The Easton Board of Health approved a Regulation Tuesday night that provides it with the authority to issue a nighttime activity ban in public places due to mosquito-borne illness such as Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE) or West Nile virus.
The vote was taken after a spirited two hour public hearing that included arguments for and against the Regulation.
Board of Health members Gil Heino and Scott Aronson voted 2-0 in it's favor and defended the Regulation against residents who felt it was an example of an "overreach." Board Chair Jennifer Nichols was not present at the hearing due to a previously scheduled vacation.
Heino and Aronson were joined by Health Agents Mark Taylor and Kristin Kennedy, Town Counsel Jay Talerman and Massachusetts Department of Public Health Commissioner John Auerbach.
“Easton is actually the town in the state that has the highest risk of any community," said Auerbach. The commissioner explained that 68 EEE positive mosquito pools have been found in the past two months in the Shovel Town.
Residents at the hearing were provided with an updated version of the Regulation and were given a 10 minute recess so they could read it. Board members said it was updated after they heard input from residents. It added wording to exclude privately held residential property from being affected and to limit first offense fines to no more than $100.
It also ensured that sufficient notice be given to private property owners such as golf courses or colleges and that a management plan be put in place for those properties should a ban occur.
Despite the changes, many residents expressed opposition.
Carol Neslter said residents should be able to make their own risk assessments. She said the likelihood of contracting EEE was low, and the Regulation was a "knee-jerk reaction." She asked why daytime activities weren't banned to avoid skin cancer since that disease was much more prevalent.
Meredith Keach echoed Nestler's sentiments and added that she felt the Regulation was intentionally broad, and would give the Board and future Boards a "carte blanche" (blank check) ability.
She said that should a parent feels it is unsafe for their child to participate in activities, they should prevent the child from doing so.
"I resent that you’re taking away my right as an informed citizen to make decisions for myself or my family," she said.
Heino and Aronson countered, saying they received more calls calling for the Board to act on the EEE threat.
Heino said he didn't want pressure put on parents to continue to allow children to participate in unsafe nighttime activities.
Taylor said other towns moved forward on a ban without enacting a regulation. Easton's Board of Health, at the advisement of Talerman, decided to enact a regulation, which required a public hearing.
"Other towns just used Mass General Laws, went forward and enacted a ban – that’s it, they did it," he said. "Knowing the town and the educated population here, [we thought] they ought to be able to come here and speak their peace."
Oliver Ames Athletic Director was present at the meeting to suggest language be added to any ban proposed that allowed for temperatures to be taken into consideration since mosquitoes are less active at lower temperatures.
Oliver Ames Football Boosters President Bill Gagliardi asked that if a ban were imposed, it be re-evaluated frequently to take into account changes in conditions or risk.
Currently, due to the EEE threat.
Talerman said that as the ban is drafted with the right wording, it could have as much flexibility as the Board chooses.
"So long as we can word it appropriately in our orders, we can move quickly," he said. "That will be the next challenge."
With the Regulation enacted, no plans are currently in place to enact a ban. Board members said they would continue to look at EEE data while making a decision on whether or not to put a curfew in place.