By Mara Brooks, Editor

Two years into the pandemic, community members wonder if masks are working

Following an alarming rise in COVID-19 cases in the state, the question of imposing a town-wide mask mandate was the hot topic at the Special Selectboard meeting on Monday, Dec. 6.

The first agenda item of the night drew passionate arguments from local business owners, politicians, and residents who argued both for and against a requirement that masks be worn in all indoor gathering spaces in Charlotte.

“The Governor has decided not to issue a mandate in Vermont, he’s allowing the towns to do it for themselves,” Selectboard Chair Jim Faulkner said. “[But] we don’t want to make a decision by ourselves, we want the public to help us do that.”

Faulkner said that after receiving public input the Selectboard would take some time to “mull it over” and announce a decision at the board’s next meeting on Dec. 13.

Carrie Spear, who owns Spears’ Corner Store, said she did not support a mandate.

“I think it’s up to each individual to find their own safety,” Spear said. “Using the store as an example, I would expect anyone coming in is coming in under their own free will.”

Business owner Sarah Reese said she agreed with Spear.

“At this point we’ve been going without masks for a certain amount of time, so why change?” Reese said. “Let’s just keep doing what we’re doing.”

Reese added that she believed “masks do not actually make a difference in transmission” of the coronavirus.

“There are many, many, case studies showing that [masks] do not actually work,” she said, without naming the studies she was referencing.

Resident JD Herlihy said that while private business owners might be free to choose whether to require masks in the workplace, the same was not true for town employees.

“You have to respect the need for employees of the town to be able to be safe in their work environment,” Herlihy said.

Charlotte Crossings owner Debra Kassabian said she opposed a mandate because the decision to wear a mask “should be up to the individual business owner to decide.”

Backyard Bistro owner Adam Spell agreed.

“I think that the people in our town and surrounding areas are intelligent enough to make their own decisions for their own personal safety,” Spell said.

Charlotte resident Jim Hyde, who introduced himself as “a retired professor of public health studies at Tufts Medical School and an epidemiologist by training,” said he supported a mandate.

“Notwithstanding what some people have said, masks do work,” Hyde said. “There’s a preponderance of evidence that they work. Vaccines also work. Occupancy limitation also works, as a strategy, and distancing works.”

By combining multiple safety strategies, Hyde said “you can have optimal protection for a community.”

Hyde noted that in July there were only 29 or 30 documented cases of COVID in Charlotte, but “here we are on December 5 and all of a sudden we’re way up into the 192 [to] 200 cases.”

Resident Rob Anderson argued against the mandate.

“I do not support any form of mask mandates,” Anderson said.

Anderson stated that he had COVID-19 in March of 2020 but experienced no lasting effects from the virus.

“This disease is actually geared towards older people in communities that [are] either very old or sick with multiple comorbidities,” he said. “I know many people who have survived [COVID-19] just fine.”

Anderson questioned Hyde about Vermont’s COVID-19 statistics.

“Could you tell me out of those 192 cases how many are sick people, sir?” he asked. “Can you tell me how those cases are computed?”

Anderson compared the public’s widespread use of masks to the psychiatric disorder “Munchausen [syndrome] by proxy.”

“By wearing the masks, we all think that everyone is sick,” he said. “And that is more of a societal disease.”

He added that employers who require employees to get vaccinated are “in violation of the Nuremburg protocols.”

(The Nuremburg Code is a set of 10 ethical principles for human experimentation resulting from the Nuremburg Military Tribunals of 1947 where physicians from the German Nazi Party were tried for crimes against humanity. ~ Editor)

“I don’t know anybody who has died of this disease except older people and the morbidly obese,” Anderson repeated.

Lori York, assistant to the director at the Charlotte Senior Center, said current protocols at the CSC require anyone who is unvaccinated to wear a mask. Those attending a lecture series must wear a mask regardless of vaccination status.

“Other than that, it’s at the discretion of the program leaders,” York said.

Resident Peter Garritano said his chief objection to wearing a mask is that “they make me sick.”

Garritano said within minutes of putting on a mask he develops “congestion, a runny nose or a sore throat.” He said his doctor told him that mask-induced respiratory illnesses are “common, because you’re trapping germs in the mask right next to your face.”

He said he believed masks cause a decrease in oxygen levels and an increase in carbon dioxide. (This claim is largely rejected by the medical community).

“Vermont is a particularly embarrassing example of how masks don’t work,” Garritano said. “We’re being lied to.”

Charlotte resident Kendra Bowen, who holds a master’s degree in public health, said she too opposed a mandate.

“I don’t think the masks are proving to be as effective as we would like them to be,” Bowen said. “As we continue to mask ourselves, we’re continuing to feed into this culture of fear.”

Resident Michelin Carroll, a healthcare worker, said she believed the decision to wear a mask should be “a personal choice.”

Carroll cited a 2015 British Journal of Medicine study that found cloth masks were less effective than medical masks at preventing the spread of illness.

“And the majority of us wear cloth masks,” Carol said of the general public.

(In an October 2020 post, the CDC stated that “[th]e filtration effectiveness of cloth masks is generally lower than that of medical masks and respirators; however, cloth masks may provide some protection if well designed and used correctly. Multilayer cloth masks, designed to fit around the face and made of water-resistant fabric with a high number of threads and finer weave, may provide reasonable protection.”

Although the CDC advised against cloth masks for healthcare workers, it stated that cloth masks “may be used to prevent community spread of infections by sick or asymptomatically infected persons.”  ~ Editor)

Representative Michael Yantachka, who attended the meeting by Zoom, cautioned the town not to underestimate the COVID-19 virus.

“I don’t think I’m being overly dramatic to say that we are at war with an enemy that is both persistent and evolving,” Yantachka said. “The weapons we have to fight it are safe and effective vaccines, and secondary defenses like mask wearing, washing hands, keeping proper distance from people who might potentially transmit it.”

Yantachka said he understood the community is “tired” after two years of COVID-19 restrictions but “this is a war that we must all be in.”

He reminded the board that the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths in Vermont since August exceeds the total number of hospitalizations and deaths in the state for all of 2020.

“Because of the increased transmissibility of the Delta variant, the CDC has recommended that masks should be worn indoors where people congregate,” Yantachka said. “And despite the contention that masks don’t do anything, yes they do work.”

Yantachka said while he supported a mandate, enforcing it would be impossible. The mandate’s real purpose, he said, would be to lend “moral weight” to the request to wear a mask when entering an establishment.

Earlier in the meeting, Hyde suggested the town follow the framework of the Burlington mask ordinance to create its own mandate.

Selectboard Member Lewis Mudge said he felt the decision to implement a mandate should not have been left to the town.

“I think it’s a real abdication of responsibility from Montpelier,” Mudge said. “I don’t feel this is a Selectboard decision.”

Yantachka said the decision “got kicked down to a local level” because there was “a huge call for a mask mandate” at the state level but the Governor was unwilling to impose one.

“I apologize for that, because I don’t think that was the right way to go,” Yantachka said of the decision to leave it up to the towns.

Faulkner said the Selectboard might also decide not to act.

“We’re gathering information to figure out what’s the best thing to do, nothing more than that,” he said. “There may be no action, there may be some action. I don’t know how it’s going to end up yet.”