Burlington city officials will research the feasibility of opening an overdose prevention site after councilors unanimously approved a resolution Monday night to advance the effort.
"For all of the cutting edge work that our community has done to advance harm reduction, we're the city that can be working with others to lead this effort," said Councilor Karen Paul (D-Ward 6), the measure's lead sponsor.
"Change doesn't happen by keeping silent," she continued. "We certainly have all seen that, and it doesn't happen by doing nothing or by waiting."
Overdose prevention sites, also called safe injection facilities, are staffed by trained medical providers who give users clean needles and can connect them with social services. Though the sites exist in Canada and Europe, among other places, there are none in the U.S. due to federal laws that prohibit facilities that allow people to use controlled substances.
Proponents point to studies that show the sites can reduce overdose deaths, HIV infections and improper syringe disposal while increasing the likelihood that users will enter substance abuse treatment.
The council's resolution asks City Attorney Eileen Blackwood to identify "specific legal strategies for overcoming any barriers to operating such a site that might currently exist" and report back in November. It also asks the city's opioid manager to research how a center might operate in Burlington, including budget needs and funding sources. The council will review that report in December.
Monday's vote comes when overdose deaths are on the rise. Chittenden County had 14 opioid-related fatalities in 2018 and has seen the same number in just the first seven months of 2020.
"2020 in the opioid crisis, like in so many things, has been a troubling and unsettling year where we have seen, after years of improvement, the numbers going the wrong way," Mayor Miro Weinberger said, adding that he supports "further exploration and possible investment" in the concept.
Later in the meeting, the council unanimously voted to extend its emergency order to limit alcohol sales and residential crowd sizes during the pandemic.
First passed last month, the order requires Burlington bars and restaurants to stop serving alcohol at 11 p.m. and caps outdoor residential gatherings at 25 people and indoor ones at 10. The council vote extended the rules until October 5.
The council had passed the order to avoid coronavirus "super spreader" events seen in other states. The extension cites the "importance of maintaining low COVID-19 prevalence" now that college students have returned to the city. Gov. Phil Scott passed an executive order in mid-August allowing municipalities to crack down on parties and pass curfews to stem the coronavirus' spread.
"While I certainly think we should all be pleased with our collective efforts to keep COVID at bay ... it's still early," Councilor Chip Mason (D-Ward 5) said, noting that restaurants and bars have pushed back against the order.
A memo from city staff says only one gathering of more than 25 people was broken up since the council first passed the order. Otherwise, it's difficult to assess the order's effectiveness, the memo says.
"How many made plans to involve less people given the new, lower group size limit is unknowable," it reads.