due to medical condition or disability."
Several states require people to wear face coverings in public because, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, masks act as a barrier to prevent one's respiratory droplets from traveling through the air and have been shown to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
"MassDOT believes customers have been abiding by health and safety guidelines," spokesperson Jacquelyn Goddard said in an email. Members of the communications team at the DOT did not respond to questions of how the department monitors mask compliance.
No one reached by The Eagle at companies doing business at the service plaza was willing to acknowledge that some visitors are not complying with mask use in retail settings. At the time of the monitoring by the newspaper, only the convenience store, McDonald's and Papa Gino's were open for business.
The DOT leases all 11 plazas along the Pike — it also is known as Interstate 90 — to Gulf Oil, a gas company headquartered in Wellesley Hills. A spokesperson for Gulf Oil said the staff at the Gulf Oil convenience store at the Lee eastbound plaza are employed through Global Partners LP, a fuel-distribution company.
The spokesperson specified that Gulf Oil's contract with the company requires Global Partners to "comply with all applicable laws and regulations," including those related to COVID-19.
A representative of Global Partners said customers are required to wear face masks while in the facility and that signs are displayed in the store reminding patrons of this policy. The spokesperson pointed out that McDonald's is the "master tenant" of the Lee eastbound plaza.
"I would suggest you call them on this particular inquiry," the spokesperson said in an email.
McDonald's emailed The Eagle a statement from PJ Fonseca, who the company named as a "local McDonald's owner-operator." Fonseca's public LinkedIn account states his location as Jersey City, N.J.
Fonseca said he could only speak to McDonald's policies "as one of a number of businesses within the service plaza." He said the company has updated "nearly 50 processes" with public safety and social distancing "top of mind."
Caroline White can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 563-513-1065.