Why did Phil Scott change his mind on a mask mandate?

Phil Scott wearing mask
Gov. Phil Scott announced a mask mandate during his Covid-19 press briefing on July 24. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Gov. Phil Scott said on May 7 he didn’t believe he could envision a scenario when he would mandate masks. 

“I’ve always promoted the idea of more carrots, less sticks,” he said in an interview with VTDigger. 

At the time, coronavirus was still rampant in nearby New York City and Boston. That week, New Hampshire’s new cases peaked at 97. 

A flood of college students would return to Burlington within weeks for their June 1 move-in. Tourists would soon flock to Vermont to seek refuge from harder hit areas or to vacation at swimming holes and local attractions, as Scott “opened the spigot.”

“We haven’t had to do a lot of enforcement, because people have done the right thing — even begrudgingly,” he said at the time.

It was a sentiment that he would repeat more than 10 separate times over the next three months during his regular press conferences.

Then, on July 24, Scott reversed course. As of Aug. 1, he announced, masks would be required in public spaces indoors and outdoors when within 6 feet of other people. 

Scott attributed the change of heart to the upcoming school year, the prospect of returning college kids, and a possible influx of leaf peepers from out of state. He worried about surging cases elsewhere in the country. 

“Looking at the situation in the South and West and knowing we’ll have more people coming to Vermont, and more Vermonters inside as the weather gets colder, we need to be sure we’re protecting the gains we’ve made,” he said on July 24, explaining the mandate.

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And with that, Scott altered his oft-repeated talking points. His previous concerns about a mandate —  enforcement would be impossible, requiring people to wear masks wouldn’t actually work, the low rate of infection made a mandate unnecessary — went by the wayside in favor of what he describes as a preemptive approach. While Scott said his motivations were based on science and a surging number of Covid cases, his opponents said he was moved by politics.  

Political considerations offer a logical explanation for Scott’s hesitance to impose a mask order, said Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, who’s running for governor. “The mounting community pressure, and political pressure was growing,” he said. “Jason Gibbs had to calculate whether frustrating the base was a political risk or losing Democratic crossover voters was a bigger concern,” he said of Scott’s chief of staff. 

To Sen. Tim Ashe, who’s running for lieutenant governor, “the growing anxiety around rising cases — plus maybe a campaign. Everything conspired to lead to this decision from the state.” 

In many respects, the about-face comes at the same time that little within the state has changed: Vermont’s Covid case count remains as low as it has ever been. The prospect of tourists, including visitors from nearby Covid-ridden states, is nothing new.

Inside the government, the state’s largest public health campaign pushing masking across all state agencies and departments has been going on since June, and continues in full force. 

Nor did Scott receive pressure from members of his own administration, including his top health expert, who — remarkably — he didn’t ask. 

Health Commissioner Mark Levine said in an interview that he never told Scott to require masks, even though he was in favor of the policy. “I think the governor kind of knew what I would have said if he asked me if I thought this was a good idea,” Levine said. 

Neither people in the cabinet or on the mask campaign ever discuss the political implication of the mandate, Levine said. Key state officials tasked with the masking public relations campaign said they didn’t know about the mandate until the afternoon before Scott announced it publicly.

A mask mandate had remained a final conservative sticking point for Scott, who has led Vermont to the most successful fight against Covid of any state in the nation. 

But even as he has deferred to the public health officials in his decision-making, he has simultaneously clung to his idea of Vermonters’ libertarian streak around wearing a mask. 

Requiring masks may actually backfire, he said during a May interview with VTDigger.  A mandate “doesn’t mean that you’re going to accomplish your goal” of compliance, he said. “Because then there’d be resistance.”

Scott repeatedly stood by that line of reasoning: “It’s a point of controversy for many … I continue to worry about enforcement,” he said of a possible mandate on June 24. 

He deferred to local autonomy on the issue. Cities and towns had the freedom to impose local mandates — and many did, including Woodstock, Burlington and Manchester. A statewide mask mandate would be unnecessary with so few Covid cases, Scott contended, and would be even less urgent in rural areas. Some towns never had a single case. 

But by late June, questions from the press and public complaints about those who weren’t wearing masks pushed him to act, said Nancy Erickson, Department of Health communications director. 

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He convened an interagency team to craft a statewide public relations campaign on masking. It would engage every agency and department of state government, and aimed to inundate Vermonters with the messages of why they should wear face masks, through radio messages, TV ads, print posters, signs, and a flood of social media propaganda. 

Members from the Department of Fish & Wildlife posted signs on masking at trailheads and boat launches. The Department of Liquor and Lottery aimed to create a bottle separator with the message to distribute to liquor stores. Officials persuaded electric companies to allow free printing of a mask ad on electric bills. Flashing signs along the interstate urged drivers to mask up. 

Workers from across state government provided selfies and shared Facebook posts about why they wear a mask. Will Eberle, an AHS field director, volunteered a picture of his baby daughter with a mask. “If you think a cute baby picture would be helpful,” he wrote in an email.

The state spent about $30,000 on the campaign, Erickson told state workers in July. It was the largest and broadest public relations campaign she could remember, she said. 

It simultaneously reflected Scott’s avowed approach —  emphasizing an apolitical strategy, while simultaneously reflecting his party’s ideology of self-determination.

The campaign “cannot be perceived to be about shame, or politics, or ideology,” noted a document on campaign principles circulated on June 30. “Persuading the skeptical, or the opposed, requires that we give them the benefit of the doubt – making the decision theirs, not the government’s.”

The announcement came as confrontations between mask wearers and those that weren’t played out across the country. A recent New York Times piece spoke of how masks stoked political division during the 1918 flue pandemic.

