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Vermont relaxes mask mandate, letting the fully vaccinated go barefaced

Published: 5/14/2021 9:34:03 PM
Modified: 5/14/2021 9:34:00 PM

Fully vaccinated Vermonters no longer need to worry about masks or physical distancing, Gov. Phil Scott announced on Friday, calling it a “monumental moment” in the state’s pandemic recovery.

While the mask mandate still applies to people who have not yet reached the two weeks post-final dose milestone, all fully vaccinated Vermonters can largely go back to business as usual, Scott said.

That follows guidelines released Thursday from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stating that fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear a mask in most situations.

The new rules, however, don’t apply in certain settings, including health care and long-term care facilities, correctional centers, homeless shelters and public transportation. They also don’t apply to children too young to be vaccinated.

Scott said the CDC guidance caught his administration by surprise, but that he had been considering doing the same thing in Vermont for two or three weeks. He said regardless of the CDC guidance, Vermont likely would have announced “something similar in the next few days anyways.”

The state initially planned to move to a mask “recommendation” instead of a mask mandate by July 4 under Scott’s reopening plan. The new guidelines from the CDC — and the success of Vermont’s vaccination efforts — allowed him to move up that timeline, he said on Friday.

Vermont’s mask mandate has been in place since Aug. 1, 2020. In late April, Vermont dropped its outdoor masking requirement, after the CDC issued guidance that fully vaccinated people didn’t need to wear a mask in uncrowded outdoor spaces.

Scott said he believes that a business could ask people to present vaccination cards to prove their vaccine status, but he’s not advocating for that. Instead, he said, “it’s the honor system.”

“I believe it’s not perfect, it’s not 100%, but I believe it worked well for Vermont, it fits us. I believe we’re going to live with that,” the governor said. “We feel ... these businesses have the ability to create their own rules. Think about it in terms of no shirt, no shoes, no service.”

Just as with the mask mandate, which Scott said was not enforced by state authorities, he said Vermont will have to trust people during this transitional period, until all restrictions are lifted on or before July 4.

Dr. Mark Levine, the state’s health commissioner, fell short of saying that he supports employers requiring their employees to get vaccinated. He said he recommends that all Vermonters get vaccinated, and recommends that all employers do “everything they can” for employees to get vaccines, but said requiring the shots is “just one pathway” to making that happen.

Vaccination rate; rules loosened

Mike Smith, secretary of the Agency of Human Services, said that so far 384,000 Vermonters have received a vaccine. That includes 101,600 people who have received just their first dose and 283,200 who have received both doses.

That total represents 71.6% of Vermonters ages 12 and up, and 63.3% of all Vermonters, Smith said.

Scott said Vermont already hit its June 1 vaccination goal more than two weeks ahead of schedule. Therefore Vermont is moving into Step 3 of its reopening plan, which means scrapping testing requirements for travel and increasing capacity limits both indoors and outdoors.

Gathering limits will now increase to one unvaccinated person for every 50 square feet. That means that up to 300 people indoors and 900 people outdoors can now gather.

Scott also extended Vermont’s state of emergency declaration for another month on Friday.

Case counts

Vermont’s new daily case counts have generally held steady between the 20s and 70s, Levine said.

Vermont reported 58 new cases of the virus on Friday.

The state’s positivity rate remains at 1% — but Levine stressed that hospitalization rates are down significantly.

Currently, Vermont has 12 people hospitalized for the virus, including two in intensive care units.

On Thursday, Levine said that for the first time since November, the University of Vermont Medical Center had no COVID-19 inpatients.

Levine said there are three things about vaccines that Vermonters need to know.

First, vaccines are more than 90% effective in real-world settings.

Second, they have proved to be effective against virus variants now circulating in the United States.

Third, if you are vaccinated, you are less likely to spread the virus.

Numerous questions and concerns have been raised on those fronts in recent weeks, but Levine said current science, research and data make it clear that “vaccination equals protection.”

Levine said “breakthrough cases” — or positive COVID-19 cases among fully vaccinated people — are extremely rare, and are typically mild or asymptomatic cases. In Vermont, he said, those cases represent just 0.06% of total cases.

12- to 15-year-old age group

Vaccine registration for 12- to 15-year-olds opened on Thursday morning, after the Pfizer vaccine got emergency approval from the FDA for that age group on Wednesday.

As of Friday, 7,300 people in that age group had made appointments, with consent from their parents or guardians, according to Smith.

The 7,300 sign-ups represent more than 25% of the 27,000 Vermonters in that age group in just one day.

Vermont is also set to receive 5,000 additional doses of the Pfizer vaccine next week, thanks to the federal vaccine pooling system, to help vaccinate that youngest age group.

However, Scott said he’s still “very concerned” about the 18-30 age group, which he said has not performed as well as it should.

“The longer that group underperforms, the less likely we are to remove all restrictions before the Fourth of July,” Scott said.

Scott said he understands people who might be uncomfortable or hesitant in transitioning out of the pandemic. However, he said the science and data shows that if you’re fully vaccinated, there’s very little risk of getting sick.

He said it’s time that Vermont gets to reap the rewards of the last 14 months of work, and of having the best pandemic response in the country.

“We shouldn’t judge or stigmatize those who do or don’t wear a mask. It’s a transitional time,” Levine said. “We all have our own reasons, medical or otherwise. Do what feels right for you, but without exception, follow the rules and the guidance.”

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