RICHMOND — The Select Board has formally signed on to a Board of Health directive for indoor masking in the town’s public places, but a discussion about mandating vaccines is on hold after drawing ire from a member who decried such requirements as “morally corrupt.”
The three-member board agreed to defer the mask issue to the Board of Health guidelines, aligned with the Tri-Town Health Department’s directive issued last week for Lee, Lenox and Stockbridge in response to concerns about the COVID-19 delta variant. Signage stating “Masks required per order of the Board of Health” will be posted.
“It’s not a mandate because we lack enforcement ability,” Board of Health Chairman Andrew Fisher told the board at its most recent meeting. “We simply want to get the message out, you’re on your own, establishments need to enforce this, it’s serious business.”
Selectman Roger Manzolini backed the recommendation. “I’ve never had an objection to mask directives, I support it,” he said. “The only problem I have is when we start mandating things because associated with that are rights and privileges, punitive actions and things like that.”
However, Fisher’s suggestion to require town employees, except for Richmond Consolidated School staffers, to be vaccinated aroused strong pro and con discussion. The Select Board decided to ask Town Administrator Danielle Fillio to draft a policy for the next meeting on Sept. 29.
Select Board Chair Neal Pilson pointed out that under state law, all Richmond citizens who hold elected or appointed positions are deemed employees for a vaccine requirement. That includes volunteer firefighters since they receive stipends, making them paid town employees.
Pilson cited the nationwide effort “to curtail the spread of the disease and dramatically improve the vaccination rate.”
“Unvaccinated people are burdening our health system,” he said. “They are putting at risk children who are unable to be vaccinated and who are now incurring COVID, sadly, at significantly increased numbers.
But Manzolini pointed to exemptions for legitimate medical reasons or for religious objections.
Voicing “respect, appreciation and agreement” with the Board of Health’s recommendation, he objected to a mandate, suggesting that people who have contracted the virus don’t need to be inoculated. The CDC recommends people get the vaccine regardless of whether thay have already contracted COVID-19.
“A middle-aged person who’s healthy, there’s no reason for that person to be vaccinated,” Manzolini said, contrary to CDC guidance. “Most adults will do the right thing for themselves and the community. I’d be personally offended to be told that I have to inject something into my body. It’s just wrong; it’s against my rights and my liberties.”
But the long-serving selectman acknowledged that he got the shots voluntarily “because I had no fear of it, I think it’s the right thing to do, and it would help the community.”
Nevertheless, Manzolini stated firmly that removing town employees’ “personal liberties to make those choices is just morally corrupt, in my opinion. But we should strongly recommend that they be vaccinated and if they’re not, there are certain restrictions we can place on them.”
He also expressed fear that “across this country, we’re going to lose a lot of good employees from a lot of good corporations because of these policies. Responsible people do responsible things. I am not going to be party to mandating health care decisions,” he said. “You can make those choices yourselves. We hire competent, capable people and I expect them to act that way.”
Manzolini conceded that he believes the virus is serious, “but as a country we’ve overreacted to it. That’s just my opinion, it doesn’t matter.”
Fillio, the town administrator, suggested that a potential town policy could include regular testing with negative results as an option.
Several town residents spoke out strongly against Manzolini’s views.
“I’m so offended by Roger’s position on all of this,” said Alison Cole. “He needs to do his research before he starts spouting off his beliefs. If you’re going to provide information to the public, it needs to come from a reputable source and it needs to be researchable, reliable and fair.”
She cited Manzolini’s view that those who have contracted the virus don’t need the vaccine because they could not get it a second time.
Actually, a recent CDC study shows survivors who declined vaccination are more than twice as likely to get re-infected compare to those who take the shots.
“This is an extremely communicable disease,” said resident Ron Veillette. “These unvaccinated people are risking other people’s lives, and therefore I think it’s absolutely OK to put the requirement on. The unvaccinated people are being irresponsible.”
Pilson suggested that Fillio check with her counterparts in other towns about their vaccination policies.
“I’d like to know what the other towna are doing, I don’t want to be out of step either way,” he said. “There’s a high degree of urgency here and the tradeoff is personal liberties as Roger has eloquently defended, versus the health and safety of the totality of our population, most specifically, the children under 12 who can get the disease, more likely from an unvaccinated person.”
Fisher, the health board chairman, stated that one-third of the town’s population is not inoculated. “That’s a huge number,” he said. “There’s a lot of resistance out there.”
Pilson agreed that “it’s a discouraging number. Every effort is being made to persuade people to be vaccinated. We’re no different from the rest of the country. We like to think of ourselves as being educated, up to speed, protective of each other, but we’re just like everybody else.”