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Some jobs remain exempt from Vermont’s stay-at-home order

Valley News Business Writer
Published: 3/25/2020 8:35:03 PM
Modified: 3/25/2020 9:10:11 PM

BRADFORD, Vt. — It’s no longer business as usual.

In fact, for countless small Vermont firms, restaurants and mom-and-pop stores, it’s no longer business at all.

Vermont Gov. Phil Scott, as part of his stay-at-home order announced Tuesday to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, issued a sweeping order that requires all for-profit and nonprofit enterprises to remain closed for in-person business until April 15.

The order went into effect at 5 p.m. Wednesday.

At the same time, the governor exempted businesses and nonprofits deemed essential in responding to COVID-19 from the in-person restrictions, such as those in health care, critical manufacturing, supermarkets, hardware stores, pharmacies, news media and services that provide COVID-19 response.

Scott said the measures are required to prevent COVID-19 from “overwhelming our health care facilities.”

The order instantly ricocheted across the state and Upper Valley, leading even some businesses that could claim an exemption to close their doors.

One of those, the apparel and feed supply store Farm-Way in Bradford, is a popular weekend destination for many shoppers in need of boots or outdoor and seasonal clothing. It also sells essentials such as animal feed and pet food, but management said the welfare of employees came first.

In recent days Farm-Way had introduced a “curbside” pickup options for customers but “our staff actually felt more uncomfortable with it,” explained Carol Metayer, whose family owns Farm-Way.

“Are we going to be handling cash?” she said was one of the fears. “There’s just too many variables.”

She said 10 to 15 of the store’s 45 employees were already out over coronavirus fears and many of them “just didn’t feel comfortable here anymore.”

“We want to support the quarantine and be part of the solution,” she said.

Vermont’s Agency of Commerce and Community Development, the arm designated for approving exemptions under the governor’s order, by Wednesday had set up an online form for companies that are unsure of whether they qualify for an exemption. The online form requires basic information — such as location, type of business and number of employees — and then asks the applicant to provide a brief “rationale for continuation of business operations.”

On Wednesday, Todd Priestly, president of Lovejoy Tool Co. in Springfield, Vt., was completing the online form to request approval for an exemption. The 35-employee, family-owned toolmaking company contracts with companies within the medical, defense, power generation and heavy equipment industries.

“I expect we’ll get it,” Priestly said, who added that no employees have tested positive for COVID-19.

Medical device equipment accounts for 85% of sales for GW Plastics, the Bethel-based injection mold company, and has long been deemed an “essential manufacturer” by both the state and federal government, CEO Brenan Riehl said.

“Our products support public health and safety,” said Riehl, whose plants in Bethel and Royalton employ more than 400 people. “Our employees are very proud in what they are doing — making medical devices, drug delivery systems and diagnostic devices used by doctors and hospitals.”

Other small businesses affected by Scott’s order are adapting quickly now that they are prohibited from in-person transactions.

Betsy Bishop, president of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, called Scott’s stay-at-home order “the right thing to do given the nature of this virus” but noted “we also know the impact on our economy in Vermont and our local communities is certainly going to be severe.”

As to what the economic damage would look like and how many will be able to survive, Bishop said it is too soon to tell.

“Many businesses are learning to adapt to work-from-home arrangements, but many cannot. We are all learning the details of ‘essential’ business, while also determining which workers are essential for health and safety,” she said.

At a news conference on Wednesday with Scott, Commissioner of Public Safety Michael Schirling, when asked whether and how the state would enforce Scott’s order calling for nonessential businesses to close, said “Vermonters are really coming together to heed the orders,” and added, “that education and voluntary compliance are the key.”

However, he also said there are potential penalties for violating an executive order, and some businesses could also run afoul of local health departments and licensing issues if they didn’t comply.

Tack and equestrian supply retailer Strafford Saddlery in Quechee was coming up on its big annual spring sale last week when COVID-19 interrupted those plans. Store manager Lisa Morrison said that, in response, they are trying something they’ve never tried before: Store owner Annie Penfield has been producing Facebook Live tours of the stores and talking about the items on sale.

Shoppers can go through to the store’s online store and order the item.

“We’ve never done Facebook Live before. This is a bit of an experiment for us,” Morrison said. “We were worried people wouldn’t want to come into the store for the sale.”

The live video streams also help connect the Upper Valley equestrian community while also “keeping them entertained.

The first Facebook Live stream last week attracted “six to eight” viewers, Morrision said, and the second one “about 20.” Strafford Saddlery now plans to make the livestream a regular Tuesday and Thursday event.

“It’s OK. We’ll take it,” Morrison said, “We rarely would have 20 people in the store.”

John Lippman can be reached at jlippman@vnews.com.




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