After a lengthy, emotional and divisive public hearing, the Waitsfield Select Board rejected a resolution that stated that masks are required in public places in the town, despite receiving feedback that was overwhelmingly in favor of a mandate.
Rather, the board at a June 20 meeting voted 3-2 for a resolution that highly recommends masks. Board chair Paul Hartshorn and board members Kellee Mazer and Darryl Forrest voted for the mask recommendation resolution while board members Brian Shupe and Jon Jamieson voted against it.
The mask mandate resolution was opposed by Hartshorn, Mazer and Forrest and received yes votes from Shupe and Jamieson. That’s the same voting block from a June 13 meeting which resulted in a great deal of public outrage and prompted this week’s special meeting.
The 3.5-hour Zoom meeting was attended by 50-54 people throughout the meeting, many of whom spoke in favor of a mask mandate and four who were opposed to it.
Jamieson opened the meeting by noting that the issue has become emotional and has had the internet burning up with a lot of commentary and, he said this issue has resulted in the board receiving more commentary than any other issue in his three years on the board.
He asked people to be cordial and respectful and noted that board members are volunteers.
After a motion was made to adopt a resolution that mandated masks in clauses one and two and called for enforcement via public education and civil tickets in clause six, the board began its discussion.
Forrest opened the discussion asking why the proposed Waitsfield resolution wasn’t more like the ones approved by Warren and Fayston which don’t include anything like Waitsfield’s clause six regarding enforcement.
“I think we’ve gotten out ahead of our headlights,” Forrest said.
Mazer offered an impassioned response referencing the many emails she’d received from people who don’t understand what the board was voting on last week and this week.
“Many emails suggest I don’t support masks. I do support them, for those of you who have disagreed. I want you all to know that I love our community and our people and want what’s best for us all. I don't take this lightly. I hope we can come together and collaborate on this and work jointly together,” she said.
She said her concerns were with enforcement and liability and she asked how it would work for mountain biking, running or jumping off the bridge into the Mad River and asked whether kids would have to wear masks in school.
“If we can come together and collaborate, I’m willing to change my position. This mandate discussion is a very difficult position to be in and quite frankly I resent it,” she said.
Shupe said he was proud of the job Vermont has done in terms of taking the virus seriously, particularly in response to the failed national response.
“The one flaw is a mask requirement. About half of states have done this. Many of states doing a worse job of containment have heavy visitation to the Mad River Valley. I hate to think we’re going to be the one town in central Vermont where you can go and be mask free. We’re a larger community than the town of Waitsfield. Fayston and Warren can’t carry out their mask mandates without us,” he said.
Jamieson said he supported the mask mandate because of the support for that is coming from the business community. He paraphrased something Village Grocery owner Troy Kingsbury posted on social media to the effect that “without national, state or local guidance, little businesses are battlegrounds for this. Small businesses have to walk that line. They need every sale to keep the doors open.”
Jamieson said the more comfortable people are in the community, the more quickly The Valley will recover from the economic impacts of the virus.
During public comment Anne Vlahos, Jennifer Stella, Michiah Adams and Todd White spoke out against a mask mandate. Alice Peal, Liz Bisbee, Lauren Kaskey, Christine Sullivan, Curt Lindberg, Claire Lindberg, Ted Tremper, Joe Robinson
Sue Thomas, Caitlin Fleckenstein, Mary McKann and others spoke in favor of such a mandate.
As the board returned to discussion of the proposal, Jamieson reiterated his support for the resolution.
“I think a mandate is critical. Store owners and business owners have said that they want our backing,” Shupe said.
Hartshorn and Forrest offered to amend the proposed resolution to change clauses one and two from requiring masks to highly recommending masks. Mazer said she had issues with clause six, the enforcement clause. Shupe offered to amend that so that it said that enforcement would be via public education with no fines or any other action.
Mazer still had concerns and asked what the town’s liability is if someone gets hurt, which Shupe said was a non-issue. To her concerns about how it would impact kids playing on the soccer fields, Jamieson pointed out that the state has issued guidelines for kids to return to youth sports leagues and that the local rec district is using those guidelines at local fields.
Hartshorn said he thought the wording was confusing because it said masks must be worn in public. Jamieson asked what was confusing about that.
“It doesn’t say parks, it says all over town,” Hartshorn said.
“You can get the virus all over town,” Jamieson replied.
Ultimately, the motion to amend the resolution to include clause one and two mandate and change clause six to call for enforcement via public education was defeated as described above with the watered down resolution approved 3-2.