Our Opinion: State needs to step up and enforce mask-wearing

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We knew, from past history and the experts' forecasts and warnings, that the COVID-19 pandemic would not go quietly.

As this is being written, there are reports of positive tests for the virus in Manchester and Londonderry. There are no reports of hospitalizations as of this writing, and even with these reports, Vermont's management of this crisis remains one of the most successful in the United States.

But we know this virus poses serious health consequences. Our communities must be cautious and shake off whatever complacency has settled in with early success in avoiding the worst.

It's understandable that on local social media, there is panic and worry and calls for shutting down the local economy and sending summer visitors home. Reports of out-of-state license plates at swimming holes are feeding xenophobia and paranoia.

But panic and worry do not help, and fear and anger will only hurt us.

Whether you live here or are just visiting, here's what does help: Washing your hands. Wearing a mask in public. Maintaining social distancing. Staying home when you feel sick. Being safe about potential exposure to crowds.

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For those who would send everyone home: The virus was not done with us, regardless of whether we welcomed tourists or turned them away at the border. This virus neither knows nor cares where you're from. What matters is behavior.

Vermont has been smart, dedicated and fortunate to this point. Smart, because it based its policies on science and embraced transparency. Dedicated, because its people accepted tremendous sacrifices to stay safe and prevent the virus from overrunning the state's fragile health care system. Fortunate, because Vermont's relative isolation and low population density helped keep community spread at bay.

But there was always a strong possibility that an increase in COVID-19 cases would come. There had to be, given that asymptomatic persons can transmit the virus without knowing they have it.

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And lest we forget, we are part of a country that has failed abysmally at containing this virus. We cannot escape that fact, as every day, new cases increase by the thousands.

With those facts as the background, it is unfortunate that both Gov. Phil Scott and the Vermont Legislature stumbled by failing to enact a statewide mandatory face mask mandate. They have wisely encouraged the everyday use of masks in word and deed, but a law carries more weight than a suggestion.

The lack of a statewide edict has left regulations to a town-by-town patchwork of rules, and left enforcement to businesses who are not equipped or qualified to eject mask scofflaws. Understandably, many of these businesses are facing potential economic ruin and do not wish to chase away paying customers, no matter what.

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Across this country, we have learned an uncomfortable truth about ourselves: Too many of us won't listen to facts or reason. It's a travesty and a tragedy that this truth comes with a death toll.

In states such as Texas, Florida and Arizona, resistance to common-sense preventative measures has resembled the behavior of cranky toddlers who missed their afternoon naps. Sadly, COVID-19 transmission rates in these states now rival those of developing nations. Resistance to wearing masks has wrongly been twisted and conflated with political identity and preservation of personal freedom.

The blame starts with so-called leaders, in politics and the right wing media, who chose reactionary populism over science and common sense. It is nothing short of a tragedy that some in this country have died thanks to the selfishness of others.

Luckily, Vermont has been spared that fate so far, and we still have a choice. But we need to act.

Vermont must avoid a second shutdown and reopen its schools as planned, for failure on either count would result in an economic disaster and dishonor the efforts and sacrifices that made even a partial reopening possible. To assure success, some people clearly need to be told, in no uncertain terms, that they must wear a mask, or face penalties for failure to comply.

It's time for the state to step up and enforce common sense.


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