The angry swarm of anti-maskers who descended on Burlington City Hall on Wednesday tried their hardest to convince city councilors to vote down a new masking ordinance.
But the belligerent crowd ultimately failed, and the council unanimously approved an indoor mask mandate.
The Queen City measure, which goes into effect on Friday, requires people to mask up in most buildings open to the public, but not in places such as office buildings. A handful of businesses — restaurants, bars and gyms — are exempt from the rule if they can verify that patrons are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Proposed by Mayor Miro Weinberger last week, the plan drew more than a dozen maskless critics to the special meeting. Many spoke over their allotted two-minute time limit during the meeting's public forum, ignoring Council President Max Tracy (P-Ward 2) as he repeatedly asked them to "please wrap up."
Speakers read from studies they claimed proved that masks are harmful to the wearer, or are completely ineffective. Others — including Bill Moore of Johnson, who toted a pizza box-turned-protest sign that read "$hopping Anywere [sic] But Here" — vowed they'd boycott Burlington shops if they had to mask up. Moore also yelled out that he'd give councilors $50 for a "no" vote (none accepted).
As the body attempted to deliberate, audience members screamed at and heckled the councilors, calling them tyrants for tromping on their individual liberties. At one point, Councilor Joan Shannon (D-South District) said she'd heard some persuasive arguments against a masking ordinance but that the audience's persistent jeering was "pushing me in the opposite direction."
Councilor Chip Mason (D-Ward 5) said he considered not speaking up in favor of the ordinance so as to avoid the audience's wrath. But "that gives you the victory ... that you don't deserve by simply yelling at us," he said.
"Individual liberties have to be curtailed at times for public health reasons," Mason said, "and we are at that point in time."
On Wednesday, Vermont reported 497 new cases and 81 hospitalizations due to COVID-19, down slightly from Tuesday's record-high 84. The University of Vermont Medical Center announced it would postpone hundreds of surgeries and convert seven operating rooms into overflow intensive care beds for coronavirus patients.
Also Wednesday, the United States reported its first case of the Omicron strain of the virus, which the World Health Organization has labeled "a variant of concern" that poses "very high" global health risks.
The council's vote comes a week after Vermont lawmakers convened a special session to pass a bill allowing the temporary municipal mandates. The legislation allows cities and towns to enact local masking rules for an initial 45-day period, which can be extended for 30 days at a time through April 30, 2022. Burlington's mandate will be effective for an initial 30-day period, though the city can choose not to enforce it if transmission levels slow, according to the resolution.
Police can ticket people who violate the measure with a $50 fine for the first offense and escalating fines for further infractions. People who refuse to mask up could be asked to comply or leave the building, the resolution says.
Burlington's ordinance doesn't apply to vaccinated workers who don't interact with the public, or to people attending houses of worship. Schools, which follow state Agency of Education masking guidance, are also exempt. It does apply to users of public transportation, including buses and taxis or ride-share vehicles.
Council President Tracy told reporters before the meeting that the Progressive caucus planned to amendWeinberger's proposal to require mask-wearing in all public buildings, regardless of a person's vaccination status. But once Weinberger said he wouldn't accept any modifications to his plan, the Progs abandoned that tack and opted for a compromise.
Weinberger's original plan would have allowed patrons of retail shops, food and beverage establishments, gyms, movie theaters or other "high-traffic" businesses to forgo masking with proof of vaccination. But Councilor Joe Magee (P-Ward 3), who attended the meeting remotely because he was recovering from a breakthrough COVID-19 infection, proposed keeping a mask requirement at shops and theaters.
Weinberger said he'd prefer that retailers be allowed to opt for proof of vaccination, but agreed to Magee's proposal.
"I'm open to this amendment," the mayor said,"and I appreciate the spirit of trying to get it right."
Watch the full meeting below, courtesy of Town Meeting TV: