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An employee of the Agency of Transportation is stationed at the Vermont/Massachusetts line on Interstate 91. The AOT is studying traffic trends at each road that crosses the border into the state.

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The geography of COVID-19

The battle to keep the virus from overwhelming southern Vermont heightens well-worn tensions between residents and out-of-staters — a relationship that is becoming increasingly complicated as medical personnel come from afar to help treat a pandemic

Additional reporting by Jeff Potter and Guinevere Downey.

BRATTLEBORO—The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is slowly making its way into Vermont from hot spots outside of the state.

The state moved quickly to enforce social distancing and other best practices, and in the April 2 report, the actual growth rate is still linear rather than exponential — a steady slope upward rather than the explosive curve that places like China and Italy have seen.

Yet Vermont does not exist in a vacuum, and complicating the state’s response to the pandemic and Gov. Phil Scott’s executive order, which has become increasingly strict over the course of eight updates since the declaration of emergency was signed March 20, is the movement of people over state lines — particularly in Windham County, which borders Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

Workers from the state Agency of Transportation have been staking out the borders, causing some to speculate that the state was intending to police the movement of people in and out of the state.

At at least 28 roads leading into Vermont, the AOT “is monitoring all traffic mobility to determine how effectively mitigation measures are at reducing travel, while increasing our knowledge about any possible increase of the COVID-19 infection rate in Vermont,” wrote Stephanie Brackin, a media relations officer with the state’s COVID-19 Joint Information Center in response to an April 3 inquiry from The Commons.

The agency will continue the study indefinitely. Brackin emphasized that no license plate numbers are being recorded.

“There are no known plans to shut Vermont borders,” she wrote.

Traveling nurses with out-of-state plates

According to estimates released in a report by the state Department of Public Health, the peak of the crest may not be reached until early May.

Worst-case estimates for the peak of the virus predict that existing health resources in the state could be overwhelmed unless they are supplemented by resources, including health-care workers.

In Windham County, traveling nurses already often provide vital care, typically working on 13-week contracts and seeking temporary local housing.

Health care personnel are exempt from Gov. Phil Scott’s executive order prohibiting tourists from staying in local motels and hotels. But even if they are permitted to rent those accommodations, they often can’t afford to. Weekly costs can run high, rivaling the cost of a two-bedroom apartment in Brattleboro.

Kate Barry, a real estate agent with the Masiello Group, has been working to connect visiting nurses with temporary housing. She described how it can be difficult to find affordable temporary housing in the region’s tight rental market, which has a vacancy rate of only about 1 percent.

“I spoke to a nurse, and she was sleeping out of her car because she couldn’t find affordable housing,” said Barry, who noted that the local motel options substantially exceeded her client’s budget.

Barry has been working with local homeowners who provide short-term rentals to prepare to expand housing options. She said that she has been able to find a good place for every health worker who has called in to her office.

In preparing for a potential surge in the need for housing for the reinforcements of medical personnel called in to help with an escalating crisis, Barry said that it was important for local citizens to recognize the potential need.

She also believes it is critical to recognize that not all people driving cars with out-of-state license plates are second-home owners driving north to escape the coronavirus in the south.

“I’m hoping that that we will not need a huge influx of essential workers to our hospitals,” she said, “but it could happen, and if people want to help have housing available, that would be a huge way to help.”

Second-home owners wait out virus

Although businesses in Brattleboro are shuttered, Barry said that the real estate market is booming, at least in her office.

Spring is a strong time of year for inquiries in any case, and Barry, who specializes in finding homes for first-time home buyers, said that she has seen a sharp increase in inquiries from potential buyers from regions in the metropolitan areas to the south.

This trend mirrors the surge in second-home owners from places in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut who have come to the state in recent weeks, relocating to their ski homes in towns like Wilmington, Dover, and Stratton at a time of year when the ski industry normally starts shutting down.

One United States Postal Service worker said that the volume of deliveries in Windham County had substantially increased, with most deliveries going to the ski towns.

Vermont’s economy depends on second-home owners and tourism for a substantial part of its revenue. Earlier this year, the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance jointly launched a new marketing campaign, LoveBrattleboro, with the goal of attracting new visitors to the town and to southeastern Vermont.

Now tourism is on hold for at least a month, and probably longer, and second home-owners from New York have been told to quarantine in place for two weeks.

‘Keep driving’

The migration of second-home owners has brought a surge of anger in some quarters, to some degree surfacing tensions in a national economy that has become increasingly disparate in the past decades.

Facebook and other social media websites have increasingly attracted users submitting long strings of posts filled with invective, much of it directed toward fear that “flatlanders” are bringing the coronavirus with them from New York and other hot spots.

A heated discussion within the r/Vermont subreddit community started with a photo of an electronic road-side sign, reportedly near Londonderry and described as hacked early last week to display the message “NY CT NJ KEEP DRIVING.”

This sort of anger has deep roots in the economic injustice in the United States that has been so widely noted in recent years that it has nearly become a cliché.

People who drive expensive cars and can afford to own two homes depend on year-round residents to cash them out at the grocery stores or deliver their packages, and the economic imbalance has always been obvious.

Now the people cashing out groceries or delivering food are wearing masks and working on the front lines of the crisis, often for minimal wages.

And in Wilmington, the recent death of a beloved resident to complications of COVID-19 sparked discussion on Facebook recently that put his death at the hands of out-of-state visitors.

At the same time, more reasonable voices in various social media strands point out that tourists bring money, that second-home owners are vital to the economy, that most people who come to Vermont do so because they love it, and that they treat the state and its residents with respect.

One person pointed out that many Vermonters over the years have relocated to other places because of economic opportunity, and are returning home now to family at a time of national crisis. It takes time to change a license plate.

“Just because my plate says North Carolina doesn’t mean I’m not from Vermont,” they said.

Barry talked about the complexity of selling real estate to out-of-staters and noted that one positive element was that a lot of inquiries were for homes that had long been hard to move because of location and disrepair.

She expressed hope that one long-range benefit of the crisis might be a gradual improvement in Brattleboro’s housing stock and an increase in decent and affordable housing, even as she acknowledged how income disparities create natural resentment.

“Don’t throw rocks at a car, you know, just because it has out-of-state plates,” she said. “I mean, if you want to get angry, make sure you’re angry at the right people.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #556 (Wednesday, April 8, 2020). This story appeared on page A1.

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