James Wilusz

Tri-Town Board of Health Executive Director James Wilusz during the recent joint meeting of the Lee, Lenox and Stockbridge boards.

Following expressions of alarm by members over rapidly rising COVID-19 Delta variant cases in its district, the Tri-Town Joint Boards of Health have issued a public health directive ordering indoor face-covering compliance at public spaces in Lee, Lenox and Stockbridge, regardless of vaccination status.

The directive strongly urges event planners and organizations to seriously consider postponing significant indoor events or gatherings and any major outdoor event if six feet of social distancing cannot be maintained. Lee Founders Weekend, slated for Sept. 17-19, has been canceled by the town’s Chamber of Commerce, as it has traditionally attracted thousands of people.

“Even with outdoor events, we’re seeing clusters of cases,” said James Wilusz, Tri-Town Health’s executive director. He noted that COVID Delta variants are now 98 percent of positive cases in Massachusetts, and are twice as contagious as the original coronavirus.

“As we see cases rise in surrounding counties and communities, we are committed to preventing transmission, keeping our numbers as low as possible, keeping businesses and schools open, and preventing our most vulnerable from severe illness,” the directive states.

Among the key points in the Tri-Town Health order:

— Appropriate CDC-approved masks or face coverings shall be worn in all indoor spaces in Lee, Lenox, and Stockbridge, unless seated at a table consuming food and/or drink. A sign shall be posted at the entrance of all buildings. A copy of the sign is posted at www.tritownhealth.org as of Tuesday morning.

— Food service establishment employees shall wear a mask or face covering when serving customers, both indoors and outdoors.

— Masks shall also be required in crowded outdoor public events, and where physical distancing, of at least six feet or more, cannot be maintained. This includes but is not limited to events held at fairgrounds or parks, outdoor performance and event venues, restaurants, etc.

— Event planners and or any organizations shall consider postponement of any outdoor or indoor event/gathering where social distancing of a minimum of six feet per person cannot be maintained.

The directive also urges community members to be vaccinated, stay home in case of symptoms and obtain tests if they have new or unexplained symptoms, before and after traveling, or if they have been exposed. Tests can be scheduled by phone at 1-855-BMC-LINK.

Children under two are exempted form the order, as are people who have underling health and safety reasons.

Employees in shared office spaces are not required to mask if social distancing of six feet or more can be maintained.

Performers who are singing and/or playing brass or wind instruments, who are performance artists or who are presenting or speaking at an event, are not required to wear face coverings, but must adhere to social distancing of at least 10 feet from any member of the public when performing indoors and outdoors.

Face coverings are not required and shall not be worn when actively participating in water-based activities and when swimming, the directive noted. But masks are to be worn when not in water, including but not limited to indoor pool decks, locker rooms, changing rooms and restrooms.

How will the Tri-Town Health order be enforced?

“The person or entity in control of a public indoor or outdoor space shall have the obligation to enforce the requirements of this public health directive. Non-compliance may impact further spread of COVID-19 and impact the health and safety of others.”

In case of non-compliance, the Tri-Town Boards of Health may implement more strict rules and regulations that could include daily fines for non-compliance. Further action could lead to suspension and revocation of permits issued by the Boards of Health.

In a cover letter to Lee-Lenox Chief Administrative Officer Christopher Ketchen, Stockbridge Town Administrator Michael Canales, the select boards of Lee, Lenox and Stockbridge, as well as the chambers of commerce in each town, Wilusz stated that the directive would continue until revised or rescinded by the Tri-Town Joint Boards of Health.

“We have seen multiple cases linked to outdoor events, food establishments being affected, neighboring schools being closed due to spread, and the case counts are steadily on the rise,” Wilusz wrote. He asked the town boards to review and endorse the directive in order to rally the community to combat the COVID-19 spread.

“If we cannot slow the spread, it will have lasting effects on the health and safety of our residents and other functions in our community,” he cautioned.

Wilusz wrote the directive following a public Zoom meeting of the joint health boards last Thursday. He presented data assembled by Southern Berkshire Public Health Collaborative nurses Amy Hardt and Jill Sweet showing a dramatic increases in cases:

— In Lee, two people tested positive for COVID in July, 36 in August, with 45 percent of cases involving “breakthrough” cases among fully-vaccinated people, and 53 percent attributed to household spread.

— Lenox went from eight cases in July to 29 in August, with 52 percent of them among fully-vaccinated individuals, and 41 percent traced to household spread. Four cases were blamed on workplace exposure.

— In Stockbridge there were two cases in July and 9 in August, with 45 percent involving fully-vaccinated people and 44 percent caused by household transmission.

“The data is cause for alarm and it’s very concerning,” Wilusz declared.

“Some of these figures are very ominous,” said Dr. Charles Kenny, who chaired the joint meeting. Kenny heads the Stockbridge Board of Health. The meeting can be viewed on demand at Community Television of the Southern Berkshires website.

He urged Gov. Charlie Baker to take “more aggressive steps” such as mandating masks indoors and limiting public gatherings.

State Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli urged the board members to adopt a strong directive.

“If you’re going to sit back and wait for the state, I think you’re going to be sitting back for a long time,” the Lenox Democrat commented. “Don’t underestimate your authority.”

Pignatelli, voicing concern about new cases involving fully-vaccinated residents and citing Pittsfield as “a hot spot,” recommended involving local Select Boards and police departments to underscore and help enforce some of the mask guidelines.

“The town selectmen need to be aware of what’s really happening here, because I don’t believe they’re even thinking about it,” he stated.

“This is a very good first step, but if things don’t get better, we should definitely come back and revisit what a mandate would look like,” Wilusz emphasized.

According to Kenny, “the writing on the wall is that the disease is going to get worse and what we’re talking about here is the best way for people to behave in order not to let it get worse.”

He asserted that “we’ve got to get on the horse now, this should be a very stern resolution. This is an entire local community effort.”

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.