By Emma Cotton/VTDigger and Polly Mikula
The Holiday Inn in Rutland Town has been cited by the state for being over the allowable 50% capacity for hotels permitted under Vermont’s Covid-19 restrictions, but the hotel says it is simply the venue for a summer camp and therefore should be allowed to occupy 75% of capacity, per the regulations for summer camps.
The Holiday Inn’s full capacity is 600, according to Michael Schirling, commissioner of the Dept. of Public Safety. There are currently 389 campers at the Rutland hotel.
Zichron Chaim summer camps is currently hosting two groups of around 350 out-of-state campers — one at the Holiday Inn in Rutland, and another at the former campus of Southern Vermont College in Bennington. Town offices in both towns have been inundated with complaints about the camp. Mostly from concerned residents.
Rabbi Moshe Perlstein, who runs both camps, has been working with local and state officials to become compliant or he’ll have to relocate 50 to 100 of the Rutland campers.
Schirling said the Holiday Inn, not the camp, is responsible for coming into compliance.
The Holiday Inn declined to comment for this story, but has reportedly claimed that the only permit they need for compliance it a licence to serve food to kids.
Schirling said the camp director is cooperating fully with the state. Rabbi Perlstein also attended a Rutland Town Select Board meeting on Tuesday night, July 7, where he listened as John Faignant, the town’s health officer, listed concerns about the camp.
Faignant, who is also a selectman and constable in Rutland Town, was troubled by what he saw at the hotel when he visited Sunday evening.
The first town official to learn about the Rutland camp location, Faignant responded to a complaint on Sunday evening, July 5, from a resident who told him that busloads of people were arriving at the Holiday Inn.
Faignant interviewed one of the bus drivers, who told the health inspector that the bus had carried 50 children, and that at least five more buses were on the way. Most campers are from New York and New Jersey.
Perlstein said buses to the camp included space for campers to socially distance from each other. But Faignant doubts the validity of that statement based on the buses that arrived in Rutland. “That’s what the driver told me, that each bus was carrying 50 campers,” he said. “And there’s no way you could socially distance 50 campers on a bus.”
Most coach buses made by Prevost hold fewer than 60 passengers.
“I observed staff not wearing masks, and when they learned who I was, they put masks on,” Faignant said.
Perlstein has said each camper was required to take a Covid-19 test days before traveling to Vermont. Campers’ results were negative, and those who had positive results were not allowed to come, he said. Faignant questioned whether all the tests were recent enough, and planned to meet with the camp director Thursday evening to review records of the tests.
Both the health officer and Joshua Terenzini, president of the Rutland Town Selectboard, are concerned about the potential for Covid-19 to spread from such a large gathering into the surrounding community.
He’s also concerned that splitting campers into two groups and transporting them elsewhere in town to reduce occupancy at the hotel, per the Department of Public Safety’s request, would be “counterproductive,” as it could endanger additional members of the community.
Terenzini has been fielding calls and messages from concerned citizens around Rutland County this week.
“My phone, my Facebook, Town Hall’s phone, our other board members, City Hall in Rutland City, Mayor Dave Allaire,” he said, “we have all been inundated with comments and concerns and questions and frustrations and fears, which I think are pretty realistic.”
Terenzini is concerned for the hotel staff, which he says has been reduced, who will engage with other community members.
“We’re very concerned for them,” he said. “We’re concerned for the loved ones they go home to, we’re concerned for the grocery store workers they come in contact with. We’re concerned for the community, that this could be the way it’s transmitted out of the facility.”
Terenzini said the town wishes Scott would reconsider the 50% occupancy requirement for hotels, and instead base the occupancy cap on the size of the institution. While the rule, as it stands, makes sense for small bed-and-breakfast-style inns, he feels large hotels should be more restricted.
“When you have a facility that can host 600 people,” he said, “50% is 300, and that’s still a lot of people, during a pandemic, to come into a small community and stay for a long period of time coming from other places in the country, including some of the hardest-hit places, like New York City, and the surrounding communities in New Jersey and elsewhere.”
In Bennington, the camp’s reported number of 350 campers puts the camp well within the limits of Southern Vermont College’s campus of around 1,000 people.
Some Bennington residents are frustrated that state officials have relied on the camp director’s word, and have not attempted to otherwise verify the number of campers, their negative Covid-19 tests, or whether campers and staff members are socially distancing and wearing masks.
“If there are reasonable grounds to believe someone’s in violation of an executive order, then we send a variety of different entities depending on the circumstances to check in on that,” Schirling said. “There’s been no information coming out of Bennington to indicate that they are not in compliance with the health and safety guidance.”
Terenzini said his reluctance about the Rutland camp is centered on health concerns and its alignment with Covid-19.
“In normal times, without a pandemic, we would roll out the red carpet for him and his youth,” Terenzini said. “We would celebrate with him and we would welcome him to Rutland Town. But this has everything to do with the health and safety of our community. We want them here during normal circumstances, but this is a pandemic.”