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Board of Health Once Again Discusses, But Opts Against, Mask Mandate

After a lengthy discussion the Burlington Board of Health once again opted not to put a mask mandate in effect at last week’s meeting.

The mandate is a standing item on the board’s agenda to give them the flexibility to quickly make changes to town policy if the situation warrants it. Board Chair Dr. Ed Weiner said they would continue the practice of keeping it on the agenda for the foreseeable future in case cases of COVID continue to grow and they feel it is appropriate.

During the meeting it became clear there was not a consensus among the board members or the participants from the public who called in to have their voices heard. However, everyone who spoke did adhere to Dr. Weiner’s initial plea he gave before opening up the discussion.

“These are issues of science, Constitutional rights, freedom and being smart and safe,” he said. “I’m going to ask that everyone here be professional. Let’s be cordial, we’re all part of the Burlington community. Let’s not get emotional and stick to the facts and talk about the issue.”

Those on the board against the mandate said they did so not because they don’t believe in the effectiveness of masks but instead because of the difficulty of enforcement. Dr. Wayne Saltsman and Vice Chair David McSweeney, joined by Health Director Susan Lumenello, argued that the Health Department is not equipped to respond to every complaint of non-compliance and the Burlington Police Department has already said they have other more pressing responsibilities than doing so.

“I’m still in favor of masks but I am not in favor of mask mandates,” Lumenello said. “Masks are one tool in the toolbox but we have others like limiting gatherings, social distancing and vaccinations. I’m in favor of personal responsibility and people doing things that are right for themselves and their families.”

“If something would fail what’s the point of doing it and I do think a mask mandate would fail,” McSweeney said.

Dr. Saltsman pointed out the board does have a mask advisory and strongly encourages people to wear them when they are inside or cannot socially distance. He also said he rejects the sentiment in a comment he saw online by someone who said they enjoy shopping in Burlington because masks are “optional.”

“This board has maintained a mask advisory since the initial mandate ended,” he said. “I would definitely push against the view that Burlington’s position is ‘mask optional’. There is an advisory and people should be wearing masks and we should be isolating when ill and we should be washing our hands. This is not a mask optional town.”

Member Andrea Sheehan said she thought with the rising number of cases in the area they might consider putting a mandate into effect.

“I feel like we’re at a crossroads because so many people are affected by this and so many people are not wearing masks or social distancing and I feel like we need to act on it,” she said.

Members of the public were mostly split. Some argued that towns that have mandates see greater compliance not because of effective policing but because most people just follow the rules. Others argued that from their observations the mandates in neighboring communities have not been working.

In the end no motion to create a mask mandate was put forward and the item was continued to the next meeting. They did vote to work with the town administration and the Select Board to get posters and other educational materials created encouraging mask wearing.

In other COVID-19 related news, on Tuesday the United State Government launched a new website where people can sign up for free at-home tests. Each household is limited to four tests for now. You can find the site and sign up here.