We’ve learned so much during the past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, both about the science behind protecting ourselves and others in our community, and about human behavior when it comes to how to successfully communicate and promote healthy behavior that can combat this frightening virus.
I am a strong supporter of using the life-saving, well-tested vaccines that have been proven to be the best line of defense against poor outcomes when the coronavirus attacks our bodies. I am also convinced that masking indoors, especially in tight spaces with multiple people present, is the correct and responsible thing to do to help protect others.
What I am not in support of is public policy that is either ineffective, disingenuous, or even does the opposite of what is needed for communities. A town-wide mask “mandate” is just one of those policies that seems sensible on the surface but is filled with unintended consequences for Brattleboro.
Let’s be clear here. My lone vote against Brattleboro’s rule to require indoor masking is a vote against telling people what they must do instead of relying on our neighbors to do the right thing in the right circumstances.
I have had to travel recently for my work, going from as close as New Hampshire to as far as Florida in the space of a few short weeks. I can tell you assuredly that I believe that Brattleboro, Vermont is one the most masked-accepting towns in the most mask-accepting states in our nation. We got to that acceptance early, as our neighbors here acted to keep each other safe well before the state’s “lock-down” mode that kept people out of restaurants and bars, disrupted employment and lives, and so clearly negatively impacted those without the resources to continue making a living comfortably over a computer screen.
So why would I think that having a town-wide order that all buildings must conform to a mandatory masking ordinance is bad policy, if the practice itself is a good one? I’ll list a few reasons in no particular order.
1. At this stage in the pandemic, people have found their comfort level with both vaccines and mask wearing. Telling people they are required to wear a mask will not change the behavior of someone who is adamantly opposed to it; they will simply go to another town. This is not what our struggling merchants need right now.
2. Many people who will gladly put on a mask if a merchant asks them to will do so out of respect for that merchant’s right to do so, but will not comply if “the government” is telling them to do it instead. Call this a mistrust of leaders if you will, but it comes down to not liking being told what to do, and it exists across the political spectrum. If you’re thinking, “I don’t care what they think because they are wrong” – you should. The goal here is to get as many people vaccinated as we can, not win a political argument. Accept that others think differently than you, let go of your ego, and focus on the goal of community health.
3. Brattleboro’s mask rule, or order, or mandate, or whatever term you’d like to use, will have zero enforcement. Because it is not an ordinance, it cannot be legally enforced, nor would your Select Board want it to be, since our police already work way too hard with reduced staff as it is. The fact that this rule has no enforcement makes it actually a suggestion, nothing else, and we’ve already passed a resolution encouraging both vaccinations and indoor mask wearing, unanimously in June. This new “mandate” is disingenuous, and holds no more legal sway over merchants, organizations and visitors than our already in place resolution.
4. No one can deny that this shifts the burden of enforcement on to merchants in our town, and leaves it to them to argue with patrons from other towns and states with no mask mandate. While the Brattleboro Police Department will of course come if called to a violent situation occurring, the discrepancy between Brattleboro’s rule and other states or even other Vermont towns is an argument that now must be made by each merchant, restaurant, and organization. Additionally, there has been no support from the town in the form of disposable masks or signage, except for providing a printable PDF of the rule for entryways.
5. I’m convinced that far from encouraging healthy dialogue about the good reasons to mask up indoors, it achieves the opposite, having the effect of further “tribalizing” people into their political camps and will shut down dialogue and understanding between differing opinions. That’s not what we need going into another winter. We need fellowship and understanding and patience, not an order.
6. The ridiculousness of not having an exception for bars and restaurants, where masks are required to be worn on the way in and then pretty immediately are taken off for an hour or more, would be comical if it didn’t serve to sadly highlight the futility of a rule that cannot be complied with realistically. If restaurants and bars are open, they should have an exemption to this “mandate.”
7. For those still hesitant to vaccinate themselves or their children out of safety concerns, an “order” will make them less likely to do so, because after all, they were told that the vaccines would protect them and others. But if they are forced to mask up anyway, why bother to risk vaccination? They would ask, “If vaccines don’t allow us to return to a more normal life, why should I take that risk?” The reality is, if enough people fully vaccinate, we can return to normal lives. But we will never get to that place if we continue to feel that coercion is the tool to use to get there. We must listen to concerns about vaccines and then use logical arguments and data to convince people to do the right thing. A mandate, either for vaccines or for masking, will never do that for us.
If any town in the United States does not need to “order” people to wear a mask indoors to protect our neighbors, it is Brattleboro, Vermont. That’s why I felt it important to vote against this misguided policy decision for our town. This wasn’t a vote on whether we all should be wearing masks indoors when possible; it was a vote to mandate that act of community caring, which ultimately will undermine the most important messaging that all leaders should be promoting: get vaccinated, get tested after taking greater risks, and protect the most vulnerable among us.
I was unable to convince my fellow Select Board members that the new mask order was unnecessary and divisive for our very mask-friendly Brattleboro community. That’s okay, because the democratic process worked here. I was able to make my arguments, and the board disagreed. I will now work to support the board’s decision, while also continuing to point out that we need to find policies that unite, not divide, our diverse and caring community.