BRATTLEBORO—When snowstorms are coming, folks in Windham County go shopping for food and supplies. Last Monday, March 23, was no different in that respect: Hannaford that morning was crowded, as it usually would be.
But there was a difference this time. Amid a global pandemic caused by a new and highly contagious coronavirus, many of the shoppers wore face masks, and some of the shelves — pasta, paper goods — were almost bare.
People tried to keep their distances, but most were forced to come within 6 feet of one another — the minimum safe distance as described by government health experts — as they navigated the narrow aisles.
By early afternoon, at the Brattleboro Food Co-op, snow had started sifting from the sky over a line of about 30 people, all standing about 6 feet apart and waiting to be let into the store, which was using a rigorous system of social distancing. Other customers waited in their cars to pick up food they had ordered in advance.
“What’s this line for?” someone asked.
“To get into the store,” another person answered. “It’s like they say in Havana — if you see a line, stand in it. They probably have something you need.”
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The distances of time in the COVID-19 crisis seem measured by hours rather than days — as if time itself has changed.
Jon Potter, the executive director of LatchisArts, the nonprofit that runs both the historic theater and hotel and owns the building that houses both, noted on Tuesday that just 360 hours prior, a well-attended production took place at the theater.
As The Commons went to press, the Vermont Department of Public Health reports that five people in Windham County are confirmed to be battling the virus, with 95 having tested positive.
At the national level, many major cities were on lock-down. Residents of New York City, many of whom travel to Vermont as tourists, were told to quarantine themselves for 14 days wherever they were.
In Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson ordered the police to enforce a shelter-in-place edict. In Vermont, Gov. Phil Scott ordered the same level of lockdown, effective on Wednesday, March 25 at 5 p.m., although without the same enforcement measures.
While it still seemed that southern Vermont might find ways to avoid the sort of crisis that more densely populated areas to the south were experiencing — New York City is now described as an epicenter of the pandemic — the reality is that the only certain thing was how uncertain the future would be.
The one relatively sound prediction is that wherever the virus takes a foothold, the number of people contracting it will double every two days until containment or mitigation efforts kick in.
Whether Vermont and Windham County have acted in time is still unclear. That the United States had made mistakes and acted more slowly than it should have has been well-documented. Failures in preparation compared to other nations were a matter of fact, rather than opinion.
It was widely reported that in the absence of strong federal leadership, states had been left to make their own decisions. Vermont acted swiftly, but whether it will have the resources to deal with the crisis depends on how quickly federal support would come.
Asked how soon aid might come from government sources, Adam Grinold, executive director of Brattleboro Development Credit Corporation, said, “Not soon enough and not enough of it.”
Grinold called that “the sad truth.”
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For most people in Windham County, it became clear that they would be facing two crises at the same time: a crash in the economy, and the possibility the virus was already within the community and that they, or anyone they met, might already be infected.
Chis and Christine Antoniello, who run Harmony Underground downtown, described how their business had taken the hit from the virus and economic crash.
“We saw a drastic drop in our business,” said Chris. “At this point, we’re probably making only 20 percent of what we should be doing at this time.”
Christine has been suffering with the symptoms that are associated with the virus, though she has started to mend. She said she could not be tested because she has not needed to be hospitalized. She has self-quarantined instead.
For people who are self-employed, the current moment can be very hard.
“I have five children, and my business has crashed due to this COVID-19 epidemic,” said Destiny Magoon, who owns Affinity Cleaning Co., with her husband. She also works as a licensed nurse assistant.
“Right now, we are struggling, with all of our bills past due, and we can’t even afford to buy our two infants diapers and wipes — if the stores even had any,” she said.
“My business has crashed, all my clients have cancelled, and it’s left us sitting here fending for ourselves. We do not have emergency funds put aside for emergency situations like this.”
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The virus has not yet really hit Windham County, but businesses have already been forced to shut their doors, offer curbside pick-ups, and lay off workers. For many businesses, the best option they can offer their employees is unemployment benefits.
David Hiler shares ownership and management of the Whetstone Stationery brewery, and his restaurant is supplying takeout food. The business has had to lay off 65 workers, he said.
“Yeah, I told them all immediately to go collect unemployment, and then hopefully they are getting something,” he said. “But you know, that’s like a 40-percent cut.”
Other major employers in downtown have been forced to do the same.
“On the corporation side, we’ve laid off about 80 percent of our staff,” said Jon Potter. “We are still operating the hotel, but no one is traveling; we just have a few people who regularly come to down for important business.”
The entertainment venues of the Latchis have been closed for a couple of weeks, but the hotel will continue to operate with a skeleton crew to serve regular guests while tourists are not coming to Brattleboro.
The hotel might also have other uses.
“There may be other roles to play if this community ever needs to import medical expertise or any other kind of expertise,” said Potter. “So, you know, we might play a role in hosting them.”
“We’re trying to keep the hotel open,” he said, “but our movie theater and art performance venue is dark.”
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The scale of the global catastrophe that is only just now hitting the United States is clear — it is unprecedented in anyone’s lifetime. So far, in Windham County, the health impact is low, but the economic circumstances are already dire.
Most small businesses in Brattleboro and surrounding towns operate on narrow margins, and even being forced to shut down for a week or two can spell disaster. People who are self-employed will not be easily able to work during the kind of shelter-in-place period that starts in the Vermont this week.
It is a new era, one in which young people are on the front lines, risking their health and even their lives working for low wages behind shop counters or waiting on tables. Yet they are trying to figure out how to pay the rent.
The level of global economic uncertainty exceeds anything most of us have known. The Great Recession of 2008 was a cakewalk compared to what we are facing now — you have to go back to the Great Depression that started in 1929 to find a historical parallel.
It is possible that many businesses in Brattleboro will have to close because of our economic crisis. We were already experiencing hard times when this disaster hit. It is possible to imagine Brattleboro as a ghost town.
And you have to go back to the 1918 influenza epidemic to find a similar health crisis. Doctors in other countries are already triaging hospital beds. Soon we will be, too.
It is hard to imagine what it will be like to see an aged parent die because no hospital bed is available. But this virus is real, and so is the disease that it causes — and it is unlikely that any government measures will prevent this sort of tragedy where we live.
These are hard times. We are cautioned by that reality to do the right thing.
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Over the past couple of days, I have talked to a lot of different folks in different venues — over Facebook, in long phone conversations, in email threads, and so on. This started as a simple news story three days ago. We could not include all of the voices of those who shared their stories, but every voice is still in my mind.
In journalism, there is the artifice of objective voice and the submersing the self, and these are ordinarily good things.
But we live in an age when any chance encounter might mean infection. When everyone is told to self-isolate. When so many people are impacted.
Two things I remember most from this intense series of conversations I have had, several of which left me nearly in tears, and others of which had me laughing.
One is how frightened young people are. They may not show it, but they are. We need to care for them.
The second is that this moment of history has the potential to bring out the best in us — or the worst.
Everyone I talked with sounded like a hero to me — just in the sense that each was trying to do the right thing in a hard time.
“I think the community has been incredibly grateful and supportive to our staff and ability to provide,” said Sabine Rhyne, general manager of the Brattleboro Food Co-op.
“Occasionally, there are people who second-guessed some things that we do or why we manage things a certain way, and, you know, that’s a reaction to the stress we all are under,” Rhyne said. ”I just would hope that everyone comes to whatever situation with their best selves.”