South Burlington has passed a resolution requiring people to wear masks in city-owned buildings. Burlington has done the same, but has added the requirement for customers in retail stores. Legislative leaders in Montpelier are pondering whether to pass legislation that would require all Vermonters to wear masks when they enter retail establishments.

Senate Pro Tempore Tim Ashe, a candidate for Lt. Governor, has raised the issue. He’d rather have Gov. Phil Scott issue the order, but, if not, would like to see whether legislators “have the stomach” for the debate.

It’s an honest question, albeit with obvious political overtones. It’s a bit of a disconnect to see customers in stores without masks in close proximity to employees with masks. If masks are essential to curbing the virus’s spread, then why not require everyone to wear them?

We could, but the governor has chosen not to, opting to make employees wear them, but leaving customers to choose for themselves, hoping, and encouraging them to do the right thing.

The reason Mr. Ashe is casting about to see whether his colleagues “have the stomach” to consider the requirement is that he knows a sizable percentage of the populace would consider it an overreach of the government’s authority. If such a law were passed then the obvious question becomes; how it is enforced and what are the penalties?

It’s a political calculation most legislators would prefer not to address. It adds a sense of judgment that, in the moment, isn’t the preferred choice.

That doesn’t mean Mr. Ashe is wrong to think it would be better if all of us would wear masks while in public venues like city buildings and retail shops. It would be. But there are better, and more creative ways to encourage the behavior we’d like to see than to make people scofflaws if they don’t.

It should also be remembered that retail businesses have the legal wherewithal to set their own rules. They do that now by not allowing people in their stores without shirts or shoes. They could rule similarly on masks.

Again, this is all part of the exercise in trying to negotiate between what keeps us safe and what maintains our livelihoods. It’s not one or the other, it’s a combination. As Vermont expands its testing, and as that testing continues to reveal fewer and fewer cases [and deaths], we can begin to get more aggressive in our return to what we consider normal behavior. That’s the hope, as the pain of not fully reopening becomes prohibitive.

It will, however, be a new normal. For the foreseeable future. It’s hard to imagine crowded public venues, of any variety, will be in the near future for Vermonters. We’re not likely to see that happen until a vaccine has been found and proved successful.

That time frame gives us a lot to think about. It will be a changed holiday season. It remains uncertain what college life in Vermont will look like. Or whether the ski resorts will be able to reopen. And how we will need to respond if, and when, a second wave of the virus hits this fall.

The same debate that surrounds the mandatory masks issue will remain in play at one level or the other. The hope is that the public information campaigns in place, and the examples being set by our leaders, continue to prompt people to do what is in the public’s best public health interests. Part of that behavior is also reinforced on the personal level. The ideal is to have it work at this level without having to pass laws that encourage us to snitch on one another.

by Emerson Lynn

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