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As COVID cases remain high, a racial justice group is calling for strict mitigation measures in Vermont

A red, clear plastic sharps container sits on a folding table as two hands draw vaccines into syringes to prep for a COVID-19 vaccine clinic.
Abagael Giles
The Vermont Racial Justice Alliance is among those calling for Gov. Phil Scott to take stronger steps to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

While much of the country has seen declining COVID-19 case counts and hospitalizations, Vermont, with its high rates of vaccination, is seeing continuing high case rates.

Earlier this week, a group of state lawmakers called for Gov. Phil Scott to reinstate a state of emergency — in order to bring back an indoor mask mandate, among other measures. And they’re not the only ones calling for this. Earlier this month, the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance sent a letter to Scott asking him to reimpose stricter mitigation measures — pointing to the pandemic’s outsized impacts on Black Vermonters.

VPR's Henry Epp recently spoke with Mark Hughes and Isaac Owusu of the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance. Hughes, who is the group’s executive director, said they have not received a response from the Scott administration. The conversation began with an outline of the types of measures VRJA would like to see. They include the closure of nonessential businesses and the use of federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to support those businesses and other individuals. Their interview is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mark Hughes: Not only do we have the money available to say, for example, provide those offsets for folks who are just not able to go to work — whether it's for kids, or maybe they're sick, folks who are living in multi-generational homes, folks who have no choice but to [not] leave the house.

But even these businesses — businesses that we previously considered non-essential at periods where the virus was not even as bad as it is now — but having funds to be able to offset the closure of those businesses as well.

And now we're hearing that we have a record tourist season in the state of Vermont. So, there are many reasons why we should be able to address this issue in the manner in which we did previously. I think really what it comes down to is, is moving beyond political rhetoric, and placing people before money,

Isaac Owusu: We’re the, you know, second smallest state. We shouldn't be seventeenth as far as, you know, COVID-19 cases amongst the United States. I think the proper response would be, you know, [the] same thing around March 13, of 2020 — it’s a statewide emergency.

"The truth is, is that there's a lot that we can and will continue to do to protect ourselves in this situation, where it seems that the governor has abdicated himself from his primary responsibility, which is to protect us."
Mark Hughes, executive director of the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance

Henry Epp: So, Gov. Scott has remained pretty adamant that he won't reimpose a state of emergency. Therefore, he won't put in place a mask mandate or do some of the other closures that happened earlier in the pandemic. I guess, given that resistance from the governor, what is your approach now? What are you hoping to do?

Mark Hughes: What's going on right now with the work of this organization, and many organizations like this organization across the state, is folks are hunkering down. Folks
are trying to figure out ways — whether it's through relief efforts, whether it's through just you know, each one, teach one, or it could just be just checking on one another and making sure that folks have the most updated and current information.

The truth is, is that there's a lot that we can and will continue to do to protect ourselves in this situation, where it seems that the governor has abdicated himself from his primary responsibility, which is to protect us.

The gap between Black, Indigenous and People of Color in Vermont and white Vermonters in terms of the case counts has narrowed a bit compared to what it was early in the pandemic, but it's not closed. Black Vermonters, Asian Vermonters, Hispanic Vermonters are all getting COVID at rates higher than white Vermonters. Does that fact give you any optimism in terms of how the virus might impact BIPOC communities going forward compared to how it was earlier in the pandemic?

Isaac Owusu: We get hit first and worse, so I don't know if optimism is the right word here.

Mark Hughes: Part of the reason why the rates for Black and Brown folks have dramatically — the gap has dramatically been reduced — is because organizations like ours and the BIPOC clinics that we've been running, the information sessions that we've been running. So largely, again, as I said previously, we're taking care of ourselves. It wasn't because of a valiant effort of folks beyond ourselves that some of this occurred.

More from VPR: 'Building The Plane While We Fly It': BIPOC Community Organizers Shrink The Gap On Vaccine Equity

But I think a broader question is impact. There are multiple levels where our communities are being impacted. You know, and when you start looking at, you know, say for example, housing, the education system, the health services delivery system, the systems of employment, transportation, the list goes on and on — what we see now, and largely because of the George Floyd reckoning, we're seeing more clearly preexisting conditions, if you will. And we're also seeing them being exacerbated.

So, I think it's really short — respectfully — I think it's really shortsighted to just focus in on the rates in which folks are contracting this virus. I think what we see on the ground is folks, you know, struggling on a whole lot of other levels and this virus is exacerbating the current challenges that many of us have in these Black and these Brown communities.

Well, finally, I'm curious, you sort of mentioned some of the work that the Racial Justice Alliance and other groups are doing as the response that that you're hoping for from the Scott administration is not really happening. Can you tell me a little bit more about what that looks like — what some of those initiatives look like?

Isaac Owusu: Currently we have a health survey, just to grasp, basically, how the community feels about, you know, health services and get a grip on how COVID-19 is affecting, you know, the BIPOC community and, you know, the responses they’re taking.

Mark Hughes speaks at a podium at Burlington's City Hall
Liam Elder-Connors
VRJA Executive Director Mark Hughes speaking in Burlington in July of 2020. Hughes says BIPOC vaccination clinics have helped closed the gap in terms of case counts between BIPOC and white Vermonters. However, he says, much of the work to protect these communities has been done within the community, not by the state.

I think one thing about the community, specifically the BIPOC community, is they're not really informed. I mean, and how could you be when, you know, buses are pulling up with tourists, you know, jumping out with no mask? Downtown, no one is taking any measures. And a lot of the community does not know the numbers. So, keeping the community informed is a major, major step that we're taking.

And as far as the vaccines, you know, there's this misconception: “oh, take the vaccine, it doesn't do anything.” If you look at the data, it shows that, you know, just dramatically lower than in comparison to people who aren't vaccinated. So, I mean, it is shown that the vaccine is helping, and, you know, that's where we want to help inform people. You know, everybody does have a choice, you know, but to get the data to these folks will be helpful.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Henry Epp @TheHenryEpp.

Henry worked for Vermont Public as a reporter from 2017 to 2023.
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