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VPR News

Youth Sports Cleared To Resume Competition In Vermont On Feb. 12

Middle school aged kids in ski and snowboard gear on the slopes, under gray skies.
Shanta Lee Gander
/
For VPR
The Grammar School teacher Sarah Doran, left, with students at Brattleboro Living Memorial Park on Thursday. The middle schoolers have been skiing and snowboarding at the park for the past four weeks, as a way to stay within their groups during COVID-19.

Vermont reporters provide a roundup of top news takeaways about the coronavirus and more for Friday, Feb 5.Want VPR's daily news in podcast form? Get up to speed in under 15 minutes with The Frequency every weekday morning. How about an email newsletter? Add our daily email briefing to your morning routine.

The latest coronavirus data:

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1. Vermont officials report 107 new COVID-19 cases Friday

Vermont recorded 107 new COVID-19 infections Friday.

Rutland and Bennington Counties had about half of the new cases, with roughly 25 each.

The pandemic death toll in Vermont remains at 181.

There are 17 people in intensive care for COVID-19, among a total of 55 people hospitalized with the virus.

- Matthew Smith

High school sports allowed to resume next week

Vermont’s high school sports season will finally get underway next week.

Governor Phil Scott on Friday cleared teams to resume competition starting Feb. 12

Scott allowed schools to re-start in-person team practices two weeks ago.

“Since then, we’ve been watching the data and now feel comfortable taking the next step and allow competition, with some additional safety measures,” Scott said Friday.

Athletes and coaches will have to abide by a slew of COVID-19 safety measures, including a mask mandate for all players, coaches and referees. 

Teams will also be limited to no more than two games per week.

And spectators will not be permitted to watch competitions in person.

- Peter Hirschfeld

Health Commissioner implores Vermonters not to gather for Super Bowl

Commissioner of Health Dr. Mark Levine is pleading with Vermonters to forego Super Bowl parties this Sunday.

Levine said Friday that gatherings between members of different households on Halloween and Thanksgiving led to a significant increase in COVID case counts across the state.

“Now this might seem like a more minor event than some of our recent holidays, but it has potential to truly damage the recent progress we’ve made here in Vermont, if we don’t celebrate safely,” Levine said.

Vermont has seen it seven-day average of COVID cases plateau in recent weeks.

Levine says the Centers for Disease Control has issued guidance for safe Super Bowl celebrations, including virtual watch parties.

- Peter Hirschfeld

State officials could find out next week if new COVID-19 variants are present in Vermont

Vermont could find out next week whether any of the new strains of COVID-19 have arrived in the state.

Commissioner of Health Dr. Mark Levine says the results of genomic sequencing tests on samples from Vermont will arrive early next week.

So far, 33 states have already confirmed the presence of one of the COVID variants.

“We expect we’ll see in Vermont as well,” Levine said. “It is normal for viruses to mutate, but some of the variants recently found may require us to strengthen our prevention measures.”

Levine said those new measures could involve the types of masks people are encouraged to wear.

Levine says there’s no indication that the new COVID variants lead to more severe illness or a higher risk of death.

But he says studies indicate they are more contagious.

- Peter Hirschfeld

Homebound Vermonters over 75 are now being vaccinated

Health providers have begun making vaccine house calls to homebound seniors aged 75 and older.

Secretary of Human Services Mike Smith says visiting nurses and EMS agencies are traveling to patients’ homes to administer COVID-19 vaccines.

He says homebound seniors do not need to register or make an appointment to receive the vaccine.

“Vaccinating agencies will contact them to arrange the vaccination visit,” Smith said Friday. “Please do not contact the home health agencies; they will contact you.”

Smith said vaccine house calls are now underway in Caledonia, Franklin, Orange and Windsor counties.

He says the effort will expand to more areas of the state starting next week.

- Peter Hirschfeld

More from VPR: Frequently Asked Questions (And Answers) About The COVID-19 Vaccine In Vermont

State officials ramp up COVID-19 testing in Bennington County

The Vermont Department of Health is ramping up COVID-19 testing in Bennington County, as it tries to contain higher case counts in that region of the state.

Commissioner of Health Dr. Mark Levine said Friday the increased testing will help the state determine the scope of the problem in Bennington County.

“Testing is, of course, the first step in our continued effort to contain the spread of the virus, and we want all residents of the county to have ready access to this opportunity,” Levine said.

