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Vermont News Updates For Tuesday, June 16

Two people waving with an ambulance in the background.
Sarah Priestap
/
For VPR
Tunbridge Central School Administrative Assistant Tracy Vesper cheers for students as they drive up and down Main Street in cars decorated with signs, balloons, and stuffed animals during a "reverse parade" on June 10.

Vermont reporters provide a round-up of ongoing local coverage of the coronavirus, demands for police reform and more for Tuesday, June 16.

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Three new cases in Chittenden County

The Vermont Department of Health has reported three new cases of COVID-19. They are all in Chittenden county, where there's been an outbreak centered around Winooski. The Health Department, however, specified there were no new cases Tuesday associated with that specific outbreak.

The three positive results were among 333 new tests for the coronavirus. The state has conducted nearly 53,000 tests so far.

Two people are currently hospitalized, and to date, 914 people are reported to have recovered from COVID-19. While there have been no new deaths this month, 55 people have died in Vermont since the pandemic began.

- Anna Van Dine and Elodie Reed

Calls to downsize Burlington Police Department intensify

Public calls to reduce the size of the Burlington Police Department are intensifying, even as the mayor unveiled a proposal to trim the agency’s budget. 

Mayor Miro Weinberger unveiled a plan Monday to reduce the police budget by nearly $2 million, primarily by capping the number of officers at its current level of 93.

But activists and community members say that Weinberger’s 10% cut doesn’t go far enough.

Nearly 1,000 people signed up to speak at Monday city council meeting.

Emiliano Void was one of the many speakers who urged the council to adopt the demands of the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance, an advocacy group focused on dismantling systemic racism.

“We want to restructure public safety with an immediate refocus on how, who, what and where we police,” Void said. “We want to get police out of schools, we want to stop using police for truancy calls, we want a 30% reduction in uniformed officers.”

Acting Police Chief Jon Murad says the department can operate with this year’s proposed $16.3 million budget, but that further cuts would put public safety at risk.

“But at 93 officers, we are at the bare minimum for what we have with regards to fielding the number of officers we need on any given day shift, on any given evening shift, any given midnight shift,” Murad said.

The city council will now take up the budget – the 12 member group has to vote on it by the end of June.

Read the full story.

- Liam Elder-Connors

Magic Hat leaving Vermont

Magic Hat Brewing is leaving Vermont.

The brewery, which has operated in the Green Mountain State since 1994, plans to shift all of its production to Rochester, New York.

A press release states Magic Hat will transfer the lease of its South Burlington facility to Zero Gravity brewery, which is currently based in Burlington.

Magic Hat's parent company, FIFCO USA, says some of the 43 current employees in South Burlington will be offered positions with Zero Gravity. Those who leave will receive severance pay.

The deal between the two breweries is expected to be finalized on July 1. A spokesperson says besides a few employees who work remotely, Magic Hat will no longer have a presence in Vermont.

- Henry Epp 

Do out-of-state travelers need to register with the state's Sara Alert app?

The state wants to stay in touch with travelers to Vermont using a mobile app. But it’s been unclear if it’s mandatory for visitors to register.

The state uses a product called the SARA Alert app to monitor people who may have been exposed to the new coronavirus. The app does not track you with GPS data on your phone, but it allows you to register with health authorities.

Inn owners say it’s not clear whether their guests are required to sign up. Mark Raishart and his wife, Catherine, run an Airbnb in Leicester. He says some out of town guests are put off by having to register with the state. So the Raisharts wanted VPR to ask the Health Department to clarify what’s required.

Here’s what Health Commissioner Mark Levine said at Monday's press briefing:

“SARA alert is voluntary. It is not mandatory. It’s actually meant to be helpful and to be considered by the user to be an aid to them.”

But Levine's answer wasn’t quite accurate. A Health Department spokesperson later said that registering using the app is mandatory for visitors to the state from areas with high infection rates.

Mark Raishart says the state has mixed messages on its web sites about what’s required for lodging owners and their guests. 

“That creates a challenge when we’re communicating with out-of-state guests what exactly they have to do before they come or while they’re here,” he said.

The state says about 607 travelers have signed up for the Sara Alert app.

Read the full story.

- John Dillon

House expected to take up legislation helping ratepayers

Vermonters who have had trouble paying their electric bills over the last three months could soon see some relief.

The House is expected to consider legislation that allocates $20 million to help ratepayers who have fallen behind on their utility payments during the COVID-19 pandemic.

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson says the bill is desperately needed.

“Just two of our rural electric coops have seen a 250% increase just in a month in their arrearages,” she said. “So half of this money is used for utility arrearages, so that people's power doesn't get shut off and so that money doesn't get shifted to other ratepayers."    

The bill also includes $11 million to expand high speed Internet access in rural areas.

- Bob Kinzel

House Speaker 'disappointed' in governor's criticism over relief funds

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson says she's disappointed that Gov. Phil Scott criticized lawmakers for taking too much time to allocate hundreds of millions of dollars in federal CARES funds.

