New Haven suspends mask monitoring plan

Local musician Smitty has been featured in the city’s Mask Up campaign, among growing efforts to stem the spread of the coronavirus.

New Haven City Hall has ended a planned “mask census” to track the number of people wearing COVID protective face covers – then determine how to get more of them to comply.

Less than an hour after the Independent first published an article about the new census, city spokesman Gage Frank told the Independent that the program was now “on hold.”

“We saw some concern from residents,” he said of the reason for the sudden hiatus in the program, which was still in the planning stage and had not yet been implemented. In practice.

“It was just about targeting the messages” to encourage the appropriate use of the mask, he said. It was designed as a way to measure mask use by direct observation, as opposed to phone calls and surveys.

For now, at least, the plan has been scrapped.

City Hall is planning a “mask census” to understand how many people across the city are wearing COVID protective face coverings – and then find out how to get more to comply.

The program is not yet operational, Mayor Justin Elicker and city deputy general manager Rebecca Bombero told Independent Friday.

Bombero, who is the coordinator of the fledgling effort, said recent contacts with alders and community management teams have resulted in only one volunteer signing up to help. Now she and her team are coming together to find the best way to proceed. She said the program will likely rely on city employees rather than volunteers to do the data collection work.

A parallel effort to recruit volunteers for a new senior telephone banking program has been more successful. (See more on this below.)

CAD assistant Becky Bombero. (File photo by Thomas Breen.)

If and when the mask count program rolls out, here’s the plan:

A volunteer or city staff member will be dispatched to a busy part of the city where, by order of the state, masks must be worn – such as at a bus stop, train station or near the entrance of a store.

Bombero said the mask enumerator will be stationed a safe distance from other people, likely in a vehicle or in a chair.

They will track how many people they see, how many are wearing masks and how many are wearing masks correctly, for example on the mouth and nose, rather than on the chin.

The enumerator will then enter these figures in a follow-up sheet to be aggregated and analyzed by the town hall.

Elicker and Bombero both compared the effort to the one-off pedestrian counts that organizations like the Town Green Special Services District take to track changes in the number of people walking through the city center, and to use that as a proxy for economic health and potential business. impact.

“We have anecdotes,” Elicker said of mask compliance across town. “We don’t have any data. The city can react better with the data.

Bombero agreed, noting that such a mask count effort will provide “just one more metric we can follow on how best to respond to the pandemic.”

How to use this generalized data?

Bombero and Elicker said this could inform the type of educational campaigns the city might want to put in place to encourage proper mask wearing. It can also result in targeted mask distribution events.

Bombero said the program was inspired in part by federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations on collecting observational mask-wearing data. For months, public health experts have promotes mask wear as one of the most effective tools to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. The state requires residents to wear masks whenever in public and unable to maintain a distance of at least six feet from others.

“The goal is to find out if people in general are wearing masks and are wearing masks correctly,” Elicker said. “Do we have to change our messaging? Do we need to do more awareness? Are things going well? There is no intention of monitoring businesses or getting anyone into trouble. It’s just to get a sense over time of how people’s behavior has changed when it comes to wearing masks to guide our decisions ”in education and awareness.

This spring, the city launched a “Hide” campaign, with notice boards posted around the city showing prominent locals (like Smitty, above) wearing sports masks.

Elicker: No “Surveillance”. Cousin: always suspicious

Mayor Elicker: It’s not about surveillance.

Elicker and Bombero stressed that the program is not really about individual follow-up.

This will not result in citations or fines for those who do not wear masks.

While the city is amend companies up to $ 100 if employees are caught not wearing masks at work, this mask census program is not about law enforcement but rather data collection and education, they said.

A city staff member sent an email to local clergy earlier this week encouraging them to solicit volunteers for a so-called “mask watch” program. The city subsequently removed the word “surveillance” from any online reference to the program.

Elicker said that “the use of the word ‘surveillance’ by a staff member is not an accurate representation of everything we are trying to do. We try to guide our decision making ”with data. Don’t keep an eye on individuals.

Photo by Sam Gurwitt

Rev. Cousin. (Photo by Sam Gurwitt.)

Reverend Bethel AME, Steven Cousin, told The Independent that seeing the word “surveillance” in reference to this mask compliance program in an email from the city initially raised many concerns. Which neighbors will the city be watching? Who will be targeted? If the numbers don’t match what the city wants, will there be appeals, citations, fines?

“We understand about Covid and how the numbers are increasing,” he said. “But especially in the African American community, we’re always going to look at it from a different perspective, on how that could be another way of monitoring ourselves and trying to get unwanted attention.”

In a follow-up call after this reporter spoke to Elicker and Bombero about how this program actually works – its widespread data collection, not individual tracking – Cousin said the mask count effort was ringing in the air. theory. But in practice, he said, observation, data collection and subsequent analysis will only delay outreach and education work that can be done more immediately by the town hall.

“If it’s about the safety of masks and people wearing masks properly,” he said, “why not go to those areas and hand out face masks while they’re there? This is how you educate people, through this personal one-on-one intervention.

Cousin cited Dixwell entrepreneur Rodney Williams mask gifts all over town as a model for what he would like to see from the city. “Go out into vulnerable neighborhoods and distribute free masks,” he said. “I would love to see the city do something like this”, where they know people gather – that is, at bus stops or train stations or near popular stores – and distribute on those sites and talk to people who don’t have masks.

“Given the history of this country, it’s always going to be greeted with a sort of skepticism, especially in the African American community, ”he said of mass data collection. “It may sound harmless.” But that doesn’t mean everyone will greet him that way.

Telephone calls to seniors

Residents of the Bella Vista Seniors Complex line up to vote. (Photo by Courtney Luciana.)

While only one person has signed up to volunteer for the still-ongoing mask counting program, Bombero said, the city has already recruited 13 volunteers to help with its new telephone banking program for seniors. This pandemic-era awareness effort has volunteers. make regular phone calls to seniors across town to educate them about the current high risks of transmitting the novel coronavirus, the importance of staying safe and home when possible, and connecting them with resources like nurses, The “hot line” of the Clifford Beers clinic, and free meal distribution programs.

Bombero said the town had the phone numbers of about 7,500 older people in the area and that the volunteers had made about 1,000 phone calls in the past two weeks.

Elicker said the city had a similar program in place during the first wave of the pandemic this spring. “The goal is to check people’s mental health,” he said. “To see if they have basic needs in food and things like that. To make sure people know we’re in the red and to let people know about testing sites. “

Volunteers take notes on every call they make, Bombero said, and then she and her team go through those notes to see what kind of follow-up they need to provide based on those conversations.

This story was first published on November 20, 2020 by the Independent from New Haven.

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