MONTPELIER — Gov. Phil Scott said the state’s handling of the novel coronavirus pandemic is the “envy of the nation.”
Also, the governor announced details would be coming Wednesday about an economic package to help those businesses shut down by the virus that causes COVID-19 and the secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources laid out how state parks would function over the summer.
At his regular news conference Monday, the governor said the state continues to move in the right direction and the data shows he can continue to slowly reopen the state and the economy. Scott cautioning the state still has a long way to go and state officials will be on the lookout for outbreaks in the months ahead.
According to the Department of Health, there were no new cases of the virus to report Monday even though the state conducted around 700 tests Sunday. The number of confirmed cases in the state remains 940 and the death toll also has not changed with that number staying 54. For days in a row, the reported deaths stayed at 53.
The governor said the state only had 15 new cases to report last week. But neighboring states aren’t in as good shape. Scott said New Hampshire saw 400 new cases over that same time, Massachusetts had 6,678 new cases and New York had about 14,500.
“So we know we can’t only look at Vermont numbers. Which is why I feel it is necessary to move a little more cautiously than just our numbers would suggest,” he said.
Scott said state officials will be providing regional data and modeling at Friday’s news conference.
The governor said he will be presenting at Wednesday’s news conference details for a “major economic package” for businesses impacted by his “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order put in place to help stop the spread of the virus. Scott didn’t give any details Monday, but he said it would provide “relief, hope and initiatives to get us moving toward recovery.”
He said if the data continues to show good results, he will likely take another “turn of the spigot” and relax restrictions further.
Speaking to the lack of new cases in the state from Sunday’s tests, the governor said, “I’m not sure how much lower we can go than zero. So we’ll continue to monitor the data. And I’m not arrogant about this. If we see that the data isn’t supporting what we’re doing, we’ll take action. We’ll drop the ego, drop the politics and do what’s best for Vermonters. … But the numbers are showing that we’re moving in the right direction. Again, when you look at last week, we’re the envy of the nation, in some respects. I’ve had governors texting me and saying, ‘You give us hope.’ So what we’re doing is working,” he said.
Scott said this latest round of relaxing restrictions would be focused on close-contact businesses, such as hair salons, barber shops and limited outdoor seating at restaurants.
“I know this has been incredibly difficult for everyone. And in some ways, the restart process is even more challenging than the closings were. But your sacrifices and cooperation have made a huge difference and my team is committed to helping our businesses and families recover from this once-in-century crisis,” he said.
Julie Moore, secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources, said residents are using state parks, town forests, trail heads, fishing access areas and bike paths to get out and enjoy the warmer weather the state is now seeing. Moore said people are using these outdoor areas to help cope with the pandemic.
Memorial Day is May 25, and she said the weather is looking good this weekend so people getting outside “is sure to help things feel a little more normal, maybe even be a little more normal.”
But she said there will be some restrictions at state parks, some for a few weeks, others for the whole summer. Over the spring the parks have remained open, but not staffed.
Moore said agency staff are getting parks ready for the summer, including making necessary health and hygiene improvements to limit the spread of the virus.
“We are working hard to have as many of our parks fully operational as possible as soon as possible,” she said.
Moore said visitors will be asked to physically distance themselves from those they didn’t travel with, to wear a mask when encountering other visitors or staff and bringing hand sanitizer to use during the visit. She said visitors will also have to bring their own equipment because the loaning of play equipment, fishing and camping gear, boat and bicycle rentals and sales of merchandise and concessions aren’t likely to take place this summer.
The secretary said capacity will be monitored on a park-by-park basis to make sure there is enough room for visitors to physically distance themselves. She asked visitors to bring a blanket or folding chair with them because the majority of picnic tables, movable benches and chairs have been removed from “day use” areas.
She said gatherings of groups and use of picnic shelters will only be allowed under the current restrictions at that time. People are currently only allowed to gather in groups of 10 or fewer.
Moore said the swimming pool at Button Bay State Park in Vergennes will not open this summer. She said camping facilities at state parks should be ready for use by June 26 if not sooner. But she said cabin and cottage rentals will not be available.
BERLIN — The well-publicized rollout of a federally funded food distribution program may have been the victim of its own success on Friday and organizers say it certainly was a learning experience.
