Life as we know it changed dramatically this week, as Vermont and the world try to keep the COVID-19 coronavirus from decimating the population.
The virus is spread mainly from person-to-person contact, and from surfaces contaminated by people with the virus, so the emphasis is on staying home and washing your hands often and thoroughly.
As a result:
• Schools and colleges have closed, with online classes being organized.
• Bars and restaurants are closed, except for takeout and delivery.
• Gathering places — libraries, art galleries, senior centers — are closing.
• Vermont Gov. Phil Scott has banned non-essential gatherings of 50 people or more, which means sporting events, concerts, fundraising galas, theater shows, dances and a long string of other activities are canceled.
• The shutdown of normal activities is having a profound effect on all kinds of businesses. If the shutdown lingers until August, as some speculate, many businesses may never recover.
• Stowe Mountain Resort, Sugarbush Resort and most other Vermont ski areas have closed for the season.
• The Lodge at Spruce Peak, the major hotel at Stowe Mountain Resort, has closed.
• Copley Hospital in Morrisville has begun drive-thru testing for the coronavirus, with a doctor’s orders.
• Many churches have canceled services, or are holding them online.
• Harwood Union High School canceled its Climate Action Film Festival.
• The Vermont Statehouse is closed this week for deep cleaning.
• Local governments are trying to figure out how to function if in-person meetings must be canceled. Many don’t yet have the technology for online meetings. Most town offices are closed.
• The Vermont Supreme Court has canceled all non-essential court hearings at all levels of the court system.
• Some funerals have been postponed.
• For a community weekly newspaper, the pace of a seven-day news cycle may seem downright glacial in the face of this rapidly spreading virus. To ensure that we best inform our communities, the Stowe Reporter/News & Citizen has added an area on its website dedicated to cancellations and closures due to the coronavirus. Keep up to date by visiting stowereporter.com or newsandcitizen.com. And, as always, if you have any information you’d like us to know about, send it to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Town offices shuttered
Most town offices across Lamoille County are now closed to the public, although staff members are continuing to work at this point.
The Morristown Select Board decided to close town offices to non-essential business.
Cambridge’s municipal offices were closed to the public Monday morning. “We feel like we can’t be too cautious,” Town Clerk Mark Schilling said.
By Tuesday Eden, Hyde Park, Johnson, Stowe and Waterville had also closed town offices to the public, and Wolcott joined them on Wednesday.
At press time, Elmore Town Clerk Sharon Draper’s office was still open. “We’re still deciding,” she said. One reason for the delay was that property taxes were due in Elmore on Wednesday, March 18.
Other town business looks to be on hold. In Eden, Town Clerk Candy Vear typically registers 400 dogs a year. She recently handed out registration tag No. 27, and doesn’t expect many more to be issued before the April 1 deadline. She doubts there will be any penalty for late registration.
Eden closed its offices completely to visitors; others are admitting people by appointment or in special circumstances.
“If anyone needs to access information, it’s by appointment only,” said Dan Lindley, the Morristown town administrator. “We’re still here; we’re not going to let things fall through the cracks. We’re still doing business.”
However, if the business can be conducted by phone or email, that’s what will happen. “Options other than in-person,” Lindley said.
“We can and will offer a lot of our services online,” Schilling said, and the town offices are likely to stay closed to the public until “we have a better handle on what’s going on.”
Morristown’s select board won’t meet again before May 31 except for critical business, and other towns are making similar calls.
Town officials are often the source of information in an emergency, and plenty of inquiries are pouring in. Lindley encourages people to get their information from the Vermont Department of Health or the federal Centers for Disease Control websites.
“We aren’t the experts on this; they are,” Lindley said. “This is changing daily, and we need people to comply with what the state is asking them to do.”
Or, just dial 211, the Vermont emergency information line.
“They can refer you to what you need,” Lindley said.
The decision to close Vermont’s schools until at least April 6 caused a flurry of activity as teachers tried to prepare to educate kids remotely beginning next week.
