by Guy Page
It looks like November 22 will be Mask Mandate Monday in the Vermont Legislature.
At the urgent request of the leaders of the Vermont House and Senate, Gov. Phil Scott has grudgingly agreed to call a Special Session of the Legislature for next Monday, Nov. 22. He agreed to sign legislation giving municipalities limited power to impose mask mandates.
“I disagree [with the need for a universal mandate], but to move forward I extended an olive branch,” Scott said at today’s press conference. He said municipalities must revote on the masking policy every 30 days, which in any event would end in April. “I see it as a compromise between my position and their position…I will veto anything else.”
For weeks, Senate and House leaders have been asking Scott to reimpose a state of emergency to require indoor masking in public places. He has refused, saying the situation doesn’t warrant such a drastic response and that Vermont should continue to improve on its 90%+ vaccination rate of eligible Vermonters, especially among the young. In August Scott forbade Brattleboro to impose its own mask mandate.
That’s just not good enough, Senate Pro Tem Becca Balint said last week when cases climbed to an all-time record of 571: ““This virus is unpredictable. We all hoped infection rates would drop as more Vermonters got vaccinated, but clearly that hasn’t happened, and we are overdue for a reassessment of strategy and a course correction.” Balint is not calling for reducing or abandoning the state’s aggressive vaccination policy. Instead, she wants to mandate masks in indoor public areas in high-transmission areas.
At least one Vermonter skilled in public health says both Scott and the Legislature are taking the wrong approach. Kendra Bowen, a Charlotte resident with a Masters’ Degree in Public Health, said in a recent Vermont Daily Chronicle op-ed: “My solution is that we continue to encourage vaccines and masks, but stop mandating and worrying about those who do not, and get back to living and fostering our “natural immunity.” Stay home if you feel sick.”
She also said she appreciated Health Commissioner Levine’s admission last week that Vermont’s high vaccination rate has contributed to our low natural immunity.
The letter signed by Gov. Scott on Nov. 15 and a press release response the same day by Balint and Krowinski explains their respective positions in detail and in their own words.
Governor Scott to House Speaker Krowinski and Senate Pro Tem Balint:
Emergency powers not justified, won’t work; legislation must be limited
As you know, I believe the Executive’s emergency authority should be used judiciously. These powers must be reserved for significant emergencies. As a democratic constitutional republic, our constitution clearly intends to balance the power of government, so no one branch, official, or group of officials, is in a position of absolute power. Abuse of emergency powers – or lowering expectations of when and how they might be used – is a dangerous and slippery slope we must not allow and should never be politicized.
There is no doubt that COVID-19 continues to be a persistent challenge. We will be dealing with periodic surges and clusters as we navigate the path from pandemic to endemic. As Dr. Levine has noted, eventually it will become just another virus like seasonal flu or the common cold. But we must continue to do our part as individuals and community members to move forward on this path by getting vaccinated, receiving boosters, and protecting the elderly Vermonters who are most at risk.
As you know, because of vaccine effectiveness, boosters and advancing treatments, case fatality and case hospitalization rates are declining. In fact, even in this period of high case counts, over the last 30 days rates in the over 65 age bands (those most at risk of hospitalization) have declined by 2.5 percent. In addition, with nearly two years of experience, knowledge of the virus and its risks have increased substantially. Thankfully, while it is a challenge, and we must remain vigilant and encourage the unvaccinated to do their part, it no longer rises to the level of an emergency that would justify use of emergency powers.
As President Biden has frequently noted, this is now a pandemic of the unvaccinated. And I believe confrontations over mandates, and the partisan politicization of these issues, ultimately delay the decisions we need these individuals to reach. As such, I do not believe a mask mandate will have the impact you hope at this time. Based on our earlier experience with a mandate, we are unlikely to see compliance among the unvaccinated adults we need to mask, and in the places where we need more people to mask – like in social gatherings where food and alcohol is involved.
To put it more bluntly, the people, businesses and communities who comply with guidance – or who welcome mandates – are not where we need the greatest change; politicized conflict only makes it more difficult to persuade those who we need to reach. However, during this period of elevated cases I will continue to strongly encourage these Vermonters to wear masks indoors when around others from outside their household, get vaccinated and make good choices on a day-to-day basis.
In light of your recent press releases, it’s obvious we have differences of opinion regarding how best to move forward from pandemic to endemic and use of gubernatorial emergency powers.
For these reasons, I propose a special session of the General Assembly for the single purpose of expressly granting each individual municipality the narrowly crafted, and time-limited, authority to mandate the use of facial coverings indoors within their jurisdictions. Specifically, I’m willing to support legislation that is clearly and narrowly crafted to do the following:
First, the legislation must be limited to facial covering requirements indoors within a municipality’s jurisdiction (except schools, which shall remain governed by the policies set forth by the local school board) for the specific, and exclusive, purpose of addressing COVID-19.
Second, the legislation must allow each municipality to enact, by action of the municipality’s governing body, a mask mandate beginning Monday, November 29, 2021, or upon passage, whichever is earlier.
Third, the legislation and authority to impose a local mask mandate shall sunset on April 30, 2022.
Fourth, the statute passed in special session must require the governing body of the municipality to reevaluate and vote to extend or rescind the policy on a month-to-month basis.
I offer this as a compromise – not because I believe mandates are the right approach under current circumstances. Therefore, I want to be very clear, should the Legislature propose any additional restrictions or mandates on a statewide or municipal basis, I will not support them. This special session would be for the exclusive purpose of passing narrowly crafted, and time-limited legislation giving municipalities the temporary authority to mandate the use of facial coverings indoors within their jurisdictions, as outlined above.
I have asked my staff to prepare the paperwork calling a special session for Monday, November 22, 2021, and look forward to discussing this compromise proposal when we meet later today.
Krowinski and Balint respond: Ok, Governor, anything’s better than nothing
The same day, Krowinski and Balint published this open letter:
“We appreciated meeting with the Governor and discussing ways to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and the differences of opinion in the ways that we believe we should move forward. In our meeting today, the Governor told us that he would support the passage of legislation, similar to a proposal made by the League of Cities and Towns last week, granting limited authority to municipalities to mandate masks in their communities. While we appreciate this step toward giving Vermonters more tools to promote public health, we are deeply disappointed that there is not a broader approach to keeping Vermonters safe and our health care system afloat.
“Under current law, the Governor has the authority to approve local public health measures without the need for the legislature to reconvene, but at this point, we believe that taking any action is better than continuing down the path that we are currently on when it comes to preventing the spread of disease. The Governor has the authority to act now and he has also made it very clear that if the legislature attempted to pass any legislation other than what he has proposed during this special session, he would veto it. We are still discussing all policy options and will work with public health experts to help us evaluate alternative public health actions.
“Again, while this it is not what we had envisioned as a response to this moment in the pandemic, when Vermont has one of the highest case rates in the country, if it takes the legislature reconvening to step in on behalf of Vermonters, we are more than happy to provide a tool to help mitigate the spread of the virus in our communities.”
The special session no doubt will be discussed at Gov. Scott’s press conference at noon today.