City-area COVID group talks enforcement, medical privacy

VERGENNES — In a Wednesday morning Vergennes Regional COVID-19 Group meeting, 18 area officials dealt with topics that included whether communities could enforce social distancing, if the public’s right to know could take priority over infected individuals’ medical privacy rights, and how they were handling public works and title searches.

ENFORCEMENT

The short answer to the enforcement question was that local communities and law enforcement could only do so much in cases like two mentioned at the meeting: people gathering on the Vergennes green, and others fishing and barbecuing together in Addison.

Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel said his and other department’s officers could ask people to disperse, but lacked the authority to require them to do so.

“We can ask people to do that, and hopefully they can comply,” Merkel said.

City Manager Dan Hofman said a local ordinance could not override what the governor had put in place, and Rep. Matt Birong, D-Vergennes, agreed that the governor’s social-distancing order provided “guidance,” but not enforcement.

PUBLIC VS. PRIVATE

Several said their communities could be safer if people knew who was ill with coronavirus. Medical privacy laws, however, do not allow responders and health care professionals to disclose details of patients’ conditions.

Ferrisburgh Fire Chief Bill Wager said dispatchers are able to advise responders of potential COVID-19 risks with preliminary screening.

“Our dispatchers are doing a good job of communicating,” Wager said.

He and others noted that many cases are already known through social media, and Vergennes City Clerk Morgan Kittredge said Vermont Department of Health procedures include notification of those who have come in contact with those known to be infected.

“There is a process that people are notified. It’s just not broadcast,” Kittredge said.

Vergennes Public Works Director Jim Larrow said “people need to know who is sick,” and asked Birong if anything could be done. Birong said an executive order from the governor to disclose more information might be possible.

Waltham resident Liz Ryan said it was important to get more specific information out because more people would change their behavior if they knew how COVID-19 will “impact their own personal lives.” She suggested the state could break out infection data on a town-by-town basis, rather than just by county.

“We need to get the facts out in our community to impact people’s behavior,” Ryan said.

CIVIC FUNCTIONS

Ferrisburgh Town Clerk Pam Cousino said that town has taken the same approach as Vergennes to public works. She said road foreman John Bull comes in daily to evaluate whether essential work is necessary, and if so either he does it or calls a crew member to do the job. In either case, they work alone, she said. 

The Vergennes public works department has been on an essential-work basis also.

Waltham Selectman Tim Ryan said with manpower uncertainties moving forward due to coronavirus it would be more important than ever for towns to work together.

“Going forward there has to be cooperation between towns if there are deficiencies,” Ryan said.

Larrow assured him there would be: “As always, we will help you any way we can.”

Vergennes and Ferrisburgh are also taking a similar approach to the title searches that are necessary for real estate sales and refinancing. Both communities have shut down access to their municipal offices and have just one worker at a time on duty.

Hofman said even without COVID-19 it would be a safety issue to allow any else to be alone in a locked office with one municipal employee. 

Both communities will email requested documents to those performing title searches, but will not complete those searches because of potential legal liability. Cousino and Hofman said the searches will have to be finished at some point in the future when the offices can be re-opened, and until then real estate transactions will be on hold.

“I know people will probably be a little upset,” Hofman said, but safety has to come first.

Meeting attendees also:

• Heard from Vergennes Mayor Jeff Fritz that the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Vergennes had been awarded a $20,000 grant from the Hoehl Family Foundation of Ferrisburgh to support its ongoing effort to supply meals to young families and seniors during the crisis. 

• Heard from Ferrisburgh Selectboard Chairwoman Jessica James and others that Shaw’s Supermarket and other smaller grocery providers were delivering. James said Shaw’s delivery service required customers to sign up for an app. 

• Learned from Hofman that the shipment of 2,000 N95 masks he ordered from a New Hampshire company should arrive on Friday. Hofman added that the city’s police and fire departments had more recently ordered masks. Wager said area public safety agencies will still need more gear such as face shields, gowns and gloves.  

• Discussed municipalities’ potential cash flow problems if many property tax payments are not made. James noted towns will still be required to pay their school districts and suggested they look into arranging lines of credit in case of shortfalls.

• Were told by Hofman that Vergennes has been organizing morale-boosting efforts, including encouraging displays of banners, lights and teddy bears, plus parades of residents in cars. “We’re really trying to promote this,” he said.  

• Talked about the need to push back against disinformation and rumors, especially spread online. They cited in particular one rumor that Vermont’s border with New York was closed. 

“We have to tamp those rumor mills down,” Birong said.

Merkel summed up: “What we really need is for people to maintain distance and take this thing seriously.”

Information about resources and ongoing initiatives during the COVID-19 crisis is available at community websites, including ferrisburghvt.org and vergennes.org.

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Addison County Independent