Mayor David Allaire declared a state of emergency in Rutland Monday following news the GE Aviation plant would temporarily close because one of its employees tested positive for COVID-19.
The GE employee was one of three people in the Rutland area to test positive during the weekend, according to the Vermont Department of Health, the first positive tests in Rutland County since the pandemic began. Allaire said the test results did not trigger the emergency declaration.
“This has been under discussion for some time,” Allaire said Monday. “Obviously, what’s going on down there is a concern. They’re a major employer and a lot of people, like the small businesses, depend on their employees to pay the bills.”
The mayor closed City Hall and other municipal buildings to the public last week.
Another of the people who tested positive was a clininal staff member at Rutland Regional Medical Center, according to hospital CEO Claudio Fort in a video posted the RRMC’s Facebook page late Monday.
“In response to that, we have conducted contact tracing and have notified the Vermont Department of Health and we are providing information to patients and staff who have been in contact with this staff person,” Fort said. “I think this brings a lot of fear and anxiety into the community, and I know a lot of people now will want to call the hospital or your doctor’s office and get tested, and then I also know people will want to know who it was.”
Fort stressed that by law, the hospital cannot identify the staffer.
A statement issued by GE late Sunday afternoon said the facility would reopen Wednesday.
“GE’s number one priority is the health and safety of our employees,” the statement read. “We are partnering with public health officials on contact tracing and notification of impacted people at our site. We continue to take all necessary precautions and prioritize safety.”
The statement said the employee had not been at work since March 18 and that the company was contacting coworkers who had been in close contact and asking them to self-quarantine.
The factory, which employs 1,400 people, will be cleaned and disinfected while it is closed.
Hospital officials said RRMC was standing ready.
“Rutland Regional Medical Center has been preparing for the eventuality that we will see positive COVID-19 cases throughout Vermont, and that these numbers will rapidly increase,” RRMS spokeswoman Peg Bolgioni said in a statement released Sunday evening. “This is the reason that the hospital has put in place visitor restrictions and screenings and numerous other patient safety measures.”
Allaire said the declaration gives him a number of powers to deal with the COVID-19 outbreak including restricting vehicle travel, declaring emergency meetings of the Board of Aldermen and procuring needed materials without going through the normal purchasing process.
“It’s a number of things I’m not expecting to do, but now have the ability to do it if something were to change and change quickly,” he said.
Beyond that, under the city charter an emergency declaration authorizes the mayor to “promulgate such regulations” as he sees needed to “protect life and property, preserve critical resources or to preserve public peace, health and safety.” Allaire said he believed emergency declarations were previously deployed following the Nor’icane (2007) and Tropical Storm Irene (2011).
Allaire also activated the city’s emergency operations center, located at the Rutland City Police Department. Acting Fire Chief William Lovett, who is also the city’s emergency management director, will serve as incident commander while Police Chief Brian Kilcullen serves as public information officer.
“Our main objective in this phase is continuity of operation with city government and combating the spread of the virus,” Allaire said. “Extensive planning and contingencies are thoroughly being evaluated.”
Allaire urged the citizens of Rutland to follow all the state recommendations on social distancing, including avoiding gatherings of more than 10 people and frequently washing hands.
“As I went around this weekend, it certainly appeared people are taking this seriously,” he said. “Obviously, a lot of businesses are closed down, which breaks my heart. We’re going to get through this and get through this together because that’s what we do. Rutland is at its best when the chips are down.”