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Vermont News Updates For Friday, September 11

A tall white church with sign that reads Refuse to Despair.
Sarah Priestap
/
For VPR
A message of encouragement is displayed in front of the Strafford Unitarian Universalist Church In South Strafford, VT on September 4, 2020. The Universalist Foundation of Strafford, founded in 1798, is the fourth oldest in the United States.

Vermont reporters provide a roundup of ongoing local coverage of the coronavirus and more for Friday, September 11.

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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 cases identified to date in the state to 1,668. Of the new cases, three were identified in Chittenden County, one in Windsor County, two in Washington County, one in Orleans County and wone in Orange County.

Vermont reported 30 new cases of COVID-19 over the past week, and only one person is currently hospitalized with the disease.

Vermont has now gone more than a month without a COVID-related death.

And Commissioner of Financial Regulation Michael Pieciak, whose department is in charge of COVID-19 modeling, says Vermont has the lowest coronavirus infection rate in the country.

“So certainly it’s always good to have low cases, but particularly good to be hitting this low-case period when K-12 is restarting, and higher education is restarting,” Pieciak said.

Pieciak said fewer than 40 college students have tested positive for COVID-19 since returning to campuses late last month.

The Department of Health Friday said that it isn’t aware of any cases related to the reopening of public schools.

To date, 148,575 people have been tested. There are currently 38 people being monitored as close contacts of confirmed cases.

Read the full story.

- Abagael Giles and Peter Hirschfeld

Correction 6:30 p.m.: This news item has been corrected to reflect Michaek Pieciak is the Commissioner of Financial Regulation, not the Health Commissioner.

Vermont House votes to allocate funding for proposed Climate Commission

The Vermont House has voted to allocate almost $600,000 to fund a new Climate Commission that's a key part of a proposed Global Warming bill.

That legislation calls for a 26% reduction in carbon emissions by 2025 and an 80% reduction by 2050.

And it creates a special commission to help achieve these goals.

South Burlington Rep. Maida Townshend says the money will be used to fund three essential positions:

“These are a staff director for the Council, a data analyst with expertise in greenhouse gas emission measurement, verification, and mitigation and an attorney with regulatory expertise,” Townshend said.

Gov. Scott said he will likely veto the climate legislation. But there might be enough votes in the House and Senate to override the veto.

- Bob Kinzel

More from VPR: Unpacking Vermont's Newest Climate Change Legislation

Health Commissioner calls for Vermonters to get flu vaccine

Commissioner of Health Mark Levine reiterated his plea Friday for Vermonters to get the flu vaccine this fall.

Levine said the flu vaccine will soon be available at pharmacies and clinics across the state.

And he said the coronavirus pandemic makes it even more important to get inoculated against the flu this year.

“Getting the flu and COVID-19 at the same time or in succession could be devastating, and certainly won’t be fun,” Levine said.

Levine said it’s especially important for school-age children to get the flu vaccine.

Read the full story.

- Peter Hirschfeld

Governor extends state of emergency into October

Gov. Phil Scott has extended the state of emergency in Vermont until at least October 15.

The previous emergency order was set to expire next week.

But Scott said it will need to stay in place as Vermont continues to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.

“This is the vehicle that allows us to manage and continue to suppress this virus, and make sure supports for workers and families remain available, things like unemployment benefits and the eviction moratorium,” Scott said.

The emergency order has also allowed Scott to impose restrictions on schools and businesses.

Scott said he plans to ease some restrictions on the hospitality sector as soon as next week.

Vermont has been under state of emergency since March.

Read the full story.

- Peter Hirschfeld

Officials say there are no active COVID-19 cases on Vt. college campuses

Health officials say there are zero known active cases of COVID-19 on college and university campuses in Vermont.

So far, 38 students have tested positive for the disease since returning to campus last month.

However, Richard Schneider, head of Vermont’s college reopening task force, said all of them have recovered and are out of quarantine.

“We are the safest college place to go to school in America, and also the safest place for our communities that are hosting colleges in America,” Schneider said.

