Despite students protesting lifting of a mask mandate on March 2, and following two crowded basketball games a week ago, Montpelier High School now has 31 cases of COVID-19 among students and staff according to an email from Principal Renee DeVore. Monday morning, March 21, students received an email from DeVore that said “Over the weekend, we learned of more cases. We currently have 31 cases at MHS, which includes students and staff. Although we cannot mandate wearing masks, we do encourage wearing one to support your health.” “It is likely that the majority of these cases can be traced to one event (the game at the Aud), but there is no way to be sure,” Montpelier Roxbury Public Schools Superintendent Libby Bonesteel wrote in an email to school families on Sunday afternoon (March 20). Bonesteel added that “”While masking remains optional, we have masks readily available at all four of our buildings for anyone who needs/wants one. On Monday afternoon, we will have take home antigen tests available for any student or staff at MHS.”When the masking mandate was lifted at Montpelier High School, immediately following February vacation, about two dozen students staged a walk-out in protest: they said they thought it was too soon to lift mask mandates, and many of the student protesters spoke of family members with pre-existing conditions who are vulnerable to severe consequences if a student brings COVID-19 home. Nonetheless, Public officials, from Dr. Michael Levine, Vermont’s chief medical officer, to members of Montpelier’s city council, have rescinded COVID-19 related mask mandates with the caution that re-instatement of public health measures, like masking, could be required if a new variant of the virus brings another surge of illness and death. A stroll around State and Main streets during the unseasonably balmy noon hour last week found about 20 percent of pedestrians wearing masks. Others were observed slipping on a mask before entering a store, even if not required. Masks are no longer required in the Post Office or in the Federal offices and courts on the upper stories. Masking has become a matter of personal choice at Montpelier schools and at most of the stores, shops, bars, restaurants, and cafes downtown. While most of the “Masks Required” signs had disappeared, Rabble Rouser on Main Street continues to require masks. Others have crafted variations on the ‘masks optional’ theme. Bohemian’s entrance sign indicates that masks are required when ordering at the counter, but they can be removed when customers move to the widely separated tables with their purchases. Just down the street, the sign at Splash says that masks are “optional, appreciated, and your choice.” Dr. Levine in particular has stressed that civility should be the standard on all sides of the masking decision, noting that individuals with compromised immune systems or other vulnerabilities will likely continue to mask in public places. As Montpelier Alive! Executive Director Dan Groberg explained, a substantial majority Montpelier’s downtown business strongly supported ending the city’s indoor masking mandate, which the city council terminated on March 9. “While businesses actively sought the city’s support for the original mandate, it became clear by early March that most were ready to be done with it,” he said. From the outset of the pandemic, many business owners were not comfortable with being implicitly tasked with enforcing the masking requirements. By March 2022, “some were openly defiant” about continuing to mask when businesses were free from such mandates in other communities – Barre and Burlington were most often referenced – according to Groberg. Hunger Mountain Coop Plans to End Mask Mandate The current issue of the Coop’s newsletter announced that the busy store will end its masking requirement and shift to a masks optional protocol on Monday, March 28. General Manager Kari Bradley wrote: “We believe this approach is consistent with our goal to provide a safe shopping and working environment. The risk of contracting a severe case of COVID has certainly improved. However, we feel ten more days is warranted to allow everyone time to get comfortable with the change. And while COVID risks will always be with us, case counts are down, immunity is up, the current variant is less virulent, and we appear to have ample testing and treatments available. We are also seeing a rapid social shift with individuals and organizations increasingly taking off their masks.” Whether the apparent outbreak at MHS has an impact on masking requirements in the near future remains to be seen.