Although cases have been far lower in the state than in neighboring New York and Massachusetts, Vermont’s economy has essentially shut down due to the coronavirus, and schools are closed for the rest of the year. Stuart Hurd is the Town Manager of Bennington, the largest community in southwestern Vermont. WAMC spoke with Hurd about how the pandemic has affected the town of about 16,000 residents.
From a public health perspective, from a pure health perspective, not as dramatic as has hit some other communities, or some other states and the communities within those states. We've been very fortunate, there have been few cases in Bennington at the southwestern Vermont Medical Center. And there have been, I think, one or two deaths. So from that perspective, and because the medical center is actually a regional center. So we get people who come in from the northern Berkshires, eastern New York that use this hospital. So we haven't, from the health perspective, we haven't suffered greatly, but I can tell you that the shutdown of the businesses has created some very, very difficult situations for people.
Downtown Bennington has a number of economic issues even before the pandemic. What exactly has happened after the shutdown in Bennington?
Well, some of the restaurants are hanging in there by providing curb service. Some restaurants have simply closed down. The hospitality industry, and they're not necessarily in the downtown, but they have taken a big hit. Because they've been closed, essentially, they can't serve anybody. So from that respect, I would say the retail hospitality industry has taken a pretty good hit. I mean to be closed all this time.
So when did the shutdown start in Southern Vermont? And at this point, what are conversations like about reopening businesses in Bennington?
The shutdown began sometime late March, I think soon after the national crisis really, really came to a head. I think the governor closed things down late March, first looking at April 30, I think was his original deadline to take a look and see whether things could change. He extended that to May 15. But two weeks ago, because we have, in a sense, I'm not going to say we bent the curve, but we've seen fewer deaths on a weekly basis, here in Vermont. We’ve also seen fewer new cases over time, a weekly basis. So the governor now has begun to allow us to reopen, starting initially with construction folks, landscaping and people who work outdoors so they can easily maintain the social distancing required. There is a requirement here that everyone who is interacting in the public wear a mask. Not everybody does. But that's now required. It's now required for all folks who are working in the retail industry, when they're serving customers to wear a mask. So I think things are slowly opening, but far from being anywhere near normal where we would all like to be. I'm not sure how long it's going to take to get back to that.
Were there any big municipal projects that were interrupted by the pandemic? And do you have a sense of how governing Bennington is going to change due to the new reality of COVID-19?
Good question. No municipal projects. The projects that are being done to extend municipal water to the PFOA contaminated residences have continued, albeit a little more slowly with a lot more care. Municipal Government has, we've continued to operate. We're splitting shifts, so that we don't have two people in the same office at the same time. Our public works shifts are split. Same thing with our water and wastewater shifts. So we're operating our water filtration and wastewater treatment facilities, but the crews are not all there at the same time. The feeling being that if someone on the crew was stricken, not everybody would be. And therefore we could continue to operate those very important infrastructure issues. We haven't been able to do a lot. The governor's shut down on construction projects other than those that were deemed absolutely essential prevented us from doing a lot of what we call our spring cleanup and spring preparation. But now we are back to that as he slowly allows our crews to build. We're slowly moving back into getting some of the spring prep work done throughout the municipality. So yes, for a time there a very short time, it’s something like a week and a half to two weeks, we just sent our Public Works crews home and kept just the water and wastewater folks on a split shift so that they can continue to operate those important facilities. But, so we hadn't planned to do any major construction work ourselves. Our paving season really is after July one. So we’re hopeful that our next fiscal year, which begins July one will not be terribly impacted. And from a financial perspective, it's, and this is people that don't like the word but it was somewhat fortunate that this occurred at the end of the fiscal year, March into June, because normally, we don't have a lot of major projects that we're trying to get done before year end. Most of our work gets done from July through December. And then this is basically cleaned up after winter and get ourselves ready for the next year.
So let me ask you this, you know, going into that new fiscal year, how is the pandemic affected budgeting and Bennington?
Our budgets were approved by the voters back in March. So we essentially have a budget we haven't set yet set the tax rate because that doesn't come until July. Our grand list which is the assessed value of all of the properties in the community generally doesn't get finalized until sometime in early June. We set the tax rate in July and print up bills in August that are done due in November. So at this point, we will be billing based on the budget that's been approved by the voters. I think the big question will be, how does this pandemic affect people's ability to pay when the taxes come due in November?
Turning to the Bennington schools, what is the status there? Are there is there an intention to reopen this spring as we talk of impacting the fall season for the schools?
My understanding is that the schools are closed for the year. The spring sports seasons have been canceled by the Vermont Principals Association. So I think I think schools are out, even the colleges are out. I don't think there's going to be any attempt to bring them back at the end of this year. So that means that seniors are going to be graduating without the normal graduation ceremonies and those kinds of things, which is I'm sure will be a disappointment to some. But the recent word I'm hearing is that most schools are looking forward and hopefully planning to reopen come next year. Next September. And of course, that will also depend on what happens while we go through this reopening process.