Our Opinion: At pike's plazas, state can't afford risk of loosened health guidelines

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While the country has been left wanting for strong federal leadership in combating the coronavirus, some states have done well to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 with sensible strictures. Massachusetts is certainly one of them — not just for its data-driven approaches, but because it took the pandemic seriously from the get-go in a way that many states like Florida and Texas only adopted when it was too late.

Nevertheless, some restrictions are harder to enforce than others, as the Baker administration has found with orders limiting capacity for private gatherings and asking travelers to temporarily isolate after entering Massachusetts. That's why it's imperative for the state to show some teeth on the rules that are actually enforceable. For this reason, it's alarming that some of the state's most basic rules on distancing and mask-wearing appear to go unheeded at the Turnpike Service Plaza in Lee — a property owned by the state ("Mask-less visitors violating state rules not challenged at Mass Pike shop in Lee," Eagle, Sunday).

After receiving a tip from a regular visitor to the Lee plaza on the Mass. Turnpike, an Eagle reporter observed several plaza visitors congregating outside of the service station, then going inside the service station, some using the restroom, some passing through the plaza's convenience store, all without face masks. What's worse, as the customers were observed passing by signs within the station reminding of state guidelines on mask-wearing while in businesses, no plaza staff asked the visitors to stop violating the orders on the signs they were passing. The Eagle reporter also noted similar behavior — customers without face masks entering the service station — at the eastbound plaza in Blandford.

Perfect enforcement of state guidelines is impossible, but these plazas, though leased to and operated by Gulf Oil, are state property, which should be the last place for lax enforcement of such basic public health guidelines. For those who use the turnpike for essential travel, the need to fuel up or use the bathroom can only be practically satisfied at these locations. Risk management and public health concerns should not be less stringent, as it appears, but more so for rest stops on I-90, lest we forget what the "I" stands for. The Eagle reporter observing the coming and going of travelers at the Lee plaza noted numerous out-of-state license plates in the parking lot — and not just from neighboring Connecticut and New York, but also from farther states like Iowa and Florida.

As Massachusetts continues its slow roll on the hopeful road to reopening, an abounding assumption is that our region is past the worst that the pandemic has to offer. This optimism, however, is belied by a recent uptick of new cases in the commonwealth. The state Department of Public Health this week flagged the statewide positive test rate. Calculated as a seven-day weighted rolling average, this indicator has in fact risen by 30 percent in two weeks from a low of 1.7 percent on July 14 to 2.2 percent on Saturday.

Battling the coronavirus is not a series of unconnected skirmishes but a protracted war, and given all the progress and sacrifice Massachusetts has made, we cannot afford to relent on taking the fight seriously on our front. Some guidelines are eminently more enforceable than others, but restrictions without enforcement amount to mere suggestions. Particularly on its own property, the state needs to do better.

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