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Vermont News Updates For Monday, September 21

Diners socially distance outside of a restaurant
Shanta Lee Gander
/
For VPR
At the Artisan Restaurant, Tavern Garden at the Four Columns Inn in Newfane, once customers pick up their food orders on the deck while wearing a mask, they are asked to clear their tables upon finishing their meal.

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

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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 Monday, with one new case each identified in Bennington, Washington, Lamoille and Orange counties. To date, 1,719 people have tested positive for the disease in Vermont.

There are currently two people hospitalized with confirmed cases in Vermont, and one person is hospitalized with symptoms under investigation. So far, 1,557 people are known to have recovered.

The state has now tested 156,739 people for active cases of COVID-19, and 41 people are being monitored as close contacts of confirmed cases.

No new deaths were announced Monday. Since March, 58 people have died in Vermont after contracting the virus.

- Abagael Giles

Vermont to see additional $10.5 million from ongoing tobacco settlement

The state of Vermont will get an additional $10.5 million as part of an ongoing settlement with tobacco companies.

The agreement is connected to a larger consumer protection case that Vermont and other states settled with four major tobacco companies in 1998. It requires the companies to pay states each year and bans tobacco companies from practices like marketing cigarettes to youth.

But the 1998 agreement also requires states, like Vermont, to enforce those standards against smaller companies that aren’t part of the settlement — or else the big tobacco companies can dispute their payments.

Rather than risk a dispute, the state has reached an agreement in which the tobacco companies acknowledge Vermont is enforcing the standards across the board in exchange for a reduced payment.

Jamie Renner is with the Vermont Attorney General's Office

“We’ve negotiated with other states and those tobacco companies to bring 75-cents to the dollar to Vermont now,” Renner said.

The $10.5 million will be paid over three years. According to Attorney General TJ Donovan, this new money, along with about $24 million Vermont gets each year from the main settlement agreement, will go towards public health initiatives.  

“But the bottom line is this: We’re bringing in $10.5 million on top of $24 million to go to public health to keep Vermonters safe,” Donovan said.

In 2018, Donovan’s office got $28 million after settling a series of similar cases with tobacco companies.

- Liam Elder-Connors

Williamstown schools close following confirmed case of COVID-19

Williamstown Middle and High School was closed to students Monday after a confirmed positive case of COVID-19 was reported over the weekend.

According to NBC 5, in a letter to families, Principal Gary Clark said a member of the school's learning community tested positive with the coronavirus. It's not clear whether that person is a student or a teacher or staff member.

The middle and high school building was closed Monday so crews could clean. 

Students in eighth-through-twelfth grades will learn virtually for the remainder of the week, while students in sixth and seventh grades will return to school Tuesday because they are housed in a different area.

- Karen Anderson

Chittenden County Democratic Senator Ingram endorses Republican Scott Milne

In last month's primary election, Chittenden County Senator Debbie Ingram lost her bid to become the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor.

Now, Ingram is urging her supporters to vote for the Republican candidate in the general election.

Democrat Ingram and Republican Scott Milne are on opposite sides of issues like a $15 dollar minimum wage and mandatory paid family leave.

But in an unexpected move on Monday, Ingram threw her support behind the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor.

"Although I have been a lifelong Democrat and am still a Democrat, I believe that Mr. Milne is the best person for this important position at this time," Ingram said.

Ingram said Milne's business experience and economic proposals will help Vermont bounce back from COVID-19.

Milne faces Democrat Molly Gray in the November election.

Gray may not have Ingram's support. But she has been endorsed by the state's highest-profile Democrats, including Sen. Patrick Leahy and Congressman Peter Welch.

- Peter Hirschfeld

Vermont State Police identify human remains found one year ago

After one year of investigating, Vermont State Police say they have identified the human remains found in a gravel pit in Searsburg.

Using DNA analysis and other tools, police say they have identified the victim as 43 year old Jessica Hildenbrandt of Ballston Spa, New York. She had spent a lot of time in the Bennington area and had last been in touch with her family in July 2019, police said.

Her remains were discovered in September 2019. Hildenbrandt's death is considered a homicide. The investigation is ongoing, but police say there is no threat to public safety.

- Mark Davis

Quebec reports biggest one-day jump in cases since May

The Province of Quebec reported 586 new cases of COVID-19 on Monday, the highest daily increase since May.

According to CBC News, the province's two largest cities, Quebec and Montreal, were put under moderate alert Sunday. That's the second-highest level in the regional system for categorizing the danger posed by COVID-19.

Provincial health officials say Quebec has hit a second wave of the virus. They've announced several new public health rules for the alert zones. Private gatherings are limited to no more than six people; bars and restaurants must stop serving alcohol at 11 p.m.; and no more than 25 people may attend events like weddings and religious services.

- Karen Anderson

Cross-state travel map to be updated ahead of foliage season

The Scott Administration says the next four-to-six weeks will be a critical time for the state's tourism industry, and that's one of the reasons it's updating its Vermont travel map.

The map lists all of the counties in the Northeast and the Middle Atlantic states and assigns them a color.

If the county has an infection rate similar to Vermont, it's colored green. However, if the rate is significantly higher, then it's identified as being yellow or red.

Any person from a yellow or red county must quarantine for a week and have a negative COVID test, or quarantine for two weeks before coming to Vermont.

Gov. Scott is urging visitors to follow these rules.

“So while we look forward to welcoming all who are following those travel policies, if you're from a county in the red or yellow please follow the quarantine guidelines or stay home,” Scott said.

The map can be found at accd.vermont.gov.

- Bob Kinzel  

Vt. ski areas ask skiers to be flexible

The pandemic has cost the state’s ski resorts around $100 million, so industry experts say this year will be crucial.

