Colchester selectboard members at their November 10 meeting
Members of the Colchester Selectboard have been holding in-person meetings for months without wearing masks — but not because they object to the state's COVID-19 rules.
Instead, town leaders believed Gov. Phil Scott's mask mandate didn't apply as long as selectboard members sat more than six feet apart.
In reality, the July order requires that masks be worn in all public venues, a state spokesperson said on Monday.
The Colchester misunderstanding apparently went unnoticed until Seven Days contacted Town Manager Aaron Frank about the issue on Tuesday.
In an interview, Frank was initially adamant that the town was on the right side of the mask mandate. "I believe we are in compliance, if you read the governor's order and look at the facts," he said.
After the interview, Frank contacted state officials, who clarified the rule. Selectboard members will wear masks at future meetings, the town manager said.
While many Vermont cities and towns have continued to hold public meetings virtually, Colchester Selectboard members opted to return to in-person meetings over the summer. Frank reconfigured the board's regular meeting space to allow social distancing, buying longer microphone cords, for instance, so members could sit farther apart. Members of the public have continued to participate in person and remotely.
At the beginning of each recent meeting, the board chair has read the town's COVID-19 meeting policy, which said that board members "may remain unmasked as they so choose, given that we are distanced" and other attendees "may unmask when they are speaking."
The policy was created without consulting the state. "We're quite conversant in reading the governor's orders and determining what they mean," Frank said.
Th order reads:
Vermonters shall wear masks or cloth facial coverings over their nose and mouth any time they are in public spaces, indoors or outdoors, where they come in contact with others from outside their households, especially in congregate settings, and where it is not possible to maintain a physical distance of at least six feet.
Vermont public information officer Mark Bosma said on Tuesday that the state understood Colchester's confusion with the guidance and would work to "clear up the language" in the future.
"That said, I have not heard of any other towns experiencing similar confusion," he said.
Video from the first in-person meeting on August 4 shows everyone wearing masks until the end of the meeting, when then-chair Jeff Bartley removed his to announce his resignation from the selectboard. Mask usage diminished significantly at subsequent meetings, including the most recent one on November 10.
Board chair Pam Loranger did not respond to requests for comment.
Frank emphasized that town leaders have been active proponents of COVID-19 safety measures, including passing out free masks and regularly sharing state guidance with Colchester residents.
As coronavirus cases surged in recent weeks, Scott released an order on November 13 in which he "strongly discouraged" any in-person meetings, municipal governments included.
Colchester has since restricted in-person attendance for members of the public, but Frank said selectboard members were still planning to gather on Tuesday night for a budget work session.