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Vermont News Updates For Wednesday, July 1

five young women in tights and face masks on steps outside a white painted building
Elodie Reed
/
VPR File
From left, Izzy Wysockey-Johnson, Grace Garavan, Ava Devost, Macy Aikman and Samantha Witham rest between ballet and contemporary classes at the Jericho Community Center, which the Richmond-based Arabesque Etc. Dance studio rented on Monday, June 29.

Vermont reporters provide a roundup of ongoing local coverage of the coronavirus, the passage of the Burlington general budget, and more for Wednesday, July 1.

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The latest coronavirus data:

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No COVID-19-related deaths reported in two weeks in Vermont

The Vermont Department of Health reported two new cases of COVID-19 Wednesday, one each in Chittenden and Franklin counties.

The two positive tests came back along with 522 negative tests. Over 66,000 tests for the coronavirus have been administered so far.

Some 961 people are reported to have recovered from the disease, and one person is currently hospitalized. There have been no new deaths in two weeks, but 56 people have died to date.

- Amy Kolb Noyes and Elodie Reed

Secretary of State coordinates statewide early voting push

The Secretary of State's office is coordinating a program to send a postcard to every Vermonter informing them of the availability of the state's early voting system.

Vermont has the most lenient early voting law in the country. A ballot can be requested from a town clerk within 45 days of an election.

Condos said a recently passed law called on his office to notify voters of this option in light of concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Every eligible Vermonter should have a right to cast their ballot..." Condos said. "We should protect the health and safety of voters, town clerks and the poll workers so those two premises are what's been driving our decision-making."

Condos said requests for early ballots are already running far ahead of previous years.

- Bob Kinzel

More from VPR: Time to Switch To Mail-In Voting? Vermont Lawmakers Weigh In

Attorney General calls for formal system to review excessive force allegations

Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan says there needs to be a formal system for how the state reviews excessive force allegations against police officers.

The Attorney General's office and county prosecutors both review lethal uses of force. County prosecutors typically look at cases of excessive force, but the Attorney General's office is sometimes asked to review them.

Donovan said the system needs to be clearer.

"We need to really develop a process and procedure about who's doing what so the public understands and the public can trust the process," Donovan said. "They may not agree with the ultimate conclusion, but certainly they understand the process and can trust the process."

Donovan's comments come after his office filed assault charges against a former St. Albans police officer who allegedly pepper-sprayed a handcuffed teenager.

- Liam Elder-Connors

Congressman Welch supports raising federal gas tax to support infrastructure bill

Congressman Peter Welch said he's willing to raise the federal gasoline tax if all of the money is dedicated to an enormous public works infrastructure bill.

The federal gas tax is roughly $0.19 per gallon and hasn't been raised for 27 years.

The House is set to approve a plan that allocates $600 billion to upgrade the country's transportation system.

It also includes money to help schools and hospitals install energy-efficient equipment.

Welch said it makes sense to increase the gas tax to help pay for part of the package.

"Well I'd be willing to do that. I've always been willing to put any revenue measure on the floor that is serving the passage of an ambitious infrastructure bill. I'll be fore it, so I'm willing to work with folks on any approach that they'd want to take," Welch said.

The legislation allocates $1.5 trillion to repair bridges and roads, it improves energy efficiency upgrades to housing and school construction projects, and it appropriates $11 billion for broadband services in rural parts  of the country.

Welch said there's desperate need for the bill.

"This is not so much to address the impact of the COVID economic collapse," he said. "This is looking over the horizon, saying, America, we've got to reinvest, we've got to restart. We've got to create jobs by fixing up what we have and improving it."

The legislation faces an uncertain future in the Senate.

- Bob Kinzel

Vermont Attorney General says his office aims to be more transparent on police misconduct

Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan said he wants his office to release more information about investigations into allegations of police misconduct.

The Attorney General's office has 15 investigations open of law enforcement officers, including six use-of-force cases.

Donovan said there are still privacy issues to work out and his office declined to provide further details about the investigations.

"But we gotta find a way to be more transparent about releasing these types of cases, not in terms of the conclusions, but the fact that we have them, and that we are investigating them, because, again, it comes down to the public trust," Donovan said.

Donovan's comments came after his office filed assault charges against a former St. Albans police officer.

The Attorney General had previously declined to charge the officer but reopened the case after a VPR inquiry.

