The Burlington City Council will hold a special meeting on December 1 to consider a citywide mask mandate for public indoor spaces, thanks to a new law allowing such rules to be in place through April 2022.
Released Tuesday, Mayor Miro Weinberger’s proposal would require people to mask up in buildings open to the public unless those establishments can verify that employees and customers have been vaccinated against the coronavirus.
“We have reached a confusing and uncertain moment in our long battle against the global COVID-19 pandemic,” Weinberger said in a statement, noting that Vermont’s per capita case rate is among the highest in the country.
“In drafting this new mask mandate,” the mayor continued, “the City team has sought to strike a balance with a structure that both protects public health and supports the local businesses we are asking to partner with us on the frontline of our community pandemic response.”
The move comes hours after Gov. Phil Scott signed into law a bill allowing cities and towns to enact temporary masking rules starting November 29. The mandate can last for 45 days, but can be extended for 30 days at a time through April 30, 2022.
Legislators had been pushing for a statewide mask mandate, but Scott has said such a measure would be ineffective and divisive. Scott, a Republican, reiterated that point at his COVID-19 press briefing on Tuesday, calling the bill a compromise for the “extreme differences of opinion” between his administration and the Democrat-controlled legislature.
Burlington’s mandate would cover public transportation such as buses, trains, taxis, and ride shares. It would also have a number of exemptions, including for businesses whose workers undergo regular testing and for employees who don’t interact with the public. The city’s mandate does not extend to schools, which follow Agency of Education masking guidance, or to houses of worship.
The city could also decide to suspend the mandate if the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention determines that Chittenden County residents have a “moderate” risk of contracting COVID-19. As of now, community transmission is “high,” according to CDC data.
Weinberger proposed the rules after meeting with about three dozen business leaders on Zoom. During the hourlong discussion Tuesday morning, Weinberger said that the council was poised to pass a mask mandate regardless of his position on the matter.
Several business owners were skeptical about the efficacy of another mask mandate. Burlington’s original masking rules lasted until early June, about two weeks after state officials rescinded the statewide order. At that time, councilors then that they wanted to give the city’s retail workers, many of whom are younger and were among the last to be vaccinated, more time to get jabbed.
But on Tuesday’s call, some business owners said employees are tired of masking up and that the mandates put staff in a position to have to argue with anti-maskers. Allen Caruso, co-owner of the Thorn + Roots restaurant on Church Street, said such interactions are “very difficult and very upsetting.”
“We've lost employees due to irate customers, and I can no longer put that responsibility on my team member who is coming in for their hourly job,” Caruso said.
Gordon Winters, who owns the City Hardware store downtown, said his business has struggled to hire workers. A mask mandate, he said, could make a retail job less attractive to potential employees.
Others said that a mask mandate would create consistent expectations for shopping downtown, and would take the pressure off of employees to enforce a store’s mandate if the shop next door doesn’t have one. Several said that many customers already mask up without an issue.
Claire Giroux-Williams, co-owner of the Burlington Paint and Sip Studio, said several would-be customers have told her they won't come to paint events if they have to wear a mask. Giroux-Williams said her staffers aren’t qualified to verify whether a customer’s vaccination card is real or counterfeit.
Weinberger countered that some people may be more likely to visit businesses that require proof of vaccination.
“I guess I'm asking you all to be open to the possibility that, if we got this right, there might actually be some public health positives to some well-crafted rules at this point in the pandemic,” he said.