Fears that a huge surge of coronavirus patients would overwhelm Vermont’s health care system have not materialized, and Gov. Phil Scott announced this week that hospitals can begin a return to normalcy.
The governor also lifted restrictions on playtime, particularly outdoor recreation, and allowed groups of 10 to get together and socialize, as long as people adhere to health department and CDC guidelines.
All elective surgeries were canceled March 20 when the pandemic hit, out of concern that hospitals had to reserve room for a wave of coronavirus patients. However, the state’s efforts to curb the spread of the virus have been working, and now Scott says hospitals can restart “nonessential outpatient clinic visits, diagnostic imaging and outpatient surgeries and procedures,” provided they comply with a long list of conditions — in particular, a heavy emphasis on screening for the virus, protective equipment, distancing, and disinfecting common areas.
As of Tuesday, the state had 907 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 52 deaths. Eight people were hospitalized, 20 were being monitored, and 17,518 people had been tested.
Nationally, 1.15 million confirmed cases were reported, causing 72,023 deaths, including 1,719 from Sunday to Monday. Twenty states had more than 10,000 cases and several states in the Northeast had more than 25,000 — including Vermont’s neighbors New York and Massachusetts, plus Connecticut, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
There’s been no change in the number of local cases — eight in Stowe, seven in Morristown, six each in Cambridge and Waterbury — in the 10 days since the state began disclosing town-by-town numbers. Lamoille County is holding steady at 26 cases and one death. The state is not disclosing numbers for towns with fewer than six cases.
Scott called Monday’s announcement the first phase of restarting Vermont’s health care system. Surgeries that require overnight hospital stays are still banned, and family members may join patients at the appointments “only if required for direct patient assistance.”
If there’s a surge in cases, the state is prepared to clamp down again. “On the more optimistic side though, if our efforts to slow and contain the spread of the virus continue to succeed, expect to slowly and safely reopen other parts of our health care system, such as dentistry and eye care,” said Health Commissioner Mark Levine.
“While postponing these procedures was necessary to help protect our health care system, workers and patients during this pandemic, we know these procedures are important to Vermonters’ overall health,” Scott said. “We thank everyone for their patience.”
As more Vermonters are able to go back to work, more of them are able to go back to play, too. Scott on Wednesday eased restrictions on outdoor recreation and fitness activities that require low or no physical contact.
Per his latest order — which the administration is dubbing “Play Smart and Play Safe” — golf courses and trail networks are allowed to open, along with state and municipal parks, recreation associations and guided expeditions.
Campgrounds, marinas and beaches remain closed, as do indoor facilities like pro shops, lobbies and bars at these outdoor recreation places.
The new order still carries restrictions, primarily that groups of people not congregate before or after — “for example, no tailgating,” the order reads. And people are still advised to wear masks when they are near other people, although masks aren’t recommended for “strenuous outdoor activity.”
In addition to playing outdoors, the governor’s latest order allows “limited social interactions and gatherings” of 10 or fewer people. That includes members of “trusted households” getting together and socializing, allowing the kids to play with their friends.
The Lamoille South school district had previously prohibited anyone from using outdoor recreation facilities on school property, including the track at Peoples Academy. Superintendent Tracy Wrend said Wednesday that she and her crew were “learning about the ‘turning of the spigot’ at the same time you are,” and hadn’t made a decision on how to proceed as of press time.
“We will review new guidance, run it through our context and considerations, and gradually restore school access and operations as we are able,” Wrend said. “We will let you know when we have had a chance to do that and reopen some or all school grounds.”
In Johnson, the municipal-owned Skate Park will remain shuttered until further notice, despite the eased recreation rules. According to town administrator Brian Story, the town had been taking advantage of the downtime to do some needed repairs to the park.
He said the best time to work on the facility is when it’s nice outside; but that’s also when more people want to use the skate park.
Story said bicycles are still allowed on the pump track and terrain track, as they have been all along. Social distancing isn’t as much of a factor on bike tracks as the elements in a skate park, he said.
The governor said his administration is “trying to do all we can” and “trying to open up businesses as we can,” while making sure the virus doesn’t establish new footholds.
