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Vermont’s Imperfect Ban on Socializing

November 14, 2020  |  by Bryan Pfeiffer  |  13 comments  | 

Prologue – November 18: Four days after I published this post, Vermont Governor Phil Scott, in a news conference, reiterated this new state policy in no uncertain terms — in passionate and terms, actually. The governor and Vermont’s rockstar health commissioner, Mark Levine, did not waiver on their ban on socializing while allowing restaurants and gyms to remain open. But the governor did suggest that he’ll have more to say on masked, outdoor socializing — like a walk in the woods with a friend — on Friday.

November 20: As expected, Gov. Scott updated his executive order to allow for outdoor socializing between two people of different households, provided they wear masks and keep their distance. Walks with friends are back! But please stay smart and safe, everyone. Thanks!

Although it knows nothing about human nature, the coronavirus is as good as any demagogue or dictator at exploiting our varied human vulnerabilities. Not only does it kill or infirm us, or even harm us not at all, the virus attacks the core of what it means to be human: to gather together, to share experiences and ideas. The virus requires that we work together towards its defeat, and yet it often turns us against one another instead. And now, here in Vermont, where we had been beating this plague, it has even managed to muddle an essential facet of democracy: policy advice from our leaders.

Vermont on Friday toughened its travel-related quarantine requirements and basically imposed a ban on socializing. The rationale for this is hardly a mystery by now: COVID-19 is a communicable disease; we spread it to one another when we’re close enough to communicate. But our governor, Phil Scott, and our health commissioner, Dr. Mark Levine (Vermont’s Anthony Fauci), each of whom has served us nobly in this fight, did not clearly communicate their new policy. Rather than trash them for it, or poke holes in their advice, I will instead try to help out with some nuance and skepticism.

Why me? Well, before my tenure as a field biologist, I was a newspaper reporter and editor. After that, I taught public communications to graduate students at the University of Vermont. So I will try here to put these new restrictions into perspective (if not plainer language). Besides, the governor has just banned birdwatching or deer-hunting with friends — while still allowing us to go out to restaurants (as long as we sit at separate household tables). That warrants an explanation as well. (Oh, the state’s website messaging is also a bit of a mess right now, but I’ll address that in another post.)

Driving the new restrictions are two undeniable trends: The pandemic is worsening here in Vermont and even more so outside our borders, which is why we’ve fortified our quarantine policy. That’s good. Second, and more to the point, in Vermont the virus has of late been spreading mostly when we socialize at parties or other events — what the state, for better or worse, calls “multi-household social gatherings.”

So, effective on Saturday at 10PM, Governor Scott, in an update and extension of the executive order he imposed in March, will ban socializing at these gatherings, indoors our outside. The target is obvious: friends and neighbors getting together for Thanksgiving and Christmas, parties or any other kind of celebration or group socializing. We’ve all seen these gatherings, maybe even participated in them — people hanging out and having a good time. These need to stop until we slow the spread of the virus.

The problem is that safer forms of social engagement are caught up in the ban.

The problem is that safer forms of social engagement are caught up in the ban, which might undermine its acceptance among Vermonters. Technically, we can no longer meet up with a friend for a hike or cross-country skiing. Dog play dates are out. And, yeah, we can’t go birdwatching with our pals. These kinds of restrictions are drawing the ire of more than a few Vermonters, especially because the state will not yet shut down certain commerce, particularly restaurants. We cannot walk trails with friends wearing masks, yet we can still gather in restaurants, removing our masks to eat, except that now only members of one household can share a table. Governor Scott and Commissioner Levine might help their cause — and ours — with evidence of why that’s justified. (Bars, rightly so, are closed for now — except for takeout, even drinks).

Governor Scott, a Republican, allows science to drive his coronavirus policy. In this case, according to Levine, more than 70 percent of our recent wave of infections seem to be coming from the kind of group partying and socializing the state is now rightly banning. But I suspect that responsible, non-celebratory social interactions, like walking outside together or helping a neighbor split firewood, account for very little of our virus spread. It is one thing to hunt outside with your pals; it is another, and far more risky, to spend a weekend together at deer camp. Scott and Levine most likely recognize this as well, and the governor has all along all but looked the other way at minor transgressions of his edicts by repeatedly noting that none of this policy-making is perfect.

If epidemiologists can show us that indoor dining at household tables is relatively safe, despite new recognition that aerosol transmission happens, then let the policy stand. If not, then we all should be doing take-out and avoiding the gym for quite some time. (Ruth and I do not dine out indoors — and won’t for a long, long time; our go-to takeout here in Montpelier is the phenomenal Hippie Chickpea.)

