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Mask on or mask off? For these two passers-by in downtown Brattleboro this week, it was a little of both. State officials are reporting that days from now, the final emergency pandemic restrictions could be lifted when 80 percent of eligible Vermonters have had at least one of their vaccine shots.

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Emerging from our cocoons

After more than a year of Covid-induced isolation, state officials say it’s OK to take it slow while re-entering the world. People are energized — and some apprehensive — about the prospect of normalcy.

BRATTLEBORO—Gingerly emerging from isolation or raring to go, folks have different ways of getting back to pre-pandemic socializing and activities, and many are experiencing at least some level of anxiety in doing so.

Gov. Phil Scott says that state pandemic restrictions can be lifted ahead of the Vermont Forward target date of July 4, if the state vaccination rate reaches 80 percent of eligible Vermonters (those age 12 and older).

That threshold could be met as soon as the middle of next week, Scott said during a May 25 press briefing.

“I was surprised we were making so much progress last weekend, so I’m a little hesitant to make any guesses as to when we may hit this,” he said in the briefing. “I would guess it’s going to be after Memorial Day. Probably the middle of next week, but who knows? We’ll stay tuned on that.”

With ample supplies of vaccine, the state has tried make make it as easy as possible to get vaccinated, with walk-in clinics set up at schools, fire stations, stock car tracks, beaches, and workplaces.

At the May 25 briefing, however, it was brought to Scott’s attention that drivers in the trucking world are not having an easy time finding vaccines, as they didn’t know where to locate walk-in sites on the road and many have only flip phones to work with to try to get appointments — all of which was discouraging them.

“Give it a try. Give your regular pharmacy or one you’re going to be driving by a call,” advised Scott, noting that many hospitals have walk-in clinics as well and adding that by the end of this week, his office would try to come up with and publicize a list of pharmacies and clinics to make it easier for truckers.

Easing on down the re-entry road

Last week, state Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine said it’s OK for Vermonters to take time to adjust to new guidance that will no longer require masks for fully vaccinated people.

Some towns, such as Brattleboro, still mandate wearing masks in shops and restaurants. That mandate will likely stay in effect until the current state of emergency is lifted in Vermont.

Selectboard members are anticipating raising the issue at the board’s meeting on Tuesday, June 1.

As he has done for the past few months, Levine reminds Vermonters that the vaccine works and even protects against the Coronavirus variants that have emerged. He stressed that vaccinated people are unlikely to spread the virus.

“We have great vaccination rates here in Vermont, and we’re going to keep doing even better,” Levine said. “This is why we can ease up on masks and distancing for fully vaccinated people. And why the Vermont Forward plan makes sense — and is even possible.”

However, he acknowledged that businesses may still require masks, especially if their employees are not yet fully vaccinated.

“That is totally fine, and I applaud their concern for the health of their staff,” said Levine. “This is why you should continue to keep a mask with you when out and about, to respect the policies of businesses and the settings you might find yourself in.”

He added that it’s also OK for fully vaccinated people to be “thoughtful about their decisions and observe how others behave before changing their own behaviors.”

“Wanting to protect yourself and others has been so ingrained in us now, I can certainly understand, but know that when you’re ready, you can have confidence in the vaccine’s protection,” he said.

“Even if you unknowingly encounter an unvaccinated person, the vaccine is highly protective against all of the most serious outcomes,” Levine added.

If you’re not yet vaccinated or are waiting for your immunization to protect you to the fullest — two weeks from your final dose — Levine encouraged folks to continue masking and distancing so as not to put others at risk.

Brattleboro Retreat President and CEO Louis Josephson, Ph.D., concurs wholeheartedly with Levine.

“Yes, to all of the above,” Josephson said. “There has been a lot of trauma. We’ve seen in our inpatient and outpatient practices people who are struggling with fear and anxiety and trauma and, if people had any predisposition to depression, it’s only gotten worse during the pandemic.”

Josephson said the baseline is that “it’s more the odd person who’s feeling just fine.” Those who aren’t feeling so fine? They’re the norm.

“People saying, ‘What’s wrong with me?’ should know that people in general are struggling about the reopening, and [that] it’s normal and appropriate,” he said.

Josephson noted that some “mixed messages” about mask wearing and reopening “only make it worse.”

“It’s normal if people are feeling anxious right now. You wish the scientists and policymakers could be crystal clear, but we’re not right there,” he said. “The good thing is there’s still a lot of what we call self-efficacy, controlling your own pace, managing what you need.”

“So you can wear a mask and, if someone looks at you funny, so what?” he said.

Josephson added that hybrid working is a concept that isn’t going away: many employers are also still flexible about allowing employees to work at home.

He believes employers will continue, for the most part, to continue to appreciate their workers’ situations at least until schools and day-care centers are back online.

“And no one is forcing anyone to get on a plane, to travel,” he said. “If you need to go at your own pace, that would be wise to do. Take it slowly and see how things evolve.”

