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Hecklers disrupt Burlington City Council debate on mask mandates

Burlington City Hall in early evening (file)
Pat Bradley/WAMC
Burlington City Hall in early evening (file)

The Burlington, Vermont City Council has passed a local mask mandate that takes effect Friday, after a contentious meeting last night.

After a special legislative session last week, Governor Phil Scott signed a bill allowing municipalities to pass local mask mandates amid concern about growing COVID-19 cases in the state.

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger called a special meeting of the City Council Wednesday night to consider one in the state’s largest city. Earlier in the day he explained it requires masks be worn in all indoor public spaces in the city.

“Organizations can earn an exemption from the mask requirement within those spaces if they affirmatively verify the vaccination of all patrons and require all employees interacting with the public in those spaces to be vaccinated. Residences, houses of worship, schools within the Burlington School District, which are under a different regulatory guidance from the Vermont Agency of Education, are exempted from this standard. Public transportation vehicles are included.”

Following procedure, the city council opened public comments on the proposed ordinance prior to their debate. In a precursor of the opposition’s passion, several speakers refused to comply with the two-minute time limit set for public comments. City Council President Max Tracy faced off with the first speaker, Republican city party chair Christopher-Aaron Felker, who remained at the mic.

"I was clear about how much time you would have and your time is up." But Felker continues, "While a Yankee will do all you ask of him, he will nothing that you demand." Tracy interrupts, "Your time is up." Felker does not stop. "And as such on behalf of my party, the residents and visitors to the city of Burlington I respectfully request that this council..." President Tracy again says, "Your time is up." But Felker continues, "...reject this proposed municipal..." Tracy interjects, "Please wrap up." as Felker continues reading his statement, "...mask mandate ordinance incongruent..." Tracy begins pounding his gavel as the crowd applauds, "Please no applause." and Felker continues, "...with the principles..." "Please no applause." "...of liberty that our nation..." "Please no applause." "...holds dear."

As councilors began their deliberations members of the public continued to interrupt the proceedings. Ward 7 Independent Ali Dieng invited Nelson A. Rockefeller Center Policy Fellow at Dartmouth College Anne Sosin to provide an analysis and answer questions about the proposed ordinance.

“I would say that there are several models and I think that the proposal..."

Hecklers interrupt, "She a political hack!"

Sosin attempts to continue, "and I would also add the model being proposed um..."

Council President Max Tracy again cautions the crowd, "Please stop interrupting."

But they push back, "I live here. She doesn’t. She’s a political hack."

Tracy responds, "Stop interrupting!" and Councilor Dieng tries to explain, "She’s an expert that has been invited by a member of this council."

The council president is interrupted, "Please allow...." by a heckler, "This was planned." "Please allow Councilor Dieng to continue."

That prompted South District Democrat Joan Shannon to lambast those who refused to maintain decorum, saying they had influenced her vote.

“Screaming and shouting at this council isn’t likely to yield the result that you want. One of the arguments that I’ve heard that I have found to be persuasive on the side of not having a mask mandate is that we can all be responsible adults. Every time you clap, every time you yell I will tell you you’re pushing me in the opposite direction you want me to go in.”

Other councilors echoed her sentiments including Ward 1 Progressive Zoraya Hightower.

“I’m appalled at some of the comments that were made. I don’t even know how slavery came up in this but that was wild. But I was very uncomfortable in this room. I would have never voted no to a mask mandate but I think I’m certainly would have been open to hearing real concerns. But the screams at me did not sound like real concerns.”

Ward 5 Democrat Chip Mason refused to allow the interrupters to win.

“The shouting back and forth it makes me want to leave the room and not vote on this. But that gives you the victory, those who oppose this, that you don’t deserve by simply yelling at us. If you don’t like it run for office and get on this side of the table.”

Councilors unanimously approved the mask mandate. The measure is effective Friday and councilors will reconsider the requirement in 30 days.

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