In a dramatic escalation in the fight against COVID-19, Governor Phil Scott of Vermont on Friday issued an executive order closing bars and clubs and banning multi-household gatherings of any size, telling reporters the surge across the country is “exploding” and “coming to our doorstep.”
Scott announced the strict new order during a news conference, adding that restaurants will have to close at 10 p.m. for dine-in service, all recreational sports except “school-sponsored sports activities” will be suspended, and college students returning home will have to quarantine for a minimum of seven days.
“We continue to see a rise in cases,” said Scott, a Republican, “which is concerning to all of us.”
It was a striking reversal for a state that had fared far better than the rest of New England since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak in the spring. Month after month, the numbers in Vermont looked far rosier than in Massachusetts, where Boston and other cities were hit hard early.
The Green Mountain State seemed like an oasis to outsiders, many of whom reportedly descended on Vermont from neighboring states and bought properties for safe harbor during the pandemic.
But the surge of cases sweeping the country seems to have finally made its way to Vermont, which at one point this summer enjoyed a 43-day stretch with no deaths from the virus. The contagion, federal statistics show, has spread far more rapidly in Vermont in recent weeks.
The state’s seven-day moving average of new cases, which had remained in the single digits throughout the summer, has ranged from 24 to 49 over the last seven weeks, according to CDC data. In Massachusetts, by contrast, the seven-day moving average of new cases was in the hundreds throughout the summer and has ranged over the last seven weeks from 1,358 to 2,036, the CDC says.
Scott’s executive order, which takes effect Saturday at 10 p.m. and will remain in effect until Dec. 15, at which time state officials will reassess the situation based on the public health data.
Issued less than two weeks before Thanksgiving, the governor’s order requires all college students returning home from an “in-state or out-of-state” school to quarantine for 14 days, or for seven days followed by a negative COVID test. It also requires residents to cooperate with contact tracers if they call, among other provisions.
“Failure to comply with this provision may result in referral to the Office of the Attorney General for enforcement,” the order says.
The college student provision is similar to a separate statewide order that requires residents traveling outside Vermont for a day trip or longer to quarantine for 14 days when they return home. If they don’t have symptoms, returning travelers can seek a PCR test on or after day seven to end quarantine early if they test negative, the state website says. Out-of-state visitors to Vermont also must quarantine.
Scott said Friday that Vermont averaged 25 new cases per day last week, while 72 cases were reported Wednesday, 109 were logged Thursday, and 84 were reported Friday.
“We’re definitely moving in the wrong direction,” said Scott, whose state as of Friday morning had logged 2,743 cases since the start of the pandemic, including 59 deaths. “The days of very low risk are over.”
Vermont’s ban on multi-household gatherings comes a week after Scott and state Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine issued an advisory “strongly recommending” that people limit social events to 10 or fewer people.
It’s not coincidental, Scott said, that officials are seeing a spike in new cases “12 days after we know many [people] gathered for Halloween parties,” despite being warned against doing so.
Clusters and outbreaks, he said, have been linked to private social gatherings including baby showers, tailgate parties, barbecues, and other multi-household events. The state is “at a tipping point," Scott said, stressing that “we still have an opportunity” to stanch the “alarming case growth.”
On Thursday, the state Department of Health said anyone who attended two Halloween parties on Oct. 31 in Marshfield, Vt. and Milton Vt. should get tested for COVID-19; it requested the same for anyone who participated in bowling league games at Spare Time in Colchester, Vt. on Nov. 4 and Nov. 5.
Levine urged Vermont residents to wear face coverings, practice physical distancing, stay home if they feel sick, avoid non-essential travel, and cooperate with contact tracers if they call.
“We need your help,” Levine said. “We may need to be apart more, but I know that we are up to the challenge together.”
Vermont has a population of roughly 624,000 people, census data shows. Massachusetts, by comparison, has a population of about 6.8 million and has logged nearly 175,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic, per census and state public health data.
Modeling from state officials, Scott’s office said Tuesday in a statement, showed a 34 percent increase in cases in the Northeast in the prior week, with cases nationally averaging 112,500 per day.
During Friday’s briefing, Scott lamented that some people are “just reluctant” to don face coverings and otherwise “do the right thing” to guard against the virus.
“We’re going to tighten the screws over the next couple of weeks,” Scott said, adding that officials hope the numbers will start trending downward again “if we are able to put these prevention measures in place.”
Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.