By Guy Page
March 26, 2020 – Vermonters are eager to learn how Governor Phil Scott’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” Covid-19 policy applies to their lives. Are they still permitted to walk into a supermarket and shop? What are their options?
And what does “Stay Home, Stay Safe” means to church-goers? Can they still legally attend church services in person?
The short answer is that according to the federal, advisory-only list (see link and graphic) used to establish Vermont’s binding emergency regulations, grocery stores are a “critical business” and must stay open. Yes, Vermonters can and will continue to shop the aisles of their favorite grocery stores. However, according to the Vermont “Stay Home, Stay Safe” announcement, stores must provide “social distancing” options: “all exempt entities conducting retail operations should also facilitate curbside pick-up or delivery to the extent possible.”
This morning, I saw this policy in action when I went to Shaw’s in Montpelier to buy my wife her weekly bouquet of flowers. (Note to other husbands: you, too, can easily score beaucoup love points this way. All it takes is $5-$10 and most stores even provide a free card and envelope. It works. I don’t need to understand why and neither do you. Word.)
The electronic doors swung open as usual. I walked in. No-one stopped me. I picked out the bouquet, handed over the cash, and asked the cashier how “Stay Home, Stay Safe” is working out. She said foot traffic is still permitted but that many regular customers are opting for home delivery by an app called “instacart.”
Instacart promises $20 off the first online order and two-hour or less delivery (the latter not happening due to high volume, the cashier said). It’s sort of like Uber for groceries. Delivery drivers collect a number of orders, grab the groceries, and then deliver them to Instacart customers.
For churches, though, there’s no more walk-in option. Per the federal advisory list, religious organizations are not deemed critical during the State of Emergency. The list (emailed to Vermont Daily by a Scott administration official in answer to our question about churches) says that “in person service is not allowed, but online services encouraged.” Indeed, almost all Vermont churches are meeting online. Colette and I worship at Crossroads Christian Church in East Montpelier – except that the location 9:30 AM this Sunday will be Barre, home of tech-savvy Pastor Thorsten Evans and his worship-leading wife Rene. 9:30 AM Sunday morning. They will live-stream on Facebook.
For some church leaders, this ban on in-person religious gatherings raises serious questions about the State’s role in religious expression. Can a state by declaring a state of emergency pre-empt the right to free assembly and freedom of religion? Even the State of Vermont statute empowering the declaration of a State of Emergency prevents the state from seizing buildings belonging to churches or the press – an obvious nod to the First Amendment.
Is “Stay Home, Stay Safe” even constitutional? Adrian Otterman, a Barre lawyer and grandson of longtime Vermont legislator, lawyer and state’s attorney Harvey “Bud” Otterman, is skeptical. See his thoughtful Letter to the Editor published today.
Church-state concerns aside, most (if not all) churches accept online worship as a way to “love thy neighbor” while rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.
Easter, though is just 17 days away, long before the State of Emergency expires. Will Vermont churches stay in their virtual catacombs to celebrate Resurrection Sunday? Or will some, like many in the warm South, hold “drive-in church” where the preacher and music leaders minister to families and single people sittin in their four-wheeled, socially-distanced pews? Maybe departing worshippers will pull over, roll down their window, and drop their money in an offering bucket. Time and the weather forecast will tell.
Whether it’s worshippers, shoppers or others crossing the freshly-painted line between compliance and non-compliance, the State of Vermont clearly hopes the State of Emergency will pass without any need for enforcement. But if enforcement is necessary, the first – and perhaps only? – step taken will be a reminder, according to a press release issued yesterday entitled “Vermont Department of Public Safety issues guidance on enforcement of ‘Stay Home, Stay Safe’ executive order”: “In instances where police officers observe or are made aware of people operating in violation of Gov. Scott’s ‘Stay Home, Stay Safe’ order, law enforcement is encouraged to speak with the proprietor, staff, or group, provide a reminder of the new requirements, and assess voluntary compliance…. Again, officials expect the vast majority of compliance to be self-regulating.”
But what if it’s not?