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Bennington Select Board unanimously approves face mask requirement

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BENNINGTON — "Masks on" could soon become common, after the Bennington Select Board unanimously approved an emergency resolution requiring businesses to direct staff, customers and visitors to wear face coverings or shields while inside their establishments.

The board approved the resolution during a videoconference meeting Monday. An amendment proposed by Bruce Lee-Clark was included, changing the implementation date from June 1 to May 28 to cover the coming weekend.

The emergency order was similar to those approved for retail establishments in Burlington, South Burlington, Brattleboro and Wilmington, after Gov. Phil Scott loosened restrictions on the economy put in place two months ago because of the coronavirus epidemic.

Scott recommended wearing masks in stores but declined to set a statewide face covering requirement. However, he allowed municipal boards to establish stricter measures.

Callers in support

Several callers during the board meeting voiced strong support for the resolution, and favored a suggested amendment by Lora Block that the requirement extend to town parks or outdoor recreation areas.

Town Manager Stuart Hurd said town parks already require social distancing or face coverings when in the presence of others. Since parks are town owned, he said, those requirements did not need an emergency resolution, as did a directive for retail establishments.

The resolution adopted is very similar to one adopted by the Brattleboro Select Board, which itself was similar to one approved by the Burlington City Council. It will remain in effect until rescinded by the board or until the governor issues a superseding order because COVID-19 is no longer considered a health threat.

A 'community expectation'

The resolution does not contain an enforcement provision, such as the possibility of a $300 fine in a statewide order issued earlier this month by Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker.

However, town officials said the initiative sets a "community expectation," which backs up business owners in implementing a face-covering requirement in their establishments, and allows them to summon police if necessary.

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Merchants also will be required to post signs notifying those who enter of the requirements.

Vice Chairwoman Jeannie Jenkins said she spoke to numerous downtown merchants and to Better Bennington Corp. Executive Director John Shannahan and found "they are all strongly in favor" of the resolution.

Merchants want to make potential customers, who may have a health issue that could make them susceptible to a serious case of COVID-19, comfortable entering their businesses, she said.

In addition, she said, merchants don't want to expose themselves or their staff to the highly contagious virus for which there is yet no vaccine or universally effective treatment. The resolution "gives them extra clout" in trying to keep the virus out of their buildings, Jenkins said.

The idea of businesses requiring customers to wear a face covering has also generated negative comments on social media, particularly in Facebook comments following Banner news articles or other posts.

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Opponents of such requirements often term them an infringement on their rights or constitutional freedoms and contend that some people can't wear a mask for health reasons.

The resolution adopted Monday waives the requirement for young children or people who have trouble breathing.

SVMC official in support

Chairman Donald Campbell said he and Jenkins "got a lot of calls about face masks" following recent news reports on the subject, most supporting the idea.

"We need to get the economy going," he said, adding that requires residents and visitors to feel confident they won't get sick if they enter an establishment.

He said town officials and staff looked at what some other Vermont communities are doing and decided to propose the resolution.

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Campbell also read a letter from Dr. Trey Dobson, chief medical officer at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center, who said he supported the resolution.

The medical community has learned much about the coronavirus and how to prevent it since it was labeled a pandemic disease earlier this year, Dobson said, and simple steps like maintaining social distancing, wearing a face covering and washing hands have been shown to be highly effective in stopping the spread of COVID-19.

Those communities that fail to continue those practices can expect episodic outbreaks of the sometimes deadly disease that has killed 100,000 nationally, he said, while those that remain vigilant are better able to reopen the local economy because residents feel safer from the disease.

In addition to Block, Judy Murphy and Lesley Jacobson also called the board to support the resolution.

If the area loosens distancing restrictions too quickly, Murphy said, "we could very well see a spike" in new infections.

Jacobson said, "I won't go into a store myself unless all are wearing masks."

Still out there

Select Board member Jim Carroll said that, like everyone, is tired of the restrictions Vermonters have been following.

"I hate wearing a mask," he said, "but I would hate wearing a ventilator more. This virus is not tired; it is relentless."

In speaking in favor of Lee-Clark's amendment to impose the initiative before June 1, Campbell said he witnessed "a lot of traffic from out of state" this weekend, and expects many visitors are from areas with higher rates of COVID-19 infection than Vermont.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien


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