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Scott steps up fight against coronavirus as cases rise

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MONTPELIER — The governor and members of his administration are urging people to leave their homes as little as possible as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to climb in Vermont.

"Doing so will save lives," Gov. Phil Scott said during a press conference Wednesday. "It's just that simple."

Dr. Mark Levine, commissioner of health, acknowledged the stay-at-home order would be "a major lifestyle change for us to experience."

"We know this is going to be a great hardship for people," he said. "We know that this is unprecedented, but we also know this is very scientifically sound — but hard."

The state has seen "exponential growth" in the number of COVID-19 cases and can anticipate an increase, Levine said, recalling only having one case in Vermont about two weeks ago. At the conference, he was aware of 123 cases and eight deaths.

Scott anticipates limitations on businesses to last weeks or months. Regarding further restrictions, he said, "We'll watch the trend. We'll still rely on the best science we have available ... then we'll continue to make changes as we see necessary."

Amtrak and "partner states" will be suspending train services starting Thursday and the Vermont Association of Snow Travelers planned to close its snowmobile trails Wednesday, Scott said. He has asked businesses and organizations to allow employees to work from home wherever possible.

His latest addendum to the state of emergency order went into effect at 5 p.m. Wednesday. Businesses and organizations deemed "non-essential" have been ordered to shut down in-person operations. Restaurants and food retailers can continue offering delivery and takeout orders.

Essential refers to whether the work has to do with the COVID-19 response or national security. Exemptions to the order include "health care operations; retail serving essential human needs, like grocery stores, pharmacies and hardware stores; fuel products and supply; maintenance of critical infrastructure; news media; and transportation and critical manufacturing sectors," states a news release.

Lindsay Kurrle, secretary of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, said her group will issue additional guidance about what the order means for businesses and entities. Appeals can be made by filling out a form at bit.ly/covid-vt-business-operations.

Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling expects most businesses and entities will voluntarily comply with the order. He said municipalities and police departments will be advised on how to provide education on the order.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Department of Public Safety and the Vermont State Police recommended that local authorities handle enforcement of the executive order primarily through education and voluntary compliance.

"The executive order does not close roads, nor does it establish roadblocks, checkpoints or the authority to demand identification," the DPS said. It said the order does not prohibit driving or walking, and does not establish cause to pull a driver over for questioning about their travel.

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Scott called his stay-at-home order "one of the strongest in the nation" and the coronavirus pandemic "a once-in-a-century challenge."

"But I know Vermonters are up for it because we are Vermont strong," he said. "We'll get through this and we'll get through it together."

Scott said the coronavirus was spreading quickly and the pandemic has brought about "uneasy times" in terms of economic impact, however, "public safety must come first."

"We must also do this to prevent our health care system from being overwhelmed," he said.

Scott said Vermonters can continue going outdoors for walks or to do some cross-country skiing, and making trips to the pharmacy or grocery store. He advised residents to stay 6 feet away from others, regularly their wash hands and cough or sneeze into their elbows.

Levine said about 80 percent of those infected would not need to be hospitalized and would survive. He noted that those in their 70s and older have much higher chances of having worse outcomes but there will be some people in the 20- to 50-year-old age range who will become sicker than others who are the same age.

It is unclear when state officials expect to ease up restrictions.

"I wish I had crystal clear answers for you but we don't," Levine said, anticipating the spread of the infection to slow down and then have the virus return later. He said the population will have much more immunity at that time, making it more difficult to pass on the virus. He also expects more refinements to case tracing and isolation methods by that time.

U.S. Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., said coordination is needed in order to be successful.

"We have one mission and that mission is to protect the public health and to restore the economy," he said. "The approach we have to take to save the economy is to err on the side of doing too much too soon rather than doing too little too late."

Welch said Congress passed bills to get money to "frontline providers," increase employment insurance and unemployment benefits, help health care providers with Medicaid reimbursements, and make sure students and seniors who depend on meal services get those. He said another bill is being negotiated to help individuals, small businesses and states through this time.

Scott told reporters they could expect something soon on guidance around evictions. He said he is working on legislation on that issue.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com and at @CMaysBR on Twitter.


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