Levine said the high case counts in Bennington may be partially related to the county’s downhill ski industry.

He says his department is working with ski resorts to make testing available to their employees.

- Peter Hirschfeld

More from VPR: ‘A Learning Process’: Ski Patrolling Vermont’s Resorts During A Pandemic

State begins vaccine clinics for Vermonters who require translation services

The Agency of Human Services has begun to set up special COVID-19 vaccine clinics for Vermonters with limited English skills.

Secretary of Human Services Mike Smith said Friday the state vaccinated 50 people with limited English proficiency in Burlington on Thursday evening.

He says the state will vaccinate another 50 people at a clinic in Winooski Friday night.

“We will continue to allocate more for that community in the age group 75-and-up,” Smith said.

Smith says the clinics are part of a broader COVID outreach initiative to New Americans residing in Vermont.

More than 58,000 Vermonters have now received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Smith says an expected increase in vaccine supply will help the state expedite the immunization process.

- Peter Hirschfeld

More from Vermont Edition: Is Vermont Doing Enough To Address Racial Inequities In Its Vaccine Program?

2. NEK-TV host barred from press briefings, as Gov. Scott questions his news credentials

A Northeast Kingdom man known for his controversial questions at Gov. Phil Scott’s COVID briefings has been banned from future press conferences.

Scott says he decided to scrub Steve Merrill from the press list after watching Merrill’s program on NEK-TV, a public access station headquartered in Newport.

“He was actually using some of the information that we were giving as fodder for an entertainment program that he had with the public access, so that’s not what we had in mind,” Scott said Friday.

Scott says briefings are restricted to members of the media that disseminate news via television, radio, print and the internet.

According to VTDigger, Merrill is appealing his ban from the COVID briefings to Scott’s chief of staff.

- Peter Hirschfeld

3. Burlington City Council to weigh CityPlace settlement Monday

Developers of the stalled CityPlace Burlington project will transfer ownership of two streets to the city, according to a settlement announced Friday.

The legal agreement will also require the developers to rebuild the streets even if they fail to construct the rest of the project.

The beleaguered redevelopment is years behind schedule. Burlington sued BTC Mall Associates in September, alleging the developers broke repeated promises to get the project built.

Mayor Miro Weinberger, an early champion of the redevelopment, says the project is still quote “feasible.”

“We think it could succeed and we wish the developers well and we’ll be supportive of the developers going forward,” Weinberger said.

The City Council still needs to sign off on the settlement. That group will discuss it on Monday.

- Liam Elder-Connors

4. Vermont Senate rejects Gov. Scott's plan to overhaul Act 250 development review process

The Vermont Senate has rejected Gov. Phil Scott's plan to use his sole executive authority to overhaul the Act 250 development review process.

Scott wants to put major Act 250 decisions into the hands of a three-person board, which he would appoint, and which he could fire at will. The Senate voted 22-to-8 Thursday for a resolution opposing Scott's Act 250 executive order.

Sen. Christopher Bray chairs the Natural Resources Committee. He told the Senate the governor's plan would not allow for a truly independent review.

“In the quasi-judicial nature of Act 250 proceedings, making the quote-unquote judges vulnerable to removal by the governor is contrary to best practices in support of judicial independence,” Bray said.

Bray says another problem is that the executive order could not be changed by lawmakers. The Senate will now hold hearings on the governor's proposal.

- John Dillon

Vermont House rejects Scott's plan to create new Public Safety Agency

The Vermont House has rejected Gov. Phil's Scott plan to consolidate a number of state law enforcement departments into a new Public Safety Agency.

The governor tried to put the proposal into place by issuing an executive order.

House Government Operations chairwoman Sarah Copeland-Hanzas said she wasn't necessarily against the plan, but her committee decided that it was better to deal with these changes through the legislative process.

“The more appropriate way of considering this restructuring is for the Administration to propose the statutory changes necessary to accomplish their vision of restructuring and for your House committees to take testimony,” Copeland-Hanzas said.

Gov. Scott said he's willing to try to work with lawmakers this session to implement his law enforcement consolidation plan.

- Bob Kinzel

5. Vermont ACLU files lawsuit alleging state trooper abused his authority

A state trooper is accused of abusing his authority during an arrest in St. Albans, in a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont.

In Feb. 2018, trooper Jay Riggen pulled over Gregory Bombard, because he thought Bombard had given him the middle finger.

