WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Board of Health on Monday agreed to suspend the town code requiring inspection of rental units between occupants in order to ease the workload on the health inspector during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jeff Kennedy brought the board the request, noting that, of course, he still would be required to conduct inspections in response to a complaint and that some landlords in town likely would request inspections.
But he asked that, for now, the requirement for inspection upon vacancy of a rental unit, as required by code, be suspended.
"I would ask the board, for the time being, to suspend -- not revoke, but suspend -- the code of the Town of Williamstown, Chapter 154, rental units, until either one, things ease up and we have time for them again or, two, we get so many complaints we're in danger that the housing stock is falling below standards, which I am not seeing," Kennedy said. "Depending on your pocketbook, of course, you get what you pay for, but the majority of rental units in town meet or exceed the housing code right now."
Kennedy pointed out that in addition to the new demands brought on by the pandemic, the position of health inspector has changed during his 25 years working for the town. Inspections of pools, food establishments, rental units and livestock and the role of sealers and weights and measures were spread among three different people.
"Now all that has devolved to me," Kennedy said. "I do all those things now. Something has to give. What can we give so I can get other things done? As you know, COVID is taking a lot of my time right now."
Kennedy said all rental units still have to meet state codes, and he would continue to have the option to issue fines and/or take the landlord to housing court if he becomes aware of violations.
When asked by a member of the board whether a suspension of the code would open the door to abuses, Kennedy reiterated that a majority of the town's more than 600 rental units already exceed the state code.
"Usually, somewhere down the line, if there is a problem, it will come to me as a complaint, and complaints, by state code, I have to inspect," he said.
The board agreed to suspend the requirement in the town code with an agreement to revisit the question in a year.
Kennedy's recent COVID-19 work included followup on reports his office heard about non-enforcement of face-covering requirements at the Dollar General on Main Street (Route 2).
"We received several complaints from unrelated people -- people who had no knowledge of each other's complaints," Kennedy said.
He said he contacted the store and the chain's corporate office to impress upon them the importance of following the regulations. A compliance check at the store over the weekend by members of the board found that everyone was wearing masks.
"A lot of it was a misconception because the employees at the Dollar General were saying, 'We're 6 feet apart,' " Kennedy said. "I explained that that doesn't matter. If you're inside and open to the public, you're masked.
"Simply put: Interior, masks. Exterior, if you can't maintain 6-foot social distance, wear a mask. Except on Spring Street because of its nature, the Board of Health is strongly encouraging masks at all times -- indoors and outdoors."
The town had been trying to get the message out about face coverings with sidewalk signage on Spring Street, but the friendly reminders were removed from the walkways after a pedestrian reported slipping on one of the decals, which had been ordered specifically for their non-slip properties and approved by the town's Department of Public Works.
Board member Win Stuebner said he would work with the graphic artist who designed the original messages to develop more signage that can be put on buildings. He also reported a resident recently had sent him photos of signage on lamp posts that is being employed in another part of the commonwealth.
"I had gotten positive remarks about the signs, the ones on the sidewalks, but if somebody slipped, you can't leave them there," Ruth Harrison said.
Harrison was elected the board's chair, and the panel resolved to hold her and future chairs to a limit of up to three years in the post in order to create more rotation than the board has seen in the past. Stuebner was named the vice chair.
And the board was introduced to an applicant to join group. Dr. Devan Bartels attended the virtual meeting. She has a citizen interest form pending at Town Hall, and the current members agreed to give her a positive recommendation to the town manager, who appoints members of the board.