Vermont health officials on Friday recommended that people wear cloth masks in public, even if they don't have any coronavirus symptoms.
The new protocol comes as the Vermont Department of Health reported 51 new cases of COVID-19, the state's highest single-day jump in positive cases since the outbreak began on March 7. Vermont now has 359 coronavirus cases; 17 people have died.
Vermont health officials instituted the mask guidelines as the federal government debates issuing similar guidance.
Levine said research on wearing masks in public is "evolving fast like everything else in the coronavirus epidemic." While experts initially said it would be ineffective for asymptomatic people to wear masks outside, Levine said it's now clear that COVID-19 carriers can be contagious for up to 48 hours before they show signs of infection.
He added that medical-grade masks, such as N95 masks, should be reserved for health care workers.
Gov. Phil Scott emphasized that Vermonters should still continue to practice social distancing and handwashing, which he said were the most effective means of preventing the virus' spread. In order to continue that effort, the governor said he expected to extend his stay-at-home order, which is effective through April 15, and his order closing restaurants and bars except for takeout.
"We can't take our foot off the gas," Scott said.
So far, these measures appear to be working. Health department data released on Thursday showed that Vermont’s caseload was headed on a “worst-case scenario” trajectory until late March, when Scott issued the stay-home order.
“What Vermonters are already doing, the sacrifices they've been making with social distancing, is beginning to show promising results in slowing the spread,” Levine said. “But we still have to keep up this good work.”
Levine said the state is awaiting federal guidance on what type of fabric facial coverings are most effective. He added that Vermont doesn’t plan to issue specific guidelines as to whether high-risk workers such as grocery store clerks should wear masks on the job. The forthcoming federal policy would likely be a blanket recommendation, Levine said.
As the weather warms up, officials are also asking Vermonters to use caution when recreating outdoors. Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore recommended not straying too far — ideally no farther than a backyard but within 10 miles of home — and to practice social distancing, even outdoors.
“If you arrive at a crowded trailhead or a place with an unmanageable parking situation, see that as a sign. Please, turn around and choose an alternative that's not as crowded,” she said.
Moore added that the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation website will maintain a list of open trails, including those maintained by organizations such as the Green Mountain Club.
The City of Burlington has already taken measures to reduce group activities outside. On Thursday, officials announced the closure of dog parks and tennis courts and plans to remove basketball rims. And there are plans implement a “shared streets for social distancing” initiative that would open roadways for bikers and walkers.
The waterfront bike path, which has become overcrowded at times, remains open.