Health

Vermont Is at War With Out-of-Towners Seeking Refuge From Coronavirus

The Green Mountain State is facing accusations of "us vs. them xenophobia" after trying to protect itself from traveling New Yorkers. Some permanent residents are begging for more empathy.
April 14, 2020, 1:51pm
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Vermont Public Radio

Late last month, Kevin and Patty Begin received a visit from a Vermont state trooper. The coronavirus had begun to make its way up to the Green Mountain State, and the trooper said he needed to assess local inns like theirs, where they had temporarily stopped housing guests, for potential use as makeshift hospitals.

The interaction was pleasant enough, and the trooper was soon on his way. But Kevin couldn’t shake the feeling that something about the visit felt off. “Honestly, I didn’t believe his story,” said Kevin, who runs the Tucker Hill Inn in the Mad River Valley ski area with Patty. Not long afterward, Kevin posted about the odd interaction on Facebook. Within a few hours, the trooper called him up with a confession: The hospital story was a fabrication. His real purpose was to see if they were harboring out-of-state guests.

Little did the Begins know, Vermont’s police force had visited hundreds of inns and hotels across the state that day—most of them closed. A day earlier, the state had announced a “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order, which included specific guidance for lodges. According to the order, lodges must suspend operations until further notice, with some exceptions for vulnerable populations like the homeless, health care and other emergency workers, and properties being used as quarantine facilities. (It has recently been extended through May 15.) Fortunately for the Begins, Tucker Hill Inn had heeded the state’s order. Of those the state troopers visited, however, 44 had continued to put up out-of-towners who had escaped to the rural state.

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All across the U.S., in small mountain and beach towns, full-timers and government officials alike are at odds with wealthy tourists and second-home owners originally from dense areas like Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York. Everywhere, locals fear the rich and mobile might bring the deadly coronavirus with them—or, at a minimum, provide unnecessary competition for limited supplies at grocery stores. The New York Post has likened an escalating situation between Manhattanites and locals in the Hamptons to “all-out class warfare.”

On the Jersey shore, a local mayor announced that anyone who is not a “permanent resident” would be fined up to $1,000 if discovered staying or moving around in the beach town without an essential purpose. Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo went as far as ordering a 14-day quarantine for anyone arriving from New York, deploying the National Guard to pull over vehicles with New York plates and forcing occupants to register with the government. Only after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo threatened to sue did Raimondo back down.

Vermont is generally known as a quiet, progressive, and extraordinarily welcoming state . But even here, a growing crowd of out-of-towners have been deemed a problem in the coronavirus era. Just two days before the trooper paid a visit to the Begins, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy had urged non-residents to stay away.

“They should go home, and not use up resources like our hospitals and our supplies."

Of primary concern is the state’s limited health care options. According to Vermont’s human services secretary, the state needs double the amount of masks, ventilators, and hospital beds currently in its possession just to accommodate the full-time population, let alone everyone who has landed here recently. To help with the current shortage of nurses, 95 nursing seniors at the University of Vermont recently opted to graduate early, according to VT Digger, the state’s watchdog news website. The university’s Larner College of Medicine is discussing a similar situation for doctors, but no final decision has been made.

And then there’s the issue of local supplies. Some Vermont towns have populations of less than 1,000, and the growing population is causing family-owned grocery stores to have trouble keeping up with demand, or simply to fear what might happen to business if they allow the traveling New Yorkers in. Micaiah Adams, owner of a hair salon in the town of Waitsfield, is worried about the potential impact of the influx of non-Vermonters. “They should go home, and not use up resources like our hospitals and our supplies,” Adams said.

At Mehuron’s, a family-owned and beloved grocery store in Waitsfield, customers have been greeted with a sign since March 30 that reads: “Attention! Per Governor’s Order: NO ENTRY TO ANYONE THAT HAS BEEN OUT OF THE STATE IN THE LAST 14 DAYS! SHOPPING IS NOT QUARANTINING! We look forward to seeing you once completing your state required 14-day quarantine.”

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A sign at Mehuron’s, a family-owned grocery store in Waitsfield, Vermont. (Photo credit: Amy Carst)

Considering its popularity with out-of-towners in the Mad River Valley, Mehuron’s bold announcement was perceived by some as out of character, and maybe even a bit harsh. But the store’s decision to err on the side of caution is not without reason. Locals have witnessed out-of-state shoppers filling SUVs with cartloads of groceries, which are particularly precious in remote towns with limited options. One non-resident purchased a large quantity of cleaning supplies before immediately attempting to sell them in the store’s parking lot.

On April 6, a Waitsfield resident named Susan published a post on Front Porch Forum, a statewide daily e-newsletter, airing her concerns about the quickly-increasing population and the aggressive actions of some non-residents. “This past week, a local medical worker friend who was in town shopping politely asked a group from another state with a vehicle full of luggage if they were going to self quarantine,” Susan wrote. “They aggressively told him he could go…..” She left the rest of the expletive unsaid.

Like a lot of people here, Erica Stroem makes a living off the local tourism industry. A Vermont musician who works at a ski resort and in food service, Stroem nevertheless said she’s found herself frustrated by out-of-towners who are clearly not abiding by the new social rules.

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A staffer member of the Harwood Unified Union School District prepares packaged meals for school children who get lunches delivered during school closures. (Photo credit: Erika Dolan)

“For the people who did it right, who came up here weeks ago when the social distancing order first went into effect and immediately quarantined themselves, I’m good with that,” said Stroem. “But those who are driving back and forth each weekend, like all the Airbnb and VRBO rentals on my road, because they think they have the right to move freely about, that’s just not okay. This is a global issue, not a community issue.”

