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Gov. Scott says reopening is going well

MONTPELIER — It’s been a week since Vermont lifted all COVID-19 restrictions — and the skies didn’t fall. On the contrary, as Gov. Phil Scott emphasized in Tuesday’s press conference, new case numbers continue to decrease throughout the state, Vermonters continue to get vaccinated and things just might be looking up.

COVID-19 cases fell under 5,000 in New England this week, the lowest since the beginning of the pandemic, despite all six states having fully reopened. Vermont saw only 38 new cases and has only recorded one COVID-related death in the past five weeks. Scott said he anticipates fatalities will remain low.

Vaccination rates continue to rise in Canada as well, with 66.7% of the country having received at least one dose. Though Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last week announced that the Canada-U.S. border will remain closed for another month, fully vaccinated Canadian citizens and residents are now allowed to enter the U.S. without a full two-week quarantine. Gov. Scott said clarity around when the border may begin to loosen and how opening will look remains lacking from Canadian officials.

At home, though, numbers are encouraging, but “it doesn’t mean we’re letting off the gas,” Scott said.

The Delta variant of the coronavirus, which Dr. Anthony Fauci named as “the greatest threat” to the country’s pandemic response, now accounts for just over 20% of U.S. COVID-19 cases and has been identified in Vermont. More contagious than previous strains, rising cases of the Delta variant have been recorded in places with lower vaccination rates, like the Midwest.

The variant is yet another good reason to get vaccinated if you aren’t already, Scott said. Pop-up vaccination clinics will continue throughout the state this week, while most pharmacies and drugstores now also offer walk-in vaccinations.

Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine at the press conference urged Vermonters who are already vaccinated to ensure the people around them get vaccinated as well.

“I trust the vaccine, but I don’t trust the virus,” Levine said, adding that if it’s not this variant that threatens unvaccinated folks, it will be the next one, or the one after that.

“Listening and being empathetic and non-judgmental can go a long way” in encouraging others to receive the vaccine,” Levine said.

But with 81.3% of eligible Vermonters — and over 90% of Vermonters 65 and older — vaccinated, the state continues to give its attention to reopening. A major part of this transition will go into effect on July 1, when the current Emergency Housing Protocols end. At the pandemic’s peak, Vermont housed up to 2,000 homeless households in hotels and motels throughout the state. The new eligibility requirements developed by state officials are expected to result in about 700 people being required to move out of emergency housing, with over 1,000 qualifying for additional housing support.

Secretary of Human Services Mike Smith estimated the state has spent more than $79 million on emergency housing in the past year, much of which has been reimbursed by FEMA. The state has promised $41 million for the new emergency housing protocols, in contrast to the allocated $6 million that supported the pre-pandemic program.

“Transitioning to a more sustainable scale of emergency housing program will ensure that Vermonters in need will be connected to the resources and the care they need,” Smith said.

Emergency housing program is not meant to be a solution to homelessness, he added; the goal is to transition households to more permanent housing. To meet this need, the state has allocated $120 million to build more affordable housing.

VETO OVERRIDES?

The past week has seen such welcome changes that not even Legislature’s veto override session, which began on Wednesday, could dampen Scott’s spirits. Legislators are returning for a mostly remote veto session in the hopes of overturning three bills Scott vetoed in the past month or so. Two bills are proposed charter changes in Montpelier and Winooski and the third deals with shielding the records of young adults accused of certain crimes.

Democrats hope to rally two-thirds majority votes in the House and the Senate to overturn the bills the governor wrote off. Scott said he thinks all three could be better, but he doesn’t feel as competitive about it as he might have before the pandemic.

“After what we’ve been through in the past 15 months, whatever happens, life will go on,” Scott said. “It’s not the end of the world.”

And regardless of which side of the veto Vermonters are on, Scott noted some non-COVID news that all Vermonters can get behind. Montgomery’s Elle Purrier St. Pierre on Monday qualified as the state’s newest Olympian, winning the Olympic Trials 1500-meter race in record time.

“It’s very exciting for her and very exciting for Vermont,” Scott said.

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