Less than an hour before Gov. Phil Scott was scheduled to start his weekly news conference, Democratic House Speaker Jill Krowinski called on the Republican governor and his administration to take additional steps toward mitigating the spread of COVID-19. About a half-hour later, Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint, also a Democrat, issued a statement backing Krowinski’s call to action.
And like that, the news conference was about the legislative leadership taking the governor to task. The governor, clearly staying the course despite a recent uptick in COVID cases statewide, called the move by the legislative leadership “political.”
Several things are true: Since the start of the pandemic some 18 or so months ago, this governor has taken bold action to mitigate the spread of the virus (and he and his administration have been praised for it). Vermont has been a leader, with the highest vaccination rate of eligible individuals anywhere in the nation, still around 85%. And, lastly, Vermont has had the lowest number of COVID deaths of any state in the nation, at 270. (According to the state Department of Health dashboard, on Tuesday Vermont had 106 new cases; 34 individuals were hospitalized with COVID; 15 of them in ICU. In all, Vermont has had 27,237 positive COVID cases since it began tracking the pandemic.)
A fourth thing is also true: Scott’s exhaustive news conferences, while helpful in their information and in providing a comforting level of transparency about the crisis, can eat up all of the oxygen in the room. The COVID conversation has reached a point where it needs to breathe.
Krowinski and Balint have sat back and watched this governor lead. But now, at a time when the pandemic trend might suggest that the highly contagious delta variant could pose a considerable risk, especially as schools re-open in a matter of days for in-person classes, the governor’s “stay the course” tact might need some debate.
Sure, the timing of Krowinski’s and Balint’s statements was deliberate. It was aimed at getting the Vermont news media to look at another point of view for a few minutes, and to get a word in edgewise.
Scott knows how effective his approach has been. Vermont’s numbers prove he has been highly effective. (Incidentally, the approach also got him handily re-elected without ever officially campaigning, which some critics have called “playing politics,” too.)
One could say that the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate calling for more steps from the Republican governor is political. It also could be seen as leadership, by pushing back and challenging authority.
Krowinski and Balint are looking at the same data, the same news reports, and they, too, are hearing from Vermonters who have concerns right now.
Based on what they are hearing, Vermonters are asking: Shouldn’t this governor issue a temporary indoor mask mandate? And shouldn’t there be a uniform set of guidelines for school districts?
Could action on those questions cause headaches for Vermonters? Of course. But if it actually does mitigate the spread of the delta variant, protect our children and educators, and provide reassurance, why not?
In her statement, the House speaker wrote, “Since the start of the pandemic, Vermont has been leading the nation in our response to COVID, and Vermonters have stepped up heroically, steadfastly, and let evidence-based science guide our policy response. That’s why I am concerned that the Governor’s change in strategy is failing to keep Vermonters, all of us, safe. We need to be more proactive in following guidance from the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and ensure that we are doing everything we can to mitigate the spread of the virus. Students, teachers and staff are returning to school this week, and all Vermonters should be confident that everything is being done to protect everyone in these congregate settings.”
She went on: “It is encouraging that our case rate appears to be declining compared to two weeks ago, but Vermonters have consistently asked why we aren’t doing more to prevent the spread of the virus. We have the tools available to protect ourselves, and any step we can take to prevent someone from being hospitalized or succumbing to this virus is worth taking.”
And Balint followed up, stating :”I support the speaker’s desire to refocus the statewide conversation about the ongoing pandemic on several key questions. As the delta variant of COVID-19 has taken hold in Vermont, we and our legislative colleagues are fielding many questions from our constituents, our schools, and our businesses about our statewide strategy. I want to make sure all of us in state government continue to provide Vermonters with the information and confidence they need to navigate this next phase safely — both for themselves and their families.”
We need all perspectives right now. Vermonters deserve answers without stolen spotlights and blame games.
This editorial first appeared in the Rutland Herald on Aug. 25.