Masks now required in public on Block Island

OFFICIALS ON BLOCK ISLAND have passed a mandate requiring masks to be worn in public, regardless of distance from other individuals. / PBN FILE PHOTO/CASSIUS SHUMAN

NEW SHOREHAM – The wearing of face masks is now required on Block Island.

After an hour-and-a-half of deliberations, the New Shoreham Town Council voted unanimously on Wednesday night to require people to wear face masks at all times in public on the island. Noncompliance of the town’s emergency ordinance will result in a violation and a fine of up to $50 for each offense.

The town’s ordinance differs from the State of Rhode Island’s guidelines, which mandates that masks be worn when in a public place, both indoors and outdoors, by stipulating that masks be worn regardless of social distancing of six feet. The town will also be responsible for enforcing the ordinance, while the state’s mandate is being enforced by the R.I. Department of Health.

“I just want people to wear their darn masks,” said Councilor Martha Ball during the meeting. “People are given a warning while traveling on the ferry.” The Block Island Ferry announces its safety requirements at the beginning, middle and end of each of its trips and has signage posted all over its boats.

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Second Warden Andre’ Boudreau said that Interstate Navigation, the company that operates the Block Island Ferry, requires passengers to wear a mask. The issue of noncompliance “is a complete disrespect for what we are trying to do here.” Town officials have been trying to protect the island from infiltration of COVID-19 since the pandemic began. One case of the virus has been reported on the island.

New Shoreham officials were spurred to act by reports and concerns that masks were not being worn by people traveling on the Block Island Ferry, and when visiting shops on Water Street in Old Harbor. Noncompliance has been putting business owners in an uncomfortable position since they are compelled to ask people to put on their masks.

Councilor Sven Risom, who handed out informational pamphlets while greeting visitors at the Old Harbor dock last weekend, said he witnessed about a 20 to 25 percent non-compliance rate. “I don’t think people are aware of the Rhode Island state law,” he said.

“We have our hands full,” said New Shoreham Chief of Police Vin Carlone, who noted that it’s the “young people” who are being noncompliant. “People are not very agreeable,” he said. “And I think as the summer progresses there will be bigger issues.”

Carlone said that what exacerbates the issue from a law enforcement standpoint is that, “People are afraid of the police now. There is an anti-police sentiment in this country. We are going to have to assess the situation on a week-by-week basis and develop a plan.”

“I am not looking forward to the 4th of July,” said Councilor Chris Willi. “I don’t know what this is going to look like.”

Gloria Redlich, senior coordinator of the town’s Senior Advisory Committee, said the island’s seniors have “serious concerns” about the noncompliance issue. She urged the town council to mandate masks. “We have people traveling on the ferry and walking the streets who have not been wearing masks,” she said.

Interim Town Manager Jim Kern said, “There is a certain mentality that once people get off the boat that they are in beach mode.” The town needs to work against the perception that “life’s a beach” on Block Island.

“I agree with the life’s a beach attitude,” said Cindy Lasser, executive director of the Block Island Chamber of Commerce, whose office is in close proximity to the ferry dock at Old Harbor. “I think the number of noncompliance is higher than 20%. I see crowds and crowds of people without masks. I just don’t think people are aware” of the state law.

Lasser said she has been getting “many, many more” phone calls than in prior years from people wondering if they can visit the island. “It’s constant,” she said. “They have no idea that they can come here.”

The Block Island Tourism Council issued a press release on Monday, “officially welcoming the summer season.” It noted that 95 percent of the island’s businesses were open, and the community wanted to “welcome back guests and visitors in the safest, most responsible way possible. In short, welcome to Block Island Summer, leave your troubles behind, but not your mask.”

Cassius Shuman is a staff writer and researcher at PBN. You may reach him at

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