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Vermont News Updates For Tuesday, August 25

Mask in city park calls for social distancing
Abagael Giles
/
VPR
A sign asks visitors to practice social distancing, wear masks at Pomeroy Park in Burlington.

Vermont reporters provide a roundup of ongoing local coverage of the coronavirus, new supplemental stimulus checks and more for Tuesday, August 25.

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The latest coronavirus data:

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Vermont Department of Health Reports seven new cases of COVID-19

The Vermont Department of Health reported seven new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday. So far 1,572 cases have been identified in Vermont. Of the new cases announced today, four were identified in Chittenden County and three were identified in Windham County.

There are currently three people hospitalized with the disease in Vermont and ten people are hospitalized with symptoms under investigation. So far, 58 people have died. No new deaths were announced today.

The state has now tested 122,078 people, and 57 people are being monitored as close contacts of confirmed cases.

- Abagael Giles

Protesters call for action against Caledonia County Sherrif's deputy accused of sexual misconduct

Protesters are demanding action against a Caledonia County Sherrif’s deputy accused of sexual misconduct and extortion. 

The Vermont Department of State’s Attorneys issued a statement Tuesday in response to calls for the firing of Deputy Steve Bunnell, who allegedly gave an accused female drug dealer favors in exchange for nude photos.

In the statement, the State’s Attorneys office said they are following proper procedure before making any decisions on termination. 

Deputy Bunnell was placed on administrative leave when allegations of misconduct first became known.

- Karen Anderson

 

Health Department weighs benefits of mandating flu vaccines for return to school

Health Commissioner Mark Levine says his department is considering a plan to add flu shots to the mandatory list of vaccines that students must have to attend public school.

Currently there's a list of five vaccines that are required, including measles, mumps and rubella.

The state of Massachusetts has just announced plans to add a flu shot to their mandatory list.

Levine said his office is considering adopting the Massachusetts approach.

“If there's a safe and effective vaccine that everyone would benefit from having, maybe Massachusetts isn't too far off,” Levine said. “But I just don't know yet. We have to research further before we could give a final answer. We're certainly looking into it. Absolutely."   

Vermont allows students to have a medical or religious exemption to the vaccination law.

- Liam Elder-Connors

House, Senate remain divided over aspects of legalizing cannabis sales

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson said House and Senate negotiators have strong disagreements on how to tax and regulate marijuana sales.

Both chambers have passed the bill, and a conference committee has met twice to iron out differences. But they remain divided on tax rates and whether a saliva test should be used to detect impaired drivers. Johnson said the issues can still be resolved during the month-long session.

“At this point, it is really is up to the conferees that are deep in the weeds of the differences between the two,” Johnson said. “It's not a secret that this bill has not been the thing that I think is the most important thing for Vermonters to do right now. It is very important to a broad range of legislators.”

One major point of contention is that House negotiators insist that the bill include a provision allowing police to stop drivers if they're not wearing a seatbelt. The senators say the seatbelt issue is a deal-killer.

More from VPR: Seatbelt Issue Stalls Cannabis Bill, Coalition Calls For Racial Justice Provisions

- John Dillon

Burlington's City Council approves future litigation against CityPlace developers

The Burlington City Council has approved future litigation against the developers of the stalled downtown mall project.

Councilors voted last night Monday to allow the city to the hire an outside law firm and pursue “all legal remedies” if negotiations with the developers of CityPlace Burlington fail.

City Councilor Brian Pine said it’s the right time to take this step.

“The action tonight I think is important for the city council, the administration to present a united front and do what we need to do to protect the public’s interest, which is really what we’re looking out for here,” Pine said.

The potential litigation comes as Don Sinex, the original developer of the project, took control again from his partner in the venture Brookfield Properties. Sinex failed to get the project under construction for two years.

The city has alleged that Brookfield broke its promises to restart work on the mall when it abruptly announced it was selling its shares of the property back to Sinex.

- Liam Elder-Connors

 

Agency of Education distributes protective equipment ahead of schools reopening

The Vermont Agency of Education is distributing protective equipment and hand sanitizer to schools ahead of the resumption of in-person classes.

