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Block Island may get tough on mandatory masks

I turned up over the weekend for the seasonal start of fast ferry service from New London to Block Island, to check on passenger mask wearing.

Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo last week chastised passengers on the Block Island Ferry out of Point Judith for not wearing masks, warning that it threatened the island's precarious situation in a pandemic: there is no hospital on the island.

She was responding to pictures that have been circulating of many maskless passengers on the crowded ferries to Block Island.

A war on the topic began raging on social media soon after news reports of the governor's comments, as islanders pleaded with visitors to respect their health measures. Many responded in posts they would stop visiting the island.

The island's Town Council last week ordered the drafting of an ordinance requiring masks for everyone everywhere in public on the island, inside and outside.

Councilors will consider it at their meeting Wednesday. They are responding to reports of no masks on the ferries and on the crowded streets around Old Harbor.

At first, as I checked on mask wearing for the Block Island Express ferry in New London over the weekend, the situation looked good. Every single passenger I saw hand over a ticket at the boat's gangway was wearing a mask.

But then, as they emerged on the boat's large top sun deck, the masks were largely gone. By the time the boat left the dock, barely anyone on the crowded top deck was wearing a mask.

I could hear, even as so many mingled around the deck not wearing masks, the boat's recorded announcement that masks were required at all times.

I couldn't tell whether passengers inside, behind the tinted windows, were wearing masks. I also don't know whether ferry staff might have circulated later through the crowds, asking for compliance.

I was on a ferry out of Point Judith earlier in the season, and there was no attempt by the crew to make those not wearing masks put one on.

Indeed, no one on the crew put a stop to a cooler party on the top deck, in which passengers without masks were passing around fresh cocktails made openly from a big bottle of Tito's vodka.

I was puzzled why Raimondo chose to scold the ferry passengers and not the Point Judith-based ferry for the lack of mask compliance. In fact, she complimented the ferry company for making recorded announcements and adding another boat to reduce crowding.

Is it that hard to send crew members around to remind people to keep masks on?

The passengers I saw waiting for and riding public buses in New London on the weekend, just beyond the ferry property, were all wearing masks. I'm sure the drivers enforce it.

"I was in my car (thank goodness) on the 5 p.m. ferry last night, and there were so many maskless people squished together. It felt like everyone was treating their day trip like a trip away from precautions," said one of the many posters on the topic on the Block Island Times Facebook page.

Some posters said they saw good mask compliance.

Some residents noted in their posts that the island remained COVID-19-free at the outset of the tourist season, partly as a result of diligent quarantine rules through the spring.

Some expressed alarm at the crowds without masks because the ferry is the only means off and on the island for some with underlying medical conditions that make them more vulnerable. Some island residents regularly ride the ferry for chemotherapy treatments on the mainland, the posters said.

I am continually surprised by the rude and aggressive behavior of people who refuse to abide by mask rules intended to protect others. It's not brave or macho or an assertion of your personal liberty to accept the protections others provide you and not reciprocate.

You might as well spit on strangers. It's the same thing in my mind, worse if you might be contagious in these strange times.

To do it on an island where you are a guest seems especially egregious.

This is the opinion of David Collins.


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