In September Anthony Fauci, the country’s top infectious diseases expert, praised Vermont as a “model for the country”, saying it had shown other states “that you can actually start opening up the economy in a safe and prudent way”.
Mark Levine, Vermont’s health commissioner, tells The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age: “We have our share of tragedy like everyone else but we’ve been applauded for doing well compared to the rest of the country.”
To be sure, Vermont had some natural advantages when it comes to combating a pandemic.
Famous for its lush forests, with trees that turn a spectacular orange in autumn, Vermont is one of the least populated and most rural states in the US.
The population is almost entirely white – an important factor given that black and Hispanic Americans have suffered disproportionately high COVID death rates. Studies have also consistently found Vermont to be the healthiest state in America, with low rates of obesity and smoking and high levels of health insurance.
But other rural and mostly-white states like South Dakota have become coronavirus hot spots while Vermont has remained the national gold standard – an indication that factors other than demographics are at play.
South Dakota’s Republican Governor Kristi Noem has imposed almost no restrictions on her state, declaring that preventing the spread of the virus was a matter of “personal responsibility”.
As well as refusing to implement a mask mandate, Noem used federal coronavirus relief funds to run a domestic tourism campaign during the pandemic. South Dakota now has among the worst death rates in the country.
By contrast, Vermont Governor Phil Scott, also a Republican, has put in strict policies to limit the spread of the virus. Rather than personal liberty, he has appealed to Vermonters’ sense of social solidarity to win support for the restrictions. Even his Democratic Party opponents have praised Scott – a fiscally conservative, socially liberal Republican who voted for Joe Biden in the November election – for listening to scientific advice.
“We have a governor who prioritises health and safety even though he is from the business sector and the economy is near and dear to his heart,” Levine says.
Levine says at the beginning of the pandemic Vermont placed a big emphasis on protecting elderly nursing home residents through strict visiting rules and testing procedures.
Scott also moved quickly to close down most businesses and took a cautious approach to re-opening different sectors of the economy. When Vermont’s coronavirus cases began to rise in November, Scott announced that social gatherings must be limited to members of a single household. He also closed bars and suspended recreational sports.
Anyone arriving to Vermont from interstate is required to quarantine for 14 days (or seven days if they receive a negative COVID test) – a significant rule given Vermont’s economy is heavily dependent on tourism.
Jan Carney, the associate dean for public health at the University of Vermont, adds: “There has been consistent public health messaging…The governor’s office has twice-a-week press conferences and they go on until all questions are asked and answered.”
When announcing a mask mandate in June, Scott urged Vermonters to listen to scientists rather than what they had read on Facebook. But he also asked people to be empathetic to those with different views.
“Attacking, shaming, and judging isn’t going to help, but understanding, educating, meeting people where they are, and maybe using a little kindness and understanding might,” he said.
Levine – who takes a prominent role at most of the Governor’s press conferences – says: “I’m not saying this immodestly but the governor and myself are very trusted as messengers.
“That certainly wasn’t true for everyone with the previous [Trump] administration in Washington and we would often get compared and contrasted to that.”
He stresses that, while Vermont’s rules have been among the strictest in the country, compliance has been high. Other states have introduced tough measures only to see them flouted en masse.
As well as a healthy population, surveys have consistently shown that Vermonters have among the highest levels of “social capital” in the country. For example, they are more likely to know and trust their neighbours than people elsewhere.
“This is not something that started with the pandemic ,” Carney, of the University of Vermont, says. “It’s how people work here.”
Emilie Stigliani, editor of The Burlington Free Press, the state’s biggest newspaper, says: “There is a very small town feel in Vermont, and a real sense of responsibility to your neighbours to do your part to stop the spread.
“There is a community-minded mentality and Vermonters feel a sense of pride about that.”
While there are political differences, the heated culture wars over mask wearing and lockdowns have not been nearly as prevalent in Vermont as elsewhere.
“The bottom line is that we’re less of a polarised state – thank goodness,” Levine says – a claim supported by the fact that Vermonters have repeatedly sent Sanders, a self-declared democratic socialist, to the US Senate while also electing a Republican governor.
The state’s success at mitigating the virus has continued to the early stage of the vaccination effort: Vermont has one of the highest COVID-19 vaccination rates in the country.
“It’s been hard and we’re not out of the woods yet,” Carney says. “But if you look around the country, people here have done extremely well.”
Matthew Knott is North America correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.