michael's

The outdoor dining space at Michael’s Restaurant in Stockbridge.

LEE — A vaccine passport requirement for indoor diners to patronize restaurants in Lee, Lenox and Stockbridge?

That’s on the agenda of the Tri-Town Boards of Health public meeting at 6 p.m. Jan. 26, via Zoom.

The informational session follows preliminary, informal discussions among board members during two recent meetings of the regional health agency. Tri-Town Executive Director James J. Wilusz expects a strong turnout for the meeting “intended to solicit public input and to engage stakeholders in a discussion.”

Why it matters

Although the meeting is not a formal public hearing, Wilusz emphasized that “we are trying to reach far out into our communities on this topic for a good, respectful public dialogue.”

He acknowledged many requests for a public forum, based on reaction to the preliminary discussions, which did not include extensive input from residents tuning in to the Zoom meetings because the topic was not listed on the agendas.

The idea first was suggested by Dr. Charles Wohl, a retired Pittsfield physician who lives in Lenox, as an invited guest speaker at a Tri-Town meeting Dec. 15. That was before the COVID-19 omicron variant swept through the nation, causing record numbers of infections but generally milder cases and fewer deaths than the original virus and the delta variant, although hospitalizations soared.

What they are saying

Wohl’s suggestion encountered skepticism from Stockbridge Select Board Chairwoman Roxanne McCaffrey and Lenox Select Board Chairwoman Marybeth Mitts, who said the vaccination-proof requirement would be burdensome for restaurants and unenforceable.

Two business group leaders, Lee Chamber of Commerce Chairwoman Colleen Henry and Lenox Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jennifer Nacht, voiced opposition on behalf of their members.

“It would be a huge burden on businesses in Lee, and I don’t think it would be helpful for our business community,” said Henry, who added that restaurants voluntarily could choose to adopt the vaccine passport system.

Nacht, who had surveyed the chamber’s restaurant members, reported they had expressed overwhelming opposition since “they’re just getting by as it is.” They fear losing more business and contend that they lack the staffing to monitor customers’ vaccination records. She also suggested that restaurants voluntarily could enhance their masking regulations and start checking vaccination cards.

Wilusz acknowledged that “it’s a very polarizing topic; we’re all in this together, and there are no borders in public health, so, we need to strengthen our relationships and partnerships, not further divide them.”

What is at stake

During a follow-up meeting Jan. 6, the board members decided to put the vaccine passport idea on the agenda for their next meeting, after complaints from two members of the public that they had not been allowed to comment on Wohl’s proposal when he first presented it.

Dr. Charles Kenny, who chairs the Tri-Town Boards, apologized, as did Wilusz. Both agreed to place the topic on the agenda for the informational forum so advocates and opponents could have a chance to voice their views.

How to participate

Wilusz said he also would accept any written comments — sent to his e-mail, jim@tritownhealth.org — ahead of the Jan. 26 meeting.

The webinar-format meeting will be hosted and recorded by Community Television for the Southern Berkshires for on-demand viewing at ctsbtv.org, as well as scheduled telecasts via Spectrum Cable’s public access channels.

To view and take part in the ZOOM meeting: tinyurl.com/57m2r6cn.

In addition, a “Citizen Speak” agenda item is being added to forthcoming Tri-Town public meetings, starting with the Jan. 26 session, so residents can raise health-related topics.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com, on Twitter

@BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.