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Jason Lively is shown here serving his first drink as official owner of Duo and The Lounge in Brattleboro — only several weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic shut restaurants down. He describes the state’s loosening of the safety measures as “unfortunately, very complicated” as he weighs safety and risk.

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State loosens COVID-19 order for hospitality

Bars get OK from state to reopen; hotels can run at full capacity

Additional reporting by Jeff Potter. Businesses looking for more information on these changes can visit the Agency of Commerce and Community Development’s COVID-19 Recovery site at accd.vermont.gov/covid-19. General information on COVID-19 can be found at the Health Department’s website at healthvermont.gov/response/coronavirus-covid-19.

—While summer has been gloomy for the Vermont tourist industry, the sector got a big boost last week from the Scott administration.At a Sept. 18 news briefing in Montpelier, Gov. Phil Scott announced lodging facilities may now rent all their rooms, as long as guests comply with all other requirements.Those mandates still include mask-wearing, physical distancing, and travel and quarantine rules, in addition to limits on dining and gathering size, he said.Scott also said that bar seating in restaurants will also be allowed, with physical distancing requirements in place. This means food and drink service can be served at the counter. But patrons need 6 feet between one another, and a Lexan barrier must divide the customers and the staff behind the counter.Officials also announced that the state’s travel map will now be updated on Tuesdays instead of Fridays. The map, which displays those counties from which travelers to Vermont may need to quarantine, can be found at accd.vermont.gov/covid-19/restart/cross-state-travel.“This will give folks a few more days to see the latest map and adjust their travel plans to comply,” Scott said.Bars have been closed since late March due to COVID-19 restrictions. Scott said that, based on medical data, loosening the restrictions is warranted.He focused on the glowing praise that the state received last week from Dr. Anthony Fauci, who, as director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases since 1984, serves as the nation’s top infectious disease expert.“Dr. Fauci emphasized that our low case prevalence is why we’ve been able to do reopen, saying, ‘When you have a test positivity of 0.2 percent, you are starting with the game on your side,’” said Scott.“So, as we continue to see low case counts, and as we’ve learned from our experience with lodging and indoor dining over the last few months, we’re updating our guidance,” the governor added.Scott said both moves are aimed at helping the hospitality sector ahead of fall foliage season and the upcoming winter ski season.“I know this is not enough to soften the economic blow to our hospitality sector and we’re continuing to work with the Legislature to support these businesses that were hit the hardest,” he said.While Scott said he understood some might worry with more out-of-state visitors arriving, he pointed out that campgrounds, marinas, and cottages operated at full capacity for most of the summer with little impact on positivity rates.More visitors from the Northeastern states will be able to visit Vermont in the coming weeks. The state has expanded the number of counties in the region where people could visit without a 14-day quarantine.Last week’s expansion will permit 7.4 million visitors, compared to 5.5 million the previous week.

Vigilance still necessary

—Since the pandemic started in March, 123 people in Windham County tested positive for COVID-19 and three have died due to the virus, according to statistics from the Health Department.From Sept. 7 to 14, no new cases have been recorded in the county. Washington, Lamoille, and Chittenden counties have borne the brunt of the new coronavirus infections with a combined 52.But no one in Vermont has died from COVID-19 complications since July 30. The state death toll stands at 58.At the news conference, Health Commissioner Mark Levine, M.D., said that people need to keep up their social distancing to make the reopening of bars and increased capacity of lodging establishments a success.“The key here, whether we’re talking about a lodging establishment or a bar, is to prevent milling around, prevent a breakdown in social distancing, and prevent crowding,” he said.That become even more important, he said, as the cooler months arrive.“With change in the seasons and [the arrival of] colder weather, we will be moving indoors, and that will have an impact on our cases,” Dr. Levine said. “We’ll be living and breathing closer together for longer periods of time. Sharing spaces and germs. Exactly the environment in which COVID-19 thrives.”“This makes it imperative that we keep up the core prevention practices to avoid illness,” the commissioner warned.

For one business, more questions

—Reacting to the policy change, one downtown restaurant owner found the news far from clear cut.“I want my business to survive and eventually become profitable again. I want to be hospitable and say ‘yes’ to guests. But I have to maintain healthy boundaries, which means saying ‘no,’ more than usual. And people sometimes forget we are still in a pandemic,” said Jason Lively, owner of Duo and The Lounge in downtown Brattleboro.“I want my staff to remain healthy,” he said in a text message exchange with The Commons. “I want my guests to remain healthy. I want my family and myself to remain healthy. Our job in the restaurant does not allow for social distancing.”“The nature of restaurant work puts us at high risk. Without a vaccine, proven antivirals, and viable lung repair treatments, all of this is a gamble. It’s all a gamble in the most politically turbulent time in history.”Lively said it’s difficult to figure out what loosening restrictions means — “if and how it may be safe” — and he is cautiously weighing options. But he is doing so knowing that competing establishments opening more freely and more quickly might hurt his still-fragile business.“Every time we loosen a restriction prior to vaccine we are placing public safety in the hands of competition,” he said. “It’s a means to pass the buck from a failed national response from the federal government.”“My intention is to be galvanized by all of this,” Lively said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #580 (Wednesday, September 23, 2020). This story appeared on page A1.

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