Gov. Phil Scott has issued an order requiring people in Vermont to cover their faces when out in public, saying that while Vermont’s COVID-19 infection rate is still among the lowest in the country, a rise in cases elsewhere in the U.S. has put Vermont on the defensive.
Scott has long resisted a mandate, saying education is the best way to get people to wear masks when in public. Thirty-one states and the District of Columbia now require most people to cover their faces when out in public, according to the AARP.
But on Friday, Scott noted that cases are still surging elsewhere in the U.S., including Florida, which has 400,000 cases of coronavirus, and 173 people died in of the virus in a single day last week, according to the Florida Department of Health.
“With our low numbers and other considerations, I have waited to implement a mask mandate thus far,” Scott said. “I preferred to focus on education, helping Vermonters understand why they should wear a mask, which is to protect their neighbors and themselves and keep Vermont open so they could make the right choice on their own.
“I still believe that has been the right approach to date, but 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.”
Starting Aug. 1, masks will be required of anyone over age 2, unless the person has a physical or developmental disability that would be complicated by wearing one. Businesses can decline serving customers who don’t wear masks, and will be required to post signs about the executive order, which Scott signed July 24. Masks won’t be required for those exercising outdoors.
Masks will be required outdoors if it’s impossible to keep a distance of 6 feet from others.
People who decline to wear a mask because of health concerns will not be required to produce documentation.
“Doing so would clearly be a violation of their health care privacy rights,” Scott said.
Violators won’t be penalized; Scott said the state is relying on education for enforcement, though fines could be adopted later, if necessary.
Stowe adopted a mask mandate early on.
Scott said the state’s COVID-19 case modeling last week pushed him to make the mask decision. Among other things, thousands of college students are expected to move to Vermont from around the country by the middle of next month.
Mike Pieciak, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Financial Regulation, said the country has recently hit 4 million cases, a benchmark that shows the virus’ staggering toll — and also its growth in recent weeks.
The United States took 15 days to go from 3 million to 4 million cases, compared to 99 days to get its first 1 million cases, said Pieciak, who presented the state’s latest modeling.
That growth is focused in the South and West, but even within our region, “the rise in new cases has become a trend,” he said.
“It’s not the explosive growth other states have been experiencing, but new cases are approximately 20 percent higher this week than they were for the last week of June, which should give us some pause here in Vermont,” he said.
In Vermont, 52 cases were confirmed last week, compared to 55 new cases the week before.
Asked if research shows a mask mandate results in higher mask use, Pieciak said that a Colorado survey recently found that mask compliance increased as much as 16 percent in one county after a mandate was enacted, compared to counties where there was no mandate.
Nationally, mask mandates vary widely, but most require masks in indoor spaces such as stores and restaurants, and outdoors when within 6 feet of others, the AARP said. Most include exceptions for people who have medical conditions that prevent them from wearing masks.
Until now, Vermont and New Hampshire had been outliers in the Northeast, surrounded by states with mask mandates. Scott had been under pressure for weeks from constituents on both sides of the mask mandate question, which generally falls along political lines in Vermont and in the rest of the U.S.
Democrats running for state offices had called for a mandate. Many Vermont cities and towns had passed their own mask ordinances. And the state weeks ago set out mask requirements as part of safety rules for business to reopen.
Scott acknowledged that the issue of masks has been personalized on social media and politicized. He asked Vermonters to look at the science and the data that show masks can reduce the COVID-19 infection rate.
“Look at the data, the real data; realize the science is real,” Scott said. “Wearing a mask will protect the gains we have made.”
Vermont U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy praised the mandate on Twitter.
“I applaud the science-based, data-driven decision,” he said. “We’re all in this together.”
The Vermont Medical Society said a mask mandate will help control the spread of the virus.
“This is critical for protecting the health of Vermonters and to allowing children to return to school in the fall, another vital health issue,” the group said.
The Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce supports the mask mandate as a way to support what Executive Vice President Cathy Davis called the fragile recovery underway now.
“It’s important that we not lose ground, and continue to see progress in opening the economy further,” said Davis. She noted masks are already required of workers in most indoor settings.
“We ask employees to be masked and to go through more cleaning procedures and things like that,” Davis said. “It’s important that we protect their safety by wearing masks when we go in a store or a place of business. It’s a sign of respect to the people who are working to wear a mask.”
And as he has since declaring a state of emergency in March, Scott emphasized that Vermont will fare best in the pandemic through personal responsibility, not mandates.
“To those of you already wearing masks, that are concerned about those who aren’t: I ask you to give them the benefit of the doubt,” he said. “Attacking, shaming and judging isn’t going to help, but understanding, educating, meeting people where they are, and maybe using a little kindness and understanding might.
“Let’s not make the news with screaming matches caught on video; let’s do things the Vermont way by being role models and leading by example.”