- Liam Elder-Connors

Two Vermont museums collaborate on new online exhibit

In 2014, two Vermont museums teamed up to take a new look at painter Mary Roberts Moses, better known as "Grandma."

And when the pandemic closed them both down, the Shelburne Museum and the Bennington Museum decided to take their collaboration further. Now, an interactive online Grandma Moses exhibit includes images, interviews and information on painting techniques.

Tom Denenberg, Shelburne's director, said the project pushed both museums to use technology in new ways.

"That's something that museums of medium to small size like Shelburne and Bennington... something we're going to have to be doing for ... years to come," he said.

Denenberg said what they've learned about keeping in touch with the public and each other will continue to be useful even when they've opened their doors again.

- Betty Smith

Surgical masks do provide better protection than cloth masks

While wearing a mask is not required in Vermont, Gov. Scott is urging people to wear them to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Gifford Medical Center Chief Medical Officer Josh White said that while surgical masks provide better protection than homemade ones, the companies that make them are still trying to catch up with demand.

"The manufacturers of masks are not working to the historical levels that hospitals and health care facilities require," White said. "Now, they're working to levels that are much increased for everybody, and staying there and going to stay there long term. So catch up is going to be a long process."

White said that wearing a cloth mask, bandana or even a scarf is better than wearing no facial protection.

Listen to the full conversation, as heard on Vermont Edition.

- Emily Aiken

Scott Administration to launch public education campaign about masks

The Scott Administration is launching a public education campaign focused on getting people to wear facial coverings to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Gov. Phil Scott said he believes education is more effective than mandating that people wear masks.

"There's a lot of friction, controversy, like a defense mechanism, the government telling you what to do once again," Scott said. "I would rather educate, lead and inspire people to do the right thing. And right now, this is a good thing to do, when you can, in those conditions, where you can't physically distance yourself from someone else."

Administration officials say the public awareness campaign will use social media as well as posters and traditional advertisements.

Read the full story.

- John Dillon

Vermont sees surge in requests for absentee ballots

Early voting for the state's August 11 primary election has just started and there's already been a surge in requests for ballots.

In Vermont, a voter can request a ballot from their town clerk any time within 45 days of an election.

Secretary of State Jim Condos said there have been almost 20,000 requests for ballots in just the first few days of eligibility.

He thinks concern about the COVID-19 pandemic is the reason why.

"If you compare 2016 in the last presidential election to 2020, we're almost four times the number of requests so I think people are concerned and people are taking steps to maintain their health and safety," Condos said.

Condos said he expects the state to set an all-time record for early ballots this year.

- Bob Kinzel

Use of telemedicine services skyrockets in Vermont

There's been an enormous increase in the use of tele-health services in the three months since the state has been dealing with cases of COVID-19.

In the first five months of last year, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Vermont processed just over 2,000 telemedicine claims.

This year, that number jumped to almost 84,000.

A year ago, just 200 providers participated in telemedicine.

This year, almost 4,000 have.

Don George is the president of Blue Cross Vermont.

He thinks the program has helped provide some financial stability for the state's health care system.

"And by doing telemedicine, we were best able to maintain their cash flow, while also providing members with access to care," he said.

George said he doesn't see it as a replacement for traditional medical visits.

"If tele-health better enables them to do that, then I think we want to support that choice that they've made, but if patients want to see their health care provider face to face, about their particular health care needs, then we need to assure that that choice is preserved," he said.

Blue Cross plans to conduct a review of its telemedicine services this fall.

- Bob Kinzel

Burlington will not hold annual fireworks display

Vermont's largest city will not have its annual fireworks show on July 3 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Independence Day celebration normally draws thousands of people to Burlington's waterfront.

Parks and Recreation Director Cindi Wight said instead a local TV station will air last year's fireworks.

"We'll have the fireworks live and I say 'live' because they're the 2019 fireworks that ABC-22/44 is going to be putting up for us, and you'll be able to watch... last year's fireworks at 7:30 and then again at 10:30," Wight said.

Some communities, like Newport and Stowe, are still having fireworks but are requiring people to watch from their homes or in cars.

- Liam Elder-Connors

Recent study suggests Vermont's testing program is among the best in the U.S.

State health officials say Vermont has seen just two cases of COVID-19 since Monday, and the local outbreaks in Winooski and Fair Haven seem to be contained.

Officials also cite a recent analysis done by Harvard University and NPR that found Vermont's testing program is among the best in the country.

