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Some Town Officials Are Amplifying Gov.'s COVID Guidelines, Others Don't Want To

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GNAT-TV
Londondery Select Board Member Vincent Annunziata, lower right, said he did not support Gov. Phil Scott's call to cancel large Thanksgiving gatherings this year.

When the number of coronavirus cases spiked across Washington and Orange counties, state officials called an emergency meeting with select boards and town managers in the region.

The state wants local officials to help get the word out about ways to control the spread. But some of the most extreme directives coming down from Gov. Scott are not always universally accepted among local boards.

At a recent Londonderry Select Board meeting, Kevin Beattie, the town’s emergency management director, kicked off the meeting with an update on the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

“As you all know, things are changing quickly in the COVID world,” Beattie told the board. “The spread of COVID and the number of cases is increasing rapidly across the country, and somewhat rapidly also in Vermont.”

Beattie said the governor was asking the people of Londonderry to stay at home for the holidays, and not gather with friends and family.

More from VPR: Gov. Clarifies Social Gathering Rules

“It’s really these private gatherings that is the problem,” Beattie said. “And that’s kind of hard to hear with Thanksgiving and the holidays coming up, but, everybody really needs to bite the bullet and, you know, do things differently this year.”

But select board member Vincent Annunziata said he wasn’t ready to tell the people in Londonderry that they had to cancel Thanksgiving this year.

“I think that the only oath that we swore as select board members when we signed on was to uphold the rights of the Constitution. And I don’t see anything Constitutional about telling me what I can do in my own house for Thanksgiving and Christmas,” Annunziata said. “And I’m not comfortable biting that bullet. So explain to me why we should tell the people who elected us to bite the bullet.”

The town health officer clarified that he was only sharing information that was coming down from the state, and that the board wasn’t really being asked to enforce, or amplify the message.

"I think that the only oath that we swore as select board members when we signed on was to uphold the rights of the Constitution. And I don't see anything Constitutional about telling me what I can do in my own house for Thanksgiving and Christmas." — Vincent Annunziata, Londonderry Select Board

Town Clerk Kelly Pajala, however, said the public health emergency should compel the board members to put their personal feelings aside to better protect the people in town.

“If people are choosing to follow guidelines, it is maybe because there is someone in their life that they love that they are choosing to protect, and shaming them for doing that is completely inappropriate,” Pajala said. “And it is not the select board’s place to carry out the governor’s enforcement of his guidelines. But for the select board to say that they should disregard them, I also think is pretty irresponsible.”

In normal times, the town health officer helps the select board with things like rental housing conditions, or rabies control.

But these are not normal times, and so the meetings between town health officers and the state are getting more frequent as the stakes get higher.

Agency of Human Services spokesman Conor Kennedy says if the virus continues spreading across Vermont, then select boards will be expected to do what they can to control the outbreak, regardless of how they might feel personally about the threat of community spread.

“You know that’s not a unique situation, we do know that there are people out there that have a difference of opinion,” he said. “So for those folks that are struggling with it, and I get it. We’ve been in this for a long time, and it’s exhausting.”

"We would certainly urge, and we are urging, every local official to essentially amplify the governor's message whenever possible. You know, just, really liberally spreading the message around, and urging people to be careful and to take care of their neighbors." — Karen Horn, Vermont League of Cities and Towns

Earlier this month, as the number of COVID-19 cases spiked in Washington and Orange counties, state officials held an emergency Zoom meeting with select board members from towns in those two communities.

Moretown select board chairman Tom Martin says prior to the outbreak in central Vermont, there was some pushback among his board members to some of the directives coming down from the governor.

But the number of coronavirus cases in Moretown is now three times the state average. And Martin said a fellow select board member who was resistant has now come around to accepting some of the more extreme state directives.

“This is a pandemic. You know, these times call for extreme measures,” Martin said. “I don’t want the governor in my living room. But we need to somehow live by these new mandates and guides.”

More from VPR: How One Vermont Town's Emergency Management Team Is Responding To The Pandemic

Vermont League of Cities and Towns director of public policy, Karen Horn, said towns have been engaged in the pandemic right along, from getting signs up to remind people to wear masks to setting up emergency food distribution sites in town hall.

Horn says select board members know their local communities, and they play an important role in helping the state get its messages out.

“Nobody can compel a select board member to say something specific, because there are those First Amendment rights,” Horn said. “We would certainly urge, and we are urging, every local official to essentially amplify the governor’s message whenever possible. You know, just, really liberally spreading the message around, and urging people to be careful and to take care of their neighbors.”

Correction 4:30 p.m. 11/25/2020: Kevin Beattie is Londonderry's emergency management director. A prior version of this story referred to him as the Town Health Officer

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman @hweisstisman.

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