Business & Economy

Gov. Scott to allow small construction, manufacturing firms to reopen; Covid-19 cases ‘past peak’

Phil Scott
Gov. Phil Scott speaks at a press briefing on the Covid-19 outbreak on March 20, 2020. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

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This post was updated at 1:45 p.m. Friday.

If Vermont’s low rate of Covid-19 infection continues, the state’s manufacturing, distribution and construction companies will be able to reopen for business May 11 under new health and safety restrictions, Gov. Phil Scott said on Friday.

Scott opened the door for those businesses to increase the number of people allowed to work together from five to 10, effective May 4. And on May 11, “manufacturing, construction, and distribution operations may restart with as few employees as necessary to permit full operations while continuing to maintain health and safety,” the governor said in an addendum to his original executive order, issued in March.

Businesses that reopen will be required to take employees’ temperatures and complete a safety training program by May 4. Scott reiterated that the pace of reopening will depend on the spread of the Covid-19 virus.

“As you know, there is no playbook on any of this,” Scott said at his regularly scheduled press conference on the Covid-19 response on Friday. “So we focus on sectors like manufacturing and construction that have controlled environments, open space and are accustomed to following rules dedicated to safe worksites.”

Scott on March 24 had ordered nonessential businesses, including many in manufacturing, to suspend their operations to limit the spread of the Covid-19 virus.  On April 17, the governor announced some small steps toward the reopening of some businesses, including allowing two people to return to work at the offices of low-contact professional services, like realtors, appraisers, municipal clerks and attorneys. 

Property management and construction firms were then allowed to operate as two-person crews.

On April 24, Scott followed that with another “turn of the spigot,” the term that the governor uses to describe the slow and phased reopening of the economy. With coronavirus cases at an apparent plateau, Scott further loosened restrictions on construction, manufacturing and some other outdoor employers, allowing up to five people to work as long as the site was low-density.

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On Friday, he said the state’s very low rate of Covid-19 infection showed it was time to ease into more business activity.  Opening up manufacturing, distribution and construction next week could restore jobs for tens of thousands of people, he said. Construction and manufacturing employ 50,000 to 60,000 in the state. 

Michael Pieciak, commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation and a member of the Covid-19 team, said Friday it appeared Vermont’s rate of new cases was “past peak.”

The reopening decisions don’t just depend on what happens in Vermont, he noted. With so many neighboring states still struggling with high rates of Covid-19 infection, Vermont officials are also taking those areas into account. 

“We’re not an island; we’re not insulated from others,” he said. “The boundaries mean nothing to this virus. Some of what we do is going to be based on what we’re seeing throughout the region.”

The state Agency of Commerce and Community Development has been working with industry leaders and the Department of Health to establish safety measures, including bans on employee gatherings at work, disinfection rules, and mask requirements. While employers will be required to take workers’ temperatures, Scott noted thermometers are in short supply, and asked companies for “a good faith effort” to order them as soon as possible. 

ACCD Secretary Lindsay Kurrle said Friday that many Vermonters remain uncertain about when they can get back to work. “Think about how your industry can operate in new, modified and unique ways,” she said to business owners and managers, saying that will help speed up the economic recovery.

“For all businesses in the state, this is not, and will not, be a flip of the switch,” she said. “The fastest way we are going to get back to business as usual is to acknowledge business operations will be anything but usual in the coming days, weeks and months.”

Kurrle said ACCD is creating online safety training plans that will provide companies with best practices. Companies are required to possess and use safety plans by May 4 and to hand them over at the request of ACCD. 

“If we ask for the plan, they need to be able to hand us that plan,” she said. “Hopefully they show us they are complying with their own plan. That’s our expectation.” 

Scott also said that all public transit employees and customers will be required to wear cloth masks. And he said he expects to give the spigot a turn in the right direction soon.

“Next week we’ll be announcing some additional steps, not just for the business community but for family connection and outdoor recreation,” he said, hinting that the announcement would involve golf courses, areas that have been the source of many questions from the public. 

“Hopefully we’ll be able to announce something next week,” Scott said of golf courses. 

“I would also remind everyone this is May 1,” he added. “We could still get a snowstorm right now. From my standpoint, we’re still in early spring, so it’s not as though we’re all that far behind other years.”

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Anne Wallace Allen

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