Governor announces sweeping restrictions as Vermont nears COVID 'tipping point'
After a week in which Vermont experienced its most rapid case growth since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Phil Scott on Friday announced a series of new restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Calling the moment a "tipping point" for the state, Scott issued an addendum to his executive order, effective at 10 p.m. Saturday, that details a temporary ban on social gatherings, the closure of bars and social clubs and the suspension of all recreational sports programs and requires compliance with the state's contact tracing efforts.
“We’re definitely moving in the wrong direction,” Scott said at a media briefing Friday. “We’re in a new phase of this pandemic. The days of very low risk are over.”
The state set a new record Thursday for COVID-19 cases in single day with 116, shattering the previous mark set 24 hours earlier. Officials announced 84 new positive cases on Friday and are tracking 17 outbreaks around the state.
The new measures prohibit multi-household gatherings — regardless of whether they are held in public or private, indoors or outdoors. Only individuals living alone may gather with members of their immediate family living in a different household.
"The fact is people getting together, not being careful and letting their guard down is why we're in this position today," Scott said.
“It’s no coincidence we’re seeing these increases 12 days after we know many gathered for Halloween parties,” Scott said. “And though we’ve warned against these activities for weeks, they’re still happening.”
Since the beginning of October, 71% of all cases from outbreaks have stemmed from private social gatherings, according to Dr. Mark Levine, the state's health commissioner.
How long will these restrictions last?
The measures announced Friday coincide with the pending extension of Scott's state of emergency declaration through Dec. 15. They could last longer if the addendum remains a part of the executive order.
"The steps we're taking today are because of the data we're seeing," Scott said. “We’re targeting the areas that we see are problematic and ... we’re trying to be strategic in the way we do it, more surgical in some respects.
More:What you need to know about Vermont's COVID-related restrictions and the impact on holiday travel
"Nothing is off the table. We'll react accordingly based on what we see."
What will enforcement look like?
Scott said he hopes Vermonters will “do the right thing” and follow his new order. At this point, he said, there is no enforcement mechanism in place, but that could change if state officials find enough people are violating the rules.
Scott said the state will rely on education and peer pressure from other Vermonters to compel people to follow the rules for now, but “we can always resort to something more stringent in the future.”
On a related front, Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling said law enforcement began Friday to do compliance checks at businesses around the state.
“I think the future posture will be informed by what we find over the next several days as we do that,” Schirling said. “We’re certainly hopeful that we’ll find broad compliance, especially in the wake of the experience Vermont is having right now.”
What does this mean if I'm part of a 'pod'?
In their new guidance, state officials do not view a "pod," or households that interact exclusively with each other, to be the same as a household.
Even with socializing limited to these trusted households, individuals within them generally have other interactions at work or school that pose more challenges and risks now than at any point since the spring.
"It's hard to be a trusted household in an environment where the virus is more prevalent in your community," Levine said. "It has nothing to do with being the best of friends, being the people you would trust with your life at any other time in your existence."
What does it mean for people living alone?
Individuals who live alone merited the only exception to the new restrictions imposed by Scott's executive order. They are permitted to gather with members of their immediate family who live in a separate household.
Can I go for a walk with someone from outside my household?
Strictly speaking? No.
"This is really about socially isolating, separating, in some respects," Scott said in response to one question. "You can go out for a walk but you can't go out for a walk with your neighbor."
But Levine also illuminated some gray in Scott's black-and-white answer when pressed further on that hypothetical scenario.
The purpose of the new restrictions, Levine said, is to eliminate social settings — usually involving food and drink — where masking and physical distancing efforts are prone to lapse.
"I do not want Vermonters saying, 'I guess this means I don't need to wear a mask or stay distant from someone because it didn't work.' That's far from true," Levine said. "It's very effective, it works, but when your inhibitions are down or your social circumstances mandate avoiding those pieces of guidance … that's when things happen."
Walking with or seeing someone from a healthy distance could be considered a gathering, but doesn't tick the same boxes as the problematic scenarios the state has encountered repeatedly in recent weeks, prompting Friday's policy shift.
"That's just taking our usual guidance and being confident the usual guidance will hold you in good stead," Levine said.
Why are restaurants still OK if gatherings are not?
Scott said that unlike the social gatherings that have been banned, restaurants' practices are more structured to allow for greater safety.
For example, there are capacity limits and table distance rules at restaurants that likely would not be found at a private social gathering. The state’s guidance also considers places like gyms and bowling alleys to be structured environments as long as people are staying with others within their immediate household.
People from multiple households cannot eat out at a restaurant together under the new order.
“Unless it’s in your current household, you shouldn’t interact with anyone,” Scott said. “You shouldn’t interact with your neighbor, 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.”
What else is in the governor's order?
► Bars and social clubs will be limited to takeout, curbside pickup and delivery of alcohol. Restaurants must close to in-person dining at 10 p.m. but can provide takeout, drive-thru and delivery services for off-site consumption after that time.
► Businesses, nonprofits and government offices are advised to reinstitute telecommuting and work-from-home procedures to the extent they are possible. The state also discourages in-person meetings under the order.
► All students returning home from a college or university — in-state or out-of-state — must quarantine for 14 days, or seven days followed by a negative COVID-19 test.
► The suspension of recreational sports programs for youths and adults — games and practices — does not apply to school-based sports that are subject to guidance from the Agency of Education.
“I hope youth sports will be one of the first things to reopen," Scott said. "And I hope these adults out there who haven’t followed our guidance recognize the responsibility they have to help us slow the spread and get our cases down.”
More:New England states, New Jersey suspend interstate youth hockey competition
► Vermonters who have been identified as a possible case or close contact are now required to promptly answer calls and respond to Department of Health contact tracing staff, provide complete and truthful information about their activities and comply with all recommended quarantine/isolation measures.
"We need people to be cooperative and honest when they call," Scott said.
Failure to comply could result in enforcement penalties via the attorney general.
See also:What you need to know about Vermont's COVID-related restrictions and the impact on holiday travel
Contact Austin Danforth at 651-4851 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @eadanforth. Contact Elizabeth Murray at 802-651-4835 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @LizMurrayBFP.