Health Commissioner Mark Levine (left) and Gov. Phil Scott
The Scott administration on Tuesday laid out a phased plan to end most COVID-19 restrictions over the next 90 days, beginning by lifting quarantine rules for travelers later this week.
The strategy, dubbed Vermont Forward, will reopen the state in four steps that are staggered monthly until July 4, when Gov. Phil Scott expects to remove the mask mandate and restrictions on gatherings. Senior state officials characterized the plan at a press conference as gradual and said it will align with progress in the vaccination campaign.
"We're in the last laps of this very long and difficult race," Scott said. "This plan shows how we'll finish strong."
State of Vermont
Slide describing 'Vermont Forward' reopening plan as introduced on April 6
Step one will take effect on Friday, April 9. It will eliminate the requirement that unvaccinated people who travel to Vermont and residents returning home must quarantine upon arrival, so long as they receive a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours.
Outdoor and lower-risk businesses will also move to one set of yet-to-be-released operational guidelines. Commerce Secretary Lindsay Kurrle said the forthcoming guidance will be simpler for businesses to follow, and will incorporate five main tenets: stay home if sick, wear a mask, ensure six-foot spaces, practice good hygiene and know the travel restrictions.
Closer contact businesses, such as gyms, houses of worship, restaurants and hair salons, will become subject to the new guidance on May 1 when step two takes effect, according to the new plan. The health care and education sectors will continue to have separate guidance.
As part of step two, the governor also plans to allow much larger indoor and outdoor gatherings. For indoor events, one unvaccinated person may attend per 100 square feet of indoor space, up to 150 people maximum. Outdoor events of up to 300 people will be allowed.
Any number of fully vaccinated people could attend indoor or outdoor events beyond those limits, should a host elect to verify attendees' vaccination status, Kurrle said.
Step three is projected to take effect on June 1. It will eliminate all travel restrictions and increase the size of large gatherings to a maximum of 300 unvaccinated people indoors and 900 unvaccinated people outdoors.
By July 4, the state plans to lift all capacity restrictions and physical distancing requirements. Masking would remain "encouraged," but not required.
Scott said the dates for each phase could be adjusted based on vaccination rates and COVID-19 prevalence. But his administration issued the full roadmap in an effort to help businesses and others begin planning for the months ahead.
"Our goal with this plan," Scott said, "is to give Vermonters a transparent look at how we'll be able to work our way out of this pandemic, moving forward together at a time when we can manage this virus like we do the flu — with simple, everyday measures, rather than the state of emergency we've been in for over a year."
The push towards normalcy comes as roughly 25 percent of Vermonters are fully vaccinated, and 42 percent are partially vaccinated, according to the Vermont Department of Health. At the same time, the state is dealing with record levels of new infections, mostly among younger adults.
Vermont saw more new COVID-19 diagnoses last week than ever before, with 1,231 new cases. The median age of new patients is 27, officials said.
The trend follows the emergence of more transmissible viral strains as well as the state's age-based vaccination approach. Despite recent case growth, state health officials said Vermont is faring well in the race between viral spread and mass vaccination; COVID-19 deaths dipped in March to 22 from 25 the previous month, while hospitalizations have remained roughly flat in recent weeks.
Those metrics, Scott and Health Commissioner Mark Levine said, show that the state can continue to resume more economic and social activity even as case totals continue to climb.
The first three steps in the Vermont Forward plan are tied to benchmarks for the proportion of adult residents who have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. The figures are "conservative" and not binding, officials said.
Residents age 40 and older are currently eligible for vaccines, as well as those who have high-risk medical conditions or identify as or live with a person of color. The state plans to expand eligibility to those 30 and older on April 12, and to all adults over 16 on April 19.