Citing health concerns, Westborough officials hesitant to approve religious gathering at state hospital property

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By Jennifer L. Grybowski, Contributing Writer

Westborough  – The Board of Selectmen met jointly with the Board of Health July 14 to consider a request from resident Muhammad Ramzan to host upwards of 2,000 people at the Westborough State Hospital property on Saturday, Aug. 1 for Eid, a Muslim religious celebration. Eid marks the end of a month of fasting from dawn to sunset, as well as spiritual reflection and prayer.

Ramzan, a physician at UMass and member of the Worcester Islamic Center, said his congregation was looking for an outdoor facility to conduct a 30- to 45-minute religious service where worshippers would observe all health parameters such as enforcing social distancing and requiring face coverings. People would then leave the venue to engage in celebrations with family or friends on their own. Although they typically draw 3,000 to 4,000 people to such an event, he said due to the pandemic, he expected about half of that number.

He had been in touch with town department heads the previous week.

“We are hoping this will be a wonderful and quick event, and town officials have been very supportive,” Ramzan said.

Both boards had several concerns about the proposal.

“We are trying to make sure two things happen: we are in full compliance, and the event happens safely,” Board of Health Chair Nathan Walsh said.

Walsh also pointed to the complexity of the guidelines, saying the state tends to release things piecemeal and often with overlapping guidance. He said while there are a lot less restrictions for outdoor events, there are some sector specific guidances that overrule the general guidances. Because of that, he reached out to the Department of Labor Standards and the Department of Public Health for specific feedback about this event. The response back was that events are limited to 100 people, even in a large space like the one at the hospital.

“I’ve asked them to go back and see if that’s truly the case,” Walsh said. “We can continue this discussion, but right now the state in this phase 3 step 1, they are saying large venues are not allowed right now.”

He said he had another call scheduled with them Friday, July 17 for an update.

 

Health concerns

Board of Health Member Alan Erlich asked if the event might be split into two separate events to decrease the number of people present at one time, and if people could sign up in advance so that they can get better idea of the number of people attending. Ramzan was amendable to both of those requests. Walsh said a list of people would be a requirement, so if the event had to be canceled due to weather, people will be informed. Further, he said, in the event anyone was infected, the list would be required to be submitted to the Board of Health to be used as contact tracing. Walsh also told Ramzan that there would need to be bathroom facilities of some type, and either hand-washing stations or adequate hand sanitizer.

“Even if the governor says this is OK, we have the right to have more stringent criteria in town if we consider it the best health and safety of the community,” Erlich said.

Selectman and Board of Health Member Syed Hashmi said he did not think any requirements would be enough.

“I am deeply, deeply concerned about this event from multiple angles,” he said. “Let us not forget the rest of the country is experiencing a huge increase in numbers. We are about to host potentially a ‘superspreader’ event. It puts not only Westborough residents at risk but members of the congregation at risk. I understand emotionally the need to hold an event like this but I would humbly say this is not the time to be doing something like this. It puts a huge risk on all concerned and I’m asking is it truly worth the price.”

 

Parking

Ramzan said he thought the biggest issue to coordinate was going to be parking. Police Chief Jeffrey Lourie agreed.

“I do have some concerns,” He said. “This is a very tight venue, and we are going to be shutting down Route 9 just to clear that area out. It’s also high school graduation that day. It’s going to be tight.”

He noted that for the Buddy Walk, which draws 500 to 600 people, they have 80 volunteers parking people and they plan for months for those logistics. He also noted that during that event, people are coming and going all day, not bottlenecking in and out at the same time.

“I’ll need some people on the ground,” Lourie said. “It will be difficult for us to facilitate, but we will do whatever we can to assist.”

Potential parking areas and the potential number of cars able to be parked were discussed, and several members requested a traffic plan and people flow plan. In addition, use of the property by large members of the public lately, access to the road by residents in the area, and access to the road by emergency personnel were all discussed.

“I want to see a plan that is built from the bottom up, not the top down,” Selectman Allen Edinberg said. “What can this venue support safely?”

Walsh said there also needed to be considerations about how to get people from the parking to the prayer area, and then back to their cars, noting that extensive planning had been required to facilitate last month’s Town Meeting.

“And we don’t want to just make this about how many cars will fit,” he said. “We don’t want people carpooling if they don’t live in the same house.”

 

Other concerns

Board of Selectmen Chair Shelby Marshall said her biggest concern is the timing, and the time needed to plan it.

“I would love to see this event happen,” she said. “I think given that we are in a pandemic, we just can’t do in a safe and thoughtful manner to protect everyone. It’s prime vacation time for our departments; I think we are setting ourselves up for having this not be a successful event”

She said regardless of what happened this year, she would encourage them to come back next year.

Johnson agreed.

“I really want this to happen,” he said. “Events like this are exactly why we bought the state hospital property. I just think trying to get answers in the time it’s going to take and effort it’s going to take within two weeks just seems crazy.”

Edinberg also agreed about the timeframe of planning.  He also pointed out it all comes back to if the DPH even approves the event.

“It’s a lot of work,” he said. “This is putting a lot of demand on town officials and staff.”

Walsh agreed.

“I’m nervous and scared about a 4,000 person event and having things go wrong and having Westborough be labeled as having failed in our duty as board of health to protect the public,” he said.

Hashmi also agreed.

“Our mission statement is to prevent and control the spread of disease,” he said. “That’s job number one for us. We are in the middle of a pandemic. For an event of this size, with two weeks to go, I think this is the wrong time to be doing this. I think it puts everyone at risk and if something were to go wrong, it would be devastating.”

Ramzan said he was grateful for the discussion and would take information from the meeting back to his congregation and see if they think the event is possible.

“We are working together,” he said. “This cooperation, this is the way we accomplish things so there is a message of positive of humanity and working together that how diverse of a town it is, while obviously not compromising any safety issues because the last thing we want to do is for any community member to infected or be part of spread