MANCHESTER — The Manchester Select Board came up just short of reinstating a mandatory mask requirement, instead passing the decision to businesses in town.
With the rule, business owners who choose to require masks in their businesses have the backing of the town, but the rule does not require all business owners to require masks.
Business owners who want to adopt the policy will have to register with the town. In doing so, the town will provide a sign — two on request — that announces the requirement to wear a mask in that business.
The town will also create and maintain a list of businesses that have adopted the mask policy, and that list will be made available on the town website for shoppers to consult.
The wording of the ordinance, based largely on the one passed during spring 2020 in the early days of COVID-19, might confuse people into thinking Manchester has passed a townwide mask mandate, several board members pointed out.
But the board agreed it was OK with that, as strong language encouraging residents and visitors to wear masks is needed to combat the growing transmission rates that have seen COVID-19 case numbers, climbing steadily with new daily records set multiple times in the past month.
Eight times, case numbers have topped 500 and twice the numbers have climbed above 600 cases per day.
Bennington County has been among the worst counties in the state for much of the past month.
The measure, which is limited to 45 days by state rule, will remain in effect until Jan. 5, the day after the Select Board’s scheduled meeting on Jan. 4, at which time the board will take a look at whether it needs to be extended or repealed.
Like the previous mask mandate, there are exceptions for children under 2 years of age, people with disabilities who cannot wear a face covering, individuals participating in religious services, individuals who could be at risk at work by wearing a mask, and while eating and drinking in restaurants.
The Select Board took up the issue after a special session by the state Legislature on Nov. 23, at which a temporary measure was passed allowing towns to enact their own ordinances regarding masks in an effort to combat the growing threats from the pandemic.
The rule came after the board heard an update on the severity of risks from the current state of the pandemic by Dr. Thomas Sterling, Manchester’s deputy health officer.
Vermont has seen high infection rates lately, and the new omicron variant has quickly spread to the region.
Sterling said it was too early to know what omicron would bring, adding that very early results show it to spread very rapidly but, so far, hasn’t shown to be any worse than current strains of the virus.
“This variant spreads quickly,” Sterling said. “More people are getting sick, but they’re not getting really sick. But the data is really young.”
Sterling said he didn’t want to scare people, but the numbers are alarming, even if “we’re actually doing pretty well,” thanks to very high vaccination rates in Vermont.
“But, we’re seeing record numbers of people who are sick,” Sterling said. “We’re doing much better. But we have a long ways to go. We’re hoping we’ll see the tip and start to come back down the other side.”
Select Board Chairman Ivan Beattie thanked Sterling for his guidance but said he was still quite confused about whether a mask ordinance would help.
Beattie said it was sad that the federal government had passed the responsibility for making such decisions to states, which in Vermont has passed the buck to the towns.
“It’s unfortunate that it happened the way it did,” Beattie said. “Local governments are probably the least capable of dealing with this.”
Beattie said the only thing he knew was that the political pressure to do something, or not do something, was great.
“I don’t want to be bullied into making the wrong decision on this,” Beattie said.
Beattie said several business owners had been advocating for a mask mandate.
“It appears to me that the major source of transmission is not supermarkets or stores, but gatherings in homes,” Beattie said. “I just hate to put a mandate in place, if we don’t have the scientific data that proves it will be effective.”
Sterling said the medical difficulties were as bad as political difficulties.
But he did say that most of the transmission is happening by people who don’t know they have the virus.
“Before you show symptoms, you have a 24- to 48-hour space where you just don’t know,” Sterling said. “You don’t look sick, and your guard is down, and the mask comes down. When you’re at the market, your guard is up, and the mask is on. With the mask mandate, you’d have some decreased transmission, for sure.”
But, Sterling said we live in an America where people decide whether they want to wear a mask or not, and many have chosen not to.
“When we look at the data, we’re at a record for the number of infections,” Sterling said. “You want people to be vaccinated. With the new variant, the infectivity rate is up, which means we need more people to be vaccinated.”
Masks are also an additional layer of protection when added to vaccines.
He said about half the patients he’s seen with COVID-19 have been vaccinated, but the vaccines still help people have milder symptoms and better outcomes.
Beattie said, to him, masks are not a big deal.
“It seems to me pretty innocuous to put on a mask,” Beattie said. “It doesn’t hurt me. Apparently, for some people, it’s a huge infringement on their privacy and rights. I have to respect their opinion on this, but I may be put in a position where I’m telling them they have to do it anyway.”
Other board members were equally conflicted.
Board member Laurie Kunz said her experience has shown that mask use is pretty high in Manchester, saying that as she’s been paying attention lately, she said many stores probably have a 95 percent mask use rate.
But, she said, she made a trip to Bennington recently to Walmart and said only about 5 percent of people were wearing masks by her estimation.
“To me, it’s about where you’re going,” Kunz said. “It was like night and day between Manchester and elsewhere.”
Sterling said masks have one other benefit. Influenza and respiratory syncytial virus have been making the rounds.
Sterling said a year ago, the number of flu cases he treated could be counted on two hands, as masks protected people from the virus. This year, it’s already running through families.
“It could be RSV, influenza or coronavirus,” Sterling said. “You’re two touches away from it.”
And, he suggested mask wearers change their masks often.
“You need to be changing these masks as often as possible,” he said. “At least once a day.”