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Explore our coverage of government and politics.

New COVID Emergency Order Allows Vermont Towns To Close Bars, Restrict Public Gatherings

Gov. Scott at COVID news briefing
Screenshot
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ORCA Media
Gov. Phil Scott extended his COVID-19 emergency order for another month and added provisions to allow towns to limit large crowds and close bars.

Gov. Phil Scott said Friday he's concerned about a spike in COVID-19 cases when college students return, so he's given cities and towns strengthened authority to close bars and restrict public gatherings.

The new powers for towns are included in another month-long extension of a coronavirus emergency order the governor first declared five months ago.

Scott said at his Friday news briefing that the new provisions allow communities to set new restrictions beyond what is now allowed in state law. Although the executive order is mainly aimed at college towns, it applies statewide. For example, towns will  be allowed to shorten the hours bars can operate beyond the rules now set by the Department of Liquor and Lottery.

The governor said he’s taking the steps to prevent what’s occurred around the country.

“It appears uncontrolled parties and crowds at bars and clubs are a big part of the problem,” he said. “So I believe giving our towns, especially the college towns, some additional mitigation measures to work with, is the right thing to do.”

"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." — Gov. Phil Scott

Michael Pieciak, the commissioner of financial regulation who leads the state's coronavirus modeling team, said many students will return to campus within the next three weeks. The latest model includes a forecast of an increase in cases as students come back.

“Many of these students are returning from areas of the country with a higher disease prevalence than Vermont,” Pieciak said. “This, combined with the robust testing program, means we are likely to see spikes in our case counts over the next three weeks as these cases are identified, their contacts are traced and the students are safely isolated.”

At his briefing, Scott also responded to sustained criticism from the Vermont-NEA, the union representing Vermont teachers. The NEA says the state lacks a coordinated statewide safety strategy, and predicts chaos in the classroom when schools restart.

More from Vermont Edition: What Vermont Teachers Think About Starting School This Fall

Scott said the criticism is unfounded, and that teachers have been involving in the planning.

“Some of the criticism is that we haven’t given enough guidance to the schools, that we’re leaving it all up to them,” he said. “And I would have to say that we’ve taken a lot of steps in providing guidance.”

The administration has allowed school districts the leeway to choose between in person-learning, remote learning or a mix of the two. But the state has also set statewide COVID safety requirements for schools. Scott ticked off many set by his administration, including health screening requirements, guidance for at-risk staff, protocols for bus travel, cleaning of buildings, food delivery and more.

“I would also say this [NEA criticism] isn't unique to Vermont,” he said. “In speaking to other governors throughout the country, they're experiencing the exact same thing. So this is a national effort, with a lot of the same talking points.”

"Some of the criticism is that we haven't given enough guidance to the schools, that we're leaving it all up to them. And I would have to say that we've taken a lot of steps in providing guidance." — Gov. Phil Scott

Although the Health Department reported 17 new cases Friday, Vermont’s weekly rate of increase in COVID cases remains below 1%, officials said.  

Health Commissioner Mark Levine said his staff is also studying statewide death data – not just those from COVID-19 – after a New York Times report this week found Vermont's death rate was higher than normal in July.

The report said the bulk of the above-normal deaths occurred in the Northeast and suggested that some of the deaths could be from undetected COVID cases.

Levine said the higher-than-normal death rates probably doesn't represent uncounted Vermont cases. He said the death rate changes month to month.

“If you go week by week by week for any month of the year, sometimes you'll find the rate was only 80% of what we had in 2020,” he said. “Other times you'll find another week was 130% of what we had in 2020. So it's very variable.”

Levine said the Health Department uses a broad definition COVID deaths. It counts those as caused by the disease even if the person dies months after the infection or from a secondary condition, such as pneumonia.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter John Dillon @VPRDillon

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