South Burlington City Council lifted the local mask ordinance last week, allowing fully vaccinated people to reveal the bottom half of their face for the whole world to see. But even folks with all their shots might still have to mask-up inside some businesses.
“Every individual should play defense toward the end of this pandemic, and it’s not over yet,” said councilor Tim Barritt before motioning to repeal the restriction at a meeting May 25. “I don’t think anybody should feel slighted for wearing a mask in public if they want to and I personally will be wearing my mask indoors, in certain situations, when I feel like there are too many people around me.”
City councilors unanimously voted to repeal the mask ordinance to be in step with guidance from the Center for Disease Control and Gov. Phil Scott’s office, though they emphasized the autonomy of local businesses and employers to keep or loosen their own mask policies.
“You can say no shirts, no shoes, no mask, no service,” said councilor Matt Cota at the meeting, echoing guidance from Lindsay Kurrle, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development.
Some local businesses have taken up that motto.
At Play-it-Again Sports in South Burlington, owner Duncan Macdonald said he’s going to ask customers to keep wearing masks since some of his younger employees aren’t fully vaccinated. Once all of Macdonald’s staff is fully vaccinated, he expects to relax the policy for customers.
“I’m still going to require my employees to wear masks at least another month or so, I think, to make customers feel safe,” said Macdonald, who also serves on the city planning commission.
“I haven’t had anyone raise a stink about still having to wear a mask,” he added, and for the few customers who questioned it, they “were fine” once he explained the reasoning.
“I think it’s still a little disconcerting to walk into a store and not see masks. I think folks are like, ‘Whoa!’ ” he said. “But hopefully that will change.”
Meanwhile at the University Mall, fully vaccinated people can stroll down the hallways sans mask, according to general manager Heather Tremblay. Visitors should keep their masks handy, though, since stores have varying policies. Some are national stores, she noted, and “some just don’t feel comfortable yet.”
Tremblay said she’s seen about 90 percent of visitors still mask-up, even though the mall policy has eased.
Still, others like Eric Hart, chief executive and owner of NPI Technology Management in South Burlington, prefer to “wait and see” to avoid confusion as restrictions continue to loosen.
“We don’t want to change the rules too many times,” he said. “We’re just going to play it safe.”
It wasn’t until early May that multiple fully vaccinated employees were allowed to return to work together in the office, said Hart. Now, less than half of employees, out of about 15, work in house on a given day, he said — all still wearing masks.
“I want to get some staff discussion going on this first, but the likely thing that we’ll promote is, if you’re fully vaccinated and you’re with somebody else who’s fully vaccinated, you don’t have to wear a mask or social distance,” he said. “If you’re fully vaccinated and you’re talking with someone who is not fully vaccinated, both of you should be wearing masks. That’s going to be my take on it.”
Other business-owners are itching to leave masks behind.
Will Lowry, self-described “owner and manager and every man” for Bueno Y Sano in South Burlington, is excited to ease his mask policy. He expects to follow the local and state mask ordinance, allowing his customers and employees who are fully vaccinated to not be masked while inside his restaurant.
“I would love to take my mask off,” he said. “I don’t have concerns personally, you know, I can understand why some people might.”
Dearth of job applicants
More of a concern for Lowry is the barren wasteland of job applicants. He’s hiring but hasn’t had an interview in three to four weeks, he said, and he’s had to close Bueno Y Sano for two days a week, edging toward three, due to a staff shortage.
“It’s the worst I’ve ever seen in 14 years of being in a restaurant,” said Lowry. Now he’s offering $100 to anyone who can bring him a job candidate.
Another local restaurant is taking a different approach. Leonardo’s Pizza, whose South Burlington store has been closed to indoor diners throughout the pandemic, will maintain its mask policy for all customers and employees. For president Sara Byers, the safety of her employees is the top priority.
“Until all of our employees who want to be vaccinated have the opportunity to be fully vaccinated, our masks will remain on,” she said. “Their comfort, their peace of mind and their safety is most important to us.” Byers expects to consider easing mask requirements closer to the end of June, when more young people will likely be fully vaccinated or in the process.
Despite varying approaches and policies, she has found comfort in “navigating” the pandemic alongside her fellow local business-owners. “We’re kind of all in this together at the end of the day,” said Byers.
For her staff and others, masks will remain part of the dress code for a little longer.
People are fully vaccinated two weeks after the final dose of their COVID-19 vaccine. Statewide guidance still requires masking and physical distancing in schools, healthcare settings, long-term care facilities, prisons and on public transportation.
At the May meeting, councilor Meaghan Emery said that the council’s repeal of the local mask ordinance “does not mean that we are all in the clear.” Children below the age of 12 and people not fully vaccinated still must wear masks and remain vulnerable, she said.
“We are responsible for all our residents, I want that to be made clear ... we still must remain responsible, and we must remain thoughtful,” she said.