Still in effect are strict rules on in-person contact — limiting the size of gatherings, closing school buildings and relying on online learning, suspending operation of businesses that are not essential or that require close personal contact, requiring working from home wherever possible, and requiring Vermonters to stay home and stay safe except for essential purposes.
In addition, employees and the public must wear masks when in the presence of other people; retail cashiers can stay behind a sneeze guard.
More small steps
Gov. Phil Scott has slightly loosened his business shutdown order, imposed in mid-March to halt the spread of COVID-19. Situations that are now allowed:
Outdoor work (site work, exterior construction, public works, energy and utility work, forestry, landscaping, painting, tree work, etc.) may resume operations with up to 10 workers per location.
Manufacturing and distribution operations may resume with up to 10 employees provided they are at least 6 feet apart at all times.
Interior home construction is allowed in vacant buildings, with no more than 10 workers and 6-foot separations. Commercial construction also requires dedicated entrances and hand washing and bathroom facilities.
Farmers market changed
Farmers markets can begin operating now, but they can’t be social gatherings, and major changes have been ordered to eliminate crowds and reduce contact between vendors and customers — no live music, no craft booths.
As much as possible, vendors must ask customers to order in advance, and then pick up the food to minimize contact.
Safety training required
All businesses that want to reopen now are required to complete a training program that covers how the virus is transmitted, the importance of social distancing, and safe disposal of safety equipment.
“This is a mandatory requirement to reopen,” said Steve Monahan of the Vermont Department of Labor. “I believe that most businesses are aware of the need to do this, and see that it’s probably a good effort to protect themselves from liability or having a sick workforce.”
1,000 meals a day
Shiftmeals is now delivering 1,000 prepared meals per week to be shared equally across three local sites: Lamoille County Mental Health, Morrisville; Smugglers’ Notch Resort, Cambridge; and Edelweiss Mountain Deli, Stowe.
The deliveries are slated to continue at least until early June, pending funding.
The food is for anyone who needs a meal: laid-off workers, musicians, artists, gig workers, farmers, anyone affected by this crisis. Meals are available for pickup from 2 to 5:30 p.m. on a daily basis at Edelweiss Mountain Deli, 2251 Mountain Road, Stowe. Meals are frozen so that you can enjoy at your convenience. Come as often as you like. Just wear a cloth mask and observe proper distancing practices.
Other pickup sites have specific times for meal pickup.
ShiftMeals, which is a collaboration of The Skinny Pancake, Intervale Center, Vermont Community Foundation, and High Meadows Fund, began with four locations from Burlington to Quechee, including Waterbury and Montpelier, and has a goal of expanding across the state.
When the Stowe C19 General Relief Fund committee heard about the meals initiative, it proposed bringing the program to Lamoille County.
The food is available to anyone in need, as needed.
More information: skinnypancake.com/shiftmeals.
AA meetings still being held
Even though Alcoholics Anonymous started in 1935 and both its co-founders were from Vermont, it wasn’t until October 1944 that the program made its way to the Green Mountain State. The first two groups started simultaneously in Burlington and Montpelier with four and 11 people, respectively. In October 1947, the Montpelier Evening Argus reported over 330 people attended a dinner at the Pavilion to mark the third anniversary of the Montpelier group. Guests included members from the then nine groups in Vermont.
Now there are over 40 groups in Ccntral Vermont, from Wolcott to Warren, Waterbury to Wells River. Before social distancing and stay-at-home orders members of Alcoholics Anonymous gathered in church basements, town halls, recovery centers, and even the P&H Truck Stop, to help one another maintain sobriety and welcome newcomers seeking a path to a sober and happy life. In Barre and Montpelier alone, there were over 30 meetings a week.
As public buildings began closing their doors due to the current pandemic, AA members scrambled to maintain contact with one another. Phone conversations were helpful, and the district hotline remains active, but it was the internet that provided a replacement to the regular face-to-face meetings.
Today there are four or five virtual online meetings a day available based in central Vermont. Links can be found at district4vt.org. Links to other meetings in the state can be found at aavt.org. To talk directly to another alcoholic for support, for information about Alcoholics Anonymous, or to get help connecting to online meetings, anyone can call the Central Vermont AA hotline at 802-229-5100.