Wearing masks in public settings

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends wearing masks in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain, especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.

With each turn of the “spigot” Vermont slowly inches towards normalcy. But despite Gov. Phil Scott’s measures to allow gatherings of less than 10 people, gradual reopening of area parks, trails and retail stores, coronavirus will still be in our communities.

Anticipating the gradual reopening of restaurants, stores, South Burlington officials are aiming to adopt a temporary measure that would ask city-goers to help protect each other in public buildings.

But how does that compare to state and national guidelines? And how will that measure, and other elements of social distancing be enforced?

Mask measure

An anticipated city measure asking residents to wear a mask will likely be a resolution, not an ordinance, City Manager Kevin Dorn said. The council will discuss how and what it wants to proceed with during its May 18 meeting, he said.

Dorn described the measure as a moral standard, encouraging city residents and visitors to wear a mask anywhere smoking is currently prohibited.

The covering could be a scarf or bandana or fabric mask.

“What we’re going for and what the expectation is, is something that would cover your nose and mouth in case you sneeze or cough,” Dorn said.

The ordinance versus resolution decision comes down to time and enforcement. It takes time to create a new city ordinance, Dorn said. And there’s the question of whether the council has the authority to put an enforceable mask measure in place. Vermont is a Dillon’s Rule state, meaning each municipality derives its authority from the legislature. Neither South Burlington’s charter nor any provision of law currently authorizes a community to create an enforceable requirement to wear a mask, Dorn said.

Resolutions are more akin to recommendations and are not actionable, said Police Chief Shawn Burke.

CDC recommendations

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends wearing a mask in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain. The CDC says the mask should fit snugly against the side of the face, be secured with ties or ear loops, include multiple layers of fabric and be able to be laundered.

The CDC website includes directions for sewn-fabric masks, and no-sew masks made of t-shirts and bandanas.

While there aren’t a lot of studies about the efficacy of cloth masks versus handkerchiefs, something is better than nothing, said Tracy Dolan, Vermont Department of Health Deputy Health Commissioner.

“If you have a handkerchief or a bandana and you’re able to do it in such a way that it’s snug, what we’re saying is, ‘Anything is better than nothing,’” she said. “This is really less about protecting you from others and more about protecting others from you.”

Masks can help contain a person’s respiratory droplets. But masks alone are not the answer.

“The most effective is still, and always has been for this transmission, hand washing, stay at home when you’re sick, and, in this case, social distancing,” Dolan said. “Hand washing saves lives both in a medical environment and in our community.”


On May 6, Gov. Phil Scott reopened small gatherings of less than 10 people. He encouraged Vermonters to observe proper social distancing and hygienic practices during those gatherings.

Since social distancing guidelines were implemented, the South Burlington police department has received calls related to noncompliance. The calls have included business concerns, social distancing and gatherings, Police Chief Shawn Burke said.

Social Distancing guidelines are voluntary compliance, Burke said. South Burlington officers cannot immediately issue fines or arrest those who are not in compliance. The Attorney General’s office is responsible for considering what, if any, punitive measures would be taken for someone who does not follow guidelines.

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