Here in Vermont, we live in a bubble right now.
We live in a state with the lowest number of positive COVID-19 cases, as well as the fewest deaths per capita. On all of the graphics showing how states are faring in the pandemic, Vermont always stands out as the state that seems to have flattened the curve.
That has an appeal. And suddenly, we are finding our enviable position is a burden.
In recent days, we have had articles in this newspaper about a religious camp from the greater New York City and New Jersey area leasing space at both the former campus of Southern Vermont College in Bennington, as well as at the Holiday Inn in Rutland Town, where some 340 to 380 young people are being housed.
By all counts, it appears there are more than 1,000 young people who were brought to Vermont to get away from the city and the struggles of the pandemic there. The camp’s director, Rabbi Moshe Perlstein, of Zichron Chaim Congregation, has told town and state officials that his “campers” will not be leaving the premises while attending the camps during the next three weeks.
Social media and eyewitnesses, who reached out to the newspaper in the past few days, suggest otherwise. Outside sources are claiming that the young people have been seen in local convenience stores and businesses.
Also, Perlstein has said that all of the students have been tested for coronavirus.
The public at large in both communities has voiced concerns — loud and clear — that they are not just concerned, they are scared.
We believe they have a right to be.
State and local officials also believe that Perlstein is in violation of state rules on safe distancing and pandemic-related guidelines. He has until Friday to come up with a plan to remedy the situation.
Let’s back up. We first heard about the “camp” when a reliable, local source reached out seeking confirmation from us. The scenario — 350-plus young people and staff from greater New York City and New Jersey had been bused to Rutland for a religious camp to be held at the Holiday Inn for the month — sounded too outrageous to be true.
When we confirmed that local officials also were investigating the claim, and that all indications were that it was true, we had the same questions everyone is having right now:
- How did this happen?
- Is our community now vulnerable to a public health risk?
- Who knew they were coming?
- How did state and local officials not know they were coming?
- Does this scenario prove that enforcing a quarantine (and monitoring a pandemic) is truly impossible? Is it all based on an honor system?
- And, perhaps, most importantly, what happens now?
Based on the comments on our stories and social media, there are individuals in the Rutland area who have spent the past few months actively protecting themselves from the virus to protect people in their families who are more than likely susceptible to COVID-19. Only as Gov. Phil Scott has slowly turned the spigot on the local economy — based on science and facts — have they been willing to venture out and try to return to some semblance of normalcy, at least as far as gathering food and provisions. They probably never assumed that they would be moving toward “normal,” or at least a pre-pandemic routine.
But now they are — and justifiably — upset that the state’s rules appear to have been broken. And the repercussions of those actions have kicked open another door of uncertainty.
Is it safe to go out out? To visit downtown? Mostly, is it safe to shop at the grocery store?
Certainly, Rutland Town officials are unimpressed that 350-plus students and staff hailing from an area known to be a hot spot for coronavirus are now visiting their community.
But the problem is: There actually is a system in place: guidelines, testing, quarantining, enforcement. We should trust that the process will work for the community as a whole.
And yet, we feel angry and betrayed that there was a certain arrogance at play that allowed these organizers to feel like the best opportunity right now was — unannounced and unsolicited — to arrive into a community where residents were feeling safe — and through vague responses and false pretenses — assume that it would be all right with everyone.
Arrogance in a pandemic has a price. Right now, everyone from individuals living with elderly parents to local hospitals to residents are asking: Are we really prepared for this?