MONTPELIER — The Scott administration outlined the Vermont Forward plan Tuesday, which by July 4 would see most pandemic-related restrictions rolled back entirely.
But it all depends on Vermonters signing up and being vaccinated when they become eligible.
“We’re in the last laps in this long and difficult race,” Scott said. “… We need you to get vaccinated in order to move down this path.”
The four-step plan begins Friday with a relaxing of restrictions on certain businesses and cross-state travel. Scott said the plan is intended to provide citizens, businesses and organizations a basis on which to plan for the future. He said in the future the virus will be managed like the seasonal flu and other viruses through vaccinations, but in the meantime Vermonters need to stick to public health guidance to keep the plan on track.
“Remember, case counts are still high and letting your guard down increases your chance of getting or spreading the virus,” Scott said.
Here are three key takeaways from Tuesday’s press conference updating the public on the state’s response to COVID-19:
1. Vermont Forward plan unveiled
The first step in the plan, which begins Friday, allows cross-state travel for unvaccinated individuals without a quarantine if a negative test can be provided within three days. That step also allows Group A businesses to operate under what the state is calling universal guidance.
Group A businesses include outdoor, low-contact businesses and services including farmers’ markets, retail operations and campgrounds. The state is estimating that 45% to 50% of the state’s population age 16 and older would be vaccinated in time for this stage.
According to Lindsay Kurrle, secretary of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, universal guidance gives organizations across the state five basic tenets to follow: Stay home if you are sick, wear a mask, ensure there are 6-foot spaces, practice good hygiene and know travel restrictions.
Kurrle said the intent is to move the state away from sector-specific guidelines and toward a broader set of guidelines. Businesses can go further than the universal guidance to address any specific concerns for their respective establishments.
“The intent of this universal guidance is to set the baseline for how businesses should be operating,” Kurrle said.
Step two, which is slated to go into effect May 1, would allow one unvaccinated person per 100 square feet — up to 150 people — to gather indoors, and up to 300 unvaccinated individuals to gather outdoors, along with any number of vaccinated Vermonters. In addition, Group B businesses — restaurants, bars, clubs, religious facilities, manufacturing and public meetings, among other things — would adopt universal guidance.
For step two, the state is looking for 50% to 60% of all Vermonters to have at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
Under step three, in which 60% to 70% of all Vermonters have received at least one dose, quarantine and testing requirements for cross-state travel would be removed entirely. That step, which would start June 1, would allow one unvaccinated person per 50 square feet — up to 300 people — for indoor events and up to 900 unvaccinated individuals for outdoor events.
The final step, on July 4, would put all business sectors in the state under universal guidance and rescind gathering capacity restrictions. Masking and physical distancing would still be encouraged.
“We hope these gathering size increases will allow for some form of high school and college graduations to take place,” in addition to other events, Kurrle said.
2. New variant detected
Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine said a variant known as P1 had been detected in one specimen in Vermont. He said the variant is twice as transmissible and “may have implications for reduced susceptibility to monoclonal antibody therapy.” Levine said it is not known at this time which county the variant had been detected in, but more information would be available Friday.
“This is not unexpected, but it is a concern,” Levine said of variants spreading in Vermont.
According to Michael Pieciak, commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation, the state reported 1,241 new cases in the past week — the state’s highest seven-day case count since the pandemic began.
In the race between the viral variants and vaccinations, Scott said the state will be receiving 7,400 fewer doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine this week. However, Scott said this brings the state back to the allocation level from the week before, which is the amount used to calculate the Vermont Forward plan.
“I don’t want anyone to panic, because last week we had a substantial increase,” he said. “This is really on track with what we had beforehand.”
3. Governor responds to criticism
In response to “vitriolic and inappropriate comments” leveled online at staff of the Health Department and governor’s office, Scott released a statement Monday night explaining the state’s decision to make people of color age 16 eligible for vaccination ahead of other age groups.
“With a rate of 20.2% of the BIPOC (Black, indigenous, people of color) population having received at least one dose of vaccine as compared with non-Hispanic Whites (33.4%), we need to do more to close this gap — both as a matter of equity and to help decrease the risk of hospitalizations,” the statement reads, adding that state data indicated the Vermont’s BIPOC population was at an increased risk.
“We understand that these are stressful, uncertain times and people have different ways of dealing with that stress,” the statement reads. “That is no excuse, however, to resort to hateful attacks on fellow Vermonters — especially those comments including racist slurs.”
On Tuesday, Scott said the statement was intended to explain the state’s decision.
“What we were seeing on social media across the country … we didn’t feel the information as accurate,” Scott said during the press conference.