MONTPELIER — Gov. Phil Scott has increased the number of individuals who can socially gather and announced more close-contact jobs can start back up, such as nail salons, gyms and massage therapists.
At his regular Friday news briefing, the governor said the data continues to look good in the state’s battle against the novel coronavirus pandemic.
According to the state Department of Health, there was only one new case of COVID-19 to report Friday, bringing the total of confirmed cases in the state to 975. The number of deaths remains the same at 55. Vermont started the month with just 52.
Scott said he was ready to take another “turn of the spigot,” or move to again slowly open the economy back up, something he’s been doing since mid-April.
Starting Monday, the amount of people who can gather socially has been increased from 10 to 25. Occupancy limits for those in retail, recreation, dining, worship and event spaces remain the same, however.
The Agency of Commerce and Community Development has also released guidance for the reopening of close-contact businesses. According to the agency those include “gyms, fitness centers, nail salons, spas and tattoo parlors, as well as cleaning services and other businesses that require home visits.” Those businesses can start back up June 1.
The guidance can be found at the agency’s website at accd.vermont.gov/
The state Department of Health also has issued guidance that allows “for some additional dental procedures, allowing for aerosol-generating procedures” as long as they are in compliance with safety standards and procedures from the department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The governor again brought up the importance of the status of surrounding states that aren’t handling the virus as well as Vermont.
“Because the fact is, how our neighbors are doing is one of the biggest factors in determining how quickly we can reopen. Especially when we’re talking about travel and tourism,” he said.
The governor said the state will soon be taking its first steps in allowing those from out-of-state to visit Vermont in what he called a pilot project.
That’s coming in the form of overnight youth summer camps. Those camps can resume in limited capacity June 7 with strict safety and travel procedures.
“Taking this step within this very controlled environment will give us some insight as to how we might manage out-of-state tourists as we move toward easing travel restrictions like quarantine requirements,” he said.
Dr. Mark Levine, commissioner of the state Department of Health, said next week officials anticipate the state will be in what the CDC is calling “phase three” for states to reopen. Levine said that’s the most advanced phase for reopening criteria. He said this is why some restrictions could be lifted for dental procedures.
The governor said next week he’s hoping to at least provide a timeline for when activities, such as indoor dining, can resume.
City voters will decide whether to buy the College of St. Joseph gym for $1.8 million.
The Board of Aldermen voted unanimously Thursday, following a meeting conducted largely in executive session, to authorize Mayor David Allaire to sign a letter of intent to buy the property from Heritage Family Credit Union.
The purchase will have to go to voters, and Allaire said he intends to put it on the ballot at the general election in November. He said he judged the August primary to be too soon.
“We want to give people ample opportunity to get educated on what we’re doing,” he said.
Allaire and other city officials acknowledged that a $1.8 million purchase could be a tough sell in the midst of the financial uncertainty triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Heritage Family Credit Union foreclosed on the campus after CSJ closed, and a plan to convert the property into an “innovation center” failed to come together. Allaire said the bank was not likely to sit on the property forever.
“I really do believe that, at the very least, the community should have an opportunity,” he said. “I think the Board of Aldermen and myself are very much in agreement that this is a positive for the city and want the voters to have a chance to weigh in.”
Board of Aldermen President Matt Whitcomb said there seemed to be strong support for the city’s use of the building, which was dubbed the Rutland Rec Community Center when the city leased it prior to the pandemic.
“Unfortunately, the landscape has shifted so far so fast, it’s hard to tell what the support is going to be to spend any money,” he said.
Allaire said the city assessor’s office puts the value of the 20-acre property, which includes the gym, the back parking lot, half of the traffic circle at the entry to campus and trails, as well as undeveloped woodland, at about $3 million.
“There’s some that’s cleared and there’s some that are undeveloped,” he said of the acreage around the building. “There’s some further opportunity to develop that in the years coming.”
The city has been using the building, which includes a basketball court and a fitness center, as a recreation facility since autumn. The Recreation and Parks Department relocated its offices there from the Courcelle building earlier this year. The city began negotiating the purchase with CSJ trustees and continued negotiations with the bank after the foreclosure.
Allaire said there were significant differences between this proposal and the $4 million plan to rebuild the Giorgetti building into a new recreation center that was voted down in 2011.
“First of all, this is a building that’s already built,” he said. “We’ve looked at it several different ways. Mechanically and structurally, it’s pretty solid.”
