Home News and Features Masks Off … for Now or for Good?

Masks Off … for Now or for Good?

Image of A-frame sign that says
Masks are optional at many downtown Montpelier stores since City Council lifted its indoor mask mandate. Photo by J. Gregory Gerdel.
The masks are off — at least for now, but not necessarily for everyone or everywhere. And it remains an open question for how long. The suspension of masking requirements at Montpelier High School (MHS) after the February vacation led to students protesting with concerns about having no mask mandate. A week later 31 MHS students tested positive for COVID-19 after attending a basketball game where most of the crowd wasn’t fully masked.

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 Michael Levine, Vermont’s chief medical officer, to members of Montpelier’s city council, have rescinded COVID-19-related mask mandates with the caution that re-instatement of public health measures, such as masking, could be required if a new variant of the virus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 weather last week found about 20% 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.

Personal Choice

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 Bakery’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 Dan Groberg, executive director of Montpelier Alive!, explained, a substantial majority of Montpelier’s downtown businesses strongly supported ending the city’s indoor masking mandate that was terminated on March 9 by the city council. “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 Co-op Plans to End Mask Mandate 

The current issue of the Hunger Mountain Co-op’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, which follows a widely attended championship basketball game at the Barre Auditorium on Sunday, has an impact on masking requirements in the near future remains to be seen. Montpelier High School Principal Renee DeVore indicated that testing is underway and testing kits are available to families of students who are concerned about possible exposure to the virus.