Schneider said high-volume testing and rigorous quarantine protocols have helped suppress the coronavirus at Vermont colleges and universities.

Gov. Phil Scott said the successful college reopening will lead to relaxed capacity restriction in the hospitality sector.

Read the full story.

- Peter Hirschfeld

Burlington City Council to weigh exploring possible safe injection site

On Monday, the Burlington City Council  will consider taking steps towards setting up safe injection site.

The renewed effort comes as fatal opioid overdoses in Vermont have increased this year.

Similar programs in other countries like Canada, have been shown to help reduce opioid fatalities. The sites, which allow people to use drugs without legal repercussions, have staff available to provide medical assistance if someone overdoses and to connect people to treatment.

In 2018, the Burlington City Council floated the idea, but it didn’t get far – in part because some city leaders were concerned about legal challenges. But last year, a federal judge in Philadelphia ruled that that a non-profit in that city could open a safe injection site — the first in the United States.

The resolution the council is considering Monday night would direct the city attorney to conduct a legal analysis of opening a site. It would also ask the city’s opioid policy manager and the Howard Center to create a plan for operating such a program.

Both groups would present their findings to the council in November.

- Liam Elder-Connors

Governor aims to ease lodging restrictions ahead of foliage season

Gov. Phil Scott said Friday that he’s planning to ease restrictions on Vermont's lodging industry in advance of the fall foliage season.

Hotels, inns and other lodging businesses are currently limited to operating at no more than 50% of total room capacity.

But Scott said the low prevalence of COVID-19 in Vermont could soon allow for more tourist traffic.

“If our numbers remain good once we get through school opening and college return, we’ll continue to open that spigot a bit more,” Scott said.

Scott said more permissive allowances for lodging businesses could be coming as soon as next week.

Scott said Vermont’s hospitality sector has been among the hardest hit by COVID-19.

Read the full story.

- Peter Hirschfeld

Health Commissioner says Vermont will carefully vet any vaccine

Commissioner of Health Mark Levine says his department won’t distribute a COVID-19 vaccine in Vermont unless it’s proven to be safe and effective.

New polling indicates that Americans are losing faith in the federal Centers for Disease Control.

But Levine said the CDC won’t have the final word on whether a vaccine is safe for Vermonters.

“I want to make it quite clear that the Vermont Health Department is keeping a close watch on the vaccine development process to be sure that we can trust that politics do not trump science,” Levine said.

Levine said he won’t allow for the distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine unless it’s recommended by the Advisory Center on Immunization Practices.

Levine said a planning group is already working on a distribution process for the vaccine, once it becomes available.

Read the full story.

- Peter Hirschfeld

Fifth-generation Rutland dairy business to close

After almost a century in the milk business, Rutland-based Thomas Dairy will shut down next month.

Abbey Thomas is a fifth generation owner. She said sales collapsed this spring when colleges, schools and restaurants closed. The company hired a consultant to find a buyer but was unsuccessful.

“It certainly was a terribly difficult decision to face but the financial impact we have endured as result of this COVID pandemic has proven to be the ultimately un-formidable outcome that we're facing,” Thomas said.

Thomas said the family wants to help their employees, and they're trying to find new customers for the three farms that now supply the milk.

Read the full story.

- John Dillon

Next week is Emerald Ashborer Awareness Week

The Emerald Ash Borer beetle has now been confirmed in eight of Vermont's 14 counties.

But pockets of serious infestation still add up to only 7% of Vermont land area.

So next week, events across the state have been scheduled to help manage and perhaps even slow the spread down.

Ginger Nickerson is Forest Education coordinator for Vermont Urban and Community Forestry Program.

"The point of Emerald Ash Borer Awareness Week is to raise awareness for municipalities and for residents and landowners to start thinking about how they're going to plan for dealing with this pest as ash trees start to die," Nickerson said.

More information and an Emerald Ash Borer Awareness Week toolkit is available online, here.

- Betty Smith

Burlington's mayor seeks to add social workers to police department

Burlington's mayor wants to add two social workers to the city's police department to help respond to calls around homelessness, mental health and the opioid crisis.

