Our Opinion: Make masks mandatory, for the health of all

Men talk in a parking lot in Bennington while wearing face masks early Wednesday evening.

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Up to this point, Gov. Phil Scott has done fairly well in managing the COVID-19 pandemic in Vermont. There have been some bumps in the road, most significantly with the Department of Labor's performance in handling a tsunami of unemployment claims. But overall, Scott has been a calm, steady presence at the helm.

But Scott stubbed his toe on Monday when, in announcing conditions for a gradual reopening of retail stores, he did not make one of those conditions the compulsory wearing of cloth masks by customers. Masks are required for employees, but only encouraged for patrons, when the doors reopen on May 18.

That needs to be corrected.

One of the most significant dangers of COVID-19 is that people can walk around infected with the virus without any symptoms, not knowing they're exposing others. That in turn raises the risk of community exposure, and the potential for surges that overwhelm hospitals and lead to a preventable loss of life.

Masks are not foolproof; you have to wear them and handle them properly to get the benefits. But if everyone wears masks consistently, the chance of community transmission decreases significantly.

If you can't tell if you're sick, you owe it to your friends and neighbors to wear a mask to lower the chance that the virus might spread to them. It's a considerate, decent and neighborly thing to do — and in no way an infringement upon your civil liberties.

If you have family members or loved ones at home who are older, or have compromised immune systems or conditions that make COVID-19 more dangerous, you want to know that people you meet at a store aren't exposing you to the virus.

And certainly the people working in stores — many of them for minimum wage — deserve to be treated like they matter. Wearing a mask tells the person who's ringing up your purchases that you have respect for their basic human right to be healthy.

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There's an economic case for masks, too. At some point, the out-of-state visitors upon whom Vermont's economy depends will return to our businesses, restaurants and inns. Those visitors come from bordering and nearby states with high infection rates: New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Massachusetts.

When our guests arrive, they might not know if they are sick, and Vermonters won't know, either. And there's no telling if they have quarantined themselves for 14 days. We need to treat those people with the hospitality that made our state a bucket list destination, not scare them away with mistrust based upon the color of their license plates. And we also need our guests to respect our health and safety as we respect theirs. Masks help us achieve these goals.

Some might wonder how we enforce a "no mask, no service" rule.

But human nature tells us that people observe the rules and don't always follow suggestions. Think about motorcycle helmet use in states where helmets aren't the law — how many times do you see a rider wearing a helmet in New Hampshire?

Most people play by the rules, either because they understand the reasons for the rules, or because they don't want to get caught. Some people would insist on not wearing masks, but there are always going to be people who think rules are for other people.

If Gov. Scott makes it a rule that everyone has to wear a mask, it will be a lot more effective than merely making it a friendly suggestion. And "effective" is what we need to beat this thing.

As of this writing, the coronavirus has infected more than 1 million Americans and killed more than 80,000 people. We in Vermont have been fortunate, but part of that fortune is our own dogged commitment to staying home and staying safe, wearing masks when we go out, practicing social distancing, and washing our hands.

We're in this together, and this is not the time to let up.