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What New COVID-19 Restrictions Mean For Vermonters

COVID-19 testing is offered at the Winooski Armory on Monday, Nov. 9, 2020.
Elodie Reed
COVID-19 testing is offered at the Winooski Armory on Monday, Nov. 9, 2020.

The Scott Administration has announced several new restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19 in Vermont, including a temporary ban on multi-household  gatherings. This hour, Deputy Health Commissioner Tracy Dolan joins us with more on what these restrictions mean for Vermonters. We also check in with the University of Vermont where a Phase 3 COVID-19 vaccine trial is currently underway. Our guests are:

  • Tracy Dolan, deputy commissioner for the Vermont Department of Health
  • Dr. Kristen Pierce, infectious disease specialist at the University of Vermont Medical Center

Broadcast live on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020 at 1 p.m. Rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

A new ban on multi-household gatherings:

Nearly a quarter of all confirmed COVID-19 cases Vermont has reported have come in the last two weeks. It's a spike many Vermonters naively thought couldn't – or wouldn't – happen here, after months of very low case numbers and supression of the virus. Vermont's COVID-19 response was the envy of nearly every other state in the nation.

But now, the state is facing significant viral spread. Washington County alone has seen more than 200 cases in the last two weeks. That's according to dataprovided by the Vermont Department of Health.

On Friday, Gov. Phil Scott issued an addendum to his March 13, 2020 executive order that, among other things, put a moratorium on multi-household gatherings. The order went into effect at 10 p.m. on Nov. 14.

Key takeaways from Gov. Scott's new executive order:

  • Multi-household gatherings are now largely banned. Vermonters are not allowed to meet up or go for a walk with a neighbor, out-of-household family member or friend, even if they remain six-feet-apart and wear masks. 
  • Vermonters may not gather - either outside or inside - for Thanksgiving with people outside their household.
  • Sports leagues have been suspended, except for school sports, which are governed under separate guidance.
  • Bars and clubs are no longer allowed to offer in-person service, however; they can still do curbside or takeout service, including takeout alcohol.
  • Restaurants remain open, but must close for in-person service at 10 p.m.
  • People are, for the time being, expected to work from home wherever and whenever possible. That includes staff meetings or meeting up with other colleagues, which may previously have been done in person.
  • The state is compelling people to answer the phone if a contact tracer calls you and is asking Vermonters to be forthright about all of their movements and whereabouts when a contact tracer asks them about it. People who fail to do so will now be subject to legal sanctions from the Vermont Attorney General's office.

You can read the full addendum to the executive order here.

Jane Lindholm: Why is the rule laid out the way it is?

Deputy Health Commissioner Tracy Dolan: I just want to pull back and give us some context.

Throughout this pandemic, we have really been learning as we go and adjusting policies as we go, to fit Vermont circumstance. And for a lot of the pandemic, we had the luxury of having very low [infection] rates, in part because of the great work we did early on in this pandemic. I think it can feel very surprising or very rigid to people, to suddenly see this shift again.

But we knew a surge would come. We saw the modeling early on across the country. We saw cases getting out of control in Connecticut and Rhode Island. I mean, their health care systems are absolutely under pressure now and at a real crisis point. So we saw it coming.

"I know people were frustrated about people traveling in from outside. But really, we are the problem and we hold the solution." - Tracy Dolan, deputy commissioner of health

But what really surprised us was the speed with which we started doubling our cases. It happened in a very short period. And so we had to move and do something pretty strong, stronger than almost any other state, in order to try to get a halt.

More from VPR: Scott Orders Lockdown On Social Gatherings As COVID Cases Spike

Because what happens is: you put a policy in place and you have a two-week lag time. So with all of those policies that you just went through, the [Scott Administration] team there is trying to keep people in a place where they're not able to transmit.

Because the virus hasn't changed at all; our behavior started to loosen and that's what got the virus moving again. That virus wants to move.

And so, what we have now is a policy structure set in place so that we minimize our circles, at least for the next month – I think this emergency order goes through Dec. 15 – to see if we can slow this down.

The theme there is: the unstructured environments in particular. That's where we've been seeing this surge come from, these informal gatherings. Seventy percent of our cases are coming from those.

I know people were frustrated about people traveling in from outside. But really, we are the problem and we hold the solution.

Understanding … the data … even during the lockdown … people could walk with their neighbors at a safe distance and use that as a way to have connection to somebody else, that felt safe and wasn't discouraged. And it didn't seem to be driving transmission. And now even that is not allowed?

Yes. With this first glance at this policy that was just delivered a few days ago – this executive order – you see the broad restrictions. And now … the team is … working on some clarification to speak to people's questions coming up around this.

You should see in the next few days … I know ACCD, our Commerce Department is working on more specific, nuanced guidance to fit some of these circumstances. The goal is still the same: Don't get together in multi-household gatherings.

But we recognize, of course, that the policy doesn't necessarily speak to every individual circumstance. And like you said earlier, sometimes we do need to do a hammer rather than a scalpel, because you can't go in and dictate in every home. And so you should see some clarification coming out in the next few days that will hopefully be able to answer a few of these questions and offer a little more nuanced guidance there.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet us @vermontedition.

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Jane Lindholm is the host, executive producer and creator of But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids. In addition to her work on our international kids show, she produces special projects for Vermont Public. Until March 2021, she was host and editor of the award-winning Vermont Public program Vermont Edition.
Lydia worked for Vermont Public Radio and Vermont PBS from 2019 until 2022.
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