Rutland lawmakers are calling on Gov. Phil Scott to adjust the state’s COVID-19 guidelines to prevent future occurrences like the current situation at the Holiday Inn.
Over the July 4 weekend, approximately 350 young people and a few adult supervisors arrived at the Holiday Inn in Rutland Town for the Zichron Chaim summer camp.
Officials believe them to be from areas in New Jersey where high numbers of COVID-19 cases have been reported.
Fearing the potential for a local outbreak, town officials contacted the state, and on Wednesday the Department of Public Safety issued a warning to the ownership of the hotel for it being over the 300-guest limit as set by Scott’s COVID-19 executive order.
The camp, hotel and state have been working on a solution since then.
On Friday, a letter signed by State House Reps. William Notte and Mary Howard, both Democrats from Rutland City, plus Rutland City Republicans Peter Fagan and Larry Cupoli, along with Rutland Town Republican Thomas Terenzini, was sent to Scott outlining the situation and their concerns.
“We ask that Vermont regulations be altered as needed to prevent placing communities in this predicament again. We also ask that this current group, which claims to be a camp but clearly falls under the guidelines and restrictions for hotel guests be monitored closely and that any quarantine and social-distancing violations be addressed immediately. The health and well-being of our community could very well depend on this,” the letter concludes.
Notte told the Herald that once the situation at the Holiday Inn is resolved, there’s nothing to prevent it from happening again. He said he believes the governor’s order capping hotels at 50% capacity didn’t contemplate large groups of people from one or a few communities coming to Vermont all at once.
“The State is actively engaged in this situation, communicating with the Holiday Inn, the camp and local officials,” stated Rebecca Kelly, a spokeswoman for Scott. “At this point, the only violation appears to be that the hotel is in violation of the occupancy limit. We are working to bring them into compliance and if needed, we will bring this to the Attorney General’s Office as a next step.”
Leader of the camp is Rabbi Moshe Perlstein. He said Friday he has been busy looking for other accommodations for 50 or so campers.
“Right now, we’re fully in contact with (Public Safety Commissioner) Michael Schirling, and we’re putting together a plan,” Perlstein said. Initially. the camp thought it had found a hotel willing to take on the overflow, but the hotel didn’t realize the group would need the facility to themselves.
The other option is sending kids home, but this presents its own challenges, Perlstein said, namely which kids to send, given that some have parents who planned for them to be away.
“The bottom line is: If we have to send kids home, then we’re going to send kids home,” Perlstein said.
At a Rutland Town Select Board meeting earlier this week, Perlstein said every camper was tested for COVID-19 before boarding their bus to Vermont. Officials were initially skeptical of this claim, but Rutland Town Selectman John Paul Faignant, who also serves as the town health officer and second constable, said Friday that he met with Perlstein, reviewed the test documents, and found them current and in order.
Perlstein maintains campers are not leaving the Holiday Inn grounds, and that planned trips around the area have been canceled due to the pandemic.
Faignant, along with Select Board Chairman Joshua Terenzini, said the town has received numerous calls from people claiming to have seen campers away from the hotel, in grocery stores and other shops, though, they’ve not been able to confirm the reports.
“I’ve tried to put it out there, I’m not a Facebook person, but I try to tell everybody, take a picture!” said Faignant. “I mean, if you can pick up the phone, take a picture, because they swear no one is leaving that property, and I don’t understand why people are seeing these people in the community and they’re not taking a picture. My God, the minute a policeman steps off the curb wrong, somebody is taking a picture. There’s supposedly all of these sightings and not a single picture?”
According to Perlstein, campers who leave the hotel grounds face a $350 fine and will be sent home immediately.
“Nobody leaves the campus,” said Perlstein. “I challenge anyone to bring me a picture of any of our students off campus.”
He said he believes a number of “rabble rousers” are getting people upset with claims about the camp. His other interactions with people in the Rutland community have been pleasant, he said.
“They’re the nicest people I’ve ever met, and it’s a shame that three people can control the mood of what’s going on,” he said.
Schirling stated in an email Friday that he, the Office of the Attorney General, and the Department of Health are speaking with the hotel owners and the camp leaders about a solution, but doubted there would be anything to announce Friday.
On Thursday, attorney Frank Urso, who represents the Holiday Inn’s owners, shared with the Herald a letter he sent to the Department of Public Safety regarding the warning it sent to his client. Urso argues there is no state definition for “camp” nor is there an official town or state permitting process for one, as the department’s warning claims. Urso stated that Perlstein and the Holiday Inn have an agreement in place that holds that only Perlstein’s group will be using the hotel for the sole purpose of a summer camp in compliance with all state COVID-19 guidelines. Because of this, Urso said, the 75% occupancy cap for overnight camps is the one that applies, not the cap for hotels.
A comparable number of Zichron Chaim campers also arrived at the former Southern Vermont College campus in Bennington on the July 4 weekend.
The state has said there are no capacity issues there. Bennington town officials report their presence has been the subject of local controversy, but the biggest problem so far has been noise complaints; that and some minor fire code issues; and a permit was needed for a large tent the camp had set up.