Gov. Phil Scott's administration on Tuesday said that Vermont will reinstate mandatory quarantine requirements for all out-of-state arrivals, ramp up compliance checks on businesses and offer more widespread testing in attempts to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
The announcements coincide with an alarming surge of new infections in both Vermont and around the country. They also mark the first time that Scott has been forced to tighten his proverbial spigot since he started loosening restrictions in the spring.
Vermont reported 46 new cases Tuesday, raising its seven-day average to 32 — the highest it has been since mid-April. Current forecasts show the seven-day average could potentially double over the next six weeks, which would result in a far higher figure than what Vermont saw at the peak of the pandemic's first wave.
"With the success we've had over the last few months, I know it's disappointing to hear about new restrictions," Scott said during his regular press briefing Tuesday. "But by acting early and doubling down on the work that made us so successful in the first place, I know we can get this under control, hold on to the gains we've made and continue to be in a better position to get through this faster and stronger than any other state."
For months, Vermont has used a color-coded travel map to determine whether out-of-state arrivals must quarantine. People coming from "green" counties, or those with fewer than 400 cases per million residents, have been free to roam upon arrival, while visitors from any county above that rate were required to self-quarantine.
Dozens of Northeast counties were green at one point this summer. But the map has become increasingly red in recent weeks amid a coronavirus case surge. As of Tuesday, only arrivals from a few counties would not need to quarantine.
Given this, the suspension of the travel map is not a large departure from the status quo. But Scott said that he felt the move was necessary as a way of sending a clearer message to travelers.
"When you consider the amount of red we're seeing in the Northeast — and that it's not likely to improve for a few weeks — it only made sense to simplify the policy in order to ensure better compliance," the governor said. "The bottom line is: If you don't need to travel right now, don't."
Anyone arriving from out-of-state must quarantine at home or in Vermont for 14 days; they can shorten the period by testing negative for the virus a week into their quarantine. Vermonters who leave the state must also quarantine when they return home.
Officials said that the Vermont Department of Public Safety would begin conducting "randomized, plainclothes" compliance checks on lodging facilities and other businesses where people congregate indoors, such as bars and restaurants.
Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling said the checks would begin Thursday with a "concentrated initial period" and would seek to develop a "baseline of compliance."
Education remains the primary goal. But Schirling said if the department comes across "substantial non-compliance" — such as multiple violations or if business staff or owners are resistant to the safety guidance — then authorities may make referrals to the Vermont Attorney General's Office.
"It is our sincere hope that these assessments will illuminate widespread health and safety compliance and [allow us to continue] our educational posture," Schirling said.
The state also plans to offer voluntary surveillance testing to teachers and staff in K-12 schools starting next week. It will then continue to test schools on a rotating basis, according to Health Commissioner Mark Levine. He said a quarter of Vermont's schools would be tested each week, meaning the state should be able to monitor its entire K-12 working population every month.
The state is focusing on schools because they are a "reflection" of communities, Levine said, and will provide a glimpse into the virus' prevalence in specific locales.
"This is part of our ongoing offense against the virus," he said. "This is part of our fight."
Public health experts have warned that it may become harder to tamp down outbreaks in the winter months as more people congregate indoors.
As of Tuesday, the Vermont Department of Health was responding to or monitoring 20 "outbreaks." Several are connected to a hockey and broomball league in the Montpelier area that has spawned more than 120 cases statewide. Another involves the Rutland Healthcare & Rehabilitation Center, a long-term care facility where seven residents and one staff have tested positive.
The department is also monitoring 63 "situations" across the state, impacting schools, childcare programs, colleges, health care facilities and work sites.
The department says many of the new infections have occurred in private gatherings where people were not wearing masks or social distancing.
Officials are now urging residents to stay home for the holidays, avoid unnecessary travel and keep all private gatherings to 10 people or fewer. They also encourage anyone who recently attended an event with people outside of their "usual social circle" to consider getting tested immediately.
"We just need to think carefully about the decisions we make," Scott said. "Think about our wants versus our needs. If it's just a want? Let's hold off on that for a while. Because what we need to do is keep our kids in school for in-person learning, and keep our businesses open and our workers working."
Officials tried their best to offset the concerning tone of Tuesday's press conference with moments of optimism.
They pointed to promising initial results out of Pfizer’s vaccine trial that suggested it was more than 90 percent effective. They noted that health officials know far more about the virus now than they did in the spring. And they emphasized that Vermonters have already proven they can change the state's trajectory, as long as they commit themselves to social distancing, mask wearing and other best health practices.
Still, as he has done throughout the pandemic, Scott stressed that he will continue to rely on data and guidance from health experts to determine when and if new restrictions are necessary. And while he did not anticipate "going back to what we saw in March" — when he and many other governors took the extraordinary step of ordering people to stay home — he did not completely rule it out, either.