Politics

Scott relaxes ‘Stay Home’ rules to allow small gatherings, outdoor recreation

Burlington Country Club, shown here on Wednesday, has not yet opened for the season. Photo by Clare Cuddy

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Vermonters received state approval Wednesday to start socializing again on a limited basis.

The state also paved the way for the reopening of low-contact outdoor recreation including ballfields, skate parks, trail networks, golf courses and tennis courts.

In an addendum to his March 13 executive order, which carried “stay home/stay safe” details to limit the spread of Covid-19, Gov. Phil Scott on May 6 said that Vermonters may leave home and resume some get-togethers, preferably outside and 6 feet apart. 

The original order, which limited gatherings to 10 people or less, stays in place. It is now due to expire May 15. And he said vulnerable people, such as those over the age of 65 or suffering from certain health conditions, should not start socializing yet. 

For everyone else, the addendum opens the door to connect in person with others from “trusted households,” such as family, neighbors and friends known to be following the recommendations from the Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

regarding precautions such as social distancing and hand-washing.

“There is no specific set of guidelines or enforcement measures we can put into place,” said Scott. “We need Vermonters to use some common sense during these visits. If we do, it means kids can play together” and friends can resume some of the in-person conversations they have

missed during nearly two months of social distancing, he said.

Those that open must follow safety guidelines published by the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development. Signs and registration processes must discourage people from gathering before or after activities and “reinforce parks, facilities, trails, etc. are only open to Vermonters and those who have met the 14-day quarantine requirement.”

In municipal parks and other facilities, officials need to put up signs discouraging contact sports. “For example, outdoor basketball courts may be open to ‘shoot hoops,’ but full contact games should be discouraged,” the ACCD guidelines say.   

The governor has slowly relaxed restrictions on social contact and business operations over the last few weeks as Vermont’s rate of Covid-19 infection has hit a plateau. Since the first person tested positive on March 7, the state has recorded more than 900 confirmed positive cases of the virus and 52 deaths.

The new rules are good news for outdoor businesses, which have been closed or operating on a very limited basis since March. Julie Moore, secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources, on Wednesday urged Vermonters to use Vermont businesses — online or with curbside pickup — as they started more outdoor recreation.

The governor encouraged Vermonters to stay within the state and reminded people they should quarantine for 14 days if they go out of state and return. He noted hotspots are close by in neighboring Massachusetts and New York.

Scott also made clear now was not the time for visitors to travel to Vermont.

“We would normally welcome you with open arms. At this time, we’re asking you to keep your distance,” Scott said. If they do visit, he said, they should be prepared to stay for two weeks to meet the quarantine. 

“My message is to stay home, if you can, and not come to Vermont at this point in time,” Scott said.

Moore also asked Vermonters to steer clear of the most popular outdoor sites and to explore areas that they haven’t hiked, biked or foraged in before.

“We can’t all go to the same place at the same time,” said Moore, suggesting that people avoid crowded trailheads and try instead to visit new places that see fewer visitors. 

Vermont has 750,000 acres of public land with 55 state parks and 5,000 miles of trails, she said. 

Officials who attend the three-times-a-week press conferences that the governor has been holding since the Covid-19 crisis began are asked regularly whether the state plans to make face masks mandatory. They consistently answer that they think education, not law, is most effective. 

“I think we’ll continue to see a change in behavior,” said Health Commissioner Mark Levine on May 6, noting that many businesses require employees to wear masks. “I think people have complied. In the last two or three weeks, they’ve come a long way.”

Politics enters Covid-19 response 

Nearly two months after he declared a state of emergency in Vermont, Scott has started to take some heat for his handling of the Covid-19 crisis, not only from members of the Legislature who say the administration has bungled the response to the huge surge in unemployment claims, but from Democratic opponents who think he is reopening businesses and activities too soon.

His announcement May 6 was met by criticism from a few Democrats.

“This is irresponsible, misguided, and will put the lives of Vermonters at risk,” R. Christopher Di Mezzo, communications director for the Vermont Democratic Party, posted on Twitter. “There will be a second wave of Covid-19 and these premature reopening guidelines will accelerate the rate of infection.”

Brenda Siegel, a Newfane resident who is running for lieutenant governor, also said the moves put Vermonters at risk.

“It may be the unpopular thing to say out loud, but, it is a disaster in the making & leadership is about saying the truth, even when it is unpopular,” she wrote on Twitter.

Most of the criticism from lawmakers concerns the Department of Labor’s handling of the wave of unemployment claims that started coming in when Scott in March ordered widespread business closures.

At a Vermont House caucus on Zoom May 6, lawmakers said constituents tell them call-takers at the DOL don’t have the expertise or authority to handle issues with their claims. They also lack basic customer service skills, they said.

“We’re hearing reports of the people on the phones being just as exasperated and laughing and just not being professional,” House Speaker Mitzi Johnson, D-South Hero, said. “It’s horrifying to think that this is Vermonters’ first experience with their government.” 

Rep. Mary Hooper, D-Montpelier, said that 10,000 Vermonters with “complex cases” might not see payments for weeks. She said the DOL told the Joint Fiscal Committee May 6 that there are only 20-50 labor department staffers equipped to handle their cases, and advocated sending out payments to these Vermonters immediately. 

“They have to be issued checks now. We’ll figure out the problems, we’ll sort out the issues afterwards,” Hooper said. “People need to eat, they need to pay their rent, they need to not live in fear.” 

Brittany Wilson, Vermont’s secretary of civil and military affairs, said that the DOL decided May 5 to prioritize moving these 10,000 people into the unemployment system faster. She said that in an “ideal world” the majority of this group would be receiving benefits as soon as the middle of next week. 

Michael Harrington, the Department of Labor’s interim commissioner, said the department is now spending time validating claims to rule out fraud. On May 5, he said, the department found someone who had filed in more than one state using different social security numbers, birthdates and names.

“These are the people we are trying to weed out,” he said.

Meanwhile, he acknowledged that callers are still reporting blocked phone lines and long hold times. Three weeks ago, the department was receiving hundreds of thousands of calls every day, including repeat calls, and hit a high of 6,500 initial claims opened in one day. It’s now seeing 300 to 600 claims being opened each day, Harrington said. 

Where the DOL had 15 people answering phones before the pandemic began, it now has 150 working, with plans to hit 200 by May 11. Ultimately, Harrington said, there will be 400 people answering phones for the Vermont DOL through its contract with Maximus, a Virginia company that staffs call centers.

“Eventually we’ll reach a tipping point where we are able to handle the volume and resolve the issues,” Harrington said, and will be able to scale down to less than 300 call-takers. But the call center probably won’t go back to 15 staffers anytime soon.

“This is likely the start of a longer recession and it will be a while before we get back to pre-Covid unemployment numbers,” Harrington said. “We’re not out of the woods yet.”

Xander Landen contributed to this report.

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