Patrons come and go from Price Chopper_4.jpg

Patrons wear masks as they visit the Price Chopper supermarket in Bennington on Tuesday. The Select Board will consider a local mask mandate during the board's Dec. 13 meeting, prompted by rising COVID-19 infection rates.

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BENNINGTON — The Select Board indicated support Monday for a local masking mandate to fight a surge in COVID-19 infections, with further discussion and a possible vote set for Dec. 13.

The board was considering an indoor mask mandate hours after the Legislature voted in special session to allow local mandates for limited times. Gov. Phil Scott signed that bill into law Tuesday.

Board Chairwoman Jeannie Jenkins asked board members to consider whether instituting a mandate, which would cover businesses and public buildings in town, should be approved. She said a mandate likely would cover at least the holiday period, when tourists and others from out of the area will be in town.

Jenkins voiced support for one, but said the board will have to weigh both the acknowledged effectiveness of masks in controlling disease outbreaks and the fact “it also creates frustration around enforcement, as we’ve seen with our last mask mandate.”

She noted the negative reactions and “uncivil behavior” of some area residents directed last year toward the town staff and business owners.

‘PUT ONUS ON US’

In one way, she added, a town-imposed mandate takes responsibility for the requirement out of the hands of local business owners, some of whom faced irate customers under the prior mandate.

Delaying the decision also will allow the public time to consider a new mandate and offer comment, board members said.

Jenkins urged residents to “take a look at the alarming [infection] numbers in Vermont and in Bennington County” during the recent COVID-19 surge.

Board member Bruce Lee-Clark said having the discussion and possible vote during the board’s Dec. 13 meeting will allow time for the public to weigh in and consider the reasoning.

“I, for one, hope that we do [vote yes],” he said, based on the infection “numbers for the last 24 hours.”

RATES RISING

Pandemic high rates of infection have been reported recently, both in the county and statewide, and the number being treated in hospitals also has risen.

A local mandate would put “the onus on us,” Lee-Clark said, and in that way not burden store owners.

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Tom Haley said he favors a mandate but is unsure he will be able to attend the Dec. 13 meeting because of medical treatment planned for the prior week.

Haley said he has spoken to a number of retailers in town, and “they would just as soon have the mandate as a backup, and I didn’t talk to any that were opposed.”

Board member Gary Corey said he would like to get some input from Southwestern Vermont Medical Center Chief Medical Officer Dr. Trey Dobson.

Jenkins said the board has reached out to SVMC, but “the hospital doesn’t have an official position” on the issue.

She said, however, that Dobson is expected to provide the board another regular update Dec. 13 on the state of the pandemic in the area.

Board member Jim Carroll advised residents that the special state legislation allowing local mask mandates will be posted on the Legislature’s website and numbered S.1.

Jeanne Conner said she would like to see the exact wording of a town mandate, which also should be made available for public comment.

BILL PASSES

The bill would give municipalities the option of imposing a mandate and then renewing it after 45 days — and for every 30 days thereafter through next April.

The mandate would not apply to school buildings.

The governor, who has opposed a statewide mandate, proposed that the Legislature vote on a local option for communities, indicating he would sign the bill if passed.

Scott said he will continue to encourage the use of masks indoors, but is opposed to statewide mandates and restrictions at this time. He said he offered the special session that was held Monday for the legislation to be passed as a compromise.

The Bennington board unanimously approved an emergency mask requirement in May 2020 during the first months of the pandemic. That requirement was rescinded by the board in May of this year after the infection rate had fallen.

Jim Therrien writes for Vermont News and Media, including the Bennington Banner, Manchester Journal and Brattleboro Reformer. Email jtherrien@benningtonbanner.com

Reporter/editor

Jim Therrien reports for the three Vermont News and Media newspapers in Southern Vermont. He previously worked as a reporter and editor at the Berkshire Eagle, the Bennington Banner, the Springfield Republican, and the former North Adams Transcript.


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