Selectboard Special Meeting Notes: Masks Redux

brattleboro selectboard august 17 2021

The Brattleboro Selectboard approved a new rule requiring face covering indoors, subject to the approval of Dr. Levine and the Vermont Department of Health. If Levine doesn’t approve, the board strongly recommends, rather than requires, the face coverings. This is all in response to a rapid rise in regional COVID cases, more Delta variant, and a fluctuating CDC rating of viral transmission.

In a related action, the board recommended to everyone who is able, please get vaccinated.

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  • Masks

    The meeting gets underway a bit late.

    Chair Elizabeth McLoughlin – this is a special meeting with a special purpose. We have one item of new business – to consider a mask ordinance. Peter…

    Town Manager Peter Elwell – I’m going to walk through the separate documents because they form a set on this topic, and it is also late-breaking. We didn’t release these materials until today, and then learned of an important change as we went into this meeting. What we have are two separate forms of resolution and related document. Why two? Because given the circumstances we’ve been through, there is a variety of viewpoints about requiring wearing masks, plus with legal review, under general law, there is less authority than before under the state of emergency. There is provision to allow you to make this a requirement, if you choose, but it would require state approval. You might prefer to adopt a resolution to encourage businesses, but not requires it. The first document encourages it. The second document is a two page resolution with more information and stringer language, similar to the earlier one we had. This would be a moment to mention the late break-in news – that is, that recognizing that there may be changes from time to time, we learned that within the last hour, the CDC changed the designation from substantial to moderate again. It was that more into the substantial that caused us to be here tonight. Because the CDC’s guidance on indoor public spaces in substantial transmission areas changes… we have this built-in to the resolutions. As circumstances change with the CDC, the local rules would change. You have authority to do this legally – the local board of health can make rules about prevention of hazards and mitigating risks. If you approve the more forceful requirement to require face covering, then that action would go to Dr. Levine and they would have to approve it, but it would require that approval. The next four documents are a set – four slides from today’s presentation regarding the latest data on cases in VT. There is a 14 day average and 7 day average… the alarming thing is the steepness of the curves. The numbers are increasing dramatically in Vermont. Closer to home was the number of cases per week per 100k people and it shows last week through Aug 10, it was become more prevalent here in Windham County, but today Bennington has reached a high rate of spread – almost 3x a week ago – and Windham County has increased by about 50% over last week. Throughout Vermont – it is generally darker – the amount of spread is greater. There is info about surrounding counties – there are also increasing rates of spread. I can’t explain the news we got from the CDC – seems to fly in the face of the data available to us, but we have checked their website and it is a change to consider. The increase in hospitalizations – it doesn’t mean BMH is filling up, for now. BMH says no capacity issue for them at this time, but this chart shows that there is a rapid increase and some hospitals are being concerned about beds for COVID patients. The last document is the CDC guidance for areas of substantial spread. Because the num bars are suggesting this is a reasonable concern and may be substantial again soon.. the difference is significant to the CDC. When you get to substantial, masks are recommended indoors and that public bodies should take actions that encourage people to take these precautions – even if vaccinated wear a mask indoors. The CDC’s advice seemed in sync until 5 minutes before this meeting started. One additional thing about vaccinated folks catching it – a fact we’ve been coming to know. One thing with the Delta variant is that vaccinated people are becoming infected by it, in numbers that are material, but aren’t getting as sick with it. I view that datapoint as important. Vaccinated people, we know – masks were to protect everyone because no one was vaccinated, then vaccinated was available and we did well and things were safer. The amount of spread is now increasing because vaccinated people can spread it. Vaccinated people will likely get ill, but unvaccinated people have a greater degree of threat. More people are contracting this. That’s why we brought this to you tonight.

    Elizabeth – discuss the sentence about the toggle…

    Elwell – that’s in the “effective period” section – it says it will remain in effect as long as CDC guidelines recommends indoor face coverings, and not when CDC says masks not required, and shall resume if they are recommended again.

