BARRE — When it comes to face masks, city councilors here are more comfortable with messaging than mandates. They say they are prepared to encourage, but not require, folks don the popular pandemic accessory when they are out and about in the Granite City.
Responding to one resident’s request, Mayor Lucas Herring added the face mask-related question to the already long agenda for the council’s virtual meeting Tuesday.
On a night when councilors agreed the city needs to nimbly respond to requests from restaurant owners who are still waiting for word on when and how they will be allowed to reopen, they discussed a suggestion masks be mandatory for those who frequent downtown Barre.
Some were more open to the idea than others and, after consulting with Police Chief Tim Bombardier and Fire Chief Doug Brent, Herring was among the skeptics.
“At this point I don’t see that it’s necessary,” said Herring, who has recently traded emails on the subject with former councilor and one-time mayoral rival Sue Higby.
Herring said both chiefs suggested enforcement would be problematic and businesses who wanted to require their patrons to wear mask can are already free to do so.
It quickly became clear that was the majority view.
“I don’t think this is something we should be involved with at all,” Councilor John Steinman said, expressing a sentiment that was immediately echoed by Councilor Michael Boutin.
“In times of government overreach I don’t think we should be doing this,” Boutin said.
Councilor Rich Morey said he would be fine if the state or federal government issued a mask-related edict, but didn’t believe doing so at the local level made sense.
“It’s not for us to wade into,” he said. “We’re not medical professional.”
That was one side. On the other Councilors Teddy Waszazak, Jake Hemmerick and Ericka Reil all wondered whether the council should consider following Burlington’s lead and do what Gov. Phil Scott has thus far declined to, while suggesting Herring’s reliance on the results from a recent survey conducted by the Barre Partnership was misleading.
Though only “one or two” of the survey’s 186 respondents expressed support for mandating face masks, Hemmerick noted that might be because they weren’t directly asked the question.
Waszazak agreed, suggesting even if they were, it shouldn’t matter.
“Whether or not people want to (wear masks) and whether or not it’s the right thing for public health are two separate conversations,” he said. “We shouldn’t be gauging the popularity of this idea we should be gauging the scientific efficiency of this idea.”
Though the issue was never really in dispute, Hemmerick agreed science was on the side of masks.
“There’s an opportunity … to say we’re going to be the safest community where you can go out and spend money and engage in commerce responsibly,” he said. “I think the more people wearing masks the more we’re going to have a stronger economy and a healthier recovery in this community.”
However, it wasn’t clear whether Waszazak, Hemmerick or Reil would have supported a locally mandated requirement that masks be worn by those shopping in downtown Barre.
It was crystal clear City Manager Steve Mackenzie opposed an idea he said would be an “enforcement nightmare” and “a source for more conflict than good.”
“Good strong encouragement is one thing,” Mackenzie said. “‘Mandatory’ is a recipe for disaster.”
Waszazak, who questioned the logic of a state requiring people wear face masks in common areas at campgrounds, but not creating similar rules for those who enter retail businesses, ceded the point and proposed a compromise.
Waszazak suggested Herring issue a mayoral proclamation strongly encouraging people to wear face masks in downtown Barre.
Herring, who said he preferred “messages to mandates,” suggested this one would pack more punch if it came from the entire council.
Councilors tabled action on an evolving motion to provide members of its Americans with Disabilities Act Committee an opportunity to fine-tune the language of a motion that will “strongly encourage” the wearing of face masks in Barre – especially in the downtown – while urging people to respect rules established by business proprietors.
The council is expect to act on the motion in two weeks.
Meanwhile, councilors heard from a restaurant owner frustrated that the governor hasn’t yet provided guidelines for those in his industry to reopen and worried that when those guidelines are issued they won’t initially be very helpful.
Keith Paxman, owner of the Cornerstone Pub & Kitchen, said his restaurant was among the first to close and will likely be the last to reopen because the guidance he’s anticipating – perhaps as early as this week – will make breaking even beyond impossible.
One of eight people who served on a committee that wrote draft guidelines for the restaurant industry, Paxman said he expects the governor to announce later this week restaurants be allowed to provide outdoor dining only starting this weekend with the prospect of opening at 25 percent capacity on June 1.
Paxman said neither accommodation is particularly helpful for his restaurant, which has lost an estimated $300,000 in sales in the last two months, doesn’t have room for outdoor seating, and can’t cover costs operating at 25 percent capacity.
Though Paxman didn’t have a formal request, he asked councilors to think about the possibility of loosening vending restrictions so that the Cornerstone’s food truck could operate from parking spaces in front of the restaurant and possibly other locations as he waits for the right time to reopen.
Councilors agreed the city should be flexible with respect to its regulations and asked Mackenzie to look at existing ordinances with an eye to making temporary changes that will allow restaurants to operate in ways that might not otherwise be allowed.
Mackenzie told councilors it would be easier to respond to specific requests, but shared their interest in creating some interim flexibility.
“We’ll look for ways to make stuff happen,” he said. “We’re not going to look for ways to create roadblocks.”
In that same vein, councilors provisionally approved a last-minute request from Mulligan’s Irish Pub to expand its outside consumption permit to three parking spaces outside the restaurant. Those spaces, councilors were told, will create additional outdoor seating capacity at Mulligan’s, which, unlike the Cornerstone, already has a deck.
City Clerk Carol Dawes said the council’s hasty approval was needed due to the expectation the goveror will announce the ability for restaurant’s to start serving customers in outdoor seating areas starting this weekend.