Mask order in Brattleboro gets 'mixed reviews'

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BRATTLEBORO — A week after approving an order requiring masks in public establishments, the Select Board assessed the situation by inviting feedback at a special meeting on Tuesday.

"There are mixed reviews," said Kate O'Connor, executive director of Brattleboro Area Chamber Commerce. "While a lot of people do like the safety of being able to say, 'The town is making us do this,' a lot of them feel it's on them."

Telling customers they cannot enter the business without a mask can be "anxiety provoking for our retailers," she told the board.

O'Connor reported that a lot of businesses are not reopening just yet due to requirements or restrictions coming from the state. She said guidance coming from the state is "really confusing."

"It sort of drips and drips and drips," she said.

Last week, the board passed a resolution based off similar documents approved by city councils in Burlington and South Burlington. The governor ordered employees of businesses to wear masks but left it up to municipalities to decide to go further.

Since the resolution was not on last week's meeting agenda, board members wanted to provide another opportunity for the public to speak about it on Tuesday.

"I got a lot of positive feedback and a lot of thank yous for the board's action last week," said Elizabeth McLoughlin, board vice chairwoman.

Board member Ian Goodnow also reported getting positive feedback. He said one individual suggested having a date when the order would be revisited.

The order is currently set to end when the governor ends the state of emergency or the board decides it is no longer needed. Board Chairman Tim Wessel called for an agenda item to discuss it again at the June 16 meeting.

A minor tweak to the language was approved Tuesday. Under a section of the order titled "Exceptions," a change was made to say: "Cloth face coverings are not required on young children under age 5 ..."

Previously, the order said face coverings "should not be placed" on children younger than 5. Board members agreed that should be less prescriptive.

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Goodnow and Wessel both spoke of hearing some confusion about the order having no enforcement mechanism. Wessel said at the last meeting that he was hoping to encourage a proclamation or guidance rather than an order that implies there is enforcement or a "mask police roaming around the town of Brattleboro."

As chairman, he said, it can be difficult ensuring fair levels of participation among meeting attendees while being part of the discussion. He recalled the draft of the order becoming the focus last week.

Wessel said he wanted to be the voice of citizens who are "a little disturbed" by the town approving an order rather than guidance for buildings it does not own.

Select Board member Daniel Quipp, who initially proposed adopting some kind of measure last week, described himself as a proponent of an enforceable ordinance.

"It wasn't going to pass," he said. "That's just how it went that night."

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Goodnow said he was "a little frustrated" after hearing that Quipp wanted something enforceable. Last week, Goodnow expressed some reservation about having no enforcement mechanism.

Quipp said he wanted the board "to be on the same page."

"I didn't want this to be a 3-2 win," he said. "I was really happy to find a place of consensus around this."

Last week's board vote approving the emergency order for facial coverings was unanimous.

Board member Brandie Starr said she thinks approving the order was the right call.

"Health, safety and welfare is where we get our power to regulate anything," McLoughlin said. "I think if we water it down now it will be a sign of, I don't know, weakness."

Marta Gossage of Brattleboro shared some concerns about people not keeping their physical distance and not wearing masks in public places. She said she had her last chemotherapy treatment last week and she worried about going out.

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"I have no immune system," she said.

Franz Reichsman, a retired emergency room doctor, pointed to countries where masks became mandatory very early on in the pandemic.

"And they have had very few cases," he said. "The point is it works and it protects people. This is a matter that should not be up to the individual."

Peter "Fish" Case of Brattleboro said the order provides a "level of insulation" for business owners and managers.

Martha Ramsey of Brattleboro called the order "a good thing to have."

Town Manager Peter Elwell said he would speak again with representatives of two larger corporately-owned stores that were unhappy about the order.

"But I would ask people to have low expectations that they're going to see that last 1 percent of customers change their behavior," he said.

Briefly, the board discussed whether to make distinctions about wearing masks in restaurants.

"It's tough to eat through a cloth mask," Quipp said. "I've got to trust people on this."

He suggested revisiting the issue if restaurants were struggling with it.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com and at @CMaysBR on Twitter.


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