Rep. Patty McCoy, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson and Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe at the Statehouse earlier this year
Updated at 4:20 p.m.
The leaders of the state Senate and House on Tuesday called for Gov. Phil Scott to require Vermonters to wear face masks while shopping and engaging in other public activities.
An executive order reopening retail stores on Monday mandated that employees wear face coverings, but the governor has resisted forcing customers to do the same. Speaking to reporters Tuesday morning, Senate President Pro Tempore Tim Ashe (D/P-Chittenden) said the edict had the "very strange consequence" of protecting the customer from the coronavirus, but not the employee.
"I feel like we would be doing everyone a favor by having one uniform policy," he said.
Ashe suggested that if Scott refused to change course, he would ask fellow senators whether they have "the appetite to push for a mandatory policy." The pro tem added, "It's not ideal for the legislature to be making public health orders, effectively, but if the governor isn't going to go there, then I think we've gotta at least debate the question."
In a separate interview on Tuesday, House Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) said she agreed that Scott should mandate the use of masks as he works to reopen the economy, calling it a "sensible" policy backed up by public health research.
"He has asked much more difficult things of Vermonters over the last two months, and overwhelmingly, Vermonters have complied and supported the governor's decisions and continue to do so," she said. "So I don't see what the problem is for him to include that as part of everything he's doing to help Vermonters stay safe."
Johnson, however, appeared more leery of legislative intervention than Ashe, arguing that the fluidity of the public health crisis demanded a swifter response than the legislature could deliver. "The law is not responsive to the health data coming back at us on a daily or weekly basis," she said. "The legislature can't update a law every two weeks. That's not feasible. That's not what we're built for. That's not our job. So I think it makes the most sense for the governor to include this."
"I'm not sure how much lower we can go than zero," Scott said at a press conference on Monday, referring to a recent day in which more than 700 tests were administered and no new coronavirus cases were detected. "We'll continue to monitor the data. And I'm not arrogant about this. If we see that the data isn't supporting what we're doing, we'll take action. We'll drop the ego, drop the politics and do what's best for Vermonters."
File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
Gov. Phil Scott wearing a face mask at an April press conference in Montpelier
In his remarks on Tuesday, Ashe suggested that Scott's health commissioner, Dr. Mark Levine, had failed to recommend a mask mandate or that Scott had ignored such a recommendation.
"I confess, I wish the governor would order it and that the commissioner of health would encourage the governor to do so, because we've been very disciplined as a legislature and as a state so far in following the guidance of our public health officials," Ashe said. "And I do worry a little bit about the precedent of saying we're going to follow the advice of the commissioner of health until we don't like it."
The Department of Health has issued guidance urging Vermonters to wear masks and has said that "compliance must be high for this strategy to work," but at Monday's press conference, Levine argued that additional enforcement was not necessary.
"I think the record stands for itself," the commissioner said. "Vermonters have been incredibly cooperative, incredibly compliant. And as we've said in the past, they've sacrificed. So they've done everything needed to be done to adhere to this without a lot of enforcement occurring."
But according to Ashe, the state's success tamping down the spread of the coronavirus was no reason to avoid additional measures to promote public health.
"It's kind of like saying doing your homework every night led you to get good grades. Now that you're getting good grades, why bother doing homework anymore?" he said. "I would say that we have to continue to have aggressive measures that are reasonable and allow people to start opening things up, because, frankly, the imposition of wearing a mask is far less than the imposition of another outbreak."
Ashe and Johnson also said Tuesday that Scott should agree to a proposal advanced by Secretary of State Jim Condos to make it easier for all Vermonters to vote by mail in this November’s general election.
Emergency legislation passed earlier this year empowered Scott, a Republican, and Condos, a Democrat, to move to a universal mail-in balloting system during the public health crisis, but the two men have been locked in a standoff over whether to do so. Condos has argued that the state must decide soon whether to send ballots to all active voters, while Scott has said the decision can wait.
In his remarks to reporters on Tuesday, Ashe lamented that the debate had become partisan in nature and urged Scott and Condos to reach consensus. “But if they don’t, we have to have clarity for people,” the pro tem said. “We can’t have months of uncertainty about how the election’s gonna be conducted, at this point.”
Ashe again threatened legislative action, which he said could begin in the Senate later this week. “If we’re going to, we should just do it swiftly — bring the question to a conclusion,” he said. “I will tell you I think we should go to a primarily mail-ballot election. I think almost everyone in the legislature believes that as well.”
Johnson said she agreed. “If the legislature is needed to take action on that, we’ll do that. At this point, nobody’s presented to me a reasonable downside,” she said. “We don’t want to be in the situation where there is some sort of fall resurgence of a virus and realize that we can’t get ballots printed at that point.”
Disclosure: Tim Ashe is the domestic partner of Seven Days publisher and coeditor Paula Routly. Find our conflict-of-interest policy here at sevendaysvt.com/disclosure.