Governor Scott presents his Wednesday media briefing. Screen grab from Orca Media YouTube video.
by Timothy McQuiston, Vermont Business Magazine Governor Phil Scott began his press briefing Wednesday by noting that we are exactly to months into the COVID-19 state of emergency. It has created a lot of stress, frustration, anxiety and even anger. He then recounted “a disturbing incident” Monday in Hartford, in which a family was told they were not wanted in Vermont because they were from out of state. The family, including an 11-year-old child, were pulling out of their driveway when they were confronted by someone who said the governor does not want anyone from out-of-state in Vermont.
Scott admitted that he was stung by the tone of the confrontation and that his name was used to justify it.
“They were told, amongst other things, that they were not welcome here,” Scott said.
He said the incident reached him and he called the family in question. It turns out that while their car did have New York license plates, they had moved to Vermont a few months ago.
He said he had a long and cordial conversation with the family and assured them they were welcome in Vermont.
“I apologized to them on behalf of the state of Vermont,” he said.
The incident was even more disturbing to him, he said, because it involved a racial undertone and a person of color.
“I want to be very clear, I have no tolerance for this kind of thing. It is unacceptable. It does not represent my views or who I believe we are as a state,” Scott said.
Scott the case has been remanded to the Vermont State Police to investigate whether any laws have been broken.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and Vermont’s response to it, Scott said he has pointedly asked out-of-state visitors not to come to Vermont. This has been part of a broad mitigation effort to keep the novel coronavirus from spreading from states with higher rates of infection.
The state with the worst outbreak in the United States is New York. Nearby Massachusetts is also one of the hardest hit states.
But Scott said he also has worked not to create an “us versus them” in any demographic scenario.
As part of that strategy to keep civility, he and state officials and police have not been enforcing the mitigation orders, such as for those who are required to wear masks, such as those dealing with the public like at grocery stores, and those workers who are supposed to be staying home under the emergency order and “Stay Home, Stay Safe” directives and are not following them.
Scott said he and the administration has worked on guidance and education measures to get Vermonters to follow the measures. The generally very good compliance has resulted in Vermont having the third lowest infection growth rate in the nation.
“I believe we’ll have better outcomes if we focus on why wearing a mask in public is so important.”
While some have called for a facial covering mandate, Scott said compliance is going up. He did not rule out such a mandate in the future if the data changes and the necessity of keeping workers like those at grocery stores and others safe.
But he said those kinds of strict requirements seem to have done more harm than good in other states, resulting in ugly confrontations and an “us versus them” situation.
So, what Scott was trying to avoid hit home on Monday in Hartford.
Scott said Vermonters can be neighborly and compassionate while also staying safe.
“It’s important to take a step back and remember that sticking together, staying united is the best way for us to get through this. Vermonters are known for helping their neighbors. Since the start of the pandemic, I’ve also seen a lot of sacrifices. So many stepping up for the greater good. Things like staying home to save lives. Supporting food banks and neighbors in need. Birthday parades. Sending cards and ice cream to senior living facilities. Celebrating graduates with photos and yard signs. Volunteering and so much more. You’ve been there for each other. And I can’t thank you enough for doing so.
“We know we can’t let our guard down while fighting this virus, but we can’t ease up on our commitment to civility and unity either.”
Scott said, “Here’s the bottom line. This virus cannot be used as an excuse for hate, bigotry, or division of any type for any reason. This virus knows no border and it doesn’t discriminate. We’re all in this together and human decency will get us through this challenging time.”
The virus, he said, is the common enemy and it is up to everyone to fight it.
The governor then turned the podium over to Health Commissioner Mark Levine, MD, for his update.
Levine also emphasized the use of masks. He said during a recent trip to the supermarket, he observed that everyone in the store, staff and customers, was wearing a mask – 100 percent compliance.
He said that masks have shown to be highly effective in reducing infection rates. He also noted that certain situations increase the risk of transmission.
He offered two examples. One was of a restaurant in China in which the resultant contact tracing found that one person transmitted the virus to three adjacent tables but not to the table just as close across from them. This was determined to result in the airflow from the ventilation system.
