COVID-19 Update for April 16

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Spring is here, or at least it might be (despite the snow flurries this morning)! The spring-like weather and daffodils blooming in many gardens makes all of this a tiny bit easier. As you know, we have at least another month of the Stay Safe, Stay Home order, and after that, opening things back up will likely be a slow, deliberate process so we can continue to protect the health and safety of everyone in Vermont. We all need to remain vigilant, stay home for all but critical work and essential services, and follow health guidelines. In the meantime, I have some springtime updates and information to share.

Getting Outside, Gardening, and Local Foods
This past weekend was the start of fishing season in Vermont and it was great to see anglers making their way to the fishing hole down the street from my house. Fishing is a relaxing way to get some peaceful time outside, but remember that social distancing is still important while you’re outside. Stay at least six feet from anyone outside your household and wear a mask if you’ll be interacting with others. The Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department has some great guidance on how you can reconnect with nature, go fishing, and follow effective social distance and other measures to help stop the spread of COVID-19. With school break coming up next week, it’s also the perfect time to get outside with kids. Check out the Come Alive Outside 5X5 Challenge to get some fun ideas on how to get active outside with kids while practicing social distancing.

Spring is also a time many of us want to dig our hands in the dirt and start a garden. If you are part of a community garden, the Vermont Community Garden Network has good guidelines and resources for Safe Community Gardening and the UVM Extension Cultivating Healthy Communities program provides information and updates on gardening, agriculture, and food safety in the age of COVID-19. Farm and garden supply stores have been deemed “critical businesses” during the COVID crisis, so most of these stores should be open for you to purchase seeds, garden starts, and related supplies. These stores and their customers should be following Department of Health guidance to keep customers and employees safe, including social distancing, hand and surface washing, wearing masks, online or phone pre-ordering, and other operations that limit in-person contact. Farm stands may also be selling garden plants and products and should also be following these same health guidelines.

At this time, farmer’s markets are not authorized to operate in Vermont until the Agencies of Agriculture and Commerce & Community Development develop acceptable guidelines that can effectively limit in-person contact, facilitate social distancing, and keep farmers & customers safe. The Senate Agriculture Committee has been working on this issue with the agenices and famer’s market advocates. I’m hopeful that guidelines will be finalized soon so these important markets can be open in early May when most of them debut for the season. In the meantime, many farmers and producers have established online or phone ordering systems or pop-up farm stands. Give your favorite farmer’s market vendor a call to see how you may be able to purchase their products. Finally, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs are thriving this year, with many new members, farms, and options. Both the Farm to Plate program and NOFA-VT provide good information on a variety of these farm and garden options, as well as relevant COVID-19 resources and guidance.

Health Resources & Status Update
We may be seeing some evidence that our collective efforts to stay home and keep our distance from one another is starting to pay off, as COVID cases in Vermont may be leveling off. Current COVID-19 Activity in Vermont shows that new cases are beginning to flatten and deaths may be declining. However, it’s too soon to know if these trends will continue and we need to keep up our efforts in order to continue to save lives. The most comprehensive place to stay up-to-date with the situation in Vermont remains the Vermont Department of Health website, which is constantly updated with new information. The Department has recently added a newly formatted COVID-19 Frequently Asked Questions page. Visit the Porter Medical Center website for information about local medical services, including testing for COVID-19. If you are experiencing symptoms or have questions about your health, please call your primary care physician before going in person for testing or medical care. If you do not have a primary care physician, you can call Vermont 2-1-1 for assistance finding a doctor.

Unemployment Insurance Update
I know that filing for unemployment insurance claims has been extremely frustrating for many, many people. I hear from people every day with questions and concerns about the process, lack of answers, and the long wait for benefits. The Vermont Senate has discussed this issue multiple times and has asked the Department of Labor to step up its efforts to get people the unemployment benefits they need to weather this crisis. Due to the huge volume of unemployment insurance claims, the Department of Labor implemented an alphabetized schedule this week for filing claims. This system is meant to decrease the wait-time and volume of calls each day and hopefully speed up the process for everyone. You can still file an initial claim online here and get answers to FAQs here. The Department is also training and hiring more people to answer questions and process claims during a period of unprecedented unemployment insurance activity. Next week, the Department should be rolling out the federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program for self-employed people and independent contractors. They hope to have a new software system and the help of a private firm to assist with yet another influx of claims. If you are self-employed, you can get more information and sign up for the Self-Employed Newsletter so you are notified when the system is up and running. Finally, if you’re a small business owner, the Vermont Small Business Development Center is a good resource, as are most local banks and credit unions, for navigating the federal programs that are available to help you. Thus far, Vermont businesses have received over $850 million in support from the Paycheck Protection Program, and our federal delegation is working to get more funding for this program.

Finally, I continue to be inspired and proud of the many ways Vermonters are maintaining community and stepping up to help each other during this crisis. Read about how the Brave Little City of Vergennes has a local parade on many nights so folks can get out of their houses and wave hello to neighbors from afar. The New Americans in Vermont coalition has provided translated resources in nearly 20 different languages and assisted hundreds of people during this crisis. Students at Middlebury College have remained connected and are telling their stories through The Middlebury Off-Campus Project. Finally, the Vermont National Guard has received national attention for its amazing work quickly building a 400-bed medical facility at the Essex Convention Center, under the leadership of a Mount Abe High School music teacher.

During this time of crisis and stress, each of these stories show resiliency and community spirit. Indeed, we’re all in this together. Happy gardening, take care, stay home, and be in touch.