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Stamford Defies Gov.'s COVID Order To Light Town Christmas Tree

A Christmas tree with multi-colored lights and a group of people standing around together
Howard Weiss-Tisman
The town of Stamford held a tree lighting ceremony on Friday, Dec. 4 despite Gov. Phil Scott's executive order banning public and private gatherings to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

The town of Stamford held a community Christmas tree lighting ceremony Friday, in direct defiance of Gov. Scott's order not to congregate due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The select board in Stamford has been critical of Scott’s coronavirus emergency health guidelines, and the event was held despite the growing number of cases of COVID-19 and the increasing death count.

Towns across Vermont have been doing their best to celebrate the holiday season, in this time of COVID.

Stowe held a livestream over Facebookto let people share their holiday lights, safely, from home. In Middlebury, holiday organizers planned a drive-thru visit with Santa, which included elves in face masks.

Gov. Phil Scott asked Vermonters not to gather during this holiday seasonto prevent the spread of COVID-19. His executive order prohibits private and public gatherings.

But in Stamford, a small Bennington County town of about 800 people that sits on the Massachusetts state line, local officials decided to go ahead with the annual tree lighting.

The event followed remarks by the select board that the governor has adopted "Communist tactics" and that the board would fight to prevent the government from taking away the Constitutional rights of the people of Stamford.

More from VPR: Some Town Officials Are Amplifying Gov.'s COVID Guidelines, Others Don't Want To

A few dozen parents and kids stood in a semi-circle, in front of the town’s school. Most of them had masks, and they sang carols while waiting for Santa to arrive to light the town’s Christmas tree.

Select Board Chairwoman Nancy Bushika said the community event was on the town’s calendar before Gov. Scott asked people not to gather, and she said the board decided to hold the celebration despite the governor's plea to keep apart.

“We are following all of the safety precautions that we can,” Bushika said. “And we thought this would be a nice event for the kids and the town.”

The tree lighting ceremony followed a contentious select board meeting the night before, where a few Stamford residents expressed their concerns about how the board was approaching the public health crisis.

People in a wood paneled room
Credit Screenshot / Zoom
Members of the Stamford Select Board, some without face masks, gather for a meeting on Thursday, Dec. 3.

At the meeting, Kim Morandi said she and her husband wanted the board members to try to keep their political views out of the conversation, and work on better protecting the health of the people in town.

Morandi said the board's words and actions are stoking division and fear at a time when Vermonters should instead be working together.

“Neither one of us believe it’s appropriate for the town leaders to insert opinions so freely,” Morandi said. “I think that, you know, even the comments about tolerating the government taking away our rights, and standing strong and not giving away our rights — when such divisive statements are being made, there are insinuations they represent the whole town. It’s inappropriate.”

The town’s state representative, Laura Sibilia, attended the meeting and said she was willing to ask state officials to come down to Stamford to help the board better understand the health risks of COVID-19.

But board member Dan Potvin said the state was adopting Communist measures to control people’s freedom. He told Sibilia he wasn’t interested in hearing any more from the people in Montpelier.

“And Laura, you took an oath to uphold the Constitution, I would imagine,” Potvin said. “And you guys are running over it, along with the governor.”

Sibilia responded: “Absolutely not sir, and if you believe that’s the case, then you need to go to the courts, because the courts are charged…”

“I’m going to you,” Potvin interrupted. “I’m telling you. You can tell your comrades when you’re up there that we’re not gonna put up with it down here.”

A man dressed like Santa hands out candy canes to people with face masks below their noses and mouths
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
A mask-less Santa hands out candy canes during a tree lighting event in Stamford on Friday.

And so Stamford did not put up with it, and Santa Claus arrived right on schedule, in a John Deere tractor, to help the town light its Christmas tree.

Santa also gave kids rides on his tractor. Only two families were allowed on at a time. And he handed out free candy canes, while people enjoyed donuts and hot cocoa.

There were a couple of dozen parents and kids there, and many of the people who I approached declined to talk. But, while the select board may have viewed the event as a political statement, most of the people who attended didn't seem to be there to protest, or defy the governor.

Stamford resident Marta Miller came out. She wore a mask and stood off to the side with other members of her pod.

“And you know, I feel also that showing up for our little town, which, in a moment in America where little towns like ours have differing viewpoints, it’s lovely and important for people to come together and be with each other,” Miller said. “Even to wave to Santa, and light the tree, and express our sense of community in spite of the craziness right now.”

The state has not been cracking down on groups that continue to congregate, in spite of the governor’s warnings and the surging number of coronavirus cases and deaths. And there has been no announced response from the state to Stamford's Christmas gathering.

As of early this week, there have not been any coronavirus cases in Stamford.

Have questions, comments or tips?Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman@hweisstisman.

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Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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