He also related the case from Washington State, in which one person from a two-hour choir practice infected over 50 of the 60 participants.
Stay home if you can, he said, practice social distancing if you cannot and wear a mask.
Levine said that some social distancing practices are probably here to stay, including some aspects of social distancing and mask wearing. The summer concert will look quite different this year as will school and sports in the fall.
He previously noted that handshaking may be a thing of the past.
The governor, Levin and members of the administration then engaged in the usual Q&A with members of the news media from across the state, most of whom were on speakerphone.
Why is there a delay in PUA (pandemic unemployment program federal unemployment benefits)?
Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington said there were two separate issues last week. One was that for those already in the new program, there had been some overpayment, as the federal $600 per week part of the benefit started later than the state UI program. This involved about 8,400 claimants.
He said the second issue was with ongoing problems with regular state UI claims of about 9,000 claims. Because the PUA system was newer and easier to work with, those claims were being transferred to the PUA.
The ongoing issues will be resolved eventually, but in order to get payments out sooner than later, the state made the decision to get benefits to people right away.
The delay did hold up benefits and even the original PUA beneficiaries might have not gotten paid for two weeks.
But Harrington said that benefits are going out Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and will be backdated as needed so no one loses money.
Will schools and colleges reopen in the fall to in-person learning?
Education Secretary Dan French said that the current plan is for in-person education to resume in the fall, but it will be different than what it was a year ago. They are still working out how it will look different.
Levine said he and his team speak with the colleges twice a week on how best for them also to reopen with in-person education in the fall.
Can anyone be tested?
Yes, Human Services Secretary Mike Smith said. The pop-up testing sites that were instituted over the weekend have been highly successful. Initially intended for first responders, health care workers and those coming into or back into the state, anyone can sign up, he said, but they must call ahead to make an appointment. (See times and locations here.) The one in Brattleboro Thursday already has a waiting list.
Similarly, anyone who is symptomatic anywhere in the state can call their health care provider and get a local test.
Smith said that in Bennington Tuesday, 256 people were tested.
The administration has told the agencies and department to cut their budgets by 8 percent across the board, how did you arrive at that number?
Administration Secretary Susanne Young: We are working with the Legislature on a three month “skinny budget” for the fiscal year starting July 1 (FY21).
There are many unknowns, including how the tax revenues will bounce back and how much aid will come from the federal government. The $1.25 billion from the federal government apparently is earmarked only for COVID-19 relief efforts on the state level and is not intended for general fund budgets.
The 8 percent derives from an estimated reduction of 23 percent from the current FY20 budget on an annualized basis. So it’s an educated guess at this point based in current results.
The March tax revenues – the most recent available – show that the General Fund fell 57 percent below expectations or $141 million and are just over $100 million below projections for the entire fiscal year, with three more months to go.
“We’ll have to find ways to do more with less,” Young said.
She said the administration-legislative consensus revenue numbers that usually are presented in July will not be presented until August. So in the meantime, they need to come up with a budget.
Will the new lodging provisions coming Friday, starting May 22, include everything from hotels to Airbnb to RV parks and campgrounds?
Scott: Yes. Without getting too far ahead, it’s lodging across many sectors. It’ll become clearer this Friday when the new guidance is presented. (see today’s VBM story)
However, it will come with a mandated 14-day quarantine period.
The state emergency order is set to expire on May 15 and Scott reiterated that it will be extended.
As of now, reservations cannot be made before June 15.
When is childcare and summer camp guidance coming, which is important to restart the economy?
Smith: Childcare guidance was issued today provides strict guidance and maximum class size.
For instance, no one over 65 or with underlying health conditions and those pregnant cannot be providers.
There are also, of course, a long list of health and safety measures. (CLICK HERE)
Can you tell us about the staffer who tested positive at the Chittenden Correctional Center in South Burlington?
Smith: Based on one staffer testing positive on Monday and following the established protocol, all 84 staff and all inmates are in the process of being tested.
By Thursday, all 74 inmates and the rest of the staff will be tested. We will continue this program throughout the state.
As part of regular testing, the Corrections Department will test inmates across the state starting with St Johnsbury next.
Vermont leads the nation in per capita testing within the correctional department.