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Vermont News Updates For Friday, August 21

Two people watch a drive-in movie in Brattleboro
Shanta Lee Gander
/
For VPR
Two viewers watch the 1973 film The Season of the Witch in the backlot of Brattleboro's Epsilon Spires on Friday, Aug. 7. The artistic center is partnering with multimedia artist and projectionist Victoria Keddie to host regular Friday evening screenings.

Vermont reporters provide a roundup of ongoing local coverage of the coronavirus and more for Friday, August 21.

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The latest coronavirus data:

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

The Vermont Department of Health reported four new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, bringing the total number of cases identified to date in the state to 1,541. Of the new cases, one was identified in Orange County, one was identified in Rutland County and two were identified in Windham County.

So far, the state has tested 116,998 people for active cases of the disease. In Vermont, 33 people are being monitored as close contacts of confirmed cases.

To date, 1,358 people have recovered from known cases, and 58 people have died. The state announced no new deaths on Friday.

- Abagael Giles

State to open three regional DMV offices this month

The state plans to reopen three regional offices of the Department of Motor Vehicles by the end of the month.

Gov. Scott says it's likely that reservations will initially be needed for consumers to conduct business at these DMV centers.

If the pilot plan goes well, Scott said the Administration will expand access to DMV services to other parts of Vermont.

“I think it will be Montpelier, South Burlington and Rutland first and then we'll expand from there so hopefully we can get all of them open in some capacity proving ourselves in the initial three to somewhat walk before we run," Scott said.  

The Administration plans to provide details of their DMV plan next week.

- Bob Kinzel

State does not plan to test public school students ahead of school reopenings

Health Commissioner Mark Levine said there are currently no plans to have Vermont public school students tested for the coronavirus before they reopen in early September.

A number of colleges in Vermont, including UVM, have announced plans to test all students on a weekly basis because many of the students come from out of state.

Levine said decisions to administer tests to kindergarten through 12th-grade students will be made at the local and not the state level.

“Obviously that doesn't mean that there will never be testing in schools, that will be on a case by case basis if that was appropriate for a particular individual but it's not a criteria for the opening of schools."    

Many school districts have announced plans to have their students use a combination of in-person learning and remote learning classes this fall.

- Bob Kinzel

Vermont has lowest positivity rate in the country

Vermont continues to lead the country with the lowest rate of new cases of COVID-19.

Mike Pieciak is the Commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation.

He says this week there were 61 new cases compared to 39 the week before.

But Pieciak said the number of tests administered increased by almost 40%, giving the state a very low "positivity rate."

“Even though these numbers are up again, our numbers are quite string compared nationally and we see quite a bit  of testing happening this week to help explain that increase and that still means that Vermont, as of today, has the lowest positivity rate in the country,” Pieciak said.

Three months ago the state was averaging roughly 500 tests a day - that number now exceeds two thousand tests a day.

- Bob Kinzel
 

Scott administration to send $150 'buy local' cards to Vermonters

The Scott Administration hopes to encourage Vermonters to support the economy by sending $150 buy-local cards to every household in the state.

The $50 million dollar program would be funded with federal COVID relief dollars. Gov. Scott said he wants consumers to use the cards to help local businesses.

“It's a program we are trying to develop to make sure that if we provide for these dollars for families, that it will be spent specifically in Vermont, and specifically in these areas. So think of it as some sort of card of some sort that could be utilized for some of these entities,” Scott said.

The buy-local campaign was one of several economic recovery initiatives that the governor announced Friday. The effort totals $133 million dollars and includes an expansion of a grant program designed to help businesses hurt by the pandemic.

- John Dillon

Residents at two long-term care facilities test positive for COVID-19

Residents of two long-term care homes in Vermont have been tested for COVID-19, after the state today reported a positive case in each facility.

The cases were detected at the Helen Porter Rehabilitation and Nursing center in Middlebury and the Wake Robin assisted living facility in Shelburne.

Human Services Secretary Mike Smith said the situation is being monitored to prevent a more widespread outbreak. 

“This is facility-wide testing that has been done at both of these facilities in accordance to our testing protocol with long term care facilities. We may do some re-testing on some of these, just to reconfirm,” Smith said.

Smith said the health department is conducting contact tracing at both places to determine who else may have been exposed.

- John Dillon

Unemployment dropped to 8.3% in July

Vermont's unemployment rate continued to fall in July, down to 8.3%. That's down from 9.5% in June, but still far above where the job market stood prior to the pandemic, when unemployment was below 3%.

The number of people who are unemployed dropped by over 4,000 last month, according to the labor department.

