By David Flemming
As Gov. Phil Scott’s mask mandate looms on Aug. 1, a popular question many Vermonters are asking is “how strictly will it be enforced?” Perhaps nothing much will change, as the vast majority of Vermonters already wear masks when out in public. Maybe police will only give warnings. Maybe it will be enforced by social shaming rather than fines and imprisonment. Or maybe Vermont will follow after Florida, where people are being fined $100 for taking off their masks in nearly-empty parking lots after grocery shopping.
If the state views universal mask wearing as the single most important goal for keeping Covid-19 at bay, perhaps we should ask, has the law been upheld impartially with a lack of personal vindictiveness during the pandemic? Is the law a line that any self-respecting Vermonter will not cross, because they believe upholding the law is a sacred societal bond, personal beliefs about the mask mandate aside?
Just across Lake Champlain, the answer is most assuredly not. After New York bars tried serving drinks to guests to stay afloat, Cuomo demanded that they serve food or risk being shut down. Many bars began offering $1 “Cuomo chips” to meet the new regulation. That loophole closed last week. Cuomo threw down the gauntlet — bars could only remain open if they served “substantive food.” Sandwiches met that substantive food provision. Hors d’oeuvres and chicken wings did not. This is supposedly supposed to encourage patrons to stay in their seats. I’m personally more comfortable eating a sandwich standing up and eating chicken wings sitting down. The regulation doesn’t make sense and comes across as laughably petty.
Even here in Vermont we haven’t had it much better. Sean Manovill tried re-opening Club Fitness of Vermont, a gym in Rutland. A judge ordered it closed. Manovill moved the gym’s equipment to the parking lot and tried re-opening again. At that point Attorney General T.J. Donovan filed a civil lawsuit against Manovill.
Vermonters are probably more aware of the Rutland story than the New York one, but both make the very idea of the law being enforced by neutral government agents seem like a pipe dream. Even before the absurdity of vindictive Covid-19 laws, our Legislature passed a host of cumbersome unnecessary laws — “gender free restrooms,” cutting off permission for 18-20 year olds who can fight in the military to buy cigarettes and guns, removing slavery from our Constitution and banning plastic bags — all the while maintaining Vermont’s status as the third-most taxed state in the country.
And when the rule of law is treated as the Legislature’s and bureaucracy’s personal plaything, any future orders, no matter how much sense they make, are bound to foster indignation toward the law. Indignant people are less likely to obey. Appeals to reason are repelled by Vermonters with long memories.
If we take as a given that the mask mandate is really necessary toward stifling a Covid-19 outbreak, how often will Vermonters treat this seriously, when our Legislature passes such nonsense legislation in years (and months) prior? The government that cried “mask mandate” may indeed start to look like the boy who cried wolf. One can only hope that the Covid-19 is truly less dangerous than the doomsayers proclaim, because respect for the law cannot be relied upon to encourage mask wearing compliance. Threats and shame are the only tools left for enforcement. Maybe next time the Legislature will think twice about legislating pettiness.
I will be wearing my mask out of respect for my neighbors and not my government’s casually oblivious treatment of the law before this mask mandate. But I won’t be wasting this opportunity to tell my neighbors how dangerous it was for the government to be passing such asinine legislation leading up to 2020.
David Flemming is a policy analyst for the Ethan Allen Institute. Reprinted with permission from the Ethan Allen Institute Blog.