“This first week, we’re just establishing the remote community and see what that looks like,” said Adam Rosenberg, superintendent of Orleans Southwest Supervisory Union. “We don’t expect teachers to leap into instruction.”
However, the shutdown may extend beyond April 6, Lamoille North Superintendent Cat Gallagher wrote Sunday in a letter to everyone in the six-town district. Gallagher encouraged parents to stay home with their children if anyone in the household is sick, to follow best health practices and to practice social distancing, avoiding “playdates, sleepovers, group gatherings and unnecessary travel.”
As for online learning, Rosenberg said not everyone has access to high-speed internet, and he’s asked his staff to also prepare hard copies of learning materials.
“We’re encouraging parents to contact teachers if they want hard copies,” he said. Optimally, teachers will check in with each student daily. Gallagher’s staff has also been preparing hard copies of all learning materials, along with attempting to make the internet available to students who don’t have it already.
Looking for a silver lining, Rosenberg hopes the innovative online teaching techniques will be useful once things return to normal.
“We don’t expect test scores to increase, but it’s a time to try new strategies,” Rosenberg said. “It’s a ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ type situation.”
School officials have also been working out how to get school meals to all the students working remotely.
The Harwood Union school district has set up a grab-and-go setup for students. Rosenberg wanted to know: “Is delivering by bus OK, or do they want us to have drop points, centralized locations where people can come pick it up?”
Lamoille North began providing food to all children age 18 and under who live in its six towns, whether they attend school there or not, on Wednesday. That day, both breakfast and lunch were available for curbside pickup between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. at the elementary schools in Cambridge, Eden, Hyde Park, Johnson and Waterville and at the Lamoille Union campus.
Beginning today, Thursday, March 19, Lamoille North began using modified bus routes to offer the delivery of both meals to families who signed up.
Beginning next week, food will be available for pickup or delivery on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday; Monday’s package will include two meals for children while Tuesday and Thursday packages will include four meals each.
The locales and times for curbside pickup will remain the same. Anyone hoping to sign up for the delivery of those meal packages should email Karyl Kent at email@example.com. Kent is also available by phone to answer questions at 851-1258 and more information is available at lamoille schoolmeals.com.
Child care centers
Local day care centers want to remain open as long as it’s safe, but on Tuesday Gov. Phil Scott ordered Vermont child care facilities to shut down, but is requiring public schools to provide care for the children of people considered “essential” to the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, Scott’s order allows — and in fact encourages — the continued operation of centers that serve families of “essential persons.”
“Essential” persons include health care workers and first responders, criminal justice personnel, public health employees, child care providers, school staff, National Guard personnel and some state employees. Children through grade 8 are eligible for such care.
There are about 1,200 regulated child care providers across Vermont, including in-home child cares, center-based providers, Head Start programs, and public preschool programs.
“We’re still trying to make final decisions, but as of today we are planning to stay open,” said Sonja Raymond, the owner of Appletree Learning Center in Stowe, on Tuesday. However, “this is an ever-changing, day-to-day landscape.”
Clubhouse Kids and the Morristown After School Program expected to stay open, in part to care for the children of hospital employees, other medical staff and first responders.
“We plan to stay open as long as allowed to,” said Anna Vasseur, a staff member at Green Mountain Kids in Morristown. But, if state officials “tell us to close, we will close.”
As the number of first-time unemployment claims has skyrocketed, it’s been all but impossible for some people to get through the state unemployment offices.
For Hyde Park resident Jennifer Schmidt, it’s quantifiable, thanks to her cell phone’s call log: she made 249 calls to the office in three days, she said. That included 62 just Wednesday morning, an hour before press deadline. She said every time she calls, she gets the same message: call back later.
Schmidt works in the hotel and hospitality industry, and so do many of her friends. They even tried getting together for a conference call to the unemployment office, thinking maybe once they got a human on the line, they might be able to get all of them taken care of at the same time. It worked…for a few minutes, and then the line went dead.
“I’m not the only one here. We’re all screwed,” Schmidt said. “We all have rent, we all have kids, and we’re all trying to get through and we can’t.”