Brattleboro orders use of face masks

Selectboard member says that vote to require use of cloth masks inside businesses will let the town ‘be the bad guy’

BRATTLEBORO — After two months of closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic, retail stores within Vermont reopened for business - with limitations - on May 22.

As part of Gov. Phil Scott's executive order that gave stores the green light to reopen with precautions, the state is requiring employees to wear face coverings or work behind a plexiglas sneeze guard when in the presence of others.

Scott also said that municipalities could pass stricter mandates, and the town wasted no time taking him up on that.

At their May 19 meeting, Selectboard members unanimously passed an emergency resolution that requires customers or visitors to wear face masks when frequenting businesses indoors.

The emergency order pertains to both for-profit businesses and non-profit organizations.

Exemptions to the order include children under the age of 5, people who have trouble breathing, people who are unconscious, or those who can't remove a mask without assistance.

Similar to the signage many businesses post about “no shoes, no shirt, no service,” businesses must hang signs telling customers and visitors that they must wear masks.

The board approved the resolution after a lengthy discussion. A follow-up meeting to gather community input took place May 26, after this issue of The Commons went to press.

At the board's May 19 meeting, board member Daniel Quipp broached the subject, expressing disappointment that Scott's order did not go further.

Quipp noted that multiple community members had contacted him in favor of passing an ordinance that would require people to wear masks in public.

In his view, wearing masks in public protects public health. As the state reopens and more people visit, the town would risk seeing an increase in COVID-19 cases, Quipp said.

Located across the Connecticut River from New Hampshire, the town is 11 miles from the Massachusetts state line, 90 minutes from the Connecticut state line, 2{1/2} hours from Boston, and four hours from New York City. The same proximity to the Northeast's population centers that makes Brattleboro a tourist mecca also leaves its residents vulnerable, Quipp said.

According to the Vermont Department of Health, as of May 24, Windham County ranked third in Vermont for the number of COVID-19 cases, with 80, and Brattleboro's number of confirmed COVID-19 cases was 17.

That might be a small number, Quipp said, but it's still a lot when compared to other areas of the state.

Though its percentage of positive cases falls behind the rates of Chittenden and Essex counties, Windham County's statistic is still far higher than the rest of the state.

“The town can be the bad guy sometimes, and that's OK; it has broad shoulders, and we were elected to do this,” he said.

Board member Brandie Starr echoed Quipp's comments, saying that people's emotions are running high around COVID-19 in general and wearing masks in public specifically.

Starr favored the board passing a resolution that people wear masks but cautioned, “I just have a little bit of a concern with people policing each other with high emotions.”

Board Vice-Chair Elizabeth McLoughlin agreed that people should wear masks in public. She also felt that signs issued by the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance symbolized that “all of Brattleboro's commerce is asking with one voice, and I think that's stronger - and I'm content with that.”

One of her concerns with an ordinance was that it would be difficult to enforce, which would mean that people would take it on themselves to act as the “mask police.”

Board Chair Tim Wessel said he “had no desire” to pass an ordinance and said that the board has tried to remove any unenforceable ordinances. But Wessel said that he could get behind a policy or resolution.

Acknowledging the new phase that the community is entering now that Scott has started to reopen the economy, Wessel noted that everyone “has different levels of anxiety” and “risk tolerance” around the COVID-19 virus.

Community members need to remain understanding and patient with one another, he said. Wessel urged townspeople to wear a mask when other people are doing so, or when in an indoor space.

He noted that it's a good bet that people will be within 6 feet of each other when indoors, and pointed out that wearing a mask also supports people who are working in the downtown who are following Scott's orders to wear them.

“For me, it feels like a sign of respect and personal safety, not just for yourself, but for others,” he said.

Board Clerk Ian Goodnow noted that resolutions recently passed by Burlington and South Burlington could not be enforced. He felt that an unenforceable ordinance for Brattleboro would be problematic.

Most members of the public who weighed in on the May 19 conversation supported the board passing a resolution. They said that such a measure would make them feel safer and would make doing business easier because the requirement would set up a clear expectation for everyone to follow.

Kate O'Connor, executive director of the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce, expressed concern about how the resolution came before the board.

O'Connor said she had no feeling pro or con on wearing masks, but pointed out that the issue was not on the agenda, she said, so community members - and business owners, above all - wouldn't realize they could weigh in on the issue.

“It's unfair to have the conversation without people knowing it was going to take place,” she said.

Town Manager Peter Elwell said that an ordinance “would be difficult to enforce consistently” given the town's and police department's resources.

Elwell, in anticipation of the night's conversation, had spoken with the town attorney, Bob Fisher, and drafted language for an emergency resolution.

He said that passing an emergency resolution that was not on the agenda would be “unusual, but not inappropriate, and certainly not illegal.”

Elwell and Fisher told the board that such a resolution would be permissible under Scott's statewide emergency COVID-19 order.

Wilmington passes emergency order

Brattleboro's mask order remains in effect until either the Selectboard rescinds it, or Scott ends the statewide COVID-19 emergency order.

Wilmington's Selectboard passed a similar emergency order at a special board meeting on May 21.

That board's order stated that “any member of the public entering a business located in the town of Wilmington that will be open to the public or a town-owned building must wear a face covering over their mouth and nose that is consistent with the Vermont Department of Health's guidance on face coverings.”

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