Upper Valley towns consider mask mandates as Vermont’s new law allows them

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/25/2021 9:25:46 PM
Modified: 11/25/2021 9:25:41 PM

HARTFORD — Several towns on the Vermont side of the Upper Valley are mulling mask mandates following the Legislature’s approval earlier this week of a measure to allow municipalities to temporarily mandate masks indoors.

The Hartford Selectboard is expected to discuss the matter at its meeting on Tuesday. One draft resolution would encourage face coverings while another would require them, according to a memorandum prepared by Town Manager Tracy Yarlott-Davis. Her memo noted that COVID-19 cases “are trending upward,” but that the new law “does not provide any guidance to local municipalities on how or if they can enforce” a municipal mandate.

The Hartford resolution with a requirement would call for masks to be worn for anyone “while inside buildings open to the public,” though exceptions would include for young children under age 2, people with trouble breathing, and people who are dining or drinking. Yarlott-Davis’ memo also noted that the new state law precludes municipalities from applying a mask mandate in school buildings or on school property.

Officials in other Upper Valley towns are also thinking about the issue.

“I’ve noticed that Lebanon and Hanover have mask ordinances and mask mandates in place,” said Roger Arnold, chairman of the Norwich Selectboard. “As a neighbor of these communities, the board may wish to consider standing in solidarity with their work.”

Some public health experts have said that universal mask requirements would be more effective than leaving decisions on mask mandates up to individual communities, but Arnold said he thinks that communities in the Upper Valley’s core could work together to help mitigate the effects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“If communities act together, they’re creating a culture where they are taking the health of citizens seriously,” he said.

Still, Arnold and other municipal leaders on the Vermont side of the Upper Valley expressed frustration that such a decision was being left up to individual municipalities in the midst of budget season when they already have plenty of other work to do.

It was unclear when and whether Norwich might take up the issue. The agenda has not yet been set for Norwich’s next Selectboard meeting on Dec. 8, Arnold said. Norwich recently closed Tracy Hall to the public due to increasing COVID-19 cases in the community.

“It’s just unfortunate that we would have to do a lot of labor in order to make a decision that was in a higher office’s power to do,” Arnold said of Gov. Phil Scott’s decision not to reimpose a state of emergency and mandate masks statewide.

Like Arnold, Hartland Selectboard Chairwoman Mary O’Brien said she expects her board will take up the issue of mandating masks soon, but will have to work it in around their other tasks.

“I don’t know when because we’re in the thick of budget season and will have to have an extra meeting just to make sure we have that done in time,” she said.

Hartland’s next Selectboard meeting is scheduled for Dec. 6 at 5:30 p.m., she said.

Scott, a Republican, put forward the measure to allow municipalities to implement mask mandates following pressure from Democratic legislators and the Vermont League of Cities and Towns to adopt stricter mitigation strategies amid rising case rates, hospitalizations and deaths in recent weeks.

Under the terms of the new law, which Scott signed on Tuesday, municipalities that adopt mask mandates must vote every 30 days whether to keep the mandates in effect. The law is set to expire on April 30, 2022.

Brattleboro, Vt., on Tuesday became the first municipality in the state to enact a mandate under the new law, VtDigger reported.

Jason Maulucci, Scott’s press secretary, said that while Scott wanted to offer the option of mandates to municipalities as a compromise, he doesn’t support mask mandates at this point in the pandemic.

“Now is not the time to move backwards and reinstitute mandates,” Maulucci said, noting that Vermont has been a national leader in vaccination rates, and has among the lowest hospitalization and death rates in the country.

“Towns do not need to enact them if they don’t want to,” Maulucci said of mask mandates.

Bradford, Vt. is one community that seems unlikely to require masks, said Ted Unkles, Bradford’s Selectboard chairman. Unkles said that he did not expect his board to take up the issue as no one has asked the board to do so.

For his part, Unkles said he was concerned about how the town would enforce a mask mandate.

“If we adopted a mandate and a local business refused to comply, would we spend town money taking legal action against that business?” he said. “I would not support taking such action.”

Material from the AP was used in this report. Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.

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