By Guy Page
The coronavirus this week hit Vermonters where they live — again — after the Berlin Walmart roped off access to the Straight Talk phone cards, in response to Gov. Phil Scott’s ban on in-person sale of “non-essential products” at big box stores.
Straight Talk serves 25 million Americans, according to online sources. Wednesday, three of them were standing in front of a roped-off cellphone/computer section, wondering what they were going to do now, when happened by. The purchasing options — buy online, curbside delivery — were either not fully understood or just not an option. One young mom said she doesn’t have a bank card, doesn’t order stuff online. “What the ___ am I supposed to do now?” she fumed. Another shopper, a young dad, wondered where else he was supposed to get underwear for his daughter.
With non-commercial personal contact outside of the home virtually forbidden, telecommunications has become more important than ever — note the 10-fold increase in the use of Zoom nationwide. And while Vermont internet and cellphone carriers say their systems can carry the load (see yesterday’s post), for an individual the possibility of losing cell phone use is a serious matter. Straight Talk phone users can’t use any other service than Straight Talk, cards for which are available only at Walmart. It’s cheap and easy but it doesn’t play nicely with other calling cards. For many users, it’s Straight Talk, or no talk at all.
Gov. Scott is painfully fully aware of the difficulties caused by his decisions. ““We basically had to shut down our economy in order to save lives. I know how hard it has been,” he said at his press conference Friday morning.
But for Vermonters already frustrated with being told where (or not) to shop, visit, travel and work, news about the “non-essential” calling cards was a lightning rod. It went viral, Vermont-scale. As of 11:30 a.m. Friday it had been shared 136 times, with 85 comments falling roughly into two camps: sympathy with the shoppers and frustration with the governor, or sympathy with the governor and frustration with the shoppers. (To see the post and its Thursday followup, search on Facebook. To read comments, you may need to click on the photos.)
Facebook friend Jackie Barnett summed up both sides with her comment: “I think Phil Scott has done a great job by shutting us down before it gets too bad, but I also think someone wasn’t thinking when they said phone cards not essential and personal clothing such as underwear not essential. Not everyone has credit cards and many children grow out of their underwear-and before this is over many grown ups will need smaller underwear!”
Thursday, the cards were on display at the front of the store and were available for in-person purchase. As Thursday’s follow-up post notes, “A sales clerk laughed and explained, “I think the governor’s office had a little talk with Walmart.”
And she’s probably right about that. Facebook friend Kay Shutt of Milton asked, “who decides what are essential and non-essential items?” The answer — in broad strokes — is that Vermont’s Agency of Commerce and Community Development is charged with implementing the governor’s plan for workplaces and business. He gives that agency the Big Picture and then tasks them with the details, with oversight from him and his staff.
And as the quick turnaround from no cards Wednesday to cards on display at the front of the store Thursday shows, applying common-sense solutions to unexpected problems is built into the process. Vermonters with questions or suggestions about essential products and jobs should contact the ACCD; concerns about health matters should contact the Health Department. Contacting the governor’s office (802-828-3333) should probably be a last resort, because it’s likely you will be referred back to an overseeing agency.
Meanwhile, Gov. Scott is hoping Vermonters will heed the folk wisdom (said to have originated with Boyd Packer, a Mormon church leader who died in 2015): “Use it up. Wear it out. Make it do, or do without.”
Read more of Guy Page’s reports.