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North Brookfield selectmen are planning a July Fourth celebration — despite the Board of Health’s objection

As cities and towns cancel large-scale events over COVID-19, officials in the small town west of Worcester are forging ahead.

A flag wet from the rain hung on a fence in North Brookfield, where selectmen are planning a July Fourth celebration despite the Board of Health's warnings.
A flag wet from the rain hung on a fence in North Brookfield, where selectmen are planning a July Fourth celebration despite the Board of Health's warnings.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

A patriotic laser light show. A parade up Main Street. Children’s activities on the common. Music, food, and drinks.

In North Brookfield, the Board of Selectmen is plowing ahead with plans for its “1st annual” Fourth of July extravaganza — one they say could attract around 250 revelers decked out in red, white, and blue.

But while some officials in the small Worcester County town are gung ho about the event, Board of Health members are calling on them to cancel it — as other Massachusetts communities with somewhat longer Independence Day traditions have done — citing the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

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And, perhaps predictably in these polarized times, the dispute over how to celebrate the nation’s independence in the town of around 5,000 residents is breaking along political lines.

The plan has widened an apparent rift between elected officials there, with members of the three-person Board of Selectmen arguing that if people were allowed to gather for a recent Black Lives Matter protest in North Brookfield, there’s no reason the town can’t host a communitywide celebration of the nation’s birth.

“The position of the board on this issue is, if Black Lives Matter can protest down the center of Main Street, on a sidewalk, all on top of each other, and congregate on a church common — all on top of each other — then the people of North Brookfield can march separated, down Main Street, onto the town common,” Dale Kiley, selectmen chairman, said at a June 23 meeting where the parade plans were discussed.

Kiley’s statement about the daylong event came in response to Board of Health member Ethan Melad’s recommendations to cancel it.

“I want to advise the Board of Selectmen to reconsider,” Melad said during the meeting. “A public gathering of this size with the attractions described . . . poses a serious health risk to North Brookfield residents, and is also in direct opposition to state regulations and guidance regarding COVID-19.

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“This is, without a doubt, in my opinion, not the time to risk the health and safety of people that you, the Board of Selectmen, claim to represent.”

Governor Charlie Baker’s June executive order prohibits “organized athletic or recreational events that gather large numbers of participants or spectators outdoors.”

The order does make an exception for “outdoor gatherings for the purpose of political expression,” but a Fourth of July parade and light show does not appear to qualify.

“The state’s reopening plan and emergency orders do not permit street festivals, agricultural festivals, and other large group celebrations until Phase 4due to the high risk of transmission these events pose,” said Anisha Chakrabarti, a Baker spokeswoman, “and the Department of Public Health has reached out to the Board of Selectmen to offer advice on options for safer ways to publicly mark the Fourth of July this weekend.”

Kiley said the selectmen view the July Fourth event as falling “squarely within the exemption,” even though “it’s not in any way a political statement” — the only thing the state order exempts.

“It implicates the First Amendment right to freely assemble,” he said, though a lawsuit challenging a similar ban on gatherings in New Hampshire on those grounds was swiftly rejected. “We view this as a right-to-assemble issue and that’s it.”

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Kiley said Democratic-leaning members of the health board are “the ones fomenting the problem” and making it about politics.

“They’re the ones that are making it a bigger issue than it had to be,” he said, adding that the selectmen are all on the “conservative side of the dial.”

The event in North Brookfield, a community that President Trump carried by about 20 percentage points in 2016, is being paid for mostly through donations, selectmen said. Funds from the town’s beach account will cover the cost of the laser show, Kiley said.

The controversy was first reported by the Worcester Telegram and Gazette on Sunday. According to the newspaper, the relationship between health officials and selectmen was already strained, specifically when it’s come to regulations around the pandemic.

Three days after the June 23 meeting, the Board of Health posted a message to its Facebook page reiterating its objection to the Fourth of July party. The post included attachments that the board said showed “a record of the [selectmen’s] decision to refuse to enforce any COVID-related orders from either the State or the BOH.” There was also a scathing statement admonishing selectmen.

“The Board of Health disclaims any and all liability which may be incurred from attendance at such an event,” said the statement, which recommended people wear masks and practice social distancing. “The Board of Selectman, in their capacity as elected officials, having the ‘Ultimate Authority,' are responsible for any and all consequences of such an event along with the Sponsors of said event.”

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In a phone interview, Melad said the health board had asked the state to intervene and offer guidance.

“We don’t feel that we as a board have an ability to enforce the regulations that we would like to,” he said. “We would like if the event didn’t happen, but we are hoping [the state] will step in and make it safe.”

Jason M. Petraitis, vice chairman of the selectmen, defended the decision to move ahead.

Petraitis said people who show up are being encouraged to stay 6 feet apart, based on state guidelines, and “if people want to attend and wear masks, great.”

Petraitis said he thinks that when it comes to COVID-19, “people should be cautious, but I don’t think you need to be overly scared.” He also criticized the health board for going “above and beyond” recommended guidelines when it comes to mask-wearing.

“I’m not trying to downplay the seriousness of this, because yes, people have died, and it’s serious,” he said. “But most of the people who have died from it have had underlying conditions.”

The pandemic has killed over 8,000 people in Massachusetts. State data so far have documented underlying conditions in 3,866 deaths through Sunday; nearly all the rest remain unknown or under investigation.

Petraitis said he didn’t see the difference between hosting a Black Lives Matter protest and a “parade that celebrates our country’s founding” in terms of crowds gathering outside.

“I am not condemning it,” he said, “but there was no uproar about that happening.”

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Fitzgerald Pucci, who helped organize the Black Lives Matter demonstration, said the selectmen’s choice to use the march as an argument for a July Fourth parade shows how “reactionary and short-sighted the culture still is.”

”When we marched, we intended to begin an uncomfortable conversation,” Pucci said in an e-mail. “A lot of us feel opposed to the selectmen’s choice to roll the dice with the town’s public health. I hope the selectmen take accountability and change their mind.”

For Doug Borowski, who has lived in North Brookfield for three years, what’s transpired between elected officials feels like “a microcosm of the controversy happening across the country.”

He said he has no plans to attend the July Fourth event, and believes selectmen have “mischaracterized” the Black Lives Matter rally, which he went to.

At a time when other states are seeing a sharp spike in COVID-19 cases, Borowski said, it’s not the time to “take the foot off the brake” here in Massachusetts.

“This is not a political issue,” he said. “It’s a public health issue and about following the science and the data.”


Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.