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Vergennes area rallies joint anti-virus effort

The message here in Vergennes is the lights are on still. Our restaurants have very creatively come up with a plan. They were on top of it and are now offering curbside delivery.
— Mayor Jeff Fritz

VERGENNES — Vergennes and its surrounding communities are working together to coordinate their efforts and to provide residents with up-to-date information about access to services and safe practices during the COVID-19 crisis.
Vergennes took the lead, but officials from other communities, notably Ferrisburgh, have been acting and participating in virtual meetings that also include the area’s two representatives in the Vermont House, Diane Lanpher and Matt Birong, both Vergennes Democrats. 
Actions include consistent messaging on town and city websites and Facebook pages, efforts to protect the health of town and city employees; promotion and coordination of local and state services, such as meals provided by schools and the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Vergennes and the latest from the Vermont Department of Labor on employer and employee benefits.
“We have all of the resources that we know of on our website. We are encouraging people to constantly monitor that,” said Vergennes Mayor Jeff Fritz.  
Ferrisburgh selectboard Chairwoman Jessica James said Ferrisburgh was happy to see Vergennes reach out.
“When our area first responders are in need of assistance, they have mutual aid. We need mutual aid in our community on the local government level. Community becomes even more powerful when it includes the entire community,” James said in an email.

COMMUNICATION
Vergennes City Manager Daniel Hofman and Ferrisburgh officials, including Town Clerk Pam Cousino, James and Fire Chief Bill Wager, worked together to create a mailer that is being sent out to each community’s residents with the same information that is available on websites.
Hofman said those mailers should reach mailboxes early this week. In Friday morning’s online meeting he said Vergennes would pick up the tab and “figure out who pays for what in the future.”
Officials said they wanted to make sure to reach everyone, especially the elderly, and not just those with internet access.
“Obviously we have residents who might not have access to online information, so we want to provide them with as much information as we can and urge them to call city hall or 211,” said 
Fritz noted that the other towns’ office staffs are also serving as clearinghouses of information.
But not in person: Town offices are closed except by appointment, and officials are urging that business, such as dog licenses due soon in many towns, be done by mail. Some communities, including Vergennes and Ferrisburgh, will be using drop boxes for payments.
“City hall is staffed, but closed, and obviously we’re taking every precaution we can to protect our employees,” Fritz said.
As well as locking the doors of city hall to preserve the health of office workers, the city has taken other steps for employees.
“We have allowed employees to discretionarily self-isolate if they think it’s necessary, and we will continue to pay them. We have freed up vacation time, personal time, everything is on the table. So if you think you might have been exposed, or you might be ill, stay home,” Fritz said.

COOPERATION
Fritz said city officials discussed the effort before the current crisis point. 
“The reason we started it is, obviously, Vergennes is the five-town hub. Services are here. Our grocery stores are here, and banks, all of those sorts of things. So we knew we had to get on top of it,” he said.
Fritz said Hofman has exceled in coordinating the effort, as have his counterparts in Ferrisburgh.
“We immediately reached out to the five-town leadership, and I’m really pleased to say Ferrisburgh jumped right on the bandwagon, and Daniel and Jess James have been working together really closely to make sure we all get the same information out to our residents,” Fritz said.
James said joint online meetings and other discussions on sharing resources and strategies have been productive. For example, on Friday morning Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel said he might have difficulty obtaining a planned tent to put on his station’s grounds to house a temporary food shelf, and Wager offered a trailer owned by his department. 
“When we have the Emergency Management Directors, fire and police chiefs, town clerks, mayor, selectboard and city council members and educational and childcare community leaders all at the same table (or right now at the same Zoom meeting or email chain), we ultimately pull together for a united cause, the power becomes unlimited,” James wrote.
Fritz said that communication also allows for a united message.  
“Our main concern is that everybody be saying the same thing. We’re looking at it like, here are the talking points for today, and it’s working. The information is flowing. We are in constant contact with Matt and Diane, who send us updates daily, hourly, which is fantastic.”
One key message is asking people to keep their distance from one another, although Fritz noted city businesses are still doing as much as possible. 
“We are actively urging people to stay home if they can. The message here in Vergennes is the lights are on still. Our restaurants have very creatively come up with a plan. They were on top of it and are now offering curbside delivery,” Fritz said. “We also have a number of retailers who are doing by-appointment shopping, or call us and we’ll do it over the phone.”
A tactic to spread the word, not the virus, is to rely on the tried-and-true small-town method of word of mouth.
“We are encouraging everyone to share the information with their friends. Our big message here is make sure your neighbor knows what you know,” Fritz said.
James also noted Ferrisburgh has a new Facebook page, and at last week’s meeting the selectboard created the Vergennes-Ferrisburgh Study Committee, with the goal of enhancing the long-term relationships between the neighbors. 
“We are willing to jointly explore our inter-town relationship and evaluate what strategic opportunities might be available to us,” James wrote. “It is the right time to collaborate and learn from each other.” 
Town office contact info
Addison: 759-2020; [email protected]; www.addisonvt.net (click on “News & Updates”).
Ferrisburgh: 877-3429; [email protected]; www.ferrisburghvt.org.
Panton: 475-2333; [email protected]; www.pantonvt.us.
Vergennes: 877-2841; [email protected]; vergennes.org.  
Waltham: 877-3641; [email protected]; sites.google.com/site/townofwalthamvermont.

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