Within our system of government, responsibility for public health lies mostly on the shoulders of state and local governments. Given the current Administration’s reluctance or inability to provide much in the way of national leadership, this has been particularly true for the COVID-19 pandemic.
Across the 50 states, the response to the COVID-19 pandemic has ranged from reluctant to decisive in the lockdown phase and reckless to patient in the reopening. State and local officials have tried to find the right balance between human health and economic health. By and large, all 50 states took very similar decisions and actions, but the timing of these actions differed substantially.
Thus far, Vermont’s response lies at the decisive and patient end of the spectrum and the impact of COVID-19 on public health has been minimized as a result. There has also been a sharp, adverse economic impact.
This article will review the actions taken by Vermont and compare them to others states and the rest of the USA. The next article will discuss the public health impact of COVID-19 in Vermont. Subsequent articles will take a look at both the economic and fiscal consequences in Vermont.
State of Emergency
Vermont had its first known COVID-19 case on March 7, 2020. Beginning on March 1 in Florida, states around the country began declaring a State of Emergency with respect to the coronavirus pandemic. By March 11, there were over 1000 known cases in the US as a whole and some 25 states had declared a State of Emergency. On March 12, the federal government declared a nationwide State of Emergency. Vermont declared a State of Emergency the next day.
Vermont took two other actions at the same time. Importantly, it restricted access to Vermont’s care homes. It also banned non-essential travel by state employees and gatherings of more than 250 people. Eight days later, gatherings would be limited to ten or less.
On March 15, Vermont ordered all K-12 schools shut. Three days earlier, Ohio was the first state to do this and Vermont was the 15th. On March 26, Vermont made it clear that schools would remain closed until September.
All 50 states ultimately took the same decisions and K-12 schools are closed around the country until September.
No More Fun
Vermont ordered all bars and restaurants shut on March 16. All “close contact” businesses were shut on March 21, so no more pedicures, haircuts or movies for a while.
Every state in the country either closed or greatly restricted bars, restaurants and other close contact businesses. Opening these businesses up again, which will be discussed below, differed more widely from one state to the next and the consequences are being felt today.
Stay at Home
On March 24, Vermont reported 20 more COVID-19 cases, bringing the total to 95. It was only 17 days earlier that Vermont had its first case. Sadly, there were 7 deaths by this date.
Governor Scott took the draconian step of issuing a Stay-At-Home order on March 24, making Vermont the 9thstate to do so. All non-essential businesses were shut down until further notice. Governor Scott also ordered the Vermont National Guard to build three medical surge sites across the state in anticipation of hospitals being unable to handle all the COVID-19 cases that might be coming.
Governor Scott would have been acutely aware of the ramifications this order was going to have on Vermont’s businesses, labor market and tax receipts. He would also have been aware that the CARES Act was about to be passed in Washington, which would greatly cushion the blow for the unemployed, businesses and the State’s own fiscal position.
Most states took the same measures as Vermont, but not all. Four states never issued a Stay-at-Home order, two states did so only on a regional basis and two other states issued a Stay-At-Home “advisory” as opposed to an order. Three states allowed non-essential retail to remain open.
Travel Quarantine Requirement
On March 31, Vermont imposed a 14-day quarantine period on any non-essential travelers entering the state and banned travel from COVID-19 ‘hot spots” like New York City, Detroit and Chicago and states including Florida, New York and New Jersey.
Only 18 other states imposed mandatory quarantines on a statewide basis. However, Vermont is a very small state and is located in a very bad coronavirus neighborhood. To the west and south sit New York and Massachusetts, two states with very high infection rates. To the north, over half of all of Canada’s coronavirus cases were in Quebec.
Shift to Reopening
As outlined above, Vermont shut down in an unprecedented fashion by way of a series of Executive Orders beginning with the State of Emergency on March 13 and ending with the travel restrictions and quarantine requirements imposed on March 31. These restrictions would remain fully in place through the first half of April.
Beginning on April 17, the Governor began a cautious and phased reopening of Vermont’s economy. Phase 1 set out safe work rules, including social distancing, the need for non-medical facemasks, cleaning and disinfection requirements and the like. It also permitted limited construction work outdoors and in unoccupied buildings, single worker/single client professional services (lawyers, realtors etc.), and curbside retail operations.
Subsequent Executive Orders required mandatory coronavirus safety training in the work place and expanded the reopening of business. As of May 22, construction, manufacturing and distribution activities were reopened, non-essential retail was allowed and parks, golf courses and trail networks were all open.
Restrictions regarding in-state travel were relaxed, initially with quarantine requirements for out-of-state travel. Lodging has also reopened. By June 8, quarantine restrictions were relaxed for certain out-of-state counties where the COVID-19 infection rate was 400/million or lower.
In late May, bars and restaurants were allowed to provide outdoor service with indoor service resuming in June.
Close contact businesses such as hairdressers, nail salons and spas were allowed to reopen in early June.
This is pretty much where Vermont stands today in the post-COVID new normal. By shutting down for a prolonged period of time and reopening on a phased basis, Vermont reduced the COVID-19 infection rate to manageable levels. Indeed, Vermont has one of the lowest infection rates in the entire country.
Many states that shutdown later and reopened sooner are now suffering as a result. The infection rates in many states, such as Florida, Arizona and Texas, has not even peaked yet. As a result, shutdowns are now occurring for a second time.
Vermont’s out-of-state quarantine restrictions are looking like a smart policy! Now is not the time to relax.