Vermont lawmakers on Monday grudgingly approved a bill to let individual cities and towns pass temporary mask mandates, but only after blasting Gov. Phil Scott for giving them the choice to do little else.
The bill passed the special legislative session by wide margins — 17-10 in the Senate and 90-41 in the House — but many lawmakers who voted for it said they did so only because Scott continued to oppose the broader mask mandate they preferred.
“What we need is a statewide response,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Becca Balint (D-Windham). “We need our executive branch, our governor and our Department of Health to step up and protect the people of Vermont when we are facing the most challenging and difficult time of the pandemic in Vermont.”
That wasn’t part of the deal, however, a fact that deeply frustrated lawmakers who worried that deep inequities could emerge from a town-by-town, patchwork response to the global pandemic.
Vermont has gone from having one of the lowest infection rates in the nation to one of the highest. State officials said last week that rates rose 16 percent over the previous week and 64 percent over two weeks.
Rep. Tanya Vyhovsky (P/D-Essex) said Scott has “abdicated his responsibility” to protect Vermonters, much like when the state left back-to-school masking decisions to individual school boards. But Vyhovsky said she would support the limited mask mandate bill because it might still do some good for a few cities and towns.
“I am forced to vote for a policy I do not support on its merits because it is better than nothing at all,” Vyhovsky said.
In August, Scott blocked Brattleboro from passing its own mask mandate, arguing that without a state of emergency, the city didn’t have the authority to enact such rules for anything except its municipal buildings.
But pressure mounted throughout the fall as COVID-19 infections spiked, and more and more municipalities expressed interest in mandates while lawmakers sharpened their criticism of the governor.
When the influential Vermont League of Cities and Towns recently backed giving local governments that power, Scott agreed to grant limited authority for local mandates if the legislature signed off.
Under the law passed Monday, city councils and selectboards can now mandate facial coverings be worn inside public and private buildings that are open to the public. The local ordinances can go into effect November 29 through April 30, 2022.
The buildings include not only libraries and town offices, but supermarkets and most retail businesses. Schools and buildings not open to the public such as private homes or office buildings are exempt. The mandates can only be temporary, up to 45 days, with 30-day extensions.
Burlington could be among the municipalities that creates a local ordinance, but it's unclear when city officials will take action.
"We are reviewing the legislation and considering it carefully, and will have more details to release before the holiday," Samantha Sheehan, a spokesperson for Mayor Miro Weinberger, said in a statement.
Scott’s general counsel, Jay Pershing Johnson, said the governor's willingness to sign the law reflected a spirit of compromise with lawmakers and his desire not to dilute his executive authority.
“We are using a constitutional process to get to this resolution rather than unilateral executive action,” she told the House Committee on Government Operations.
If supporters of the bill were less than thrilled with it, opponents, mostly Republicans, outright condemned it. Sen. Randy Brock (R-Franklin) called the push for mask mandates “heavy handed” that risked “hardening the attitudes” of the small number of Vermonters who were opposed to mask wearing when necessary.
“I don’t not believe this bill is helpful, and I do not believe this bill will accomplish what was intended,” Brock said.
Sen. Joe Benning (R-Caledonia) said that high transmission rates were a concern, but a number of other metrics such as the state’s high vaccination and low hospitalization rates made mandates unnecessary.
And Rep. Mark Higley (R-Lowell) said residents in his area had plenty of reason to question whether the government overreach was a real risk, citing a report of police officers threatening to arrest students for trespassing for not complying with school mask policies.
“This is just ludicrous in my mind,” Higley said.
Critics of the bill crowded outside the Statehouse to express their discontent with the proposal being debated inside. Ann Wakeen, 58, of Woodbury, was arrested for criminal trespassing after she refused to leave the Statehouse, according to a report from the Capitol Police Department.
Andy Loughney of Guilford stood in the rain outside the Statehouse with a large sign that read: “It’s a quick and slippery slope to Tyranny.”
Encouraging people to wear masks is fine, he said, but requiring it violates personal liberties. How is a person supposed to eat, he asked, if they don’t want to wear a mask in public but all the food markets in their area require it?
While he acknowledged that giving local government the power to do something on a limited basis wasn’t quite tyranny, he said the protest was a prelude to the inevitable battle in Brattleboro.
"This is just the start," Loughney said as his child slid down a slippery sheet of plastic on the Statehouse lawn.
Back inside the Senate chamber, Balint reminded her colleagues that they often talk about valuing local control. But in Brattleboro's case, Scott refused to give a local community with a high number of tourists control over the health of its own citizens.
“We are here because they passed that [ordinance] and then were told by the governor that he would not sign off,” she said. “That’s why we’re here.”