Barry Finette, the director of the Global Health and Humanitarian Opportunity Program at the University of Vermont and co-founder of THINKMD, said the stress felt by Vermont locals is in line with what many people in similar positions have felt before them.

“Population movement during humanitarian crises can bring significant stress and risk to the areas in which people are seeking refuge. [It can cause] economic hardship and increased burden to the public service sector, in particular healthcare systems,” Finette said.

"Those who are driving back and forth each weekend, like all the Airbnb and VRBO rentals on my road, because they think they have the right to move freely about, that’s just not okay."

Towns in neighboring New England states have dealt with similar issues. New Hampshire governor Chris Sununu, for one, has also issued a stay-at-home order and urged out-of-towners to stay away. Nevertheless, Tuckerman Ravine, a favorite spot for backcountry skiers and riders, had roughly 400 people visit on a recent Saturday at the end of March, about half of whom were from out of state, according to the North American ski and ride website Snowbrains.com. “Cars filled the parking lot at Pinkham Notch, lined the highway for several hundred yards with folks congregating in the lot, on the deck and driving together,” a member of the Mount Washington Avalanche Center told the local Concord Monitor.

The weekend revelry seems to constitute a complete disregard for the severity of this crisis. In response, the U.S. Forest Service closed Tuckerman Ravine and the surrounding Cutler River Drainage area for the remainder of the season.

“Unfortunately, I see bad behavior every day from locals and out of towners alike. We're all in this together people,” said Bruce Hyde Jr., co-owner of Mehuron's Supermarket. Louise Johnson, a real estate agent in Milton Vermont said her husband was recently harassed while driving a car with Pennsylvania plates. “His work car is registered in Pennsylvania,” Johnson wrote. “Last week, he was dangerously tailgated, and a passing car shouted at him to go back to his own state.”

To Adina Ford, who owns a Vermont-based house cleaning business, the plight of the out-of-towners has become something of a human rights issue. “I have clients here from New York who did their part to quarantine. I recognize the potential impact if people arrive sick, but let’s not become consumed by self-preservation. People seek refuge all throughout the world.”

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Grounds of the Bundy Gallery in Warren, Vermont, looking west to Sugarbush ski resort. (Photo credit: Wendell Anderson)

The hostility could come with unintended consequences for locals. Second-home owners and tourists who have primary residences in other states are heavily invested in Vermont’s economy. Trina Turner, a professional house cleaner and resident of Granville, Vermont, said that second-home owners are the primary source of business for house cleaners, property management companies, and landscapers. Without the seasonal influx of non-residents, the livelihoods of bartenders, waitresses and musicians would likely be put in jeopardy.

Lisa Loomis, editor of the Mad River Valley’s weekly, The Valley Reporter, considers second-home owners an integral part of the community too. “How can it be okay to accept the enormous outpouring of donations that came from second-home owners and visitors after Tropical Storm Irene yet reject them now?” she asked.

Warren resident Tara Prychodnik said that many second-home owners contribute to the Mad River Valley Community Fund, a program providing financial assistance to residents who need help but who do not qualify for other assistance programs. Many locals who are suffering financial losses related to COVID-19 are now getting the help they need from the fund. According to Rebecca Baruzzi, the fund’s program manager, about three-fourths of the donations come from non-Vermonters.

“The us vs. them xenophobia that we are [seeing here] is not happening to this extent in other VT communities. The MRV residents need to do a little soul searching about this disgraceful behavior before second-home owners vote with our wallets."

Finette, the director of the Global Health and Humanitarian Opportunity Program, said that because of the lack of data and coronavirus testing, it’s difficult to quantify exactly how all the out-of-towners are actually affecting their new environments. “This makes it impossible to understand and predict the public health impact of population movement,” he said. But the tensions between locals and non-residents could lead some out-of-towners to decide to vacation elsewhere next year anyway. One such person is Todd, who owns a ski house in the Mad River Valley area of Vermont but no longer lives there full-time.

“The us vs. them xenophobia that we are [seeing here] is not happening to this extent in other VT communities,” Todd recently posted on the Front Porch Forum. “The MRV residents need to do a little soul searching about this disgraceful behavior before second-home owners, like me (even though I have a green license plate), vote with our wallets and decide to take our recreation spending elsewhere.”

But there are also small signs of progress. One child of a second-home owner who wished to remain anonymous said he had been self-isolating in a small Brooklyn apartment before they decided to head to Vermont.

“As the situation got worse, it seemed silly to remain in the city, where risk of exposure was great, when my family owns a ski home in Okemo Vermont,” the Brooklynite said. “Moments after pulling into the driveway, a ‘vigilant neighbor’ called my parents to report a car with non-Vermont plates in their driveway. When they learned it was their children, the neighbors became even more alarmed, saying ‘They live in New York, don’t they?’”

But the parents laid out the situation. They explained that the children had quarantined in the city for the appropriate amount of time. That they had driven to Vermont by car, rather than taking public transport. And that they were scared. Suddenly, the neighbors became what they were once before: caring. And neighborly.

Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly attributed a quote to Bruce Hyde, the former owner of the popular Hyde Away Inn and Tavern in Fayston, Vermont. The comment was made by his son, Bruce Hyde Jr.

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