Middlebury considering a face mask ordinance

MIDDLEBURY — While Vergennes officials this week favored taking action to require mask wearing by customers at city businesses, members of the Middlebury selectboard this week discussed taking similar steps in the shiretown but put off a decision until at least June 9.

At a May 26 meeting held via teleconferencing, Middlebury selectboard Chair Brian Carpenter initiated discussion on the issue when he said the town had received multiple requests for town support for a mandatory facemask ordinance.

One of those requests came next day from two Middlebury property owners.

“We believe the selectboard should enact an ordinance requiring all persons entering retail and business spaces in Middlebury to wear a mask until the State of Emergency has been lifted and/or the governor/state of Vermont issues guidance specifically authorizing no masks in certain circumstances,” Benj and Lesley Deppman wrote in an email to Middlebury selectboard members on Wednesday. The Deppmans, who reside in Cornwall but own a building in Middlebury, cc’d the Addison Independent on the email. Benj Deppman

Back in Vergennes, members of the city council on Tuesday reached an agreement in principle to support a resolution that would formally request that customers of Vergennes businesses and those who come into city buildings wear protective masks (See story here). Councilors were awaiting City Manager Daniel Hofman to draft the resolution modeled after resolutions already in place in Burlington and South Burlington.

At Tuesday’s selectboard meeting in Middlebury, Police Chief Tom Hanley said the board could make failure to wear a mask a civil offense with a fine, or a criminal offense for which the state’s attorney may or may not purse criminal charges, according to draft minutes of the meeting.

Without any board action, Chief Hanley said that if a customer doesn’t comply with a shopkeeper’s request to put on a mask, then the shopkeeper can ask the police to issue a notice against trespassing against the customer.

In any case, Hanely said, enforcement of an ordinance would be difficult and it would also expose his officers to more people who aren’t protected. He said the police department has a very limited supply of N95 masks, which could not be replenished once they ran out.

Selectmen Farhad Khan and Dan Brown, who both own Middlebury businesses, said it is hard on business employees to demand that customers put on masks with no municipal rulings backing them up.

There was discussion about creating an official town policy requiring facemasks be worn in public. Hanely said such a policy wasn’t enforceable, but it does let people know that when they go into public places they need to wear a mask.

Selectboard member Lindsey Fuentes-George said she realizes how fragile our economic recovery is and how a second wave of the virus would be detrimental to the town as a whole, according to meeting minues. She said wearing a mask is an easy thing to do to protect our community, so it should be framed as what can we do to encourage the most number of people to do what’s best for the community, and she hates it becoming a “hot button” issue. She does think a townwide statement of some sort would take the pressure off individual business owners.

Karen Duguay of the Better Middlebury Partnership said she’d talked with several other downtown groups Tuesday and she passed on word that other Vermont towns, including Wilmington and Brattleboro, have passed facemask resolutions. Duguay has polled 59 local retailers and received 35 responses. Of those 35, 38% preferred to manage the use of masks themselves, while 62% wanted a town mandate.

Heather Seeley, a selectboard member, said that while she’s in favor of wearing masks, based on all that she had heard during the meeting she wasn’t ready for a resolution yet and would rather give it another couple of weeks.

Board members heard that there are official processes for adopting an ordinance or a policy, and as such they couldn’t approve either at Tuesday’s meeting.

Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay said that the issue would be on the agenda for the next selectboard meeting, which is scheduled for June 9.

The Deppmans made their case for a Middlebury rule in their Wednesday email:

“We realize there is an appealing aspect to leaving this decision up to the individual merchants, but this puts merchants in a very difficult position. Some patrons will criticize merchants that insist upon a mask. Some merchants will quickly drop any mask requirement, possibly making themselves more attractive to some patrons while also making competitors feel pressure to follow suit. Having an ordinance to point to will ease the pressure on merchants, as the merchants will not have to appear as the ‘bad guy’ with those patrons that do not want to wear a mask.

“Our businesses need your support,” they concluded. “Please lead by enacting an ordinance immediately.”

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Editor’s note: Share your opinions on a local rule requiring facemasks in pubic; send a letter to the editor to news@addisonindependent.com.

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