NEK Towns Mixed On Mask Mandate

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)

The new authority granted to municipalities to enact a local mask mandate is seeing a mixed reaction from local towns.

At least two towns have enacted a mandate requiring masks be worn in public buildings, while others specifically decided against the measure and others haven’t even taken it up.

Last week Peacham and Danville both passed similar ordinances on back-to-back nights. Peacham passed its mandate on Wednesday, followed by Danville on Thursday. The two ordinances rely on an ordinance template created by the Vermont League of Cities and Towns.

The mandates state all individuals are required to wear face coverings while indoors at locations that are open to the public except for children under 2-years-old and anyone eating or drinking at an establishment that serves food or beverage.

The ordinance in both towns is effective for no more than 45 days during which time the select boards will need to meet and decide to renew the ordinance for additional 30 days periods.

Both ordinances were supported by local health care professionals. In Peacham, Dr. Josh Kantrowitz, a pediatrician who serves as the town’s health officer, explained that while not 100 percent effective, masks are useful, low cost and effective, states the minutes from the meeting.

During Peacham’s meeting, which was attended by several members of the public, the board decided to not include fines for violations. VLCT had also created an ordinance template that included potential enforcement. The three members, Beatrice Ring, Peter Craig and Richard Browne were all in favor of the ordinance.

Danville’s meeting followed suit. The hybrid meeting was held online and at the town’s board room in the municipal building with several members of the public present. Following a lengthy discussion, the board, consisting of Ken Linsley, Eric Bach, Kellie Merrell, Kristin Franson and Peter Griffin, unanimously approved the ordinance.

Part of their consideration was a letter from a dozen current and retired doctors who live in Danville urging the board to enact a mandate.

“We are disappointed that Governor Scott has not reinstated a mask mandate, and has instead left the decision to each town. This shifts the burden to you as the select board to make a decision that may be unpopular with a very impassioned and vocal minority,” wrote the doctors. “As a group of medical providers residing in Danville, we would like to give you full support in initiating a local mask mandate.”

The letter cited the current surge of cases in Vermont and the state of the virus in Caledonia County and indicated masks are safe and effective and there has been no study to show wearing a mask is harmful.

“Governor Scott has argued that wearing a mask should be left up to individuals. But clearly, that is not working. As we move through our community, it is clear that while most people wore masks last winter and spring, hardly anyone is masking at this time,” the doctors wrote. “We are all exhausted by this pandemic and are in some ways in denial that it is getting worse again. It is harder to wear a mask when others are not. The current message is — if there is no mask mandate, then wearing a mask must not be that important. That is not true. If we all wear masks, we will be protecting each other, protecting our community, reminding each other that we care about each other.”

Following their vote, Danville town officials sent a letter to businesses in town explaining the new ordinance and providing safety materials that they could chose to post in their establishments.

“It is our hope that this mandate will help to keep the citizens of Danville safe, as well as move us closer to the end of the pandemic,” wrote the board.

Board Member Kellie Merrell said Tuesday, “The overwhelming majority of feedback that board members have been getting is positive.”

During Tuesday’s media briefing, Gov. Phil Scott said the municipal response to the authority granted them last month to enact a local mandate is about what he expected.

“It’s not surprising at this point in time. I had thought there would be some who would take advantage of this and they have, and others would determine they wouldn’t think it would be effective for their communities,” said Scott. “I think it’s been a balance and it’s not unexpected.”

NEK Cases Climb Again

Following a lull during the Thanksgiving holiday, likely due to reduced testing, cases in the Northeast Kingdom have climbed in recent days to near-record highs. The 7-day average of new cases has topped 61 cases per day in the NEK for only the second time. This includes four straight days of more than 75 cases each between Wednesday and Saturday. The NEK total now stands at 7,132 cases with 428 cases in the last week.

In addition, another Orleans County resident has died of COVID-19, the county’s 26th fatality. There have been 2 deaths in Essex County and 21 in Caledonia County, according to the Health Department.

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