NEWPORT CITY — Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan filed a lawsuit Friday seeking a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction to stop the UPS store on Main Street from operating without face coverings in violation of governor’s orders during the pandemic.
On Thursday, UPS severed its relationship with the store, ending the franchise owned by store owner, Andre “Mark” Desautels, after the store refused to comply with the company’s uniform policy, which includes wearing masks.
Newport City Police Chief Travis Bingham said he’s had complaints about the store.
Desautels told police that he would not change his beliefs about wearing masks, according to the lawsuit complaint. He could not be reached for comment Friday.
The state alleges that by refusing to follow the mandatory health and safety requirements around employee mask use, the store owner “placed both employees and members of the public at risk due to the spread of COVID-19.
“In seeking the preliminary injunction, the state is asking the court to require the defendants to cease violating the governor’s COVID-19-related orders,” Donovan stated in a statement announcing the lawsuit late Friday afternoon.
The lawsuit was filed in the Civil Division of Washington Superior Court, after the AG sent two cease-and-desist letters, one in November and the other on Wednesday.
“I am disappointed that we have been left with no choice but to seek an order from the court to bring this business and its owner into compliance,” Donovan said.
Bingham said the former UPS store is the only store in the city where the owner flatly refused to follow the governor’s emergency order about masks or other face coverings inside buildings.
UPS issued this comment on Thursday.
“We take customer safety very seriously and made repeated attempts to gain compliance from this franchise owner,” the statement said.
“However, those attempts were ignored and as a result, we have terminated our relationship with this franchise owner, effective close of business Thursday, February 18.”
This sign was posted on the store door this week:
“We choose not to wear a mask.
“If you’re uncomfortable with this, we ask that you do not come in to ensure your comfort,” the sign said. “If you decide to come in do not ask us to put a mask on.”
On Friday, an employee who answered the phone at the store declined to comment and would not say if she was wearing a mask.
The owner has not spoken to other news outlets about the situation.
Gov. Phil Scott spoke about the situation during Friday’s media briefing.
“This was in direct violation of the guidelines that we put into place, that’s why the attorney general was involved,” said Scott.
“We did see this on social media, we looked into it, tried to repair the problem, tried to give guidance and the guidance wasn’t accepted. It appears the corporate UPS decided to get involved themselves and it appears took away their franchise.
“The unfortunate part from all of this is it was avoidable. If they just complied with the guidelines put into place and UPS corporate had asked as well, they would be open today.
“I’m hoping, and again this is out of my control as they were in violation of their franchise agreement with corporate UPS, but it would be my hope that they could find a path forward to reopen following our guidance. We don’t want to shut any businesses down,” Scott said.
The lawsuit says the AG “may bring an action for injunctive relief … to compel compliance” with the governor’s emergency orders.
The law says the court could fine the owner not more than $1,000 a day for each day a violation occurs, the complaint states.
In the complaint, the state alleges that the city police saw that employees were not wearing masks on Nov. 9, 2020 during a compliance check, which was referred to the AG’s office, leading to the first warning letter.
On Feb. 1, Newport police received another complaint. Ofc. David Jacobs talked to Desautels at the store and Desautels was not wearing a mask, but an employee was, the AG alleged.
On Feb. 11, the attorney general’s office asked the Newport police to speak to the store owner again, providing information about the governor’s face covering order.
Jacobs gave the material to Desautels.
“Defendant said that he was not going to change his beliefs on the matter,” the complaint alleges.
On Tuesday, another officer conducted a compliance check and found the sign on the door about not needing to wear masks in the store, the complaint alleges.
Inside, both Desautels and an employee were not wearing masks, the complaint said.
“Officer (Nicholas) Keithan tried to inform him of the governor’s orders and provide literature about the order but defendant Desautels refused to accept the materials or listen to Officer Keithan and indicated that he was not going to comply with the mask requirement and had no intention to do so in the future.”
The AG wants the court to order compliance, find the defendant liable, levy civil penalties and reimburse the state for the costs of investigating and prosecuting the court case.
“Look, Vermonters are law-abiding good people, but at some point in time, we are going to have to take action,” Donovan said.
“We have done it before, we are prepared to do it here, and if there is not compliance that’s where we are going to end up.”
Bingham said he was frustrated by the situation. He did not want to see a business shut down in the city. But he said he didn’t want anyone flaunting the governor’s emergency orders either.
The police department has received a few complaints about other businesses and establishments in the city, Bingham said.
Other store owners in the city have listened when police explained the complaints and done their best to comply, he said.
Often the complaint has involved an employee or customer not wearing masks or not wearing them properly or not following other precautions, he said.
“For the most part people understand,” the chief said.
Newport City resident, Pam Ladds, who manages the Newport Rocks! Facebook page, express disappointment that the problem “spun out of control and that Newport is losing a business that has worked really hard to grow.”
“I find it really sad and it is that dilemma between individual rights and public good. However, I do feel the store should have the right to decide for themselves just as customers can decide whether or not to shop there,” Ladds said.
Staff Writer Andrew McGregor and the Associated Press contributed to this story.