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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

Vermont News Updates For Monday, June 29

A painting of Martin Luther King, Jr. on a boarded up window in a brick building
Aliya Schneider
/
For VPR
A mural of Martin Luther King, Jr. street is seen on Tokyo House in Rutland on Tuesday, June 23. The Japanese restaurant has been boarded up because of a December fire.

Vermont reporters provide a roundup of ongoing local coverage of the coronavirus, the end of Vermont's legislative session, and more for Monday, June 29.

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The latest coronavirus data:

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Six new COVID-19 cases in Vermont

The Vermont Health Department reported six new cases of COVID-19 Monday. Five cases are in Chittenden County, and a single case is in Bennington County.

Nearly 65,000 tests have been administered in Vermont. In addition to the six positive tests Monday, another 1,113 came back negative.

There have been 1,208 cases identified to date, and 949 people are reported to have recovered from the disease. A total of 56 people have died.

- Amy Kolb Noyes and Elodie Reed

Driving may be the safest way to travel

Driving may be the safest means of summer travel to avoid the coronavirus, according to the state's top health official.

Currently, Vermont allows travel to more than 250 counties in New England and beyond without a two-week quarantine. That's based on the relatively low level of COVID-19 activity in those counties.

But when it comes to traveling in states where COVID is more active, Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine told Vermont Edition that long road trips, rather than air travel, are likely to be the safest bet this summer.

"I would probably drive and take the risk of staying overnight in a hotel, if I was going to break it up, rather than fly at this point in time," Levine said.

Levine also notes that 14-day quarantines may be necessary both when arriving in other states and upon returning to Vermont.

Listen to the full episode.

- Matthew Smith

Vermont Legislature reflects on successes, failures of remote meetings

In mid-March, the COVID-19 pandemic closed the Statehouse and forced lawmakers to hold meetings and votes online. New House Speaker Mitzi Johnson said she wants to learn more about what worked and what didn't.

She said one benefit is that the public at large gained access to legislative debates through video technology. But she said it was a challenge for many who normally work in the Statehouse.

"There's a lament of that loss of face-to-face or hallway conversations, or all of the informal ways that people get information," Johnson said. "So we're trying to figure out which parts of our new way of operating both in the Legislature and in all parts of Vermont society are actually worth hanging on to and investing in to bring forward with us, and which pieces we need to find safe ways to reinstate."

Johnson praised legislative staff for quickly getting the technology in place for the Statehouse to function.

Read the full story.

- John Dillon

House Speaker reflects on historic legislative session

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson said the legislative session that ended last week was both historic and inspiring.

During a news conference Monday, Johnson reflected back on the unusual session when the COVID-19 pandemic forced lawmakers to work remotely. She said lawmakers in March set aside partisan differences to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

"At that point, honestly, it feels like all of our partisan labels sort of dropped off the back of our names, and we became one Legislature and one group of Vermonters trying to solve the problem," Johnson said.

Lawmakers last week wrapped up work on a spending package that uses almost $1 billion in federal money to help towns, businesses, health care organizations and others recover from the crisis. They return to work in late August.

Read the full story.

- John Dillon

Gov. Scott says more tourists are coming to Vermont

As the July Fourth holiday approaches, Gov. Phil Scott says his polices of slowly opening the state to more tourists have been working.

At his press conference Monday, Scott said anecdotal information, as well as the tracking of people coming over the borders, shows an increase in tourist traffic.

"I believe that there is still a demand to come to Vermont because of our low positivity rate, and so forth," Scott said. "And so I believe we will be seeing more travelers coming to Vermont."

Last week, Scott expanded the area from which people can travel to Vermont without quarantine.

Read the full story.

- Howard Weiss-Tisman

State officials say outbreaks around the country will not slow Vermont's reopening

State officials say the increase in COVID-19 outbreaks around the country has not caused them to slow Vermont's strategy to reopening the economy.

At his press conference Monday, Gov. Phil Scott said Vermont's rate of infection continues to move in the right direction.

"We've had two or three outbreaks that we feel as though we have a handle on," Scott said. "So at this point in time, with the low positivity rate, I see no reason to move backwards. I think we'll continue to move forward."

Florida and Texas saw significant jumps in COVID-19 infections after quickly reopening their economies.

Health Commissioner Mark Levine said Vermont's strategy to slowly reopen the economy helped the state better control COVID-19.

Read the full story.

- Howard Weiss-Tisman

Vermont's Education Fund expected to see $105 million deficit

Vermont's Education Fund is projected to have a $105 million deficit. But legislative leaders say new taxes are likely not part of the solution.

The state relies on property taxes as well as state sales and rooms and meals taxes. Those statewide revenue sources have declined as businesses feel the impact of the pandemic.

Calais Democrat Janet Ancel chairs the House Ways and Means Committee. She said the new education funding bill spares property taxpayers from a financial hit.

