Windsor forgoes mask mandate

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 12/21/2021 11:06:04 AM
Modified: 12/21/2021 11:05:49 AM

WINDSOR — Following a roughly two-hour debate about the merits of a mask mandate at a special meeting last week, the Windsor Selectboard opted to recommend, but not require, that people wear masks indoors amid the largest surge of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations the Upper Valley has seen yet.

“I wear a mask,” Selectboard member Jeffrey Johnson said in a recording of the meeting which was held Friday evening both in-person at Town Hall and virtually. “I don’t want to be the one who spreads COVID to anyone. I’m not living in fear. I feel like I have a responsibility.”

Johnson supported the mask recommendation, but not a mandate. She joined the majority of the board in rejecting a mandate by a 3-2 vote and then later approving the recommendation in a 4-1 vote.

In the recommendation, the board urges people to wear face masks while indoors in places that are open to the public. It includes exemptions for children under 2; people who cannot wear a mask due to disabilities; people for whom a mask creates a workplace hazard; and people eating or drinking inside a place that sells food and beverages.

Ryan Palmer cast the sole no vote against the recommendation. Palmer, a former police officer in town, said he opposed both the mandate and the recommendation because they lack “teeth.”

“I can’t get behind any sort of mask mandate in the town of Windsor,” he said. “Nor do I feel like passing a kind of toothless, unenforceable suggestion.”

He made it clear that he felt the discussion was a waste of time.

“We’re literally doing nothing right now,” he said.

In its vote, the board strove to strike a balance between more than a dozen speakers and letter writers who expressed opposing views about masks. On one hand, some, including officials from Mt. Ascutney Hospital and Health Center, sought a mask requirement in order to reduce transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19. But others opposed masks due to discomfort and a sense that they infringe on people’s freedom.

Board members Amanda Smith and Chris Goulet supported mandating the wearing of face masks indoors, as several communities in the Upper Valley already have done.

Mask mandates currently are in place in Hartford, Thetford, Norwich, Hanover and Lebanon. Weathersfield requires masks in town buildings. The Vermont mandates have been enacted since Republican Gov. Phil Scott signed a bill allowing municipalities to do so last month. The bill was a compromise between Scott, who has said he opposes the mandates, and Democrats in the Legislature who have called for a statewide mandate.

Smith said she supported a mandate in an effort to help reduce the effect of the current surge on the health care system.

“They’re already limiting surgeries,” she said. “This could get worse.”

During the public comment portion of the meeting, Jill Lord, director of community health at Mt. Ascutney Hospital, described the state of the pandemic, noting that more than 800,000 people in the U.S. have died. As of Friday, Vermont had 60 people hospitalized with COVID-19, including 19 in intensive care, she said.

A total of 40 Windsor County residents have died after contracting COVID-19 since March 2020.

“The science really isn’t at doubt,” she said. “Masks do work.”

She also advocated for the use of hand sanitizer and social distancing.

“It’s not high tech,” she said. “It’s not forever. It’s not high cost.”

Meanwhile, 79-year-old Windsor resident George Walter Jennings spoke against a mask mandate. He said he doesn’t go where there are mask requirements and he won’t accept a COVID-19 vaccine.

“I feel like I’m in pretty good shape,” he said.

Jennings was among those in attendance who said they value the Windsor Recreation Center and don’t wish to be required to wear masks while they exercise there. Several parents in the audience said they appreciate having a place where their children can go and not be required to wear masks.

Misty Boutin, a Windsor parent of four, said she opposed a mask requirement that would include the recreation center. She said her four children complain daily about having to wear masks to school and that one of them experienced a mental health crisis recently.

Boutin said the recreation center, and its lack of a mask requirement, has helped to “pull her out of the situation that she was in.”

Elsewhere, the Hartford Selectboard held an emergency meeting on Friday to amend its mask mandate so that masks are not required in theaters or athletic arenas where people are performing or exercising and have space, a physical barrier or ventilation system to separate them from the general public or audience. The measure passed by a vote of 5-1. Lannie Collins was the sole no vote and Selectboard member Michael Hoyt was absent. Collins was also the lone Hartford Selectboard member to oppose the mandate when it was approved last week.

But in a Monday email, Town Manager Tracy Yarlott-Davis said she was working to determine whether the vote counts, after a resident contacted the town to question whether the board was authorized to hold Friday’s emergency meeting.

“On this short holiday week, we’re trying to figure that one out,” she said.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at or 603-727-3213.

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