Allaire said the level of use it saw before the pandemic also served as proof of how the facility would function for the city. In February, recreation superintendent Kim Peters said 400 people had bought $10 monthly memberships to the facility the previous month and it was seeing an average of 2,000 visitors a week. Treasurer Mary Markowski credited the gym with a $45,000 revenue spike for the department during the first half of the fiscal year.
The board also approved a number of motions aimed at finding ways to defray the purchase cost.
“We would really like these facilities — it’s just a really bad time, obviously,” said Alderwoman Rebecca Mattis. “It’s up to the voters. It’s up to the city to see what we can do to pull as many rabbits out of as many hats as we can to make it happen.”
Those motions included a directive for the administration to evaluate all city properties “with the specific intent of divesting of real estate and/or consolidating operations,” according to Alderman Chris Ettori, and a referral of a discussion of alternate revenue opportunities to the Finance Committee.
The Courcelle building — the former Army reserve center that the recreation department took over in late 2013 — might seem like an obvious candidate for divestiture, but Allaire said the building came with deed covenants severely limiting what the city can do with it. He said if the federal government approves, the school district might make use of the building.
“Selling it is probably not an option,” he advised.
Allaire said the city is working with the Rutland Redevelopment Authority to apply for a $350,000 state grant that could defray the purchase price. He said they would know whether the city got it by August.
On top of that, Allaire said department heads already are stepping up with significant reductions for the 2021-22 budget, which should reduce some of the bite. He also said the grand list is up, and the city is looking at ways to reduce various pandemic-induced revenue shortfalls.
“The voters have to weight that against what their situation is individually,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine dropping everything. The hotel is behind us — that’s not going to happen. There is pavement happening — that’s for the long-term good of the city. I believe this purchase is for the long-term good of the city.”
Alaura DuBray said she held out as long as she could, hoping her wedding would still happen July 11.
She and fiancé, Michael McClallen, had 240 guests coming to the ceremony at Immaculate Heart of Mary and reception at the Castleton pavilion, with an after-party at the Holiday Inn.
“For about three weeks of the pandemic, I didn’t even want to talk about the possibility of postponing it,” she said.
As the pandemic continued, it became clear they would have to either postpone or downsize, having the ceremony without the vast majority of guests, including DuBray’s grandmother in Pennsylvania.
“It was the end of March, first week of April, and we finally said, ‘OK, this is impossible,’” she said. “I never wanted to downsize, and I never wanted to settle for anything less than I felt Mike and I both deserved.”
So they rescheduled to July 10, 2021.
Most couples who planned to tie the knot in Vermont this summer are making similar choices, according to wedding organizers and business owners who depend on the state’s bustling wedding industry.
Wedding planner Maricela Ehmann said she has had eight weddings postponed to next year, and is still working on one that is not scheduled until October.
“It’s the only one we’ve kept so far,” she said. “We should have at least a better understanding of what should happen at that point. ... We’re selecting linens and working on florals and all the normal planning elements.”
It’s a big business. Vermont Association of Wedding Professionals President Lindsey Leichthammer said 5,600 couples get married in Vermont each year, and that 46% of them are from out of state.
“The wedding industry alone, based just on the money couples spend on vendors, is a $164 million industry,” Leichthammer said, adding that that number doesn’t include money wedding guests spend while they’re in the state. “The wedding industry contributes a huge, huge amount every year to the overall economic health of the state of Vermont.”
It’s also an industry about to take a massive hit.
“The Vermont wedding industry is expecting to retain about 10% to 20% of its revenue this year,” Leichthammer said. “There’s a substantial amount of venues, DJs, florists, where the wedding and event industry is their livelihood.”
Michael Coppinger, a DJ, said he has had six weddings pushed back to next year and one to the fall.
“It makes 2021’s season really interesting,” he said. “I think we’re going to see more Friday weddings because people who are supposed to get married this year are going to be taking up those Saturdays. Hopefully, that’ll be the benchmark we can all look forward to, but we have to get there,” he said.
For Coppinger, DJing is a side gig, so while he is losing income that he counted on for his household budget, he said he isn’t likely to go out of business.
Leichthammer said that’s not the case for many vendors in the wedding industry. She said the rental industry in particular is in trouble because they have high overhead and rely extensively on the wedding season for revenue expected to take them through the year.
Perry Armstrong, owner of Rain or Shine Tent and Events in Randolph, said 12 companies make up the event rentals industry in Vermont and the state is at risk of losing all of them.
“The business models are all the same,” he said. “Everyone books in advance. I have people calling me for 2021, but I’m not booking them because we’re not sure we’re going to be here.”
