MONTPELIER — Citing the rise of COVID-19 cases nationally and indications that the virus is spreading back to the Northeast, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott on Friday ordered the wearing of masks in public places starting Aug. 1.
To this point, Scott has resisted a full statewide mandate, preferring education and encouragement on the benefits of mask wearing to a mandate that many might resist. He's cited Vermont's positive results in preventing spread of the virus, and its low rate of hospitalizations and deaths, as evidence that what the state is doing is working.
But the spread of the virus across the country, and outreach from Vermont business owners who asked Scott for a statewide back-up to local mandates, led the governor to adopt the change, he said.
"We need to be sure we are protecting the gains we made, Scott said. "We all want to keep moving forward. No one wants to retreat."
The mandate will exempt people under the age of 2 and people who have medical reasons for not wearing masks. There is not a fine for non-compliance at this point, Scott said, but the order allows businesses to refuse service to customers not wearing masks.
"We know compliance is going to be difficult," Scott said. "So were going to continue with the education process. We haven't put a fine structure in place .... We want people to do the right thing, prepare for this, and understand this is in the best interest for all of us."
Scott asked the public to not engage in shaming and confrontations with people not wearing masks when the mandate takes place. "Let's give each other the benefit of the doubt," he said.
And for Vermonters who have resisted, "I'm asking you to look at the data," Scott said.
Workers are already required to wear face coverings over their nose and mouth when in the presence of others. The mandate, which Scott said he signed Friday, will require mask wearing indoors in public places, and outdoors in areas where social distancing is not possible.
Asked if he was concerned that the mandate might hurt local business, Scott said on the contrary, he’s hopeful that increased mask-wearing will encourage people who have relied on internet purposes to return to in-person shopping.
“If we want kids to go back to school, if we want the places we work or eat or shop to stay open, if we want hospitals to be available when we need help, then wearing a mask is the best way to do that,” Scott said.
“Please help us out … not because it’s mandated, because it's the right thing to do,” Scott said. “I’m asking you to take personal responsibility because we must continue to fight these battles to win this war.”
Scott announced the changes following a presentation by Michael Pieciak, Commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation, showing that the national and regional increases in COVID-19 cases and deaths stands in contrast to Vermont’s success in controlling the spread of the virus.
Vermont has the lowest seven-day average of COVID-19 hospitalizations at 4.34 per million, in COVID-19 deaths per million people at 0, Pieciak said
But across New England, New York and Quebec, the number of confirmed cases has risen in the past week by 8.13 percent, Pieciak said, and new case growth in the region has risen by 21.89 percent since June 25, he said.
Although that growth is not as explosive as it has been in other regions, the regional increase in cases “should give us pause here in Vermont,” Pieciak said.