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Gov. Phil Scott On Coronavirus, State Government And Measuring Progress On Diversity

Gov. Phil Scott stands at a podium and offers a COVID-19 update.
ORCA Media, courtesy
Gov. Phil Scott offers a COVID-19 update on Wednesday, June 10. We talk with Gov. Scott about the pandemic, efforts to combat racism and improve diversity in the state.

Gov. Phil Scott is leading the state during a time of profound change. As the coronavirus pandemic challenges state leaders, revenues and government operations, the Governor is also pushing for progress on diversity in the state, forming a new racial equity task force to make recommendations for how Vermont can measure progress in this area. We talk with Gov. Scott about how COVID-19 and efforts to combat racism and improve diversity are changing Vermont.

Our guest is:

  • Gov. Phil Scott, Vermont's 82nd governor serving his second term

Broadcast live on Thursday, June 11, 2020 at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Bob Kinzel: It’s been a challenging three months for you, since the coronavirus pandemic started. What have been the most difficult decisions that you’ve had to make?

Gov. Phil Scott: I always reflect on that because it seems as though the first decisions we had to make seemed like the most difficult. Even declaring a state of emergency, what does that mean? The first step, right before St. Patrick’s Day, closing down bars and restaurants, closing schools and so forth — every single step of the way felt like one more difficult decision to make. But I have to say in some respects restarting has been more difficult, at least more complex than closing, because we have to do it in a safe manner and without doing any harm to any one sector. 

Stay up to date with the latest coronavirus newshere.

Have there been some decisions where you questioned yourself and had some doubts or second thoughts about what actions you were recommending? 

Well we have a good team, and I’ve gotten to know the different agencies and departments, especially health and the epidemiologists. Every step along the way has had their input, so we don’t make a move without conferring with them and getting their OK. Because if it isn’t good enough for them it isn’t good enough for Vermont. So, by the time we make the decision, it’s not to say they’re easy decisions to make and that you don’t do any second guessing along the way, but when I announce something, it has been fully vetted. So, I’m confident with what we’re doing. 

You said yesterday at your press briefing you’re confident we will be able to have in-person schools come late August or early September. Health officials are telling us that preventative measures like social distancing will likely be with us for many months. Given that reality, how safe is it to invite students back into these spaces?

Everything is going to be different.Announcing the schools reopening was like putting a stake in the ground, a goal that we made that decision that we’re going to have to get back to some sort of normalcy — a new normal, in some respects. And we recognize, I recognize, this is a big step.   

This isn’t over, it's just the first step declaring we think we can do this. We’re going to have partners in the discussion, whether it’s the Department of Health, the Agency of Education, superintendents, principals, the teachers, the NEA and families as well. If for some reason we get to a point where it just looks like it won’t work, then we won’t do it. But from my standpoint and the standpoint of the team, we feel this is safe and that’s why we announced it yesterday to give people time to plan. 

"By September, kids will have been out of school for almost six months, and I don't think any of us would contemplate that we can go on much longer before it starts having an impact on long-term academics. Who's going to slip through the cracks and what kinds of equity gaps are going to appear?" -Gov. Phil Scott

The pressure we feel emotionally is uncertainty, so if we can give parents and teachers and kids something to look forward to, it helps. By September, kids will have been out of school for almost six months, and I don’t think any of us would contemplate that we can go on much longer before it starts having an impact on long-term academics and who’s going to slip through the cracks and the equity gaps that are going to appear. It’s something that we have to do. 

Thinking about where our country is right now in terms of racial injustice, it seems like we've been here before. After a racial injustice happens, there’s a call for change, a period of time when things seem to quiet down, little progress seems to take place until the next incidents. Is this time different? 

It sure seems different to me. When you see over the last two or three weeks, this isn’t just one group, this crying out for help, this crying out for change, it’s an entire nation. So, I take for instance the announcement from NASCAR for them to take this action banning the confederate flag, it’s a bold move and I applaud them for that. I think we’re going to see more and more entities step up and ask what I can do to help. If there’s a positive out of what we’ve seen in the life lost of George Floyd, this might be it, that we’ll finally see change that’s definitely needed.

More from VPR: Racism — And Anti-Racism — In Vermont

Do you think lawmakers should appropriate the funds to ensure all members of the Vermont State Police wear body cameras?

Yes. We’ve been moving forward with this for a long time. We want to move forward.

It’s important from a transparency standpoint. The department of public safety and the state police are working with law enforcement across the state to do more, and this isn’t just because of this instant. Whether its hiring practices or modernizing training or requiring body cameras, we're creating a more state-wide use of force policy rather than [having departments do so] individually. It isn’t as though this wasn’t happening, but it wasn’t happening fast enough.

More from VPR: Amid National Protests, Vermont State Police Don't Expect Body Cameras This Year

Are you frustrated by the pace the Legislature is taking in dealing with your $400 million economic package

Well I know it’s a lot of money. It’s a big package. They have an interest in making sure we’re doing this appropriately. We’re trying to help all businesses with this $400 million package. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel; we just need to understand what we’re trying to do and to make sure we use this money that is intended to help businesses and give us some stability. 

It’s not just for businesses; there’s $50 million for housing and another $50 million for agriculture. And it’s needed right now. I don’t know if people understand how desperate some of these sectors are. Fourteen dairy farms went out of business in May alone.

More from VPR: 'A Significant Sacrifice For Far Too Many': Gov. Scott Unveils $400 Million COVID Relief Plan

"Whether it's hiring practices or modernizing training or requiring body cameras, we're creating a more state-wide use of force policy rather than individually. It isn't as though this wasn't happening, but it wasn't happening fast enough." -Gov. Phil Scott

The Vermont Food Bank is asking for $38 million to be allocated as soon as possible to deal with a skyrocketing demand for food across the state. Do you support that request? 

We’re going to do whatever we can to take care of the most vulnerable. I’ve seen the media reports and the long lines at the distribution sites. It’s concerning to me that there could that much need out there. And what we’re evaluating right now is how do we do this, how do we do it in the best way to make sure the folks that need it the most are getting the support they need?

So we’re looking at that, we’ve increased assistance for the families and kids, as well as 3SquaresVT. We’ve done more. But again, we’re going to help those in need, but we need to do that in a way that is sustainable and beneficial. We need to balance everything, whether it’s the economic package, ensuring we have the revenue to support services and the basic needs of the food shelter and so forth. So we’re working on it and we’ll continue to have the conversation.

More from VPR: 'It Gets You Right In The Chest': Watching 1,900 Cars Show Up For Food

Bob Kinzel has been covering the Vermont Statehouse since 1981 — longer than any continuously serving member of the Legislature. With his wealth of institutional knowledge, he answers your questions on our series, "Ask Bob."
Matt Smith worked for Vermont Public from 2017 to 2023 as managing editor and senior producer of Vermont Edition.
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