Vermont towns, cities can now institute local mask mandates
The sometimes polarizing debate over the benefits or pitfalls of mask mandates is headed to towns and cities across Vermont after lawmakers approved a bill Monday that authorizes municipal governments to enact local masking ordinances.
While the legislation has been billed as a “compromise” measure between Democratic lawmakers, who favor a statewide mask mandate, and Republican Gov. Phil Scott, who’s resisted calls to institute one, neither supporters nor opponents of mask mandates seemed mollified by passage of the bill.
Essex Rep. Tanya Vyhovsky said she worries the town-by-town approach will create geographic disparities in COVID transmission rates.
“I however do appreciate that there are a handful of towns that may be able to use this as a tool,” she said. “From that vein of harm reduction, I am forced to vote for a policy that I do not support on its merits because it is better than nothing at all. And this is an untenable position to be put in by the governor.”
As COVID case counts in Vermont climbed to new pandemic highs in recent weeks, Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint and House Speaker Jill Krowinski have ratcheted up calls on Scott to use his executive authority to institute a statewide indoor mask mandate.
In a letter to lawmakers last week, Scott told the Democratic leaders that, thanks to Vermont’s comparatively high vaccination rates, COVID-related hospitalization rates in the state are among the lowest in the nation.
And he said a mask mandate would intensify opposition among some Vermonters to following basic COVID-mitigation protocols, such as vaccines.
“And I believe confrontations over mandates, and the partisan politicization of these issues, ultimately delay the decisions we need these individuals to reach,” Scott said in the letter. “As such, I do not believe a mask mandate will have the impact you hope at this time.”
Scott, however, said he wouldn’t stand in the way of legislation that authorizes town selectboards and city councils to institute their own local masking ordinances. And Balint said Monday that lawmakers had a responsibility to take the governor up on his offer.
“We have families who are missing their work because they need to pick up children and be home with them to quarantine. We have childcare centers closing because of transmission rates,” Balint said. “What I hear from families across the state of Vermont is, we have to get transmission rates under control in order to return to some semblance of normalcy.”
The legislation gives wide latitude to municipalities over whether, and how, to institute local masking rules.
The bill says local mask requirements can apply to “locations open to the public,” but leaves it to local leaders to define what those public locations should include (though municipalities are forbidden from imposing mask requirements in public schools).
The bill also allows municipalities to decide whether to include enforcement mechanisms for lack of compliance with masking requirements. State law allows local governments to create civil or criminal sanctions for violations of local ordinances. Penalties for violating local masking requirements could include up to a one-year prison sentence, if local government officials chose to go that route.
Chittenden Rep. Jim Harrison said he went to Montpelier Monday planning to support the masking legislation. He said he was rethinking his vote after learning about the possibility of jail time for people who refused to comply with a masking ordinance.
No municipal leaders have indicated they plan to seek criminal sanctions for lack of compliance with a masking ordinance.
“I do not think we should have criminal penalties,” Harrison said.
Under the bill passed Monday, municipalities’ authority to institute mask mandates will expire on April 30, 2022. It’s unclear how many towns and cities will avail themselves of their new powers in the meantime.
Karen Horn, director of public policy at the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, said Friday that her organization is aware of about a half dozen municipalities that plan to pursue local masking ordinances.
Brattleboro Town Manager Peter Elwell told the Senate Committee on Government Operations that his town will be among them.
“Part of the reason why we feel so strongly, why I personally feel so strongly about this and officials in Brattleboro feel strongly about this is to create consistency within our community,” Elwell said.
Some lawmakers expressed concern Monday about saddling volunteer select boards with the intense pushback that can accompany debates over masking mandates.
Elwell, however, said that Brattleboro is prepared to moderate that conversation, even if it turns divisive.
“I think that’s a necessary part of the process,” Elwell said. “I don’t think that your policymaking and then our select board’s policymaking should be driven by the concern that there might be more contentiousness, but rather by … what you’re hearing in the substance of what people are saying in those conflicts.”
That contentiousness was on display outside the Statehouse Monday, where a group of about 50 anti-mask protestors greeted lawmakers as they entered the building.
Lyndonville resident Jay Iselin said mask mandates, statewide or local, violate citizens’ Fourth Amendment rights to be “secure in their persons.” And he said it was undemocratic for lawmakers to move forward with the legislation without opening the Statehouse for public comment.
“What’s happened? Why aren’t we going inside and speaking? Wouldn’t this be something that would be worthy of having a public hearing about? I should think so,” Iselin said.
Lawmakers heard testimony Monday that cast doubt on the utility of local masking ordinances as an effective COVID-mitigation measure.
Anne Sosin, a policy fellow at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center at Dartmouth College, said numerous studies have shown the effectiveness of statewide mask mandates at slowing the spread of COVID-19.
In a brief to lawmakers, however, she wrote that a town-by-town approach “will not work and is contrary to science.”
“A town-by-town approach falls short of the aggressive statewide strategies needed to address Vermont’s current public health crisis. Individuals, households, and communities live, learn, and work, and recreate across multiple communities, counties, and even state lines. Many schools draw students from several communities,” Sosin wrote. “Viral transmission does not respect town boundaries, and piecemeal policies to disrupt it will therefore be less effective.”
Scott, who issued the proclamation that allowed the Legislature to convene for a special session on Monday, threatened to veto any bill that veered beyond the delegation of mask-mandate authority to local governments.
Vyhovsky said lawmakers should be less concerned about those executive guardrails when they reconvene in January, “and immediately do better for Vermont to provide a science-driven response in line with the data that is demanding swift action.”