BRATTLEBORO — When it comes to a local mask mandate, the governor and the town are not seeing eye to eye.
Asked at his weekly news conference about the Brattleboro Select Board’s decision last week to mandate masks in public indoor spaces pending Health Commissioner Mark Levine’s approval, Gov. Phil Scott said Montpelier imposed restrictions on town employees and properties.
“I would advise the town of Brattleboro to do the same,” he said. “We’ve actually sent them back a letter today that goes over those points and gives them a path forward.”
Municipalities can only mandate masks in spaces under their control and businesses can impose their own restrictions, but a town “doesn’t have broad authority to put those restrictions on broad uses,” Scott said.
The town of Brattleboro mandated face coverings on its properties a week before the Select Board voted 4-1 to do the same in all public spaces within the community. After passing the resolution, the board acknowledged that the health commissioner would need to sign off on the move.
“Gov. Scott (and by extension probably Dr. Levine) just denied Brattleboro’s request to impose a mask mandate on private businesses unrelated to our town buildings jurisdiction,” board member Tim Wessel, who cast the lone vote against the mask mandate last week, wrote on Facebook after Scott’s comments. “Setting aside my ongoing feelings about our state being overly controlling of municipalities’ decisions, I did expect this to be likely. We are after all not in a current state of emergency so that limits both our state’s and town power.”
Wessel noted how the board also unanimously passed a separate “backup” resolution, strongly encouraging indoor masking and vaccinations. The board also made plans to review the resolutions at its upcoming meetings, which are held the first and third Tuesdays of each month.
In a letter to Town Manager Peter Elwell, Scott’s Deputy Chief of Staff Brittney Wilson said the state’s current policy position is that mask use is recommended for unvaccinated people in indoor settings.
“We are following the data closely and should the data demonstrate it is warranted, we would consider additional mitigation recommendations with the reimposition of a statewide state of emergency, but only if mandates were to be demonstrably necessary,” Wilson wrote.
A declaration of emergency “is an extraordinary exercise of executive authority, which we don’t believe is justified by the science and the data at this time here in Vermont,” she said.
Elwell responded, “We do think that it is important that the state allow ‘some measure of local control’ on this matter as there are differing circumstances in different parts of Vermont. For instance, Windham County currently is classified by the CDC as an area with a high rate of community transmission and the CDC recommends that vaccinated people wear face coverings indoors in areas with a high rate of community transmission.”
Elwell said the Select Board’s resolution is intended “to slow the currently increasing spread of COVID-19 in our community.”
“As town manager, I do not have the authority to withdraw the Select Board’s request for the commissioner of the Department of Public Health to approve the Select Board’s adopted rule,” he wrote, responding to a recommendation from Wilson to do so. “Until and unless the Select Board decides to withdraw that request, it is my responsibility on their behalf to ask the State to act on this matter, rather than simply urging Brattleboro to withdraw. On behalf of the Select Board, I respectfully request that you refer this matter back to the commissioner of the Department of Public Health so that this matter can be addressed as intended in Vermont Statutes.”
Responding to statements issued Tuesday by House Speaker Jill Krowinski and Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint calling for clearer guidance on COVID-19, Scott said, “I think it’s unfortunate to play politics at this time.” He said he sees no reason to impose a state of emergency again.
“You don’t want to abuse this,” he said.