K-12 schools are set to resume on Sept. 8 – a delayed started date. Most districts are using a hybrid model, where students are only in the classroom a few days a week and the remaining days are remote.

Education Secretary Dan French said this week the state is giving all schools two gallons of hand sanitizer, some cloth facial coverings and other personal protective equipment.

“To make sure nurses and designated staff are prepped to respond to a potential presumptive case inside a school. These kits include surgical gowns, face shields surgical masks and gloves,” French said.

French said the agency of education is working with the health department to make sure school nurses know how to use and maintain the protective equipment.

- Liam Elder-Connors

 

Vermont continues to have lowest rate of COVID-19 in country

Vermont continues to have the lowest rate of COVID-19 activity in the country.

Heath Commissioner Mark Levine says the state has very few new cases compared to other regions and the percent positivity rate is under 1 percent.

But Levine says despite the good news, the coronavirus is still active in Vermont.

“The data confirms again while our gains continue, thanks in large part to the efforts people are taking to protect themselves and others, the virus is still very present and widespread through the state,” Levine said.

The health department reported seven new cases of COVID-19 Tuesday. Four were in Chittenden County and three were in Windam County.

- Liam Elder-Connors

Gov. Scott expects there will be outbreaks associated with college parties

Gov. Phil Scott says despite restrictions of large gatherings, he expects there will be clusters of coronavirus cases connected to college parties.

Colleges around the country have experienced large outbreaks of COVID-19 that have been connected to parties.

Scott said that while limits on social gatherings are reasonable, not all students will follow those rules.

“That’s why the colleges and universities have such a huge burden on them, to make sure they take appropriate actions when they see infractions of their restrictions and guidelines,” Scott said.

State health officials say they're monitoring the return of students over the coming weeks to keep an eye out for spikes in coronavirus cases.

- Liam Elder-Connors

Castleton Select Board to limit social gatherings following stabbing

The Castleton Select Board will vote next week on a resolution to limit social gatherings to 25 people in an effort to curb college partying after three people were stabbed last Friday.

WCAX reported the incident happened late Friday night at an off-campus party.  The alleged offender pleaded not guilty Monday to three counts of aggravated assault.

Police describe the location as an off-campus party attended by Castleton University students. When they arrived at the scene, police say they saw 50 to 75 students leaving the party.

- Karen Anderson

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services cancels layoff of 13,000 workers

US Citizenship and Immigration Services has canceled its scheduled furlough of more than 13,000 workers — about 70% of its workforce.

Senator Patrick Leahy announced the decision Tuesday.

The furloughs were originally scheduled for the beginning of this month but were postponed to August 31.

- Karen Anderson
 

DMV offices in South Burlington, Barre, Rutland to reopen for in-person appointments

The Department of Motor Vehicles locations in three cities will allow for in-person appointments next week for the first time since the pandemic began.

The DMV says its offices in South Burlington, Montpelier and Rutland will reopen on August 31st.

DMV Commissioner Wanda Minoli says people are to schedule appointments ahead of time.

“Appointments will be  scheduled beginning at 8 a.m. and ending at 4 p.m.,” Minoli said. “Customers with appointments, we are asking that you arrive ten minutes early before your appointment, so the DMV staff can review and verify all your required paperwork is completed.”

Minoli said the DMV will see how the reopening of these three offices goes before allow other locations to schedule in-person appointments.

- Liam Elder-Connors

 

Legislature returns to finalize state budget

The Legislature is back in session this week to finish the state budget, and lawmakers are less worried about this year than they are about a revenue shortfall next year.

House Speaker Mitzi Johnson said a combination of strong tax returns and federal COVID relief funds will help lawmakers balance the budget this fall. She said Congress may step in with another aid package for the states that would help in next year's budget plans, but she's not counting on it.

“In terms of any new federal money, we're not relying on it,” Johnson said. “We can't build a budget on a wish, right? It has to be on what we know and what we can count on.”

Johnson said addressing health and safety issues from the COVID pandemic remains the top priority for lawmakers.

- John Dillon  

 

Legislature to examine plan to distribute buy-local cards

Lawmakers plan to take a close look at Gov. Phil Scott's plan to distribute $150 dollar buy-local cards to every household in the state.

