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Vermont News Updates For Thursday, June 18

Signs outside the Strafford Town Offices
Sarah Priestap
/
For VPR
Custom signs made for the town of Strafford, VT are displayed at the town offices on June 11, 2020.

Vermont reporters provide a round-up of ongoing local coverage of the coronavirus, demands for police reform and more for Thursday, June 18.

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The latest coronavirus data:

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Vermont Department of Health reports the first COVID-19 death since May

State health officials on Thursday reported the first death associated with COVID-19 since May. As of Thursday, 56 people are known to have died in Vermont after contracting the coronavirus.

The Vermont Department of Health reported six new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, bringing the total number of cases identified to date in the state to 1,135. Of those new cases, three were identified in Chittenden County, one in Bennington County, one in Addison County and one in Rutland County.

Two people are currently hospitalized with confirmed cases of the new coronavirus, while nine people remain hospitalized under investigation.

The state has now tested 54,745 people for active cases, and 917 people are known to have recovered.

- Abagael Giles

Vermont Senate postpones decision on Act 250 legislation

The Senate on Thursday postponed work on legislation that would alter Act 250.

Essex-Orleans Senator John Rodgers said the Natural Resources Committee didn't hear from enough people affected by the legislation. Rodgers said those with poor internet service have had difficulty following the committee's work.

"I don't understand why pieces of legislation that are going to affect so many people are allowed to move forward in a Zoom format, where we all know there are constant technical glitches," Rodgers said. "It's not transparent; it's not friendly to the public or the people who want to participate."

The bill would change key parts of Act 250. It streamlines review for projects in downtowns and village centers, but adds regulation for projects in certain forest areas.

- John Dillon

Amtrak scales back train service to Vermont

Amtrak announced this week it is cutting back service on its northeastern lines, due to a drop in demand caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Amtrak's website states The Ethan Allen Express, which runs between New York City and Rutland, will have no service north of Albany.

The Vermonter, which runs between Washington, D.C. and St. Albans, will no longer make stops north of New Haven. The Vermonter will also not run on Sundays.

The Rutland Herald reported that officials with the Vermont Agency of Transportation do not know when normal passenger rail service will resume.

- Nina Keck

FEMA begins to scale back financial support for Vermont's COVID-19 response

The Federal Emergency Management Agency will begin to scale back financial support for Vermont's response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Captain Russ Webster, a regional administrator for FEMA, said his agency is transitioning from a response phase to a recovery phase in Vermont.

That means federal support for programs, including the mass feeding plan, will also begin to wane.

"These emergency feeding programs have finite tenures, and they're designed for the most needy food-injured communities in Vermont," Webster said.

And starting in mid-August, FEMA will stop covering the costs associated with the activation of the Vermont National Guard.

State officials say the drawdown by FEMA was expected and won't undermine Vermont's COVID-19 response.

- Peter Hirschfeld

Vermont lags behind national average in 2020 Census responses

Roughly 62% of Americans have responded to the 2020 Census, but Vermont lags behind, with just over 54% of residents responding.

Jason Broughton, chair of the 2020 Vermont Complete Count Committee, said the coronavirus pandemic suspended outreach efforts planned for April and May.

Prior to COVID-19, Vermont's response rate was around 30%. And Broughton told Vermont Edition he's pleased at the progress made during the pandemic.

"We are pleasantly surprised that we are at 54%, given the last two months," Broughton said. "A lot of it has been done through social media, basic word of mouth, and telephone calls. It's impressive to have moved the needle so fast."

Broughton said he hopes to surpass Vermont's response to the 2010 census, which came in at just over 60%.

Read or listen to the full episode of Vermont Edition.

- Matthew Smith

Burlington's mayor asks school district to review use of school officers

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger is asking the school district to review its use of school resource officers.

Weinberger included the program that puts cops in schools in his budget proposal. He cited a letter from the district, supporting the officers.

But VTDigger reported that outgoing superintendent Yaw Obeng, whose name was on the letter, was not consulted prior to the statement being sent. Obeng was the first black school superintendent in Burlington.

Weinberger said given that confusion, the district should reexamine the practice.

"It's not clear that that position of the administration is based on enough conversations with parents, with students, with students of color in particular, and with activists," Weinberger said. "So I think we have an opportunity here."

Earlier this week, Weinberger proposed reducing the city's police budget by 10%, but activists said the city should cut more.

- Liam Elder-Connors

Burlington City Council hears 20 hours of public comment demanding police force reductions

City Councilors in Burlington heard nearly 20 hours of public comment demanding the city shrink its police force beyond the mayor's current proposal.

Mayor Miro Weinberger's current proposal would leave 12 positions vacant and put funds into police reform measures, but activists say the city needs to go further.

Hundreds of people this week called in to tell the council to enact further cuts, put more money into social services, and strengthen civilian oversight of police.

"And that concludes our final speaker, councilors," City Council President Max Tracy said, closing the public forum Wednesday. It was the third straight night of comments.

