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Towns, businesses have mixed reactions to local mask mandates after lawmakers give authority to municipalities

Blue surgical masks are stacked atop one another.
georgeclerk
/
iStockphoto
A pile of disposable, single-use face masks.

On Monday night, Winooski’s city council passed a local mask ordinance — the municipality is one of at least 14 in Vermont that have adopted some form of a mandate in two weeks since the Legislature passed a bill granting that authority to towns.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say face coverings can slow the spread of COVID-19 in communities, especially when combined with vaccinations, social distancing and frequent handwashing.

Though Gov. Phil Scott signed the bill into law, he’s repeatedly said he thinks mandates aren’t needed at this stage of the pandemic — and might even be counterproductive and cause division in communities.

Some of that tension was apparent last week in Burlington, where a band of anti-mask protesters heckled city councilors as they debated a mask mandate.

Vermont has seen record numbers of COVID infections and hospitalizations related to the virus in recent weeks. The data has spurred a renewed push for mask vigilance.

More from VPR: Reporter debrief: COVID hospitalizations hit an all-time high amid post-Thanksgiving surge

Ultimately, Burlington’s 12-member council unanimously passed the measure, which lets the city fine people who don’t mask up. The mandate requires face coverings in businesses and government buildings — however there is an exemption for restaurants, bars and gyms if they require customers to be vaccinated. The mandate also doesn’t apply to schools or houses of worship.

But not all towns are enacting mandates. In Hartford, the selectboard voted down a masking requirement. Not because it opposed masks, but because it didn’t think the town-by-town approach was effective.

"It would have been nice to get some leadership from the state," said selectboard member Michael Hoyt. "If this is a serious enough problem, mandate this for everybody. That’s probably better than having a patchwork of towns that all do things differently."

An hour south of Hartford, business owner Brenda Knock questioned how enforcement would work.

“It's hard to say ‘You should put this on,’ or ‘You shouldn't.” Like, I don't feel like I have the authority to tell people what to do," she said.

“It's hard to say ‘You should put this on,’ or ‘You shouldn't.” Like, I don't feel like I have the authority to tell people what to do," she said.
- Brenda Knock, owner of The B's Nest

Knock owns The B’s Nest boutique in Brattleboro — the first Vermont town to pass a local mask mandate under the new state law. The measure passed 4 to 1 the same day the governor signed the bill into law.

Knock says most locals were already masking up, and that it’s generally tourists from Massachusetts and New Hampshire who need reminding. But don’t expect Knock to do it in her shop.

“There are some people that don't want to wear it and I don't blame them. So I don't make them wear it," she said.

The town isn’t exactly forcing people to wear masks either. Elizabeth McLoughlin, chair of the Brattleboro Selectboard, told VPR the masking rule doesn’t have an enforcement mechanism.

"It's meant to be more than an encouragement... And I think now that we have this new variant, it's even more important that people renew their vigilance," she said.

"I have an autoimmune disease, so I need to be super, super careful. And I also feel like I have a really big responsibility for my employees and for my customers who come in to keep things safe and to do all I can to make it a safe and fun shopping experience."
- Loretta Palazzo, owner of Boomerang

Some business owners don’t mind being responsible for holding customers accountable on masks. Loretta Palazzo of Boomerang clothing store compared it to kicking someone out of her shop who’s causing a scene.

“If somebody shoplifts I also have that same right. So why would something that's a health risk — why wouldn't we be able to make that decision for our business to keep it safe? That makes no sense at all," she said.

The ordinance isn’t a huge change for Palazzo, who already required masks in her store.

"I have an autoimmune disease, so I need to be super, super careful," she said. "And I also feel like I have a really big responsibility for my employees and for my customers who come in to keep things safe and to do all I can to make it a safe and fun shopping experience."

Palazzo wishes the governor supported a statewide mask mandate, particularly with Vermont’s recent COVID surge. But she’s still grateful Scott signed the bill giving municipalities the option.

A handful of towns are scheduled to consider their own mask mandates in coming days, including Montpelier, Norwich and Richmond.

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