MONTPELIER — Despite an outbreak of COVID-19 in Winooski, Gov. Phil Scott said on Friday that the state is still safely on its way to reopening.
"The cases are confined to one social network of families," Scott said. "This is exactly what we've been preparing for."
Scott said because Vermonters have been diligent about keeping themselves and their families safe, it has given the state enough time to implement contact tracing and testing to "box in" an infection.
"What was impossible two months ago is a reality today," he said.
On Thursday, the Vermont Department of Health reported 36 new cases, the highest single-day rise in cases since early April. Thirty-four of these positive tests were from Winooski. While Scott did not release identification information, the state has noted it is working with a team of translators to contain the outbreak. According to the U.S. Census, 17.9 percent of Winooski's population is foreign born.
Since Monday, the state has worked with the city and Community Health Centers of Burlington to offer testing at the O'Brien Community Center every day of the week.
"We are encouraging every Winooski resident to get the test," Mark Levine, the Commissioner of Health, said.
As of Friday, nearly 450 people have been tested.
"Our [epidemic] team has been on top of this situation," Scott said. "While there may and likely will be more cases, we expect to contain and prevent it from spreading across the city and the state."
"The cases are within the city of Winooski," Levine said. "There are not facilities such as schools or workplaces identified as places of known transmission of the virus."
Mike Piecek, the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Financial Regulation, said the outbreak in Winooski will affect Vermont's data.
"Thirty-six cases will certainly skew our data," he said. Piecek said. Unlike neighboring states which are experiencing new cases each day, Vermont has had very few until the Winooski outbreak. He noted that within a five-hour drive of Vermont, there are 160,000 active cases of infection.
Despite the outbreak, Scott said, Vermont's numbers continue to trend in a positive direction. Because of this, Scott said he was allowing restaurants and pubs to open, but with 25 percent occupancy and 6 feet between parties, effective Friday.
"It won't be dining as usual with this first step," he said, adding that guidance for restaurant and pub owners can be found at the website of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development. "We still have a very long way to go to help our restaurants get back on their feet."
Scott said his decision does not preclude a municipality from keeping restaurants closed if there's a health reason to do so.
Scott also announced the lifting of some travel restrictions. His team, analyzing the data, has determined there are 55 counties in New York and New England that Vermonters can travel to and from without having to worry about quarantining for 14 days.
These are counties with 400 or fewer cases of active infection per 1 million people, Piecek said.
Scott said the border with Canada will remain closed until at least June 21.
Scott also increased lodging capacity, including at campgrounds, to 50 percent, effective Monday.
Even with all the restrictions still in place and with Vermonters practicing safety, Scott said, there are bound to be more outbreaks similar to the one in Winooski.
"That's why we have built up our capacity to box them in," he said. "We continue to work our way through this and learn from it and continue to further strengthen our response and do what we need to do to bridge the gap between now and a vaccine."
There is news from Washington, D.C., that Congress has passed and the president is expected to sign an extension of the Paycheck Protection Program. The Paycheck Protection Flexibility Act extends the amount of time a loan recipient has to spend funds from eight weeks to 24 weeks. It also lowers the portion of funds that borrowers must spend on payroll from 75 percent to 60 percent in order to qualify for forgiveness of the full loan amount. The Agency of Commerce and Community Development has more information at its website.
Levine also addressed the behavior of people attending protests related to the killing of George Floyd. Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was caught on video pressing his knee to Floyd's neck and now faces a charge of second-degree murder. The three other officers at the scene have been charged with aiding and abetting second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter.
"We understand that people are looking at historical injustice, structural racism and economic inequality ... and weighing protest against the potential risk of being close together," Levine said.
He urged people attending protests to wear face coverings and not gather in groups of 25 people or more. He also said anyone who has attended a protest should get tested for COVID-19.
To learn more about how to get tested, visit the Department of Health's website.
"We are asking people to use some common sense," Levine said. "We don't want to stop anyone from exercising their Constitutional rights."
Information from the Associated Press was used in this article.
Bob Audette can be contacted at email@example.com.