"We also include a number of strategies in that bill that include deficit spending, include borrowing, and leave open the possibility for additional revenue," Ancel said. "But I don't see additional revenue as being a significant part of the solution to that problem.

Lawmakers will get a new revenue forecast from the Scott Administration in August.

- John Dillon

Scott Administration to set up application process for business relief

The Legislature last week passed a $220 million COVID-19 business relief package.

And at his press conference Monday, Gov. Phil Scott said his administration was working on the application process so business owners could apply for the money.

"As we have said from the very beginning... by the time the bills got to us, we'd need a couple of weeks to put whatever plan in place to distribute the funds," Scott said.

Scott said the program the Legislature passed is about $100 million less than he wanted.

Scott said he hoped to release application guidelines for business owners this week.

Read the full story.

- Howard Weiss-Tisman

Vermont Legislature adjourns until Aug. 25

House speaker Mitzi Johnson ended a legislative session Friday night that was dominated by a health crisis that forced lawmakers to work remotely.

The Legislature finished work on a spending package that directs almost a billion dollars in federal COVID relief funds to health care providers, housing programs, businesses and farms.

Johnson thanked her colleagues for their work since the state of emergency was declared in mid-March.

“Together, we found our way to a less-than-ideal but a workable remote Legislature that can be viewed by anyone, anytime that has access to YouTube," she said. "You responded quickly to your constituents devastated by job loss and fear.”

Lawmakers will be back in session August 25 to deal with the ongoing impact of the COVID crisis on the state budget.

- John Dillon

Vermont Law School reverses decision, will be online-only for fall semester

Vermont Law School will hold its fall semester entirely online.

The school announced Monday that there will be no on-campus courses this fall, in part because the COVID-19 pandemic is "continuing to rage in parts of the country where many VLS students live."

President Thomas McHenry says the school made the call now in order to provide planning time for students, faculty and staff. Details will be rolled out in the coming weeks.

McHenry told VPR just last month that the school would have in-person classes in the fall.

- Amy Kolb Noyes

Health Commissioner: Pregnant women may be at higher risk for serious illness from COVID-19

A new study suggests that pregnant women may be at higher risk of serious illness from COVID-19.

And Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine says pregnant women should take special care to limit their possible exposure to the coronavirus.

“It doesn’t mean a mass message: ‘Don’t get pregnant. Be fearful if you are pregnant,’ Levine said. “It’s just, again, you may want to make your exposure budget err on the side of much less exposure because of that.”

Levine says the study showed increased health risks for pregnant women, and also a higher risk of premature birth.

Levine says new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control also suggests that people who are obese, have chronic kidney disease, or sickle cell disease are at higher risk of serious illness from COVID-19.

- Peter Hirschfeld

Scott says playgrounds can reopen, with safety guidance

Recreational opportunities for children in a time of COVID-19 can now include playgrounds.

Gov. Phil Scott says playgrounds are cleared to reopen, so long as people abide by public health guidelines.

“Keep six feet apart, wash your hands, stay home when sick, and wear a mask when you can,” he said. “We’ll be asking the operators of these sites to post signage of this guidance.”

Scott says the state is also asking playground operators to provide hand sanitizer.

Earlier this month, Scott said summer camps for kids, and summer programs at schools, would be allowed to proceed.

Many camps and school programs have opted cancel summer programs despite the new guidance.

- Peter Hirschfeld

More from VPR: Vermont Schools To Reopen In The Fall, But Class Won't Look The Same

Vermont Symphony Orchestra names new executive director

The Vermont Symphony Orchestra has named an executive from an opera company in South Africa as its new executive director.

Elise Brunelle takes over for Ben Cadwallader, who stepped down in February to take a similar post with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the orchestra announced Saturday.

The Burlington-based orchestra said Brunelle was chosen by a six-person committee and will start sometime in mid-August or early September.

Brunelle spent 16 years with the Cape Town Opera, which is South Africa's largest nonprofit performing arts organization. She served as fundraiser and financial manager before becoming managing director.

- Associated Press

Public Utility Commission orders emergency stop-work order on Bennington solar array

Vermont utility regulators have ordered a solar developer to halt work on a project in Bennington that was started without state approval.

The Public Utility Commission says developer Thomas Melone started clear-cutting a wooded parcel for a two megawatt solar array. A state botanist testified Friday that rare plants were destroyed in the operation.

Melone does not have a permit to develop the project on Apple Hill in Bennington.

The commission issued the emergency stop-work order late Friday night. It scheduled another hearing in July to determine whether the restraining order should be lifted.

- John Dillon

Trump rally in Brattleboro heavily attended by opposition

Supporters of President Donald Trump held a rally in Brattleboro Saturday.

Windham County Republican Party chair Rick Morton said the president's first term advanced many conservative ideals of the party.

Vocal opponents of Trump outnumbered the supporters, but Morton said his group was not dismayed by the turnout of the opposition.

