Select Board to take up face mask mandate

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BENNINGTON — The sometimes volatile issue of requiring shoppers to wear a face mask will come before the Select Board during its meeting Monday.

"Yes, we will consider the issue on Monday," Chairman Donald Campbell said in an email. "It is possible that we will pass a temporary emergency resolution to protect public health and frontline retail workers. Without enforcement authority, which would be virtually impossible for us to wield, these types of actions amount to setting community expectations for protecting each other's health and are thus worthy of consideration."

The town is considering the step after resolutions were approved in Burlington, South Burlington and Brattleboro, and as some lawmakers are pressing for Gov. Phil Scott to issue a statewide order requiring face masks for retail customers as the state relaxes COVID-19 stay-at-home restrictions. Store employees are required to wear masks.

State Rep. Jim Carroll, who also serves on the Select Board, said he favors the idea of a mask mandate but understands that the issue of how or whether there should be an enforcement provision is a key question that would have to be discussed.

Enforcement an issue

None of the Vermont communities approving face mask resolutions thus far has included enforcement provisions.

The three resolutions followed Scott's statement last week that he would require employees but not customers to wear masks as the state reopens areas of the retail economy closed because of the coronavirus epidemic. The governor said he would, however, allow communities to adopt stricter mask requirements.

Some lawmakers have since discussed having the Legislature pass a mask mandate, but no proposal has been advanced.

Carroll said he always wears a mask when going out in public, in large part because it is a way for residents to protect one another and shut down transmission of the virus.

"You have to remember we have a population here that is highly vulnerable," he said, referring to the elderly and others.

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"I've heard no scuttlebutt on our end," said Southwestern Vermont Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Matt Harrington. "It's not the place of the chamber to create policy or laws; however, if something were passed we would work with the mandate and our businesses to do whatever is necessary. I know Brattleboro and Burlington have passed mandates. It's a nice notion; not sure how you enforce it."

Emotional issue

The issue of requiring masks has sparked confrontations and in a few instances violence in states reopening their economies.

And in Bennington, a young woman recently confronted an employee at the Hallmark Cards and Gifts shop in the Bennington Square shopping center and took a video, in which she said requiring a mask amounted to discrimination and violated her constitutional rights and made other claims.

Her posting of the video on a local Facebook site then prompting hundreds of comments, including many of her own, as her actions and contentions were often harshly criticized or mocked.

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Support voiced

"Vermont has done a good job of controlling the pandemic because we have all worked together to protect each other," said resident Lora Block in an email. "But I'm shocked and disappointed the governor refuses to mandate wearing masks in public places as we open up."

She said she has written to Sens. Dick Sears and Brian Campion, who represent the Bennington Senate district, and to Carroll on whether the Legislature will mandate masks in lieu of action by Scott.

Block said she believes a mandate should be statewide but is interested in learning what the town board does on the issue.

"Without a mandate people may become lax — some are already, unfortunately," she said. "A mandate gives stores and other public venues the clout to require masks, which they should. The political will needs to be strong to implement the public health scientific knowledge or we'll risk having another statewide surge, especially once people are out and about and travelers will be going to and arriving from other places. Social distance and hand-washing alone aren't enough."

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"I think it's reasonable to require a mask in stores and other public places where physical distancing is not feasible," Sears said in an email. "It would be preferable if the governor were to make it part of his executive order rather than have individual towns and cities do their own ordinances. I read [Senate President Tim] Ashe's comments but have not seen a bill yet."

Ashe has voiced support for the proposal, but also said it would preferable coming from the governor.

"I'm pleased that the Select Board is considering this issue," said Campion. "Taking such a precaution would help keep our infection rates low. A statewide policy strikes me as making the most sense, because it alleviates businesses from their current role of enforcer. I wish the governor agreed."

As of Thursday, there were 950 cases of COVID-19 in Vermont, including 60 in Bennington County, according to the state Department of Health. Fifty-four Vermonters have died of the disease.

"Without a mandate I'm feeling like I'll be even more a prisoner in my house than I am now," Block said Thursday, "as will others who are more at risk."

Brattleboro resolution

As of Wednesday, establishments in Brattleboro "that invite the public into their premises for the purpose of receiving services, purchasing products, or otherwise transacting business, shall require both staff and customers (or visitors) to wear cloth face coverings or face shields over their nose and mouth while inside the establishment," according to a resolution passed this week by the Select Board.

The resolution does not include enforcement measures, the Brattleboro Reformer reported, but it has exceptions: Cloth face coverings should not be placed on children under the age of 5, or anyone who has difficulty breathing or is unconscious, incapacitated or otherwise unable to remove the mask without help.

Each establishment in town will be responsible for posting signs about the order at its entrance and other appropriate locations. The order will remain in effect until the Brattleboro board rescinds or suspends it, or the governor declares an end to the state of emergency.

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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