Before the very first boxes of food were loaded into the very first vehicles at E.F. Knapp Airport late Friday morning only one thing was certain — some folks who responded to the promise of free food would leave disappointed.
The only question was: How many?
The answer appears to be “lots.”
Social media is replete with examples of people who either left the first installment of the “Farmers to Families Food Box” program empty-handed or with food that didn’t remotely resemble the healthy nutritious fare that drew them to the airport in the first place.
Though everything that could go wrong didn’t in Berlin on Friday, there were enough issues to warrant attention before a collaboration that includes the Abbey Group, the Vermont Foodbank and the Vermont National Guard try again at Bromley Mountain in Peru today.
For starters, the trucks filled with food will arrive much earlier.
Nina Hansen, vice president of operations for the Abbey Group, said that didn’t happen on Friday — a mistake that delayed the 10 a.m. start of the distribution by about 40 minutes.
“The trucks got stuck in traffic,” she said, noting the food-filled vehicles needed an escort to get past airport-bound traffic that was standing still on Airport Road.
That’s what happens when the line for food distribution starts forming at 3:30 a.m. — a reality Hansen confessed she didn’t see coming.
A food distribution with a “Black Friday-ish” feel is bound to leave some people with a bad taste in their mouths, and that happened on a day when the Abbey Group arrived with enough food for 1,000 households and at one point estimated there were nearly twice that many vehicles idling on the runway of E.F. Knapp Airport.
Drawn by the promise of the 2 gallons of milk, 7.5 pounds of Cabot cheese, 20 pounds of pre-cooked chicken — a mix of breaded strips and grilled filets — and 25 pounds of produce folks flocked to the airport where they waited, in many cases for hours.
Some left beyond happy — collecting food “kits” for themselves and as many as four other families in an honor system arrangement that promotional posters said was “free to anyone” and “while supplies last.”
What the poster did not indicate was the size of the supply that would be available Friday — or any of the upcoming distributions under a $5.4 million federal grant that is underwriting the initiative that runs through June 30.
The Abbey Group has contracted to bring enough of the food kits for 1,000 households to each of the events. That includes the one at Bromley Mountain today, the Middlebury State Airport on Wednesday, Thetford Academy on Thursday, and Lamoille Union High School in Hyde Park on Friday.
The recipe for each of the distributions was exactly the same as the one on Friday: 25,000 pounds of produce, 20,000 pounds of chicken, 7,500 pounds of cheese, and 2,000 gallons of milk. Once that 1,000 household supply is exhausted National Guardsman will shift to distributing boxes of MREs and “meal boxes” provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
However, Nichole Whalen, communications director for the Vermont Foodbank, said Monday that steps have been taken to address many of the complaints raised in the wake of Friday’s debut of the “Farmers to Families Food Box” program in Berlin.
“We learned a lot,” she said, predicting today’s experience at Bromley Mountain would reflect the changes that will be incorporated in similar events planned over the next several weeks.
Whalen conceded organizers underestimated the need reflected by the turnout, were ill-prepared to manage that number of people, and scrambled for most of the day as a result.
Though portable outhouses were trucked in late in the day, they didn’t arrive until after those who had been waiting in line took to relieving themselves on the side of the runway.
Whalen said that mistake won’t be repeated and, given the time it took to get vehicles loaded and on their way, a supply of water will be available on-site at distribution events going forward.
Meanwhile, Whalen said arrangements are being made with sheriff’s departments to “proactively manage traffic” in an effort to avoid the bumper-to-bumper standstill that hampered Friday’s event in Berlin.
“We didn’t realize the line was going to be so large until it was past the point of manageability,” she said. “That won’t happen again.”
Whalen said providing real-time information to those waiting in line will be addressed in the future as well. Some complained had they known the food supplies they deemed worth waiting for had run out Friday, they likely would have left rather than wait for the FEMA food.
Whalen said using rolling billboards to convey that information, as well as estimated wait times will be part of the plan going forward.
According to Whalen, those adjustments should make for a more predictable and less chaotic experience going forward while continuing to put food in the hands of families during a particularly challenging time.
“Right now, some people are facing hunger for the first time ever,” she said, citing job losses associated with the COVID-19 pandemic that prompted the federal program in the first place.
