Gov. Phil Scott ordered Vermonters Tuesday to “stay home” and “stay safe” to slow the outbreak of the coronavirus in Vermont. 

“The governor’s order directs Vermonters to stay at home, leaving only for essential reasons, critical to health and safety,” the Scott administration said in a statement.

The order offers a general outline of what movement will be allowed: “Vermonters are directed to stay at home or in their place of residence, leaving only for essential reasons such as: personal safety; groceries or medicine; curbside pickup of goods, meals or beverages; medical care; exercise; care of others; and work.” 

The statement says “all businesses and not-for-profit entities not expressly exempted in the order must suspend all in-person business operations. Operations that can be conducted online or by phone, or sales that can be facilitated with curbside pickup or delivery only, can continue.”

The order provides exemptions for businesses and entities providing services or functions deemed critical to public health and safety, as well as economic and national security. This includes — but is not limited to — health care operations; retail serving essential human needs, such as grocery stores, pharmacies and hardware stores; fuel products and supply; maintenance of critical infrastructure; news media; and transportation and critical manufacturing sectors.

Scott had forewarned his executive order Monday: “I would not describe it as a shelter in place, that terminology means something different to many people especially in the emergency world,” he said at a press conference. 

“What we’re going to advocate is just what we’ve done thus far, it’ll probably take another step,” Scott continued. “But we want people to stay at home, when they can. Right now you have a responsibility: if you can, stay at home. Stay at home.”

Vermont reported 95 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and seven deaths from the disease on Tuesday. 

Four of those deaths were elderly residents at the Burlington Health and Rehab facility, operated by Genesis, and the other was an elderly man who died at the VA’s medical center in White River Junction. 

The health department reported that 1,535 people had been tested in Vermont as of Tuesday, an increase of more than 350 tests since Monday, placing Vermont in the middle of the pack in total tests, and higher on a per capita basis, according to state-by-state data from Politico. 

Scott and his health commissioner, Dr. Mark Levine, have insisted that the state’s testing capacity is appropriate for the current threat, however Vermonters have told VTDigger in recent days of long delays and a lack of access to testing. 

Health experts confirm that community spread is already happening in Vermont, meaning that many cases are yet to be confirmed, and that the days ahead will only get worse in terms of new patients, and increased pressure on the state’s hospitals. 

Leading Democrats in the state said Monday that Scott should have acted faster in handing down a “stay at home” order. 

“The bottom line is we don’t have enough testing capacity to identify where this virus is and react, so in the absence of that we have to be aggressively social distancing,” said Rebecca Holcombe, Scott’s former education secretary. “It’s early aggressive action that matters.”

Scott announced new “mitigation measures” on Monday, directing businesses and nonprofits “to the maximum extent possible to put into place telecommuting or work-from-home procedures.”

The governor also expanded his executive order over the weekend to ban non-essential mass gatherings of more than 10 people, and close all “close-contact” businesses.

Scott said those businesses unable to shift to a remote workforce must implement — and publicly post — CDC and the Vermont Department of Health guidance related to COVID-19, including:

• Maintaining a distance of 6 feet between people.

• Ensuring employees practice appropriate hygiene measures, including regular, thorough handwashing.

• Ensuring that employees who are sick remain home.

• Regularly cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched objects and surfaces.

Legislature acts

The Vermont Senate on Tuesday swiftly passed measures to address the COVID-19 pandemic, advancing bills that will boost Vermonters’ access to unemployment benefits and bolster the state’s health care system during the crisis. 

The Senate passed a temporary expansion of the state’s unemployment insurance system so that all employees who are laid off because of the COVID-19 crisis, or have to quit as a result of it, can receive benefits. 

The move doesn’t require additional state dollars because Vermont’s unemployment insurance trust fund is already well-funded, with about $500 million in reserves. 

“Even under the worst case scenario, sufficient funds should be available to pay all the claims,” said. Sen. Alison Clarkson, D-Windsor, a member of the Senate Economic Development Committee, which wrote the legislation. 

“We hope these measures quickly alleviate some of the financial anxiety Vermonters are experiencing,” Clarkson added.  

The bill, H.681, also protects employers who lose employees during the pandemic from having to pay higher unemployment insurance rates when staff leave.

Senators acted on another bill, H.742, containing many provisions to increase the capacity of Vermont’s health care system to take on the pandemic.  

The bill would waive regulations so that retired and out-of-state health care providers can temporarily practice in Vermont, expand the use of telemedicine, and give the state the authority to temporarily delay the provider taxes medical practices and hospitals have to pay. 

It would give pharmacists the flexibility to extend prescriptions without a doctor’s approval in the event a primary care provider can’t be reached, and provide patients alternative medications if supplies are running low. 

The Senate also voted on legislation aimed at easing regulations in the state’s elections and open meetings laws to help prevent the spread of the virus. 

The legislation would eliminate the requirement for candidates seeking public office to collect petition signatures, and if needed, give state officials the power to require voters to mail in ballots, or take other measures to limit in-person voting. 

It also gives towns and other municipalities the ability to hold meetings and take votes remotely. 

Senators themselves took many precautions Tuesday morning to ensure they would not spread the virus. 

Only 17 senators — just one more than the minimum needed to hold a quorum — showed up to vote on Tuesday, as Senate leadership encouraged older legislators, as many as possible, to stay home. 

Senators arrived at the back door of the Statehouse into what’s known as the Lincoln Hallway. 

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, opened the door with a blue plastic bag wrapped around his left hand. “Single use plastics are making a comeback,” he said later, showing it off to colleagues. 

