Gov. Phil Scott and Health Commissioner Mark Levine at a recent press briefing
Gov. Phil Scott hinted Tuesday that he may require the wearing of masks in public if infection rates in other states continue to surge as college students prepare to return for classes and tourists flock to Vermont for fall foliage season.
While he stressed he won’t make an official decision until he sees the latest data, the governor said that national trends are troubling and could force him to impose the restriction he’s so far resisted in favor of education and encouragement.
“Looking across the country, we continue to see a forest fire spreading across the South and West, and things could shift back toward us,” Scott said. “We have to keep our guard up.”
During the four-month state of emergency to address the COVID-19 pandemic, Scott has often raised a policy change he’s considering in one press conference and announced it at the next. He said on Tuesday that data about infection rates in other states will be released Friday, and he said he’ll use that to guide his decision.
But even if a mask mandate is not announced at the end of this week, Scott said the current trends suggest one may be inevitable to preserve Vermont’s hard-won low infection rate and “stay one step ahead of the virus.”
“If it’s not Friday, it’ll be sometime in the future,” Scott said. “I just sense that what we’re seeing through the West and the South, and up the East Coast, it looks like it is coming back toward us, so we want to prepare.”
In addition to soaring case counts in California, Scott cited increasing infection rates in Virginia, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, all of which have had counties from which travelers to Vermont by car — if they meet the criteria — do not have to quarantine.
That fact, combined with college kids returning and tourists flocking to take in fall foliage, mean a mask mandate may be needed, he said.
Scott appeared conflicted on the issue, however.
Even as he acknowledged the possible need to pivot on the policy, he also touted the state’s low infection and hospitalization rates and the value of education over enforcement.
“I’m not convinced that if we had a mandated mask policy two months ago that our numbers would be any different than they are today,” Scott said.
It’s just as possible that such a mandate might reduce compliance among people who don’t appreciate being told what to do by their government, he said.
“People resist mandates. They resist being told what to do, particularly Vermonters, it seems,” Scott said.
He said he is friends “with many who bristle at the prospect” of such a government mandate.
Democratic candidates for governor have repeatedly criticized Scott for not implementing a public mask mandate, but the governor has repeatedly noted that California has a mandate — and it doesn't seem to have been effective.
“Education gets us better compliance, I believe,” he said.