Politics

Scott teases indoor restaurant, cleaning services and gym reopenings

Phil Scott
Gov. Phil Scott speaks at a press briefing on the state’s COVID-19 response on April 3. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

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Editor’s note: This story was updated with additional details at 3 p.m. on May 27.

Gov. Phil Scott dropped some tantalizing news for restaurant owners Wednesday, hinting that Covid-19 suppression is going so well in Vermont that he may soon allow indoor dining.

“It’s difficult to determine the exact date, obviously; I wish we could tell everyone when that was going to be,” said Scott at his regular Covid-19 news conference. “I see it in the very near future. Hopefully, we’ll be able to make some further announcement in the next week or so on interior dining.”

The governor said he also expected to be able to provide a timeframe for reopening cleaning services and fitness facilities at his news conference on May 29. He added that he hopes the state can increase the size limit on public gatherings from 10 to 25 that day as well.

As previously announced, “child care centers and day camps can open June 1 with health and safety measures in place,” Scott said, “and we’ll finalize guidance for overnight camps in coming days as well.”

The restaurant news affects a sector that contributes more than $500 million to Vermont’s GDP, according to the state Agency for Commerce and Community Development.  About 4,500 restaurants are licensed with the Vermont Department of Health, and of these, 2,300 have seating licenses.

The governor ordered all of the state’s bars and restaurants closed to all but takeout service on March 17 as Covid-19 was spreading in the state. Earlier this month, the governor authorized outdoor dining for restaurants, with many other restrictions, effective May 22. Some restaurant owners have said it’s not possible for them to operate under the state’s existing restrictions.

The governor has been under pressure from restaurant owners to loosen the restrictions on outdoor dining, which include a requirement that restaurants collect contact information from customers so they can be traced if there is a Covid-19 outbreak. Restaurants are also limited to just 25% capacity in their outdoor seating. 

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Scott and Health Commissioner Mark Levine said that Vermont continues to compare favorably with its neighbors, including New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, and Quebec, in its Covid-19 suppression.

Scott said New Hampshire – which has a population a little over twice that of Vermont – has had 240 new cases since Sunday, and 43 deaths. Massachusetts, with 7 million residents – more than 10 times Vermont’s population – has had 2,000 positive cases and 675 deaths since Sunday. 

In that time, Vermont has had 13 new cases and no new deaths, Scott said.

“Our careful, cautious approach must continue,” he said.

Vermont has been monitoring traffic into the state since the crisis began, and Scott said Vermont saw its largest influx of out-of-state cars at the beginning of Memorial Day weekend, with about 60,000 people. The week before, the number was about 50,000, he said.

Pedestrians and diners enjoy Church Street in Burlington on May 22. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Scott has stated throughout the crisis that he wants out-of-state residents to stay at home, saying that people who come from areas with higher rates of infection put Vermonters at risk and could tax the state’s health services. 

But he also acknowledged Wednesday that sectors like tourism, specialty food and beverages, and recreation often rely on visits from out of state for the bulk of their annual income. Much of that commerce happens in the busy summer season.

“I don’t want to turn it into an ‘us vs. them’ situation,” he said. “We want to make sure we don’t have a flood of people into the state. But we need them, and quick as we can we want to welcome them in with open arms.”

The matter of outsiders complicates the reopening of overnight camps, which traditionally draw many children and parents from states like Massachusetts, New York, and Connecticut. Some of the state’s larger day and residential summer camps have already announced they don’t plan to open this summer because of Covid-19.

“That’s difficult,” Scott said. “We’re working through that as we speak, to try to determine if there is going to be some quarantining before they get here. Hopefully we’ll have some more information about that Friday or next week.”

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Anne Wallace Allen

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