Governor issues “stay at home” order
MONTPELIER- Vermont Governor Phil Scott issued a “stay at home” order Tuesday afternoon, requiring all non-essential businesses to stop any in-person operations by 5 pm Wednesday.
The order does not affect essential businesses including grocers, pharmacies, retailers of essential supplies, health care providers, media, and other businesses providing services or functions critical to public health and safety, and economic and national security. The governor said the restrictive measures were based on science and data, and necessary to slow the spread of COVID-19 (coronavirus).
At a press conference on Wednesday, Gov. Scott urged Vermonters to heed the order. “I need you to stay home,” he said. “Doing so will save lives. It’s just that simple. We all must do our part to slow the spread of this virus, and to prevent the health care system from being overwhelmed. I fully recognize the emotional and financial impact this will have, but it is based on science, as have been each of the actions we’ve taken. And it’s possible more may be needed.”
Under the order, employees of non-essential businesses can continue to work from home, and essential businesses are also urged to facilitate telecommuting for employees who don’t need to be on site. “Anyone who can work from home should do so,” he said.
Gov. Scott said the order does not prevent Vermonters from leaving their homes to get groceries, seek medical care, go to pharmacies, or go outside for fresh air and exercise. “But it’s important to keep about six feet from each other,” he said. “Wash your hands a lot. Cough into your sleeve. And if there are any questions, err on the side of caution.”
Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine pointed to a chart representing the growth of coronavirus cases in Vermont, which indicated a sharp increase in cases overall, as well as a daily increase in new cases. “Two weeks ago we had one case in Vermont,” Levine said. “Now we have 123, with 28 new cases since yesterday. We’re very concerned with the slope of that increase and the number of deaths we’ve had in our small state. If we look at the experience regarding deaths in countries that were hardest hit, Italy and Spain, there’s a doubling of deaths every couple of days in those countries.”
Levine said the rate of growth was “exponential” and the latest stay-at-home order is intended to halt the growth. However, he said, the results may not show up in the data for a few days. “We want to make sure we’ve caught this exponential growth at the right time,” he said.
Levine said as many as 20% of those who get the virus could require hospitalization. “I’m not saying this to be scaring anyone, but we have to be realistic,” he said. “In a large-scale outbreak, 20% may be hospitalized.”
The mitigation measures will be an unprecedented hardship for Vermonters, Levine said, and it is unclear how long they may last. “I wish I had an answer for you,” he said.
When viral activity has been suppressed and the restrictions are lifted, the virus may return, Levine said, but with much less effect than now. “The population will have much more immunity, and it will be harder to pass from one to another. And we’ll be able to get on top of that with more traditional case tracing and isolation methods.”
Summing up on a note of optimism, Levine said, “The strategy is a wise one. The science is sound. But there are some elements of mystery in terms of not being able to tell you what is going to happen on a given day. But it will work.”
Gov. Scott said the administration, in consultation with Amtrak, suspended all Amtrak service starting Thursday, and has also worked with the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers to close all VAST trails for the season.
“If we follow these stay-at-home measures, we’ll get the economy moving again,” Gov. Scott said. “I have faith in Vermonters. We’re Vermont strong, and we’ll get through this.”
Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development Lindsay Kurrle said her agency was working to address questions posed by businesses around the state. She said compliance with Gov. Scott’s directives, and “flattening the curve,” was the best way to get Vermonters back to work. “The best thing we can do for the business community is get through this crisis quickly, and that can only happen if we put the health of Vermonters first,” she said. “Comply with the directives as strictly as possible. These are difficult steps to take, but will slow the spread, flatten the curve, save lives, and ultimately allow Vermonters to get back to work more quickly.”
Rep. Peter Welch said a federal relief package was still under negotiation in Washington. (The bill passed on Wednesday evening.) “This is an extraordinary $2 trillion economic aid package that is necessary,” he said. “There are still many details to be worked out, but the contours give me some optimism.”
For individuals, he said, the Senate bill would change the unemployment schedule, adding up to $600 per week to the current maximum unemployment benefit, which in Vermont is about $500 per week.
“An individual would be able to get up to $1,100 a week for four months if they had to comply with the social distancing conditions being applied,” Welch said.
People who are self-employed or independent contractors would also be covered, Welch said, based on their previous year’s income.
Welch said the bill also included $400 billion for small business emergency loans, grants, and loan forgiveness, as well as a retention tax credit for employers who keep their employees on the payroll with at least 80% pay.
There would also be $100 billion in relief for hospitals. “Hospitals have taken a huge revenue hit because elective surgeries have been discontinued,” he said. “Elective surgeries can make the difference between red ink and black ink for hospitals.”
The aid package will also include aid for states. “The revenue impact to Vermont and other states is immense,” Welch said. “And it hits two ways, the revenue side is down, and the expense side is up. We believe the federal government should bear the burden.”
Welch praised the bipartisan cooperation in Vermont, as well as between Gov. Scott and the federal delegation. “We both have to be working for you,” he said. “It’s individuals who ultimately bear the burden. Bernie (Sen. Sanders) Patrick (Sen. Leahy) and I will be here for you and for Gov. Scott every day.”
“Vermont is lucky to have a strong congressional delegation working on behalf of Vermonters,” Leahy said.