“Maybe naively, I thought this was our turn to be out here, but obviously other people found out about it, and they’re here too,” he said. “So, they’re going to go home hoarse, we’re just going to go home.”

Morton organized the rally to let people know there are conservatives in this solidly progressive corner of southeastern Vermont.

He said he hoped to hold additional gatherings in Brattleboro leading up to the presidential election in November.

- Howard Weiss-Tisman

Dartmouth researcher: 'Rural ethos' aided northern New England's pandemic response

A study has documented how health systems and communities in rural Vermont and New Hampshire were able to respond effectively to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Elizabeth Carpenter-Song, one of the study's co-leaders, says a "rural ethos" helped the region combat the spread of the virus.

“That’s something that we describe as this kind of intersection between compassion and pragmatism as well as solidarity within northern New England that really worked to protect people,” Carpenter-Song said.

The study was conducted by Dartmouth's Center for Global Health Equity, which also plans to look at what happens as the region reopens.

- Betty Smith

Central Vermont Medical Center gets thermal camera for COVID screening

Under COVID-19 pandemic rules, anyone entering a hospital in Vermont must first answer some health-related questions and have their temperature taken.

That process is now a little quicker at Central Vermont Medical Center. The temperature screening will be automatic, thanks to a new thermal imaging camera at the hospital's entrance.

The hospital says the thermal camera will eliminate the need for visitors to remove facial masks, and decrease time spent in close proximity to the hospital's screening staff.

- Amy Kolb Noyes

State lawmakers approve bill banning chokeholds

Lawmakers approved police reform legislation Friday night that requires the use of body cameras and bans chokeholds. But sponsors say the legislation is only a first step.

Dummerston Democrat Nader Hashim is a former state police officer. He says lawmakers must stay focused on the issue.

“What we are seeing today around the country is the culmination of centuries of oppression of different demographics of people, primarily Black people and poor people,” Hashim said. “This one single bill is not a cure-all for the megalith that is systemic racism. But it is one of many steps that must be taken.”

The Legislature adjourned Friday evening and plans to return in late August to deal with the budget and other issues.

- John Dillon

Gov. says he's open to deficit spending for education

Gov. Phil Scott says he’s open to using deficit spending to pay for public education in Vermont next year.

Lawmakers have reached agreement on an education funding bill that uses a projected $100 million in deficit spending, in order to avoid an increase in property tax rates.

Scott said during a media briefing Friday that he’s open to the proposal.

“If there was one fund where we could deficit-spend, it’s probably the ed fund,” he said. “So I’m open to at least considering that.”

COVID-19 has led to a sharp decline in the revenues that fund education in the state.

Scott initially asked lawmakers to require that schools reduce next year’s budgets, to offset the revenue shortfall. But lawmakers say schools will likely need even more money next year, to deal with COVID-related expenditures.

- Peter Hirschfeld

As of July 1, visitors from 14 states allowed in Vermont

Nearly 20 million people from 14 states will soon be able to travel to Vermont without having to quarantine when they arrive.

Earlier this month, Gov. Phil Scott lifted the quarantine requirement for residents of low-risk counties in New England and New York.

At a media briefing on Friday, he said he’s adding to the list of eligible states.

“Beginning July 1, we will include counties in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, Virginia, West Virginia and Ohio,” Scott said. “It was also include D.C.”

The exemption only applies to residents of counties with active COVID-19 cases of fewer than 400 per million.

Scott said he hopes the new guidance will boost tourism this summer. Some 10,000 workers in the hospitality sector are still unemployed.

Read the full story.

- Peter Hirschfeld

Health officials give update Friday on COVID-19 outbreaks, clusters

Health officials said Friday that a cluster of COVID-19 cases in Rutland County is associated with a single worksite in Fair Haven.

Commissioner of Health Mark Levine said 12 people who work at the job site tested positive for the disease.

“I know people are interested in the workplace itself, and I have to say again that I cannot convey the name of the worksite as that would be identifying to the individuals that work there,” Levine said.

Of the 12 people who have tested positive for COVID-19, 10 are residents of New York, according to Levine. The other two are Vermont residents.

The Health Department is also monitoring a second COVID-19 cluster in Windham County, where Levine said Friday it was confined to a single family so far.

On the same day, Levine said an outbreak of COVID-19 in Chittenden County appeared to be fully contained. The Health Department had confirmed 115 cases associated with the outbreak, including seven last week.

But Levine said the outbreak centered in Winooski did not appear to be spreading.

“Things are really still on the downslope on the epi-curve, and there’s no indication that there’s marked expansion,” he said.

On Monday, officials said the outbreaks appear to be under control.

Levine said this week that while it is too early to claim complete victory, additional testing has not turned up any more cases.

"We're not showing dramatic expansion, which indicates that initial efforts to contain the virus are successful," Levine said Monday.

He reiterated that Vermont has been able to flatten the curve of infection even as other parts of the country are seeing dramatic spikes in COVID-19 cases.

Read the full story.

- Peter Hirschfeld

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