Legislators In Position To Make Mask Mandates A Town Decision

FILE - In this Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021 file photo, Republican Gov. Phil Scott wears a mask as he takes the Oath of Office on the steps of the Vermont Statehouse in Montpelier, Vt., beginning his third two-year term. With the pandemic relief law signed by President Joe Biden in 2021, Scott says, “I think we’re in a pivotal time. ... A billion dollars has just fallen from the sky, in some respects. It’s here, right in front of us. We have to invest it wisely.” (AP Photo/Wilson Ring)

Vermont legislators are poised to put the decision about mandatory mask-wearing onto the towns.

Per proclamation of Gov. Phil Scott on Wednesday, legislators have been tasked with gathering to determine whether they’ll authorize individual municipalities to issue mask mandates within their town or city limits. The special legislative session is set for Monday.

The governor’s directive notes, “I do hereby summon the members of the Senate and House of Representatives to meet in their respective chambers in the State House, together with the officers of the two Houses … for the limited purpose of passing legislation to allow, but not require, each municipality to adopt, by action of the municipality’s governing body, a mask mandate beginning Monday, November 29, 2021…”

The proclamation follows recent calls by legislative leadership for Governor Scott to re-establish a state mask-wearing mandate in response to surges in COVID-19 infections. The governor has maintained that he is not ready to return to an executive order.

“As you know, I believe the Executive’s emergency authority should be used judiciously … Abuse of emergency powers - or lowering expectations of when and how they might be used - is a dangerous and slippery slope we must not allow and should never be politicized,” Gov. Scott wrote to Sen. Becca Balint, Senate President Pro Tempore and Rep. Jill Krowinski, Speaker of the House, on Monday.

The governor told the legislative leaders that directing towns to decide for themselves whether to mandate facial coverings is his compromise to their calls for returning to masking requirements. He told them to limit their directive to the details of his proposal.

“I want to be very clear, should the Legislature propose any additional restrictions or mandates on a statewide or municipal basis, I will not support them. This special session would be for the exclusive purpose of passing narrowly crafted, and time-limited legislation giving municipalities the temporary authority to mandate the use of facial coverings indoors within their jurisdictions,” he wrote.

Response from local government officials to the idea that they’ll need to make a mask decision varied but most agreed on one thing:

“He’s passing the buck,” said St. Johnsbury Selectman Dennis Smith.

“It’s kind of a way to pass the buck to the towns,” said Ken Linsley, chair of the Danville School Board.

Dan Daley, a Lyndon selectman, said he recognizes it is the governor “passing the buck” to local governing officials, but even though he concedes that town officials could get push-back from either direction, depending on what they do or don’t do, he doesn’t blame the governor for the approach.

“It’s one way for the governor to address the calls he’s getting,” said Daley. “I give him credit that the individual towns will have the ability to choose whatever they want instead of having it mandated statewide.”

Fred Saar, Waterford Select Board chair, agreed that leaving it up to the towns was better than having it happen statewide.

“I feel like there is a lot of merit to it because it lets each individual city or town to take whatever action they feel is appropriate,” Fred Saar, Waterford Select Board chair. “They can decide based on what’s happening there to tailor their response that fits them.”

Saar said if the Legislature sends the decision to the Waterford board, they’ll consider it with input from townspeople.

Daley said if he had to guess Lyndon would not favor a town-wide mandate. He said he feels for the most part people are making responsible decisions considering mask-wearing.

“I don’t see it happening in Lyndonville nor would I be in favor of one (mask mandate),” he said. “But I can’t speak for the other members of the board.”

Smith also said he doesn’t know how the full board would react to imposing a mandate in St. Johnsbury, but he sees merit in it.

“I honestly don’t think it’s fair for the governor to put this on municipalities, but, for me personally, to have a mandate for inside spaces would be a good thing,” said Smith.

Linsely said Danville selectmen would discuss the issue at their meeting last night and didn’t want to predict what the reaction to a mandate option would be.

He said when there was a statewide mandate earlier in the pandemic he felt most townspeople responded well to it.

“Was it 100 percent? No, but I was really quite pleased that there were very few people I saw inside not masked up. There was a very high participation rate. There’s going to be some people who are definitely not going to mask up, no matter what.”

Smith said the last mandate by the state saw good response among St. Johnsbury residents.

“The majority of people went with it,” he said, “but I personally know folks that I think the world of, but they are of the opinion that the governor isn’t going to tell them what to do.”

In terms of enforcement of a local mandate, both Lyndonville Police Chief Jack Harris and St. Johnsbury Police Chief Jack Harris said officers would only react to situations in which unmasked people refused to leave a publicly-accessible indoor setting or whether the owners of publicly-accessible indoor settings were not mandating mask-wearing.

In either scenario, they said officers are not empowered to punish people not following mask mandates.

“The only thing we could enforce would be if they entered public buildings (unmasked) and refused to leave,” said Chief Harris. It could become a trespass violation.

Chief Page said the last mask mandate from the state put his officers in position to remind and educate people and there was no significant push-back.

Local legislators are planning for the session, but representatives Marcia Martel, of Waterford, and Vicki Strong, of Albany, are two who aren’t happy about that the mask issue requiring a special session.

“I don’t think this session is necessary,” said Martel.

“I think it’s a waste of taxpayer’s money,” said Strong.

Both said the issue of wearing a mask needs to be left up to the individual. Martel said she chooses to wear a mask in many public spaces, but doesn’t feel others should be told they have to.

“Sure they should wear a mask, but I don’t feel it’s up to me,” she said.

“I believe in personal responsibility for each of us to care for our health and not leave it for the legislature to be mandating,” said Strong. “I feel like that the majority of Vermonters agree with me that they want to make their own decisions.”

The only thing Martel and Strong are OK with concerning the Monday legislative session is that it’s happening in person in the Statehouse. Neither is a fan of legislating in a virtual space.

“To do any kind of legislating we should be doing it in person, but I don’t think it should be on this issue,” said Strong.

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