By Polly Mikula
Governor Phil Scott issued the “Vermont Forward, Roadmap to Reopening” on April 6, which outlined a three step approach to reopening the Vermont economy based on projected vaccination milestones reached.
“We now have three safe and effective vaccines in our toolbox, which gives us a level of predictability we didn’t have before,” Scott said. “Based on vaccination rates we’re now able to forecast when we expect to reach key milestones.”
“As we make progress in vaccination, we can now look forward to a time when Vermonters are largely protected from Covid-19,” said Health Commissioner Mark Levine, M.D. “But we cannot simply wait for this to happen. We have to make it happen. Our actions — to prevent further spread and get vaccinated — will allow us to gradually, and safely, go about our lives once again, as laid out in this plan.”
The path systematically transitions from sector specific regulations to universal guidance (simplified, logical best practices for health and hygiene). Universal guidance includes: “stay home if you’re sick, wear a mask, ensure 6-foot spaces and uncrowded places, practice good hygiene, think before you travel,” according to the Agency of Commerce & Community Development (ACCD.)
“The universal guidance listed here serves as a baseline. Any business, organization, or operator is free to take additional safety precautions for the health and safety of its employees and consumers,” the ACCD states.
“Our goal is for non-profits, community organization, employers and families to be able to plan events and to help businesses plan for future operations and budgets,” Scott said. “We want to give Vermonters something to work toward… this is the last lap of a very difficult race,” he said, cautioning that the entire plan requires the state’s vaccination rates to continue at a strong pace. “The dates are subject to change based on circumstances,” he said. “We need all Vermonters to get vaccinated in order to move down this path.”
Step 1 began Friday, April 9. At that point, vulnerable populations throughout the state are considered “substantially vaccinated,” 35-45% of all Vermonters have also been vaccinated, and 45-55% of Vermonters age 16+ have received at least a first dose.
New business protocol
Group A businesses (defined as low contact, short duration, outdoor and controlled environment) were permitted to move to universal guidance. Examples of Group A businesses include farmers’ markets, outdoor recreation and fitness, retail operations, lodging, campgrounds and other accommodations, according to ACCD.
New travel protocol
Additionally, starting April 9, traveling out-of-state no longer requires quarantining. Instead a negative Covid test within three days of arrival in or return from the state is mandated.
“If you’re a visitor to Vermont, you’ll need to get tested three days before you come here. If the test is negative, you may come visit the state, armed with documentation of your negative result,” Dr. Levine clarified. Vermont residents coming back to the state need to get tested in Vermont within three days of their return. Travelers’ return date counts as Day 0.
Dr. Levine emphasized: “You should still be following the basic public health guidance. That means if you have any symptoms, stay home and away from other people until you receive a negative test result,” he said. “Even if the test you got within the 3-day travel window was negative, if you start to not feel well, stay home and get another test.”
“We believe the testing strategy will be easy to follow with so much testing available to Vermonters, so we’ll see more compliance and catch cases a little earlier,” Dr. Levine said.
Step 2 begins Saturday, May 1, when vaccination rates for at least the first dose are projected to reached 50-60% of all Vermonters and 60-70% of Vermonters age 16-plus.
New business protocol
The state will allow Group B businesses (defined as long duration or close contact environments) to move to universal guidance. Examples of Group A businesses include manufacturing and distribution; restaurants, catering, food service, social clubs and bars; hair salons and barber shops; religious facilities and places of worship; gyms, fitness centers, nail salons; indoor arts, culture and entertainment; and meetings of public bodies, according to ACCD. (Education, youth sports/camps and healthcare are not included and will continue to maintain sector specific guidance).
New gathering size protocol
In Step 2, gatherings and event limitations will be expanded to allow for one unvaccinated person per 100 square feet (up to 150 indoors and 300 outdoors), plus any number of vaccinated people.
“If an event has no way of determining if an individual is vaccinated, assume all are unvaccinated for capacity limit,” guidance from the ACCD states.
Step 3 will begin Tuesday, June 1, when vaccination rates for the first dose have reached 60-70% of all Vermonters and 70-85% of Vermonters age 16-plus.
