As Burlington officials plan for the city’s Mardi Gras celebration this weekend, they decided to announce that its anti-mask ordinance – which prohibits people over 21 from wearing masks in public - will not be enforced during the festivities. But after a controversial police incident and lobbying efforts by a group of artists and entertainers known as "furries," the city's decades-old anti-mask ordinance may be in its final days.
Last year, two men were detained by Burlington Police for violating the ordinance by wearing masks to a political rally. The detention was controversial, and the head of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Vermont chapter questioned the constitutionality of the mask ban.
Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger said that incident, paired with pushback from a community of “furries” – people who like to dress up as furry, caricaturized animals – led the city to reexamine its mask ordinance.
“There is this whole issue around how and whether we should be regulating people who want to dress up in costumes, and there actually have been significant requests to enable more of that and not regulate that, or prohibit it the way the ordinance currently does,” Weinberger said.
Still, Weinberger said there are some cases when wrongdoers might use masks in service of goals more sinister than those of the furry community ("We're just here to put smiles on people's faces," one furry told Seven Days last year).
“Where I think the original ordinance came from, to the best that we can tell, and that I think continues to have legitimate public purpose that does require some discretion on behalf of the officers and then the prosecutors thereafter is: At what point does some kind of activity become threatening, intimidating, harassing?” Weinberger said of the mask ban. “I think that’s what the original drafters were grappling with, coming out of the Ku Klux Klan era, the civil rights era, where you saw Klan demonstrations around the country.”
Jessica Owens is a co-moderator for Vermont Furs, which she describes as "a collection of artists, writers, animators, actors, and our passion is all things cartoon animals. So if you think about Disney movies like the upcoming Zootopia, Robin Hood, video games like Starfox and Sonic the Hedgehog, that's what we're about."
Some of the members of Vermont Furs come to the group's regular get-togethers in costume, and the Burlington ordinance has made the state's largest city a no-go for the group. Even during last year's Mardi Gras festivities, Owens said, the furries didn't get their day.
"And we're like, 'Oh, that's a public event. We should go down. Everyone's wearing masks, I don't think that this would be a problem,'" Owens recalled. "And it actually turned out to be a problem."
Owens said when the furries showed up at Church Street, a member of the Church Street Marketplace staff told them they could not be there. Owens said the group challenged that notion.
"We decided, you know, we're here to revel just like everybody else," Owens said. "And when the marketplace representative said, 'It's just different,' that's when we felt really singled out. We felt discriminated against. We had a right to be down there just as much as anybody else wearing a mask; we weren't causing problems, we weren't interfering, we weren't being drunk and disorderly or anything like that."
The group left, Owens said, but also wrote a letter to the city council to raise awareness of their issue.
She said Vermont Furs was in touch with the city as the new ordinance was drafted with the hope that the new language would be crafted to allow the furries to be in-costume downtown.
"We just communicated what we wanted to do and how it also affects not just our group but other groups like Nightmare Vermont, they're a group of entertainers in Burlington. Maskmaker Eric Roy, he makes masks, but you know someone can't walk out of his studio wearing a mask," Owens said.
The city’s redrafted version of the ordinance, is designed to allow more innocuous uses of masks while leaving police with the power to stop masked wrongdoers.
Weinberger said Burlington police and the city attorney agree that “this [redrafted] ordinance would still give us the ability to intervene if, for example, Klan members wanted to be able to host big demonstrations anonymously and send threatening messages to members of minority communities or others. There is a legitimate public purpose there to keep that kind of intimidation and harassment from taking place.”
The mayor said he recognizes the need to allow free speech and expression, but he also wants the new ordinance to recognize what he says as legitimate limits on those freedoms.
“There are limits to virtually all, if not all of our rights and values in this society,” Weinberger said. “And what this ordinance is saying is, ‘Yes, we value political expression. We value people’s civil liberties and ability to dress up how they want to, but at the point that those liberties come in conflict with the rights that other individuals have to peace and safety, that’s where the city starts to have a legitimate interest in whether those activities can take place anonymously.'”
Weinberger said the ordinance is expected to go before the full city council for review on Monday, which is too late for anything to change before the Mardi Gras festivities. Owens and Vermont Furs are taking to Church Street anyway. She said when she heard that the mayor's office announced that the ban won't be enforced, she double-checked.
"I received an email directly from Ron Redmond who's the director of the Church Street Marketplace that they look forward to seeing the Vermont Furs group on Church Street on Saturday," Owens said.