    Elizabeth – how many on zoom..

    Patrick – 16 people, including me and BCTV – maybe 13 members of the public.

    Elizabeth – initial thoughts?

    Daniel Quipp – my concern with the way the CDC information translates into actions is that it is nuanced and not well communicated. Last Wednesday I noticed the short from moderate to substantial- I check a website. Most people don’t do that. It shouldn’t require that kind of individual vigilance. I thought we should pass a resolution saying it was a good idea – so while it may flipflop a bit and be confusing to the public – they won’t know when it crosses. In the interest of preserving public health of vaccinated and unvaccinated, it would be good to have a statement encouraging, regardless whether we flip. The gradation between moderate and substantial shows we just dipped below 50… 45 per 100k. The other day we were at 70. With as few people as us, small fluctuation can impact the rates substantially, on small swings. It’s confusing, and if it is confusing for the public, I think it is best that we recommend wearing masks indoor right now. I hope that by fall we’ll have enough vaccinated and delta will be behind us and we can get back to our normal lives. I want to protect everyone in the community. Restaurants and bars and gyms could require vaccines – just sayin’.

    Jessica gelter – I’m leaning toward the requirement. I think a lot of the data, compared to when we put this in place the last time – it is similar. It may fluctuate won’t go away. Fully vaccunetd is 60% in Windham County. Almost half are at risk of sever infection. A mandate from the town when unenforced may feel useless, but it is the strongest statement we can make, based on the science. That’s where I’m falling right now.

    Tim Wessel – Well, let’s see. I’d like to add some more information. I wanted to add something that has played into my thinking. I hear from others – my wife and I where our masks indoors, and out 3 year old wears it – the latest news, Dr Levine says that Vermont through the Delta has zero pediatric ICU hospitalizations . I think people… it’s tough. Delta is scary and the media doesn’t help sometimes, but people need to understand that while it is more transmissible, not more dangerous. Overwhelmingly the unvaccinated. Kids are in no more danger than before. We aren’t that well equipped to speak to the science. I like to take out the “the” because science is always changing. I feel that it is not our job to decide the mask debate. All of us here agree it is a healthy thing to do, and combine it with social distancing. We have to decide on messaging. We won’t enforce this, and we have no back up from the state of VT. That leaves our shop owners on the frontlines of debating this. We’ve heard from a few store owners not in favor of any mandate, and a requirement leaves workers to enforce it for us, and that’s irresponsible. I think we’re missing something – a resolution encouraging this – to separate that from vaccination skews the messaging. The most important thing is vaccination, and using these three strategies together. No orders or mandates, it is more political posturing. We live in the most vaccinated state in the nation, in a responsible town. I support making a strong statement suggesting vaccinations, masks indoors and social distancing.

    ian Goodnow – the issue is require or suggest. I don’t know how we pass it now when the CDC requirements don’t require it. It puts Dr. Levine in a awkward place. It kind is opposite of what we want to do and be clear to have a simple set of rules. As it is, here’s another place to check to see if you need to wear masks. I was going into this meeting feeling differently. I’d like to know if the required version could be modified to stay with the CDC guidelines. Could we modify it so if the CDC suggest its…

    Bob Fisher – if approved, with the toggle language, right now it would be no face mask. The language wouldn’t need to be changed. It would need to be approved.

    Ian – pre-emptive…

    Bob – yes, a requirement based on approval by the commissioner and the CDC recommendations.

    Ian – it will be complicated. I’m aligning with Mr Quipp on encouragement or recommendation to wear masks.

