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Gov's COVID press conference focuses on Juneteenth

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MONTPELIER — Gov. Phil Scott's COVID-19 press conference on Friday started with a recognition of Juneteenth, the day in 1865 when 250,000 enslaved people in Texas were told they had been freed more than two and a half years earlier by the Emancipation Proclamation.

"June 19 has great historical significance, marking the release of the last enslaved Americans held under our nation's brutal slavery system," said Scott.

This day, he said, has not been celebrated as enthusiastically as other American holidays.

"This says a lot about how much more work we need to do to have a better understanding of what implicit bias or systemic racism even means," said Scott, "and the inequality that still exists in America or the role that each of us plays in order to change it."

Black history is American history, said Scott.

"We must not forget that present day prosperity came at an ugly price," he said.

June 19 is a day to remember those freed people and the progress our nation has made towards equality, Scott said, but injustice wasn't eliminated with the stroke of President Abraham Lincoln's pen, noted Scott.

"We still haven't eliminated the legacy of that system and the racism that comes with it," he said. "We still have work to do."

Celebrating Juneteenth, the governor said, is a way to recognize that the experience of many people of color in America is not the same as that for the white majority. But, he said, recent events and the protests that have followed have precipitated much needed changes.

"Understanding the experiences and perspectives of other Americans and recognizing that those experiences in many cases are vastly different and have not been equal and fair helps us all become better neighbors, better citizens and better human beings," he said.

Xusana Davis, Vermont's first executive director of racial equity, said that she had not learned about Juneteenth until five years ago

"In some ways, that makes me a lot like many other Vermonters, in the sense that we don't know it all," she said. "Despite not knowing all the facts, all the dates, the history in its fullness and in its richness, we are still compelled to and responsible to act to advance equity and to reduce the impacts of slavery."

Davis recounted a discussion she had with a white man who wanted to be a good ally but felt it wasn't his moment.

"He couldn't have been more wrong ... this is very much his moment," she said. "It is the moment of all white people in American and in Vermont. It is your moment to act. It is perhaps more your moment more than anyone else's because as people who wield out-sized and often unearned power and privilege in our society, it's especially important and necessary that you be the ones to exercise that privilege in a way that makes things more equitable for every one."

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But how do you do that? she asked.

"You can begin with occasions like these," said Davis. "Understand what Juneteenth means. Understand what Kwanzaa is. Understand what Cinco de Mayo is, what Ramadan is. What all these other observances are and what they mean to these cultures ... White privilege is that your history is part of the core curriculum and mine is an elective. ... Certain histories in our nation have been suppressed and forgotten, either intentionally or unintentionally."

Keep the history and lessons alive, she said, and talk to your friends and neighbors.

"A good Step Zero is first lower your guard and open your eyes," she said. "If you are told about your privilege, you don't have to be defensive about it. You don't have to be ashamed for not knowing that Juneteenth existed. ... It's about what are we going to do with that knowledge today so we don't repeat that history."

Davis referred Vermonters to an "Action and Allyship" guide that can be used for people who want to get involved in equity work.

State Rep. Kevin "Coach" Christie, a Windsor Democrat and the chairman of the Vermont Human Rights Commission, said he was celebrating Juneteenth with mixed emotions.

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"One cannot ignore where we are as a country and a state, today, where some of neighbors can no longer tolerate what they are watching on the news," he said. "Sadly, the reasons vary from support for racial justice to support for white supremacy."

Systemic racism is real and affects all of us, said Christie.

"When was the last time you were told to go back to the jungle?" he asked, something that happened to his daughter while in school.

"We still have a lot of work to do and we need to do it together," Christie said. "Let's start now by committing to join together with your fellow black and brown Vermonters to mitigate systemic racism in Vermont."

ART & ENTERTAINMENT

Lindsay Kurrle, the secretary of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, said that while "the virus is still among us," it was time to get Vermont's hospitality industry back on track.

"We are working diligently to open things back up as fast as we can," she said.

Effective June 26, restaurants, arts and culture venues and entertainment venues can open up with 50-percent capacity, for a maximum of 75 customers indoors and 150 outdoors, Kurrle said.

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Those guidelines will help the hospitality industry get rolling again while protecting staff and guests at the same time, she said.

"We hope a path to profitability will continue to emerge for our world-class hospitality industry," said Kurrle, referring listeners to the ACCD's website for more detailed information.

The new guidelines will also allow cities and towns to start working on "drive-in" fireworks displays for the Fourth of July, she said.

Mike Pieciak, the commissioner of the Vermont Department of Financial Regulation, is in charge of Vermont's COVID-19 modeling efforts.

He said despite the outbreak on Winooski and Burlington that now counts 101 people infected with the virus, Vermont's data is trending in a positive direction.

While other parts of the country are seeing negative trends, the Northeast is faring better, said Pieciak. This means more people can travel to Vermont without having to quarantine upon arrival, he said.

There are now 72 counties in the Northeast with nearly 7 million inhabitants who can now travel to Vermont without restriction, he said.

"This is about double the amount we had just two weeks ago," said Pieciak.

Dr. Mark Levine, the commissioner of the Department of Health, said the recent outbreak has resulted in two hospitalizations, but no deaths.

He also said that racial injustice is a public health issue.

Health equity only exists, said Levine, when all people have a fair and just opportunity to be healthy. That is not the case in Vermont and around the country, he noted.

"Health equity can't be achieved without addressing the racism that is inherent in our society," said Levine.

Bob Audette can be contacted at raudette@reformer.com.


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