Armstrong said he runs $40,000 to $50,000 a week in payroll during the summer, pays between $75,000 and $80,000 a year in insurance, and maintains roughly $5 million in inventory.
“I have 50,000 square feet of storage space to carry all this stuff,” he said. “There’s mortgage payments on that.”
While tent companies have landed new customer during the pandemic in the form of restaurants seeking to offer outdoor seating, Armstrong said those are monthly rentals — only worth a couple thousand dollars — which pales in comparison to the revenue generated by destination weddings, festivals and corporate events that can exceed $100,000 a pop.
“I’m a medium-sized company,” he said. “We’ve lost $1.2 million already. ... Two weeks ago, I lost $300,000 in one day. It’s tough to make that up doing restaurants.”
Armstrong said he is organizing an effort to lobby the state for a relief package that takes into account his industry’s situation. He said that for $12 million, the state could assure the rental industry still exists in Vermont in 2021, and that if they cannot take that from the federal relief package, the state could find it by paving 12 fewer miles of road.
Other wedding-reliant businesses have been able to pivot, such as caterers offering take-out meals.
“It’s forced them to redefine their business model almost overnight,” Leichthammer said. “For some businesses, it’s really hard to pivot when your entire business revolves around people gathering. Wedding bands can (live)stream playing in their living room for tips, but it’s not really paying the bills.”
Photographer Angela Stevens said she’s trying to get more family portraits, which normally make up a third of her business, with weddings supplying the rest.
“Usually, I don’t have time in the summer for much of that,” she said. “I’m trying to get jobs of a smaller proportion but greater volume, I suppose.”
Stevens said she does have a couple weddings that are going ahead at a smaller scale, and that she just heard from one bride who is planning to hold a 250-person wedding in September no matter what, asking that the photographer be there.
“That puts me in a really sticky spot as a business,” she said. “I want to have income, but I want to also follow government restrictions and be responsible. ... Would my liability insurance cover me? I don’t know about that.”
Beyond that, Stevens said even if she doesn’t fear getting sick herself, she would not want to become a carrier and transmit COVID-19 to others.
“We’ll have to see what the government mandate is for September, and we’ll follow the rules for that,” she said.
The loss of revenue cascades outward: Leichthammer noted that caterers and florists buy from local farms, cheesemakers and other producers.
“The wedding industry is more than a bouquet toss and an open bar,” she said.
At the Mountain Top Inn in Chittenden, Marketing Director Laura Conti said weddings were almost the entirety of their summer business, to the point where it’s hard to get a room there if you aren’t in a wedding party.
“Obviously, it’s a struggle,” she said. “We are now working to replace those wedding guests with a transient audience, which is difficult to do not knowing about the quarantine. The 25% occupancy isn’t a struggle for the reason you’d think — we have to struggle to reach 25%.”
Conti said she has spoken to venues nationwide, and they all are exploring options.
“Some people are doing virtual weddings,” she said. “We’ve offered them, but we haven’t had anyone take us up on it yet. Half of our appeal is our view.”
Despite all of the difficulties in the short-term, Leichthammer said they are encouraging postponements over downsized or virtual weddings, saying they will be better for the industry in the long term.
“A wedding of 250 people is going to be far more impactful in May of next year than a wedding of 10 people this year,” she said.
Judy Risteff, of the Vermont Wedding Association, said she is counseling positivity.
“It’s tough to be positive, but to me, the umbrella over this whole thing is the governor is addressing this behind the scenes with people working on phased plans,” she said. “Weddings will happen. They will be different. What they will look like, I can’t tell you yet. ... The wedding industry is so sacred to Vermont. We will be able to gather again.”
DuBray said she’s trying to look on the bright side, too.
“I was pretty upset for a couple weeks,” she said. “Our countdown was at less than 100 (days) when we decided to pull the trigger. Now it’s at 410.”
DuBray said she’s taking advantage of the extra time to make the wedding bigger — and better.
“We’re also excited because we’re on a fitness health journey,” she said. “We’re going to continue on that and feel even better on our special day. ... We’re definitely going to get married with a bang.”
On April 16, like most Vermonters, Tom Kearns was waiting out a pandemic, hunkered down with his family in Castleton. The next day, he drove his truck into the shadow of death known as Queens, New York.
Kearns, a cabinet-maker whose clients are museums and art galleries, decided out of devotion to his extended close family, to volunteer at his brother’s funeral home after he learned that the business was overwhelmed with dead bodies, brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I was watching the news, hanging out with my family and texting my brothers and sisters in New York,” Kearns said.
