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Vermont News Updates For Friday, July 24

Signs of encouragement in a shop window in Barnard
Sarah Priestap
Signs of encouragement alongside faded hearts are displayed in the window of the Barnard General Store in Barnard, Vermont on July 17, 2020.

Vermont reporters provide a roundup of ongoing local coverage of the coronavirus, a new statewide mask mandate and more for Friday, July 24.

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The latest coronavirus data:


Vermont Department of Health reports eight new cases of COVID-19

The Vermont Department of Health reported eight new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, bringing the total number of cases identified to date in the state to 1,385. Two new cases were identified in Rutland County, one in Addison County, one in Bennington County, two in Franklin County, one in Washington County and one in Chittenden County.

The department reports it has now tested 87,692 people for active cases of the new coronavirus, and is currently monitoring 60 people as close contacts of confirmed cases. There are three people hospitalized with active cases in Vermont, and nine people hospitalized with symptoms under investigation.

To date, 56 people have died from the disease, though the department reported no new deaths today.

- Abagael Giles

New mask mandate will not be enforced with fines or penalties

There will be no fines or other penalties for Vermonters who refuse to comply with the state’s new face mask mandate.

Governor Phil Scott said that for now at least, his administration will rely on voluntary compliance with the new requirement.

“And if we have to do something more with enforcement, we’ll do so. But let’s try the education piece along with the mask mandate and see how that goes,” Scott said.

Scott said businesses will be allowed to deny service to people who refuse to comply with the mandate.

Read the full story.

- Peter Hirschfeld

Gov. Scott calls on Vermonters to be civil in discourse about masks

Gov. Phil Scott said he doesn’t want Vermonters to confront people who refuse to comply with the state’s new face mask mandate.

Scott issued an executive order Friday that requires the use of facial coverings in public areas.

But he said he wants to avoid the aggressive encounters seen in other states with mask mandates.

“Because attacking, shaming and judging isn’t going to help. But understanding, educating, meeting people where there, and maybe using a little kindness and understanding, might,” Scott said.

The new mandate applies to grocery stores and other retail outlets. It also applies to outdoor areas where physical distancing isn’t possible.

The mask mandate takes effect on August 1.

Read the full story.

- Peter Hirschfeld

Health Commissioner says mask mandate will reduce transmission rates

Commissioner of Health Mark Levine said he thinks a statewide face mask mandate will reduce coronavirus transmission rates in Vermont.

Levine said a growing body of scientific research shows that face mask usage helps suppress the spread of COVID-19.

“Public health takes responsibility for making recommendations that help government make decisions that are data-driven and science-based. And in that vein, we truly do believe that a mask mandate is reasonable,” Levine said.

On Friday, Gov. Phil Scott signed an executive order that requires everyone over the age of 2 to wear a mask or cloth facial covering in public spaces.

Scott had previously resisted a mask mandate. But he says he changed his mind after seeing infection rates rise across the U.S.

Read the full story.

- Peter Hirschfeld

Scott says individual school districts can decide whether to bring students back in-person

Last month, Gov. Phil Scott announced plans to reopen Vermont schools for in-person instruction this fall.

But he said it’ll be up to individual school districts to decide whether to bring students back or not.

“I’m hoping that at some point we’ll go to full instruction, full in-person instruction. But we have to start somewhere, and I know there’s a lot of apprehension,” Scott said

Many school districts have announced hybrid plans for reopening, with a mix of in-person instruction and remote learning.

Scott said district leaders will have final say on what classrooms look like this fall.

He said the Agency of Education is providing guidance to districts on how they can safely bring students back to school.

Read the full story.

- Peter Hirschfeld

Department of Corrections hires law firm to investigate inmate death

The Vermont Department of Corrections has hired a law firm to investigate the death of an inmate at a prison in Newport last year.

Prisoners’ rights advocates say Kenneth Johnson died unnecessarily after being denied treatment for acute respiratory distress.

Secretary of Human Services Mike Smith said the law firm conducting the probe will be looking at whether corrections employees violated any laws.

“I have authorized Downs Rachlin and Martin through their contract to share any findings that they have with the U.S. Attorney and the Attorney General if warranted,” Smith said

Smith said the investigation will also examine whether racism contributed to the death of Johnson, who was a 60-year-old Black man.

