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As summer arrives, officials advise COVID health cautions

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MONTPELIER — With state parks about to open for the summer and venues allowed to admit 150 people for outdoor events and 75 for indoor gatherings this weekend, state health commissioner Dr. Mark Levine and Gov. Phil Scott thought it a good time for a few reminders on preventing the spread of COVID-19.

For those who have been paying close attention since the Scott administration's thrice-weekly briefings on COVID-19 response began in March, it's a familiar song, and you know the words by now: Wash your hands, often and thoroughly. Stay 6 feet apart from others. Wear a mask if you can. Stay home if you're sick.

"Vermonters have been hearing it like a broken record, and maybe for some it's background noise," Levine said. But he pointed out that the coronavirus remains highly contagious, spreads easily from person to person via respiratory droplets and aerosols, and can be spread by people who don't show any symptoms. And as the deaths of 56 Vermonters and 125,000 Americans suggest, it's not to be taken lightly.

While four out of five cases are said to be mild, Levine explained, " 'Mild' means no hospitalization, no complications and no deaths, but it doesn't necessarily mean an easy time." He said he's received written testimony from survivors of the virus who have described how it "knocked them down."

"As the state reopens and more of us are outside, the risk of transmission does increase," Levine said.

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That shouldn't dissuade people from getting out and enjoying what Vermont summer has to offer, Levine said. "Please do some of these things. Your soul needs it. But choose wisely," he said. He advised that residents evaluate their own risk factors and how much risk they're willing to incur while taking the proper health precautions.

On the economic front, Scott and Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington discussed the state's decision to reduce the employers' unemployment insurance tax rates and increase the maximum weekly benefit amount to $531 weekly from $513, starting the first week of July. Scott said he thought it the right move at the right time to help businesses and workers recover.

Scott said the move was possible, despite more than 90,000 people having applied for assistance and more than 40,000 still receiving unemployment assistance, because the unemployment insurance fund had been well-managed in the past. The fund's balance stood at $342.4 million as of this week, Harrington said.

"Fiscal prudence by previous administrations put us on the path" to the healthy balance in that fund, Scott said.

The additional $600 weekly credit unemployed workers receive from the federal government through the CARES Act is due to expire on July 31. But the state does not have the flexibility to dip into the unemployment insurance fund to fill that gap, Harrington said. "We don't have the ability to be creative," he explained, citing the strict legal guidelines governing the use of the funds.


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