Mask mandate extended into February

By Jason Starr

Observer staff

Williston’s indoor mask mandate withstood testimony Tuesday from an industrial hygienist as the selectboard voted unanimously to extend the rule through at least Feb. 20.

Local mask opponent Darryl Blackburn invited Stephen Petty to video-conference into the board’s meeting, presenting him as an expert on mask ineffectiveness. Petty  described himself as an environmental health expert with a background in clearing workplaces of contaminants. He said masks have essentially no effect in blocking virus particles and recommended instead using fresh air ventilation and air purifying technology.

Petty offered graphs showing how Covid cases are increasing even as mask mandates are enacted. If masks worked, he said, one would expect cases to decrease. He said studies comparing masked and unmasked people have showed no difference in Covid case rates between the two groups. 

“Masks can’t possibly work,” he said, noting that masks cannot be completely sealed around the nose and cheeks. “There are much better solutions out there.”

Petty also presented evidence that masks are hindering learning in schools, affecting the ability of students to communicate with each other and with teachers.

Williston’s Dar Gibson — who earlier in the meeting had interviewed for a spot on the town Energy Committee (and was later appointed) — echoed the idea that masks are hindering communication and asked the board not to renew the mandate.

“I go to the store, I can’t talk to anybody, I can’t hear anybody, I can’t see anybody’s face,” he said. “I want my community back … It seems like it’s time for personal choice.”

The mandate requires people to wear masks in all indoor public areas.

The board has the authority, granted last fall by the Legislature, to consider continued 30-day extensions of the mandate through April. The extension through Feb. 20 continues exemptions enacted with the original mandate in December, including exemptions for places of worship, children under age 2, people with disabilities that prevent them from safely wearing a mask, people while eating or drinking in a restaurant and people temporarily removing their masks to communicate with a group of people.

Sharon Gutwin, who had also interviewed for an Energy Committee seat earlier in the meeting and who owns RehabGYM in Williston, asked the board not to extend the mandate. She said masks restrict the flow of oxygen into the body during physical exercise. The board has declined to consider exemption requests from gym owners. 

“We are not able to allow our members to exercise in the best way they should for their health,” Gutwin said.

Since the mandate went into effect in early December, the Williston Police Department has been called several times a week to retail stores to handle maskless customers, but has yet to issue the $50 fine that the mandate authorizes.

“When officers respond, it is usually due to a request by a store manager or property owner,” Police Department Spokesperson Rowan Derby said in an email to the Observer. “If they wish for the individuals to be escorted off the premises of the business, our law enforcement officers assist with that, as well as reminding them about the ordinance in the first place.” 

In voting to extend the mandate, selectboard member Greta D’Agostino said she wears a mask to protect those around her, a concept Petty declined to address when he was asked by board member Ted Kenney.

“It’s a step we can take to protect each other,” D’Agostino said. “I feel it’s imperative.”

Board member Jeff Fehrs said he was following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and the Vermont Department of Health guidance in voting to extend the mandate.