GOV. PHIL SCOTT at a COVID 19 press conference in Montpelier on Nov. 1. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

By Lola Duffort, VtDigger

MONTPELIER — Under pressure from Democratic leaders in the Legislature to do more to stem a record-breaking surge in cases, Gov. Phil Scott has offered a compromise.

The Republican told top lawmakers in a letter Monday afternoon that he would call them back into session and allow them to pass a measure clearing the way for time-limited municipal mask mandates. 

To earn his support, local mask mandates would need to sunset by April 30, according to Scott’s letter. And the legislation would also need to require a municipality’s governing body to vote to extend any mask policy on a month-to-month basis.

According to Senate Pro Tem Becca Balint, D-Windham, legislative leaders plan to take Scott up on his offer — but not with much enthusiasm.

“We feel like if this is a step that he’s willing to take, then we’re going to take it. We want towns to have more tools. We’re disappointed that it is not a statewide mandate,” she said. 

Vermont’s Legislature is in session only part of the year, typically from January until May. Lawmakers usually require the governor to call them back for special circumstances.

On the heels of a new record-high in cases, Balint and House Speaker Jill Krowinski, D-Burlington, renewed their calls for a statewide indoor mask mandate last week. That mandate could be tied to local transmission rates, they said. (A similar measure is in place in Nevada.)

But Scott, who has steadfastly refused to re-impose any restrictions since the Delta variant’s arrival, was emphatic in his letter that he would block any additional measures.

“I offer this as a compromise — not because I believe mandates are the right approach under current circumstances. Therefore, I want to be very clear, should the Legislature propose any additional restrictions or mandates on a statewide or municipal basis, I will not support them,” the governor wrote.

The governor slapped down a local mask mandate earlier this summer — at the outset of the Delta surge — when Brattleboro’s health commissioners voted to pass one. And he could still simply allow local town health officers to enact such mandates, without legislative action.  

“At this phase of the pandemic, he believes that relying on executive branch emergency authority, whether by a state of emergency or the approval of unprecedented local health orders, is inappropriate, and the legislative process is the more democratic path forward,” Jason Maulucci, a spokesperson for the governor, said in a statement.

Besides, the governor extended this offer as an “olive branch,” Maulucci said. 

“If the legislature does not wish to move forward, that would be fine as well, but he wanted to make an effort to find common ground,” he wrote.

Once held up as a model for its nation-leading Covid-19 response, Vermont now has the fifth-highest infection rate in the country. High levels of vaccination are tamping down hospitalizations and deaths, but administration officials have expressed concern about the state’s strained health care system and nearly maxed-out ICU capacity. 

Another sign of strain: Over the weekend, the Vermont Department of Health put out an advisory, alerting Vermonters that the spike in cases would require many who tested positive for the virus to conduct their own contact tracing.