MONTPELIER — Citing the rise of COVID-19 cases nationally and indications that the virus is spreading back to the Northeast, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott on Friday ordered the wearing of masks in public places starting Aug. 1. To this point, Scott has resisted a full statewide mandate, preferring education and encouragement on the benefits of mask wearing to a mandate that many might resist. He's cited Vermont's positive results in preventing spread of the virus, and its low rate of hospitalizations and deaths, as evidence that what the state is doing is working.
But the spread of the virus across the country, and outreach from Vermont business owners who asked Scott for a statewide back-up to local mandates, led the governor to adopt the change, he said.
"We need to be sure we are protecting the gains we made," Scott said. "We all want to keep moving forward. No one wants to retreat."
The mandate will exempt people under the age of 2 and people who have medical or developmental reasons for not wearing masks. There is not a fine for non-compliance at this point, Scott said, but the order allows businesses to refuse service to customers not wearing masks.
Those who cannot wear masks for medical or developmental issues "shall not be required to produce documentation, or other evidence, verifying the condition," the governor's order says.
"We know compliance is going to be difficult," Scott said. "So we're going to continue with the education process. We haven't put a fine structure in place .... We want people to do the right thing, prepare for this, and understand this is in the best interest for all of us."
Scott asked the public to not engage in shaming and confrontations with people not wearing masks when the mandate takes place. "Let's give each other the benefit of the doubt," he said.
"Unfortunately this issue has become polarized and I'm still worried a mandate will create conflict and resistance," he said.
As for Vermonters who have resisted wearing masks, "I'm asking you to look at the data," Scott said.
Workers are already required to wear face coverings over their nose and mouth when in the presence of others. The mandate, which Scott said he signed Friday, will require mask wearing indoors in public places, and outdoors in areas where social distancing is not possible.
The governor's order was well received by Bennington officials contacted Friday.
"I'm happy to see that the Governor has decided to require masks. I've heard from many frustrated constituents who wanted the state to move forward," state Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, said in an email. "It's been difficult for towns to enforce their own ordinances. It has also been particularly difficult for store owners and shoppers."
"I am very glad the governor is taking public health seriously and has finally taken this step," said Donald Campbell, chair of the Select Board.
"As we know from experience in Bennington, hoping for compliance without enforcement is not entirely effective, but this is still an important move," Campbell said.
"I'm totally for it, if it's one step in getting our businesses back open again," said John Shannahan, executive director of the Better Bennington Corporation. He said he hopes that compliance with the governor's order will convince people that "it's safe enough to get back into our shops and restaurants."
Though the Bennington Select Board in May approved an emergency resolution requiring businesses to direct staff, customers and visitors to wear face coverings or shields while inside their establishments, that resolution put the onus for enforcement on the businesses, putting them in a difficult spot, Shannahan said.
Wearing a mask, he added, "is the least you can do for the community."
Bennington Town Manager Stuart Hurd said he supports Scott's mandate. "Too often, employees in some of our big box stores fail to wear a mask or wear it improperly in spite of the existing mandate," he said.
"In most of the places I frequent consumers are masked. Of course, there are a few who believe in a constitutional right to infect others with the virus and there are those who mimic our president and just won't wear a mask," Hurd said. "I am hopeful that this mandate takes Vermont and the region to a new level of caring for one another."
Matt Harrington, executive director of the Southwestern Vermont Chamber of Commerce, also welcomed the order. "Not only will it continue to secure Vermont as a top ranked safe state during the COVID pandemic, but we believe it is another layer of enforcement to help our small mom and pop shops throughout Southwestern Vermont," he said.
"Not only do our businesses have to worry about how they're going to financially survive this pandemic, but working with customers to encourage them to wear masks while in their businesses has been an added strain. We hope that the Governor's mandate will encourage all Vermonters to be safe and considerate especially when entering our small businesses that continue to weather the storm," Harrington said.
Asked at the press conference if he was concerned that the mandate might hurt local business, Scott said on the contrary, he's hopeful that increased mask-wearing will encourage people who have relied on internet purposes to return to in-person shopping.
"If we want kids to go back to school, if we want the places we work or eat or shop to stay open, if we want hospitals to be available when we need help, then wearing a mask is the best way to do that," Scott said.
"Please help us out not because it's mandated, because it's the right thing to do," Scott said. "I'm asking you to take personal responsibility because we must continue to fight these battles to win this war."
Scott announced the changes following a presentation by Michael Pieciak, Commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation, showing that the national and regional increases in COVID-19 cases and deaths stands in contrast to Vermont's success in controlling the spread of the virus.
Vermont has the lowest seven-day average of COVID-19 hospitalizations at 4.34 per million, in COVID-19 deaths per million people at 0, Pieciak said
But across New England, New York and Quebec, the number of confirmed cases has risen in the past week by 8.13 percent, Pieciak said, and new case growth in the region has risen by 21.89 percent since June 25, he said.
Although that growth is not as explosive as it has been in other regions, the regional increase in cases "should give us pause here in Vermont," Pieciak said.
The revised executive order states that Vermonters "shall wear masks or cloth facial coverings over their nose and mouth any time they are in public spaces, indoors or outdoors, where they come in contact with others from outside their households, especially in congregate settings, and where it is not possible to maintain a physical distance of at least six feet."
Its exemptions include "when someone is engaged in strenuous exercise or activity, for anyone under the age of 2, any child or adult with a medical or developmental issue or challenge that is complicated or irritated by a facial covering, anyone with difficulty breathing or as further set forth in guidance issued by VDH."