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Debate develops over second-homeowners, an analysis

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MANCHESTER — While people everywhere are joining forces and marshaling their strength to fight the COVID-19 virus, stresses, fears and empty shelves have driven wedges into communities and spilled over into angry words online.

Local Facebook forums, normally friendly and helpful places where people get answers to questions and share good news with each other have, on occasion, been filled with name-calling and finger-pointing over who is responsible for empty store shelves with battle lines drawn between full-time area residents and part-timers.

One of the earlier posts that set things off alleged that local stores' parking lots were full of cars with out of state plates and tales of grocery aisle chaos revealed people stealing items from the carts of elderly and more.

A post by Londonderry Select Board chairwoman George Mora poured gasoline on the debate.

"For the love of god, could people from high-infection rate areas PLEASE stop coming to Vermont?" the post read. "Our medical capabilities are already limited due to our small population. If people from somewhere with earlier and more infections come here and start getting sick, they stand to overwhelm our capacity and leave the local population without medical care. This is a humanitarian plea. Think beyond your own self-interests at a time like this."

The post had 257 comments as of Wednesday.

In an interview, Mora clarified that the comment was made when the first cases were being diagnosed in Vermont and was about social distancing.

"As a select board member, I've been in close contact with [Londonderry] Emergency Management Director Kevin Beattie," Mora said. "We have 100 ventilators in the entire state. We had people coming from where the infection rates were already a lot higher than it was here."

Mora said she fully understands why people would want to come here but is not sorry she made the comment.

"I probably could have put it more elegantly," she said. "I've apologized personally to a few people. Everything online gets misconstrued."

Max Turner who owns the New American Grill in the Mountain Marketplace in Londonderry said the topic has been a hot one.

Before he had to shut down his dining room, Turner said the issue reminded him of the last time he saw this kind of animosity, which was during the debates over Glebe Mountain wind turbines.

He said the crowd would filter into his restaurant after a town hall meeting on the issue and would soon be exchanging barbs across the dining room.

"I think it's just fear," Turner said. "I see both sides of the issue."

The Journal reached out in several Facebook forums to seek opinions on these topics and this is a representation of what was shared through private messages and email.

Us vs. Them

Daniel Deets of Sunderland is one who thinks people should have stayed where they were.

"I have issues when they come here to get away from what's happening in their home areas and expect everything to be business as usual," Deets said. "Social distancing and quarantine observation are meant to control the spread of this relatively unknown virus. These people are risking spreading in an area that should have been relatively safe from an overall outbreak. We can not afford to have such an influx of people into an area with limited infrastructure. These people should be staying home and stop only thinking of themselves."

Sue Forbes is a registered nurse from Dorset, and she said she is against welcoming people with open arms because the system can't handle it.

"This pandemic is a health care crisis and cannot be compared to 911 or Hurricane Irene," Forbes said. "Vermont only has a total of 828 hospital beds — not enough to take care of any large influx of people from out of state [that] will burden our health care system. So from a health care perspective, we cannot welcome them with open arms.'"

Others welcome visitors.

Katherine MacLauchlan, one of the owners of La Peche Lingerie in Manchester, said she supports second homeowners coming to the area.

"The reality is, we (locals) can't afford to live here without their long term contributions to our tax base, businesses, charities and events," MacLauchlan said. "There are enough resources (in the bigger picture) for everyone if we stay respectful. As for bringing COVID-19 with them, it's just as plausible that the returning local college kids brought it or the local returning from a business trip at the beginning of the curve. There's no way to prove it, so let's not vilify an important part of our community. At this point, there's no need for xenophobic attitudes that could do irreparable harm down the road."

Lindsey Tuttle Pinder said being a tourist economy means the area relies on part-time residents.

"I think we all need to be cognizant of the fact and reminded that we are a resort area and so many of us, directly and indirectly, rely on these people that choose to not only vacation here, but purchase second homes here, spend their money here & help feed & sustain our local economy," she said. " I think that the very last thing we should be doing is singling them out.".

Others saw both sides of the issue and were on the fence about the issue.

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Tyler Gebhardt said he earns a living because of second homeowners and is grateful for them, but thinks this isn't the time to tax local infrastructure.

"Manchester is a small town and its economy is small and geared towards vacationers and tourists," Gebhardt said. "The infrastructure of Manchester is not capable of handling the current influx of second homeowners who at this moment are coming here to live and not vacation."

Some differentiated between second-homeowners who live here part-time and those who come up for a weekend now and then.

Gretchen Rothstein, of Londonderry, was one.

"There's a distinct difference in second homeowners coming up to their homes and out of staters coming up to vacation while their kids are out of school," Rothstein said. "I have many second home-owning friends and welcome them with open arms."

Important contributions

Vermont Rep. Kathleen James said that many of the second-home owners are Vermont taxpayers and snowbirds who move between Vermont and another location seasonally.

"[They] contribute in significant ways to our year-round tourism, retail and hospitality businesses," James said. "And our summer `snowbird' residents, in particular, are often deeply involved in local events and philanthropy."

James said that it's time to "look at things through a different lens."

"Now is a good time for all of us, together, to actively support local businesses — getting take-out from restaurants and buying gift certificates to keep cash flowing into the economy," James said. "It's also a very important time to contribute to our nonprofits and social-service agencies — many will be strapped for resources."

We not Me

But many of the comments did not come down on either side but rested squarely in the "we not me" middle.

A large number of comments saw both sides of the debate but believed that only by working together would we weather this troubling time.

Bob Stannard of Manchester had advice for people coming to ride out the virus.

"I would ask that when they do arrive in our lovely little community that they act more like Vermonters," Stannard said. "Think of others. Don't be jerks. Hide out. Hang out. Don't buy more than you need. Order take-out food from our local restaurants. Respect us so that we, in turn, will respect you."

Kim Kowanko of Manchester is also concerned about hoarding.

"I think that all of us — full-time and part-time residents alike — need to be careful to only take what we need and keep older and vulnerable residents in mind when we are shopping," Kowanko said. "Hoarding is never a good look. We need to work collectively to ride this out."

Two men are both outside of Vermont but wish they were here.

Lee Allaben is a former resident of Manchester and wants to come back.

"Vermont is not a hateful state, quite to the contrary," Allanben said. "I find what is suggested in the post hateful. I am in North Carolina but moving back just as soon as I can find a house in Manchester. I've been away for four years and miss it a lot. I hope this attitude is not indicative of Manchester area residents."

And Ken Ahlering of South Londonderry has a unique perspective. Ahlering said there is a difference between those who spend months in their homes and those who come to ski and party. He lives in the area eight months of the year working and teaching but is currently in New Jersey where he plans to stay for now.

"I'm currently stuck in NJ and basically afraid to come up to my well-stocked home, pantries and both freezers," Ahlering said. "My SUV has NJ plates and I'm afraid to bring it there based on the comments I'm seeing by the locals."

And James said treat visitor as you would want to be treated.

"I hope we welcome anyone and everyone — in the same way that we want Vermonters living or staying elsewhere to be welcomed and cared for," James said. "No one benefits from an "us versus them" mentality."

James also said an informal group of state representatives have been communicating about this issue in ski towns including Manchester, Londonderry, Stowe, Killington, and the Mad River Valley.

She said the discussion surrounds topics such as helping get a handle on the number of people arriving so the state and healthcare systems can have information for surge planning.

Contact Darren Marcy at dmarcy@manchesterjournal.com or by cell at 802-681-6534.


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