Vermont has proven that we need not shut down our economy entirely and shelter in place (as we did last spring). Governor’s Scotts leadership has, until now, worked. We can get through the pandemic with the evidence of science and the precautions that have now become rooted in our behavior, not the least of which includes common sense.

If we must once again shut down indoor dining, which I suspect we will, or other sectors of the economy, then financial support for small businesses and their workers, from a functioning federal government (which, sadly, we do not have now) would also help. And if this coronavirus does indeed exploit human nature like a demagogue or dictator, well, at least the nation might head in a better direction on the pandemic once the failed demagogue (and aspiring dictator) leaves the White House on January 20. Good riddance.

  1. Rodney West says:

    Bob, I think that Dr. Levine would agree that, strictly, the medical science would not require two quarantines, but the science of human psychology and statistics, are two more significant factors, that a State epidemiologist overseeing the health of a whole population, must consider. And therein lies the rub…

  2. Bob Sherman says:

    I believe in the science and Covid policy based on science. But Vermont has asked more than the science supports.
    Last Friday Dr. Levine was asked: If you quarantine for two weeks in say Massachusetts, take and get a negative test result and immediately drive to Vermont, do you need to quarantine in Vermont?
    He said: you are not going to like my answer but yes you do have to quarantine in Vermont!
    This answer is not based on science. The science says two weeks and a test. It does not recognize a border.
    I do not know why Levine gave this answer. It rejects what science says we must do. And it divides us in a time when we need to pull together. It is a dangerous answer because it asks believers like me to do or accept too much. In this time of great sacrifice and hardship, we should not be asked to do more than is necessary.

    • Thanks, Bob. That does seem contrary to what the travel quarantine policy had been in the past. I think their messaging got a bit muddled last week. I liked that Scott said on Tuesday. We’ll now wait until Friday for them to address some of these lingering questions about relative risk.

  3. Sherry Stone Miller says:

    Thank you Bryan for your very thoughtful commentary on Vermont’s updated ban. As imperfect as it may seem, it may be necessary at this point in time given the exponential growth of the COVID-19 virus. Yes, Vermont’s ban is a message of urgency to keep it simple and to use common sense. Unfortunately, I think common sense is losing ground. People are getting tired and have lost a sense of hope. Or they have a false sense of what is safe behavior, because they have been misguided or have been lucky enough to have not contracted COVID-19…thus far. There is a difference between luck and reality though, and that difference is exponential growth of the virus.

    My common sense tells me that It is difficult to recreate with those who are not members of my immediate household. Not everyone follows the same set of guidelines for what is considered acceptable socializing amongst family and friends. Staying safe is hard work and I am not ready to cave. If I caved now, then why have I work so hard these past 8 months to protect myself and my loved ones (many of whom I have not seen in 8 long months due to various COVID-19 related bans)?

    Now is not the time to let one’s guard down. To reitterate in my own words what another commentator stated, we often innocently gravitate towards less safe behaviors when socializing, and that is just human nature.

    Everyone, stay safe, stay healthy and remain hopeful. We will get through this together.

    • Thanks for this thoughtful reply, Sherry. This makes a lot of sense. Yeah, I guess I was trying to analyze the messaging rather than the message itself, with which I’m generally in agreement. I liked how the governor followed up on Tuesday. And I suspect he’ll put a finer point on it on Friday, as he suggested.

  4. Dave Mace says:

    Well said! While I think most Vermonters are responsible citizens willing to sacrifice for the public good, restrictions that don’t appear to be based on good science or policy undermine overall confidence – and ultimately compliance.

  5. Rodney West says:

    I certainly have mixed feelings about yesterday’s pronouncements, but then there is the math. That graph sure looks more exponential than linear. Busting the growth rate IS AN EMERGENCY. You can only double so many days in a row…

  6. Miriam Hansen says:

    Really well said. Yes, they have used a blunt instrument along the lines of “Keep it simple stupid.” We are living in interesting times, never pleasant for the participant.

  7. John Snell says:

    Well done! Yes, how often has walking safely outside veered into less safe behaviors, even if innocently. Yes, T-day and Christmas rear their heads for all of us, dangerously so. The NYT piece this week about the Central Michigan nurse listening to COVID patients say “I’m sorry I did not…” got my attention all over again. This will NOT last forever. Pick up the phone and tell lonely friends you miss them and are grateful we CAN, in fact, be safe even it is sucks. Remember all those who are truly desperate—no job, no income, no health insurance, etc., because THAT is the definition of “it sucks!” We can do this friends and fellow Vermonters, we can. Thanks for you perspective Bryan.

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