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News Roundup: Scott Lifts Multi-Household Gathering Ban For Those Who Are Fully Vaccinated

A brown, wooden Vermont State Parks trailhead sign reads Herbert Hawkes Trail, Mt. Hor and features signs about social distancing, trail etiquette during the pandemic, against a snowy, forested backdrop.
Abagael Giles
/
VPR
At the Herbert Hawkes trailhead in Willoughby State Forest, a sign offers guidance to skiers and hikers about social distancing, mask wearing and other trail etiquette during the pandemic. The trail leads to the summit of Mt. Hor.

Vermont reporters provide a roundup of top news takeaways about the coronavirus, the Burlington CityPlace development and more for Tuesday, Feb. 23.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 Department of Health reports 82 new COVID-19 cases

Vermont saw 82 new COVID-19 infections and one more death reported Tuesday. 

Currently, 36 people are hospitalized with the disease, and 12 are in ICU.

Now more than 91,000 Vermonters have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, including more than 46,000 who have received both doses. 

- Karen Anderson

Federal judge rules New Hampshire lawmakers cannot sue over ban on attending House sessions remotely

A federal judge says New Hampshire Lawmakers cannot sue the House Speaker for banning medically vulnerable lawmakers from attending House sessions remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The judge ruled the 400-member New Hampshire House can proceed with in-person sessions this week without providing remote access.

Seven Democratic lawmakers sued Republican House Speaker Sherm Packard last week, arguing that holding in-person sessions without a remote option violates the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

A federal judge denied their request Monday, saying the speaker cannot be sued for enforcing a House rule that is "closely related to core legislative functions."

- The Associated Press

2. Gov. Scott lifts ban on multi-household gatherings for fully vaccinated Vermonters

Gov. Phil Scott has lifted some restrictions on household gatherings that were imposed to stop the spread of COVID-19.

At his news briefing Tuesday, Scott announced that people who have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus will be able to meet with one other group regardless of whether they've been vaccinated.

Scott gave some examples of the kind of visits that are now allowed.

“If your parents are fully vaccinated, you could go to their house for dinner, or vice versa,” Scott said. “Or, if you're a nurse who was vaccinated in Phase 1A, you can visit a friend, even if they're not vaccinated yet.”

Scott said he and his team are looking at other changes as more of the population receives the vaccine. He says the administration wants to take a careful, step-by-step approach to lifting more restrictions.

- John Dillon

3. Vermonters over 65 can sign up for COVID-19 vaccine appointments Monday

Starting on Monday, Vermonters over the age of 65 will be able to sign up for the coronavirus vaccine.

Human Services Secretary Mike Smith encouraged people to set up an account now with the Health Department so they'll be ready to register for a vaccine appointment next week.

“When you have an established account on Monday March 1, you can simply log in, pick a place, date and time to get your vaccine,” Smith said Tuesday.

There are about 42,000 people in this age group. State officials say it will take about three weeks to administer the first vaccine shots to this group.

Register with the Vermont Department of Health here.

- John Dillon

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

4. Chittenden County State's Attorney calls for decriminalization of controlled substances

Deaths from opioid overdoses in Vermont have increased 35% through November of 2020 when compared with the total number of those deaths recorded in all of 2019.

Last week, a group of lawmakers met to discuss policies to better deal with the opioid epidemic.  One proposed idea is to decriminalize drugs in Vermont.

Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George is calling on Vermont lawmakers to decriminalize the possession of opioids, cocaine and other drugs. George says arresting users for possession only exacerbates the public health crisis.

“This is about a public health issue and this is about responding to it in a public health way, so the people that might be at more risk of, frankly, dying of an overdose should feel even more comfortable coming forward and talking about that and seeking help because they're at a greater risk of death,” George said. “So from my perspective, anything being deemed illegal is actually what creates the harm.”

George said lawmakers should take their cue from Oregon, which enacted a law this year that prohibits police from arresting someone for possession of small amounts of hard drugs, including LSD, heroin and methamphetamine.

The proposed bill is still being crafted, but Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan says he opposes the decriminalization proposal.

Listen to the full conversation.

- Mitch Wertlieb

5. Leahy says he supports proposed federal minimum wage increase

This could be a key week for Senator Bernie Sanders' plan to boost the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour.

Sanders wants to include the provision in the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 stimulus package, but several Democrats oppose this idea and their votes are needed to pass the entire bill.

The federal minimum wage is currently $7.25 an hour.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, who chairs the Appropriations committee, supports the increase and says it will help save the federal government some money.

“Some of the companies that are paying $7.25, you as a taxpayer are subsidizing,” Leahy said. “Because these people are then qualifying for Food Stamps and other aid, which we all pay for. I'd rather they get paid a living wage."

Some senators are also considering a compromise that would include a smaller wage boost.

More from VPR: Sen. Bernie Sanders: COVID Relief Bill Is The Only Chance To Raise Minimum Wage This Session

- Bob Kinzel

Stimulus package expected to pass the House this week

The U.S. House is expected to pass a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 stimulus package this week, and Congressman Peter Welch says swift passage of the bill is needed to ramp up vaccination programs across the country.

Welch says the state of Vermont will receive almost $1 billion under this legislation and about a third of the money will be distributed to cities and towns.

Welch says the bill will help accelerate both the production and the distribution of COVID vaccines in every state.

“The whole key here is the vaccine,” Welch said. “Once we get people healthy and people are secure, going back, say, to restaurants or theaters, then we can have a self-sustaining economic recovery.”

The bill also includes a direct payment of $1,400 to most individuals.

Most Republicans oppose the bill because of the overall cost of the legislation.

- Bob Kinzel

6. Vermont State Colleges board signs off on plan to combine accreditation of Castleton, NVU and Vermont Tech

The board of the Vermont State Colleges has signed off on a plan that would combine three schools under a single accreditation and leadership structure.

Castleton University, Northern Vermont University and Vermont Technical College would become a single institution in the 2023 academic year, while the Community College of Vermont would remain separate.

Board member Dylan Giambatista said the goal of the plan should be to provide better affordability and more opportunities for students.

"And with that, I think comes an obligation that our state leaders – our governor and our legislators – fund the state colleges system,” Giambatista said. “And this is a path to do it.”

The plan comes with a high, multi-year price tag. For the next fiscal year, the state colleges system is requesting over $67 million from the state.

- Henry Epp

7. Burlington City Council to consider updated CityPlace settlement Tuesday

The Burlington City Council on Tusday will meet to consider an updated settlement and development plan for the long stalled CityPlace project.

The vote comes after the city and the developers earlier this month reached a settlement that resolves the lawsuit filed by the city last summer and restarts construction.

But following the settlement news, union organizers raised concerns that the project was not required to use unionized labor.

In a Monday news release, Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger said project developers have now agreed to pay the Vermont prevailing wage, among other new labor commitments.

According to the release, the Vermont Building and Construction Trades Council now supports the agreement.

- Brittany Patterson

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