- Peter Hirschfeld

Scott says state cannot fill void left by potential halt of federal PUI benefit

Supplemental federal benefits for unemployed Vermonters are to set to expire at the end of July.

But Governor Phil Scott said the state won’t step in to backfill the payments if Congress fails to extend the program.

“We don’t have the resources to fill that void, to be perfectly honest. This is going to be up to the federal government. I know they’re debating this in Congress as we speak,” Scott said.

Congress approved legislation earlier this year that provided an extra $600 a week to people on unemployment.

The U.S. House and Senate are considering legislation that would extend the benefits beyond July. But it appears unlikely the payments would be continued at their current level, even if Congress approves an extension.

Read the full story.

- Peter Hirschfeld

Gov. Scott signs statewide mask mandate

Gov. Phil Scott signed an executive order today that will institute a statewide face mask mandate, beginning August 1.

Scott said the order applies to anyone entering grocery stores or other retail outlets.

“As well, this order requires masks or cloth face coverings be worn outside if you cannot keep a 6-foot distance from others. This order applies to everyone over the age of 2,” Scott said.

The order includes exceptions for people who cannot wear masks due to health conditions or cognitive impairments.

People who are eating or drinking at a restaurant or bar are also exempt.

Read the full story.

- Peter Hirschfeld

Leahy hopes Biden will pick a woman of color as his running mate

Senator Patrick Leahy said he hopes that Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate, will pick a woman of color as his running mate.

Biden has previously said that he will select a woman and it's believed that roughly a half-dozen women are on his short list, including California Senator Kamala Harris and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren.

Leahy said Biden has the opportunity to make an historic selection:

“Having a woman as vice president - a woman of color - would be as much of a break through as Barack Obama being elected as the first president of color. I think it reflects the reality of America," Leahy said.    

Biden is expected to announce his vice presidential selection in the next week or two.

- Bob Kinzel

Leahy says U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services employees won't face furloughs

Senator Patrick Leahy said that more than 1,000 federal immigration employees in Vermont won't be furloughed from their jobs at the beginning of August.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency had threatened to lay off many of its employees across the country unless Congress approves additional funds.

Leahy, who is the vice chairman of the Senate Appropriations committee, said the agency has agreed to wait to implement any furloughs until Congress considers a new stimulus package.

“You can't just tell people, ‘OK leave, sorry, and in a few months we're going to really need people we'll ramp back up this is expertise that's been developed over years.’ You can't turn the switch on and off,” Leahy said.

Leahy said he hopes the Senate will consider a bi-partisan stimulus package next week.

- Bob Kinzel


Vermont State Police search for escaped inmate

Vermont State Police are searching for an inmate who escaped from the Northeast Correctional Complex in St. Johnsbury early Friday morning. 

Thirty-five year old Shannon Edwards escaped the facility by climbing a fence.

Troopers checked the area, and a K9 was deployed but Edwards was not located. Edwards is believed to be travelling to Waterbury, where he is originally from.

Police say Edwards poses a potential threat to public safety, and ask residents in St. Johnsbury, Middlesex and Waterbury to remain watchful.

- The Associated Press


Piano sales are up in Vermont

The need to stay home and sequester during the pandemic has apparently given a boost to piano sales.

In Bristol, Ed and Emily Hilbert confirm that the national trend has reached their own piano sales and service business.

Ed Hilbert says the increase in demand began after people had been isolating for a while.

“The first month or two nothing happened. But the past couple months we've had a number of people calling on the phone, asking about acquiring pianos. And we've had quite a few people coming through the store.”

The Hilberts say requests for piano tuning have picked up as well.

- Betty Smith

Pet owners prepare to return to work

Pets that have just gotten used to having their humans at home most of the time may find it hard to adjust when school and work schedules resume.

Vermont native Pam Perry is a specialist in animal behavior at Cornell University.

Perry suggests preparing for the transition by using a web cam or other recording device to see how a pet behaves when it's left alone for a short period of time. 

