By Guy Page
A bill giving municipalities the power to mandate the wearing of masks will be introduced in the Vermont Senate at 10 AM Monday, during an in-person Special Session of both Houses of the Vermont Legislature.
Gov. Phil Scott begrudgingly agreed last week to convene a Special Session, at the request of House and Senate leadership concerned about record numbers of Covid cases in the most vaccinated state in the union. “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,” Senate Pro Tem Becca Balint urged in a press statement urging a special session.
Scott says mandates won’t make more people wear masks. Nevertheless, he agreed to the Special Session under strict conditions: only municipal governments would be granted discretionary mask mandate power. Local mandates would be renewed monthly and expire at the end of April.
Friday morning, the Senate Government Operations Committee discussed the bill under the belief it would be voting on it as a group for the full Senate’s review today.
That belief was incorrect. After the lunch break, Gov Ops Chair Jeannette White told her committee she had been told by Senate parliamentarians the committee couldn’t vote when the Legislature is not in session. Which it wasn’t, on Friday. When the full Senate meets today at 10 AM, White will offer the bill drafted by Gov. Scott – titled the Temporary Municipal Mask Mandate Act. She will introduce the bill as a lone legislator, not in the committee’s name.
Then Senate floor discussion will begin. An amendment to move mask mandate power from municipalities to the State was discussed by Gov Ops Friday. Legislative leadership wanted state oversight all along, and several Gov Ops senators also seemed supportive. Sen. White said that once introduced on the floor, the bill won’t be sent to any committees for study – the details will be thrashed out then and there.
Whatever legislation emerges from the Senate will be sent over to House. The House Calendar is most inconveniently unavailable on the Legislature’s website this morning as of 8 AM, so official meeting times for the full House are uncertain. However, it does say House Government Operations Committee is scheduled to convene at 11 AM in Room 11 to discuss the bill.
If discussion moves speedily, House Gov Ops could approve the bill and send it to the full House after lunch.
But movement may not be swift.
Critics of any type of government mask mandate – municipal or state – are said to be considering proposed amendments in House Government Operations and on the House floor. If a handful of Democrats and independents join the GOP caucus in opposition, there could be enough votes to sustain the veto threatened by Scott if the bill is significantly amended.
Johnson resident Bill Moore, an outspoken critic of mask and vaccine mandates, sent a letter to House Gov Ops Chair Sarah Copeland-Hanzas raising several issues with the draft bill, including:
- “Deep and disturbing gaps are obvious in any cursory reading of this newly minted Bill; especially with regards enforcement, appeals, fines, possible jail time, Right To Counsel at State expense and the utilization of “Agents of the State” such as proprietors and staff at local shops and restaurants for enforcement.” [Editor’s italics]
- “If becoming an “Agent of the State” to enforce these local Rules becomes a choice against being fined and public shaming, proprietors, staff and employees will despise their role and will see clearly the true aims of this Bill as political and partisan shenanigans.”
- “While at the same moment in Vermont literally hundreds of thousands of Vermonters are already choosing to utilize masks at most indoor public settings, you propose to deny the opportunity for them to see the choice as rational, health-centered and personal. Simply being a Citizen.”
- “For those who have recovered from SARS CoV-2 and its variants, whose immunology is well documented as superior to the resistance born of the “vaccines”, protection from the exposures in typical public setting is insignificant, and renders mask use detrimental and and infringement of their health choices as well as their Constitutional Rights.”
- “If these same urban elites and activists can also suspend the rules of decorum and common decency and demand a truncated, closed legislative express lane for favored initiatives, we all must consider the future of Vermont’s human scale. Citizen accessible legislative process in danger of extinction.”
Despite likely challenges from those who want a statewide mandate and those who want no mandate at all, some lawmakers are hoping for a quick, one-day special session. However, Chair White admitted Friday that depending on how the legislative process goes, the Legislature could still be in session on Friday.
Pursuant to the order of the Joint Rules Committee, masks are required for entry to legislative spaces. For freshman lawmakers elected in November, 2020, this will be their first in-person meeting with all of their legislative colleagues.
Health Choice Vermont, which opposes any medical mandates, will rally at the State House at 10 AM.