Health Care

Scott bans multi-household gatherings in Vermont, closes bars and clubs

Phil Scott
Gov. Phil Scott discusses the state's Covid-19 response at a press conference in July 2020. File photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

Gov. Phil Scott on Friday said the state is "at a tipping point" with the recent influx of Covid-19 cases. He announced a ban on inter-household gatherings, the closure of bars and social clubs and the cancellation of recreational sports leagues as the Covid-19 case count rises in Vermont. 

The decision follows a spate of new cases: 72 reported on Wednesday, 116 on Thursday (adjusted from 109 by the health department) and 84 on Friday. Hospitalizations have also increased in Vermont to 21 Covid cases. Three people are in intensive care units.

Among the new restrictions:

• Multi-household gatherings — indoor or outdoor, in public or private spaces — are prohibited.
• Effective Saturday at 10 p.m., bars and social clubs are closed to in-person service.
• Restaurants can remain open to in-person service, but must cease in-person service at 10 p.m. nightly. Takeout can continue.
• Restaurants, museums, gyms and other establishments must keep logs for contact tracing.
• Vermonters must comply with health department contact tracers.
• Recreational sports will be put on hold, apart from those sanctioned by the Vermont Principals Association.

The governor said too many Vermonters have not been following the state’s guidance on social distancing and limiting in-person gatherings. He also said Halloween parties contributed to the current rise in coronavirus cases. 

“Given our recent case growth, we have no choice but to restrict social gatherings, whether at a home, a bar or in a parking lot,” Scott said. He added “multi-household gatherings, both inside and out, whether in public or private spaces, are prohibited.”

The restrictions apply to upcoming Thanksgiving celebrations and include not taking a walk with a neighbor. All gatherings will now be limited to members of a single household. According to the state guidance, "individuals who live alone may gather with members of their immediate family residing in a different household."

“I know this is incredibly discouraging,” Scott added. “Especially because many of you have worked so hard. And we've had much success for so long. But the fact is, people getting together, not being careful and letting their guard down, is why we're in this position today.”

The governor said outbreaks have been traced back to private social gatherings like "baby showers, tailgate parties, deer camps, and other small gatherings like barbecues where multiple households are getting together and not wearing masks or staying physically separated for long periods of time."

College students returning home are required to quarantine for 14 days or seven days after a negative Covid test, he said.

Telework is required whenever possible, the governor said. In-person meetings are discouraged, and only essential workers and the schools can continue in-person work.

Scott added that bars and social clubs will be closed as of 10 p.m. on Saturday until further notice. He said restaurants could remain open for in-person service, but only until 10 p.m. (when they can continue take-out service). Restaurants must seat only one household per table.

Asked why Vermonters are being discouraged from walking with neighbors but can continue to dine in restaurants, Scott said restaurants have protocols in place to protect people.

“Restaurants are more structured,” he said. “We’re not saying you can go to a restaurant with your neighbor; you can go to the restaurant with your immediate family, your household members, and there are guidelines in place once you get there. It is much different from you going out with your neighbor for an hour or two when you don’t know what your neighbor has done.”

The Lake Champlain Chamber of Commerce reacted to the latest announcement with a call for more emergency cash for businesses. Government Affairs Manager Austin Davis noted that 71% of the outbreaks since October stemmed from gatherings related to social events, not business events.

“We applaud the efforts of our Vermont businesses to take steps to prevent the spread of the virus. They've done their part, and we ask all Vermonters to continue to do theirs,” he said. 

The governor also announced that recreational sports would be put on hold, apart from those sanctioned by the Vermont Principals Association. 

“Admittedly, this one is hard for me, because our kids are trying so hard, but it continues to be another opportunity for gathering and can spread the virus among multiple counties and multiple schools,” Scott said. 

"This is different from the beginning. This is about socially isolating, separating in some respects," Scott said, including seeing neighbors or friends outside.

"You shouldn’t get together for horseshoes or having a beer or coffee or anything like that, you need to stay away from each other," he said.

Scott said he hadn’t seen his own mother in person for a year, nor his daughter, who lives in Rhode Island.

Vermont reported 84 cases of the virus Friday, according to slides at the press conference from Dr. Mark Levine, head of the Department of Health.

Those cases were lower than the previous day’s total, revised upward to 116, but remain far higher than the average number of new cases the previous week, according to Department of Health data.

Every county reported at least one case, but Washington County reported the most, with 26 cases. It reported 48 cases the day before.

Test positivity remains low at 1.1%, compared to the state’s benchmark of 5%, but it is rising. It remained at less than 1% for most of the summer and fall.

A rise in social spread

The state Department of Health tracks any new Covid exposure situation at a central location, like a school, worksite or long-term care facility. 

Early this week, there were eight new situations. Then 16. The total now stands above 80, Levine said.

Scott said the Washington County outbreak started at a Montpelier ice rink could be a reason for the high rate of cases among residents there, but that transmission had spread too far to tie to any one link.

Levine said the state was tracking a total of 17 separate outbreaks, too many to go into in detail. But many could be traced to social events: Parties, cookouts, work meetings and get-togethers, he said.

Since Oct. 1, 71% of cases associated with an outbreak came from a private party or social gathering. He asked Vermonters to be careful. 

“We need to make these sacrifices now,” he said. “The decisions we make now will determine our future.”

Levine said the multiple outbreaks and rising cases could pose a challenge to Vermont’s contact tracing team, which is designed to handle a limit of about 90 cases per day. He urged Vermonters to pick up the phone when the department calls and comply with requests to quarantine.

The DOH has brought in their reserve tracing team to help handle the rising cases, and is considering further measures to expand capacity, he said.

Levine said the decisions Vermonters make now will have effects through the winter months. His recommendations: Quarantine when needed, get tested, wear a mask, remain six feet apart, and answer calls from the health department for contact tracing. 

"Whether it's friends or our own family members, we need to limit any social activities to our own households, to protect all people that we can't even know we put at risk, where we work, where we learn where people live in situations that might make them more vulnerable," Levine said. "And unfortunately, we need to make these sacrifices. Now. The decisions we make now will truly determine our future as we head indoors in these colder months. If we can act at this critical moment in time, our actions will still make a difference.

“Remember our very basic priorities and goals: keep people working, keep kids in school and save lives and hospitalizations by decreasing the number of cases,” he said.

Reporter Anne Wallace Allen contributed to this report.

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