    Liz – I have a couple of points. That trajectory of cases is alarming, and we are all alarmed. We should act to protect the community. It’s summer and the trajectory is straight up, and we worry about the fall, but we’re already going up. I’d like us to act one way or another to encourage people to be vaccinated, etc. and I’m worried about the fall if this is where we are in the summertime. We had the hope that vaccinated people wouldn’t spread the disease, but that’s not true. It affects all sorts of people in the community. I would, we’ll see, in no way are we trying to shut anything down. We could either encourage and add encouraging vaccination to it, and I like the idea of the toggle, but with he new news we might be jumping the gun for a requirement, so that leaves me in the encourage camp. The public?

    Patrick – there has been some inappropriate behavior on zoom so I’ll do this slowly..

    Tracey – I am reaching out as a business manager and my employer – we are al concerned, asking businesses to help enforce this without state backing puts us in an uncomfortable position. It was politically charged and divided, almost dangerous sometimes. This has been a difficult year – over worked and under staffed. taking this on again makes me anxious. People are making their own choices and we’re fine with that. Until there is something at the state level…

    Nancy – I have a few things. I work with a nonprofit with immunocompromised people coming in. Because we are finding a majority are vaccinated – we decided that inside spaces must have masks on. If you choose to recommend it and couple if with vaccinated and social distancing, it will backfire. I’ve run into vehement anti-vaxxers. people have come to meetings not vaccinated and without a mask. You don’t want to alarm people or create hardship for a business. My situation is that we don’t want people to get any sicker. If it gets to the point of toggling back and forth, it will be confusing. The CDC doesn’t always have the best information for total guidance. I look at it every day and tell people about it. I appreciate how a mandate would be difficult. I would be most comfortable if you mandated it. I appreciate the difficulties. I’ve seen the anger and lying, and it puts other people at risk. If you do a clear requirement, with toggling back and forth, it needs to be good messaging. Even though we have the highest in the country, Windham County does not have the highest vaccination. It goes back and forth, it could get worse. I’ve been screamed at for getting vaccinated. there’s more disruption that you might realize.

    Liz – you are suggesting and encourage is preferred over a mandate?

    Nanci – I prefer mandate. If you do just a recommendation, be clear with the messaging – deeply and strongly. Education about transmission.

    William Shouse – what nanci said was important…. there immune system isn’t as strong as others and if the elderly get it it could possibly kill them.

    Andrea Watkins – Just wanted to pint out that Brattleboro doesn’t exist in isolation. In the decision making we should take into account that people come from Cheshire County, Franklin County – people don’t live their lives within a county. Plenty of people from these counties come to Brattleboro to work and shop. There is a lot of travel back and forth. Take it into account.

    Jenna Mark –

    Chris – (music)

    Shea -People are doing what’s comfortable for them. Those that are extra vulnerable it isn’t comfortable to be in indoor spaces with the unmasked. It isn’t even safe. It appears that way to business owners. These people are invisible and less vocal. The folks in my life who are against vaccination are going to be swayed by town messaging. Indoor mask wearing is the best protection for those of us who need it. There is a false perception of comfort. Work and errands is inaccessible for those who aren’t protected. Even vaccinated people with a challenged immune system can get sick. If we aren’t going to do this because the bullies are winning, that’s not adequate. It’s not working fine for immunocompromised or vulnerable people.

    Fhar – I worked in retail downtown. I would appreciate a mandate to point to, to tell people coming to the store. They may not follow the news or willfully ignorant. It’s backwards to say it is on my employees to enforce a mandate. It’s helpful to have a mandate for employees to point to – it’s not us, or my boss… it’s the town, with its gravitas. In my workplace, it isn’t just Brattleboro people. It was people from Washington DC as much as Brattleboro. Not just our own community transmitting this. It’s helpful to have the official decisions to back us up.

    William Shouse – excellent job to Fhar and Shea – my decision is that people should really wear a mask for the xtra protection to keep them safe, and the people with liabilities need help with ventilators or dehumidifiers, and it is just my opinion.

    Liz – okay, clarification. My understanding was that the first time we adopted it we would help people in shops – we’d be the bad guy and take them off the hook. I’ve heard that some want the same protection.

