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We need more than a COVID-19 vaccine

The protests that have erupted, defying science and demanding a rapid reopening of the economy, risk spreading infection and show that, besides a COVID-19 vaccine, we need a vaccine against ignorance, too.

Protesters against Vermont's stay-home order gathered at the State House on Wednesday.
Protesters against Vermont's stay-home order gathered at the State House on Wednesday.Lisa Rathke/Associated Press

MONTPELIER, Vt. — Except for maybe Burlington on UVM move-in day, that stretch of Route 100 heading into and out of Stowe on a powder day, and the occasional backup at a narrow covered bridge on some remote country road during foliage season, traffic jams are virtually unheard of in Vermont.

But they had one Monday, here in the normally sleepy state capital.

More than 100 honking cars clogged the small downtown, protesting plans to close three Vermont state colleges.

The underlying theme of the protest was that Vermont, bleeding young people who cannot find the kind of jobs that would allow them to afford to live here, cannot afford to lose already limited four-year college opportunities.

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If there was ever an example of the overarching point, that Vermont needs more smart people, it came two days later, when another protest took place here.

The protest, demanding that Governor Phil Scott relax his stay-at-home orders, was organized by a gun-rights group, even though gun shops have remained open because Scott deemed them essential. You can find guns and ammo in Vermont much easier than you can disinfectant wipes.

The organizers had hoped to cause the same disruption and gain the same attention the pro-education protesters did. But, even in Vermont, it’s hard to tie up traffic with a handful of pickup trucks. The protest outside the State House drew more journalists than demonstrators, who never numbered more than a dozen.

One demonstrator complained he had lost both of his jobs and worried about feeding his kids. He seemed pretty sympathetic, until I learned the yellow “DON’T TREAD ON ME" flag he was waving was signed by Alex Jones, the right-wing conspiracy nut job who claimed the Sandy Hook massacre of schoolchildren in Connecticut was staged as a ruse for implementing gun control.

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Inside the State House, Governor Scott was sympathetic to the protesters but wouldn’t budge on his aggressive mitigation measures, which have been credited with making Vermont one of the states with the lowest infection and fatality rates.

“There’s nobody more frustrated, more eager to get the economy going than me, but I’m going to continue to make decisions based on the science,” Scott said.

Scott, a Republican, is the antithesis of his Georgia counterpart, Brian Kemp, who is defying science in rushing to get his state’s economy up and running again. Scott is from the same mold as other independent-minded New England governors, including his friends, neighbors and fellow Republicans, Charlie Baker of Massachusetts and Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, who take their COVID-19 counsel from doctors and scientists, not Fox News.

Outside the State House, the temperatures hovered around freezing and the wind whipped snow flurries, mocking spring. A group of nurses from Central Vermont Medical Center, wearing masks, blue scrubs, and weary eyes, showed up to stare down the protesters. They take care of people infected with COVID-19 and didn’t want the protest to go unchallenged.

One of the nurses held a handmade sign that said: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Someone in a passing car agreed with the nurses, shouting at protesters, “Don’t infect the rest of us, you idiots!”

The pro-education protest got results, at least temporarily. Trustees postponed voting on the plan to close the three colleges.

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The protest on Wednesday, which was scheduled to last five hours but petered out after two, worked, too, at least in that it gave a bunch of bored reporters a reason to go outside and cover something besides the governor’s daily briefing.

It also succeeded in making it clear that we need more than a vaccine against the coronavirus.

Life won’t go back to anything resembling normal until there is a vaccine for COVID-19. But, while they’re at it, here’s hoping researchers are able to come up with a vaccine for ignorance, because it poses a bigger, longer-lasting threat to normality than the pandemic.

And when that second, great, scientific breakthrough comes, Brian Kemp has first dibs.


Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at kevin.cullen@globe.com.