Scott Asks Vermonters To Confront Racism After A Weekend Of Protests
After a weekend of protests against police brutality across the country and in Vermont, Gov. Phil Scott called on residents to confront and dismantle racism in the state.
“We can fix this without waiting for a vaccine,” Scott said at a press conference. “It just takes us uniting to make this a better country for everyone. Because like the coronavirus, this is literally in our hands.”
Scott issued the call during his thrice-weekly press conference, which typically serves as an update on the state’s actions to address the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, Monday’s press conference largely focused on how the state is responding to the nationwide outrage sparked last week by the death of George Floyd — a black man in Minneapolis who died after a white police officer kneeled on his neck for several minutes.
The incident has led to protests across the country, including a rally in Burlington that drew hundreds of people on Saturday. And while Scott said he hoped protests in Vermont would remain peaceful, he also expressed empathy with the protesters.
More from VPR: Crowd Confronts Burlington Police During Protest For George Floyd
“It’s important to reflect on a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King who said, ‘A riot is the language of the unheard,'” Scott said. “They simply do not know what else to do. And for those who see the national protests and feel distain instead of sympathy, just know the reactions we’re seeing in cities around the country are the results of decades, actually centuries, of calls for help that went unheard.”
Scott called the actions of the Minneapolis police “barbaric” and said all four officers involved in the death of George Floyd should be charged with murder. Currently only one officer has been charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter.
“No one should make excuses for this, and no one should ignore this,” Scott said.
Vermont State Police and Burlington Police have also condemned the actions of the officers in Minneapolis.
Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling said the recent events have accelerated state plans to update police training, including integrating more de-escalation tactics into the curriculum.
“I think you’ll see more of that accelerate as we begin to run even faster at our modernization efforts,” Schirling said.
At the press conference, Scott also announced the launch of a statewide task force focused on racial inequity, an initiative that had previously been in the works.
The group will first focus on disparities in the state’s COVID-19 infections. According to the Health Department, African American Vermonters have the highest rates of COVID-19, and the state’s death rate is higher among racial minorities.
More from VPR: Vermont’s Deputy Health Commissioner On COVID-19 Data Collection, Demographic Trends
Scott said the task force will eventually address other issues.
“It will review current state and federal law on hate speech and contemplate ways to encourage Vermonters from a range of racial and ethnic groups to run and serve in public office at all levels,” he said.
But Scott said a task force could only do so much, and asked Vermonters to work to address racism.
To that end, Xusana Davis, Vermont’s first Executive Director of Racial Equity, offered a number of suggestions for how white residents could do that — ranging from auditing the media they consume to reaching out to groups that serve people of color.
“Take direction from the people that are most deeply impacted,” Davis said. “It’s important that allies not center themselves in the work.”
Coronavirus infections continue to decline
The state is continuing to see low numbers of new cases, and Scott said as long as that holds, there will be more economic reopenings this week.
On Monday, no one was hospitalized due to COVID-19 and the health department only reported two new cases out of more than 1,326 tests.
People can now gather in groups up to 25 and close contact businesses, like gyms and spas are allowed to be open at limited capacity.
Currently restaurants can only offer outdoor dining, but Scott said that might change soon.
“If everything continues to move in the right direction, we’ll include steps to allow for indoor dining at restaurants soon,” he said. “And I hope to an update for how we can continue to ramp up our hospitality industry in the weeks ahead.”
The Health Department is still tracking a small “cluster” of cases in Winooski. Health Commissioner Mark Levine said there are now seven cases in that group.
Levine said on Friday that the cluster wasn’t associated with an elder care facility or congregate living setting.
The health department is now offering testing to all Winooski residents at the O’Brien Community Center.
“The testing that we’re providing is really an extension of what we’re doing statewide,” Levine said. “But clearly when you found a cluster, it’s best to make it convenient at the moment, and that’s why we’re gearing up there.”
Testing in Winooski, and all pop-up sites, is free.
Levine also urged people participating in protests to practice physical distancing and other COVID-19 mitigation measures.
Levine said large gatherings, like Saturday’s protest in Burlington, could increase the spread of the virus.
“Many have noted that the participants were by and large wearing masks, which we applaud,” he said. “But of course we are concerned about the size of gatherings and lack of social distancing.”
Driver’s license tests to resume
The Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles will resume driver’s license testing next week. The exams had been on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
DMV Commissioner Wanda Minoli said during the test, the driver and examiner will be required to follow public health guidelines, like wearing cloth masks.
“I’m requesting applicants clean and wipe down their vehicle before the exam and leave the windows open where possible to increase the air flow prior to your test. No more than two people may occupy a road vehicle during the exam,” she said.
People can now take the learner’s permit test online and if they pass, they’ll get a paper permit in the mail, Minoli said.