MONTPELIER, Vt. (WFFF) — Vermont municipalities will soon be able to pass their own mask mandates after state lawmakers voted in favor of the measure during a special session on Monday. Gov. Phil Scott had called lawmakers back to the State House for the sole purpose of giving towns the ability to require masks.
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 amid record-high daily case counts. Scott did threaten to veto any other legislation.
“It is important for people to understand that we did not pass a statewide mask mandate,” 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 allows municipalities to enact a 45-day mask mandate and meet every 45 days to either rescind or extend it. The rule won’t apply to school buildings or school property, which will remain under the authority of the school board. The rule expires on April 30.
Come January, lawmakers could be less willing to comply with Scott’s conditions. 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,” she said.
As lawmakers arrived for Monday’s special session, they were greeted by dozens of anti-mask protestors outside the State House. “In New Hampshire, at least they’re having some hearings at which the public is allowed to speak!” one man said. “What’s happened? Why aren’t we going inside and speaking?”
The crowd was briefly joined by at least one state lawmaker who agreed with their concern. Rep. Vicki Strong even took their megaphone to give her thoughts. “Are these masks effective, do they take away our freedoms?” she asked. “Are they masking it as giving freedom? That’s not freedom.”
Those against allowing Vermont municipalities to pass mask mandates felt their voices weren’t being heard, but similar debates are likely to play out at city council and select board meetings across the state. Pro Tem Balint was sympathetic towards local officials and the heated discussions now 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.”
NEWS10’s sister station in Plattsburgh reached out to mayors, city council presidents, town managers, and select board chairs across the state for their take on implementing a municipal mask mandate. Leaders responded from Burlington, Bennington, and Rutland, and here’s what they had to say:
“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
“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