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MONTPELIER — Gov. Phil Scott said retail businesses can double the number of customers in their stores, starting on Saturday.

During his twice-weekly press conference on Friday, Scott said science and the state's coronavirus statistics showed that shopkeepers can increase their customer capacity from 25 to 50 percent, based on the square footage of their stores.

Scott said it was another "turn of the spigot" that he was making as the state's coronavirus levels remained relatively low, and he works to reopen the state's economy. "It's been a while since the last turn," he said. "We can take another step forward."

Both Scott and Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine noted that the state had recorded its first death in more than a month on Thursday. An elderly person was the first death in more than 43 days. The state has lost a total of 57 residents to COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.

Scott and Levine discussed the mandatory mask order that also goes into effect on Saturday, which requires anyone in a public place to wear a cloth mask. To help Vermonters and others comply with the order, which is still voluntary and won't be enforced, the governor said the state will be distributing 200,000 cloth masks to various emergency response agencies.

Scott said that while Vermont's coronavirus numbers continue to look small, the influx of visitors and the return of college students convinced him of the need for the mandatory mask order for public places.

He told reporters that while the mask order may not make him popular, he said it was "the right thing to do" and was supported by science.

He said Vermont is the envy of the country, with its low positivity rate and low case load and death rate, and he attributed the sacrifices made by individual Vermonters and businesses for the low rate of transmission in the state.

Scott had issued a formal order on Thursday mandating that Vermont schools stay closed until Sept. 8, a week later than the traditional reopening. He said the order affects all schools, including private schools.

He said the order gives local school districts plenty of flexibility to plan the beginning of their school years. The Vermont National Education Assocation had on Thursday urged a more phased-in approach to starting schools, to assess the students, rather than an immediate jump back into the classroom.

Scott said he hadn't read the NEA letter, but he stressed that individual school districts could adopt their own plans, within the state parameters.

"In-person instruction is best for our kids," said Scott.

Reporters had plenty of questions for both Scott and Michael Smith, secretary of the Agency of Human Services, about the recent development that six Vermont inmates - who until this week were held at the Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility in Tutwiler, Miss. - who tested positive as they were brought to the Marble Valley Correctional Center in Rutland.

Those positive inmates were immediately placed in quarantine, Dr. Levine noted.

He said an additional inmate, who is still in Mississippi, also tested positive.

Smith said all Vermont inmates in Mississippi were being tested for the virus, and he said the testing should be completed by the end of Friday.

He said the private Tallahatchie facility, which the state contracts with to house about 180 inmates, had been testing inmates, but only those who showed signs of the virus.

Scott said Vermont was sending materials to Mississippi for the tests to be done, and that the testing would be analyzed at the Mississippi state laboratory in Jackson, Miss. While the state's prison population has dropped by about 300 inmates since the onset of the pandemic, Scott said there still wasn't enough room in Vermont's prisons to bring back the inmates held in Mississippi.

He said the reduced population allows the state to set up quarantine areas in the prisons, to address issues just as those six positive inmates.

The governor said he wanted to "modernize" some of the state's prisons, before bringing back all of the out-of-state prison population.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com.


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