New traveling protocol
For traveling, there will be no quarantine or testing requirements.
New gathering size protocol
Gathering size will be limited to one unvaccinated person per 50 square feet (up to 300 indoors and 900 outdoors), plus any number of vaccinated people.
Masking and physical distancing guidelines will remain in place throughout the first three phases.
Independence from mandates, July 4
On July 4 the state will cease further requirements and will proceed with recommendations only. There will be universal guidance for all sectors and no limits on gatherings and events.
“We have roughly 90 to go, 90 days to stay united so we can get back to normal,” Gov. Phil Scott said at the press conference.
Masking and physical distancing will still be “encouraged” by the state following July 4.
Reopening depends on youth
“We know our businesses need to see the path forward as they continue to expand operations after many months of reduced capacity,” said Agency of Commerce & Community Dev. Secretary Lindsay Kurrle. “We are grateful for what all business owners have done to keep Vermonters safe and look forward to our continued partnership in executing this plan. One thing we have learned is this virus isn’t going away quietly, but we are confident that this plan can stay on track if all eligible Vermonters get vaccinated when it is their turn and continue to follow the health guidance between now and July 4.”
Betsy Bishop, president of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, said Tuesday that she was thrilled with the Vermont Forward plan.
Business owners, especially in the hospitality and event industries, have been eager to plan for the coming months, she said. “All of those businesses have been just waiting for: What is the plan? Will we have a summer season?”
Staffing has been a major concern, Bishop added. Businesses that have scaled back or been dormant for the past year will need to rehire before vaccinated residents and tourists start seeking services again.
“There’s an eagerness for that,” Bishop said. “This lays out that path based on the science and the data and the increased vaccination rates.”
“I think it’s dangling a carrot,” said Pam Berenbaum, director of the Global Health Program at Middlebury College, of the state’s Vermont Forward plan. “I think that what the governor is signaling here is that this is not going to last forever and that we have something to look forward to.” But the risk, Berenbaum said, is that the plan could create confusion if the governor’s suggested timeline changes.
Mass vaccination campaigns get harder in their later stages, Berenbaum said, as more people play “the herd immunity game,” saying, “I want everybody else to take on the perceived risks of the vaccine, and I’ll benefit because everybody else will be protected.”
Thus, far the state has seen a very high uptake rate for the vaccine in eligible populations— with 90% of Vermonters 65-plus receiving at least one dose — but the state also hit its record weekly Covid case count last week, the surge driven by younger Vermonters (average age 27).
Anne Sosin, a policy fellow at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center at Dartmouth College, offered some caution about the risks associated with Vermont’s plan. She said said lifting restrictions on businesses and travel could exacerbate the disproportionate impact on younger populations who typically have more pubic-facing jobs.
State data from January through March 2021 showed that food service employees (who tend to be younger) had the highest rate of Covid-19 infection of any occupation in the state.
Additionally, while younger people are less likely to die, the effects of Covid can be chronic. Many younger Vermonters have developed “long Covid,” a form of chronic disease that causes fatigue and brain fog, among other symptoms.
“There are young people who are infected in March of 2020 that have lingering symptoms who are unable to work because of this debilitating illness,” Sosin said. “That really upends our thinking about these easy tradeoffs between lives and livelihoods that are in front of us right now.”
As of Monday, April 12, Vermonters age 30-plus became eligible and all Vermonters 16-plus will be able to sign up for an vaccine appointment by Monday, April 19. Will the youth step up to get vaccinated as the state’s elders did? Only time will tell, but the governor is banking on it — and so are businesses.
Kurrle said that if vaccination rates do proceed as forecast, she hoped that some sort of high school and college graduation celebrations could take place.
Scott pointed to three guiding factors that will remain at the heart of the state’s strategy: Knowledge, personal responsibility and science. “These are the tools we’ve used to manage this pandemic and these are the tools we’ll use to continue to manage it — like the flu— with simple everyday measures rather than the state of emergency we’ve been in for over a year.”
“Here’s the most important message I’ll deliver today: I hope that each of you sees this roadmap as a reason for optimism and also as a reason to make smart choices, to do your part for the common good. Especially when it’s your turn to get vaccinated,” Scott said.