Riggin didn't issue a citation, but as Bombard pulled away, he swore at the trooper and gave him the finger, according to court filings.

Riggen stopped Bombard again and arrested him for disorderly conduct – a charge that was later dismissed.

ACLU of Vermont attorney Jay Diaz says there was no justification for the first stop.

“And then, there’s the second stop – and we still quibble with that stop, as well, as [being] unconditional and unlawful, because it was in direct response to Mr. Bombard's speech, which was protesting the actions of the officer,” Diaz said.

A state police spokesperson declined to comment on the suit, which seeks damages.

- Liam Elder-Connors

6. Vermont to collect $1.5 million in settlement over marketing of opioids

Vermont will collect about $1.5 million from an international consulting firm that helped market addictive opioids in the U.S.

Attorney General TJ Donovan formalized the multi-state settlement with McKinsey and Company in court papers filed on Tuesday.

“Those documents describe how McKinsey contributed to the opiate crisis by promoting marketing schemes and consulting services to opiate manufacturers, including OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma for over a decade.”

Donovan says the money will be steered toward opioid treatment and prevention programs.

Vermont still has several lawsuits pending against the manufacturers and distributors of opioid painkillers.

- Peter Hirschfeld

7. U.S. Senate gives initial approval to $1.9 trillion pandemic recovery package

The U.S. Senate has given its initial approval to President Joe Biden's nearly $2 trillion pandemic recovery package.

The vote was along party lines with the Democrats supporting the measure and all of the Republicans opposing it. Vice President Kamala Harris cast the tie-breaking vote.

The package includes another direct payment to most individuals and it provides additional money for states, towns and small businesses.

Sen. Patrick Leahy is the chairman of the Senate Appropriations committee.

He argued that it's critical for Congress to tackle the pandemic in a comprehensive way.

“I think if we don't have decisive action now we could spend as much as a decade trying to make up for the mistake later on," Leahy said.

The measure will now be considered in the House. If it's approved there, it will return to the Senate for final vote.

Vt. Senate President Pro Tem urges governor to keep an "open mind" when it comes to spending stimulus funds

Vermont Senate president pro tem Becca Balint is urging Gov. Phil Scott to keep an open mind about how to use another round of federal pandemic recovery money.

In his budget address, Scott outlined plans to invest $210 million in federal funds for one-time projects in Vermont.

He argued it would be a big mistake to use any of the funds for ongoing programs.

It's now very likely that the state will receive another round of federal stimulus money in the coming weeks and Balint wants there to be an open discussion about how this money should be used.

“You can draw the line, but you have to be willing to integrate new information; you really do,” Balint said. “And I'm hoping the governor's team is well aware of that and is willing to take another look if there's other money that is going to be coming our way." 

Congressional leaders are hoping to pass the new one point nine trillion dollar stimulus package by the end of the month.

- Bob Kinzel

8. Sen. Pres. Pro Tem and House Speaker outline Democratic budget priorities

Senate President pro tem Becca Balint wants lawmakers to consider making a sizeable increase in the budgets of front line mental health organizations.

Balint says the extra resources are needed because the COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating many existing mental health concerns.

"We are in the midst of a crisis – a crisis that is of a physical nature but also emotional and psychological nature – and I want to us to all be open to thinking carefully about the kinds of trauma that our children are going through right now, and families, and should we be making more investments in our mental health system?” Balint said this week.

Balint said she hopes to convince the Scott Administration to support increasing the budgets of many local and regional mental health groups this year.

House Speaker weighs in on plan to address pension fund shortfall

House Speaker Jill Krowinski says no decisions have been made on a plan to save the state employees' and state teachers' pension funds from a multi-billion dollar shortfall.

According to State Treasurer Beth Pearce, the combination of an older state workforce, and under-funding of pension accounts by lawmakers in the 1990s, has left them with enormous unfunded liabilities.

Pearce said one possible solution would be to reduce the cost-of-living increases for future retirees.

Krowinski says that's one of the many options that will be studied.

“I want to pull all of the ideas out there,” Krowinski said. “We have not made any decisions, to be clear, we want to put all of these ideas together in a box and dump them on the table and sort through and vet these concepts.”

Krowinski says she hopes to work with the Scott Administration on a long-term solution.

Listen to the full conversation.

- Bob Kinzel

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