In a recent letter to The Berkshire Eagle, the writer expressed concern about the Pittsfield Board of Health’s decision to rescind the Nov. 12 order to close restaurants to indoor dining. We appreciate the opportunity to respond.
The Pittsfield Health Department and the Board of Health takes seriously its mission “to protect and improve the health and quality of life of its residents and work force.” It is priority number one.
The spike in COVID-19 cases the week following Halloween were related to a large house party of young adults and gatherings at local restaurants where there were a number of people who worked at other restaurants. At all of these venues, a significant number of customers and restaurant employees became infected. The spike in cases after Halloween was not just related to restaurants, although it is recognized that indoor dining, by its nature, can increase the risk of person-to-person spread because it involves a gathering of people who are unmasked.
The decision to suspend indoor dining at Pittsfield restaurants as well as the decision to reopen were not easy ones and were the result of numerous conversations with members of the Mayor Linda Tyer’s Coronavirus Task Force, of which we are members. Ultimately though, both decisions were based on careful examination of the public health data. The decision to suspend indoor dining was never intended to be a long-term intervention but in response to the temporally-related rise in cases from these clusters. In fact, Pittsfield was the only municipality in Massachusetts that closed restaurants to indoor dining at that time despite the fact that many cities and towns were seeing a rise in cases. The fact that there were so many restaurants involved in the “ripple effect” stemming from relatively few infected individuals made the decision that much more complicated, but we felt it was the right thing to do and the results were clearly beneficial as we saw a significant reduction in cases before Thanksgiving and the more recent surge.
On Nov. 30 the Coronavirus Task Force met to discuss a number of issues, including the matter of the restaurants, and there was a general consensus that it was reasonable to resume indoor dining with additional safeguards in place including limiting tables to six persons or less, specifying that masks could only be removed while eating or drinking, and that a contact phone number would be obtained from each table party to be used if needed for contact tracing. Also, there would be an increased presence of health department inspectors at restaurants to provide guidance and ensure compliance with the order and a strong recommendation that each restaurant delegate one employee to be a “COVID monitor” as a means of self-monitoring.
At its regular monthly meeting on Dec. 2, the Board of Health voted to rescind the order of Nov. 12 and resume indoor dining in Pittsfield restaurants. At this point, with general community transmission occurring the board is acting in alignment with and even slightly more restrictive than the state restaurant standards.
We agree with the letter-writer’s reminder that masking and handwashing are extremely important personal responsibilities that will help to bring the pandemic to an end. To that we add the importance of avoiding unnecessary travel and gatherings with people other than household members and people beyond one’s regular social contacts. These measures, combined with every person’s commitment to the “common good” will surely serve our community well.