Rutland Town has serious concerns about a few hundred students from the greater New Jersey area who arrived at the Holiday Inn over the weekend to attend a religious “camp” here for the next 21 days.
“I learned of this yesterday afternoon and (John Paul Faignant), our town health officer, has done a nice job of investigating and following up on this,” said Select Board Chairman Joshua Terenzini on Tuesday, hours before a Select Board meeting where the matter was discussed with the “camp” director, Rabbi Moshe Perlstein, of Zichron Chaim.
Faignant indicated the group, which arrived in buses, are from “the greater New Jersey metro area.” Under Vermont guidelines, visitors from out of state are required to provide test results (or get tested in Vermont) and remain quarantined. Among areas where quarantining is mandatory is New York City and the greater New York City area, where there have been a significant number of COVID-19 cases and thousands of coronavirus deaths.
Perlstein agreed to provide copies of the youngsters’ COVID-19 test results to Faignant. Faignant indicated that he has seen some of those results and that the ones he saw were all dated for May or June. But Perlstein said that’s not the case; the test results were more recent, and there were young people who were not allowed to board the buses for Vermont because their results had not come back.
Terenzini said the town is mostly concerned that the number of people at the hotel now exceeds state limits put in place to slow the spread of COVID-19. On Tuesday, he notified the governor’s office, who referred him to the Department of Public Safety. Faignant also notified the Office of the Attorney General of the situation on Tuesday.
Perlstein, who attended the town meeting in person, told the Select Board that no one at the “camp” will be allowed to leave the premises until it’s time for everyone to go home in three weeks.
One of the town’s concern is over hotel staff, who come and go, and might be exposed to the virus, said Terenzini. The town also believes that there are now more people staying at the hotel than the state currently allows, and that the gathering does not qualify as a camp at all per the state’s definition.
Perlstein told the Rutland Herald there are between 340 and 380 attending the camp. He said he and town officials had different ideas on the hotel’s total capacity. Perlstein said total capacity is closer to 600, and that the number of campers meets the state’s COVID-19 standards.
But Terenzini said the state has limited hotel occupancy to 50% “and that hotel has 150 rooms, so you figure, at best, they can hold 300 people, maybe a little more, but certainly in our opinion, they are over the capacity for the 50% occupancy.”
Faignant said when he went to the hotel, he saw many people not wearing face masks and not abiding by social-distancing guidelines. He said Perlstein’s argument is that the event is “a self-contained camp,” with no one allowed to leave, and no visitors allowed in. They plan to have the camp for 21 days, Perlstein said.
“They don’t meet the definition of a campground, and the hotel would be over-occupied,” Faignant said, adding that he’s been told that staff at the Holiday Inn are having their temperatures checked routinely.
“The state is going to have to be the one to respond to this,” Faignant said.
Perlstein told the Select Board that children also have their temperatures checked daily, kitchen staff are from the camp and remain on-site, and that other efforts have been made to minimize the number of staff at the hotel. He said he would like to work with officials to insure all rules are followed.
Perlstein told the Herald he wanted to bring young people to the state for a camp ever since a few years ago when he visited Killington Mountain.
“Once the governor allowed camps, we came to the state realizing we have to cancel all of our trips, which we did. We canceled all our trips,” Perlstein said.
Instead, he leased the Holiday Inn.
“Hotels might be capped, but I’m a camp, I’m not a hotel; we’re not running it as a hotel, I’m leasing the building. The hotel is closed, it’s not a hotel, there’s no guests here, there’s nothing,” he said.
While the campers are religious, he said, religion isn’t the focus of the “camp.” He only referred to the camp as “ZC.” Published reports indicate it is the abbreviation for Zichron Chiam. No age range was given for the 300-plus campers; nor was it made clear whether the camp is co-ed.
“It’s a regular camp where there’s ball-playing, basketball, there’s singing, there’s dancing, conversing, communicating, having fun,” Perlstein said on Tuesday. “We are religious, but that isn’t the goal. We happen to be religious, but we’re not stressing religion.”
Terenzini said the town has covered its bases and will await word from state officials on how to proceed.
“The Governor is aware of the concerns of the Town,” said Rebecca Kelly, a Scott spokeswoman, in an email. “Our office suggested the community’s police chief connect with Commissioner of Public Safety Michael Schirling to further assess the situation, though he has not heard from the chief directly at this point. We are hopeful that all parties are in full compliance with the executive orders and will work to learn more.”
Other state officials also are looking into the matter. Perlstein also has ties to the now closed Southern Vermont College in Bennington.