“In 1918 and 1919, as bars, saloons, restaurants, theaters and schools were closed, masks became a scapegoat, a symbol of government overreach, inspiring protests, petitions and defiant bare-face gatherings. All the while, thousands of Americans were dying in a deadly pandemic,” the Times wrote.

Only one department objected to the state’s approach: librarians. “Very little excitement and a lot of skepticism about an education campaign – many folx believe it will not sway non-compliant community members and that only a governor-mandated mask requirement will help increase numbers,” wrote officials in a Department of Libraries campaign update in mid-July. They would nonetheless participate, the update continued. 

The public relations campaign worked — sort of. Vermont doesn’t have the data to determine how many residents are wearing masks, but it did appear that the state has broad compliance, said Mike Piecak, commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation. 

A limited survey from the Vermont Department of Health in June showed that 85% of Vermonters said they wore masks regularly. A New York Times study suggested that compliance hovered around 70%. Women in their early 20s, and men in their late 40s are least likely to wear masks — for reasons of appearance and ideology, said Conor Kennedy, who works in the Agency of Human Services and helped coordinate the masking campaign. 

Behavior change takes time, said Erickson. “We have to do everything in Covid response speedily.” she said. “Convincing people to wear masks is a hard thing to do: It’s not necessarily overly comfortable. It doesn’t necessarily look great, especially for younger people who care more about that.” 

Scott started facing growing pressure from Democratic candidates and local leaders. In early July, Lt. Gov David Zuckerman and Rebecca Holcombe, the leading gubernatorial candidates, both slammed Scott for his reluctance to require face masks. He was also hearing from local officials who found that they had no power to enforce town mandates and wanted a state order. 

“I can’t know why the governor delayed, but it seemed odd when the science and recommendations were 100% supportive on masks as one of the best preventative reasons,” Zuckerman said. “It seemed it had to be for some political considerations around the conservative base and their pushback.”

That pressure would likely only have continued to grow. Ashe, a candidate for lieutenant governor, said he would have considered pushing for a mask mandate when the Legislature returns in late August. Ashe had proposed a similar measure in May, but had deferred to the governor. 

National Republicans also seem to be warming to the idea. On July 14, President Donald Trump, who has expressed disdain for mask wearing, changed his tune and urged Americans to wear their masks. More than 30 states have adopted mask orders. 

Scott said it wasn’t an ideological decision, but a response to the shifting data. 

“I still believe that guidance and education and advocating for people to do the right thing is a good approach. But time wasn’t on our side, especially when I started seeing the numbers,” Scott said at his press conference Friday. “if the data tells us something, we should react to it.”

According to Piecak, “well debated and well thought out” discussions on the topic started to change in early July, as the number of cases started to surge in southern and western parts of the country and outbreaks sprung up closer to Vermont. 

Nearly 10,000 University of Vermont students would be returning in September and K-12 students would be returning to school. More people inside would increase the spread of the virus, he said. 

At his press conference, Scott said politics “didn’t enter the equation.”

“I’ve done everything over the last few months based on the science, the data, the health experts’ advisement,” he said. “If you want to look at it through a political lens, it probably wasn’t the best move on my part to impose a mass mandate in Vermont two or three weeks before the primary” on Aug. 11.

Indeed, there were conservative objectors. As of this week, more than 2,800 people had signed a petition objecting to the order. A VPR poll showed that Republican support for the governor’s Covid response dropped after the masking mandate. 

But Scott is unlikely to struggle in his party’s primary; the mandate appears to be welcome from Democrats, whose support he needs in the November general election

And in the general population, Scott doesn’t seem to be hurting for it. His approval rating for his handling of the virus has ticked slowly upward, from 72% in late April to 75% in late July, according to a recent survey from Harvard, Rutgers, Northeastern and Northwestern. Scott’s success has also been highlighted recently in the New Yorker and the Boston Globe

The consensus from Democrats is that Scott’s decision is welcome, regardless of his motives. “If it’s politically expedient, so be it,” said Sen. Ginny Lyons, D-Chittenden, who came out in favor of a mandate earlier this spring. “It’s done, and it’s a great thing.”

Even with the Aug. 1 mandate, Scott has continued to walk a line of moderation. He would not enforce the law, he said, and there will be no penalty for those who don’t comply. Business owners would be allowed to enforce the rule on their own premise, Scott said. Officials would reevaluate if people were not adhering to the new rule, said Piecak. 

Scott also has vowed to distribute 200,000 free masks to Vermonters to help them comply. 

It’s unclear whether a mask mandate will change anything for Vermont. None of the models examined presented by Piecak predict an increase of cases in the state — though they don’t take into account travel from out of state. An IHME study showed that if 95% of the population wore masks it would reduce Covid cases by an additional 11% — from an 88% decline without masks to a 99% decrease. At the current levels of virus spread, that’s a reduction of about two cases a week. 

Regardless, Samuelson said the public relations campaign will continue with a fervor. 

A mandate and education “go hand-in-hand,” she said. “By having Vermonters have [mask-wearing] be part of their own decision making and choice, it makes the lift a mask mandate needs to carry easier.”

She added, “It’s important to not just say that you must, but that they believe in it.” 

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Katie Jickling

About Katie

Katie Jickling covers health care for VTDigger. She previously reported on Burlington city politics for Seven Days. She has freelanced and interned for half a dozen news organizations, including Vermont Public Radio, the Valley News, Northern Woodlands, Eating Well magazine and the Herald of Randolph. She is a graduate of Hamilton College and a native of Brookfield.

Email: [email protected]

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