Governor Condemns Xenophobia, Racism Following Hartford Incident
As Vermont continues to outperform most other states in limiting the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Phil Scott has tried to limit outsiders' access to Vermont.
He has required people arriving in Vermont to quarantine themselves for 14 days, and last week flatly urged out-of-staters to stay away for now. But some second-home owners say those policies, even if rooted in sound science, are fostering fear and encouraging racist attacks.
A few days before Mother's Day, Chris Brown was driving around the Upper Valley with his son looking for a good gift for Hilary Anne Hallett, Brown's wife.
Brown is from New York City. He's a professor at Columbia University, and with school out, he and his family have been waiting out the pandemic at their second home in Hartford. On his drive that day, he was flagged down by a guy who appeared upset about his New York license plate.
“So I kind of roll down the window,” Brown said. “And he just starts yelling at me, saying, ‘You don’t belong here. You know, we can’t have people like you here.' He said, ‘The Governor was very clear we don’t want any of your kind here.’”
"He just starts yelling at me, saying, 'You don't belong here. You know, we can't have people like you here.'" — Chris Brown
Brown is African American and said the encounter felt racist.
And, he said, because the governor has been sending out the message that outsiders are not welcome here, his New York license plate gave this guy a good excuse to stop the car and unload on him.
“There has not been enough attention to what people are hearing with these messages,” Brown said. “It’s one thing to say, ‘If you come to the state, quarantine,’ which makes a lot of sense. It’s something else to say we don’t want people coming here.”
Brown said he knows that the governor has been making some tough decisions under very tough circumstances.
But some Vermont towns have also issued guidance. As The Valley News reported on May 1, the town of Hartford sent a letter to non-resident homeowners in late April, requesting they notify the municipality upon their arrival from out-of-state, in addition to self-quarantining for 14 days.
The letter directed second-homeowners to send their name, address and phone number to a town email address "so that we can be aware of your presence in the community."
Brown’s been following the rules – just like everyone else – by sticking around the house and wearing his mask whenever he leaves. But he said that as long as the message is going out that those from out-of-state need to stay away, people who are bigoted and racist will see it as a way to spread hate.
And, he said, that’s not the message we need during a global pandemic.
“We don’t need people in the state turning on each other. We don’t need people across state lines turning on each other. We’ve got enough to deal with, with this thing,” he said.
Scott called Brown to apologize for the incident and addressed it publicly this week. On Wednesday, the governor opened his routine press conference by addressing the Upper Valley incident specifically, and attempting to clarify his position on out-of-state visitors.
The governor said that every time he talks about asking visitors not to come to Vermont, he stresses the importance of not turning that directive into an excuse to create an "us-versus-them" scenario.
“Here's the bottom line. This virus cannot be used as an excuse for hate, bigotry or division, of any type, for any reason. This virus knows no border and it doesn't discriminate,” Scott said Wednesday. “We're all in this together and human decency will get us through this challenging time. Let's remember our common enemy is the virus, not each other. And we should use every ounce of energy to defeat it.”
"Here's the bottom line. This virus cannot be used as an excuse for hate, bigotry or division, of any type, for any reason." — Gov. Phil Scott
But Brown is not the only second-home owner who's had to deal with the fallout from the push to limit the number of out-of-staters entering Vermont.
Jennifer Bonomo and her family live in New Jersey and closed on their second home in Weston about a year ago.
Bonomo was born in Korea. She was adopted by an American family when she was two, and grew up in western Pennsylvania where she says she was one of the very few non-white kids in town.
So she’s used to the stares and to feeling like an outsider. But before the pandemic, Bonomo says she never encountered outright racism or hostility from anyone in Vermont.
She and her husband, who is white, were surprised and upset to come out of the store recently and find a sticker on her car that said “locals only.”
“You know that feeling that you get in your gut, that uncomfortable feeling?” Bonomo asked. “That’s what racism feels like.” She said the note hit her husband especially hard. “Because I grew up with it, I know. So to me, the impact wasn’t as great, because I’m so much more used to it than him. It hurt him to the core.”
There’s a lot of anti-Asian sentiment right now, in the aftermath of China being the early epicenter of the pandemic. Bonomo is not sure if it was her race, or her New Jersey license plates that encouraged someone to slap the sticker on her car.
"You know that feeling that you get in your gut, that uncomfortable feeling? That's what racism feels like." — Jennifer Bonomo
She said when authorities are counting out-of-state license plates at the border and the governor is asking people to stay away from Vermont, it spreads fear.
“Gov. Scott had mentioned that there were some cases of outsiders who brought the virus there. And then I heard stories of police stopping people, asking them where they’re going, what they’re doing," Bonomo said. "And so it kind of gave us that terrified moment where [we thought], ‘Oh crap. Are we going to be sequestered to our home in New Jersey, are we going to be sent back, or what? What’s the deal here?’”
Scott will continue to have to walk a fine line between keeping people safe and relaying a clear message about how out-of-state visitors fit into that plan.
And it will unfortunately be impossible for him to control how the public understands, and acts on those directives.