Burlington City Council Rolls Back Mask Ban | Off Message

Burlington City Council Rolls Back Mask Ban


Vermont Furs member Jessica Owens in costume - FILE: MATTHEW THORSEN
  • File: Matthew Thorsen
  • Vermont Furs member Jessica Owens in costume
People who wear masks aren't an especially powerful constituency, but in Burlington they succeeded in convincing the city council to substantially relax an ordinance that banned people over 21 from wearing them in public.

The movers and shakers behind the effort: a group called the Vermont Furs, who are members of the “furry” fandom. Enthusiastic about anthropomorphic cartoon animals, they dress up in hirsute costumes, but had been told that the mask ordinance prohibited them from doing so in public in Burlington. The ACLU of Vermont also played a key role, arguing that the ordinance violated First Amendment rights.

Monday night, the full city council approved a revised ordinance that outlaws masks only if someone is wearing one with the intent of committing a crime, or to intimidate people or infringe on their civil rights.

Members of the Vermont Furs, who have testified in favor of the changes at multiple meetings, hugged each other in the hallway after the vote.

The ACLU, however, isn’t completely satisfied with the outcome. Arguing that it remains “highly susceptible to selective enforcement by police,” the organization posed the following question: “If a person is wearing a mask and not doing anything else suspicious or illegal, how can law enforcement suspect that the person intends to violate another’s rights, harass or intimidate, or is planning to commit a crime, without detaining them for questioning?”

Several councilors raised concerns along these lines. Sara Giannoni observed, “It seems like this is kind of subjective.”

In response, Police Chief Brandon del Pozo testified in favor of keeping the partial mask ban in place, saying that it preserves a tool for law enforcement. 

Ultimately, the council unanimously supported the changes but suggested the ordinance may need to be revisited in the future.