Whalen and Hansen said no one who stayed until Friday’s event finally ended at about 6 p.m. left empty-handed and credited the National Guard the pivotal role it played.
“They sure had a tall order to fill … under some very difficult circumstances,” Hansen said.
Hansen said similar events will be held through the end of June, and there is a possibility that could be extended through July and possibly August as part of a program designed to aid farmers and dairy producers, while at the same time tackling food insecurity.
Whalen said those who need food assistance needn’t wait for a one-time collection, they can visit vtfoodbank.org, locate a food shelf near them, and learn about programs, like 3SquaresVT, that can be of assistance.
“There are a lot of other ways for people to get the food they need,” she said, noting most don’t involve spending several hours waiting in a longer-than-expected line.
The Rutland County Parent-Child Center needs to do some renovations before it can start offering child care again.
“We’ll need to put in walls,” said Executive Director Mary Feldman. “Our space we utilize is a large space. It’s divided by bookcases and things that up to now have been OK.”
Day cares — that weren’t already operating under a dispensation to look after children of essential workers — are being allowed to reopen June 1 under a set of new guidelines, ranging from cleaning requirements to social distancing and use of personal protective equipment. Operators across the state are struggling to figure out how to function under the new requirements, and some say they are straining under the process.
For example, Feldman said she isn’t sure how realistic it is to expect a 3-year-old to wear a mask. She noted that providers can comfort a crying child, but will have to change their clothes if they get any tears on them.
“We’re in uncharted territory,” she said. “The reopening of the economy is critically tied to child care and early childhood education, period. The question is how to we do it safely. I would love to have a medical practitioner come through and say what we need to do.”
Erica Eaton, kitchen manager and after-school coordinator at Good Shepherd’s Little Lambs Early Learning Center, said they are changing their drop-off and pick-up points.
“We have three entrances normally — we’re down to one,” she said. “We have also changed some rooms around. We recently had some building done so we are able to separate children and keep groups smaller.”
Eaton said they are banning water bottles in favor of disposable cups, and have adopted a much more aggressive cleaning schedule.
“I’ve had 25 kids through this whole thing,” said Stacy Sturtvant, owner of Jumping Monkeys Learning Center in Rutland, which has been caring for children of essential workers. “It’s been stressful, but — knock on wood — we’re all healthy and we’ve been doing everything we need to do.”
Sturtvant said she is licensed for 48 children, but believes she can accommodate 40 children under the guidelines. She said she’s almost booked up.
“I may have a couple of spaces left,” she said.
Smaller providers say they’ve particularly struggled.
“I’m quite unhappy with the requirements, but I’m planning to reopen,” said Aubrey Boyles, who has a registered home child care business in Montpelier.
Boyles, who said she sees six children a day, worries that being greeted at the door by someone in eye protection, a face mask, gloves and a smock is going to be intimidating to small children — especially ones who have not stayed with her before. Beyond that, she said, children need to see people’s faces for a number of developmental reasons likely to be affected by providers being masked the entire time.
Boyles emphasized that she was not opposed to masking as general health measure.
“I wear a mask all the time when I leave my house,” she said. “It does not seem developmentally appropriate or age-appropriate to put children through this.”
She also questioned what the PPE requirements say about the timing of the reopening.
“My feeling is, either we ought not to be able to reopen, or we shouldn’t be required to wear head-to-toe personal protective equipment,” she said. “I hope I’m wrong, but I’ve been a provider for 12 years, and I just have this sick feeling.”
Heather Martin, owner of Baby Steps Child Care in Proctor, said she won’t be able to open in the immediate future for a number of reasons.
“My family actually had COVID,” she said. “One of my children is testing positive for it two months after we had it. ... In addition, I have staff with pre-existing conditions. It would be too risky for them to come in, so I don’t have enough staff right now, either.”
Martin said she runs an infant and toddler center, and would need to effectively staff a second shift in order to deal with the cleaning and record-keeping required under the current guidance. On top of all that, she said, the cost of groceries has skyrocketed, and she isn’t sure how she would get the needed personal protective equipment.
“I’m at the point where I need to wait to see what happens,” she said.
Martin said she is concerned as well about the notion of opening as severe cases have started to appear in children. She pointed out that a vaccine exists for the flu, but it still appears in day cares every year. There is still no vaccine for COVID-19.