Gov. Phil Scott said he's pleased with the state's progress as it gradually reopens.

"Obviously we want to get back to normal," Scott said. "We want to get back to 100% open. It's just really hard to say at this point. But I think we've moved along reasonably well over the last couple of months. But it does give you pause when you're seeing other states who thought they had it in-hand as well."

Scott said the state is prepared if things get worse, and has a 52-day supply of COVID testing materials on-hand.

Read the full story.

- John Dillon

U.S. Department of Education raises concern over Vermont's special education

The U.S. Department of Education has elevated its concerns about Vermont special education programs. The department has placed Vermont on its second-most serious enforcement status. It says if things don't improve, the state could lose some federal funding.

The issues highlighted by the federal agency include supporting students with disabilities as they transition out of secondary education and the length of time taken to resolve complaints.

State Education Secretary Dan French said the state is aware of the issues. He said some of the problems involve record-keeping requirements.

"I think we have the issues well in hand, but we are sort of digging our way out of a several-year problem. We have, I think, a good plan to do that and look forward to working well with the federal government to make sure we have good oversight of our special education systems," French said.

Gov. Phil Scott said the special education issue shows it's important for all students, including those with special needs, to return to the classroom this fall.

Read the full story.

- John Dillon

Burlington mayor threatens to shut down bars if non-compliance continues

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger said he'll shut down bars in the city if they don't follow statewide rules intended to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

The Department of Labor Control issued written warnings to four bars in the city last weekend. Vermont bars are allowed to operate as long as they follow strict guidelines, including requiring reservations and restricting capacity.

Weinberger has already closed bars in the city once due to the pandemic. In March, he shut them down before St. Patrick's Day to avoid large gatherings.

"And while I have no desire to do that again, I would strongly prefer us to find a way for these operations to continue, if we have to, if the bars are not following the rules... I'm going to take action again," Weinberger said.

Coronavirus cases have spiked across the country and bars have been vectors for outbreaks in other states.

- Liam Elder-Connors

Gov. Scott defends his approach to reopening schools

Gov. Phil Scott said his education agency is already doing the work of a school reopening taskforce proposed by Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe.

Ashe said the taskforce should include teachers, school board members and administrators to develop safe ways for schools to reopen this fall.

But Scott said at a press briefing Wednesday that the work is already underway. He said the group has met weekly since April and includes members of the state teacher's union.

"I thought it was unfortunate that two days after the Legislature had adjourned, they called for more oversight," Scott said. "I would have thought that the committees of jurisdiction, in the House and Senate, in education, might have wanted to check in if they had some questions about how we were moving forward, because we had announced we were opening up, again, three or four weeks ago."

Scott noted that Ashe's call for a taskforce comes during a campaign season. Ashe is running for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor.

Read the full story.

- John Dillon

State plans to open grant program for businesses next week

The state plans to have a grant program open next week to help businesses hurt by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Joan Goldstein is the commissioner of economic development. She said the program will use about $150 million in federal funds to disperse grants of up to $50,000 each to cover COVID related losses. Goldstein said she knows it's not enough money to save all businesses.

"We realize that these grants are not enough to make businesses whole," she said. "But we do hope that this influx of cash can help them survive as Vermont continues to reopen in the months ahead."

Gov. Phil Scott said the Legislature allocated less than he wanted for the program. He said he may seek additional funding when lawmakers return in August.

Read the full story.

- John Dillon

Local farm-to-school program receives $100,000 USDA grant

Twelve schools in New England and New York are taking part in a year-long project promoting healthy food and local agriculture.

Staff and teachers participating in the Northeast Farm to School Institute will develop classroom materials and build connections between their schools and local farms.

The institute got underway last month with a virtual retreat. And the USDA has just announced the nearly $100,000 grant for the program.

Project Director Betsy Rosenbluth is encouraged by the support.

"I would hope that we have a long term partnership where we can continue to be a model for other states as well as serve the schools in Vermont and the Northeast," Rosenbluth said.

The initiative is sponsored by Vermont Feed, a farm-to-school project managed by NOFA Vermont and Shelburne Farms.

- Betty Smith

Despite cancelled baseball season, Lake Monsters expect to survive

There won't be a baseball season for the Vermont Lake Monsters this summer due to COVID-19, but the team's general manager said the organization should be able to survive financially.

Joe Doud said the team has found other ways besides ticket sales to bring in revenue this year.