“If they seem fine with that then the next outing, make it you know, three or four hours long. And just gradually increase the time you’re away from home so that they’re used to you leaving – but always coming back,” Perry said.

Perry says local vets are a good source for information about helping pets adjust to being alone in the house.

- Betty Smith

Republican gubernatorial candidate calls shutdown orders unconstitutional

Republican gubernatorial candidate John Klar has called some of Gov. Phil Scott's COVID-19 shutdown orders unconstitutional, but he said he would likely take similar steps if he is elected governor and the virus flares up again.

Klar said he would shut down businesses, if necessary.

"And if we were to do that and reduce all cases in Vermont down to zero, the moment we reopen with tens of thousands of visitors, we could have another spike. And I, like this governor, at that point might say that we need to go back to restrictions again, but more effectively, they're done as advisories, rather than huge rafts of regulations that aren't enforceable," Klar said.

Klar is one of five candidates seeking the Republican nomination for the state's highest office. They include Gov. Scott, who is running for a third term.

Read or listen to the full story.

- Henry Epp

Vermont’s primary election is on Aug. 11, so VPR is reaching out to candidates in contested races for governor, lieutenant governor and the U.S. House to find out why they're seeking to serve, and where they stand on the issues of the day. Find our full coverage here.

Dartmouth Hitchcock kicks off $150 million expansion

New Hampshire's only academic medical center has begun construction of a $150 million patient tower.

The Valley News reports that Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center CEO Joanne Conroy said the hospital has 396 beds and has been forced to turn patients away due to a lack of space. According to Board Chairman Edward Stansfield, the hospital regularly turns away nearly 200 patients per month.

The new five-story 200,000-square-foot building will include 64 single occupancy rooms, with space for an additional 64 to be built out if needed. The building is scheduled to open to patients in 2022.

-The Associated Press

Republican gubernatorial candidate John Klar calls for cuts to state budget

Republican gubernatorial candidate John Klar says he's running for office to restore conservative priorities in the Vermont Republican Party.

Speaking at a VPR-Vermont PBS debate, Klar said he's disappointed that Governor Phil Scott hasn't made a major effort to cut the state budget.

Klar said if serious cuts were adopted, then Vermonters could pay lower taxes.

“Some of us feel that Gov. Scott has not done what he represented to us [and said] that he would do, and we are trying to fashion a conservative message, a fiscally responsible message for all Vermonters,” Klar said. “And some of us believe that we need to step forward now before we lose even further and have solely a one party system in Vermont."   

Scott said his Administration has tried to balance the needs of the state with existing revenue and he said he opposes raising any broad-based state taxes at this time.

Read the full story here.

- Bob Kinzel

Gov. Scott supports $2 trillion federal infrastructure bill

Gov. Phil Scott says he supports the passage of a massive federal infrastructure bill this year.

The $2 trillion plan is being endorsed on a bi-partisan basis by the National Governors Association.

Scott compared the bill to the Rural Electrification Administration effort of the 1930s. He said it’s needed to help repair roads and bridges throughout the country.

“I wouldn't just say it's confined to just transportation either. We have to look to the future. We need more of an REA approach in terms of broadband and other infrastructure – water, sewer, storm – everything in between,” he said. “We're behind as nation and we have our challenges here in Vermont."   

The NGA is looking at several ways to pay for the bill, including developing public-private partnerships and increasing the federal gasoline tax.

- Bob Kinzel

Sen. Leahy leads effort to rename voting rights bill for Congressman John Lewis

Senator Patrick Leahy is leading an effort to rename a proposed voting rights bill in honor of former Georgia Congressman John Lewis, who passed away last week.

Leahy said the legislation is an appropriate way to honor Lewis, who spent a lifetime as a key leader in the Civil Rights movement.

Speaking on the floor of the Senate, Leahy said the new voting rights bill is needed to address state voting laws that disenfranchise minorities.

“It would safeguard what John fought for over a lifetime to achieve – equality at the voting booth. The bill would restore the Voting Rights Act to end the scourge of minority voter suppression. We can't claim to honor the life of Jon Lewis if we refuse to carry out his life's work," Leahy said.

Leahy is urging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to schedule a vote on the bill in the next few weeks.

- Bob Kinzel

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