Middlebury opts for resolution to support masks

Go ahead and kick the can down the road, but it will be back to haunt you.
— Judy Wiger-Grohs

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury selectboard on Tuesday unanimously endorsed a coronavirus-related resolution directing all people to wear face coverings in public settings (or outdoors) in Middlebury where it isn’t possible to maintain a 6-foot buffer between the next closest person.
The resolution wasn’t forceful enough for the approximately 20 people who had urged the board to pass an ordinance requiring the wearing of face coverings or be subject to police action. But board members argued they had heard from other merchants and residents who believed an ordinance would be too heavy-handed, and noted it could be 60 days before an official law could take effect due to the statutory timeline for public hearings and warnings.
“Will we get 100% compliance? No, but it’s a step in the right direction,” Selectman Nick Artim said of the resolution.
The board on Tuesday considered three options to impart the community’s desire that people wear face masks: An ordinance, an emergency order, or a resolution. Here’s a brief explanation of each option:
•  Resolution — can be adopted by majority vote at a selectboard meeting, and takes effect immediately. It’s designed to guide citizens.
•  Emergency order — allows municipalities to “make orders, rules and regulations” during an emergency, and takes effect immediately upon approval by a majority of the selectboard. Makes violators subject to fines of up to $500 and/or up to six months in prison.
•  Ordinance — an enforceable law that takes a minimum of 60 days to enact. Makes violations punishable by fines of up to $1,000, and possible prison sentence of up to one year. Carries civil or criminal enforcement.
Attorney Benj Deppman, who has a law office in Middlebury, was one of the first businesspeople to call for a face mask ordinance.
“If there was a flare-up in Middlebury, I don’t think the town should have to scramble; I think Middlebury should already have the decision in place,” Deppman told the board at its Zoom meeting Tuesday evening. “I think we’re just following suit with what other well-intentioned towns have already done. Montpelier did it, and I think Middlebury should do it.”
He said not having an ordinance would place merchants under undue pressure to deal with people who come into stores without masks.
“I feel this decision is something that should be taken out of the hands of the merchants and the businesspeople,” Deppman said.
He said the recent spike of COVID-19 cases in Winooski should motivate Middlebury to pass a law.
Resident Judy Wiger-Grohs also urged the board to pass an ordinance. She claimed 50% of the tourists coming to Vermont are from Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey, where COVID-19 has made particular inroads.
She warned board members they’ll regret not passing an ordinance.
“Go ahead and kick the can down the road, but it will be back to haunt you,” Wiger-Grohs said.
Resident Victoria DeWind also supports a face mask law.
“I encourage you to give this good consideration,” she told the board. “(Mask wearing) is one of the most effective things we have right now to keep the virus from spreading.”
Karen Duguay, executive director of the Better Middlebury Partnership, said the downtown merchants with whom she’s spoken have yet to coalesce around the preference of a resolution or an ordinance.
“I’m hearing from people passionate on both sides of the issue,” she told the board.
Selectman Farhad Khan owns the One Dollar Market in Middlebury. He has a sign on his door informing customers “face masks are required.”
But he added he doesn’t want to put his workers in a position of having to argue, or call police, if a violator walks in to the store.
“I don’t want to put my employees in an awkward situation where they have to confront a customer (arguing) ‘You have to wear a mask,’” he said. “I don’t know how to enforce it.”
Selectman Dan Brown owns the Swift House Inn and Jessica’s Restaurant in Middlebury.
“Those who are going to wear masks will wear masks, and those who don’t, won’t,” he said.
Middlebury resident and attorney Emily Joselson underscored the importance of letting people know that if you’re in Middlebury, it’s expected that you’ll wear a face mask.
“At this point, wearing masks is the safest way we know how to behave,” she said. “It seems little enough to ask our community to issue a resolution that relieves the onus from already burdened retail store and restaurant owners and makes an across-the-board rule that this is the conduct we expect in our town.”
She acknowledged the difficulty of enforcing a mandate such as a face mask law.
“We are so used to laws and regulations that unfortunately don’t get heavily enforced,” Joselson said. “And that doesn’t mean they’re any less valuable for their public policy statements, for their educational purpose, for their aspirational information. It’s not a problem to me. We would not be directing our police force to be expending energy to enforce it, except in the extreme… I think it’s wise, it’s fair, it’s forward-thinking and it’s not too onerous.”
Artim said the question for him was, “Are we looking at something that’s punishable, or educational?”
He said he believed the town should take an educational tack, and thus promoted a resolution. It’s an action the Vergennes City Council has already taken.
Here are some of the details of the new resolution, which uses the term “face covering” to acknowledge scarves and other devices that can cover the mouth and nose:
•  It applies, but is not limited to, “retail establishments, food and beverage serving places, lodging and service facilities, municipal buildings and places of business.”
•  It doesn’t apply to state and federal properties, where the town has no jurisdiction.
•  The face coverings must comply with U.S. Centers for Disease Control guidelines.
• Establishments where the resolution applies should “conspicuously post” a sign near each public entrance that has the language, “By Resolution of the Middlebury Selectboard, persons entering this facility are advised to wear protective face masks or shields that cover their nose and mouth in order to assist with controlling the spread of the COVID-19 virus.”
Selectwoman Lindsey Fuentes-George joined her colleagues in endorsing the resolution, but suggested the board be ready to pursue an ordinance in case the town sees a surge in COVID-19 cases.
Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley said his department would be an ally in promoting the resolution.
“Whatever you come out with … we’ll come up with a strategy to deal with it,” Hanley said. “We’re not going to have store owners or assistant managers or the teenage kid working at the counter fighting with people over a mask. We’ll figure it out.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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