“It’s not realistic to expect it’s not going to pop up in day cares,” she said.
While meeting remotely has its drawbacks and pitfalls, some at the helms of public boards say community participation has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We aren’t seeing dozens and dozens of people, but it’s fair to say we’ve seen more people dial in, and in fact last night I would say we had half a dozen town residents who dialed in that we wouldn’t typically see at board meetings” said Rutland Town Select Board Chairman Joshua Terenzini on Wednesday. “In fact we’ve had one woman dial in for every meeting, she politely says that she’s with us, she’s going to put herself on mute, and she’s going to cook dinner and listen to the board meeting.”
He said the Select Board’s first remote meeting was March 14, and it’s held four or five meetings since. The board’s committees, as well as the Planning Commission, have also met remotely.
Government entities across Vermont, from the Legislature to town planning commissions, have been meeting remotely using various tools, from simple conference calls to online services like Zoom. This was done following recommendations from public health officials and the state government aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19 so as not to overwhelm the health care system. Initially, the law required meetings to retain the option for the public to physically attend, but in late March the law was amended so that completely remote meetings can occur while Gov. Phil Scott’s state of emergency order is in effect.
Sasha Thayer, chairwoman of the Plainfield Select Board, said remote meetings are far from perfect, but they’ve opened some public participation opportunities that weren’t there before.
“In terms of our logistics, when we’ve had in-person meetings, we had them in a small room in the back of the municipal building and people said, this is just too uncomfortable, this is too claustrophobic, so we had started having meetings sometime in January in front of the Town Clerk’s Office, but you couldn’t have fit 50 people in there, it just wouldn’t have happened,” she said.
Thayer said the board’s first remote meeting was held March 30, and it drew about 52 people, far more than the average board meeting. A lot of that attendance, she said, was because of the topic at hand, that being the possibility of Goddard College hosting a recovery center.
“Needless to say, there was a lot of interest in that, and angst,” she said.
Thayer said her board, specifically her, has been drawing a lot of ire from the community lately over different issues, so that might explain some of the rise in public participation. Outside topics of controversy, there’s still been heightened interest, and she thinks the tone of meetings has improved.
Some boards have seen participation among members improve.
J. Churchill Hindes, chairman of the Vermont State College System board of trustees, said his board has 14 members. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, it met in Montpelier at the VSCS Chancellor’s Office.
“Having full attendance was something that happened from time to time, but most of the time we were probably working with 12 or so trustees out of the 14,” said Hindes. “That was where we were. Now that we’ve moved to Zoom one of the things I noticed immediately is trustee participation improved at almost every meeting, having all 14 trustees engaged.”
Some of that engagement may well be attributed to what’s going on with the VSCS, he said. The pandemic has exacerbated the system’s long-standing financial problems. In recent weeks, the former chancellor resigned after withdrawing recommendations to close three VSCS campuses, and the president of Castleton University announced that she’d be resigning on May 31.
Hindes said between college staff, teacher union representatives, and a handful of media, a normal trustee meeting would draw 30 people. He said some of the Zoom meetings its held recently have seen over 200 people engage with it.
There are downsides to meeting remotely, he said, and he looks forward to more traditional gatherings. It’s possible the board will find a way to keep the remote option available, but that remains to be seen.
“There’s some pluses and minuses, whether we’ll go back to some kind of a hybrid, I haven’t thought about that,” he said.
Jeanne Collins, superintendent of Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union, said she sees a lot of future potential for remote School Board meeting options.
“We’re begging people to come to our board meetings, and since we’ve been remote, nearly every meeting has had at least one or two people phoning in. Not a huge number, but we haven’t had anything hugely controversial on the agenda, necessarily. I think it is in some ways more accessible for folks,” she said.
She said the district recently held remote community forums where the public could speak to the two finalists for principal of Barstow Elementary School. Both forums drew slightly more than 50 people, about 20 more than they otherwise would have, said Collins, adding that it frees many people up who have families to take care of in the evening or who simply aren’t comfortable speaking in public.
“I think it opened up a lot of opportunities and if it weren’t for this we wouldn’t have done it,” she said, adding that some kinks would need to be worked out so no one, remote or in-person, is left out.