Mayor Miro Weinberger said the city can pay for the positions using money from the "police transformation fund" that was part of this year's budget.

Weinberger said the police department already has one social worker on staff - and the additional two positions would allow them to handle more calls.

"Generally, responding to mental health crises, mental health events, mental health calls with a different capacity than sending in a sworn officer to respond or having a sworn officer taking the lead," Weinberger said.

The proposal comes in the midst of almost three weeks of daily racial justice protests in the city.

While ongoing protests have largely centered around calls for the firing of three Burlington cops involved in cases of alleged brutality, the demands also included other policing reforms, like increasing use of body cameras.

- Liam Elder-Connors

Maine-based recovery and harm reduction advocate has died

The man who received national attention for starting a mobile needle distribution program in Maine has died.

The Portland Press Herald reports that Jesse Harvey died of a possible drug overdose. Harvey, a recovery coach, distributed needles out of his car in what he dubbed the Church of Safe Injection.

That program was shut down by state and law enforcement officials because it was illegal. Harvey also founded Journey House, which operates four recovery houses in southern and central Maine.

Ashley Reny is the executive director.

"Everybody is just really sad to hear the news. I think whether being a part of Journey House or not, he was very well-known in the state of Maine as a whole to many people in recovery," Reny said.

Reny said she became executive director after Harvey stepped down due to personal challenges. She said recovery is a constant challenge.

Jesse Harvey was 28-years-old.

- The New England News Collaborative

Vermont Pride Week to feature live-stream artists showcase Sunday

Vermont Pride Week concludes Sunday with a live-stream showcase of regional artists drawn from both the BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities.

The event is the result of a new partnership between the Pride Center of Vermont and JAG Productions of White River Junction.

Jarvis Green, JAG’s Founder, regards the joint effort as both natural and timely.

“We are living in a world where Black and brown bodies are being threatened on a daily basis. And so it is important that we are centering and celebrating and bringing focus to Black and brown LGBTQ folks,” Green said.

Performances will range from burlesque to poetry, and from spoken word to song. The event starts at 7 p.m. on Sept. 13.

- Betty Smith

Rutland dairy processor to close after nearly 100 years

Rutland's family-owned dairy processor Thomas Dairy will shut down after nearly 100 years in business

An email from the company Thursday stated: “With gratitude, pride and very heavy hearts, we have made the difficult but necessary decision to close Thomas Dairy at the end of this month."

The Rutland Herald reports that Abbey Thomas, co-owner and director of marketing at Thomas Dairy, said October 1 will be the last day the processor is in operation. After that it will begin the process of selling several-hundred-acres of land, and dairy farming equipment.

Thomas said the business employs about 30 people.

- Sam Gale Rosen

Vermont House passes state budget for 2021

The Vermont House has overwhelmingly passed the 2021 budget. It's a $1.8 billion spending plan that is balanced with the help of about $850 million in federal coronavirus relief funds.

Danville Democrat Kitty Toll chairs the House Appropriations Committee. She said the budget preserves social service programs and includes money to help the state college system stay open.

"This budget is balanced," Toll said. "It keeps reserves in place for capacity building for unknowns in January. It is a steady state budget during an uncertain time."

The Senate has not yet passed its version of the budget. When it does, any differences will be resolved by a conference committee.

- John Dillon

Vermont's rental relief program aims to prevent evictions this winter

Vermont's rental relief program is paying landlords for back rent now and helping tenants avoid costly evictions in the future.

The $25 million program pays out unpaid rent to property owners - in exchange, landlords must hald eviction proceedings and freeze rent for six months.

Richard Williams with the Vermont State Housing Authority told Vermont Edition that paying back rent is easing a backlog of evictions pending in court.

"We're starting to see stipulations coming through, which keeps the family in their home, gets this eviction off their back, [so] that they can move forward," Williams said.

Evictions are on hold during the pandemic, but can resume 30 days after Vermont's state of emergency officially ends.

The current state of emergency expires Oct. 15.

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

- Matthew Smith

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