“It is the attorney general’s office understanding that camp organizers are in direct communication with officials from the Agency of Commerce and Community Development (ACCD) and the Vermont Department of Health regarding requirements of the governor’s executive order,” according to Rob McDougall, chief of the Environmental Division and co-chairman of the Rapid Response Team at the office of the attorney general. “As is the case with all summer camps operating in the state, our office expects that this camp will voluntarily comply with the requirements identified in ACCD’s guidance to Overnight Summer Camps and Limited Residential Summer College Programming.”
The town closed the Holiday Inn in October after a boiler fire knocked out hot water to the building. Town officials said at the time they also were concerned by inspection reports going back to 2016 finding faulty alarms and suppression equipment.
The hotel reopened 10 days later, but the Select Board voted in May to issue civil and criminal citations against the owner for failing to properly maintain the safety systems.
Faignant said Tuesday the citation process is still being worked through, and that the town has been given no reason to reinspect the hotel over safety issues.
Vermont’s efforts to flatten the curve in the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic has caused many live events to be done remotely.
But the West Rutland Variety Show is taking a more retro approach that brings back the idea of summer reruns or a “best of” approach.
Starting next week and continuing through August, local cable access channel PEG-TV will be running eight of the previous variety shows on Wednesday and Thursday nights at 8 p.m. The variety show is a fundraiser for different nonprofits every year, and the PEG-TV showings will ask for donations to the West Rutland Food Shelf.
Olivia Boughton, a singer who performs at the variety shows and coordinates them, said the food shelf already had been the designated nonprofit for 2020.
The intention had been to have a live show on March 15 at the West Rutland Town Hall theater.
“We waited as long as we possibly could to cancel the show. Then we said, ‘Maybe we’ll postpone it and we’ll be able to do it in the summer.’ We didn’t know. Nobody knew. We were all hopeful that things would get back to normal,” she said.
The new target date was July, but Boughton said it was clear this month was no safer for bringing an audience and performers into a small space than it would have been in March.
Boughton said other ideas were considered for allowing the show to go on, but as a live performer herself, Boughton said she couldn’t support a remote performance even if it was delivered through an online program like Zoom.
The West Rutland Variety Show had another option, however, through one of its past performers and most recent emcee. Tom Leypoldt, executive director of PEG-TV, said plans were discussed for other ways to capture and present the show.
Leypoldt said there was talk of inviting the acts to come to PEG-TV’s headquarters in the Howe Center to record performances. The idea at that time was to edit the performances together to create a sort of remote variety show.
“It just didn’t have the appeal. Didn’t think people would be interested in watching it without the energy of the live audience, which is a big part of any live performance,” he said.
Boughton said Leypoldt suggested a “marathon of all the old shows.”
Boughton has recorded new introductory pieces that will explain the reason past variety shows are being broadcast, as well as a plea to those who can help to donate to the West Rutland Food Shelf.
Boughton said the West Rutland Food Shelf had been the beneficiary of a previous variety show, but the nonprofit was chosen again this year as a tribute to its founder, Anthony “Tony” Morgan, who died on Christmas Eve.
According to Boughton, the variety show, appropriate to its name, has included musicians, magicians and martial artists, along with dancers and hula-hoopers.
Boughton said the first variety show was expected to be a one-time event when it was organized by the St. Bridget Catholic Church 11 years ago to raise money for Haitian earthquake relief.
“Then it turned into an annual event subsequently because people enjoyed it and thought it should keep going,” she said.
Boughton said Terry Jarrosak, known to many as Terry Jaye, was the first emcee for the variety show and an early supporter for making the show an annual fundraiser.
For this unusual year, Boughton said she was grateful to Leypoldt and the staff at PEG-TV for supporting the continuation of the variety show.
“It’s just not the same, as a performer, to perform without an audience,” she said.
The schedule for the shows is Year 2012 on July 15; Year 2014 on July 16; Year 2015 on July 22; Year 2016 on July 23; Year 2016 on July 23; Year 2017 on July 29; Year 2018 on July 30; and Year 2019 on Aug. 5.
Masks will be on and wild parties will be off if students return to Vermont campuses this fall.
Gov. Phil Scott issued his guidance on reopening Vermont’s colleges and universities, saying he believed the work of a task force made up of public health and higher education officials had found a safe way to bring Vermont’s students back to campus.
“Vermont has continued to show it is possible to reopen in a limited way,” Scott said. “I believe we can take this step forward in the fall.”
Scott said this with his usual caveat that he will not hesitate to reverse course if the data on Vermont’s infection rate supports such a change.