The senators present gathered in Room 11 for a conference call with the remaining members, who were working remotely. Each lawmaker sat several chairs from the next person in order to maintain the recommended 6 feet of physical distancing. 

“We don’t have many senators,” Majority Leader Becca Balint said to those entering the room. 

“I don’t need you to get sick.”

After the call, senators filed upstairs to the Senate chamber, again keeping several feet of distance. In the chamber, lawmakers mostly abandoned their assigned seats, spreading out to the room’s couches, window benches and public gallery. 

Several lawmakers kept bottles of hand sanitizer on their desks. 

Senate Secretary John Bloomer wore black cloth gloves as he set up for the session, but took them off to handle paperwork during the proceeding. 

Surge sites

The Vermont National Guard is establishing three medical “surge” sites around the state to help hospitals deal with an expected increase in patients due to COVID-19.

Those Guard facilities would be located at the Gutterson Fieldhouse at the University of Vermont in Burlington, the Barre Civic Center in Barre, and the Collins Perley Sports and Fitness Center in St. Albans, according to Capt. Mike Arcovitch, a Guard spokesman.

The first three locations were selected because they serve areas with the highest current number of patients with the coronavirus, the Guard said in a statement. The sites will be used for “low acuity patients who can be moved from a hospital facility safely.”

All three sites should be ready by the end of the week, with work already taking place at the Barre Civic Center and fitness center in St. Albans, according to Arcovitch.

Rehab patients moved

The Burlington nursing home hit hardest by the coronavirus is transferring at least 10 residents who have not tested positive to a hotel. 

Burlington Health and Rehab made the transfers on Tuesday afternoon, as the state announced 20 new confirmed cases and two additional deaths. Residents from the facility account for 14 of the total 95 cases, and five of seven Vermont deaths. Two Health & Rehab staff members have also tested positive. 

On Tuesday, the facility moved its short-term patients to the DoubleTree by Hilton Burlington, where they’ll be quarantined for two weeks until they can return to their homes. The patients will be cared for by University of Vermont Medical Center staff, said hospital spokesperson Annie Mackin. None of the residents have tested positive for COVID-19 and none are experiencing symptoms, she added. 

The move is “meant to keep patients isolated until there is no risk of contagion,” according to a release from Burlington Health & Rehab. The state Agency of Human Services will pick up the tab for the rooms. 

Albert Petrarca, one of the residents who moved to the DoubleTree, said Burlington Health & Rehab hadn’t provided adequate information to residents, and could have done more to prevent the spread of the virus. He found out about the first positive test at the facility last week not from staff, but from a friend of a friend. When that woman passed away two days later, “they didn’t come and tell us that either,” he said. “Then three more people passed away. And they didn’t tell us that either. So they have kept us in the dark about everything,” he said.

Petrarca had urged the facility leadership to test everyone and respond more decisively. “They dropped the ball by waiting so long,” he said. 

Another resident also pushed for days to get a test, according to the man who will care for the former Burlington Health resident once he’s released. The resident was tested Monday night, but will remain at the DoubleTree regardless of the results, according to the caregiver.

Moving residents to a more secure facility was a necessary step, Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger said Monday. He urged the facility to find ways to separate those who are sick from those who are well, and to do so “as soon as possible.” 

“What is needed now is immediate action before there is further tragedy,” Weinberger said.

The facility will continue to quarantine patients to their rooms, require employees to wear protective gear, screen patients for symptoms twice a day, and deep clean patient rooms. 

Approximately 75 patients at Burlington Health & Rehab will remain at the facility “as they are not short-term patients,” according to the release. 

Unanimous and bipartisan

The measures that legislators passed on Tuesday received unanimous, bipartisan support, and now head to the House, where lawmakers were to reconvene on Wednesday, and plan to quickly send them to the governor’s desk.

Senate President Pro Tim Ashe, D/P Chittenden, said that the Legislature’s work in responding to the COVID-19 outbreak had only just begun. 

“The heavy lifting is all ahead of us and it’s going to require our patience, a lot of flexibility and a lot of hard work moving forward,” he told his Senate colleagues. 

Ashe said that in the coming weeks, the sole focus of the Senate and its committees will be the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“Addressing the COVID-19 pandemic is not the top priority, it is the only priority at this point,” he told reporters Tuesday afternoon. 

He added that for now, other legislation the Senate has worked on this year is “not just on the back burner, but off the burners altogether.” 

And given COVID-19’s potential impact on Vermont’s economy and revenues, Ashe said it’s possible that the Legislature may not have the financial information to pass a full state budget for months — meaning lawmakers could remain in session until late summer or early fall. 

Bleak budget outlook

The Joint Fiscal Office has estimated that in the next three months, across all of its funds, Vermont could see an $80 million to $115 million loss in revenues due to the economic strain of COVID-19. 

On Tuesday, Gov. Phil Scott pushed back the date at which the state will penalize businesses that file late rooms and meals and sales and use taxes, a move that could mean the state might not see up to $120 million in revenue until the next fiscal year, which begins July 1. 

Leading up to Tuesday’s vote, lawmakers spent more than a week working remotely, holding committee hearings and caucus meetings over conference calls. That’s likely to be the way legislative work continues for weeks. 

The House planned to vote on a rule change Tuesday so that chamber can hold its votes remotely, and the Senate could soon follow suit. 

“The last week, working from home, I think we all were uncertain about how it was going to go,” Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, said after Tuesday’s vote. “But I thought that, aside from the echoes on the cellphones, it all went extremely well.”

On a morning call, other senators echoed Campion’s thoughts. 

“When it comes to technology,” said Sen. Cheryl Hooker, D-Rutland, “we’ve proven that you can teach old dogs new tricks.”

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