MONTPELIER, Vt. — Gov. Phil Scott has announced restaurants can open for outdoor seating, some medical procedures can resume and businesses such as salons and barbershops, can start back up May 29 in response to the state’s positive handling of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The governor said depending on data tracking the virus that causes COVID-19, he’s looking to increase the number of people allowed to group up from 10 to 25 starting June 1. He also announced churches can open at 25% capacity.
It wasn’t all good news because the governor announced that fairs and festivals have been canceled for the summer, including the Vermont State Fair in Rutland and the Champlain Valley Fair — two very popular summertime events. Events that take place in the fall may be able to go forward, but Scott said it would depend on where things stand in the coming months.
The numbers being reported from the Department of Health continue to be encouraging. The state has ramped up its testing ability and state officials expected that to mean an increase in positive tests. But the department reported only two new cases of the virus Friday, increasing the total confirmed cases in the state from 950 to 952. There also has not been another death from the virus. That total remains 54.
Scott said he’s taking a conservative approach to reopening the economy because of what’s going on regionally. New York, New Hampshire and Massachusetts continue to be in worse shape than Vermont in combating the virus.
“Because we’re not on an island, and some of our neighbors still have a significant number of new and active cases,” he said.
The governor said businesses that can start back up will need to follow health and safety requirements from the Agency of Commerce and Community Development.
Restaurants must have their tables spaced at least 10 feet apart and no more than 50 people can be seated. They are required to use disposable menus and a total of 10 people from only two households are allowed to sit at the same table.
Salons and barbershops are only allowed to operate at 25% capacity, or one customer per 200 square feet, or 10 total customers and staff members combined, whichever is greater. Those businesses can only take appointments, so no more walk-ins.
Restaurants, bars, salons and barbershops, as well as lodging businesses, are required to keep a log of those they have served for 30 days in an effort to help contact tracing if needed.
Gyms and spas aren’t allowed to open yet, but Scott said he’s looking to announce a time frame for them in a week.
Scott said he’s tried not to get too far ahead of the data when making decisions, but “the reality is, we’re still far from being back to normal.” He said the Vermont Fairs and Field Days Association has asked him for guidance on whether this summer’s events should proceed. The governor said the state’s not ready for “large, unstructured events with hundreds, if not thousands, of people coming into one area without control and the ability to physically separate.”
Scott said all traditional fairs and festivals have been canceled for the season. He said this order does not close fairgrounds or prohibit operations that may meet the health and safety requirements put forth in the coming months.
Dr. Mark Levine, commissioner of the state Department of Health, said some medical procedures can move forward. They include inpatient surgeries and procedures; outpatient services, including clinic visits, diagnostic imaging and limited outpatient surgeries and procedures; and elective dental services.
Levine said health care providers will have to screen patients, staff and visitors for symptoms of the virus. They will also need to have adequate supplies of personal protective equipment and procedures in place to test staff, as well as patients who will be having surgery.
Gov. Phil Scott also announced on Friday that all fairs, festivals and mass gatherings on fair grounds have been canceled through the rest of the year.
Scott and other members of his administration have been participating in press conferences three times a week to announce updates in the state’s effort to flatten the curve of the spread of the novel coronavirus and COVID-19. The guidance for fairs was announced on Friday.
Robert Congdon, president of the Rutland County Agricultural Society, said members of the society were “of course, saddened.”
“We were really keeping a positive outlook. I was really hopeful that things would turn the corner and we would be able to proceed and have our events this year,” he said.
The fair was scheduled for Aug. 18-22. It would have been the 175th Vermont state fair.
“I think for me that’s the largest piece of the disappointment. We were really working and had a great line-up in place for the 175th. We’re doing our best now to take — and obviously this news is very fresh — but we will be working hard over the next several weeks to get the 175th plan for next year now and we’ll be able to have a great fair next year with a lot of the entertainment that we had lined up for this year. We look forward to working with all those folks to make sure that happens,” Congdon said.
According to Congdon, late spring and early summer events planned for the fairground have already been canceled.
“Truthfully, we are still hopeful that some of our smaller events that use our fairgrounds will still be able to go on within the guidelines,” he said
Mary Cohen, executive director of the Rutland Region Chamber of Commerce, said she wasn’t sure what economic impact the fair has on the area or what businesses rely on fair visitors, but said she was concerned it was an indication of how Vermont might struggle to bring back tourism.
The Vermont State Fair organization announced the decision on its Facebook page on Friday afternoon.
“Please stay tuned as we will be releasing announcements in the coming weeks regarding other events we had booked. We can confirm this means no July 4th Summer Smash (a demolition derby) and the fair scheduled for August is also canceled,” the post stated.
Congdon said he understood 2020 wouldn’t be the first year the fair had been canceled, but he wasn’t certain exactly what years it had happened before.
Congdon said he believes the fair skipped a year for the Spanish influenza epidemic, which took place in 1918, and one of the world wars.
The point, he added, was that a cancellation of the fair was not unprecedented but hadn’t happened for “years and years.”
Congdon said organizers weren’t shocked by the decision but were still somewhat surprised by the way it was shared with the public.
“Let me put it this way, we were unaware that the announcement or that a final decision was coming today,” he said.
On May 15, representatives of all the fairs in Vermont, along with Mike Smith, secretary of the Agency of Human Services and Anson Tebbetts, secretary of the Agency of Agriculture, took part in a remote conference to discuss what might happen, according to Congdon. Those organizing fairs shared their opinions but Congdon said they weren’t told a decision had been made.
However, Congdon said he and his colleagues understood a decision or guidance might be announced this week.
“Unfortunately, as the governor made it clear today in his executive order, large gatherings this year are out of the question and because they’re out of the question, that obviously affects all the fairs in Vermont,” Congdon said.
Congdon said agricultural society are unhappy because they don’t like to disappoint the area residents who visit the fair as participants or spectators.
“We love our community and we put our event on for our community. Certainly, losing that event and losing the ability to do that for our community is a hard blow to all of us,” he said.
The cancellation of the event will also be an economic hardship for the fair organization, Congdon said.
“Certainly this is a blow to us. We can’t overlook that. I am working with our finance committee to weather the storm. I have a firm belief that we will weather the storm. We will come out the other side and be able to have events in the future. I have no doubt of that. We will pull it off,” he said.