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Retailers can conditionally reopen on Monday

Vermont retailers, closed for seven weeks to halt the spread of coronavirus, will begin a “gradual reopening” starting Monday, Gov. Phil Scott announced this week. 
Scott said that all employees at retail outlets will need to wear face covering and maintain a distance of 6 feet. Stores will also be required to stay under 25% of their maximum legal capacity, and to conduct health and safety training on following state guidelines if they have more than 10 employees.
The governor said that customers would be encouraged to wear masks, but it will not be required. 
“While I know many are eager to shop for clothing and other supplies,” Scott said this past Monday, “waiting a week gives these businesses time to develop a safety plan, do their training, modify their store chores and work with ease, understand all the steps needed to reopen and operate safely.”
The retail reopening is Scott’s latest turn of the spigot in reopening Vermont’s economy. Last week he announced steps to reopen nonessential manufacturing, as well as outdoor economic activity like golfing (see Page 1B), and said that play dates, meetings between trusted households, and summer day camps were OK — with proper public health compliance. 
The governor’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order expires on May 15. Scott said Vermonters could expect a “relaxing” of that order moving forward. 
“Again, I think you should expect and we want people to limit their travels for interaction … making sure that we’re socially safe and we’re not getting into aggregate settings, so that we can prevent the spread from happening,” Scott said of the next iteration of his executive order. “So you’ll see a variance of what we have in place, but I would say that there’s going to be relaxing of that order.”
Scott says his administration would follow up with businesses that do not seem to be following appropriate protocols and practices — laid out in sector- and business-specific reopening plans that must be submitted to the state.
“So if we see that there is a situation where they’re not abiding by the plan, we’ll ask for the plan, and then take action from there giving more guidance and, hopefully, they will do the right thing, because it’s really important,” he said.
The governor has said that he is confident that increased testing and tracing will allow Vermont to prevent these reopening steps from leading to new coronavirus outbreaks. He noted that Vermont had zero new confirmed cases and zero deaths from COVID-19 on Sunday.
“By taking a cautious approach we will be stronger and healthier when we get to the finish line,” Scott said Monday. “Instead of taking two steps forward and one step back, to take one and a half steps forward without having to retreat.”
Vermont is one of the only states in the U.S. that is not allowing big box stores to sell nonessential items. Scott did not immediately address whether these rules would also change next week. 
The Scott administration also recently began allowing hospitals to schedule elective procedures and nonessential appointments.
 Human Services Secretary Mike Smith warned Monday that dental offices should not assume that this will extend to their practices — noting that some dental offices have indicated to patients that they will start scheduling nonessential appointments starting May 18. 
“It would be premature to conclude that this ban will be lifted” on dentist offices, Smith said. 

UNEMPLOYEMENT BACKLOG 
The Department of Labor this weekend — with help from a call-center contractor — processed 9,000 of the 10,000-person unemployment claims backlog, according to the Scott administration. 
Gov. Phil Scott said those individuals still have a final step to activate their UI accounts online, but that he believed those 9,000 people would be receiving benefits this week from the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program. 
The governor was asked when everyone who is seeking unemployment assistance in Vermont — and qualifies for it — would be receiving benefits. 
“So we’ll continue down this path until everyone receives the benefits, as they are entitled to,” he said. “So, it might be a little bit longer but every, every week it seems as though we’re able to do the workarounds and in fact clear up some of those cases.”

MAIL-IN VOTING
Gov. Scott on Monday said that he remains “uncomfortable” with taking any immediate action on mail-in voting for the November elections, but added that he would not block legislative efforts to move forward without his approval. 
“I’m just saying, I’m not comfortable making this decision right now, but if the Legislature wants to take other action, I’m not going to stand in their way,” Scott said. 
Scott has said he would prefer to wait until August — once primary races have been settled and November ballots are ready to be printed — before deciding whether to move forward with an election by mail. 
Legislation passed last month requires Scott and Secretary of State Jim Condos to agree on the election format. The Legislature would have to pass new legislation to override that clause if it wants to move forward with mail-in balloting, though Scott would eventually have to either sign the bill or let it pass into law.

GIRLS SCHOOL TESTING
Health Commissioner Mark Levine on Monday said a half dozen new cases in Bennington over the weekend were at least partly explained by testing conducted at the Vermont School for Girls.
The residential school specializes in mental health treatment. Levine said that a positive COVID-19 test of a community member in the middle of last week sparked blanket testing that is now conducted any time the virus is detected in congregate living facilities. 
Levine said he wasn’t sure exactly how many of the positive tests in Bennington were attributable to the girls school. “The majority of people actually are not positive, but there were small numbers that were positive,” he said.

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