by Guy Page
MARCH 16, 2020 – It’s a quiet afternoon on Main Street in Montpelier. There are fewer people, cars, and places open for business, thanks to Covid-19. From a shortage of toilet paper at Shaw’s to fewer beds and hot meals for the local homeless population, Montpelier is trying to adjust to the new reality of coronavirus preparation. Whether it’s a homeless person with one less available public bathroom or a senior State of Vermont finance official trying to budget for vital continuity of operations across agencies and departments, unsettling change seems to be the only constant.
My first-hand assessment of how downtown Montpelier is managing with the coronavirus began with a scheduled noontime teeth cleaning at Main Street Family Dentistry. The normally-packed waiting room was empty when I arrived, and when I left 45 minutes later only one person was waiting. Several people had cancelled their visits – for whatever reason, my dental hygienist said. That’s when I decided to see how the rest of downtown – the businesses, not-for-profits, churches, and street people – are coping.
First stop, the Gary Home, an assisted living residence. “STOP,” said the sign at the front door. “As of 3/12/2020, we are not allowing visitors” except for the mailman and health providers. Next, door there were plenty of vacancies and just one car in the driveway at the Inn at Montpelier.
VPIRG, a powerful State House advocacy group whose Main Street office is normally buzzing with carbon-reducing, free-health-care-insurance activity, was virtually empty. And would have been in membership coordinator Meg Root hadn’t needed to make some copies. Everyone else is working from home.
The Kellogg-Hubbard Library – long a source of community sustainability and resilience – will be closed until April 1 and “at that time we will reassess and let folks know if the closure needs to be longer,” said a note sent to volunteers this morning.
Businesses are trying continue delivering services. Capitol Grounds is open, but sparsely populated (for them) and will close for the day at 2 pm. Mad Taco and Three Penny Taproom are offering non-alcoholic fare to go. Shaw’s is open and bustling. The Great Toilet Paper Scare of 2020 was in full force early this morning when the shelves were restocked – and quickly emptied by anxious customers. “Corporate won’t let us limit the number of sales per customer,” an employee explained. Next TP resupply will probably be Wednesday.
Bear Pond Books – perhaps realizing that with libraries closed and more people staying at home, there may be heightened demand – was not only open but had posted a sidewalk sign advertising home deliveries. Take that, Amazon!
And how are Montpelier’s pets faring in the coronavirus crisis, I asked Cindra at the Quirky Pet? Pretty well, as far as she can tell, although if their masters are stuck at home, so are they, most likely. A customer said she has heard of some dog walkers being unavailable for service. And at least one local kennel is considering closing for a week or two due to the owner’s health concerns. On the upside, there has been no panicked run on dog food or cat food to deplete the supply at local stores.
Montpelier’s mainline churches mostly have canceled their Sunday morning services but are struggling gamely to provide their services to the needy. At Bethany Church, recovery groups are still meeting but must follow strict sanitation guidelines. There is no more Tuesday hot lunch served downstairs. The bathroom is open to the public – including the street population – an increasingly important consideration as other public bathrooms (including reportedly the Montpelier Police Station) are either less available, or not at all.
Today is the Unitarian Church’s day to provide hot meals at no cost for street people. To avoid transmission of contagion these mealtime gatherings have been cancelled. However the church did prepare and hand out bag lunches.
I visited with several street people resting in the courtyard at Christ Episcopal Church on State Street. They appreciate the bag lunches but, as one man said, “it’s not a hot meal you can eat inside.” On my way to the church I noticed that the Subway, at least, was still open and making sandwiches…..but not for long. While interviewing Montpelier Homeless Task Force Street Coordinator Dawn Little, a woman who had left minutes ago returned to the group with the news: “Subway is closed.” That was bad news – one less bathroom available.
Little said the task force had been promised two porta-lets to help reduce the bathroom problem. However, the location (the church courtyard) were found to be in the flood plain so officials are dithering about that.
….Which might turn out to be a good thing, Brad Ferland, Vermont Deputy Secretary of the Agency of Administration, said moments later when I encountered him on State Street and told him about the porta-let dilemma. As it turns out porta-lets can be active transmitters of the corona virus. They’re high-traffic and they’re all about surfaces and fluids and they’re typically not cleaned often. Put those three vectors together and you’ve got a potential virus transmission hot spot, he said.
Yet he sympathizes with the frustrations of people like Little who are trying to meet real needs in the midst of constant changing environment – although “empathize” might be a better word because as a senior budget and planning official he, too, is trying to prepare plans that often as not become obsolete three-quarters of the way through writing them, because the situation on the ground is ever-changing. Glad that every state agency and department has Continuity of Operations plans, Ferland wishes they weren’t all being implemented at the same time.
Besides the hardship of fewer bathrooms and hot meals, Montpelier street people are finding local beds harder to find, Little said (see video). The two temporary shelters are both trying to create some “social distancing” by creating more space between guests – and that means much less availability. The Task Force is working with state authorities to open up more motel room beds to deal with the unexpected overflow.
Perhaps the most upbeat expression of hope came from a homeless man in the church courtyard as he laid his underwear out to dry. “I got up this morning, and God was still on the throne,” he said. “That’s all I need to know.”