Since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down most of Vermont, the state has been walking a tightrope between welcoming the out-of-state visitors and second-home owners who contribute so much to life here while trying to limit the possibility of visitors bringing the virus with them.
That difficulty was highlighted Wednesday when Gov. Phil Scott, during a news conference, took the time to address an abhorrent incident of racist harassment of a second-home owner in Hartford. He apologized on behalf of the state and reminded Vermonters this is not who we want to be. Scott also personally reached out to the homeowner and apologized.
According to a report by Vermont Public Radio's Howard Weiss-Tisman, Chris Brown, a second-home owner in Hartford, said he was flagged down by a man who took issue with his New York license plate. Brown, an African-American, is a Columbia University professor who has been riding out the pandemic here, along with many second-home owners from the metro New York area.
"So I kind of roll down the window," Brown said, according to the report. "And he just starts yelling at me, saying, 'You don't belong here. You know, we can't have people like you here.' He said, 'The Governor was very clear we don't want any of your kind here.'"
This happened in front of Brown's young son.
Said Scott, at his news conference: "Here's the bottom line. This virus cannot be used as an excuse for hate, bigotry or division, of any type, for any reason. This virus knows no border and it doesn't discriminate. We're all in this together and human decency will get us through this challenging time. Let's remember our common enemy is the virus, not each other. And we should use every ounce of energy to defeat it."
That message will need to be repeated and amplified as Vermont slowly opens its economy, which depends mightily upon tourist dollars and second-home property tax revenue. It has to be louder and more consistent than the messages of xenophobia coming from the Oval Office. Talk is cheap; what we say about ourselves starts with our behavior.
In another episode, VPR reported that a New Jersey couple with a second home in Weston found a sticker on their car saying "locals only." Jennifer Bonomo, who was born in Korea and adopted in the U.S., said she's accustomed to feeling like an outsider, but hadn't experienced anything like this in Vermont until now.
"You know that feeling that you get in your gut, that uncomfortable feeling? That's what racism feels like," she told VPR. "Because I grew up with it, I know. So to me, the impact wasn't as great, because I'm so much more used to it than [her husband, who is white]. It hurt him to the core."
Nowhere in Vermont should that be acceptable.
Early in the pandemic, the state had asked out-of-state residents not to come here unless they needed to, and to self-quarantine for 14 days. But at the same time, the state also made clear that this was not supposed to be an us-versus-them dynamic.
That's admittedly a mixed message. Unfortunately, some folks only hear the part they want to hear. It plays into the mistrust of outsiders — from subtle biases to garden-variety bigotry and violent racism — that is unfortunately part of America's legacy. And if we've learned anything in the past four years, it's that racism and xenophobia are far from dead and buried in this country.
Any victory Vermont claims in the fight against coronavirus will be a hollow one if it comes at the cost of our shared values.