Mask mandates

Lynn Valente, from Marlboro, Vt., walks down Main Street, in Brattleboro, Vt., while wearing a mask on Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021.

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MONTPELIER — Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maps showing community transmission of COVID-19 put most of Vermont in substantial or higher risk categories, where masking is advised, but the governor warned that a “one-size-fits-all policy doesn’t always paint an accurate picture for our whole state.”

Gov. Phil Scott said over the last 14 days in which state officials believe Vermont is experiencing a surge in cases related to the Delta variant, the daily average for Essex County stood at less than one and Grand Isle County had about two. He reported daily averages were about 7.5 for Windham County, 10.6 for Bennington County and 40.5 for the most populated part of Vermont in Chittenden County.

“Now keep in mind, these counties are in the same CDC category as counties in Florida with a capita case rate that is 10 times higher than the highest case rate in Vermont,” Scott said at his weekly news conference Tuesday. “Most importantly, Vermont continues to have the lowest hospitalization rate in the United States. Again, if we had Florida’s hospitalization rates, we’d have about 500 Vermonters hospitalized instead of 28. But it’s not just Florida. If we had Connecticut’s hospitalization rate, who has the fifth best in the nation, we’d be talking about over 75 in the hospital rather than 28. The message is to get vaccinated because it has proven to work.”

Last week, Scott’s office and the town of Brattleboro went back and forth via email exchanges on a mask mandate the Select Board wanted to enact in response to federal CDC guidance on local virus transmission.

Scott issued a post-emergency executive order in June declaring “all policy adoptions or changes related to the COVID-19 response or recovery, require approval of the Governor,” states an email from Scott’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Brittney L. Wilson, to Brattleboro Town Manager Peter Elwell. “You have asked the Commissioner of Health to approve Brattleboro’s proposal to exercise an extraordinary regulatory power while there is no state of emergency. ... [Y]our request is not being granted at this time.”

Wilson wrote that if hospitalization data changes for Brattleboro, the governor would revisit the issue.

In what Select Board member Tim Wessel described as a backup resolution passed unanimously in case the state rejected the mandate, the board recommended masking indoors and vaccinations against COVID-19. Wessel had voted against the mandate.

“Providing guidance to businesses as they have done in Brattleboro at this point in time is perfectly acceptable and reasonable and promoted,” Scott said Tuesday, later adding, “I think we should promote the use of masks during times when it’s necessary ... I think we need to take that approach as we move forward from the pandemic to endemic.”

Scott agreed with Health Commissioner Mark Levine’s masking recommendation: People should assess their own risk by taking into account where they are, whom they are with, crowdedness of a space and rules of an event or establishment.

“Vaccination is the best defense against the virus,” Levine said.

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Later Tuesday, the Vermont Department of Health said via Facebook that Levine “advises Vermonters to wear a mask in public indoor settings right now, while virus transmission is high. Wearing a mask helps protect you and the people around you from getting or spreading COVID-19, especially those who are immunocompromised or too young to be vaccinated.”

Scott called attacks on school boards over masking mandates inside schools “absolutely unacceptable.”

“School boards and superintendents implementing mask policies are simply doing what the state, at my direction, is recommending,” he said. “If they want to blame someone, blame me.”

Scott said it is “good news” that data does not justify a state of emergency, but without one, a unilateral mask mandate is not allowed.

Secretary of Education Dan French said he is aware of only one school that has not implemented a mask mandate for at least the first 10 days of school or until 80 percent of students at the school are vaccinated, which is what the state recommended. He called masking “one of the most important parts of our mitigation strategies.”

Schools are anticipated to need to move to remote-only instruction due to COVID-19 but for shorter periods of time, French said. He also expects to catch more cases via rigorous surveillance testing this school year.

Scott anticipates about 1,000 state employees working in corrections, the state psychiatric hospital and Vermont Veterans’ Home will be affected by an agreement in which they will either attest to vaccination or be required to take COVID-19 tests weekly and wear a mask while at work starting in September. He said he is considering expanding the requirement across all of state government.

Last week, 968 Vermonters were diagnosed with COVID-19. State data shows the number of COVID-19 cases in Vermont grew by 22 percent during that time period, compared to 5 percent the week before and 41 percent the week prior. Cases had grown by 83 percent the week before Aug. 9, 71 percent the week before that and 90 percent the week before that.

Michael Pieciak, commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation, said cases in Vermont are anticipated to start dropping in the future as cases nationally are beginning to trend downward.