Health Care

Vermont isn’t punishing Covid scofflaws, but citizen enforcers are on patrol

People crowd the Burlington Bikepath on the waterfront in Burlington on Saturday, April 25, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

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Some of the messages read like field reports: “The sidewalks between price chopper and walmart had groups of people standing together no mask or social distances.” 

Others like warnings: “I want to make you aware of the health crisis that is ongoing at the floating bridge in Brookfield. Since fish were stocked in the pond it’s become a daily gathering spot of dozens of covid ignoring people.”

Others are more inquisitive: “Picture below shows people at Roxie’s in Bomoseen VT around 5 pm. I am the only one wearing a mask. Can u ask the Governor at his Monday press conference what citizens should do if they witness these blatant violations of his mandatory mask order?”

They all refer to a rapidly evolving part of our social contract: compliance with Covid-19 public health guidance. Over the past two months VTDigger has received hundreds of coronavirus-related emails, phone calls and online messages from readers; many call out specific places or people not following the governor’s Covid-19 emergency guidance. 

Peter Erb of Hinesburg was among the emailers. “I just did a foray to the recycling center and to get gasoline and probably not one in ten people has a mask on,” he wrote on May 4. “We have made too big a sacrifice for this to fail,” he added. “Governor Scott must mandate face masks as we loosen up or all will be of naught.” 

The governor and attorney general have taken an intentionally light-touch approach to coronavirus enforcement. Scott often says he prefers to “lead,” rather than “drive” — even as he is taking small but steady steps to reopen the economy and social interaction. The governor “strongly suggests” that individuals wear masks to protect other people from getting Covid-19.

That has made shame and public scolding two of the main sticks in Vermont’s coronavirus compliance system. From social media groups to news website comments and official channels set up by the state, many Vermonters are not only proudly falling in line, they are on guard, and going public with their grievances. 

Jens VonBulow emailed VTDigger about a trip to Walmart on April 26. “As I waited in the truck I noticed that most people were not wearing masks as they went in to shop. Some were, but most were not,” he wrote, adding that his wife observed the same thing inside, along with staff wearing masks around their necks. 

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“We won’t be going back to Walmart anytime soon,” he added. 

VonBulow said in a phone call last week that he considered calling Walmart about the issue. “I just decided that I wasn’t gonna waste my breath,” he said. “Because what would they do that they weren’t doing now? I’m sure they weren’t gonna buckle down and require people or ask them, you know.”

Instead he emailed VTDigger. “I just wanted to vent I suppose,” he said over the phone. Asked about VonBulow’s account, Rebecca Thomason, a Walmart spokesperson, said the company posts banners, decals and other reminders around the store to encourage compliance with social distancing and wearing masks.

“I understand that in Vermont it’s not required, but we are absolutely trying to suggest and follow that everyone is mindful and and wears their masks for the sake of everyone,” she said. “But at some point, we’re doing all that we can to make sure that the public is aware and to ask that they follow it.” 

On this week’s Deeper Dig podcast: Why we tattle.

Some big box stores, including Costco, are now requiring customers to wear masks, a decision that has drawn its own social media backlash. Walmart’s enforcement philosophy is rather similar to Vermont’s. “I’d rather have people want to do it for the right reasons than force them to do it,” the governor said in an interview Monday

If VonBulow had instead turned to the Vermont Department of Public Safety or the Attorney General’s Office with his complaint — as hundreds of Vermonters have done — the companies could have been among those who the AG has “reached out to…to alert them that their activities – if accurately reported – may be in violation and to request voluntary compliance.” 

That list numbered seven Thursday and included three cosmetologists, one real estate agent,  one property inspector, one tattoo artist, and an oxygen supply company, according to Charity Clark, the attorney general’s chief of staff.

Customers practice social distancing as they wait for their take out orders at Onyx Tonics coffee shop in Burlington on Saturday, April 25, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The patterns and the theory

The team managing Front Porch Forum, Vermont’s hyper-local online social network, has watched usage surge — up to 43% above expectations for the year — amid the Covid-19 pandemic, according its co-founder and CEO Michael Wood-Lewis. 

It has also increased scrutiny of the facts being presented on the platform about the virus and how people should stay safe.

“While we have always done a light review of every posting before publication, we weren’t looking for misinformation in the past… We left it to the community to review those things,” Wood-Lewis said. This scaled-up scrutiny has meant detecting bad information about the coronavirus coming from places like Facebook, before it spreads onto FPF, he added. “And we intercept that and decline to publish it.”

