A massive data-gathering operation at border crossings across Vermont hasn’t shown a major influx in the number of visitors from states with COVID-19 “hotspots,” according to the Scott administration.
Scores of employees at the Agency of Transportation have been manually logging license-plate data at as many as 43 border checkpoints since April 1. Rebecca Kelley, communications director for Gov. Phil Scott, said so far at least, the data have been “encouraging, and nothing that’s raised to the level of thinking we’re seeing a huge influx or a major change in inbound visitors."
The growth rate of COVID-19 in Vermont is now among the slowest in the nation. Scott said his biggest public-health concern is that visitors from states with a higher prevalence of the new coronavirus, such as New York or Massachusetts, will bring the virus with them to Vermont.
“My biggest fear is that we have a few of those embers come into the state and then erupt and we’re not prepared for them, and then we have a full-blown pandemic right in our own backyard,” Scott said last week.
License-plate data being gathered at places like Route 4 in Fair Haven, however, haven’t indicated any major changes in border-crossing activity, according to data posted publicly by the Agency of Transportation.
“The stay-at-home orders and the travel advisory and the lodging closures and the steps that other states are taking around us have really helped lower that traffic volume, and are a little reassuring, I think, for the governor and his team,” Kelley said.
On a recent sunny afternoon, two men sitting in pickup trucks on each side of Route 4 in Fair Haven logged the name of the state on each license plate entering Vermont, and also those leaving the state.
Rob Faley, a maintenance administrator for the Agency of Transportation who’s been overseeing the plate-monitoring operation since it began nearly five weeks ago, said his agency is currently monitoring 21 high-volume crossings for 14 hours a day.
“There are a lot of people involved in this, so it’s a large effort,” Faley said. “But from what I hear, the information has an incredible amount of value.”
Faley said most of the people recording the data — they log only the name of the state on the plate, not the license plate number — are highway maintenance employees who could no longer report to regular duty at district garages.
“Garage folks really can’t telework, they don’t have access to computers — it’s just not in their job duties. So it was just a perfect match at the right time,” Faley said. “We’re keeping them productive, and they’re providing some really solid information for our leaders to make some decisions.”
The traffic monitoring operation began on April 1 — two days after Scott ordered out-of-state visitors to self-quarantine for 14 days upon entering Vermont.
Kelley said the data has led Scott to decide against imposing some of the more restrictive travel limitations instituted by other states.
“Having the National Guard out is something that we were seeing happening in other states and that we were seeing some calls for here in Vermont, so this is really about getting a sense of whether we needed to explore other options,” Kelley said.
Coronavirus-related deaths in New York and Massachusetts have been on the decline in recent days, according to data compiled by health agencies in those states. But Scott said he doesn’t have any immediate plans to stop counting visitors from states with more serious COVID-19 infection rates.
“They’re still seeing a number of deaths, they’re still seeing positive cases, so this isn’t over for them,” Scott said. “And they are literally in our backyard.”