Gov. Phil Scott announced on Friday that Vermont has vaccinated enough people to enter the second phase of its reopening plan, which places close-contact businesses under new guidance and permits larger indoor and outdoor gatherings.
He also updated the state's outdoor mask mandate following the release of new guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Prevention and Control. Vermonters, regardless of whether they are vaccinated, no longer need to wear facial coverings outdoors when physical distancing can be maintained, though businesses and municipalities can enact stricter rules if they want.
"As an example, if you're walking down the street, you don't need to wear a mask," Scott said at a press conference. "If you're at the dog park and you're not in a crowd, you don't need to wear a mask. If you're with people outdoors in accordance with the gathering policy, you don't need a mask."
The changes come as Vermont crosses a vaccination threshold Scott set when he first unveiled the state's reopening strategy back in March. As of this week, more than 60 percent of the state's adult population has received at least one dose of vaccine, including more than 90 percent of people 65 and older.
"We're getting closer and closer to normal again," Scott said. "Why? Because vaccines work. If you need proof, just look at our declining hospitalization and death rate, and our seven-day case count average, which is the lowest it's been since November."
Larger indoor and outdoor gatherings will also be allowed. 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 can attend beyond these stated limits should hosts elect to verify attendees' vaccination status, officials said.
The final two steps of Vermont's reopening plan are projected to occur over the next two months, culminating with a return to relative normalcy by the beginning of July. But the state's ability to stick to this schedule will largely depend on whether vaccinations hold steady.
There's some reason for concern. The state is reporting a notable gender disparity, with men getting shots at a far lower rate — about 10 percentage points — than women, reflecting a nationwide trend.
Younger Vermonters also appear more hesitant — or uninterested — in getting vaccinated when compared to older groups. Less than 45 percent of all 18- to 29-year-olds have scheduled their first dose since they became eligible to sign up 11 days ago. By contrast, roughly two-thirds of those in their thirties and forties have scheduled at least one shot.
Scott said officials are deploying "all kinds of different methods" to change this trend, including more outreach and education. "But at the end of the day, it's about doing the right thing," he said.
The governor went on to say that he has thought often about public service, and how Americans have historically answered the call to serve their country. Referring to soldiers who went off to fight in World War II, including his own father, Scott said many were asked to make "tremendous sacrifices" to serve the greater good.
"They stepped up," Scott said. "All's we're asking of this group — this 18- to 29-year-old group — is to have one shot."