At his press briefing last Friday, Scott said the delays could cause some businesses to go bankrupt.

Johnson says the governor's criticisms are unfounded.

“It's clear that the governor has shifted his focus frankly to his campaign,” Johnson said. “For him to take seven weeks, and then criticize the Legislature for taking less than two, is a little disingenuous. I really hope we can get back to the place that we had been in for the first two and half months of this crisis where we're all working together."

Johnson says the House is scheduled to allocate nearly a billion dollars of federal money in the next week.

- Bob Kinzel

House leaders considering 'tax holiday" for restaurants

House leaders are considering a plan to help revive Vermont's restaurant industry.

The industry has been rocked hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. Restaurants are now allowed to operate at only 25% of their capacity.

The proposal would create a special time period where Vermonters would be able to eat out without paying the state's 9% meals tax.

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson thinks it could help.

“To help build a little consumer confidence and give Vermonters a break and let them go out and inspire a little more business for a hurting industry,” she said. “They're a really important part of the fabric of our downtowns and our communities, and a big part of our tourism industry."   

Johnson says she hopes the House will decide on the proposal in the next week.

- Bob Kinzel

House eyeing $300M in federal funds for health care system

The Vermont House will soon consider major legislation designed to rescue the health care system from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The bill allocates roughly $300 million in federal CARES funds to health care providers, hospitals, and community-based programs.

The legislation also boosts spending on a variety of meals programs and adult care centers.

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson says many key programs need a lot of financial assistance.

“A lot of the health care system got shut down, and there were a lot of health care procedures that didn't happen, and there is lost revenue for that,” she said. ”Our health care system, from our community providers right through our rural and large hospitals, are really struggling right now."   

The House is expected to vote on the measure by the end of the week.

- Bob Kinzel

Former Quechee resident sentenced to four years for embezzlement

A former Quechee resident who embezzled $1.2 million from a tax prep and payroll company was sentenced to over four years in prison today.

Ryan Wall, 42, pleaded guilty to a wire fraud charge in December. He was accused last year of embezzling the funds from his Upper Valley company over six years, using most of the money to buy illegal drugs, according to the U.S. Attorney for Vermont.

As part of his sentence, Wall must also pay nearly $500,000 in restitution to 18 people. He's required to report to federal prison in September.

- Henry Epp

Legislature planning to use COVID fund to shore up first quarter budget

The Legislature plans to spend $115 million in federal COVID relief funds to shore up the state's first quarter budget.

Caledonia Sen. Jane Kitchell chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee. She walked her colleagues through the spending plan on Tuesday. The short-term budget largely preserves existing programs. But Kitchell says it does not prevent cuts in the future, when the Legislature considers the full year's budget in August.

“I would say that this first quarter is the low-hanging fruit,” Kitchell said. “Don't be deceived that there is not going to be the need for tough choices ahead. The fiscal environment is extremely challenging. And we are able to do this just for this quarter.”

State fiscal analysts project the state's general fund will see a $230 million revenue shortfall this year.

The House has already passed the first quarter budget and the Senate is expected to debate the stopgap spending measure Wednesday.

- John Dillon

U.S.-Canadian border to remain closed until July 21

The U.S.-Canada border closure will be extended by another 30 days, until July 21.

The CBC reports that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced the extension, saying, "This is an important decision that will keep people in both of our countries safe.”

- Sam Gale Rosen

More from VPR: An 'Eerie' Few Months Farming Along Vermont's Border With Canada

Deputy Health Commissioner: Temp checks won't detect many asymptomatic cases

Temperature checks are being used by many workplaces in Vermont as they reopen. But health officials say they won’t catch many asymptomatic cases of COVID-19.

A recent outbreak in Winooski now numbers 83 cases, but only 17% of those who tested positive experienced COVID-19 symptoms.

Deputy Health Commissioner Tracy Dolan told Vermont Edition that checking for fever is one way to screen for those who may be sick. But workplaces will need to do more.

“Not everyone may choose to do fever checks right at the door, some people may encourage people to check fevers at home,” Dolan said. “But it is one tool in the toolbox, but we don’t anticipate that it’s the be-all, and the end-all. We will, in many workplaces, encourage you to think of all the symptoms, and temperature is one of them.”

Dolan says even asymptomatic cases may develop fever and other symptoms later on.

Listen to the full conversation.

- Matthew Smith

Some Lyme symptoms similar to COVID-19 symptoms

It's tick and mosquito season in Vermont, and Lyme disease and Eastern Equine Encephalitis, among other insect-borne illnesses, are on the Vermont Health Department's radar.

Deputy Health Commissioner Tracy Dolan says Lyme disease symptoms include fatigue and muscular soreness, which are also symptoms of COVID-19. Respiratory symptoms are not as common in Lyme disease.

“Some of the symptoms are the same,” she said. “Lyme is interesting, it can mimic symptoms of many different diseases, including COVID-19."

Dolan says Vermonters can avoid ticks by double checking after a hike and tucking their pants into socks when outside.

Listen to the full conversation.

- Emily Aiken

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