Wood-Lewis said there is some neighbors-scolding-neighbors type of posting on the forums. (FPF curators block messages naming specific individuals, he noted.) 

“What you find is for every one of those that gets published on Front Porch Forum you will see multiple people rally in the following days to say hey, let’s, let’s come together, let’s support each other, let’s be thoughtful about what other people are going through,” Wood-Lewis said. 

“And so what we see are a lot of calls for good health practices of course, but also a lot of calls for neighborliness, and stability, and coming together during these hard times,” he added. 

But wherever you look, at least some Vermonters are informing on each other, or reaching out for someone to tell. Police departments also say they are getting calls, but haven’t been much solace to those seeking punitive enforcement of Covid-19 public health guidelines. 

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As of Tuesday, police officers in Burlington “have not undertaken any enforcement on this issue,” Deputy Police Chief Jon Murad said in an email. But the department did “sometimes have to navigate balancing neighbors’ requests to check on others’ compliance (or lack thereof) with the extent of our powers under the emergency order.” 

Although the worst fate for these public health scofflaws is a scolding, many Vermonters remain on patrol, online and through official channels. But why? Is it all legitimate fear? Are we bored? Maybe it’s a “misery-loves-company” complex; if I’m not having fun neither can you.

Liz Pinel, a social psychology professor whose research has focused on interpersonal connections, had a different way of looking at citizen enforcement. Her explanation revolved around “Terror Management Theory,” which explains how humans act when we are made more aware of our own mortality, such as amid a pandemic.

The theory has been prominent in social psychology since the late 1980s, she said, and was based on the work of Ernest Becker, a cultural anthropologist who wrote “The Denial of Death,” which won the 1974 Pulitzer Prize. 

Here’s how Pinel boiled it down (edited for clarity): 

“The theory states that people, like all other animals, have this desire to self preserve, but they — unlike other animals — they know that they’re going to die. They know that this desire to self preserve is ultimately going to be futile in the end, and this can cause paralyzing, potential terror. And so we can make ourselves cope, right we need to do something to restore [the sense of] reality that we’re all mortal. And what we do, according to Becker and terror management theory, is we just have what they call the ‘cultural anxiety buffer.’ So essentially we develop culture. We develop standards for behaving. And we follow those standards. Basically we decide what it means to do the right thing, what it means to be a person of value, and we try to abide by those guidelines, those standards for behavior.”

Pinel said the theory not only helped explain why most Vermonters seem to be following public safety orders, but also why they may be abnormally willing to tattle on or scold neighbors. 

Research shows, she said, that when people are put in a position where they’re thinking about their mortality, such as writing about their own death, “you derogate people who do not abide by your cultural worldview.”

“I do think that that has a lot to do with … why people are calling [out others] who are not following social distance guidelines. Because we’re living in a time when mortality is incredibly salient for people,” she added. “This is what we need to do to be good members of our worldview, and people who aren’t doing that are challenging our belief system and they are sort of laughing at it, and that makes us feel more vulnerable.”

Pinel pointed out that Covid-19 showed just how quickly rules for good behavior can change, and the lengths people will go to maintain our psychological “dam” holding back the terror. “You know, and if other people are saying, ‘Well, no, we don’t have to do that.’ Then that is, that’s like a little hole, a little leak, in your dam that you need to stop.”

Rachel Haselgard, from left, Grace Tampori, and Mimi Myers, all University of Vermont students, practice social distancing as they work out in Burlington on Saturday, April 25, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

To enforce or not to enforce?

Faye Hilliker, a recently retired nurse of 45 years, said she went to the Wendy’s in Newport on April 15, and was surprised to see the employee handing her takeout bag wasn’t wearing a mask or gloves. (She noted that the Scott administration first advised Vermonters to wear masks on April 3.)

“We went once, and I said to the girl in the window handing my husband — and I’ve got a bag and I’m saying ‘Jim put it in the bag’ — you should have a mask on. And she smiles at me, so I called Wendy’s. I talked to the district manager: ‘We don’t have to do it.’ And that was the answer I got. We don’t have to,” Hilliker recalled over the phone. “OK, well, I don’t want to go back.”

Wendy’s did not respond to a request for comment sent to their corporate office on Thursday.

A manager of the Wendy’s in Newport said she wasn’t aware of the specific complaint, but that operations had adjusted in the past few weeks. “Oh yeah, I mean a lot has changed, we’re all wearing masks and everything else now,” she said. 