Josephson has also seen that as things reopen and a measure of normalcy returns that people are feeling the losses of the past year — not only loss of human life and illness, but losses such as school graduation ceremonies.

“As we open, I think we’ll have all kinds of reminders of what we didn’t have, or if we’d lost someone,” he said.

He also noted that washing hands and wearing masks may be more than just “good habits” we’ve become accustomed to, as these measures provide a defense against more flu and gastrointestinal issues.

Ultimately, Josephson’s message is to do what feels right, take your time, and know you are not the only one feeling trepidation.

“People are not alone in what they’re feeling, and they shouldn’t push themselves,” he said. “If they want to be more cautious, that’s totally fine.”

Being out and about

The Flamingo Diner had been open again just 3{1/2} hours when The Commons spoke to co-owner Kerry Suklis on Tuesday, May 25.

“It might be a little too soon to tell,” she said. “We didn’t want to reopen until we were fully vaccinated, and now we are.”

With just Suklis and her partner cooking and no indoor seating, she says there is “no reason” for folks to remove their masks, although there are a few tables outside where patrons can sit and eat their takeout meals.

“So far, two customers both walked in with masks, so I’m optimistic,” Suklis said.

At Sam’s Outdoor Outfitters, owner Brad Borofsky has been carefully easing into business as usual in each of his locations, including Brattleboro.

“I’ve got three different stores in three different states, all with different mandates,” he said. “My primary focus has been the employees and their families.”

“The mask is the hardest thing to figure out,” Borofsky said. “Cleaning and capacity and quarantining merchandise is much easier. I had been quarantining merchandise for three days and just went to one day. And we just reopened the dressing rooms last week. I was overreacting toward the safe side, probably.”

Borofsky said he will still require masks in the store until the staff is fully vaccinated.

“I’m sure some people will be upset because there are some people out there who just don’t want to wear them,” he said. “They think we’re infringing on their rights.”

“Well, I think they’re infringing on my employees’ rights, and so we’ll do this until the coast is clear,” he countered. “This is the first time the customer hasn’t come first.”

Borofsky said he does have a couple of employees who don’t want to be vaccinated and that he’s not yet sure quite what he will do about that. If they continue to decline immunization, they may have to wear masks, he said.

On the tourist front, all 16 of the state’s visitors’ centers closed on March 20, 2020. By July 20, 2020, eight of the bigger facilities and those on the state borders, including in Guilford, reopened for eight hours a day, offering outdoor restrooms at first.

As of now in Guilford, people are allowed inside only for restroom use, and all brochures and displays remain absent from the center. Only a limited number of sinks and toilets are marked for use to enforce social distancing.

The state’s current plan is to expand to 12 hours daily and also to open the Montpelier Visitors’ Center. The seven remaining facilities will stay closed.

The signs at the state’s borders telling visitors to quarantine have been taken down. New signage to go up this week will offer a welcome and will note that those fully vaccinated are not required to mask but those who remain unvaccinated must continue to mask and social distance.

The Boys and Girls Club of Brattleboro was one of the first public spaces to return in-person programming, and that was last July.

“We followed all the protocols, we have been Covid-resilient, [and] we really were committed to in-person engagement for the social and emotional development of the children,” said Executive Director Michelle Simpson. “We wore masks, we washed our hands, we followed the guidelines — and the guidelines work.”

She said the organization “certainly saw a decrease in daily attendance, which was OK, because we needed a decreased capacity” because of social distancing.

Now, she’s seeing an uptick in children attending programs and the kids are really happy to see one another.

Weighing the variables

The May 7 Gallery Walk throughout the streets of downtown Brattleboro was one of the first major outdoor activities since some Covid mandates were lifted on May 1.

Gallery Walk Director Erin Scaggs of the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance called the event “a smashing success.”

“Almost unequivocally people wore masks,” said Scaggs. “There was spaciousness for those who wanted it and some room for a little more closeness for those who were comfortable.”

“For example, the live music folks that did not necessarily require 6 feet of distance were content to stand closest to the music, while folks towards the back had more than enough space to maintain that 6-foot distance that some folks still prefer,” she said.

“I spoke to so many people that day who expressed the same sentiment: that it felt both totally bizarre and also absolutely normal to be sharing space with people again,” Scaggs continued. “I felt that way myself. I felt like I had never stopped doing it and that I hadn’t done it in 100 years — all at once.”

“My instinct tells me that folks who were less anxious about it are the ones who turned out and those community members who weighed the situation and decided to err on the side of caution stayed home,” she said.

“It felt very part-and-parcel to the entire Covid experience — all of us weighing the variables and prioritizing our and our families’ needs and making decisions accordingly,” Scaggs observed.

“I think some people carefully held a good amount of anxiety in the beginning of the event and, as the evening progressed, I think more and more folks felt the healing quality of sharing space with community,” she continued.

“That’s one thing that I heard over and over again: that people’s spirits felt so nourished by connecting with and being in the presence of their community,” Scaggs recalled.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #614 (Wednesday, May 26, 2021). This story appeared on page A1.

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