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COVID guide: Towns authorized to impose restrictions

Gov. Phil Scott in mid-August gave communities — particularly college towns — greater latitude in tightening coronavirus-related restrictions if local officials determined such action was necessary to avert a new wave of COVID-19 cases.
Scott’s executive order — made in concert with his extension of the ongoing state of emergency — specifically allows towns to limit:
•  The size of gatherings. The legislative body of each city and town may enact local requirements regarding gathering size limitations that are more restrictive than those established by the state
•  Alcohol sales. The governor is allowing the legislative body of each city and town to prescribe shorter hours of operation for the sale of alcohol — including beer, wine and liquor — at bars and clubs.
Town of Middlebury officials are pleased to have been given more power to stem a potential new wave of COVID-19 cases. But it’s power selectboard members hope they don’t have to use, even as Middlebury’s population swells by a couple thousand as Middlebury College students return to campus for the first time since mid-March.
The college resumed on-campus classes for students this month, with restrictions imposed on traffic in and out of the institution’s property. The campus and its hiking trail network are closed to non-members of the college community. The college has established its own, on-site COVID-19 testing program that flagged two positive cases in the first 2,908 tests administered.
Middlebury selectboard chair Brian Carpenter said he and his colleagues haven’t discussed, in-depth, their new local regulatory powers. Carpenter is glad the board receives regular COVID-19 updates from Police Chief (and Emergency Management Director) Tom Hanley and from Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay. If those reports should eventually reveal an uptick in cases that could be traced to partying or large gatherings, Carpenter said it’s good to know the town could take some action.
“Our bars aren’t open late anyway,” Carpenter noted. “If we start seeing some issue, it’s a tool we could potentially use.”
Hanley called the new powers a double-edge sword. 
“First, it puts the onus and burden on individual communities to act to control the spread of COVID, which may add to economic stress on the local hospitality businesses,” he said. “Without a statewide policy there is no consistency from town to town — some towns may be driven by health concerns as a priority over economics while others vice-versa. Some may want to get ahead of the curve while others may wait for outbreaks. 
On the other hand, the governor’s policy gives towns with different needs — like Middlebury and Vergennes — flexibility for local conditions.
Like Carpenter, Hanley is waiting until coronavirus prevents a more clear and present threat before advocating more restrictive local rules. He noted that most local businesses are very much concerned about community health and impose their own restrictions.
“We can only hope that in the event of an outbreak Vermont Department of Health will be able to provide us data as to the cause and whether or not enacting restrictions will be effective,” Hanley said. “We will also monitor conditions, such as the frequency and nature of gatherings, reports of non-compliance, and other indicators that may form the basis for recommending restrictions to the board.”

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