BOSTON — When Gov. Charlie Baker in early April recommended people wear masks or face coverings to prevent spread of the coronavirus, Salem went a step further to require them in grocery stores and other public places.
And when the state banned parking along the coast to limit crowds, Salisbury temporarily closed its beaches and shut down several waterfront businesses after getting reports of groups not practicing social distancing.
Those decisions were not made by elected officials but by local boards of health — most of them composed of part-time volunteers appointed to two- or three-year terms — which have far-reaching powers under the public health emergency to close businesses, close roads and restrict access to public property.
Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito unveiled plans last week to restart the state’s economy by allowing businesses to gradually reopen over the next few months, if current downward trends in COVID-19 cases continue. Under the plans, local health boards will largely be responsible for enforcing new workplace and social distancing rules.
Business leaders are concerned health boards will enact even more restrictive rules than the state, and that businesses will face a patchwork of local regulations.
“One of the biggest fears is that we’ll end up with 351 different versions of reopening,” said Chris Carlozzi, Massachusetts state director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses. “The last thing we need is overzealous local officials setting extra standards on small businesses that are chafing at the bit to reopen.”
Others worry the boards will limit personal liberties, by closing down beaches and parks, if too few people are wearing masks or social distancing.
“At this point everyone knows the basics of social distancing,” said Paul Craney, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, a conservative pro-business group. “The weather is getting better and health boards should be encouraging people to get out, not shutting down sidewalks and telling people where to walk.”
Health boards had extensive powers even before the outbreak. They can close businesses for violations of workplace and sanitary regulations, or close beaches if conditions are unsafe. Their orders are generally enforced by local police.
But the public health crisis has expanded powers for the boards and the health directors they appoint to snuff out any activities that could spread the virus.
Health board members say they’re trying to balance civil liberties with the need to protect the public. Many operate with limited staff and have been saddled with the task of preventing outbreaks in their cities and towns.
Cheryl Sbarra, a senior attorney at the Massachusetts Association of Health Boards, acknowledges the actions of a few “rogue” boards have stirred controversy, but those decisions were made in consultation with other local leaders.
Sbarra points out that the state’s reopening plans discourage local health boards from enacting even tougher regulations. Enforcement of the rules will be largely complaint-driven, she added, and the state will have final say on any business closings.
Likewise, she doesn’t expect boards of health to be heavy handed with enforcement.
“We’re not going to be putting on night-vision goggles to see if there’s too many people in someone’s backyard Memorial Day party,” she said.
Richard MacDonald, Haverhill’s health and inspectional services director, said the reopening plans call for escalating enforcement, beginning with verbal warnings, then fines, then cease and desist orders.
“I don’t anticipate that we’ll need to go that far,” he said. “I think most people are going to be thrilled to be open and will want to comply.”
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com.