Unemployment peaked in April at the height of the COVID-19 shutdown, when over 16% of workers were unemployed. It's fallen steadily since, but in a statement, Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington said "the economic impacts of  COVID-19  are  still  readily apparent."

- Henry Epp

Rutland's Community Cupboard serves more than 40 families a day

Rebekah Stephens, Executive Director of Rutland’s Community Cupboard said before COVID-19 they helped 20 families a day. After the pandemic hit that ramped up to 40 or 50.

Now that government unemployment assistance has run out, she says they’re seeing demand increase again.

"If you've ever seen a parent worry about whether or not their child is going to eat, there's definitely a look of, ‘OK, I don't want to be here, but….I'm glad you’re here and I need to do this right now,’” Stephens said.

Stephens said normally they’d ask locals to support the cupboard with donated food items – but she says with fewer volunteers on hand, virus concerns and the strains area grocery stores are already feeling – gifts of cash are what their nonprofit needs most. Additionally, she aid now through Sept. 30, Green Mountain Power will make a donation from its charitable fund for every cash donation made.

- Nina Keck

As parties convene virtually, do political conventions still matter?

Depsite the fact that the Republican and Democratic conventions are virtual this year and lack the cheering crowds and fanfare of past election seasons, a central purpose of the events remains.

Mia Costa, an assistant professor of Government at Dartmouth College, says the conventions are an important way for the parties to get their message across.

"Some people might say that conventions now are really just a publicity stunt, and while in effect that might sort of be true, it really is the moment in which parties can put forth their values, what's important to them," Costa said. "So it is kind of this important symbolic event."

The Democrats held their convention this week. The Republican convention will take place next week.

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

- Bob Kinzel

Some University of Vermont faculty, students concerned about reopening

The University of Vermont, along with state and city leaders, are expressing confidence that the school will be able to safely bring nearly 1,200 students back to campus amid concerns about possible outbreaks of COVID-19.

The university committed to bringing students back for in-person classes in April.

But a growing chorus of city residents, elected officials and some faculty and students are worried the university's plan, which includes weekly testing of students, isn't enough to keep the community safe.

UVM English Professor Nancy Welch said the reopening plan sets up students to fail.

"College is designed for intense social interactions and socialization, and it is unfair to put students in that situation and then turn around and say, 'We're going to blame and sanction you if you break these rules,'" Welch said.

Brandyn Falkofske is a third-year history and political science major. He said at first he was excited to return, but as coronavirus cases around the U.S. have spiked this summer, Falkofske says UVM should have reconsidered.

"I'm going to class. I'm going to be on campus. That's just gonna be what happens," he said. "But I guess... I'm not going to be surprised when UVM announces they're going online in three weeks."

Fall classes at the University of Vermont are set to begin on Aug. 31.

Read or listen to the full story.

- Liam Elder-Connors

Interest in Northeast Kingdom real estate is up

A Northeast Kingdom real estate broker said he's seeing a lot of interest from out-of-state buyers this summer. That's as people from larger cities around the Northeast look to move to Vermont, which has had lower rates of COVID-19 than surrounding states.

But the spike in interest is not yet translating into higher home prices in the Northeast Kingdom, according to Jim Campbell.

"We tend to buck the trends of other areas, where we don't have swings in our real estate prices," Campbell said. "We don't see big dips, but we also don't see big increases."

Campbell said he expects interest in Vermont housing to slow down once winter comes, but he admits its difficult to predict where the market might be headed.

He did say that, with the U.S.-Canada border closed, Canadian interest in second homes in the Northeast Kingdom has dipped.

Campbell said the border closure and an unfavorable exchange rate have led to the lack of interest from Canadians in Newport-area real estate.

"But what I am seeing is Canadians that have properties down here are looking to sell them, for the very same reasons: because they can't come and use them and they realize a pretty good increase in the amount of dollars they receive when they convert the U.S. to the Canadian dollar," he said.

The U.S.-Canada boder has been closed since March. Last week, the closure was extended through September 21.

Read or listen to the full story.

- Henry Epp

Vermont Audubon looks to confront racism in its history, culture

John James Audubon, the early 19th century naturalist and illustrator, was also a slave owner and racist.

This summer, members of the national society named for him have been looking for ways to move beyond that legacy.

At the Vermont chapter of the Audubon Society, minority students from the Vermont Law School were guests on a webinar about racism and the environmental movement.

David Mears, Audubon Vermont’s Executive Director, found their stories of exclusion compelling.

“As someone who's, you know, a straight white person who's been, you know, privileged, it feels like my challenge is to find the humility to, to really listen and let others lead,” Mears said.

The national Audubon Society has condemned Audubon's role as a slave owner and white supremacist. It says it has a responsibility to correct racial injustice by changing its own culture and practices.

- Betty Smith

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