State planning for retail re-opening
Businesses will be subject to health and safety, training requirements
MONTPELIER — The state will allow a gradual reopening of retail businesses starting May 18, as COVID-19 data continues to trend in a positive direction in Vermont, Gov. Phil Scott announced Monday.
Guidance will be released this week and is being coordinated by the Agency of Commerce & Community Development, in conjunction with the Department of Health and the Department of Public Safety, Scott said at a scheduled press conference.
"Our decisions are going to be driven by the data, and the science, and the recommendations of our experts," Scott said.
"As with all the safe steps we've taken, it also gives us time to closely monitor the data, and adjust if we need to, because we want to make sure the steps we've already taken .. are not having a negative impact on the rate of spread, hospitalization rates, or other trends," he said.
Scott directed all non-essential businesses and nonprofits to stop in-person operations on March 24 under his "Stay Home, Stay Safe" order, in an effort to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.
It's important to know, Scott added, that when retail businesses do re-open, they will need to meet or exceed safety requirements required of other businesses that have been allowed to operate in some capacity.
These include maintaining 6-foot distances between people, with mandatory facial coverings for all employees.
"There will also be an occupancy limit — meaning no more than 25 percent of their maximum legal capacity," Scott said. These businesses will also be required to have detailed health and safety training.
According to the Department of Health, Vermont reported 926 total cases of COVID-19 as of Monday morning, with 53 deaths from the disease.
Scott also said he expects he will be extending the state of emergency related to COVID-19 later this week, but Vermonters can expect "something less" than his "Stay Home, Stay Safe" order.
"Again, we don't want to throw the switch on," Scott said. "We are very much still watching this virus."
People should expect they will still be asked to limit their travels and interactions, he said.
At the press conference, Mike Smith, secretary of the Agency of Human Services, added that if data continues to be favorable, the state could see inpatient elective procedures being allowed in the near future.
This would build on Scott's announcement last week that clinic visits, diagnostic imaging and some outpatient procedures and surgeries could resume, subject to testing, disinfecting, screening and personal protective equipment requirements.
In late April, Scott announced the state will significantly increase and strengthen its testing and contact tracing programs in order to quickly identify, contain and suppress cases and outbreaks of COVID-19.
"Without a vaccine, testing is one of the keys to managing the virus long term, and getting life back to normal," he said.
Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine said that officials believe there are "many more people" in Vermont who are infected with COVID-19 than the 900-plus who have tested positive to date.
The state does have the capacity to conduct those 1,000 tests a day, he said.
"We are encouraging people with symptoms, no matter how mild, to call their healthcare provider for a referral for testing," he said. These tests are performed at no cost to the patient. Those without a health care provider should call 2-1-1.
The list of symptoms associated with COVID-19 has also been expanded from the traditional symptoms of fever, cough and shortness of breath to things like chills, muscle pain, shaking with chills, sore throat and new loss of taste or smell.
The state has also begun offering testing to front-line workers with no symptoms at a series of pop-up testing sites; one is scheduled for Tuesday at Bennington College, and another for Thursday at Brattleboro Union High School.
These events are by appointment only for symptom-free front-line workers, including health care workers and child care providers serving the children of essential workers. Details are at https://www.healthvermont.gov/response/infectious-disease/novel-coronavirus-covid-19-health-care-professionals.
Levine added that it's "really more important than ever" that Vermonters do all they can to keep the virus contained, including maintaining social distancing, washing hands frequently and wearing facial coverings when around people outside of their household.
"Proof that Vermonters are actually taking these measures seriously are in the thoughtful questions they have been asking," Levine said.
In response to questions Vermonters have asked, Levine said, people should always have a face covering with them when they go out.
"Even if you're out alone in the open air, be ready to slip it on when you happen to be with others," he said.
People should wear face coverings even in small gatherings of 10 or fewer people. These coverings should fully cover the nose and mouth, and be snug enough that they don't slip down, Levine said.
The people who should not wear masks are children under age 2, pregnant people and those who have trouble breathing. Those over age 65 or with underlying medical conditions should continue to stay home.
In response to a question, Scott said he continues to promote guidance and education related to mask-wearing.
"If we see that we're having a problem" with the compliance rate for mask-wearing, then the state would take some further steps, he said.
But, he said, that's not his first choice.
"I think the more people wear masks, the more socially acceptable it is," he said. "It's not a step I want to take — forcing Vermonters At this point in time, I think education and guidance is the best approach."
Officials have taken steps to loosen business restrictions and even some social distancing requirements over the past several weeks, as COVID-19 numbers continue to trend in a better-than-expected direction in Vermont.
The state has credited Vermonters' strong adherence to social distancing for much of this trend.
Last Friday, Scott announced that child care programs and summer day camps will be allowed to re-open this season, beginning June 1, subject to requirements.
Scott emphasized that these programs will not be required to re-open if they choose not to.
Scott previously ordered child care facilities to close to the general public as part of an attempt to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.
Officials are hoping to issue opening-related guidance this week, probably mid-week to Thursday, Smith said at Monday's press conference.
As meeting health and safety expectations can be a financial challenge, Scott has said the state is also creating restart grants that will provide about $6 million to child care programs and summer day camps, to help cover the cost of meeting such requirements, he said. Child care providers will also be included in the state's expanded testing and tracing program, he said.
Patricia LeBoeuf can be reached at email@example.com, at @BAN_pleboeuf on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 118.
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