By Angelo Lynn
It’s time Vermont’s Democrats urged Gov. Phil Scott to open Vermont’s economic spigot a bit faster, even significantly faster. The onus falls on the Democratic leadership because Scott appears afraid of the political risks if he makes the call on his own.
Here’s the political calculus: If Scott were to lead the state into an aggressive reopening of the business community and the state experienced any level of virus resurgence (which is bound to happen to some degree), he would be skewered by any Democratic opponent for committing such a travesty. If he plays it too safe (as he is now), he will be criticized for keeping the business community so restricted it kills Vermont’s already fragile economy. It is, going forward, a lose-lose political scenario.
But it’s not just Scott who loses. We all lose if the economy doesn’t rebound quickly enough to prevent hundreds of small, independent businesses from going bankrupt or closing.
In the best of Vermont’s political traditions, Democratic leadership would serve the state well if they were to meet with Scott and outline bolder steps they can take together to not only prevent a severe economic slump, but set the stage for an economic revival — all, of course, with keeping the public health as the priority it has been. In order to do that we must be able to ensure that any new outbreaks are contained quickly with testing and tracing protocols in place (which the state has done) to ensure we never come close to a crisis level of care at our hospitals.
Here are a few measures needed to get the ball rolling:
• With Democrats’ support, Scott must relax restrictions on larger construction projects like the rail-bridges work being done in downtown Middlebury, or the public safety building in Killington, or the K-1 Base Lodge at Killington. Projects like this are outdoors, are easy to create social distancing protocols, and workers can largely avoid being in contact with the general public. Currently the state limits the construction crew to no more than 10. The contractors told the Middlebury’s Select Board on Monday that Vermont is the only state in which they are working that imposes such tough restrictions on what, in other states, would be considered an essential project. They said they would have 30 workers on the job at this time, if the restrictions were loosened.
• Hospitals and Vermont’s medical community did an amazing job of preparing for and managing this pandemic. But cash shortages, caused by preventing elective surgeries and many standard visits, bleed hospitals dry. Those measures must be relaxed as quickly as possible. Reports suggest the state’s 14 hospitals are losing $100 million a month and that the UVM Medical Center expects to lose $150 million this year.
It doesn’t take a math whiz to understand that the longer we delay reopening our hospitals to near full operation, we’ll quickly accumulate losses that can’t be repaid without slashing expenses—and that means cutting staff and services. That weakens Vermont’s medical community and threatens Vermont’s long-term viability. If the governor won’t make the call to more swiftly open our hospitals, Democrats should.
• In an equally bold move, Democrats could encourage the governor to walk back his comments late last week when he essentially told out-of-staters not to come to Vermont for their summer vacations. Summer tourism in Vermont represents about a half-billion dollars in revenue, and it’s something that once missed can’t be replaced.
Yes, there is risk in opening Vermont to beleaguered refugees from the Northeast’s population centers, so strict protective measures must be put in place, just as they are being mandated in Europe, the Caribbean and states such as Hawaii, Colorado and others. Many places require masks in all public spheres, some level of quarantine upon arrival, temperature checks and other measures that help isolate and control the spread of infection. State testing capabilities would have to be beefed up even more, and inns, lodges, and private homes for rent would be expected to monitor guests to whatever degree is appropriate.
But to toss up a figurative wall to the 5 million summer visitors Vermont sees in a typical year, would spell a different kind of doom to many businesses throughout the state—and those are jobs and enterprises that won’t come back quickly, once gone.
• Vermont’s business community will also need to promote their reopening and the new rules of engagement, but they will struggle for two reasons: First, we’ve done a good job of scaring the bejesus out of folks so they would stay home and stay safe. It worked well. But now we not only have to convince them that it’s safe to go back out into the community, but we have to educate them about the new safety precautions put in place.
To that end, a portion of the state’s $1.25 billion Covid-19 aid package from the federal government could be designated to market Vermont’s local economy.
Here’s why that’s important: The consumer is responsible for about 70% of the gross domestic product in Vermont. Remove the consumer from the economic equation—which we did with this shutdown—and you remove the revenue. The revenue, however, is what pays for our schools, health care system, police and law enforcement, affordable housing, the repair of our roads and bridges. Everything.
It’s imperative that we stimulate our economy, and the faster we can do that, safely, the stronger Vermont will be.
As to setting the stage for future economic growth, the world and Americans learned two things in these two months of isolation: that we can work remotely from anywhere with good internet connections, and that Vermont and other rural areas offer a measure of safety, access to the outdoors, and quality family life that is to be cherished.
We should market those benefits to a newly conscious populace, 35 million of whom are within a half-day’s drive of Vermont.
But the governor can’t lead this charge. Rather, Democrats must take the lead and bring the governor along. Why would they? Because Democrats just might be surprised by the response of the business community toward their party if they do. It’s not just the right thing to do for the state’s welfare, but it helps businesses (small and large) at a time of crisis and real need—and that won’t be soon forgotten.
Angelo Lynn is the editor and publisher at the Addison Independent, a sister publication of the Mountain Times.