The $50 million dollar program is designed to help local stores and restaurants that have seen their revenues crash during the pandemic. The House Commerce Committee will take testimony this week on the plan. Newport Republican Michael Marcotte chairs the panel, and said he was skeptical at first.

“If we were to put that amount of money in play, we would want to make sure that it goes in play in Vermont, not to online purchases for Amazon or any of the other online companies, but that the money stays in Vermont to simulate our economy…” Marcotte said. “So we will be taking a really hard look at that.”

The Legislature is back in session through the end of September to finish the 2021 budget, including COVID-19 economic relief plans.

- John Dillon

Upper Valley Aquatic Center provides space for remote learning pods

With a ventilation system designed for large, indoor spaces, the Upper Valley Aquatic Center is offering to host grade school students stuck at home during the pandemic.

They're inviting third-through-fifth graders to form two separate remote learning pods at the swimming center.

Students will work online with their regular teachers while two adult monitors assist on site. One local public school student whose family has chosen their school's full-time remote option has signed on.

Hours would resemble the usual school day, and after-school activities, like swimming lessons, are available to help working parents.

Matthew Young, customer service director at the Center, came up with the idea.

“I don't know if I would consider it innovative,” Young said. “There was a need and I think innovation comes from need. So, yes, in part, it is innovative and in part, it was an obvious choice.”

The center hopes to maintain the service until schools fully reopen.

- Betty Smith

State Parks director to step down after 14 years

Retiring Vermont State Parks director Craig Whipple says that interest in the State Parks system has been growing.

Whipple has spent 14 years as the State Parks director. He said the COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating interest in spending time outdoors, but the trend predates the pandemic.

“There's been about a 40% increase in visitation in the past 10 years. It's attributable to a number of factors. I think it's not uncommon across the country. I think there's a resurgence in the value and appreciation of outdoor recreation," Whipple said.

Whipple predicts that appreciation will continue to grow after COVID-19 passes, and visitation will continue to increase.

Read or listen to the full story.

- Sam Gale Rosen

University of Vermont students return to campus

University of Vermont students begin returning to their residence halls this week.

Normally students arrive on campus during the weekends, but this year it will occur over several days beginning today.

Students must receive a negative test for COVID-19 before they arrive on campus. They will be tested when they arrive and weekly until mid-September.

- The Associated Press

 

Debate over discussing race in school leads to new policy in Springfield

The Springfield School Board wants to develop a new policy that provides guidance to teachers who are introducing controversial issues in the classroom.

The board announced the new policy after a parent filed a complaint about how a book on racism and police brutality was taught in his son's third grade class.

At a recent school board meeting, parent Riccardo Dorceley said his kids have dealt with racism in Springfield schools.

"Sometimes, they come home crying, and sometimes they come home just tough as steel because they're not going to let it get to them. It sucks," Dorceley said. "But it's the world that we live in, and the only way we can make it any better is if we are unafraid of having these uncomfortable conversations."

School board member Michael Griffin said parents should have a say in how morals are taught in the classroom.

"I'm not saying we can't still teach it, but we at least got to inform the parents [that] this is what we're doing, and why, and let them be part of the conversation," Griffin said. "Because it's their kids, not the school district's kids."

Superintendent Zach McLaughlin said it will be very hard to have a district-wide policy on which books can be used, and when parents should be able to decide if their kids should take part in a lesson.

Read the full story.

- Howard Weiss-Tisman

Vermont to issue supplemental unemployment checks through FEMA fund

The state of Vermont is getting ready to issue supplemental checks to many of the 40,000 Vermonters who received unemployment benefits in the month of August.

Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington says most people who are unemployed due to the COVID-19 pandemic will receive an additional $300 per week in each of the next three weeks.

Harrington said the money is part of President Trump's plan to use $44 billion from the FEMA Disaster Relief Fund and that program as very short term solution.

"Right now, FEMA is only approving up to the first three weeks of the program and then will allow states to apply for additional funding after those first three weeks, should there still be money left over," Harrington said.

Harrington said the plan is subject to legislative approval and he hopes the first checks will be sent out in the next two weeks.

- Bob Kinzel

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