By Angelo Lynn
Gov. Phil Scott’s decision to ban inter-household gatherings, while allowing schools to remain open and limited access to restaurants and bars, prompted rare public pushback among Vermonters who have been model citizens in obeying the dictates Vermont has successfully imposed since the pandemic’s outbreak in March. Numerous letters across the state’s media outlets attest to that displeasure.
We agree, the complete ban of inter-household gatherings is stringent and may invite disregard of the state order, rather than the compliance Vermonters have demonstrated for the past eight months. But credit the governor and his administration with a quick response to an alarming spread of the virus.
Vermont currently has the second highest “virus reproduction rate” in the nation, next to Maine’s. While it took 88 days for Vermont to reach its first 1,000 cases of Covid, and 142 days for the next 1,000, it added the most recent 1,000 cases in just the past 23 days. While Vermont’s numbers are still low, we nonetheless have broken the records for new confirmed cases per day multiple times over this past week.
What the governor and his team know is if we can nip the most recent outbreak, reign it in to our modest summer levels and stay ahead of it, we’ll be fine. But, headed into the holidays as we are, if we let the virus spread now, it could jeopardize the state’s ability to keep students in school and may spark another wave of temporary business lockdowns — both are outcomes all Vermonters want to avoid.
A restriction on inter-household gatherings is also justified by the data. As of Friday, Nov. 13, when the governor issued the strict mandates, 71% of the outbreaks were related, as he said, “to social events, parties and people hanging out at a home or at bars and clubs. We’re just not seeing these types of outbreaks linked back to people dining at restaurants or working out at gyms. This tells us the protocols at these businesses are, for the most part, working.”
Still, there is room for criticism and compromise.
Is it really necessary in rural Vermont to suggest a ban on two neighbors taking a walk together on a dirt road keeping six feet apart and wearing masks? Of course not. Could small family pods gather and be fine if social distancing and the strictest of quarantines have been maintained? Certainly. And on Friday, Nov. 20, the governor did detail a few allowances — including going on a socially distanced walk with a friend or neighbor and permitting those that live alone to visit one other household. All multifamily gatherings, however, are prohibited.
In Oregon, the governor there recently restricted inter-household gatherings to two families of not more than six people. That would allow parents or grandparents to visit with a son or daughter, for example, or grown siblings to have limited gatherings without threatening wide outbreaks. It would allow a close neighbor to call on another without incident.
It is, nonetheless, a slippery slope and the reason the governor issued such a broad brush in banning all such inter-household visits. It is precisely when we gather with those closest to us that we let our guards down; when we take off our masks, get closer and embrace each other with a longing that’s only natural after being held apart for so long. And if you start creating exceptions, the message the governor needs to send to stop the spread loses its punch.
The governor’s mandate is to help us resist temptation at a critical time in the virus’s spread. And while it’s akin to using a sledgehammer to drive a nail, it’s undoubtedly the pragmatic step to take.
Even so, Vermonters will do what they will. Vermonters should reflect, however, that the state goal is not to force families and friends to stay apart, but to protect public safety. Keep that in mind. Wear a mask. Social distance. Be extra cautious. And if this initial restriction can lower the rate of infection quickly, perhaps something closer to the Oregon approach could be implemented soon enough. It all depends on how responsible, or reckless, Vermonters choose to be.
Angelo Lynn is the editor and publisher of the Addison Independent, a sister publication to the Mountain Times.