A divided Chester board pulls back from a mask recommendation

CHESTER, Vt. – During a special board meeting Friday, Dec. 18, the Chester Selectboard reconvened on the issue of a mask recommendation but ultimately did not move forward with a final decision. Although Town Manager Julie Hance presented a mask recommendation sign as a jumping off point for discussion, the board instead focused on Springfield’s recently adopted “encouragement” resolution, which encourages mask wearing as part of a larger list of safety measures including social distancing, diligent hand washing and sanitizing, vaccinations, boosters, and getting tested after being in large social gatherings.

Hance’s sign for discussion simply stated that the town of Chester recommends mask wearing in all indoor public spaces and pointing to the state website to get up-to-date health information, but the board did not move in that direction.

Instead, using Springfield’s resolution as a template, Hance was asked to recreate a Chester version of “encouragements” for the board to consider. She will also detail the efforts that the Chester’s town office has been using. The town may also provide some documents on their website that businesses could print for posting, although what language that would include was unclear.

In light of the board’s inaction, Chester resident Tim Roper, speaking via Zoom, encapsulated Chester business options, saying that businesses still have a choice to develop a mask policy, “If they want to, they don’t have to,” and they can choose to post a sign, “If they want to, they don’t have to.”

The board will review Chester’s document based on the Springfield resolution and Chester’s town office protocols during their meeting Wednesday, Dec. 29 at 6 p.m.

Earlier in the week, during the Dec. 15 meeting, a divided Chester Selectboard tabled a vote on a mask recommendation from the board, after eliminating the possibility of a stronger mask “mandate” earlier in the meeting. A motion for a mask recommendation was up for a vote, but was shelved with two board members poised to vote no, until wording could be finalized and represented at the special meeting Dec. 18.

The board heard from 27 residents on the issue, basically split down the middle with 14 residents, several of whom were business owners, expressing their opposition to a mask mandate, and 13 speaking in favor of the measure.

Business owners in support of mask mandate, like Mike Allen, said it would help take the pressure off small business by unifying behind a masked mandate; visitors would know what was expected. Village business owner Linda Diak was also in support of a mandate, saying that even though not enforceable, it helps increase compliance.

Burleigh Sunflower, owner of Erskine’s Grain and Garden, Garrison Smith, owner of Smitty’s, and Scott Blair, owner of Southern Pie Café, were all against a mandate. Sunflower said he struggled with how a mandate would be enforced and didn’t want the extra pressure falling to business owners or having to tell customers to wear a mask.

Smith also said it was unfair to put the burden on business owners, and they should be able to “choose what’s right for their own business.”

Blair was more adamant, saying it was a personal choice for businesses and, as an unenforceable rule, was “a waste of our time.”

When it was time for the board to speak on the issue, board members Jeff Holden and Lee Gustafson both expressed their opposition to a mask mandate. Holden said that he would not vote for a mask directive of any kind, and that it came down to individual choice and impinges on civil liberty.

Gustafson’s based his refusal was more on a point of the board’s authority, saying he didn’t think the board should be telling a business owner how to run their business.

Board member Leigh Dakin initially said that she wanted to think about the issue more closely and was still absorbing what she heard. Later, Dakin did second Chase’s motion for a mask recommendation later in the meeting.

Board member Heather Chase, who is a business owner, a nurse, has master’s degree in community health, and is a former Chester Health Officer, was wholly in support of a mask mandate, saying it was a public safety issue and that there was an arsenal of things that can be used in medicine to combat Covid, and one of them is a mask. She said that the government needed to step in and provide a warning so people know their risks. “We need a way of telling people Covid is prevalent in our community.”

Acknowledging that a mandate likely wouldn’t pass, Chase proposed the board craft a recommendation to support mask wearing in Chester’s public indoor spaces. Although she had spoken about wording the recommendation to also communicate the high prevalence of Covid in Chester, there was pushback from the board on that point. None of that verbiage was in her motion, which simply stated, “The Selectboard recommends mask wearing indoors and in public spaces until Jan. 19 to be reevaluated at that time.”

However, it was the topic of publicizing a high prevalence of Covid in Chester that became a sticking point in approving her motion, regardless.

Gustafson said he wasn’t sure what the recommendation would actually look like and questioned how it would be communicated to the town and distributed. He said he couldn’t vote for the motion because it was unclear to him.

Holden also said he respected what Chase was trying to do but would also would vote no, saying it would adversely affect Chester businesses.

Board Chair Arne Jonynas, who maintained a basic neutral position throughout the discussion of a recommendation, suggested the board take a day or two to craft appropriate language and come back to vote during a special meeting.

After the board had moved from a mandate to a recommendation, a few of the business owners who had initially spoken in opposition of a mandate, spoke again saying they would be in support of a basic mask recommendation depending on the wording, but also objected to calling out Chester’s Covid numbers.

Sunflower said he would get onboard with a recommendation from the town as long as it wasn’t a mandate. Garrison said he would also support posting a recommendation as long as it did not include any figures about infection rates or prevalence of Covid in Chester. Blair, however, still expressed his opposition, saying that a recommendation would be setting up a line of division between businesses that put the recommendation on their doors versus those who do not.

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