MONTPELIER — Churches will be allowed to hold services with up to 25 percent of the church filled, Gov. Phil Scott announced Friday. As expected, he also announced that restaurants will be able to resume outdoor dining this weekend and salons and barbershops will be able to reopen on Friday, May 29.
The state will also be allowing additional health services.
Hospitals will be allowed to perform inpatient procedures, as long as the required safety measures are taken and 30 percent of hospital beds remain available for COVID-19 patients, should they be needed, explained Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine.
Health care providers who have limited physical contact with patients such as therapists and dieticians will be able to resume in-person care with the appropriate physical distancing, as will opticians and optometrists.
Dentists will be allowed to being offering services which don't create a lot of aerosols, such as flouride treatments and cleanings which rely on scraping plaque from the teeth rather than using sonic removal. The epidemiology team will be watching closely to see the results, but the expectation is that on June 1 dentists will be able to resume other procedures, Levine explained.
The additional openings come as the number of new COVID-19 cases remains low. Despite expanded testing there were fewer than 20 new cases in the last seven days, according to Finance Commissioner Michael Pieciak, whose expertise with statistics and modeling has been put to use overseeing the state's COVID-19 modeling and data.
While Vermont is doing well, it's neighbors on all sides continue to struggle.
“We can’t look at our numbers in a vacuum. We have to look at our neighbors and the ripple effect of every decision," said Scott.
This week, Pieciak expanded his weekly update on Vermont's data to include data from other states.
Presenting data on how things look outside of Vermont, Pieciak noted that within an hour's drive of Montpelier there are approximately 300 active cases and 1,000 total cases. Those numbers increase dramatically at 3 hours drive to 110,000 cases and 35,000 active cases.
Within five hours of Vermont, there are 85,000 active cases.
“We need to watch our neighbors closely because we are not an island," Pieciak said.
Scott added he is concerned the number of cases appears to be increasing toward the northern parts of New Hampshire.
“I don’t believe Maine has hit their peak. If it’s migrating north, this will have an impact on Vermont," Scott said. “I am being very cautious about this. I don’t want to lose ground.”
Pieciak also shared data on the four metrics the state is monitoring to determine how reopening is going.
The percentage of patients seeking care for COVID-like symptoms is now at around 2 percent in Vermont, after trending downward for weeks. If that percentage exceeds 4 percent for multiple days, that would be a cause for concern, he explained.
It now takes 46 weeks for Vermont's number of COVID-19 cases to double. Only Hawaii has a slower growth rate. Case growth is at 0.5 percent, based on rolling averages of the number of new cases.
The percentage of tests for COVID-19 which come back positive also remains very low, and is currently at 1 percent.
The final measure is the availability of intensive care beds, and 59 percent of the state's intensive care beds are unoccupied currently.
Gatherings remain limited to 10 people, and salons and barbershops will not be able to have more than ten people present when they reopen.
However, Scott indicated that if Vermont's data continues to show a low number of COVID-19 cases, gatherings of up to 25 people will be allowed.
Scott has ordered the cancellation of fairs and festivals for the forseeable future, citing their size and the unstructured nature of the event.
Once all businesses have been reopened at 25 percent capacity, Scott said officials will consider raising it to 50 percent if the virus remains relatively contained.
Even with the good news, Levine urged ongoing vigilance. “I want to caution Vermonters not to drop their guard too much," Levine said. There are still Vermonters for whom COVID-19 is a serious health threat and he said, "we need to look out for them."