Churches, restaurants given limited green light

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By Bob Audette

Brattleboro Reformer

MONTPELIER — Restaurants and bars with outdoor seating can open immediately, Gov. Phil Scott announced during his Friday press conference. However, permission comes with some strict guidelines, including tables must be spaced at least 10 feet apart and no more than 10 customers can be waited upon at any one time.

"I understand it won't be possible for all restaurants to start today," the governor said, "but this lets them open up after a very long two months of sacrifice and with bills still coming in and with no income."

And starting today, churches will be able to open, with a strict occupancy of only 25 percent.

But Vermonters got more bad news when they learned there will be no festivals or large-scale events in the Green Mountain State this year.

"We are just not ready for large events with hundreds if not thousands coming into one area without control or the ability to separate," Scott said.

And while Strolling of the Heifers, Brattleboro's annual salute to agriculture, has been canceled, summer parades could still be on.

"It's really about the gathering size restrictions, rather than the parade itself," wrote Rebecca Kelley, communications director for the governor, in an email to the Reformer. However, noted Kelley, a traditional parade, with crowds lining the street, food trucks, etc., would not meet current guidance.

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"The governor has said there could be creative solutions to carry out parades in a way that will adhere to current health guidance around physical distancing — for both parade participants and spectators — and gatherings," she wrote. "Right now, the gathering limitation is 10 or less. So, if there was a way to organize the event that ensured no one area exceeded this crowd size, that could move forward."

Scott said during the press conference that even though fairs have been canceled, this doesn't prevent fairgrounds and other indoor and outdoor venues from operating for sporting, entertainment, concerts and other events in accordance with applicable guidance issued by the state.

Vermonters will be able to visit the stylist or the barber shop, starting on May 29, when those shops can be open but only by appointment. There will also be limits on occupancy. In addition to existing health and safety requirements for all businesses, there are specialized safety measures for hair salons and barbershops, including strict distance between customers, and cashless or touchless transactions. As with other businesses, salons and barbershops must maintain a customer log in case contact tracing is required.

Hospitals and health clinics, including dentists and mental health providers, also received approval to start offering more services, including outpatient services, in-person visits and inpatient procedures that leave available 30 percent of bed space for COVID-19 patients, if needed.

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"We can't declare victory yet," Scott said.

As of Friday, there have been 952 total COVID-19 cases reported in Vermont, including 54 deaths. More than 25,000 people have been tested, and 834 have recovered.

With Vermont second only to Hawaii in low viral growth rate, Scott said it's important to keep an eye on its neighbors in the United States and Quebec, Vermont's largest trading partner, to the north.

"We're not an island," he said.

Mike Piecek, the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Financial Regulation, is in charge of Vermont's COVID-19 modeling efforts. He provided some numbers to illustrate the governor's point.

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While Vermont had 20 new cases of COVID-19 infections last week, New Hampshire had 571, Massachusetts had 8,500 and New York had more than 16,000, Piecek said.

Scott noted that New Hampshire has had four times the deaths as Vermont.

"Maybe we're being too cautious, but we want to protect Vermonters and not cause any undue harm," he said.

While owners of gyms and spas, where close contact is just in the nature of the business, have been asking when they can open, Scott was clear the state is not ready.

"The reality is we are still far from being back to normal," he said.

The state's epidemiology team is continuing to track the data, but the governor believes the state will be ready to announce a timeline for those businesses next Friday, May 29.

Dr. Mark Levine, the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Health, said everyone knows what to do to limit the spread of the virus.

"It's important to be smart," he said, and continue to practice physical separation while washing our hands and wearing a mask in public. It's also important to keep track of who you come into contact with in case you get sick, Levine said.

Bob Audette can be contacted at raudette@reformer.com.


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