“The final straw,” the thing that convinced Kearns that he should travel to the funeral home and help with the family business, was upon learning that his 20-year-old niece was driving a van with bodies to a crematorium in Schenectady, New York. That, and the fact that his brother, Patrick, and brother-in-law, Paul, became so overwhelmed with the dead that they purchased a 40-foot refrigeration trailer to store the corpses.
“That’s when I realized the scale of what he was up against. I called my brother because I knew what was going on. I knew he wouldn’t ask me to me to do it. Nobody in their right mind is going to travel to, literally, ground zero, of the pandemic. Who would do that? You’d have to be nuts,” Kearns said.
To help the family business, Kearns made 18 body boards, stacked them up in the back of his truck and made his way to Queens.
Seated during an interview outside the family’s camp on Lake Bomoseen — Kearns has been self-isolating since returning home to Vermont on May 18 — he spoke of what he saw, of the terrible cost in human life of this pandemic during his five-week stay.
What the 57-year-old Kearns witnessed was the human toll of an invisible illness, one that struck both the elderly and the healthy.
“What sticks in my mind were the multiple family members who perished — husbands and wives. One family had four deaths in 10 days. And they were all fit immigrants,” he said.
If any one subject stood out as Kearns recounted what he saw it was the price paid by people of color who had no choice but to continue to work despite the peril all around them.
“These were essential workers, brown and black, transit workers, bus drivers, hospital workers, delivery boys, delivering takeout, riding the subway every day and getting exposed,” people who would help to spread the virus and do the bulk of the dying.
“They couldn’t take a day off, they had no sick days,” Kearns said.
“Queens is the backbone of the New York City working class and heavily populated by immigrants,” he said. It was these workers whom Kearns said had no options, other than to keep working and risk getting sick or worse, dying.
Eighty percent of the bodies collected at the funeral home, Kearns said, were black or Hispanic or ethnic Indians. “The white folks I saw were very old,” he said.
Kearns, who graduated with a bachelor of arts degree from Fordham University in 1985, worked summers at the Leo F. Kearns Funeral Home in Queens. The family runs three funeral homes in Queens and one on Long Island. Being around the dead was nothing new for him.
“I grew up around the business,” he said. “I’ve been around corpses, I moved them, I dressed them (for funerals). But this scale was far different, being surrounded by hundreds of corpses, than say, one or two at a time.”
Many of the dead were from nursing homes, Kearns said, “but I saw a lot of fit men, at my age or younger, who didn’t fit the profile” of those that the experts said were most vulnerable — the aged, those with heart or lung conditions, weakened immune systems, severe obesity or diabetes. These younger dead males were men of color, he said.
The virus struck Kearns’ immediate family as well. His sister, Meg, a general physician in Manhattan, had contracted the virus. She was not hospitalized and is recovering, Kearns said.
Kearns had a regular routine.
“Every morning, I would drive the van with four or six bodies to the Vale Cemetery and Crematorium in Schenectady or to Connecticut and then back to New York City. And then the rest of the afternoon, I would go to nursing homes or hospitals or private homes and collect the bodies and take them back to the funeral home.”
In a normal year, Kearns said, the Queens funeral home would receive about 400 bodies. “We did 400 bodies in less than six weeks,” he said. “The refrigerator truck was always filled.”
Kearns is married to Mary, the adult services librarian at Castleton Free Library. They have three grown children.
Kearns said, while he obviously cannot predict the future, he would not be surprised to see a second wave of the pandemic.
“I know I’m in a safe place now,” he said. “But in a lot of places, the pandemic is far away. Lots of people don’t even believe it’s happening. This is not over by any stretch of the imagination.”
Kearns said Vermonters may think that the disease “has passed. But we have an older population, a poor population, college kids who might come back to classes. The disease takes five to 12 days to show symptoms so it spreads widely before anybody knows it. It spreads silently.”
While he made it a point that he was reluctant “to get political” about the virus, Kearns said that he was “struck by the irony that, over the past two years, President Trump has demonized immigrants and locked up immigrant children in cages while, at the same time, the essential workers doing the dying were brown and black people, mostly immigrants.”
Kearns said that, to him, the lack of alarm in the face of the pandemic, by a surprising number of people, says, “We have no discipline, no sense of self-sacrifice. It takes discipline to wash your hands properly, to wear a mask, to protect your grandmother.”
“People don’t seem to have any empathy until they get punched in the face,” he said.
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