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Vermont News Updates For Friday, September 18

A hand sanitizing sign and bottle of hand sanitizer
Shanta Lee Gander
/
For VPR
Hand sanitizer is put out for customers at the Incurable Romantic gift shop in Wilmington.

Vermont reporters provide a roundup of ongoing local coverage of the coronavirus, expanded capacity for restaurants and lodging establishments and more for Friday, September 18.

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The latest coronavirus data:

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Health Department reports two new COVID-19 cases

The Vermont Department of Health identified two new cases of COVID-19 Friday. Both cases are in Chittenden County. Another 891 people tested negative for the coronavirus.

The total number of COVID-19 cases in Vermont is 1,706. 

Three people are currently hospitalized with the disease, and 58 people have died. Some 1,536 people have recovered from COVID-19 in the state.

- Karen Anderson

Gov. announces expanded capacity at restaurants, lodging

Gov. Phil Scott announced Friday that restaurants and hotels can expand operations to allow more customers, citing the low-prevalence of the coronavirus in Vermont. 

The easing of restrictions comes as tourism for fall foliage is expected to pick up.

Starting Friday, hotels can now rent all their rooms. And Scott says restaurants can now seat people at the bar.

“Meaning food and drink service can take place at the counter if the restaurant has one, but there needs to be a minimum of 6 feet between parties, and a lexan barrier between the customers and the staff behind the counter,” Scott said.

But the governor says even with the easing of restrictions, the hospitality sector won’t be able to make up all its lost revenue. He says his administration is launching a new program to help business find ways to navigate the pandemic.

Read the full story.

- Liam Elder-Connors

U.S.-Canada border to remain closed another month as Quebec cases rise

The U.S. border with Canada will remain closed to non-essential travel for another month.  The extension was announced today, and is in effect until Oct. 21. 

The restrictions were first announced on March 18 and have been extended each month since. Canada has seen an uptick in COVID-19 cases in recent weeks, and police across Quebec will monitor bars and restaurants to ensure COVID-19 rules are being followed.

According to the CBC, the operation will target 1,000 businesses, and those who do not meet compliance may face fines. Emergency rules put in place during the pandemic prohibit dancing in bars and serving food and alcohol after midnight.

The province urged Quebecers to limit private gatherings after several regions were classified as "yellow" zones under the government's COVID-19 coding system. 

Last week, provincial officials implemented fines for those not wearing a mask in indoor public spaces.

- Karen Anderson

More from VPR: Reporter Debrief: COVID-19 Cases Tick Up In Quebec, Premier Threatens A Lockdown

Labor Commissioner says federal unemployment rate for Vermont doesn't capture full reality

According to the U.S. government, Vermont now has an unemployment rate of 4.8%, but state officials say this number doesn't reflect reality.

Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington says that during the pandemic, the state has lifted the requirement that an unemployed person actively seek another job.

But Harrington says the federal government doesn't count this group of people as being unemployed, and that Vermont's true unemployment rate is closer to 10%.

"For the first time in a long time or in recent history, the number of people receiving unemployment insurance benefits is actually higher than the number of people who are detached from the labor force,” Harrington said.

Vermont's tourism and service industry continue to see the largest job losses due to the pandemic.

- Bob Kinzel 

Gov. Phil Scott indicates likely signature of marijuana tax and regulate bill

Gov. Phil Scott is indicating that he'll likely sign the so-called "tax and regulate" marijuana bill when it reaches his desk.

The House has just passed the legislation and the Senate is scheduled to consider it soon.

Under the bill, the state would regulate and tax marijuana much in the same way it deals with alcohol and tobacco products.

Scott has insisted that the bill include strong driver impairment provisions, and he says he thinks lawmakers have listened to his concerns.

“They've come a long ways,” Scott said. “I'll be considering that when we do receive the bill. We haven't received it yet, but I'll consider that.”

The bill calls for an overall tax rate of 20% on all retail marijuana products.

- Bob Kinzel

Scott administration defends the Vermont institution of creemees

Members of Gov. Phil Scott’s administration, in a light-hearted detour during Friday’s COVID-19 update, assured Vermonters that creemees are indeed dairy products.

This is the second time soft-serve ice cream has made an appearance at a gubernatorial brief this week. On Tuesday, Scott invited Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's leading expert on COVID-19, to visit Vermont and sample a maple creemee.

During that press conference, a reporter claimed that creemees were not actually dairy products, leading Scott to call Secretary of Agriculture Anson Tebbetts to the stage on Friday to set the record straight.

“Our extensive modeling shows Vermont creemees are made with a base of milk, cream, sugar and natural stabilizers,” Tebbetts said. “Again not too complicated — milk, sugar, cream.”

Tebbetts says his agency has more than 670 frozen dessert licenses on file – which he says means you can get a creemee almost anywhere in the state.

Read the full story.

- Liam Elder-Connors

Chittenden County State's Attorney says bail harms poor, Black and brown people

Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George says her decision this week to no longer recommend cash bail for defendants will improve the criminal justice system.

George says bail typically harms poor people, who struggle to pay it and remain in custody while awaiting trial, while others are able to post bail and be released.

She says limiting the use of bail will make for a fairer system.

"Our system already disproportionately impacts Black and brown people and poor people, and the bail system just makes that even worse,” George said.

Judges ultimately determine whether to set bail for a defendant, so bail may still be used in Chittenden County, even if it’s no longer recommended by prosecutors.

Read/listen to the full story.

- Henry Epp

Public Safety Commissioner overturns state police transparency policy

Public Safety Commissioner Michael Schirling has overruled a Vermont State Police transparency policy and is now blocking state troopers from releasing names of juveniles in any kind of cases.

The Brattleboro Reformer reports that the directive from Schirling came one day after the Vermont State Police followed its own longstanding transparency policy to identify a 16-year-old driver from Atlanta, Georgia, who troopers say crossed the center line on Route 7 in Charlotte and killed an elderly Ferrisburgh couple last week.

- Sam Gale Rosen

Threat of vote-by-mail fraud "nonexistent" according to election officials

As Vermont prepares for an election with universal mail-in voting, election officials say the threat of election fraud is almost “nonexistent.”

Montpelier City Clerk John Odum has attended technology conferences and trainings focused on election integrity, and he tells Vermont Edition that data from other states’ mail-in voting programs, and Vermont’s experience from the August primary, gives him confidence going into November.

“You know, we’ve got the results. We’ve got the numbers,” Odum said. “Numbers don’t lie. We’ve got a sense of exactly what the fraud issues are with this system, and they are negligible to nonexistent.”

Mail-in ballots for the November election will go out to all active, registered Vermont voters next week.

Listen to the full conversation.

- Matthew Smith

More from VPR: A Guide To Voting In Vermont For The 2020 General Election

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