Mask tree grows downtown

Deborah Casdin, of Brattleboro, takes a face mask that was hanging from a tree in Pliny Park, in Brattleboro, in May 2020. A sign on the tree encouraged people to take a free mask to help out during the COVD-19 pandemic.

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BRATTLEBORO — Starting Friday, masks will no longer be mandated by the town inside establishments as part of its response to COVID-19 after a 4-1 vote by the Select Board.

At the board meeting held remotely Tuesday, board member Jessica Gelter voted against the move. She expressed concern about immunocompromised community members and children who cannot be vaccinated yet, calling for the mask order to remain in place until later in the summer.

Board member Daniel Quipp urged the board to rescind the order, saying it causes confusion as it differs from federal and state guidance. The local order could cause conflicts for employers and employees, he said.

“I think there’s no danger in lifting it immediately,” board member Tim Wessel said. “Merchants who want to keep the order, you have full town support. Individuals who want to keep their masks on, you have my support and I think you have the town’s support. Why wouldn’t you?”

Following federal guidance, Vermont ended a mask mandate on May 14 for fully vaccinated people. Municipalities and establishments can keep theirs, and unvaccinated people are still urged to wear face coverings.

Board Chairwoman Elizabeth McLoughlin said the local order came about as a way to help businesses navigate the pandemic.

“I think the best way we can act to help the retail community is to rescind the order, allowing people to wear masks if they choose and allowing us to come back and strike up the order again if there’s some sort of threat in the community that we think requires our action,” she said.

Quipp said he does not think the mask order drives people’s behavior nor does he anticipate people will run to Hannaford and rip off their masks as soon as it is lifted. He cited a “massive drop” in COVID-19 cases in his decision making.

Last month, weekly cases in Brattleboro went from 17 to 10 to four to three. Vermont is seeing declining rates for virus cases, deaths and hospitalizations, which state officials attribute to high vaccination rates.

Megan Barrows, owner of Zico’s Haircuts, said she is immunocompromised and received medical advice to schedule a vaccination later on. She described how some customers want to take off their masks but some do not show documentation proving they were vaccinated. She suggested keeping the local mandate.

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Like Barrows and Gelter, Robin Morgan of Brattleboro worried about the younger community members. She said she has two family members who likely will not be eligible for vaccination until September.

Dick DeGray, whose family owns Galanes Vermont Shop, said he will no longer be “the mask police in Brattleboro.”

“If you feel that strongly,” he told the board, “then there should be a penalty for it and the police should be looking for people not wearing a mask.”

DeGray disagreed with survey results from the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce showing about 50 percent of 159 business respondents supported rescinding the order, 40 percent did not and 10 percent were not sure. He suggested about 70 percent of businesses or more favored lifting the order.

Art “Fhar” Miess of Brattleboro encouraged the board not to immediately scrap the order. He said he is 47 and only became fully vaccinated about a week ago, although he worked hard to schedule an appointment as soon as he was eligible.

“Some of us are just getting there. We’re old,” Miess said. “And certainly a lot of people younger than us are not in the clear.”

State and federal guidelines still call for masking at health care and long-term care facilities, correctional centers, homeless shelters and on public transportation. And state officials urge those who are not vaccinated to continue wearing masks in public establishments.

Town staff will be working with Brattleboro Community Television to develop a plan for hosting hybrid Select Board meetings in the future, where participation can occur in person at the Municipal Center or via Zoom. Town Manager Peter Elwell said he wanted to ensure the process goes smoothly and will bring details back for the June 15 board meeting.

Deferments of repayment of Small Business Assistance Program loans, allowed by the town due to hardships of the pandemic, will no longer be offered starting Aug. 1. Elwell said letters will go to the eight affected loan recipients with a note about the town’s “explicit willingness” to restructure loans if necessary.