    Peter – I haven’t heard much in the last few days. A few emails. Over the many months, I’ve heard the appreciation for the relying on a Town action. Not universal, but I’ve heard more of that. Also – the toggling. Regardless of where you land on this, and I consider the comments tonight, it seems clear that if you do decide to take either action, it will be to bring more clarity. That will be defeated by the toggling. If you proceed, let’s take the toggling out. Recommend or require and that actions stands throughout the variations until you decide it isn’t bnecessary. the proponents tonight talked of the clear message that needs to be sent. Toggling distracts from that.

    Ian – I think, while I hear that, the issue is that it would put a Brattleboro mandate in conflict with the CDC. If we pass it tonight, we’d at odds with the latest CDC position. The CDC knows more than us sitting here. The clarity is important.

    Liz – encourage, without the toggle?

    Ian – yes – and that we may revisit this if the curve gets steeper. We could make things more strict.

    Daniel – my understanding of the encourage resolution… it says it takes effect immediately and as long as CDC recommends… it is tied to substantial and high spread. Last year when we did the order, in the community heard about it. People aren’t going to track the nuances of each designation. They probably should. In reality, that’s not what happens. I’d like a straightforward encouragement of face masks and vaccinations. I don’t want to think of unvaccinated people are anti-vaxxers – many reasonable reasons to wait. I want to leave space and love and care of the 38% which are not fully vaccinated. They aren’t ruining it for everybody. I’d be happy to encourage, and see us start to reach the 38% of the county – set up small meetings. The mask is a mitigation measure. We are lucky to have vaccines for free. We need people to go get ’em. We need to take and figure out their concerns. I’d like to encourage, have some vaccination language, and do some education or forums.

    Liz – are you suggesting that we take the line about the CDC out?

    Daniel – no. People just don’t care…

    Liz – we can encourage people to become vaccinated with the realization the illness is increasing in the area. Do we have more voices wanting…

    Tim – I’m stuck seeing both sides. My curse, as always. Having the bellwether, basing it on CDC is a healthy thing, but they are trying to come up with language for an entire country. Everyone should understand that the decisions about Town buildings are different that this one.

    Liz – this sentence in the encourage about the CDC – we should change that because of today’s circumstance. The CDC recommends it when the threshold is reached.

    Peter – delete the second whereas…

    Liz – and maybe encourage vaccinations…. anything else?

    Tim – I feel I should stick up for Jessica, who has another view. You were in a different position…

    Jessica – thanks, Tim. I’m excited that we’re in a moderate phase, but the last several days were “substantial”. The initial action was preventative. The line is really steep. Part of me wants to suggest we take a leadership role – we see the trend line of where things were going. We shouldn’t wait until we’re in a high transmission rate for two weeks. I wish we could do the mandate. I’m okay with recommending it, but would like to revisit this in two or three weeks from today.

    Daniel – or we could just do that today. The problem I have is is that if we require it, it is goes in contradiction with what the CDC recommends today, not yesterday, and the trouble with the nuanced system of four classifications – we’re lucky – all the work people have put in means we live in a place with relatively fewer cases than the rest of the country. I don’t want to leave people vulnerable. The trouble with waiting two weeks – the rates were bad last week. Who will get sick next week because we encourage not require. I’d rather look silly for being overly concerned than the other way around. That’s where I’m at now.

    Liz – two for require

    Ian – so it would remove the toggle, and require. Revisit in two weeks? It would be opposite of what the CDC says.

    Tim – the CDC says we should encourage universal masking. They aren’t saying require. Or question is whether we require or encourage.

    Liz – we can’t require vaccinations, but we can encourage. If we do the encourage, that minor softening will be more broadly accepted, and it is consistent. If we are too heavy handed, there may be more of a backlash. If we encourage, we can add recommending vaccinations.

    Ian – there is a lot to be said for implementing these things before things get bad. And argument for stringer language.

