MONTPELIER – Vermont lawmakers voted in favor of a measure that will allow municipalities in the state to pass their own mask mandates.
It marked a rare compromise between the Scott Administration and legislative leaders, who had been pushing for a different strategy in the fight against COVID-19 amid record-high daily case counts. Governor Phil Scott had called lawmakers back to the State House for the sole purpose of giving towns the ability to require masks, while threatening to veto any other legislation.
“It is important for people to understand that we did not pass a statewide mask mandate today,” said Senate Pro Tem Becca Balint. “What we did do is give towns, villages and cities the opportunity to pass local rules if they felt it was warranted.”
Once signed by Scott the temporary rule will allow municipalities to enact a 45-day mask mandate with an option to rescind or extend it. The rule, which will expire April 30, does not apply to school buildings or school property, which will remain under the authority of local school boards.
House Speaker Jill Krowinski said Monday’s vote was an important step, but hinted at further actions ahead.
“In seven weeks, we’ll be coming back into session, and when we return, we’ll be asking health experts to give us the guidance and the tools we should be using to mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” Speaker Krowinski said.
As lawmakers arrived for Monday’s special session, they were greeted by dozens of anti-mask protestors outside the State House. The crowd included Rep. Vicki Strong, who took the megaphone to echo their concerns.
“Are these masks effective, do they take away our freedoms?” she asked. “Are they masking it as giving freedom? That’s not freedom.”
Similar debates are likely to play out at city council and select board meetings across the state. Balint said she was sympathetic toward local officials and the heated discussions dropped on their doorsteps, but defended the vote.
“I trust that our local officials will do the right thing for the conditions on the ground in their communities, that’s why we elect them,” Balint said. “We’re a state that believes in local control and local decision making… We know you can navigate those decisions in local communities in a way that feels right for you.”
Mayors, city council presidents, town managers and select board chairs across the state offered statements on Monday’s action:
“The Mayor welcomes this action today by the state legislature to give local leaders additional public health authority, which has served Burlingtonians well throughout the pandemic. We are reviewing the legislation and considering it carefully, and will have more details to release before the holiday.”Samantha Sheehan, Office of Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger
“It is a complicated issue and we plan to take it up on either the 6th or 13th.
I would rather this were a state-wide mandate rather than town by town. That just adds to confusion.
I personally like the 30 day window on the mandate as it gives communities the opportunity to try to tamp down outbreaks by increasing mask use in-doors in a focused way. This is a proven strategy.
However, It also creates frustration around the lack of enforcement, can bring out un-civil, and in some cases, threatening behavior and can possibly cause some confusion about whether vaccinations – which are the key to bringing COVID under control – are needed if we are masked.
The VT COVID numbers are alarming and we do want to send the message that vaccination and masks are important. We have a lot to weigh and as you can imagine, many are already sharing their thoughts on the issue.”Jeannie Jenkins, Chair, Bennington Select Board
“My position is no to a mask mandate. The Board of Aldermen have not taken a position.”David Allaire, Mayor of Rutland