At a special meeting of Haddonfield’s board of health on Nov. 24, Mayor Neal Rochfordand his fellow commissioners, administrators and several health-care experts discussed the ramifications of the sudden, sharp rise in COVID cases both in the borough and the region.
Rochford revealed that he, as well as Commissioner for Public Safety Colleen Bianco Bezich, have received multiple complaints over the last several months regarding the lack of mask wearing in public — specifically children on playgrounds, preteens exiting Haddonfield Middle School, and teenagers who fail to don face coverings while riding bikes through town.
“I know, at times, all three of us have been frustrated with non-compliance of mask wearing, lack of social distancing and the increase with the young people (instances) of COVID,” Rochford said. “We need to be as proactive as possible to mitigate this.”
Both Rochford and Bezich related additional complaints about the lack of masks being worn in the high-density downtown core, particularly by runners and visitors to businesses on Kings Highway.
“I strongly believe that more messaging on mask wearing, particularly downtown, is necessary,” Bezich said. “But, it is nearly impossible to be 6 feet apart between pedestrians if you’re on the sidewalk and not walking in the street.”
Bezich also expressed concern over conversations regarding COVID couched in terms of death as the benchmark for the seriousness of the pandemic, as the scientific community still grapples with long-term and unknown effects of the virus.
Commissioner Jeffrey Kasko revealed that the virus has directly affected him, with one of his sons recently testing positive. During the meeting, he was in the midst of isolating himself, having tested negative. Rochford is also in a risk category, having fought a virulent strain of pneumonia early in 2019 that forced him to curtail his duties.
Scott Gabler, a cardiologist with Virtua Health, concurred with commissioners that, “masks would be the thing to do” in terms of an easy step to get visitors and residents actively involved with reducing infection.
With the onset of the holiday season — beginning with the traditional gatherings on Thanksgiving, through Christmas and New Year’s — the desire to congregate and be close to family and friends may override the urgency of the continuing public health crisis.
In the week from Nov. 17 to 24, the Camden County Department of Health reported 39 confirmed positive COVID cases in the borough, while the number of county-wide positives exploded in number to more than 1,000.
“In the last three weeks, I’ve had retailers tell me that multiple customers tried to come into their stores without masks,” Bezich related. “There really isn’t a margin for error if you’re a downtown business with people walking in off the street. “These aren’t big-box stores with their own private security to keep track of people and tell them you can’t come in without a mask.”
Nicole Gabler, an epidemiologist with Virtua, said, “the fact that (middle schoolers) are wearing them in school, and the spread that we’ve seen isn’t linked to the school, speaks to the safety of the school.”
Based on the revelation by Christopher Haines, a family and community medicine specialist with Jefferson University Hospitals, of studies that say outdoor transmission is 1/20th to 1/200th times less likely than indoor transmission, Rochford said he would rethink his initial desire to prohibit all access to outdoor locations in town.
“They’re happening, from what I can tell, not from going to school, or running to the store,” Kasko offered. “It’s happening from social gatherings. It’s happening from people getting together in small groups. You think five, six people, we’re fine. We’re indoors, so the risks are going to be heightened.”
Among the methods discussed to publicly encourage visitors who flock to the downtown core: improved infographics, outdoor hand-sanitizer stations, sandwich boards, signs on lampposts of light poles and notifications on borough Facebook and Twitter accounts. Funds for those measures are expected to come, in part, from the Partnership for Haddonfield.
Kasko did not venture an answer when asked what the budget for a project of that size and scope would entail.