Hilliker said that where she lives, many people still are not following the governor’s advice on social distancing and face covering, despite the Scott administration’s repeated claims of widespread compliance and anecdotal, regional examples backing them up. 

“I can tell you, the demographics — I live in the Northeast Kingdom — the demographics up here … I don’t want to sound stereotypical, but I am telling you that the majority of people up here in my area are out and about, not as much as they were, but when they are, even in the grocery stores, only maybe half, if any” are wearing face coverings, she said.  

“I mean Burlington is a different place. Montpelier is a different place. Just go out, Gov. Scott, and take a little ride around the rest of the state,” Hilliker added. 

Apart from the governor’s observations that most people are complying with his executive advice, he has also challenged the notion that ordering people to wear masks will inevitably increase compliance. 

“Even with enforcement, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to accomplish your goal,” he said Monday. “Because then there’d be resistance, then there would be people doing more reckless things, possibly.”

Hilliker, drawing on her own experience as a nurse and medical research on the effectiveness of masks in stifling disease, doesn’t want to hear it. She compared coronavirus compliance to smoking indoors. 

“You can’t, because your behavior is now affecting other people,” Hiliker said. “And when you do that, your freedom stops where mine begins. So, yeah, you’re the governor, sorry, guess what that means, you make laws and you make sure that they’re put into place.”

Hilliker said potential pushback on punishments like fines could be tempered with a clear and creative public service campaign — something like the “this is your brain on drugs” ads of the late 1980s, or a PSA meme her daughter shared with her about how pants protect us from peeing on each other, and masks protect us from spraying on each other. 

“They don’t believe it, and they’re not stupid people they just don’t believe it,” Hilliker said of those in her community who refuse to follow Scott’s guidelines. Why aren’t her neighbors staying in line, like her? “I don’t know,” she said. “I have racked my brain trying to figure it out because I was very angry at first, and then I’m like I gotta let this go.”

Social distancing
Jason Bemis of Rutland City joined hundreds of cars in line as soldiers from the Vermont Army National Guard distribute boxes of MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) at the Rutland Southern Vermont Regional Airport in North Clarendon on Friday, April 24, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Peter Erb, the Hinesburg resident who took a foray to the recycling center, said on the phone Friday that he also ventured recently to a lunch spot in North Clarendon. Apart from being in his 80s, placing him well within vulnerable age territory amid the pandemic, Erb said he was not particularly vulnerable to the virus or its effects. 

Erb was disturbed by the experience: he said staff members weren’t wearing masks, and were handling food without gloves. He had planned to buy a sandwich, but decided on a container of macaroni salad instead. “I figured there was less chance of them handling that than the cheese and bread and everything, and it was probably in the cooler for a while,” he said.

Why did Erb go out for lunch despite the risks? “Probably because I was stupid and hungry,” he said. “You know, I mean I have a mask on, I distance, I have an alcohol spray which I keep at hand and use.”

Among the governor’s reasons for avoiding punitive coronavirus orders has been not wanting to further burden Vermonters already coping with the many challenges of the moment. Erb said he’d like to see the government enforce the public health orders on businesses, simply by adding masks to the “no shirt, no shoes, no service” policy. 

“Governor Scott is clearly in control of what businesses are open or not open, so the order shouldn’t be directed at the individual. The order should be directed at, if you, the individual, want to partake in this particular business, you have to wear a mask, and if you don’t do it, fine, don’t do it, that’s your choice.”

Erb said it’s also dangerous to have citizens enforcing the rules against each other — pointing to violent incidents in other states when citizens have attempted to enforce the rules. In Michigan, a security guard at a Family Dollar was shot and killed after he told a shopper to wear a mask. An order requiring people to wear masks in a city in Oklahoma was dialed back to a recommendation after a slew of threats of violence in the first hours the order was in place.

Erb said he worried the coronavirus compliance divide, played out nationally, could turn angry and politically partisan. He also pointed to a more personal experience. 

“You know my wife got into a fairly contentious discussion in a grocery store when somebody wouldn’t back off, had no mask and just wouldn’t distance,” he said. “And, you know, that’s a fairly controlled situation, and, you know, in Hinesburg.”

Anne Wallace Allen contributed reporting.

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Colin Meyn

About Colin

Colin Meyn is VTDigger's managing editor. He spent most of his career in Cambodia, where he was a reporter and editor at English-language newspapers The Cambodia Daily and The Phnom Penh Post, and most recently at Southeast Asia Globe, a regional current affairs magazine. He is a native of Maine and studied journalism at Northwestern University.

Email: [email protected]

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