Cities and towns in Vermont concerned about returning college students bringing and spreading the coronavirus can clamp down on parties and impose curfews on bars and clubs if necessary, Gov. Phil Scott said on Friday.
Scott issued an executive order clarifying that any local government — from college-rich Burlington to tiny hamlets with a single bar — has the power to issue such restrictions under the new order.
Evidence from other parts of the country suggests that “uncontrolled parties and crowded bars and clubs are a big part of the problem" in spreading the virus, Scott said.
“I believe giving our towns, especially the college towns, some additional mitigation measures to work with is the right thing to do,” Scott said.
In June, the governor relaxed restrictions on social gatherings to allow up to 75 people indoors and 150 people outdoors, with a host of other limits on bars and restaurants.
But the new order allows municipalities to shrink that number even further. State law already allows local jurisdictions to impose such restrictions during emergencies, but it doesn't allow them to pass rules or ordinances that conflict with the governor's own orders or other state laws — hence the clarification, according to Jaye Pershing Johnson, Scott's general counsel.
While the order will allow local governments anywhere in the state to limit crowd sizes and the hours of alcohol sales, Scott said he expected only a city such as Burlington — home to the highest concentration of colleges and universities in the state — to consider imposing such rules.
“It looks to me like Burlington is most susceptible to the high traffic counts and a lot of people getting together, and with the students coming in, that’s where they go,” Scott said. “It really is about those saturated areas like Burlington.”
Queen City Mayor Miro Weinberger told Seven Days earlier this week that he had been working with the governor’s office on such a change that would allow him to restrict the size of gatherings at residential properties and restrict alcohol sales.
Weinberger had formally asked University of Vermont leaders last week to reconsider key aspects of their plan to bring students back to campus later this month. He expressed misgivings about its scaled-back testing regimen, its approach to students who live off campus and its "unacceptable" plan to only report new infections once per week.
In a statement on Friday, Weinberger said he was grateful for the flexibility. "Early next week the City will announce details of how we plan to utilize this new authority," Weinberger said.
Scott said a more sweeping statewide clampdown on gathering size or the hours of alcohol sales wasn’t necessary because rural communities might not face such issues. Scott said he wanted to allow local leaders to “do what’s right for their own community because they know it better than we do.”
Health Commissioner Mark Levine said “a few” students arriving in the state had tested positive for the coronavirus recently. In addition, a UVM student tested positive before leaving their home state and consequently did not travel to the school, he said.
The positive tests, while concerning, nevertheless demonstrate that the testing protocols in place at schools are working, Levine said.
“We want to find these so we know who needs to stay inside and away from other people so we can prevent the virus from spreading any further,” Levine said.