Gov. Phil Scott and Health Commissioner Mark Levine at a previous briefing
Updated 5:30 p.m.
A deflated Gov. Phil Scott has imposed a series of new restrictions on social life — banning multi-household gatherings, shuttering bars and suspending recreational sports leagues — in response to an unprecedented wave of new coronavirus cases.
Scott appeared resigned as he revealed the restrictions at his regular press briefing Friday. Declaring Vermont at a "tipping point," he said his hand was forced once it became clear that many people were ignoring his recent pleas to recommit themselves to prevention efforts.
"We have no choice but to restrict social gatherings, whether at home or in a parking lot," he said. "So, starting today, multi-household gatherings — both inside and out, whether it's public or private spaces — are prohibited."
Vermont reported 84 new infections Friday, bringing the state's seven-day average to its highest-ever level of 59, and the Vermont Health Department says it is now dealing with more "outbreaks" and "situations" than at any other time during the pandemic. Many of those cases, officials say, trace back to private gatherings.
"It's no coincidence that we're seeing these increases 12 days after we know many gathered for Halloween parties," Scott said.
Scott also announced a series of measures impacting businesses.
Bars and social clubs must be closed to in-person service starting 10 p.m. Saturday, while restaurants can remain open but must cease in-person service at 10 p.m. daily. Customer-facing establishments will be required to keep a log of visitors, and businesses must allow employees to telework whenever possible.
Additionally, all recreational sports beyond those affiliated with the Vermont Principals’ Association will be put on hold.
“I know this is incredibly discouraging,” Scott said. “Especially because many of you have worked so hard, and we’ve had much success for so long. But the fact is, people getting together, not being careful and letting their guard down, is why we’re in this position today.”
The latest restrictions, if followed, should greatly limit the personal interactions people have on a daily basis.
Earlier in the pandemic, officials said people could gather with trusted households, or those they knew were following suggested health practices. Explaining why that advice does not work now, Health Commissioner Mark Levine said that it is “hard to be a trusted household in an environment where the virus is more prevalent."
At least 15 cases have been identified in every one of Vermont’s 14 counties over the last two weeks. Chittenden County has seen the most new infections over that period, with 157, followed closely by Washington County’s 144.
"The bottom line is, nobody knows who's got what — who harbors the virus, who doesn't," Levine said.
"Unless it’s [someone] in your current household, you shouldn't interact with anyone," Scott added. “You shouldn't interact with your neighbors — you shouldn't get together for horseshoes or having a beer or coffee or anything like that. You need to stay away from each other."
Scott’s latest actions come eight months to the day since he first declared a state of emergency in Vermont. He has earned wide praise for his swift actions to address the pandemic’s first wave — and for his methodical approach to restarting the economy once case counts dropped. Vermont managed to keep the pandemic at bay through much of the fall even as businesses reopened and thousands of college students arrived, giving rise to hopes that the state could fend off a second wave and avoid another crippling economic shutdown.
But the virus has recently surged to unprecedented levels across the United States and the Northeast. In New Hampshire, Gov. Chris Sununu warned on Thursday that he believes his state will be reporting more than 1,000 cases in a day within the next few weeks. Vermont, meanwhile, identified 116 new cases on Thursday, the highest single-day jump to date.
“We’re at a new phase in this pandemic,” Scott said Friday.
Vermont officials have repeatedly asked residents to recommit themselves to best health practices amid the recent spike, placing particular emphasis on private gatherings as the holidays approach. Yet many of the new cases have nevertheless been traced back to events such as baby showers, tailgate parties and deer camps, “where multiple households are getting together and not wearing masks or staying physically separated for long periods of time,” Scott said.
“Though we've been warning against these activities for weeks, they're still happening,” he said.
According to Levine, 71 percent of new cases associated with outbreaks since October 1 have been connected to private gatherings. The state is now tracking 17 separate outbreaks and “well over” 80 situations involving a potential COVID exposure at a central location such as a worksite, school or eldercare facility, he said.
That has placed a strain on the Department of Health’s contact-tracing team, which has found that the number of contacts in each case has increased in recent months. As a result, the state has brought in its “reserve” contact tracing workforce and will continue training new tracers to keep pace with the growing demand, Levine said.
Contact tracers have also had trouble getting information about recent outbreaks, Levine said, with some people not returning calls or even providing false information.
“The more cases and situations we have, the more we need your help,” Levine said in a direct plea to Vermonters. “The quicker and more complete the information, the more likely we are to stop transmission and prevent an outbreak.”
On Thursday, the health department put out a press release encouraging people to get tested if they attended October 31 Halloween parties in Marshfield and Milton, or participated in bowling leagues at Spare Time in Colchester on November 4 and 5. Officials are also encouraging anyone who has traveled out of state, had a visitor from outside Vermont or attended any gathering with people outside of their normal social circles to get tested.
As has happened throughout the pandemic, Scott's decision on restrictions drew mixed reactions this week.
After he reinstated a quarantine requirement on out-of-state arrivals, some observers argued that it would have little impact, since travelers from only a few counties could still roam the state freely under existing rules. Some observers were equally skeptical of the logic behind banning inter-household gatherings while still allowing businesses such as restaurants and gyms to remain open, given that they inherently allow for multiple households to gather in one location.
Scott has maintained that his decisions are always based on data and the guidance of health experts. Explaining the thinking behind his Friday orders, he said private gatherings typically lack the same “structured” environments as businesses, where people are required to wear masks and follow other best practices.
He said officials now have a lot more data and a better understanding of how the virus spreads, allowing them to take a "more surgical approach" instead of the blanket shutdowns of the spring.
"We're targeting the areas that we see are problematic,” he said.
At a press conference Friday, Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger said he supports the governor's latest actions despite the impact on Queen City businesses. He said the state is at an "inflection point" and urged Burlington residents to heed the state’s guidance.
"If the choice is between having our bars open or more people dying, this is what we need to do," Weinberger said.
Burlington offered two days of pop-up testing in the New North End this week after the virus was detected in wastewater from the neighborhood. Brian Lowe, the city's chief innovation officer, said all 300 testing slots at the Miller Community Center on Thursday and Friday filled up in a matter of hours.
Other pop-up test sites will be available all next week; a full list can be found on the Vermont Department of Health website.
Weinberger said he hopes the increased testing will detect the virus early and prevent further outbreaks. He added that despite the rising cases, he does not plan to issue a citywide stay-at-home order.
Scott, meanwhile, would not say whether he was considering a second statewide stay-at-home order, though he acknowledged that “nothing was off the table.” He said he understood the burden of not seeing friends or family, especially during the holidays.
“With my own mom, I haven’t seen her physically for a year,” Scott said. “I have a daughter who lives in Rhode Island. I haven’t seen her since this pandemic started.”
“We're at a critical time here in Vermont, and I’m asking you, Vermonters, to sacrifice,” he added.