"We've really shifted a lot of our focuses to the things that we can control and are able to bring in some revenue," Doud said. "So our merchandise sales have actually been phenomenal. We've had incredible local and national support in that."

Doud said the team will soon be announcing other summer events at its facility, which could bring in additional money for the minor league team.

- Henry Epp

Starting Wednesday, it is illegal to throw away food scraps

Starting Wednesday, it's against the law for Vermonters to throw food scraps in the trash.

Susan Alexander runs the Lamoille Regional Solid Waste Management District. She said the mandate is part of Vermont's Universal Recycling Law. The law was passed in 2012 and has been implemented in stages over the past several years.

Alexander said now household composting is mandatory.

"The ban is on any food scraps going into the landfull. So everyone, regardless of whether you're a resident or a commercial entity, must divert those organic materials out of the landfill and find a different way to manage them," Alexander said.

Alexander said Vermonters can compost their own food scraps, bring them to any transfer station, or have a hauler pick up their scraps.

She said composting helps cut down on greenhouse cases and conserves landfill space. And when used as a soil amendment, she said compost leads to less reliance on artificial fertilizers.

She also said it's opening up some new business opportunities.

"We have a number of small haulers and entrepreneurial types who are finding this a great niche business. We have Grow Compost, Re-Green Vermont, Black Dirt Farms," she said. "And some of them are actually going around to individual residents and also to small businesses and large businesses as well."

A single-use plastic ban also goes into effect this week. Stores and restaurants must discontinue the use of plastic carry-out bags, straws, stirrers and most polystyrene containers.

- Amy Kolb Noyes

Burlington approves $78M budget, $1.25M for racial justice initiatives, police reform

The Burlington City Council approved a $78 million general fund budget late Tuesday night that allocates $1.25 million toward racial justice and police reform initiatives.

Seven Days reports the council debated for more than five hours before passing the budget by a 9-3 vote.

The budget vote came less than a day after the council voted to reduce the city's police force to 74 sworn officers, a 30% cut from the department's maximum roster of 105.

- Sam Gale Rosen

Vermont's Universal Recycling Law in full effect today

The final phase of Vermont's Universal Recycling Law goes into effect Wednesday.

The law was passed in 2012 and has been implemented in phases over the past several years.

Starting today, household composting becomes mandatory and all food scraps are banned from the landfill.

A single-use plastics ban also goes into effect today. Stores and restaurants must abandon the use of plastic carry-out bags, straws, stirrers and most polystyrene containers.

- Amy Kolb Noyes

Lake Monsters season canceled

The 2020 season for the Vermont Lake Monsters, and all other Minor League Baseball teams, has been canceled.

Seven Days reports that Major League Baseball has decided not to send any players to Minor League teams this season.

In a press release, Lake Monsters General Manager Joe Doud says: "We look forward to continuing to be a part of the community this summer in ways that we are able to make an impact."

- Sam Gale Rosen

Senate president calls for task force to study K-12 school reopenings

Vermont Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe is calling on the state Agency of Education to create a task force to study the best ways to reopen in-person schools this fall.

Vermont schools closed in March in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In a Monday statement, Senator Ashe, a Democrat and Progressive, says he's worried that any further delay will make it more difficult for local school leaders and increase the anxiety levels of students and families. Ashe says the task force should include teachers, superintendents, principals, and school board members.

Rebecca Kelley, a spokeswoman for Gov. Phil Scott, says state education officials are already meeting weekly to study the issue.

- Associated Press

New Hampshire House approves COVID, PFAS bills

The New Hampshire House responded to the COVID-19 pandemic Tuesday with bills targeting everything from employment and elections to housing and health care.

Republican Gov. Chris Sununu said he supports measures to continue the use of telemedicine and to temporarily change election laws to streamline absentee voting this fall for those worried about the virus, but he has concerns about the other measures.

Meanwhile, he says the state is facing a budget shortfall of about $540 million because of the pandemic.

The House also passed a bill that would enact tough drinking water standards for a group of toxic chemicals, and provide tens of millions of dollars to help communities in the state meet the rules.

Lawmakers voted 210-116 to put into law the standards that were put forth last year by the state Department of Environmental Services for potentially harmful chemicals.

The standards limit one chemical to a maximum of 12 parts per trillion and another to 15 parts per trillion, far lower than the 70 parts per trillion that the federal Environmental Protection Agency has advised for the chemicals.

- Associated Press

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