    Liz – well…

    Daniel – couldn’t the require resolution also encourage vaccination?

    Liz – sure. We can make a statement.

    Peter – do two separate actions. Don’t combine them. Make a rule, then encourage vaccinations separately. Let’s have a brief break to modify the document…

    Ian – include the mask encouragement in case the required language doesn’t go through

    Jessica – is there a way to revisit this at each selectboard meeting

    Peter – if you’d like to acknowledge every two weeks, if numbers show it is necessary, it can go on the consent agenda. We’d put it on the agenda for discussion if it was ambiguous again… then the toggle could be removed. You wouldn’t have to spend time on it.

    Liz – take a break? Require masks, recommend vaccination and masks.

    Peter – I’d like to modify the whereas clause, and focus on what we encourage – face masks required in public spaces indoors, and encouraging vaccinations. In the requirement one it will be simpler – no toggle language. If that’s right, I’ll do that work and come back…

    Tim – an encouragement for vaccination, and requiring masks – what if that required part fails.

    Liz – we’d recommend masks then.

    Tim – we were 5-0 on encouragement then switched to 4-1 on requirement.

    Liz – you asked Jess.

    Tim – that changed everyone’s mind? An unenforced requirement?

    Liz – we had that before. Now vaccinated people can spread it…

    Tim – if the danger isn’t there, what are we preventing.

    Liz – serious illness to 30%

    Tim – the vast majority of those getting COVID aren’t serious…

    Daniel – I came to the meeting in favor of requiring face masks, for the same reasons. I want to take care of our community and take care of this now to keep numbers down. I’d rather be too cautious, than not cautious enough.

    Tim – the difference is telling people vs asking them. You catch more flies with honey. We can’t point to an overwhelmed staff at BMH, or any pediatric ICU admittance.. so we are putting people… some say it is a burden to employees. What will the Brattleboro Police do if they get a call.

    Peter – we didn’t do enforcement of the first order. We did follow up with the business, and urge them to comply. My opinion – it more or less worked. The circumstances are different now, and you have calibration to do. It’s not a sham to do a requirement without enforcement.

    Liz – the graph shows the line going straight up. Where will we be in August.

    Tim – that’s cases..

    Daniel – I work for SEVCA on the front lines. Last week we switched to asking people to wear masks. Business staff not showing up for work because they are sick would also be an inconvenience. Keeping staff healthy is good for businesses and people. Things won’t shut down again, but we thought we had it licked and we hadn’t, and we need to adjust. I’d rather ask to where a mask than be in a hospital.

    Tim – fals equivalence there…

    Ian – the rule has a check to it… Dr. Levine will decide tif we can do this or not. We’re saying we see the data and think we need to do this to prevent further cases. They’ll look at see if we are out of bounds. That’s why the room moved a little. It has that check to it. I appreciate it.

    Liz – let’s take a break

    Peter – one clarification – about revisiting this… we will have special selectboard meetings in the next few months. I’d like it to be every regular selectboard meeting.

    Back at 8:10

  • Finale

    Elwell hands out a copy of a motion with new wording.

    Liz – thanks, we’re back.

    Elwell – so, as we discussed before the break. I removed the whereas clause that referred to the recent designation of our area by the CDC, and in the encourage document I have added the recommendation to become vaccinated. In the effective period, one is subject to Levine’s review, but the same language is added toe act to replace the toggle… now it retains the authority of the selectboard, and ends with the board intends to review this at every regular meeting.

    Liz – everyone take a deep breath and maybe someone wants to make a motion regarding the encourage resolution….

    passes 5-0 – adopting encouraging wearing of face coverings and vaccinations.

    passes 4-1 (Tim opposed) – on requiring face coverings (subject to Levine approval)

    Liz – thanks everyone

    Peter – please sign these….

    Ian – because this second action relies on another action, will the town take some action to communicate the decision?

    Elwell – as soon as we hear from the state.

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