By Mike Yantachka, Rep.

Although it’s been only two years, it seems a lifetime ago that we first heard of the SARS-CO-V2 coronavirus, a.k.a. COVID-19. From March 16, 2020, until July 1, 2021, Vermont, along with most of the country and the world, was in a state of emergency caused by the pandemic. Under Governor Scott’s leadership Vermont fared very well in terms of infections and fatalities. When the vaccines became available a year ago, Vermont was the first state to hit the 80% mark, and we saw positive case rates plummet to near zero leading the governor to lift the state of emergency and allow our lives to return to near normal.

Then, during the summer, the significantly more transmissible Delta variant started to spread throughout the U.S. Despite Vermont’s high vaccination rate, the number of positive COVID cases began rising once again in August and reached a record number of nearly 600 in one day recently. Vermonters are again being impacted in their everyday lives as a result. Parents of children who are exposed are unable to go to work because of having to stay home with their children during the quarantine period. Business owners are impacted by being short staffed. COVID hospitalizations have again risen at the same time hospitals are facing nursing shortages.

As a result, legislators called on Governor Scott to issue an indoor mask mandate to help mitigate the spread. The governor, however, has resisted such a mandate and instead has continued to emphasize vaccination for eligible persons including children 5 years or older. As positive cases grew, he stated that he would be willing to call the legislature back into a special session to pass a limited mask mandate. Speaker of the House Jill Krowinski and President Pro Tem of the Senate Becca Balint met with Governor Scott and agreed to his terms, whereupon he called the legislature back into session.

During this one-day special session, the Senate introduced a bill giving cities, towns and incorporated villages the authority to mandate mask-wearing indoors in public facilities. The House received the bill, debated it on the floor for over two hours, passed it without changes, and sent it to the Governor who signed it the following day. While a statewide mandate to wear masks indoors would have been more uniform, the only option immediately available to the legislature was the governor’s proposal. It is notable that the authorization does not apply to school boards, because they already have the authority to implement health measures such as an in-school mask mandate.

If a municipality chooses to implement a mandate, it must be reviewed every 30 days to remain in effect. Furthermore, this authority ends on April 30, 2022. The most effective way of preventing infection or serious illness resulting from an infection is to get vaccinated. For those who refuse or cannot get vaccinated, wearing a mask is a less invasive way of protecting both the wearer and those who encounter the wearer. It is a limited public health measure that we should all be willing to adhere to for the good of our neighbors. Whether or not Charlotte decides to issue a mandate, we all need to pull together and look out for each other to defeat this virus.

In January the legislature will be returning to Montpelier for the second half of the biennium. A primary focus will be on another existential crisis: climate change. The Vermont Climate Council will report its recommendations to take Vermont on a path to substantially reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, and the legislature will consider measures to implement those recommendations. I will continue to keep you informed as to what is happening in Montpelier throughout the session. As always, I welcome your emails or phone calls at (802) 233-5238. This article and others can be found at my website.