Gov. Phil Scott and Health Commissioner Mark Levine at a press briefing
Updated at 5 p.m.
Vermonters who are fully vaccinated do not need to wear masks or socially distance in many settings, Gov. Phil Scott said on Friday, rules that adhere to new federal guidance.
The governor also relaxed gathering limits and lifted all domestic travel restrictions. The switch comes more than two weeks before the anticipated date of June 1 for the changes. The moves are effective as soon as Scott signs an executive order, which he planned to do later Friday.
The announcements are significant steps toward normalcy as the proportion of adults who have received at least one vaccine dose crosses 70 percent. Nearly 52 percent have completed their vaccine regimen. Children ages 12 to 15 are also now eligible to get vaccinated.
"It's time to reward all the hard work you've done over the last 14 months," Scott said.
The change caught businesses off guard, forcing them to make quick decisions about their own workplace policies and making plans for dealing with newly liberated customers.
“People are already ripping the mask off,” said Erin Sigrist, president of the Vermont Retail & Grocers Association, “but there hasn’t been time for businesses to wrap their head around what this means as an employer.”
The masking exemption for vaccinated people follows U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines announced on Thursday, which itself was a surprising acceleration in the pace of reopening. Some states, mostly those controlled by Republican governors, had already lifted mask mandates earlier in the spring.
Masks will still be required in Vermont for anyone in health care settings, including long-term care homes, as well as correctional facilities, homeless shelters and on public transit. Governments, businesses, and workplaces may continue to require masks on their property, Health Commissioner Mark Levine said during one of the Scott administration's twice-weekly COVID-19 press conferences.
Fully vaccinated is defined as anyone who is more than two weeks beyond their final vaccine dose.
The City of Burlington, which has had its own mask mandate in place since May 2020, plans to adopt the state's position.
Mayor Miro Weinberger said in a statement Friday afternoon that the city will no longer enforce its mandate for fully vaccinated people, and that he would ask the city council to formally rescind the requirement next week. Weinberger said the switch should provide "good motivation for our friends and neighbors who are [not] yet vaccinated to do so as quickly as possible."
A city spokesperson said fully vaccinated municipal employees and visitors to city-owned buildings will not need to wear masks. The mayor's office planned to send revised guidance to city staff later on Friday, she said.
In relaxing the mandate, Scott cited the CDC’s assertion that people who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 are largely protected from contracting or spreading the disease. Administration officials said the change was warranted given Vermont’s relatively high vaccination rate.
Scott said he would not wear a mask when attending his next press conference, on Tuesday.
"I understand there might be some who are still uncomfortable, a little hesitant, and that's OK," Scott said. "The fact is, if you're fully vaccinated, the health experts at the CDC have determined that there's very little risk.”
Scott said policing of maskless privileges should be left to the honor system, similar to how travel restrictions were enforced during the pandemic. Businesses could hypothetically — and legally — ask maskless patrons to show their vaccine cards, he noted.
But as of Friday, federal workplace regulations still require masks and other protective measures, Sigrist said. Her organization is strongly encouraging members to hold fast to those rules, at least for now. Businesses that do lift mask mandates for customers, she said, should still require them of their employees.
“We want to make sure that employees are as safe as possible and ensure that customers are safe, as well,” she said.
Sigrist speculated that many businesses would try to stay the course but worried about the added challenges of dealing with customers who are noncompliant or confused. Fears about maskless work environments could also discourage employees from remaining or returning to work, she said, potentially compounding a pandemic-induced labor shortage.
In an Instagram post, Common Deer, a gift shop in downtown Burlington, called the relaxed state and federal rules “a bit premature," noting that many retail and restaurant workers are younger adults who aren’t yet fully vaccinated. By Friday afternoon, the shop had already printed new signs with “RESPECT WORKERS” printed around an image of a surgical mask. Common Deer was offering the signs to other businesses to put in their front windows.
New COVID-19 cases have been gradually tapering for the last month, with 58 new infections statewide on Thursday.
Earlier in the spring, the Scott administration put forward a roadmap to reopening that projected loosening restrictions at the beginning of each month. Scott on Friday moved up the next step, Step 3, by more than two weeks due to progress in the state’s vaccination campaign.
Under the new rules, up to 900 unvaccinated people can gather outdoors, or one unvaccinated person per 50 square feet of indoor space, up to 300. There are no gathering limits for fully vaccinated people.