Vermonters can now socialize in small groups and participate in outdoor activities with "low or no physical contact" as the state's number of coronavirus cases continues to decline, Gov. Phil Scott announced on Wednesday.
The relaxed measures are part of Scott's new "Play Smart and Play Safe" plan to reopen the state. In the last two weeks, the number of new COVID-19 cases in Vermont has generally been in the single digits; there was only one new case reported on Wednesday.
"The stress of the last several weeks has left many of us missing our families and friends," Scott said. "The good news is, because of everything we've done and the sacrifices Vermonters have made, we can now take some steps to restart social visits and enjoy some recreation, as long as we continue to follow important, simple guidelines."
The order now allows people to gather in groups of 10 or fewer, preferably outdoors and as long as they maintain a physical distance of six feet, wear a mask and wash their hands frequently.
People 65 and older, and those with underlying health conditions, however, are still advised to stay home. Health Commissioner Mark Levine acknowledged that such a directive is especially difficult with Mother's Day coming up, but "it's still the right thing to do," he said.
"We're watching the activity of the virus all the time," Levine said. "If things really continue to trend in the way they're trending, we would hope we'd be able to relax some. We need to give it sufficient time, so that we know .... we're not putting anyone's health and welfare in danger."
The state also released guidance on safe outdoor recreation options. Agency of Natural Resources Secretary Julie Moore encouraged Vermonters to explore new corners of the state instead of heading to popular hiking trails and natural areas. Game wardens will begin patrolling popular trailheads and will ask people to leave if it's too crowded, Moore said.
Pools, campgrounds, beaches and marinas remain closed, but people are free to visit state and municipal parks, golf courses, tennis courts, and skate parks, Moore said. Outdoor recreation businesses, such as fish and tackle shops, can reopen starting Thursday, as long as they offer curbside pickup. Parks and other recreation areas must post signs to discourage close-contact games and contact sports, the order says.
There have now been 13 updates to Scott's "Stay Home, Stay Safe" order since he issued the original mandate on March 24. The governor wouldn't say whether he'll extend the order, which currently runs through May 15. He expects to give an update early next week.
The administration will also release guidance on summer camps and childcare facilities in the coming days, Scott said. Agency of Education Secretary Dan French said the governor will discuss protocols for high school graduations on Friday.
The state still doesn't have a timeline for when bars, restaurants or retail shops might reopen, even in a modified form, Scott said.
Wednesday's announcements included new details from the health department on Vermonters who have recovered from the coronavirus.
"That category is comprised of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 and actually report to us at the health department, in one of our contacts with them later in their course, that they have indeed recovered," Levine said. "Or that 30 days or more have elapsed since the day that they were diagnosed"
Of the state's 908 total cases, 706 people have recovered, the data show. Fifty-two people have died in the two months since the first Vermont case was announced.