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Vaxxed and maskless

Vermonters step out after pandemic restrictions end

 BY JASON STARR

Observer staff

For the first time during their pandemic-year monthly lunches at Maple Tree Place, Edith Hendley and Monica Farrington walked through the front door to the Asian Bistro on Tuesday unmasked. Gone were the hand-sanitizing station and contact-tracing sign-in sheet near the entrance. And for the first time, they could see their server’s full face.

“There was a sort of freedom to it,” Hendley said.

A day earlier, Gov. Phil Scott had allowed the state’s pandemic emergency order, in place for 15 months, to expire. With more than 80 percent of the state’s over-12 population having received at least one vaccine shot, all remaining pandemic rules and restrictions were lifted. 

Shortly after the announcement, the general manager at Agave Taco and Tequila restaurant sent a message to staff saying they are free to come to work without masks if vaccinated; the restaurant had their first maskless shift that evening.

“Everyone who worked the shift didn’t know how to act,” Agave General Manager Matt Brown said. “Just like everyone else, they had masks in their car, they had masks in their purses, they had masks all over the place, and now you don’t have to worry about that … It was a relief.”

Inside Best Buy and Guitar Center, masks were present in about half the shoppers and employees Tuesday. Both corporations are maintaining a masked policy for unvaccinated employees. 

Jackie Estes exited Walgreens on Cornerstone Drive after her first maskless shopping experience in over a year. 

“It feels strange to go in somewhere and not wear one,” she said. “I think you just have to get used to it again. Just like we had to get used to wearing them, now we have to get used to not wearing them.”

With restrictions easing gradually over the past few months, diners at Agave had been asking their servers what the latest mask policies were. For months, the policy required people to enter the restaurant masked, then allowed them to remove their masks while at their tables. 

“I see another month or so of people getting transitioned to the new way of things,” said Brown. “I think you’ll see anxieties calming down and people feeling better about day-to-day stuff, which is nice to see.”

At a press conference Monday, Gov. Scott touted Vermont’s best-in-the-nation vaccination rate, saying it is the reason that restrictions have been lifted.

“Now that we have hit 80 percent … I am lifting all remaining state pandemic restrictions and here’s why: because it’s safe to do so,” Scott said. “It is safe because Vermonters have done their part to keep spread of the virus low throughout the pandemic and stepped up to get vaccinated. In fact, no state in the nation is in a better or safer position to do this than we are.”

Outside the Asian Bistro, Hendley, a retired UVM professor, agreed with Scott. 

“Had this been done nationally, we would have been out of the pandemic a lot earlier and had a lot fewer deaths,” she said. 

Maskless, smiling employees at Vermont Meat & Seafood
Spencer Snipes, right, and Josh Bowen take one of their first unmasked shifts at Vermont Meat and Seafood on Tuesday. Observer photo by Jason Starr

At Vermont Meat & Seafood on Cornerstone Drive, the sign requiring masks upon entrance was removed last Thursday, along with plexiglass barriers that had been separating employees and customers. 

“This is the first time I’ve worked maskless,” said employee Spencer Snipes, who was hired during the pandemic. “Our regular customers have never seen my face, so it’s nice to see everyone smile and see their expressions.”

Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine said state efforts to vaccinate more of the population will continue. 

“Our high vaccination rates will help keep coronavirus activity at historically low levels,” Levine said. “This means fewer chances for COVID to spread between people and throughout our communities, fewer if any hospitalizations, and, importantly, prevent more loss of life from the virus. It also means less opportunity for mutations and more virulent strains from developing. This protection is what is allowing us to lift restrictions. That is public health at work, but that work is far from over. We will continue getting as many Vermonters vaccinated as possible to keep this protection as strong as we can.”

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