MONTPELIER — State officials say three more people have died from COVID-19, bringing the death toll for the novel coronavirus pandemic to five in the state.

At a news conference Monday, Dr. Mark Levine, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Health, said the number of those who have tested positive for the virus is now at 75. Levine said all three of the newly reported deaths took place over the weekend and all were related to the Burlington Health and Rehab Center where an outbreak has taken place. Health officials have said those who are older are one of the high-risk groups for the respiratory disease.

Testing has been limited due to a national shortage of tests. Levine said as the state has been testing more people it has seen more people testing positive. He said based on the data the department is receiving from the tests it appears the state is seeing a sustained community transmission of the virus.

Over the weekend, Gov. Phil Scott increased the measures taken to help stop the spread of the virus. Scott ordered the closure of all “close-contact businesses.” This includes gyms, fitness centers, exercise facilities, hair salons, nail salons, barbers, spas and tattoo parlors.

Scott decreased the allowable amount of people in public gatherings to 10 or less.

He didn’t get into specifics Monday, but he said residents should be prepared for “even more difficult measures” in the coming days. He said the measures will further reduce contact and direct more to stay at home.

“It’s not a question anymore of if. It’s a question of when,” he said.

Scott said he’s signed an order asking businesses and nonprofits to implement every work-from-home procedure they can. Also, he’s ordered the state National Guard to work with other state agencies to build three “medical surge sites” in the event the state’s hospitals get overwhelmed.

To help offset the public-safety measures, Scott said the state has expanded unemployment coverage and is helping small businesses get emergency loans.

“To everyone across the state, this is an opportunity for each of us to step up and join together even as we physically separate. We can unite to help those in need and we need everyone to think outside the box to find creative ways to do that,” he said.

Rep. Peter Welch said the federal government is facing an unprecedented challenge. Welch said the recommended way to try and stop the pandemic results in a ruined economy.

He said Congress is working on bills to help citizens by expanding those eligible for unemployment, such as those who are self-employed or independent contractors, and increasing the amount they receive by about $600. Welch said there has been discussion about sending Americans money directly. He said there’s also a desire to put off debt payments for three months.

Erin Sigrist, president of the Vermont Retail & Grocers Association, said last week the association sent out a request to businesses asking for designated hours for vulnerable populations. They were also encouraged to offer other services such as curbside delivery or home delivery.

A list of businesses now offering designated hours or other services can be found at the association’s website at www.vtrga.org.

“We also would like to take this time to urge customers to remain calm. We understand that these are uncertain times, but we’re all trying to do our best to get through this as best as we can. We ask that you take a little bit of precaution where necessary. We need to rest and reset and remember that the food and other necessities are available, and we ask customers to go back to shopping as you used to. In the sense that we ask that you don’t hoard. We ask that you shop for two weeks (of goods) which is recommended by the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Again, two weeks, not two months,” Sigrist said.

Some have raised concerns about those from out-of-state who own a second home in Vermont coming into the state and spreading the virus. Scott said they pay taxes on their homes and the state isn’t going to turn its back on them. But he said the state is discouraging people from coming to Vermont in an attempt to escape the virus.

Levine said the virus is already all over the state, so it would be unfair to point the finger at those coming from out-of-state.

Earlier Monday, Scott announced the Department of Public Service has created a map that shows all of the public WiFi hot spots in the state to help people connect to the internet. The map includes how to access the hot spots and where that can take place, such as outside the building or in a car in an effort to encourage social distancing.

Visit bit.ly/HotSpotWiFiMap to find the map.

eric.blaisdell

@timesargus.com

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