Editorial: Mask mandates put the responsibility where it belongs
When Gov. Phil Scott proposed S.1, the law that authorizes Vermont cities and towns to establish their own masking requirements to protect citizens from a localized outbreak of the COVID-19 virus and its variants, the idea was to give local communities the option to take action when needed, rather than force all of Vermont’s 251 communities to do so in a statewide mandate.
Theoretically, it makes sense. If Brattleboro experiences an outbreak and wants to exercise local control, but other parts of the state are unaffected, there is no reason to impose measures that would do little good 200 miles away and could present statewide economic harm — as well as political resentment.
In practice, however, the measure is less than ideal. Vermont currently has one of the highest rates per capita of COVID-19 in the country; it’s as bad as it’s ever been here and some of the state’s hospitals are nearing their reasonable capacity to handle such cases and still provide services for the rest of the population.
The Vermont Legislature went along with Scott’s proposal, passing it 90-41 in the House and 17-10 in the Senate, because they knew Scott would reject any statewide mandate and something was better than nothing. S.1 would at least allow communities to be proactive, said Democratic leaders, even if it was unlikely all communities would act in unison to replicate a statewide approach.
The early response, at least locally, is disappointing. Armed with an ability to take action, Bristol and Vergennes opted not to bring the issue to a vote because they maintained there would be no ability to enforce any local measure put in place.
“Any non-compliance with private masking requirements is not enforceable by the Bristol Police Department; it is a civil matter,” Bristol Town Administrator Valerie Capels said. “If a mandate is to be in place, (board) members felt it should be statewide.”
While true, it underestimates what communities can do when working together for a common cause.
If, for example, a sudden outbreak of the virus inundated a specific town, it would be common sense for residents to hunker down, wear masks, wash hands and avoid large groups. Mandate or not, one would expect the majority of residents to act wisely and to respect the health of their friends and neighbors.
But not everyone will. There are holdouts to scientific facts; there are those who reject common sense measures. But if community pressure helps reduce the number of holdouts from being disrespectful of others, then that’s a successful community outcome.
A masking mandate simply encourages everyone to work together.
Part of the struggle boards face is the concept of imposing “a mandate” and what “enforcement” means.
A better word for “mandates” might be “encouragements.” Consider this: If and when it might be needed, the town of Middlebury could issue a statement that “encourages all residents to wear masks for the next 30 days when shopping in community stores or engaging in places of business, or attending public gatherings of any sort in which non-family members, or people not close to you, are present. The town will keep this cautionary measure in place until the rate of incidence in the community-at-large falls under 4%.”
For the most part, the enforcement of such a statement, or mandate, has always been on each resident’s willingness to serve the common good. What the state mandate did was provide an excuse for local communities and local businesses to act responsibly. That is, each community and business could say: ‘we’re imposing these rules because the state told us to and therefore you should comply.’
Today, communities are being asked to take on that responsibility and say: ‘We, the town and local businesses, are imposing these common sense measures to protect the community and we ask you (our customers and residents) to comply and help keep all of us safer.’
Does that mean most towns in the state should adopt measures that would encourage wearing masks when shopping and congregating indoors in businesses or public places? With the state’s current high case count averaging over 3%, probably so.
That doesn’t mean we shutter restaurants, fitness centers or lodging establishments; it doesn’t mean we can’t hold outdoor gatherings or go skiing. It just means to wear a mask when needed. It means to take smart precautions, like getting vaccinated and getting a booster.
That said, we agree with Gov. Scott’s approach. While the town-by-town option may not be the best way to contain spread of the virus, imposing a statewide mandate would likely cause more political strife and spark a sense of anti-government sentiment that would not easily dissipate — and it shirks our individual responsibility off on the state.
It’s also obvious that if communities and counties work together, they could have a similar impact. What towns need are benchmarks to heed. That could be pegged to the incident rate on a per 10,000 person basis — a common measure currently used to gauge the severity of the pandemic in various areas of the country and world. If 3% or 4% or 5% is pegged as the number that triggers stricter measures, perhaps the Vermont League of Cities and Towns could suggest that its members follow established protocols.
Acceptance of personal responsibility, after all, should lead to the ideal outcome: individuals, businesses, schools and community groups working together to keep the virus controlled. S.1 allows that to happen, if towns willingly take the lead.
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