MONTPELIER — Gov. Phil Scott has reauthorized his emergency order addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, and it has a new wrinkle intended to give the state's college towns more leeway in preventing community spread of the virus.
The order, signed Friday, now gives cities and towns the ability to set gathering limits smaller than those set forth by the state's guidance, and establish hours for the sale of alcohol by bars and clubs shorter than the limits set forth by the state Department of Liquor and Lottery.
In states where COVID-19 has spread, "uncontrolled parties and crowds at bars and clubs are a big part of the problem," Scott said Friday during his twice-weekly briefing. With that in mind, giving college and university towns the tools with which to prevent such events and control community spread "is the right thing to do," he said.
In Bennington, Town Manager Stu Hurd said the town, which saw Southern Vermont College close two years ago, was unlikely to avail itself of the new regulations.
"We just had a presentation by Bennington College on its reopening plans," Hurd said Friday. "The college seems prepared and its plans are very detailed. ... I think we'll continue to monitor the situation and work with [Bennington] College to ensure its students and the community are safe."
That falls in line with the state's existing practice in controlling the virus, Scott said: Prioritizing reopenings on what's needed first and foremost, and asking others to limit person-to-person contact so that those essential priorities can remain open.
"The unfortunate reality is in order to manage the reopening of these priority areas we continue to ask other sectors like lodging and hospitality to make enormous sacrifices," Scott said. "That's why we encourage workers who can continue working remotely to do so."
In the meantime, Vermont Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine said, the state has been working closely with colleges "for months now" to set a plan for students return to Vermont. "It's a complicated effort to bring together students from many different places, figure out how to educate, house and feed them, while keeping faculty, staff and the community healthy," he said.
Because of the nature of the campus settings, the state asked colleges to test students for COVID-19 before entry, Levine said. Already hundreds of tests have taken place, and at least one student, at the University of Vermont, tested positive before ever stepping foot in Burlington.
While any positive test is cause for concern, Levine said, the result shows the system is working,
In the case of a positive test for COVID-19, the state will not automatically pursue college-wide or community testing, Levine, said. "We'll use contact tracing to quickly identify who needs to isolate or quarantine," he said.
The state will strategically target testing to each situation, Levine added.