Hopefully, we can take to heart what we heard this evening, and I look forward to working with all of you on this budget," Tracy said.

The city council now has until the end of June to decide if they're going to make changes to the budget.

More from VPR: Burlington, Bennington Officials Respond to Demand For Policing Reform

- Liam Elder-Connors

Department of Fish and Wildlife asks landowners to postpone mowing

The Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife is asking landowners to wait before mowing their fields. Birds like bobolinks, meadowlarks and Savannah sparrows build their nests in tall grasses, but could lose their chicks when fields are mowed early. The department said some grassland bird populations are in decline due to such losses.

The department is encouraging those who mow for aesthetic maintenance to postpone cutting to mid-August, so birds can finish their nesting season.

- Anna Van Dine

Vermont produced a record 2.2 million gallons of maple syrup in 2020

Vermont produced a record 2.2 million gallons of maple syrup in the 2020 season, according to information from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

That breaks last year's record of 2.07 million gallons. NBC5 reports that a record number of taps were in place this year as well, at more than 6 million.

Vermont produced more than any other U.S. state, and more than half of the country's production as a whole.

- Sam Gale Rosen

More from VPR: COVID-19 Has Put A Lot On Hold, But Sap Is Still Flowing

U.S. ski industry lost at least $2 billion last winter

A national trade association says the U.S. ski industry lost at least $2 billion last winter because of the economic collapse caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

The Aspen Times reported that the Denver-based National Ski Areas Association announced Wednesday that skier visits fell 14% last season compared with the 2018-2019 season. There were about 51.1 million visits over the course of the shortened season.

Resorts were forced to close in March, following state restrictions intended to limit the spread of COVID-19. It is unclear how the pandemic will affect the 2020-2021 ski season, but the economic loss tied to the pandemic could increase to about $5 billion if the downturn continues.

- The Associated Press

Child care centers navigate low attendance

It's been more than two weeks now since child care centers were given the go ahead to reopen by Gov. Phil Scott. But many are concerned for the health and safety of children and staff, and some have had to close their doors for good due to lack of funds.

Montpelier's Turtle Island Children's Center preschool teacher Isla Bristol told Vermont Edition Wednesday that not having adequate health care and a lack of financial support has affected her and the preschool's classes.

"In one of the classes, which typically has probably 16 or 17 children a day, on the first day back, there was only one," Bristol said. "And as we've gone through, they've climbed to three."

Bristol said dramatic change needs to happen in the child care economy before the situation improves.

Listen to the full episode of Vermont Edition.

- Emily Aiken

More than 100 turn out for Brattleboro forum on policing

More than a hundred people came out Wednesday to a public forum on policing that was held outside on the Brattleboro Common.

Police Chief Mike Fitzgerald answered questions for more than two hours on the department's past use of racial profiling and deadly force, and the idea of defuning the department.

"We need to change. That's why I'm here - we need to change," Fitzgerald said. "We need to look at how we're doing business, and we need to do it better."

The Brattleboro Selectboard just this week adopted a 2021 budget that fully funds the police department.

Fitzgerald said he would work in the coming year to listen to more diverse opinions about the police force.

More from VPR: Burlington, Bennington Officials Respond To Demand For Policing Reform

- Howard Weiss-Tisman

Child care centers face financial woes, safety concerns amid reopenings

Open up and risk exposure to the coronavirus - or stay closed and risk going out of business? That's the choice many child care centers across Vermont say they are faced with after Gov. Phil Scott announced centers could reopen June 1.

Dawn Irwin, director of Growing With Wonder Early Childhood Center in Essex, told Vermont Edition that even centers that have reopened are facing continued financial problems.

"I can tell you right now though, if there isn't more funding given out to programs through the state, a lot of programs, including mine, probably won't make it," Irwin said.

Despite concerns, Deputy Commissioner of the Department for Children and Families' Child Development Division Steven Berbeco said he expects more child care centers to reopen over the next several weeks.

Listen to the full episode of Vermont Edition.

- Emily Aiken

Coronavirus aid sparks dustup between governor, Legislature

The question of how much federal coronavirus aid should go to Vermont businesses has sparked a dustup between Republican Gov. Phil Scott and Democratic leaders in the Legislature.

Scott wants to give $200 million to businesses affected by COVID1-9.

But lawmakers have scaled back the governor's proposal.

Chittenden County Senator Michael Sirotkin said revisions to the federal Paycheck Protection Program mean more companies will be eligible for loan forgiveness under that program.

"There's $1.2 billion already out in PPP programs, and there's more money available," Sirotkin said. "It makes our money, whether it's $100 million or $200 million, pale in comparison to the help that businesses can get."

Lawmakers allocated $70 million for business relief last week. And they say another aid bill is coming.

But Scott said the funds won't be enough to help struggling businesses.

Read the full story.

- Peter Hirschfeld

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