Burlington approves mask mandate

Burlington city councilors unanimously approved a mask mandate during a special meeting Wednesday, as the coronavirus continues to spread in the community.
Published: Dec. 1, 2021 at 6:15 AM EST|Updated: Dec. 2, 2021 at 6:25 AM EST
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - Starting Friday, masks will be required in certain places in Burlington.

Wednesday night, city councilors unanimously supported the decision during a special meeting called for by the mayor. It calls for masks in retail shops and theaters regardless of vaccination status, but proof of vaccination can exempt people from the new rule in restaurants, bars, and gyms. The mandate does not apply to places of worship or schools, which follow separate guidance.

The vote came as crowds tried to convince councilors to their side. “Once these masks don’t work, what’s next is we need to mandate vaccines? As an American, I never thought we’d get to this point and it scares me,” said Mike Gonzoles of Burlington.

“We have a high vaccination rate and that’s fantastic, but it’s clear we need multilayer mitigation strategies during this surge. We’re entering winter when most people are going to spend most time inside. If we don’t protect ourselves and our communities right now, we are failing,” said Jennifer Moore of Burlington.

Councilor Joan Shannon, D-South, says there are good arguments for and against the mandate, but at the end of the day, hospital workers are overwhelmed and it’s up to the community to do what they can. “I don’t agree with people who say it’s their constitutional right to not wear a mask. Is it my constitutional right to not wear a shirt and go to the supermarket?” she said.

Council President Max Tracy, P-Ward 2, says Wednesday’s decision is the result of Governor Phil Scott’s failure to issue a statewide mandate. “We haven’t really seen a change in strategy from the administration and I think it’s particularly upsetting he’s forced municipalities to have meetings like this,” he said.

During the meeting, councilors did acknowledge Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine’s statement about most COVID spread happening through small private gatherings. They say this mandate won’t stop the spread, but will hopefully slow it down.

In 30 days, councilors will be required to reconsider the ordinance.

UVM Medical Center President Dr. Stephen Leffler supports masking in indoor public spaces but also encourages people to protect themselves with the vaccine. “The guidance right now we are still following at the hospital is masks and vaccine. But I understand why a policy like that could drive up vaccination rates. So, I’ll finish with anything that gets more people vaccinated in Vermont is a good thing,” he said.

Governor Phil Scott at Tuesday’s media briefing urged people not to get bogged down in the semantics of mask mandates, but rather the fact that masks work and should be worn.

However, are the masks being worn in the places where transmission is likely to be at its highest? Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Levine says Vermonters underestimate when the masks are most effective -- which is at private events. He says if you had four families over to your home, that is a much more dangerous environment to be in than heading to the supermarket. However, masking in public is advised by the administration and health professionals. Levine says people should voluntarily consider masking up when having others in their home. “I would like people to think about where they may not be wearing masks right now but where the exposure risk might be higher than they might have anticipated even with people they trust and are good friends with and all of that because it’s a time of high virus community transmission,” he said.

Other municipalities have also been weighing in on mandates. Brattleboro, Rutland Town, and Warren have voted to require masks for indoor public spaces, but the town of Hartford has voted not to adopt a community-wide mandate.

Related stories:

Vermont towns weigh in on mask mandates

Vermont hits COVID hospitalization record

Burlington mayor proposes city mask mandate

Masks now required inside Vermont state offices

Vt. lawmakers push for mask mandate; Scott wary of ‘abusing’ emergency powers

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