By Guy Page
Gov. Phil Scott on Friday acknowledged the pain of closing in-person schools for the rest of the year but said the step was necessary to mitigate the effects of a growing statewide pandemic.
“I know this news is incredibly difficult, it’s disappointing, it’s just plain sad” for students, parents and school staff, Scott said at a Friday morning press conference in Montpelier.
Most reporters attended remotely. Chris Roy of the Newport Daily Express asked why he acted now and not a month from now. “If we put this in place now we’ll get better as we go along,” Scott said. Stressing the uniqueness of the situation Scott said, “we don’t know where we are going with this” but assured “we are relying on the best modeling.” Asked about childcare, he said “we’re going to have to get creative in this respect.” The administration is “focusing on mitigation of what we see as ramping up.”
Health Commissioner Mark Levine announced the ninth (last night) and 10th (this morning) Covid-19 deaths. Total number of positive tests stands at 183. Wilson Ring of the Associated Press asked Levine why, other than random chance, New Hampshire and Maine both have had one death while Vermont has had 10. Levine gave a one-word answer: “outbreak.”
Levine added that “We have one long-term care facility [Burlington Health & Rehab] that has had an outbreak of Covid 19 in a very frail population. At the senior care facility, “the goals of care were not aggressive treatment in a hospital care center. Only one of the seven deaths [at Burlington Health & Rehab] occurred in a hospital setting. I think that makes our numbers look worse because that’s all it takes.” There is no need to move patients from BHR because the facility is using proper protocols.
Why hasn’t the state kept local hospitals informed about “surge capacity” plans – making sure there are enough beds, ventilators and staff if the number of cases spike, Sean Cunningham of the Chester Telegraph asked. Public Safety Commissioner Mike Schirling said the hospitals need to communicate with the Vermont Hospital Association representatives who sit on the surge capacity planning committee.
Greg Lamoureux of the County Courier (Enosburg) asked what remote technical education will look like. Again stressing the need to be creative, Education Agency Secretary Dan French said the planning group tasked with educational continuity now also oversees technical education career pathways. So at least the group will know tech ed, he said.
Independent reporter Mike Donoghue asked how the state will handle thousands of out-of-state students hoping to return to Vermont to recover property left in dormitory rooms. “They should ask themselves, Do I want it or do I need it?,” Scott said. “ If you just want it, stay right where you are until we get further down this path. If you need it….I’m sure the school could ship it to you. What’s the best action for your personal safety and others?”
The Caledonian-Record publishes a Littleton, New Hampshire edition. Reporter Amy Ash Nixon noted two New Hampshire grocery store employees have tested positive. Gov. Scott said he hadn’t heard of any testing positive in Vermont. “We need to make sure we are feeding and taking care of people,” he added.
Scott said he promised to take the heat if, in retrospect, the difficult measures he has imposed prove an unnecessary overreaction. But right now he and his team are working on the best information available to keep Vermonters safe, he said.
Gov. Scott also said he lacks the authority to postpone the July 1 implementation date for a ban on single-use plastic grocery bags passed last year by the Legislature. He could eliminate the fines, he said, but it’s up to the Legislature to make any changes. “It’s not high on the priority list today,” he said. “But we could work with them.”
Many Vermont stores now refuse to allow baggers to handle reusable grocery bags – Shaw’s in Montpelier, for example. A quarter-mile away at Hunger Mountain Co-op, a masked service representative said the co-op is discouraging use of reusable bags. Many groceries were leaving the store in paper bags. Outside, staffers were wiping down the handles of grocery carts returned from use.
Tim McQuiston of VT Biz said that despite state promises that no-one would be disconnected from internet services, Comcast is still sending out disconnect notices. “If families don’t have money how can they be assured their service won’t be disconnected,” he asked. They families should call the 2-1-1 hotline, Scott said. As for Comcast, “they’re not regulated. We hope they will hold off on any disconnection.”
After the press conference ended, Vermont Daily asked Scott administration lawyer Jaye Pershing Johnson if, with “stay home, stay safe” work guidelines specifying “no in-person religious services, but encourage online,” it’s okay for church pastors, music teams, and sound/video crew to be at church together to video-stream the service. She said the administration is very aware of the possible constitutional issues involved in just telling all churches to close down. At the same time, they want to limit gatherings for health reasons.
She said the administration’s message to churches in this matter needs to be more nuanced, and that she would speak with officials in the Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development, which is overseeing the work closures. She also encouraged church leaders with specific questions about gathering to live-stream to ask Secretary Lindsay Kurrle (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Deputy Secretary Ted Brady (email@example.com). Their phone number is 828-3080.
Read more of Guy Page’s reports.