Vermont

Largest City in Vermont Mandates Masks in Stores, Other Public Buildings

The measure will have to be renewed every 30 days through the end of April

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The city of Burlington, Vermont passed a mask mandate, which is already proving to be divisive.

In an often-rowdy meeting, the city council in Burlington, Vermont, passed a mask mandate Wednesday night that will take effect Friday.

Aiming to blunt the spread of COVID-19, the city council unanimously passed the indoor mask mandate, which was encouraged by Mayor Miro Weinberger. It applies to stores and many other buildings that are open to the public.

"It makes me feel safe here when people are wearing masks," said Moe O'Hara, the owner of a gift shop in Burlington's South End called 30 Odd. "It makes me feel like you actually care about who's working behind the counter."

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The vote came during a noisy council meeting that was peppered with interruptions and pledges from opponents that they'll be doing their holiday shopping elsewhere.

"I'm not going to be coming to Burlington, and I know a lot of my friends are not going to be coming to Burlington, because they have to wear a mask," said Susan Bowen of Shelburne, who spoke at Wednesday night's meeting.

"If I'm healthy, I should not have to wear a mask to go into a store to shop," opined Monica Brager of Burlington, another speaker at the city council meeting. "If I'm sick, I should stay home."

Doctors and public health experts overwhelmingly agree that masks are a safe and effective way to prevent the spread of COVID, which can be spread by people who aren't showing symptoms.

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Vermont's Republican governor, Phil Scott, has resisted another statewide mask mandate, even as COVID-19 cases in the state have climbed to new highs in recent weeks.

On Thursday, the Vermont Department of Health reported just over 600 new infections, which is a record high during the pandemic.

Scott, who has said he has been encouraged by the strong uptake of vaccine boosters by older Vermonters who are most vulnerable to serious outcomes from COVID, did want communities to be given the option to put their own rules in place.

A law passed last week by the Vermont Legislature and authorized by the governor allowed for local policies like the one Burlington enacted.

"It does feel like a bit of a rollback -- I hope it doesn't last long," Kelly Devine of the Burlington Business Association said of the new mandate.

Vermont’s health commissioner reminded the state “the pandemic isn’t over yet” Tuesday, as part of a presentation from members of the Scott administration that aimed to keep attention focused on the seriousness of COVID-19 and steps people can take to reduce infections.

Devine said she is grateful the city policy exempts bars and restaurants where staffers will check customers' COVID vaccine cards.

"I do think that some people will stay away," Devine acknowledged. "I'm also hoping there will be folks who will choose to come downtown, because they feel more safe."

Susan Ferland of Vergennes, who was shopping Thursday in Burlington, said masking up when she's out looking for holiday gifts is no hassle at all.

"I'm going to keep shopping -- with a mask on," Ferland told NECN. "We have been vaccinated, as well. But with the variants, and the breakthrough cases, you don't know. So we just feel safer."

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Police can write tickets and issue fines for noncompliance in Burlington, according to the resolution passed Wednesday night.

At 30 Odd, the small business owner said she is glad she has the mayor's and council's decision to point to, in case any customers complain about having to wear a mask.

"It's sort of nice to have a scapegoat -- but in a positive way," O'Hara said.

Under the framework for local mask mandates passed by the Legislature and authorized by Scott, Burlington's mandate will have to be reviewed and extended every 30 days through April. Or it can be dropped if COVID cases dip.

Houses of worship are exempted from Burlington's new mask rules, but public transportation and ride-share vehicles are included.

Masks are not required outdoors under the Burlington mandate.