Former Norwich University President Richard Schneider, who headed the task force on reopening higher education, said the goal is to make Vermont the safest place to go to college. That will involve changes in traditional campus life, he said.
“We’re training the workforce,” he said. “This is their normal now. If they’re going to work, they might as well learn to do this now.”
The guidelines include a mandatory quarantine police on campuses, aggressive health screenings, reduction in visitors to campus and particularly to dorms and requiring all students, faculty and staff to sign a “health safety contract.”
“There are ramifications if they threaten our communities by not following these contracts,” Schneider said, including expulsion for students terminating employees who violate terms. “It would involve things like throwing wild parties. ... Let’s say you have an employee who says ‘No, it’s my right not to wear a mask.’ Well, it’s not your right to work at this school.”
Schneider said school leadership will appeal to students’ “inner best self,” talking about the duty to “defend the Republic” instilled at Norwich University and the sense of global citizenship instilled at Middlebury College. He said schools would “change what’s normal” and that students would have to hold each other accountable. He compared the needed change to the shift in attitudes among students toward acquaintance rape.
“It’s not perfect, certainly, but better than we were 10 years ago,” he said.
Schools also will adjust academic calendars. Schneider said he expects students to go home at Thanksgiving and not return until after New Year’s, with the fall semester either ending or continuing online. Schneider said roughly 56,000 people attend college in Vermont. He said it is too early to say how many of them are expected to show up in the fall.
Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine said all students will be tested for COVID-19 at the beginning of the semester and again a week later. Beyond that, he said students will be tested when they have symptoms, and contact tracing will be carried out as it is in the rest of the state. He said some colleges will have regular testing throughout the semester.
“That could look like every other week,” he said. “That could look like twice a week.”
Schneider said what will happen with athletics remains to be determined. He said officials are concerned about high-contact sports like football, but that they are looking to the NCAA for guidance.
Officials from communities that have cracked down on mask-wearing say they remain lenient about it, and that approach seems to be working.
While Gov. Phil Scott continues to resist calls for a statewide mandate on wearing masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, he has given municipalities the option to enact their own requirements.
The Rutland Board of Aldermen this week voted to have the Charter and Ordinance Committee discuss such a move, and members of the board requested the city attorney to check on what other Vermont towns have done.
For example, Montpelier requires masks inside commercial or business establishments.
“It’s not for the sidewalks or outdoors,” said City Manager William Fraser. “We don’t have any scientific way of measuring it, but personal observation and observation of others is the vast majority of people are wearing masks.”
Fraser said the order came at the request of local businesses who wanted the city to set an “even playground” regarding mask use. He said in cases of noncompliance, the city has reached out through the health officer and given a warning, which so far has resulted in compliance.
Fraser said he also finds a lot of city residents using social media to comment on establishments that might not be complying.
“It’s a little tattletale-ish, but it’s also trying to hold people accountable,” he said.
Fraser said the city does not expect 100% compliance.
“You set a speed limit, you never get 100% compliance,” he said. “You set it because you thought it’s the right speed limit.”
Brattleboro is requiring masks be worn by “all employees, customers and visitors in any store, office or other indoor setting where business is conducted.”
“There is no enforcement mechanism in it, and it is working very well,” said Jan Anderson, executive secretary to the town manager. “People are understanding the safety procedure, and they are complying. It gave the merchants a little authority that it wasn’t just them telling people to put the mask on, it was the Select Board. It gave the merchants an out.”
Anderson said almost everyone in Brattleboro is complying and the town is getting good feedback.
South Burlington only recently mandated mask use in “public areas.”
“Generally speaking, these are the same areas where you can’t smoke,” City Manager Kevin Dorn said. “They are looking to the owner of the property, the business owner, to enforce this in their business. ... We’re not turning our police into mask cops.”
Dorn said local residents ultimately will have to decide for themselves whether they want to enter a store where people are not wearing masks. If enough decide against it, market forces will determine the rest, he said.
As he announced guidelines on Monday for colleges to reopen, the governor pushed back against suggestions that if a mask mandate made sense for campuses, it ought to make sense for the state as a whole. Scott noted that California mandates masks and still has one of the top three highest infection rates.
“The enforcement piece is always the problem, as we’ve seen throughout the country,” he said. “Mandating it doesn’t make it so.”
“We’re five months into this and there are still shortages of gowns, hair covers, shoe covers, masks, N95 masks.”
Deborah Burger, president of National Nurses United, commented, citing results from a survey of the union’s members. — B3
Visit the Herald Food page and discover the secrets about how to eat America’s most beloved summer sandwich, the hamburger, wit’ or wit’ out. B2