Reopening complicated by high Covid-19 cases nearby
By Polly Mikula
Vermont appears to be unique in its low Covid-19 infection rate, availability of testing and measured approach to reopening. In fact, it may be among the only states to satisfy the national guidelines for reopening: 1) A downward trajectory of influenza-like illnesses and confirmed cases reported within a 14-day period; 2) the ability to treat all patients without crisis care at hospitals; 3) a robust testing program in place for at-risk healthcare workers.
Since April 18, Vermont has only had two days with new case volumes exceeding 10. Graphs show the curve slowly decreasing from a high of 70 new cases on April 3, plateauing now with a handful of new cases cropping up each day. But, thus far, April 28 is the only day where zero cases were reported since the virus took off in the state.
Additionally, Governor Phil Scott last Wednesday announced that the state would be more than tripling its testing per day from 2,000 tests to 7,500 (see story below).
However, Scott is aware that Vermont’s trends could turn on a dime. He’s watching bordering states carefully and trying to thread the needle of reopening without inadvertently creating future hot spots.
“It only takes one spark, or one unhelpful decision, to reignite this fire. We all need to continue to be smart, cautious and disciplined to preserve are hard-earned gains,” Scott said at the news conference, Monday, May 5.
It’s a tough nut to crack as Vermont’s economy largely depends on tourism — according to a benchmark study by the state, approximately 13 million people visit Vermont each year, bringing $2.8 billion into the state. So until hotels, restaurants, events and recreation are given the OK to reopen, much of the economy will remain stilted.
Tourism-based businesses, however, are likely to be among the last to reopen as the northeastern states, particularly New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts, have fared among the worst.
Collectively, New England plus New York and New Jersey (where most of Vermont’s tourists come from), make up about half of the total case volume in the U.S.
Despite recent announcements of openings, the trends in the Northeast (and U.S. in general) are bad. For the past four weeks, more than 20,000 new cases have been announced each day in the U.S., with the 7 day average trending just under 30,000/day, according to a New York Times database. Additionally, more than 1,000 new deaths have been announced every day since April 2.
Trends show the country on a stubborn plateau instead of the sharp downward curve scientists had hoped for, yet often despite troubling local trends most U.S. states have begun to reopen, relaxing mitigation measures put in place to slow the spread of the virus.
No rush to Vermont
State borders are porous, but somewhat surprisingly, the state has documented no rush of out-of-state visitors through any of its 30 border crossings with Canada, New Hampshire, New York and Massachusetts since April 1, when it began counting out-of-state plates.
In total, 779,219 out-of-state license plates and 802,023 Vermont license plates were counted at border crossings, according to the Agency of Transportation. At the Route 4 entrance in Fair Haven, 48,126 out-of-state plates and 30,996 Vermont plates were counted from April 1 to May 4. Charts show fairly consistent traffic flows across the weeks, with significantly lower volume of traffic total compared to past years, which directly corresponds to the “Stay Home, Stay Safe” orders in Vermont and in all neighboring states.
But what will happen as mitigation measures are relaxed? That is what Scott and many others fear. While only time will tell, here’s a brief look at what is opening in our neighboring northern New England states, which may give insight into upcoming trends and/or be a prediction of Vermont’s next reopening steps (Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, particularly, seem to have coordinated past efforts and Scott hinted that relaxing measures on recreation would be next at the press conference on Monday.)
While Gov. Chris Sununu has extended New Hampshire’s stay-at-home order to May 31 he announced restaurants could reopen for outdoor dining only, starting May 18 and hair salons, barbershops, golf courses, retail stores and drive-in movie theaters will be allowed to reopen May 11 with different requirements for the various industries. Campgrounds too are now open for in-state campers only with a limit of 50% capacity. Employers must also take the temperature of all employees and document it, provide social distancing and everyone is to wear cloth face coverings in public.
Gov. Janet Mills also extended her stay home order through May 31, but also announced a plan for reopening that focuses on outdoor recreation in Phase 1, which begins May 1.
Under the plan, guided recreation activities (like hunting and fishing) golf and disc golf courses may open, with restrictions for social distancing and wearing masks in public. The majority of Maine’s 48 state parks and historic sites are open for day use, with reduced staffing and facilities. However, 10 of the most popular state parks and historic sites will remain closed throughout May to prevent overcrowding.
Lodging, campgrounds and day camps are not slated to open until Phase 2 of the plan, which is slated to begin June 1, and they will only be open for Maine residents and those traveling from out of state who have met the 14-day quarantine requirement.