MONTPELIER — As Vermont moves toward a gradual re-opening of retail starting Monday, Gov. Phil Scott emphasized the importance of wearing facial coverings, but continued to stop short of requiring customers to wear them.
Scott also confirmed at a scheduled press conference Wednesday that he intends to extend Vermont's state of emergency in relation to COVID-19 on Friday, the day it was to have expired.
"I know some would like to mandate masks for everyone, but I continue to believe we'll have better outcomes if we focus on why wearing a mask when you're around others in public is so important," Scott said. "That's why we'll continue to encourage mask use, and help people understand wearing it helps keep others safe, if we're sick and don't know it yet."
Scott said he believes a mandate has the potential to create "controversy and resistance" that might not be seen with an "educational approach."
"Plus, what we're actually seeing is the use of masks continues to increase," he said. "And that's a good sign that this approach is working."
He said the state will continue to watch this through the first phase of re-opening.
"If we find this approach isn't working, and retailers want this to be mandatory for all, we'll consider it before the next phase," he said.
Scott also said he intends to announce "a few more adjustments" on Friday, and provide a sense of where the state might go next over the next couple of weeks.
Like 'car keys and wallets'
Previous re-opening efforts in Vermont have included requiring employees to wear face coverings; this has been encouraged for customers, but not required by the state,
Other states, including Massachusetts and New York, have imposed orders requiring facial coverings.
New York's order, which went into effect April 17, requires any person over age 2 who is medically able to tolerate a face covering to wear one in a public when they are unable to maintain, or are not maintaining, social distancing.
Massachusetts' order, which went into effect May 6, authorizes fines of up to $300 per violation. It requires all those over age 2 to wear a facial covering in public when not maintaining social distancing, or when social distancing is not possible to maintain.
Regarding the effectiveness of facial coverings, evidence is late in coming, but it is accumulating, said Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine at the press conference.
Masks do seem to reduce respiratory droplet transmission, but compliance must be high for this strategy to work, he said.
"Since we don't know if or when we are in a pre-symptomatic stage of COVID-19, this is a habit we all need to adopt," he said. "Taking our mask with us when we go out is as important as taking our car keys and wallets."
Levine also corrected guidance he gave at a press conference on Monday regarding those who should not wear masks; these include children under age 2 and those with difficulty breathing, but pregnant women should wear them.
Levine said when he went to a large supermarket on Monday evening, he saw 100 percent compliance with mask-wearing, which he appreciated.
The state should also learn from other societies, as worldwide and nationwide, countries and states are taking many approaches to re-opening their economies, Levine said.
Germany, for example, has opened schools to older children, while Sweden, he said, has tried to achieve herd immunity, but now the country appears to have a higher case fatality rate.
And in the United States, re-opening has ranged from opening multiple sectors concurrently and encouraging mass gatherings to "far more conservative versions," he said.
"I'm not here to critique any of these approaches — just to let you all know there's a great deal of variety, and a great deal for us all to be humble about and to learn," he said.
In Vermont, decisions are based on evidence and data whenever possible, he said.
"Consider the following: just talking and breathing is sufficient to spread [the] virus," Levine said. "Coughing is even better — perhaps a 20-foot radius."
There are also reports of sneezing spreading respiratory droplets 200 feet.
"It kind of makes sense that a mask might provide just the barrier that's needed to alter this," Levine said.
Many U.S. states, including Vermont, are seeing a lull in COVID-19 cases, "generating enthusiasm for rapid re-opening," he said.
"The tendency at times may be to drop our guard, as cases and deaths are dropping," he said. "But this is a dangerous phenomenon."
This isn't the time to overly relax restrictions, as that could cause case numbers to change and require a return to stricter restrictions, Levine said.
"This is really a time to capitalize on our ability, which we have now, to contain the virus, if it should flare up," he said.
This includes increased testing and contact tracing capacity.
"At some point, the objective is that everybody who wants a test, gets a test," said Mike Smith, secretary of the Agency of Human Services. Smith outlined the state's pop-up testing events, which are being held around the state this month. One such event at Bennington College on Tuesday collected samples from 256 people.
"We are moving towards making sure we do expansive testing here in the state of Vermont," Smith said.
Smith emphasized that all those with symptoms — no matter how mild — should contact their primary care provider.
"Because we want you to get tested," he said.
Scott has announced a goal to test up to 1,000 people a day.
Most authorities, Levine said, see the immediate future involving physical distancing and facial coverings, along with temperature and symptom checks in workplaces and restricted visitation in places like long-term care facilities.
"The summer concert of old won't be the summer concert this year," he said. "Doesn't mean there won't be a summer concert, but the large mass gatherings of people packed together watching a concert will not be the reality."
Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at email@example.com, at @BAN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.