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When Westerly Police Chief Shawn Lacey chatted with Rhode Island Gov. Daniel McKee during a tour of the COVID-19 regional vaccination clinic at the Westerly Senior Center on April 7, neither of them could have predicted the region’s municipalities would be breaking records for positive tests well into 2022. With the rapid-fire onset of the omicron variant, towns are making tough calls that blur the lines between safety and commerce or education.

Members of the North Stonington Board of Selectmen aren’t quite ready to order a full mask mandate in town, but officials are continuing to monitor circumstances, are requiring visitors to town hall to mask up, and will be revisiting discussions during the board’s next regular meeting later this month.

To the east in Rhode Island, some Richmond town departments, including the town clerk's office, have closed to in-person visits and are working remotely. Hopkinton has moved to requiring masks for all visitors to Town Hall regardless of vaccination status, and all Rhode Island towns are working with state recommendations that municipal meetings be conducted virtually to avoid spreading COVID-19.

For communities in southeastern Connecticut and southwestern Rhode Island, the struggle to manage the explosion in post-holiday COVID-19 cases has led officials to seek a balance that will protect residents and staff without hurting businesses. It’s been a challenge, leaders in Stonington, Richmond, Hopkinton and North Stonington said this week, and one that has led to the return of some restrictions and virtual meetings as towns seek to curb the spread of the new omicron variant without any additional closures.

“We are trying to do what is best for everyone, and it is a difficult balance to find,” said North Stonington First Selectman Robert Carlson. “We want residents to be safe and we urge them to take precautions, but it has been a difficult economy for businesses to navigate and we don’t want to add unnecessary stress to an already complex situation.”

For the North Stonington Board of Selectmen, the issue came before members on Tuesday evening at the residence of a local woman. The woman had approached Carlson at a recent mask distribution, he said, and asked that the item be added to the agenda.

In an effort to remain both transparent and to encourage public participation, Carlson said the board chose to discuss the matter. The result was a shared belief among selectmen that it would be ineffective and inefficient to implement a mask mandate right now, aside from requiring masks inside town-owned buildings.

Businesses throughout the region are already looking to bounce back after a full economic shutdown less than two years ago, and both Carlson and North Stonington Selectman Brett Mastroianni said adding new restrictions could cause a reduction in customers, could potentially create disturbances and may contribute undue stress without any guaranteed impact.

Carlson has reached out to surrounding communities, including Ledyard, Preston and Voluntown, and found that while all three towns had a mandate for their town halls, there were no restrictions or requirements for businesses. Furthermore, he said it would be incredibly difficult for either the town or small businesses to enforce such a mandate.

“If the other towns aren’t doing it, then it really impacts our ability to enforce something like this. People cross town lines everyday, and there is a risk with a mandate that those who do business in North Stonington may look elsewhere.

It was a hard decision for Selectwoman K. Nicole Porter, a nurse manager of surgical and procedures at Backus Hospital, who said the need for masks really hits home. She said as a health professional, she sees the negative impact every day and believes masks are an important tool in keeping people healthy and safe.

She also acknowledged that the latest spike has seemingly “reached a crest” and that a mandate now would likely be somewhat ineffective. She said it will be important for the town to monitor, however, expressing concerns regarding potential rise in both flu and COVID-19 cases, a trend currently being seen in South Africa.

“We are going to need to pay attention and may need to revisit this idea around the end of February,” she said.

Just south in Stonington, there hasn’t been a whole lot of change in restrictions. Visitors to Town Hall are asked to consider wearing a mask when visiting and are offered one if they arrive without one, First Selectman Danielle Chesebrough said, although a mandate is not in place.

Those who attend town meetings are also asked to wear a mask right now, allowing everyone to attend without worry, she said.

“Right now, we are also finalizing plans for distribution of N95 masks in town. We will have about 2,000 extra masks once we have addressed needs for schools, first responders and town staff,” she said.

Once available, the masks will be offered on a first-come, first-serve basis during Town Hall business owners. Residents are asked to limit what they take to leave masks available for neighbors as well.

For other communities, including Richmond, efforts to mitigate the surge's impact have only been so successful with the high transmission rate of omicron. That resulted in a shift in operations on Tuesday, with the town clerk’s office moving to remote business only for the near future due to concerns over exposure and illness.

Richmond Town Council President Nell Carpenter said officials are continuing to monitor the number of cases in the community and risk of transmission and will do what they can to assure that everyone is able to remain safe. She said the town would continue to reevaluate operations daily and would be open for in-person interactions once it is safe to do so.

In coming weeks, the town will also continue to look at additional ways to protect residents without infringing on businesses and access to government. She said she will continue to work with Town Administrator Karen Pinch, who has taken the lead on the issue.

“We will do everything in our power to protect the community and our staff. The one promise we can make is that we will take every measure possible to keep people safe,” Carpenter said.

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