Yesterday, August 13th, marked five months since I first declared a State of Emergency so we could respond to this once-in-a-century global pandemic.
Under that order, we took significant action to avoid huge surges of COVID-19, which were impacting the healthcare systems of neighboring states like New York and Massachusetts.
What’s important for us to remember is that we were in a different place then, than we are now. Today, we have a lot more testing and contact tracing capacity to contain the virus. And we’ve increased our inventory of PPE.
We still have health and safety measures statewide and our individual behavior is also much different today. And businesses have taken steps to help reduce the risk of spreading the virus, like working remotely, separating workstations, changing schedules, wearing masks, improving ventilation, and helping customers stay 6 feet apart.
Five months ago, when cases, and deaths, were first spiking, we weren’t wearing masks; no one knew what social distancing meant; many weren’t thinking about washing their hands multiple times a day, much less for a full 20 seconds; and, sadly, folks were much more likely to go out, or go to work, even if they felt sick.
My point is this: We know so much more about this virus now, have more tools and have taken many steps to slow the spread.
With all that we learned and with your hard work, we’ve suppressed this virus here in Vermont. And this has allowed us to methodically reopen all sectors of the economy to some degree since late April.
We’ve consistently been able to move forward, while many other states have had to scale back reopening, or even worse, have had to close down sectors they had opened.
But because we’ve been disciplined, respectful, informed and smart. We’re safer as a result.
And because we’re safer, we’ve been able to put large numbers of Vermonters back to work, including from sectors like manufacturing, retail, health care, childcare, construction, and those in salons, restaurants, hotels and more -- joining essential workers who never left the frontlines.
And because we’ve been methodical about it, even as we’ve reopened, we’ve seen our case counts and positivity rates stay among the lowest in the country. Again, this approach has allowed us to consistently move forward.
It’s important to note that we’ve still had clusters and outbreaks, but we’ve been able to contain each of them, so it hasn’t spread broadly into the community.
Importantly, for many months we’ve seen minimal hospitalizations. And while, sadly, we’ve seen 58 COVID deaths since March, 52 of those came before we really started reopening the economy.
We should be proud of what we’ve done, but at the same time, given what the rest of the country is facing, every single one of us must stay vigilant.
This means wearing a mask when around others, staying 6 feet apart, washing your hands a lot, staying home when sick or have been exposed to someone with COVID and following our travel guidance. These steps are more important than ever as college students return, and our K-12 schools begin to offer some level of in-person instruction.
Because as we’ve heard Dr. Levine, Dr. Kelso and Dr. Bell say, we ALL have a role to play to keep the numbers in our community as low as possible. This is the most important thing we can do for our kids, families, and school employees.
So, it should come as no surprise that today I’ve extended the State of Emergency for another month.
Again, this is the vehicle that allows us to manage and continue to suppress this virus. And as college students return to school, there are some additional tools for municipalities included in this order.
To start, it gives cities and towns the ability to lower the limit on gathering size. And, it lets them limit hours for the sale of alcohol, meaning they could set a curfew for bars and clubs.
Looking at case growth in other states, and hearing from other Governors about what they saw, it appears uncontrolled parties and crowds at bars and clubs are a big part of the problem.
So, I believe giving our towns, especially the college towns, some additional mitigation measures to work with is the right thing to do.
Now, based on some of the questions we’ve been getting and some of how our approach is being characterized, I’m going to address some anticipated concerns up front.
As I said at the beginning, we’ve learned, and we’ve done a lot since March and April. Our response has been one of the most comprehensive and effective, in the country.
We’ll continue to adapt our approach based on new facts, the data we track in real time, with the input of our world-class health experts.
With this approach, we have a proven strategy for taking steps to prevent spread and reopen Vermont. We always have -- and always will -- put the health of Vermonters first. Always.
So, working closely with our health experts, we’ve found ways to open to the greatest extent possible, while keeping community infections low. In fact, as of today we have THE LOWEST number of cases PER CAPITA in the country.
We’ve achieved this balance by prioritizing openings based on what we need to be open in person, for public health, safety and economic security. This includes hospitals, doctors’ offices and dentists, childcare, manufacturing and, yes, now our schools to some extent – though they are just beginning the process of opening and many of them are taking a hybrid approach.
The unfortunate reality is, in order to manage the reopening of these priority areas and monitor the rate of spread, we continue to ask other sectors, like lodging and hospitality businesses, to make enormous sacrifices. And it’s why we encourage workers who can continue to work remotely, to do so.
Because just like Dr. Levine tells us to keep track of the number of contacts we have each day, our reopening strategy has to consider the same thing across all sectors.
For example, that’s why I’ve directed state employees who CAN work remotely, to continue to do so until the end of the year.
It’s not because it’s unsafe for them to work, it’s because it’s an opportunity to significantly reduce the number of person-to-person contacts which will keep the risk lower for sectors where we need in-person activities.
This is part of the measured, strategic and scientific approach we’ve taken throughout this crisis, and it’s why I’m giving our communities, especially the college towns, the ability to further limit some high-contact activities as we increase the number of people in those areas.
Again, it’s about prioritizing where contact must occur, versus where we may not need it.
Our proven approach also means we’ll be methodical and watch the data closely, never letting our guard down and being flexible and quick to respond to changes.
So, I’m going to continue to watch the data and ask the experts how we’re doing -- every single day -- to make sure we’re on the right track.
And as we’ve proven over the last five months, if the data or the expert advice changes, we’ll have the courage to act in the interest of public health, regardless of the political ramifications.
So, if Vermonters are wondering if we’ll act quickly if the situation on the ground changes. The answer is yes. Absolutely.