By Guy Page
The Vermont Legislature, meeting Monday in Special Session, approved a municipal mask mandate.
The Democratic House majority turned aside Republican and independent concerns about enforcement. The final vote was 90-41 (see head count below).
ENFORCEMENT, PENALTIES – Much of the questioning by critics focused on possible enforcement of a municipal mask ordinance. In particular, several lawmakers were very concerned about the possibility of criminal penalties of up to a year in jail.
Early in the floor discussion, Rep. Mark Higley (R-Lowell) expressed concern about the bill giving towns the power to impose civil and criminal penalties. He recounted the November 4 episode in which Mike and Amy Desautels were threatened by a state trooper with arrest for trespassing or losing custody of their maskless Lowell Graded School second-grader if they didn’t immediately take her home.
“You can’t tell me there isn’t another alternative besides having parents being met by state police. I can guarantee there will be other situations,” Higley said.
“Who’s gonna enforce it?,” Higley asked. “This is just ludicrous in my mind.”
Brandon-Pittsford Republican Butch Shaw asked if anything in the bill prevented “an overzealous governing body” to enact criminal penalties. John Gannon (D-Wilmington) said criminal penalties would be permittted under the law.
Rep. Anne Donahue (R-Northfield/Berlin) asked whether a municipality could impose a felony criminal penalty. In response, Rep. Gannon said a municipality could impose jail terms of up to one year.
Donahue proposed an amendment eliminating criminal penalties for infractions. There is precedent – animal control laws cannot be felonies, Donohue said. Mask wearers should not end up with a criminal record, she said. The amendment proposed by Donohue removing possible criminal convictions failed 46-86.
Jim Harrison (R-Mendon) asked if masking penalties under Gov. Phil Scott’s State of Emergency masking penalties were criminal or civil. The Governor’s Executive Order did not specify penalties, he was told.
“I came into this chamber today – I want this pandemic to be over with. I took the shot, I wear the mask,” Harrison said. “I want it to be done. I am not a health expert. I do not think we should have criminal penalties.”
It’s unlikely people who aren’t wearing masks will be stirred to wear masks by a municipal mandate, Barbara Murphy (I-Fairfax) said. She also expressed concern about possible criminal penalties. “I do ask that we seach our hearts if this is the proper thing to be doing.”
CHURCHES: Vicki Strong (R-Albany) asked whether a municipal ordinance would cover houses of worship – “how would that work?” she asked. Gannon said the ordinance would impact all buildings “open to the public.”
“Okay, so that would affect houses of worship, churches,” Strong said.
“The right to our bodily autonomy is vital,” as is “the right to refuse or accept any medical treatment,” Strong said. “I will be voting no.”
WON’T AFFECT SCHOOLS – When Erin Brady (D-Williston) argued for the municipal mask mandate due to the effect of the pandemic on public schools, several Republican lawmakers – including Higley – argued that the bill specifically exempts schools from the bill. House Speaker Jill Krowinski then called a meeting of Republican, Democratic, Progressive and independent caucus leaders. After a several minute discussion, Brady clarified that the pandemic is affecting the entire community – including schools.
WHAT’S NEXT? Municipalities will have 45 days to enact an ordinance. Selectboard approval only is necessary – it doesn’t need to go to voters, Karen Horn, spokesperson for Vermont League of Cities and Towns, said. Mask freedom groups are predicting lively opposition on the local level, although local leaders in Brattleboro (hometown of Sen. Pro Tem Becca Balint) and Burlington (hometown of House Speaker Jill Krowinski) have already signaled their eagerness to adopt a local mass mandate. Montpelier also is considered a likely candidate. As for the Legislature, Krowinski said they will be watching case loads and responses to the municipal mandate over the next two months. Other measures, including enhanced testing, contact tracing, and a statewide mask mandate, will be advanced if deemed necessary, she said.
DISSIDENT DEMOCRAT – Explaining his no vote after the bill passed, longtime selectboard member Democrat David Yacovone of Morristown said: “United we stand, divided we fall. This bill will divide us. The juice is simply not worth the squeeze.”
HOUSE ROLL CALL: How members of Vermont House of Representatives voted on S1, approving municipal mask mandate (screenshot credit Nov. 22 House Journal).
Terri Williams (R-Essex/Caledonia) also voted against the bill. Her name was unintentionally cut off from the screen shot below.