Business & Economy

Vermont businesses and employees face Omicron with uncertainty

Note: This story is more than a week old. Given how quickly the Covid-19 pandemic is evolving, we recommend that you read our latest coverage here.

Ian Carlet, who owns Locally Social Coffee in St. Johnsbury with his wife Carli, works behind the counter on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Since the pandemic began, Cari Carlet has put up a plexiglass shield at the coffee bar, switched to to-go cups only and removed indoor seating at her cafe, Locally Social Coffee, in St. Johnsbury.

“We’ve tried to adapt and be safe,” Carlet said. “It’s far more difficult now.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by business owners and employees across Vermont.

Suddenly, Carlet said, the incredible increase in Covid-19 cases in recent weeks has her wondering if her efforts are enough.

As of Monday, she has encouraged, though not mandated, that customers wear masks. All her employees now wear masks. 

“Our goal is to keep our doors open, and competing with Covid has been trying,” Carlet said.

She is grateful that her customers understand that, if one of her employees tests positive, she must close.

“And no one wants to see that happen,” Carlet said. “Everyone wants their coffee.”

Jack Manix in East Dummerston is getting some breathing room from worrying about customers. The Consumer Supported Agriculture program at Walker Farm, which has been in his family since 1770, delivered its final crop of greens last weekend, and the farm stand is closed until April.

Still, employees are working in the 25 greenhouses, getting ready for spring harvests of vegetables and flowers, and Manix said they are wearing masks.

A shadow from a logo on a window splays across the floor of Locally Social Coffee in St. Johnsbury on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

On the ski hill

At least one ski resort is making changes to face the Omicron variant. Smugglers’ Notch Resort in Jeffersonville said Tuesday all employees and guests must now wear masks indoors.

Ski patrols are now limited in how they train and how they treat injured skiers. Most trainings in the Northern Vermont Section of the National Ski Patrol were canceled last year or not scheduled this year because the trainings include an indoor component, Regional Director Jim Giffin said. 

He said patrollers now wear masks in patrol rooms. Last year, he said, if an injured skier answered yes to Covid-19 screening questions, most patrols would evaluate and treat the skier outside no matter how cold it was.

Giffin said Canada’s requirement of a negative RT-PCR test within 72 hours of returning to Canada has made many people reluctant to cross the border for weekend patrols at Jay Peak, which he said normally has many patrollers from Canada. 

At some workplaces, employees get to set the Covid-19 rules. 

MJ Trask, who teaches at Vermont Adult Learning in Springfield, said she and her colleagues are discussing Covid-19 protocols as the pandemic evolves. They have the choice to teach in person or remotely. She has chosen to continue teaching in person with masks, even in the face of Omicron, out of consideration for the challenges her students would face if forced to learn remotely from crowded apartments. 

“We were talking about it,” Trask said of her Springfield colleagues. “Should we go remote? And I don't want to go remote for the simple fact that a lot of our students are already marginalized. How do you instruct someone when they’re in a room with 10 people?”

Trask said all the rooms where she meets with a student have air filters. No meeting goes beyond an hour, she said, and everyone eats alone. As of Monday, when she spoke to VTDigger, none of the five Springfield employees had tested positive. 

Roxanne Vaught, executive director of Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, said her organization encourages members to consider mandating vaccinations, masking and ongoing testing for employees. 

Face masks are encouraged at Locally Social Coffee in St. Johnsbury on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Some require vaccinations

Some employers are requiring vaccinations.

Kathleen Govotski, who owns Halladay’s Harvest Barn in Bellows Falls, said all employees are vaccinated and masked. She said a couple of promising job applicants did not get hired because they were not vaccinated. Throughout the pandemic, she said, a couple of employees have come down with Covid-19. 

Omicron, she said, poses a new challenge.

“I think it’s confusing waters that we navigate now,” Govotski said. “It’s hard to hide in your corner forever.”

George Dorsey, too, is struggling to get it right.

Dorsey, owner of The Warren Store, said Monday that so far there had not been a case of the Omicron variant at the store. Earlier in the pandemic, he said, two employees at the Pitcher Inn, across the street, which he also owns, came down with Covid-19. He said all other employees were tested, and all tested negative. 

If any employee shows symptoms, Dorsey said, they get tested. All guests at the Pitcher Inn, he said, must be vaccinated and wear masks in public areas.

He said all employees wear masks, and customers not wearing a mask are asked to go back to their vehicle to wait for an employee to bring them their order. People may eat at one of two tables in the store 10 feet apart, but Dorsey said they are not allowed to sit there for a long time. 

He said the store is putting up propane heaters on the deck by the stream. He’s also breaking with the store’s tradition of being open every day of the year but Christmas. He is closing the store on Wednesdays to give staff members a chance to rest.

Dorsey said that, in early summer, he imposed a vaccine mandate. Some employees refused to get vaccinated, he said, so “we parted ways.”

Ian Carlet, left, who owns Locally Social Coffee in St. Johnsbury with his wife, Carli, rings up a customer behind plexiglass on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

‘They’re trying’

One of Dorsey’s new employees, Kyle LaPine, interviewed after Dorsey spoke to VTDigger, said Dorsey has been trying to make things work for employees and customers. He said signs on the two tables say customers may enjoy their small meal for 10 minutes before getting up and putting their masks back on. 

LaPine has worked one day a week at the store since early December, just in time to see Omicron take over the country. Even so, he was excited to be around people after almost two years of not working in person. He has another, remote job that ends in April. 

Last year, he worked for a month at a lodge in Killington not affiliated with the resort. He said it claimed all employees were vaccinated, and he quit when he realized that was not true.

“And the difference between that and Warren is that they’re trying in Warren, and they’re very upfront about the challenges that we’re experiencing, and that’s something that I’m really grateful for,” LaPine said.

Ian Carlet, who owns Locally Social Coffee in St. Johnsbury with his wife, Carli, hangs up a piece of stained glass with the name of the business on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Correction: An instance of Carlet's surname was misspelled in an earlier version of this story.

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Fred Thys

About Fred

Fred Thys covers business and the economy for VTDigger. He is originally from Bethesda, Maryland, and graduated from Williams College with a degree in political science. He is the recipient of the Radio, Television, and Digital News Association's Edward R. Murrow Award for Investigative Reporting and for Enterprise Reporting. Fred has worked at The Journal of Commerce, ABC News, CBS News, CNN, NBC News, and WBUR, and has written for Le Matin, The Dallas Morning News, and The American Homefront Project.

Email: [email protected]

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