The city may strongly encourage wearing masks, but a local mandate does not appear in the cards.
The Charter and Ordinance Committee voted Wednesday to have Alderwoman Rebecca Mattis, the committee chairwoman, work with City Attorney Matt Bloomer to present a draft resolution at the next full Board of Aldermen meeting saying that residents of Rutland “should” wear masks to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. The language was a compromise between board members who wanted to require masks and those who only wanted to “encourage” the safety procedure.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Gov. Phil Scott has called on Vermonters to wear masks while refusing to adopt a statewide mandate – though he has recently indicated that may change. The governor has allowed municipalities to adopt requirements if they see fit, and several have with varying degrees of strength.
The meeting Wednesday was triggered by a motion from Alderman Michael Talbott, who said he would prefer stronger language as a way of sending a clear message to the community.
“People’s lives may be at stake,” he said.
Alderwoman Melinda Humphrey said she could accept the board passing a resolution instead of adopting an ordinance as long as it had language to say wearing masks was required.
“A strong ask is not enough,” she said. “A strong encouragement is not enough.”
Alderwoman Lisa Ryan also announced herself as in the requirement camp.
“I don’t think we can just strongly encourage something like this when we’re going through a global pandemic,” she said.
Alderman Chris Ettori, on the other hand, said he was opposed to requiring masks – though he said people should be wearing them and that the science appears firmly in favor of them at this point. Instead, he said he wants to see a discussion on the quality and correct use of masks.
“My feeling is we should be helping our community achieve the overall goal, which is to have people wear masks where appropriate,” he said.
Ettori said he wanted to see education, and he also wanted to take $5,000 out of the business incentive fund to help make masks more readily available. He also noted that if the board did not adopt an enforcement mechanism, they were not actually requiring anything, regardless of the language in the resolution.
Humphrey asked Police Chief Brian Kilcullen for his perspective, and the chief said the thought his department would be ill-equipped to enforce a mask mandate, saying the department’s role has been “education and seeking voluntary compliance.”
Fire Chief William Lovett cautioned that getting involved in providing the public masks could have logistical pitfalls in light of the troubles the fire department has had getting masks for staff.
“We’re fortunate to have a city clerk who is like Radar O’Reilly,” Lovett said, likening Henry Heck to the “M*A*S*H” character. “Like Radar kept the 4077 well stocked, Henry has done an incredible job getting those masks.”
Board President Matt Whitcomb said everyone seemed to agree masks should be worn, and he suggested that a unanimous resolution might send a better message to the community than an ordinance on which the board is divided.
“I wonder if what we really should be enforcing is businesses that might be cutting corners,” he said. “Maybe that’s where our effort ought to go.”
Mattis said she saw the arguments in favor of strong language but suspected being encouraging would be more effective. Also, she agreed with Whitcomb on the value of unanimity.
“The people in this city may not look up to the whole board, but I think most people in the city look up to a few aldermen,” she said.
The superintendent of the Rutland City Public Schools posted details of the district’s plans for the fall but acknowledged they don’t have all the information they need yet, a situation Assistant Superintendent Rob Bliss said was the state was being “as supportive as they can be.”
Bliss said there had been opportunities for superintendents like Bill Olsen, the incoming superintendent for Rutland, to speak with Dan French, secretary of the Vermont Agency of Education, at least once a week.
However, Bliss said the administrators in the district are looking forward to getting more complete information about some transportation issues for the school buses and what might happen if a student was found to have COVID-19.
Schools across Vermont are working to set their plans for the fall following a period of the 2019-20 school year starting in March and continuing through the end of the academic year when schools were closed as part of Vermont’s declaration of a state of emergency. The switch by schools to remote learning was part of the state’s effort to flatten the curve of the spread of COVID-19.
With the school year starting in little more than a month, district officials have been eager to tell parents and students what to expect, but the state released its guidance on Friday.
The plan for Rutland schools is posted to the district’s home page.
By email on Monday, Olsen said officials at the district appreciated the state’s guidance.
“At our local level, the collaboration of our planning team is so impressive. For example, (Rutland Intermediate School) teacher Sue Tanen has been so helpful as we formulate what this will look like in a real classroom setting. I am exceedingly thankful for the commitment our staff made to this work last spring and this summer. Their professionalism is on display through the pandemic,” he said.
In Friday’s posting, Olsen assured parents the health and safety of their children is the primary consideration.
“Ultimately, all of these decisions are based on recommendations from the Department of Health in the context of the current state of the virus in Vermont. Know that our practices will shift in response to health and safety conditions,” he said.
Bliss said the coming school year will look different for different students and families. All families will have an option for remote education but high school students are expected to have a mix of in-person education and remote learning. The goal set by RPS is for younger students to have at least an option for in-person instruction every day.
Olsen said RPS wanted to “allow a family choice.”
“Ultimately, this kind of challenge requires a high degree of flexibility and partnership so that we can put students in the best position to do well. We are all working together – state agencies, the School Board, parents, staff and students – in order to have a successful year,” he said.
Students will not be able to share communal meals in the cafeteria but lunch and breakfast will be served in the classroom, although the exact method is expected to be different from school to school
Buses will run after a third of the district’s families said they expected their students to ride a bus at least part of the time.
Visitors to the school will be limited and staff, educators and students are expected to wear masks.
While Bliss said he was aware that some people believe face masks are controversial, he said the district was going to make them part of the culture in order to keep schools open. He said administrators were counting on the students to help keep each other healthy.
“I think Rutland’s a pretty special community where we look out for each other. We’re counting on Rutlanders to say, ‘Look, we’re going to do everything we can to keep our schools open and keep our kids and faculty and staff safe as well as families,” he said.
Bliss said administrators are mindful that the start of the school year is approaching and they are planning accordingly. For instance, he said there will be a push within the next week for families to commit to in-person or remote learning.
“I know that’s one decision that’s weighing heavily on parents is, what’s it going to be, in person, remote or hybrid, especially for parents of young children. “How am I going to set up my child care needs, before, during and after?’ So those (responses) are going to put us in a great spot to make sure (A) we’re ready to go and (B) we’re going to serve the community in a way that helps them the best” he said.
Bliss said as the school year approaches, principals at the individual schools will host remote meetings to explain the changes and answer questions.
RUTLAND TOWN — The town is now requiring everyone to wear a mask or face shield upon entering buildings open to the public.
The Select Board approved the order at its regular meeting on Tuesday, said Selectman John Paul Faignant, who also serves as the town health officer. The vote was unanimous.
Faignant said this decision was made because large retailers in town are either requiring masks or are expected to require them. He said smaller business owners asked the board to make them mandatory everywhere.
“Any person, whether an employee, a customer or a visitor who enters a public establishment located in the Town of Rutland that invites the public into their premises for the purpose of receiving services, purchasing products or otherwise conducting business, shall wear a face covering over their nose and mouth or a face shield while inside the establishment and while in the presence of others,” reads the order.
Establishments have until July 29 to post signs at their entrances notifying people of the order.
The order also applied to municipal buildings.
Those younger than 2 years of age are exempted.
Face coverings and shields are not required at dining establishments once a person is seated or dining has commenced, or if dining takes place outside.
The order is in effect until the Select Board changes, suspends or rescinds it, or until Gov. Phil Scott’s state of emergency declaration ends, whichever happens first.
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