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Vt. lawmakers vote to give communities the greenlight to pass mask mandates

Published: Nov. 22, 2021 at 7:35 AM EST|Updated: Nov. 22, 2021 at 5:41 PM EST
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MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) - A mask mandate could be coming to a town near you. Vermont lawmakers returned to the Statehouse in Montpelier for a special session on Monday to give communities the greenlight to pass their own mask mandates.

The final vote counts during the special session were 90-41 in the House and 17-10 in the Senate.

Lawmakers have been passionately debating the policy and how best to proceed in the face of rising case counts.

It was the first time lawmakers were back at the Statehouse since the pandemic broke out. Senate lawmakers met in a hybrid format. All 150 House members met in person because their last adjournment resolution didn’t give them the tools to meet remotely.

It was all to pass one bill already agreed upon by Gov. Phil Scott: allowing towns to pass their own mask mandates for 30-day increments until the end of April and schools are exempt. The first round of mask mandates would last 45 days however.

Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint has called on Governor Scott to implement a statewide mask mandate, but she says the new policy is better than nothing. “We want to make sure we are keeping local people safe, businesses safe and if towns feel like one way to do that is through masking, they should be able to make that decision themselves,” said Sen. President Pro Tem Becca Balint, D-Windham County.

With high delta case counts and strained hospital capacity, Democratic lawmakers have been calling for a statewide mask mandate. On Monday, the Senate also passed

The governor has pushed back on broad restrictions, pointing to our high vaccination rate and saying an emergency isn’t needed.

Some say the bill creates unnecessary conflict and that Vermonters have the tools to make their own choices.

“We have division, divisiveness, we have anger. I think this will actually set back the rate of compliance,” said Sen. Randy Brock, R-Franklin County.

Outside, a group of protesters pushed back on the policy. They say mandates over masks or vaccines are government overreach and decision-makers aren’t listening to their concerns.

“There are voices out here with many professionals that are not being listened to. They are not welcomed to the debate, they are being shut out,” said Matthew Sellers of East Montpelier.

But some think the bill doesn’t go far enough.

Lawmakers brought in public health expert Anne Sosin, a Dartmouth College policy fellow, to testify. She called for another approach-- a data-driven mask mandate which would turn on and off depending on the infection rate in counties. Sosin says

“There are six states that reinstituted mask mandates when the CDC changed its guidance in July, all of these six states have mask compliance that is significantly higher than the state of Vermont’s,” Sosin said. “We see when states implement policies, masking increases significantly,”

Pandemic policy is far from over. Some lawmakers say that even with this policy in place, they will consider additional COVID-19 bills when the Legislature returns in January.

Statehouse staffers say Gov. Scott has received the bill and has until Saturday at midnight to act on it. If he gives it his seal of approval, it’s then in the hands of Vermont select boards and city councils.

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