Chester board’s mask discussions to continue through holidays

By Shawn Cunningham
© 2021 Telegraph Publishing LLC

While the Cavendish Select Board approved a mask mandate for public places with little debate and even less public attendance last Monday, Chester’s board has held two meetings and appears stymied over how to recommend but not mandate that people wear masks in public buildings due to the upswing in Vermont’s and Chester’s Covid numbers.  The decision process will continue into Christmas week when skier visitation typically skyrockets.

Board chair Arne Jonynas opens the discussion of Chester’s stance on masking last Wednesday. Photos by Shawn Cunningham

More than 5o residents turned out — either in person or via Zoom — on Wednesday night as the Chester board took on the question of whether to impose a temporary mask mandate as authorized by an act of the Vermont legislature in November.

More than half of those attending on Wednesday spoke — sometimes more than once — and more than half of those described themselves as small business owners who would be affected either positively or negatively by a mandate.

The debate fell along familiar lines with those opposing the mandate speaking of personal freedom and doubting the efficacy of masking and some of the science behind public health directives. Those in favor spoke of protecting vulnerable members of the community, including a large elderly population, and pointed to more than 800,000 Covid deaths so far in the United States and the rising number of hospitalizations nationwide and locally.

Clarification: A number of business owners against the mandate spoke about their concerns with putting employees in the tenuous position of trying to institute a mask mandate with difficult customers. Some said that they were already taking all the precautions they believed that they could mandate for themselves including vaccinations and would like to continue along that path.

When all who wanted to speak had had their say, Jonynas turned to the board. Members Lee Gustafson and Jeff Holden said they could not vote for a mandate but were open to making a recommendation.

Heather Chase said she wanted people to have the best information in making choices about being in public with the virus.

Board member Leigh Dakin, a retired nurse, said she needed to think about what had been said although she was also open to making a recommendation. Member Heather Chase, who is a small business owners as well as a nurse with a background in community health, said that everyone is frustrated with the pandemic but she sees it as a public health issue. She noted that there is an arsenal of things that individuals can do, including getting a vaccine.

“We need a way of telling people that Covid is prevalent in our community,” said Chase, “and that the decisions you are making should be with the best information you have…the nurse in me, the public health person in me, the government person in me wants people to know.”

In the end, the board leaned toward splitting the difference with a measure that is more recommendation than requirement, possibly including some statement about the increase in the prevalence of the virus in the area. They decided to meet again on Friday, Dec. 17 to review a draft recommendation and a poster that the town would make available for businesses to have the option to print and display.

But on Friday, board chair Jonynas began the meeting by reading the resolution recently adopted by the Springfield Select Board, which falls short of a mask mandate but offers a number of recommendations. But those were written in a formal, legislative language with several “whereas” clauses followed by “be it resolved,” and that took the meeting sideways.

Jeff Holden spoke against a resolution as opposed to a recommendation and took issue with the directives for town employees in the Springfield resolution.

Holden and Gustafson objected to considering a resolution instead of a recommendation although a resolution is defined as “ a formal expression of opinion, will, or intent voted by an official body or assembled group” which can be a recommendation.

Holden also energetically objected to mandates for town employees saying that Chester’s staff had followed all of the guidelines since the spring of 2020 and didn’t need to be told what to do. He also felt that spelling out what businesses should do to prevent infections could make the town liable if someone got sick in spite of following the recommendations. In the end, he said he could not vote for any recommendations.

Leigh Dakin said that the guidelines are to keep people safe in what may be a ‘tough winter.’

Dakin responded that as a nurse, she comes at this from a different angle and that the guidelines are to keep people safe.

“I think we are all fatigued and tired and a great reminder of what is the best practice is a good thing to do,” said Dakin adding that people are predicting a really tough winter with the virus.

Lee Gustafson said he was concerned about the effect of the recommendations on small businesses.

Gustafson was concerned about making recommendations that put an undue burden on small business owners. One such recommendation was for businesses to have a disease mitigation plan. He asked Chase if she had such a plan and if so, would she share it? Chase said she did and would.

Chase likened the actions individuals can take – getting vaccinated, getting the booster shot, hand washing and sanitizing as well as wearing masks – to slices of Swiss cheese. Each slice may have holes, but by layering several slices, you close the holes, she said.  Chase also told of her own experience with Covid, saying that even though she was immunized and masked, she was near someone in an airport and contracted Covid.

“I was really sick,” said Chase.

The board asked Town Manager Julie Hance to work on a recommendation based on the Springfield document, but not in the form of a resolution. And after some discussion about what town government was already doing within its agencies and offices to mitigate the spread of Covid, it was decided that the recommendation would include what it was doing as an example. That would include protocols on when to wear masks and when to stay home.

The board will look at the recommendations at its next meeting, which will be on Wednesday, Dec. 29.

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  1. Polly Montgomery says:

    Well, that is disappointing. Surely something could have been done between the two meetings. Now the holiday season is here and the town will be inundated with visitors, and we welcome them with no protocols. Used to other precautions in other states and the contagion of Omicron, visitors should expect guidelines. Hopefully businesses will step up and require masks and even proof of vaccination/booster if they are a bar or restaurant.

  2. Infection control protocols can be found via OSHA 1910-1030, which a mask is merely one component of. Basing all your faith in that is akin to wearing half a helmet. The worse part of that is imparting a sense of false security, which is exactly why mask (alone) mandates have amounted to little protection in other places on this rock.