The people who run Sunset Motor Inn in Morristown, which was flagged for possibly violating Gov. Phil Scot’s order to close, are mystified.
“The Sunset Motor Inn is 100 percent in compliance with EVERY policy,” manager Kelly Manosh said in an email to the News & Citizen.
The Sunset was one of 41 lodging facilities listed early last week by police and the Vermont Attorney General’s Office as possibly violating Scott’s March 25 order to close, part of the effort to help slow the spread of coronavirus.
Exemptions are granted for lodging facilities that house essential personnel.
The Sunset has a few guests, Manosh said, but they are “essential” workers, many of them health care professionals who are staying at the motel while working in the area.
They occupy a handful of the hotel’s rooms; the rest are vacant.
Manosh said she had no idea the Sunset was on the state’s list of lodging facilities that may have failed to comply.
“We saw on the news that 41 Vermont lodges might be out of compliance, but we were never told we were on that list,” Manosh said.
So, how did the Sunset get on the list?
The News & Citizen contacted Adam Silverman, public information officer for the Vermont State Police, and Lauren Jandl, assistant director of communications for the Vermont Attorney General’s Office, asking for evidence or documentation that put the Sunset on the list of violators.
Neither could provide that evidence or documentation.
Renting rooms to workers deemed essential by the state is allowed under Gov. Scott’s order. Along with health care workers, the Sunset can provide housing for “anyone who has a letter form the state saying they can stay here, other essential workers,” such as truck drivers, Manosh said.
The Sunset could also provide housing for the state’s more vulnerable populations if state officials make that decision, and it could possibly serve as a quarantine facility, “but that hasn’t happened yet,” she said.
The state dispatched police to more than 300 lodging facilities around the state during the weekend of March 28, and the list of 41 possible violators was then issued. The Sunset was the only Lamoille County establishment on the list.
Silverman said police officers decided if a lodging facility was in violation “by the totality of the available evidence.” In a memo sent out March 28 to police agencies, Vermont State Police Col. Matthew Birmingham said evidence to consider included vehicles in the parking lot and statements from front desk clerks about whether a facility was open or closed and whether it was complying with the governor’s order.
The attorney general’s office said the 41 establishments on the list of violators had all been contacted by telephone.
Manosh said one employee reported an officer did call the hotel last week, asking about one guest. That person is a traveling nurse who has been staying at the Sunset since last July, Manosh said, and is scheduled to remain a tenant until this July.
“I’ve asked all staff and no other inquiries or contact has been made by anyone inquiring about the motel” or a motel guest, Manosh said.
To her knowledge, her facility is in complete compliance with the order.
Manosh said a few guests who didn’t qualify as essential workers were staying at the Sunset when Gov. Scott issued his order March 25, but the order allowed them to stay until their end scheduled checkout date. The last one left Thursday, April 2.
“There are no other guests” outside the essential workers, Manosh said. Once Scott issued the order, the Sunset took no new guests who aren’t exempt, she said.
As of Tuesday, Silverman said the Sunset was still on the list of possible violators, but the list is being updated “as establishments are known to come into compliance and/or new concerns arise.”
That would involve another visit or check-in by police, but that hadn’t happened at the Sunset by Tuesday, Manosh said.
No violations cited
Other than the phone call about the traveling nurse, Manosh said the Sunset’s only contact with the state was a letter dated March 29 about the governor’s rules, and a follow-up phone call from the attorney general’s office. But neither cited any violations by the Sunset.
The March 29 letter was sent to the 41 lodging facilities on the state’s list of possible violators. A state trooper dropped off the letter at the Sunset’s outside mailbox late on March 29, Manosh said, and it doesn’t mention any specific violations found at the motel.
Instead, the letter makes the blanket statement, “To ensure your compliance with Gov. Scott’s order, you must advise any guests remaining at your property who are not authorized to stay under the terms of the order of the mandated closure, and ensure that any operations you continue to have are explicitly allowed under terms of the order.”
“If you continue to operate outside of the terms of the order, you may be contacted by the attorney general’s office and further ordered to cease and desist,” the letter states.
Jandl said her office contacted the Sunset by phone March 31, but Manosh said that conversation was “strictly informational,” covering the same ground as the letter.
“It was not about any violation,” Manosh reiterated. “It was a nice conversation that offered us up contacts if we had questions.”
“They just wanted to go over everything. It was a conversation for our benefit,” Manosh said. Even during that conversation, Manosh said she still didn’t know the Sunset was on the list of 41 possible violators.
“Had I known we were on that list of 41, I would have asked why. I wasn’t aware we were on that list,” Manosh said.
On April 2, Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan issued a press release outlining actions taken to enforce Gov. Scott’s order to close all lodging facilities that were not exempt, including the initial letters and follow-up phone calls.
Donovan said the best way to enforce any law is to give “Vermonters the opportunity to comply with it,” and the phone calls are one step in that direction.
“My office will continue to work with lodging operations to give them the tools and information necessary to do the right thing,” Donovan said.
Moving forward, “law enforcement will continue to monitor compliance and will update the attorney general’s office, as appropriate,” Jandl wrote to the News & Citizen.
Donovan’s office may be focused on education and voluntary compliance at the moment, but Scott’s order does give the attorney general the power to levy fines of $1,000 per day for each violation or seek criminal punishment for any facilities that don’t correct violations.