Business & Economy

Updated travel restrictions worry Upper Valley hospitality industry

This map reflects state of Vermont travel restrictions. Visitors from green counties may travel to the state without quarantining, while those from yellow or red counties are subject to restrictions. Grafton County in New Hampshire is one of the counties with a yellow designation, having 400-799 active cases per million. Vermont Agency of Commerce Community Development

This article by Nora Doyle-Burr and John Lippman was first published in the Valley News on Oct. 16.

WOODSTOCK — An update to Vermont’s travel map this week, requiring quarantine for nonessential travel between the state and New Hampshire’s Grafton County, has some in the Upper Valley’s hospitality industry worried.

Coronavirus-related restrictions “continue to adversely affect businesses in this environment,” Courtney Lowe, vice president of marketing and business development at the Woodstock Inn & Resort, said in an email Friday.

“As for Grafton County, we have many members of our facilities, frequent diners, and spa-goers that are now put on hold,” Lowe wrote. “We hope for a quick improvement and healthier days ahead so these beloved Grafton neighbors can come back and enjoy our village.”

Vermont now requires a 14-day quarantine for those traveling into the state from Grafton County, as it does for people traveling into the state from other counties deemed to have a moderate or high case count.

Sullivan County remains clear for interstate travel, but other New Hampshire counties, shaded yellow or red according to the Vermont map, include Merrimack, Belknap, Hillsborough, Rockingham and Strafford.

In order to appear green on Vermont’s map, indicating no quarantine is required, a county outside of Vermont must have fewer than 400 active cases per million people.

As of Tuesday when the map was last updated, Grafton County had 442 active cases per million and Sullivan County had 278 active cases per million.

Though travel is not restricted between counties in Vermont, Windsor County had 474 active cases per million as of Tuesday, and Orange County had 99 per million.

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News of Vermont’s map update caught Grafton County officials by surprise, according to Wendy Piper, a county commissioner who represents Enfield, Lebanon and Hanover.

“I was kind of stunned because Grafton County numbers on the whole, per 1 million here, are still pretty low,” said Piper, who lives in Enfield. “I see some of these small businesses and restaurants in Hanover and I think, ‘Here we go again, right back to spring.’ ”

Different maps

Despite having turned yellow on Vermont’s map this week, Grafton County has remained green on the map New Hampshire uses to illustrate the level of community transmission in the state.

It might be confusing “that different states have different guidance and different approaches and different maps even,” New Hampshire state epidemiologist Dr. Benjamin Chan, who lives in Lebanon, said during the Lebanon School Board’s Wednesday meeting.

Chan assured the board, which later opted to stick with its plan to reopen for five days a week of in-person instruction, that Grafton County is “solidly within the minimal community transmission category.”

The “minimal” ranking, below the other categories of moderate (yellow) and severe (red) held by some southern parts of the state, takes into consideration the rate of new infections over the previous two weeks, the rate of new hospitalizations over the same time frame, and the test positivity rate, Chan said.

The Vermont map is intended solely for use by that state in implementing guidance about travel to that state, he said. Chan said New Hampshire officials are “not advocating” and “not promoting” the Vermont travel map.

When Vermont first set the 400-per-million limit in early June, Vermont counties were well below that threshold, said Michael Pieciak, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Financial Regulation, which creates the map.

Pieciak acknowledged that Vermont has set a “rather strict standard,” but said doing so is necessary for the state to retain its status as having the lowest per-capita case count in the country. Vermont hasn’t had a Covid-19 death since July, and didn’t have anyone with Covid-19 in intensive care in September, he said.

Mike Pieciak
Mike Pieciak, who leads Vermont’s Covid-19 model efforts, presented the latest projections at a press briefing on May 29, 2020. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Though some Vermont counties such as Windsor have sometimes surpassed the strict standard, Pieciak said state officials have a clear understanding of those cases, and use testing and contact tracing to contain outbreaks. State officials can’t keep track of what’s going on in other states to the same degree of detail, he said.

The strict standard for people coming into the state from other places helps to counteract the fact that states have different approaches to preventing the spread of the virus. Pieciak noted that New Hampshire has no statewide mask mandate, for example. Restaurant capacities also vary by state, he said.

Enforcement of the travel guidelines is largely on the honor system, but Pieciak said cellphone data indicates that travel from green counties has dropped less this year than travel from red and yellow counties.

Now that Indigenous Peoples Day is in the rearview mirror and ski season is approaching, Pieciak said officials will have some time to evaluate its travel guidance methodology. But, he said they’ll do so while keeping in mind that models and experts indicate case numbers are likely to continue to climb.

“Safety is going to be our primary objective,” he said.

The travel restrictions don’t apply to the essential activities of work, school or medical care, Pieciak said. But it does mean that people who live in Norwich can’t go out to eat at the Hanover Inn or Molly’s, he said.

“We need to all make sacrifices,” he said.

Blow to business

Upper Valley business owners on both sides of the river on Friday were still weighing the impact Vermont’s travel restrictions would have on their businesses.

Jason Merrill, chief operating officer of restaurants Worthy Kitchen in Woodstock and Worthy Burger in South Royalton, said he would soon know if the quarantine guidelines would lead to Grafton County residents deciding not to dine at a Vermont restaurant.

“It’s a little early to tell,” he said. “We haven’t seen a major impact from it. We’ll know more after this weekend.”

Kathy Ann Hacking, executive director of the Cohase Chamber of Commerce, said her chamber’s members have shown resilience this year through the pandemic.

But during a “virtual members forum” earlier this week “they also expressed that their ability to keep doing business is directly related to our region having low Covid-19 cases and they expressed concern that they would not be able to continue doing business as they have been if we become a hot spot,” Hacking said via email.

“So the news this week about Grafton County cases rising and the Vermont restrictions that followed are certainly a blow to local business,” Hacking said.

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