Local health department directors and board members say they’re being bombarded with increasingly ugly outbursts during public meetings, as well as nasty e-mails and threatening phone calls.
Several have quit.
The vitriol, which includes antisemitic attacks targeting Jewish officials, comes as state-level mask mandates ease, and decisions about how much longer to keep rules in place falls to city and town health departments, already weary from months of tense exchanges during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“In all my years I have never seen it as divided and contentious,” said Rae Dick, Westford’s health director, who has been with the department for 16 years.
Dick said one call to her department earlier this winter stands out. The caller, hurling obscenities, said an anti-mask group was going to release personal information and the home addresses of the town’s Board of Health members and get people to camp outside their homes.
That “was certainly unnerving,” said Dick, who also is president of the Massachusetts Health Officers Association. The information was released but the sit-in never materialized. Now a group is circulating an online petition calling for the entire health board to resign.
The Baker administration announced earlier this month that masks will no longer be required in Massachusetts schools as of Feb. 28, just as tens of thousands of students will be returning to class from school vacation week when many travel. More recently, the administration loosened its recommendation on indoor masking in public places, advising that it is only necessary for certain groups of people, including those who are unvaccinated or at risk of serious illness.
The administration said city and town leaders could set their own masking rules. Local officials are finding that a blessing and a curse.
In Abington, Marty Golightly, the town’s health director, resigned late last month after weeks of testy exchanges with residents who have opposed the town’s indoor mask rules. Golightly, who still lives in Abington, said in a brief phone call he is just trying to move on with his life and declined further comment.
Across Massachusetts, the exodus from such battering and burnout over the past year includes health directors from Framingham, Oak Bluffs, and East Longmeadow, which also saw two of its three health board members resign amid mask debates. The Franklin County town of Buckland also lost one board member.
The rising tide against local health departments and members of health boards, many of whom serve as volunteers, is not unique to Massachusetts.
“These threats have taken a toll: at least 300 public health department leaders have left their posts since the pandemic began, impacting 20% of Americans,” Lori Tremmel Freeman, chief executive of the National Association of County and City Health Officials, wrote in an October letter to the US attorney general.
“In many cases, they have been verbally abused and physically threatened. Their personal information has been shared, their families targeted, and their offices attacked,” she wrote.
Cheryl Sbarra, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Health Boards, witnessed such tensions first-hand several weeks ago when she was invited to an Abington health board meeting that was abruptly adjourned when residents upset about the town’s mask ordinance kept talking loudly out of order and obtrusively filming the session.
“We had to wait in the board of health room [after residents left] because tempers were so high,” Sbarra said. “And then they were waiting for us in the parking lot because they wanted to continue this diatribe against public health.”
She said she has heard from at least one health director in Western Massachusetts who received threatening calls in the middle of the night. And she’s heard from several others unsure about their legal authority to extend mask mandates past the end of February and uneasy about public anger if they do.
In Lexington, where the tenor of public debate has been largely civil, the health board recently opted to continue the town’s indoor mask mandate until March 15 for a cushion of extra time in case there’s a spike in COVID cases after school vacation week.
That decision didn’t sit well with some. In the span of just 40 minutes the next day, the board’s chair, Wendy Heiger-Bernays, received a barrage of angry e-mails from unhappy residents.
Increasingly, the board has been tested trying to “balance the rights of the loud people and the rights of those who don’t speak up,” said Heiger-Bernays, who also is a professor of environmental health at Boston University’s School of Public Health
In Salem, public health officials have been targeted by threats and antisemitic messages in recent weeks. Dr. Jeremy Schiller, Salem’s Board of Health chairman, said the once-sporadic e-mails became daily hate mail when the city reinstated a mask mandate and enacted a proof of vaccination requirement for many businesses in December. Many e-mails he received compared the city’s COVID rules to the Holocaust, while some contained antisemitic statements directed at him.
Two days before the board was set to debate ending requirements in February, protesters gathered in front of his home.
Schiller also learned that his name was being shared on far right websites accompanied by antisemitic remarks. Voicemails had been left with the department, too, featuring antisemitism and threats. An image of a Jewish star, similar to the ones worn on armbands to identify Jewish people during the Holocaust, was e-mailed to a member of the health department.
“What makes me feel most unsafe is not these people,” Schiller said. “What worries me and makes me feel unsafe are the people who are silent or don’t think this is a big deal or aren’t supportive of the fight against this stuff.”
In Northampton, Jewish public health officials have also been barraged with antisemitism. Joanne Levin, chair of Northampton’s Board of Health, said days after the board discussed a mask mandate in August, posters with her face and name were hung around town. “Meet your local tyrant,” the posters said.
In December, Levin was confronted during a meeting’s public comment period via Zoom. When the board called on a person to speak, the voice was synthesized and robotic, Levin said. Then the person changed their profile image to a swastika with writing below that said “Jews will not replace us.”
“First it was shock, then I was so sad that people can be so misinformed and embrace hate,” Levin said. “My fear is then they are empowered to speak up and perform acts of violence.”
In Westford, during an hour-long debate Thursday night about the town’s mask mandate, one health board member described her frustration from months of residents accusing her and other board members of being “liars, case-counting bureaucrats, [and] tyrannical,” for enacting the mandate earlier.
“I have been very uncomfortable with the anger and lies told about me and my fellow board members,” Susan Hanly, said.
“I have tried hard to live by the adage, ‘Treat others as you would want to be treated,’” she said. “Or as Martin Richards, the youngest victim of the Boston Marathon Bombing said, ‘No more hurting people. Peace.’”
The board then voted 3 to 2 to immediately lift the town’s mask mandate, but extend it until March 7 for its schools.