Fully vaccinated people in Burlington will have to wait a while longer before they can enter a municipal building or local shop without wearing a mask.
City councilors decided at a special meeting on Monday to postpone until June 7 a vote to rescind the city's masking order, effectively keeping the rule in place for another three weeks. Only independent councilors Ali Dieng (Ward 7) and Mark Barlow (North District) voted against postponing the action. Councilor Chip Mason (D-Ward 5) was absent from the virtual meeting.
Several councilors expressed concern that retail workers — many of whom are younger and were in the last group to sign up for a vaccine — won't be fully vaccinated until June.
"I don't understand why we're exposing people who haven't even had the chance to be fully vaccinated yet," Councilor Zoraya Hightower (P-Ward 1) said. "I don't feel like that is leading with our values."
The Burlington mandate supersedes the latest guidance from the state, which allows vaccinated people to go mask-free in most situations. Gov. Phil Scott made the policy change last Friday — more than two weeks ahead of schedule — in response to updated health guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The city's mask order has been in place since May 2020, three months before Scott issued the statewide mask mandate.
Mayor Miro Weinberger, who had proposed lifting the city's mask ban, was disappointed in the council's decision, saying there's no justification to keep the order in place.
"It is a consequential vote — and really a departure from the success that has brought us here to this point — to start saying, 'We're gonna impose our opinion over the opinion of [Vermont Health Commissioner] Dr. Levine and the governor, over the opinion of the CDC,'" the mayor said. "It's not something I'm comfortable doing."
As with the statewide guidance, the mayor's plan would have still required unvaccinated people to wear masks indoors. People would have had to continue masking in health care settings, including long-term care facilities, and while using public transportation, regardless of their vaccination status.
Local businesses would have been able to set their own rules. Before the council vote, Weinberger argued that if Burlington kept its mask mandate, retail workers would have had to enforce a local rule "that is very different than what trusted state and federal experts are recommending.
"I think that is a very tough position to put them in," he said.
Many Queen City shops, however, had already elected to continue the mandate for a while longer, calling the governor's guidance premature. Hours after Scott announced the new policy, Burlington gift shop Common Deer had started distributing signs with the message "RESPECT WORKERS" to other businesses.
Progressive City Councilor Brian Pine, whose Ward 3 covers many downtown shops, suggested that retail workers may be at a higher risk from tourists visiting from places with lower vaccination rates. By comparison, close to 71 percent of Vermonters age 16 and older have received at least one dose of vaccine; 53 percent are fully inoculated, according to Vermont Department of Health data from Monday.
Brian Lowe, the city's chief innovation officer, said workers would be at a higher risk only if an unvaccinated person flouts the mask rule, has the virus, is infectious and has close contact with the worker.
"That is the risk that you are weighing here," Lowe said. "All four of those things would have to happen."
Councilor Jack Hanson (P-East District) said numerous retail workers have expressed concern about coming into contact with potentially dozens of unmasked people.
"They really have no way of knowing whether or not that person's been vaccinated or not. It's a really precarious position to put people in," he said. "To release this right before they are able to get vaccinated seems really unfair."