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Tri-Town Health Department

After heated opposition from the public, Tri-Town Health appears no longer interested in vaccine passport for restaurants

Outdoor dining area with patrons eating

A proposal for proof of vaccination to dine in restaurants in Lee, Lenox and Stockbridge has been shelved after public opposition.  

Amid intense public opposition, the Tri-Town Board of Health is poised to sideline a highly contentious suggestion to consider requiring vaccination proof to dine inside restaurants in Lee, Lenox and Stockbridge.

At a prolonged online informational meeting Wednesday night, at least 80 citizens attended, and most of the 35 who spoke dumped buckets of ice water on the idea first voiced by retired Pittsfield physician Dr. Charles Wohl at a Dec. 15 meeting.

Before opening public discussion, Tri-Town board members expressed their own reservations about the vaccine passport idea.

Tri-Town Health Executive Director James Wilusz emphasized that a proposal is not being pushed, “there’s nothing on the table.” He said no clusters of cases have been associated with indoor dining and that COVID-19 omicron variant numbers in the area are starting to trend down.

“There are signs that we’re moving toward the new normal,” he said.

A mandate could promote public safety, “but what kind of life would people have, what other things would they be giving up?” asked Tri-Town Boards of Health Chairman Dr. Charles Kenny, who also chairs the Stockbridge Board of Health.

He described obtaining reliable information about the coronavirus as very challenging. “I don’t see that imposing further burdens on the restaurant business is a good way to go. … We can’t let fear ruin our democracy or our local government.”

“Who are we keeping safe, and from what?” he queried, challenging the notion of a proof-of-vaccination requirement for restaurant patrons amid “400,000 breakthrough cases in Massachusetts alone,” one in 14 vaccinated residents. “I don’t think it’s a logical idea,” Kenny said.

But he strongly supported the level of protection from omicron gained by fully vaccinated people, since even if they contract the virus, “it’s evolving into something that’s not much worse than the common cold.”

Representing the Lenox Board of Health, Tri-Town member Dianne Romeo reported near-unanimous opposition among a dozen restaurant owners she surveyed.

“Two years of fatigue, they’re worried about their staff, their patrons, they’re really worried about their businesses and the impact it’s going to have,” she said. Romeo urged a “long view” since the pandemic shows no signs of a total retreat “and it may transform itself. We have to consider how to live with it to make spaces safe for everybody.”

Schoolteacher JoAnn Sullivan of Lee expressed support for business owners. “We would cripple people by imposing this,” she asserted. “This is their livelihood, and we’d be killing their livelihood in this small area we’re living in.”

A Stockbridge board member, Rae Williams, predicted that a vaccine passport mandate, rather than a suggestion or a recommendation, would intensify anger, “and certainly, we’ve been subject to that anger.” Her personal preference would be universal vaccination and masking, “but I’m rundown and frustrated by it all.”

Dr. Henry Schwerner, also a Stockbridge member, described a “double-edged sword” for restaurant proprietors — a mandate or directive might deter some patrons, but others might feel safer dining out among fully-vaccinated customers.

On a practical level, said Colleen Henry, checking vaccine passports at the door would put “an enormous strain” on restaurants. Henry, director of the Lee Chamber of Commerce, stressed that she supports vaccinations and urged Tri-Town Health to “make a decision based on science and on your professional opinion.”

Lenox restaurant owner Whitney Asher urged Tri-Town to make the rules, if issued, “very clear and complete for everything, or it’s going to be very hard to implement and won’t be effective at all.”

Asher, president of the Lenox Chamber of Commerce, called it “a very complicated issue in terms of describing what it means to be vaccinated or boosted, or the dates for that, or if you’ve had COVID, as well as making exceptions for any medical contraindications.” He also urged a distinction between indoor and outdoor dining, and for staffers at restaurants who may or may not be in direct contact with the public.

According to Bob Healey, owner of the Chambery Inn in Lee, a vaccine mandate would be antithetical to the idea of hospitality.

After two hours of discussion, the Tri-Town health board members adjourned the meeting with no further comment. But it appeared clear that the notion of a vaccine requirement for restaurants was off the table.

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

@BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.

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