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Plainfield residents say they’ve heard too few details about the state’s plan to house vulnerable people recovering from COVID-19 at Goddard College.
“My biggest concern is what impact this could have on the townspeople and whether COVID-19 could be spread more widely through the town,” said Jim Volz, a town selectboard member, during a public Zoom meeting Monday.
The proposal, announced last week, could see up to 150 people move into part of the campus as they recuperate from the coronavirus. Officials said the college could be one site of many as the state tries to stem the outbreak and mitigate hospital burden.
Locals have opposed the move on social media and meetings this week.
“The decision to proceed with this was made without any notification to Plainfield residents, much less consultation,” resident Rhea Wilson, who also spoke in the meeting, wrote to the state in a letter given to VTDigger. “One of the town’s three Selectboard members was told about it a few days ago — and told there’s nothing the town can do to stop it. That’s it for democracy and transparency.”
A lease agreement hadn’t been finalized as of Wednesday, said Goddard President Bernard Bull, but he had given officials the go-ahead to post signs and begin prep work at the campus in anticipation of a deal.
The campus would be for people who have nowhere else to go but can care for themselves, Human Services Director of Field Services Paul Dragon said during the Monday meeting. The patients would include homeless people, people with disabilities or mental-health conditions and children in state custody, he said.
Residents have been upset about a lack of input. Some, like Wilson, have expressed concerns that people on campus with the virus would be allowed to leave if they wanted. And others asked whether the infrastructure at the college can support so many potential guests.
Board chair Sasha Thayer empathized with residents’ fear of the unknown and said she’d heard positive and negative feedback on the Goddard idea.
“As things change, it’s always unnerving when something else changes that never even passed your mind before,” said Thayer. “I hear people feel strongly; I hear people blaming the selectboard as if we had some magic wand; and I hear some people saying, ‘Maybe this is a good idea.’”
Officials on the conference call said they’d want to keep the number of people housed below 100, and said those who left the campus would be accompanied by security until the state could further respond. They emphasized that any resident in Plainfield who ignored the stay-home guidance could have and also spread the virus.
For some residents, the assurances fell short.
A Facebook group for townspeople — Plainfield People — has featured hundreds of comments about the proposal this week, ranging from questions about civil liberties to claims the potential campus guests would commit crimes.
Some townspeople have also accused Goddard — which for years has faced financial difficulties — of using the potential deal as a way to make money.
Bull, the college president, said the agreement would include “reasonable payment for use of the space,” but denied that was the primary motive for school leaders.
He said the college’s board wouldn’t be deciding whether to accept the deal based on how much it contributes to the institution’s survival.
Bull said he’s heard the concerns from townspeople about how the plan would be rolled out, specifically around controlling the spread of the virus.
“From Goddard’s position, in terms of an agreement … I’m seeking assurance that they are taking every reasonable effort to mitigate those risks,” he said of the state.
Thayer, the board chair, also raised another consideration for state planners: food access for those quarantined at the college: the need to provide meals.
“And I think that they will look at that,” she said of state officials, adding that the town board plans to hold another Zoom meeting on April 13 centered on the Goddard plan.
As the discussion about the Goddard plan ended, Dragon offered a reason why information had been scant.
“We had to take action quickly; we’re doing it around the state,” he said. “I apologize for the lack of communication in the beginning … We are going to be prioritizing your concerns and challenges.”
The human services agency has provided an FAQ on the Goddard site.
Correction: Paul Dragon is director of Field Services at the Agency of Human Services, not deputy secretary.
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