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Scott loosens rules on social gatherings

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MONTPELIER — Small gatherings and some forms of outdoor recreation are once again permitted in Vermont, as Gov. Phil Scott on Wednesday announced the state's first loosening of social distancing restrictions.

Scott said social gatherings and interactions of 10 people or fewer could resume, preferably in outdoor settings, as long as physical distancing and hygiene protocols are observed.

In addition, golf courses, tennis courts and other outdoor recreation areas that require low or no physical contact may begin operations, so long as health and safety guidelines and training requirements are met.

"These small gatherings will give Vermonters a chance to safely reunite — if we do so carefully," Scott said at a scheduled press conference.

This means mainly outdoor gatherings, as it's easier to physically distance when there is more space, he said.

Members of one household may also socialize with members of another household, such as family, friends or neighbors.

"There's no specific set of guidelines or enforcement measures we can put into place," Scott said. "So we need Vermonters to use some common sense during these visits, but if we do, it means kids can play together, or a neighbor you trust can take a turn at helping your kids with a remote learning plan."

Those with underlying medical conditions like heart and lung disease or diabetes and older adults should continue to stay home, to help keep themselves safe, Scott said.

"Because we have to remember — this virus still exists," he said. "And by returning to work and opening other activities, we have to acknowledge there's more risk of getting and passing on the virus. That's why physically separating, hand-washing and wearing facial coverings are so important."

The reason Vermont has been successful in mitigating the spread of COVID-19, Scott said, is because of Vermonters' work at social distancing.

"Thanks to your hard work, Vermont has flattened the curve," he said.

But if the state doesn't remain vigilant, the number of new cases and serious illnesses could spike, "forcing us to retreat" after all the good work that's been done, Scott said.

As of Wednesday morning, 908 cases of COVID-19 have been reported in the state, an increase of one from the previous day, according to the Vermont Department of Health. The number of deaths remained unchanged at 52.

Scott added that Vermonters should continue to keep a 6-foot distance from others outside their home, and stay home if they are sick.

"Together, we must continue to stay united in keeping Vermont ahead of the curve, so we can fight and defeat this virus," he said.

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Vermonters can also leave home to participate in outdoor recreation and outdoor fitness activities that require "low or no" direct physical contact, according to an addendum signed by Scott on Wednesday.

The addendum remains in effect until May 15, subject to extension or modification. Vermont's state of emergency in relation to COVID-19 remains in effect.

Effective Thursday, all businesses and nonprofit and government entities that offer or support outdoor recreation and outdoor fitness activities that require low or no direct physical contact may also begin operations, subject to compliance with health and safety guidelines and training requirements.

These entities include state and municipal parks, recreation associations, trail networks, golf courses, big game check stations and guided expeditions, according to the addendum.

Campgrounds, marinas and beaches may not open, and organized sporting events are not allowed.

Vermonters are also no longer being asked to limit their outdoor excursions to within 10 miles of their homes, Julie Moore, secretary of the Agency of Natural Resources, said at the press conference.

The Agency of Commerce and Community Development has tools and templates available to help outdoor recreation-related entities to create necessary re-opening and training plans, she said.

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Moore also provided guidance for Vermonters looking to safely participate in outdoor recreation.

Biking, hiking, walking, running, fishing, golfing, horseback riding and other activities "are all available for the taking," she said.

"But we can't all go to the same place at the same time," she said. "We need to redefine our routines in light of the new normal. Give some rest to our most well-known and most-visited outdoor treasures, and seize the opportunity to play tourist here in Vermont. There are many less-crowded spots to discover."

For example, she said, Vermont has more than 750,000 acres of public land, and more than 800 lakes and ponds.

To make sure people do not overwhelm popular recreation areas, Moore said she has asked game wardens to increase their patrol of some of the most popular trailheads, and ask people to leave if they see too many people congregating.

She reminded Vermonters to maintain physical distance in outdoor recreation — like stepping 6 feet out of the way when someone passes on a hiking trail.

"We encourage you to embrace an arrive, play and leave mentality" — it's important not to gather in groups before or after activities, she said.

"So put another way — no tailgating," she said.

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All the entities that support or offer outdoor recreation and fitness that will open under this change must also follow social distancing, health and sanitation guidelines outlined in the addendum.

Employees must observe strict social distancing of 6 feet and wear face coverings when in the presence of others. Temperature checks and health surveys must be conducted prior to each shift to verify each employee has no symptoms of respiratory illness.

All employees, except those who are already trained in infection control, must also complete, and employers must document, a mandatory training on health and safety requirements as provided by the Vermont Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or another training program that meets or exceeds the VOSHA-provided standard.

Businesses and nonprofit and government entities with over 10 employees must also adopt a health and safety training program prior to re-opening that will, in many cases, require a plan that augments the VOSHA training standards, according to the addendum.

This marks the first time Scott has loosened social distancing restrictions since he declared a state of emergency in relation to COVID-19 in Vermont just over seven weeks ago.

Scott has also announced multiple loosenings of business-related restrictions in recent weeks, and on Monday, the state's first reduction in health care-related restrictions, in light of continued positive trends in COVID-19 numbers.

Scott has said the state's expanded testing and tracing program is critical to re-opening efforts.

At Wednesday's press conference, Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine said that contact tracing is actually "much simpler" than it used to be, in this era of staying home and staying safe.

But with more opportunities to get outside and see others socially, people may have more contact with each other, he said.

"And we've actually gotten a fair amount of feedback from very well-intentioned Vermonters who say, `that might be complicated for me if you call me up and say that I've been a contact,'" he said.

One Vermonter said that they had been doing their own contact tracing since mid-March, writing on their calendar who they've come in contact with every day.

"Seems like [it's] pretty easy to do, to me," Levine said. "...Not a bad idea. So I just bring that to your attention, since our social distancing requirements have changed a little bit now."

While some other states have taken a more rapid approach to opening, Scott said Vermont officials believe they are doing the right thing in regards to handling COVID-19.

"Who am I to say who's got it right, who's got it wrong?" he said. "History will be the judge."

Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at pleboeuf@benningtonbanner.com, at @BAN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.


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