Business & Economy

How Vermont is opening up to the Northeast, county by county

Interstate 89 as seen from the Route 2 bridge joining Burlington and South Burlington. Photo by Alexandre Silberman/VTDigger

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Vermonters and out-of-staters can travel across state borders if they’re traveling to and from “Step 1” counties, according to new state rules released Friday. 

State officials have identified so-called Step 1 counties in Northeastern states that have  relatively low active case loads of Covid-19.

Department of Financial Regulation Commissioner Michael Pieciak said at a press conference on Friday, June 5 that Vermont wasn’t ready to reopen on a state-by-state basis. 

“However, when looking past our state borders, we can see that there are many places across the Northeast with a low active case count,” he said.

Here’s what you need to know about where you can go, what the limits are and what counties are considered safe. 

Where can I go?

The new travel permissions apply to counties that have fewer than 400 active cases per million people. That currently includes most of Maine, parts of New Hampshire, New York and Massachusetts, and one county in southern Rhode Island.

The Agency of Commerce and Community Development will release an updated map of counties that meet the requirement every Monday by 5 p.m. on its website

Covid county map June 7
A map of counties Vermont designates “quarantine” vs. “non-quarantine” zones for travel as of June 7, 2020. For the latest map, visit accd.vermont.gov. Screenshot

[FAQ: What counties outside of Vermont are exempt from the 14-day quarantine travel requirement?]

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At the press conference, Gov. Phil Scott clarified that Vermonters who travel to Northeastern counties with higher caseload levels or elsewhere in the nation can return to the state, but must complete the preexisting 14-day quarantine.

The same restrictions apply to out-of-staters who are coming to Vermont.

For now, the quarantine-free travel regions are limited to the Northeast. Gov. Phil Scott indicated that as the Canadian border reopens — it’s currently closed to tourist and leisure travel through at least June 21 — Vermont would consider the Montreal area “at some point.” Asked about air travel, Scott said he did not foresee lifting the quarantine requirement for people who arrive to Vermont by air “in the near future.”

What are the rules about traveling to these places?

According to the state’s modeling presentation, the basic rules are: 

  • You must travel by your own car directly to that county. 
  • You are required to sign up for daily symptom check reminders with Sara Alert.

The state also recommends travelers “safely connect with friends and family.” 

Keep in mind those counties may have their own restrictions about what you can and can’t do there. As of June 7, those include: 

  • In New Hampshire, out-of-staters are not allowed to use golf courses or campgrounds unless they are a member. 
  • Rhode Island requires visitors from a place with a stay-at-home order to quarantine for 14 days — which does not currently apply to Vermont, but could change.
  • Maine has a 14-day quarantine requirement for all out-of-state visitors.

What are ‘active cases?’

Active cases are those people who are currently infected by Covid-19, typically defined as people who are positive for the virus but have not yet passed enough time to be considered recovered. The average length of a Covid-19 case is considered to be 14 days after the onset of symptoms.

Vermont doesn’t regularly release data on the number of active cases in the state. One way to roughly estimate it is to look at the number of new cases in the past 14 days. As of June 5, that’s 77, which equates to about 123 active cases per million residents.

According to data from the Department of Financial Regulation, individual counties in Vermont ranged from 0 to 607 active cases per million people. 

How did the state arrive at 400 active cases per million cases?

According to Pieciak, officials wanted to find “a simple metric that told a number of different things.”

“Four hundred was a relatively safe number in terms of the low transmissibility. It looked similar to Vermont’s disease prevalence,” he said.

Many other areas in the region are experiencing a much higher rate of cases, he said. The number is “in the 3000s” in places around Boston, New York and Connecticut.

He said there is an element of risk with any measure, but this one was relatively low risk, considering the case loads in surrounding states.

Easton White, a researcher at the University of Vermont, said he didn’t think the metric “told you a whole lot.”

“Someone traveling to Vermont either has COVID or they don’t,” he said via email. “I think case loads are small enough in most places that you have to be more targeted than just saying allow travel if a county has low numbers vs. counties with higher numbers.”

Stephanie Brackin, spokesperson for the Department of Financial Regulation, said DFR and the Department of Health decided on the metric in consultation with the state epidemiologist Dr. Patsy Kelso.

She said when reviewing other states and countries, they found that most either required a time delay like a quarantine, testing, or a combination of both. 

“The active case number is a good proxy for disease prevalence and risk,” she said via email.  “Doing it on a per capita basis helps normalize across populations. The 400 threshold was determined based on a comparison of Vermont’s active case count compared to that of counties in the Northeast.”

What else do we know about these counties’ Covid risk?

If you’re curious to know more about how the counties around Vermont are faring, one metric to look at might be how their case numbers are changing — has the number of new cases per day gone up or down?

You can search for a particular county in the nearby states in the table below.

Another way to see if a county is a high risk is to see how well it complied with social distancing rules. Google cell phone data shows how much social distancing changed in an area compared to baseline, so we looked at one category of behavior: retail and recreation.

A recent rise in social mobility could indicate a higher likelihood of exposure to Covid-19, but keep in mind that many places have recently reopened stores and workplaces, leading to a natural rise. Vermont has seen a rise in social mobility since mid-May.

Brackin said the state did not use social mobility data in identifying Step 1 counties.

“Now that many stay home, stay safe orders are lifted /modified, the mobility data has generally become less useful,” she said via email.

What don’t we know about these counties?

One metric Vermont itself has used in reopening isn’t available at the county level: testing. New York reports the number of tests performed by county, but New Hampshire, Maine and Rhode Island do not. Nor does Vermont.

Pieciak said while exact testing numbers weren’t used, the state believed the surrounding areas were testing enough to show a realistic number of cases. 

“We know that New Hampshire and Maine, I believe, both moved to universal testing similar to Vermont,” he said. “And that similarly, New York has testing built into their regional approach for reopening.”

Another metric the state uses to evaluate whether it’s testing enough — the percentage of cases that are positive — isn’t available at a county level, but Pieciak said he believes it would be within range.

Statewide, the percentage of positives wouldn’t meet Vermont’s threshold, he acknowledged at Friday’s press conference.

“But on a more limited basis, we’re reasonably confident that they would on a county-by-county approach based on this active case count,” he said.

Brackin said testing alone is not predictive of risk.

“Who is tested (e.g., only symptomatic people, asymptomatic people, contacts of cases) is also important in understanding what testing tells us,” she said via email.

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Erin Petenko

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