Gov. Scott: Mask mandate possible after more retailer input

phil scott wearing mask
Gov. Phil Scott wears a face mask while Health Commissioner Mark Levine provides an update on the latest Covid-19 statistics at a press briefing in April. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

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This story was updated at 5:10 pm Wednesday.

With both evidence and public pressure increasing for more masking to prevent Covid-19 infection, Gov. Phil Scott said Wednesday he would consider making masks mandatory after getting more guidance from retailers.

“I have consistently said we’ll make decisions based on the data,” said Scott at his regular Covid-19 press conference. The governor has been under pressure for weeks to require the public to wear masks in public, as New York did last month. Scott maintains that an educational approach is better than one based on enforcement.

But with many retail stores preparing to open May 18, Scott said he will ask the Vermont Retail and Grocery Association to survey their members to see if they would like to see masks be mandatory for customers.

Retail workers have been asking why they are required to wear masks if customers are not, and until now have been getting guidance from the state that the best way to get customers to wear masks is to put up signage recommending it, and providing masks.

If the state finds the educational approach isn’t working, and retailers want masks to be mandatory for all, “we’ll consider it for the next phase,” said Scott, meaning the next phase of the business reopening process that the state is slowly undergoing now.

“In the meantime, the Vermont Department of Health and the Agency of Commerce are working with businesses to make sure they have educational materials needed to help Vermonters understand why this is so important,” he said. He added that there are other changes and announcements coming soon. The state is now under a state of emergency that is due to expire May 15.

 “On Friday we’ll be extending the state of emergency and have a few additional announcements as well,” Scott said.

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Scott is expected Friday to outline details about a gradual reopening of the lodging industry.

In the eight weeks since the Covid-19 pandemic reached crisis level in Vermont, public health officials have been issuing evolving guidance on the efficacy of masks, particularly the cloth masks that are usually more likely to be available to the public. Scott has been wearing a mask in public for weeks, and many manufacturing companies that are reopening this week require employees to wear them at all times.

The issue of mask-wearing has also appeared on public forums, with members of the public criticizing those who choose not to wear them.  

Health Commissioner Mark Levine said on Wednesday that evidence seems to be accumulating that masks are effective in suppressing the spread of the virus.

“Masks do seem to reduce respiratory droplet transmission,” he said. “Compliance must be high in order for this strategy to work. When we wear a mask we protect others from our own droplets, and since we don’t know if or when we are in a presymptomatic stage of Covid-19, this is a habit we all need to adopt.”

Levine added that he visited a supermarket in the last two days and informally surveyed the rate of mask-wearing around him. Every single person had one on, he said. Many supermarkets and other stores require customers to wear masks.

One recent study showed that a droplet containing Covid-19 can travel as far as 200 feet before dropping to the ground, Levine said.

The Vermont Retail & Grocers Association sent out a survey May 13 to its 1,500 members asking for their feedback on a mask mandate. One sticking point, said President Erin Sigrist, is some retail staff don’t want to be put in the position of insisting that customers wear masks if it’s not a state rule. Some members have already had that experience.

“Customers are, in very few situations, irritated by that,” Sigrist said. “It’s a tough situation for sure.”

Norrhshire Bookstore owner Chris Morrow. Photo by Tambra Johnson Reap

But other members do want a mask requirement for customers. Small, independent stores like Northshire Bookshop in Manchester, which is planning to open sometime the week of May 18, will have a mask rule in place, said owner Chris Morrow. If customers don’t want to wear a mask, they can’t enter the store.

“It would be great if the state mandated it so we had some kind of backup from the government,” Morrow said. “From what I have heard, wearing a mask isn’t about protecting yourself; it’s about protecting other people. It’s not too much to ask our customers to be considerate of our staff and the other customers in the store.”

Goodwill Northern New England, which is opening two of its three stores in Vermont, will put up signs telling customers that masks are required, but won’t do any enforcement.

“If they don’t, they don’t, but we have asked everyone to be respectful and safe and wear one,” said Heather Steeves, the company’s external communications manager.

After answering questions on the topic of masks for weeks, Scott reiterated Wednesday that he would prefer to avoid a mandate.

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“A mandate has a potential to create controversy and resistance that we might not see if we take an educational approach,” he said, noting that mask use appears to be increasing without a mandate.

It’s a widely accepted practice for stores to require shoes and shirts for customers to enter. 

“Yes, it’s similar … but this potential mandate would be new,” Sigrist said. “Sometimes it takes time for people to warm up to new practices.”

Also at the press conference Wednesday, Scott mentioned that while he recently said that it’s not yet time for out-of-staters to visit Vermont, he was disturbed to learn that a Hartford family with New York license plates on their car was accosted by a passer-by who told them they were not welcome.

Scott said the incident had racial overtones and happened in front of the family’s 11-year-old child. The Vermont State Police are investigating.

Scott called the family in person to apologize.

“This is not acceptable, and it cannot be tolerated, and there is no excuse for it,” he said. “This virus cannot be used as an excuse for hate, bigotry or division of any type for any reason. This virus knows no border, and it doesn’t discriminate. We’re all in this together, and human decency will get us through this.”

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