Resorts are planning different approaches to reducing volume on the slopes and inside lodges.

Jay Peak General Manager Steve Wright said Canadians make up 50% of their business, and with the border closed, their volume will already be way down. 

While that’s hard on the resort's bottom line, Wright said it may be a selling point to skiers and riders concerned about crowds.

“We're saying to our season pass holders, you do not need to make any reservation. We're saying to our day ticket purchases that you can you should feel free to arrive on the day of and buy your ticket,” Wright said. “Our expectation is that there will be plenty of room to spread out here at the mountain this year.”

According to Ski Vermont, skiing and riding is a $1.6 billion industry for the state.

Read the full story.

- Nina Keck

Vermont's Commerce Secretary calls for expansion of 'Buy Vermont' pilot program

The Scott Administration hopes to convince lawmakers to use $50 million in federal coronavirus relief funds to launch a major "Buy Vermont" retail store campaign in the coming weeks.

Commerce Secretary Lindsay Kurrle said the success of a recent pilot program demonstrates the value of the plan.

In the pilot program, Vermonters were encouraged to apply for a $30 debit card that could only be redeemed at a Vermont business.

Kurrle said the $500,000 allocated for the pilot program was snapped up in less than a day.

Now she wants all Vermont households to receive a $150 card.  She said it's a great way to pump

“We can control the money and make sure that it goes to only Vermont businesses,” Kurrle said. “And it also can then be accessed by Vermont residents as consumers."  

Kurrle said she hopes the Senate will back the proposal sometime this week.

- Bob Kinzel

 

Gov. Scott vetoes new Global Warming bill

Gov. Phil Scott says he believes the fate of a proposed Global Warming bill will ultimately be decided by the courts.

Scott vetoed the bill, in part, because it calls on a 23-member commission to draft policies to help the state meet its target emission goals.

The legislation calls for an emission reduction of 26% by 2025 and 40% by 2030.

Scott said it's wrong to let an unelected group of people make policy decisions that will affect the entire state.

“I would assume somebody is going to question the constitutionality of the bill, which again, I think they're on firm ground in doing so,” Scott said. “This plan should go back to the Legislature to be approved and then it should have some oversight from the governor to make sure that it's the right approach for Vermont." 

The Senate is expected to override the Governor's veto early this week.

- Bob Kinzel

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

Vermont officials say outbreak at Mississippi prison is over

Vermont state officials say a massive outbreak of COVID-19 among Vermont inmates held at a private prison in Mississippi is now over.

One-hundred-and-eighty-five inmates – more than 80% of the Vermont prisoners held at Tallahatchie County Correctional Facility – were infected by the coronavirus.

Secretary of Human Services Mike Smith says almost all of the Vermont inmates are now in recovery.

Smith said the Mississippi inmates will be tested again on Sept. 28, as part of the state’s strategy to conduct regular mass testing at all correctional facilities.

Smith said the state is also working with CoreCivic, the company that runs the Mississippi prison, to make sure health measures are being followed.

“We are still in discussions with CoreCivic to make sure we don’t have spread from other parts of that facility,” Smith said.

Smith said the state will have access to the prison’s internal cameras to monitor compliance.

- Liam Elder-Connors

Federal government takes Vermont to task for service to Medicare patients

Vermont’s healthcare reform system has missed important participation targets for two years in a row, and the federal government has put the state on notice.

Agency of Human Services Secretary Mike Smith said the healthcare model, known as OneCare, needs an overhaul.

“The Vermont all-payer-accountable care organization model agreement that we have has been named as innovative, but that’s in theory. And we need to be better at operationalizing this model,” Smith said.

The US Department of Health and Human Services sent the state a letter last week and said federal support could be pulled if Vermont doesn’t do a better job serving Medicare patients.

- Howard Weiss-Tisman

Wondering how dry your firewood is? Head to the library.

There's a gadget about the size of your hand that can measure the moisture content of firewood.

And thanks to Vermont's Department of Environmental Conservation, 48 libraries around the state now have them available to loan.

Barbara Ball is the Library Director in Windsor.

“I think this is very consistent with the way libraries are headed in general; things like this that can be shared that, you know, a person does not need to own,” Ball said. “But it's so incredibly useful to be able to borrow it and just check your firewood.”

Burning wood with a high moisture content isn't good for one's health, pocketbook or the environment.

- Betty Smith

 

In Dummerston, volunteers facilitate outdoor learning

Dummerston School in southeastern Vermont is surrounded by fields, with a small section of forest nearby.

So when planning how to safely bring students back to school this fall, creating an outdoor learning environment made sense.

First, volunteers established a multi-use trail system adjacent to the school.

Then one of them approached Principal Julianne Eagan with an idea.

“One of the parents asked me if she could contact the deacons at Dummerston Congregational Church about borrowing their Apple Pie Festival tent,” Eagan said.

COVID-19 concerns had shut down this year's festival, so permission was given.

Then volunteers raised, washed and checked the tent for safety.

Eventually it will be returned to the church, to be stored until the next Apple Pie Festival.

- Betty Smith

 

Vermont sees a tent rental boom

Event-sized rental tents have become another item on the pandemic shortage list.

Spring and summer, 2020, saw massive cancellations of tent reservations for events like weddings, graduations, reunions and music festivals.

Then schools and restaurants began scrambling to create new outdoor learning and dining spaces.

And suddenly, tents available to rent long-term were again in high demand.

But with cold weather not far off, Mike Lubas, one of the owners of the Vermont Tent Company, hesitates to call it a boom.  

“It will certainly help us,” Lubas said. “I mean, without it, we would've been in big trouble as opposed to in a little less trouble, you know, than if we didn't have it.”

Lubas said he hopes business gets back to normal once officials ease social gathering limits.

- Betty Smith

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