Amherst, UMass officials tout education, not punishment, for mask scofflaws

AMHERST — Town and University of Massachusetts officials said Thursday their goal is to educate students about wearing masks and social distancing, instead of punishing them with fines or expulsion from school.

The Amherst Board of Health has made masks mandatory downtown because of dangers posed by COVID-19 pandemic.

During an hour-long online forum Thursday, Amherst Police Chief Scott Livingston said a person refusing to wear a mask would not be fined.

He also said police will maintain a database on all calls related to people not wearing masks, and that they hope to learn from the data.

“Officers are trained to deescalate a situation, rather than let something spiral out of control, the chief said.

“If someone is adamant about not wearing a mask, we are not going to force the issue,” Livingstone said.

Police officers “will not be getting into situations when it becomes confrontational at all,” he said.

The town has begun a program that involves college students monitoring face mask compliance downtown. A hotline was created for anyone to report noncompliance with the mask order and social distancing.

The students, called ambassadors, are trained to encourage compliance with the mandate, and provide educational materials on social distancing and mask wearing.

“I feel very strongly about this program and feel it will be successful,” Livingstone said.

According to Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman, to date, 40 complaints have been logged via the new hotline.

A question directed to the university during the forum asked if students could be suspended from school for failing to wear a mask.

“Yes, that can include suspension as an option,” said Brandi Hephner LaBanc, vice chancellor for student affairs and campus life.

But, LaBanc said, “leading with punishment doesn’t really solve the problem.”

She and other school officials stressed that building awareness about COVID-19 is the most productive approach.

School officials said they have conducted 20,000 tests for the disease in the past 17 days.

“We are undertaking extraordinary measures” to keep the community safe, said John Kennedy, vice chancellor for university relations.

“We are acutely aware how our decisions affect Amherst,” he said.

Deputy Chancellor Steve Goodwin said planning for the spring semester will be based on metrics including the local transmission rate for the disease.

A “low level of virus transmission will impact what we do in the spring,” he said.

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