COVID-19 Update for April 21

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I hope this update finds you staying safe and healthy during these difficult times. As spring seems to be setting in, I know there’s a strong urge to get out to see other people, but remember that the Stay Home, Stay Safe order remains in effect until at least May 15. Our efforts to stay home and keep our distance are paying off, the curve is flattening, and lives are being saved. Let’s keep up the good work! April showers will bring May flowers!

Turning the Spigot On Slowly
Restarting daily social life and our economy will have to be a slow process in order to prevent the virus from resurging. Last Friday, Governor Scott announced some small steps toward opening things up. Beginning this week, certain “non-critical” businesses can begin limited operations as long as they follow strict health protocols. This addendum to the Governor’s original executive order:

  • Allows micro-crews of no more than two people for outside construction or other outdoor trade jobs, such as lawncare, landscaping, and gardening;
  • Allows single-worker low- or no-contact professional services, such as appraisers, realtors, municipal clerks, attorneys, property managers, and others, to resume operations as long as no more than two people are present at a time;
  • Clarifies guidance for retailers to allow additional operations using delivery and curbside service; and
  • Outlines safety requirements for these entities and others already operating to ensure continued social distancing, hygiene and disinfection

If you work in any of these fields, please read the sector-specific guidance created by the Agency of Commerce and Community Development to be sure you’re operating appropriately to protect the health and safety of you, your employees or colleagues, and your clients or customers.

Unemployment Insurance Update
I’m hoping people who have been experiencing undue frustrations with efforts to apply for and receive unemployment benefits have begun to have these issues resolved and checks arrive in the mail.  After pleas from the Legislature and people across the state, last week Governor Scott urged the Department of Labor to clear unemployment insurance applications so Vermonters could file claims and receive checks, and for those they could not get to, the Vermont Treasurer’s Office would issue $1,200 pre-payments. As of Sunday, 32,000 claims had been cleared so people could file and receive benefits, and on Monday an additional 8,400 pre-payment checks were issued by the Treasurer.

As of Wednesday, April 22, self-employed people and independent contractors who are not eligible for regular unemployment assistance should be able to begin an initial application for the federal Pandemic Unemployment Assistance Program. The Department hopes to begin accepting claims by Friday. The application is not yet available, but check the website or call the PUA Hotline at 877-660-7782. They hope to have a new software system and the help of a private firm to assist with yet another influx of claims. You can get also sign up for the Self-Employed Newsletter to get regular updates. A private firm, with additional staff members, has been brought in to assist with this effort.

Vermont State College System
I have heard from many people about their opposition to a proposal from the VT State College Chancellor to close three state colleges in Lyndon, Johnson, and Randolph. I know first-hand that this is a difficult time for college students, professors, and staff members across the country. I have long been a strong supporter of higher education, and have worked hard on legislation that would have provided more resources to the students of the VT State College System. The COVID crisis has had a significant impact on higher education operations and finances for colleges and universities of all kinds. Given that the VT State College System already had financial challenges due to regional demographic trends, changes in higher education, and insufficient state support, the COVID crisis has been even more devastating. Even before this crisis, it was likely that changes were coming for VSC. However, the quick decision to recommend closing three campuses came as a surprise to me. It’s clear significant changes to higher education in Vermont will be necessary. It’s also clear that given the financial impact of the COVID crisis on the state that we have limited financial resources to address all of the many needs that have and will arise. However, a strong, statewide higher education system is crucial to the future of Vermont. The Chancellor’s proposal was to have been voted on by the State College Board of Trustees this week, but that vote has been delayed until next week. The Vermont Senate has been discussing options for how we might be able to offer assistance and a short-term bridge plan that could enable the colleges to remain open for now, while a longer-term, more holistic plan is developed.

Health Resources & Status Update
Last week, the Department of Health enhanced its collection of demographic data to add race and ethnicity information for those who have tested positive or died of the virus. This data is important so health officials can evaluate how this crisis has impacted all Vermonters. In many parts of the country, African-Americans have contracted and died of coronavirus at much higher rates than other racial groups, which fortunately does not appear to be the case in Vermont. This enhanced demographic data is updated daily and included with the current COVID-19 activity in Vermont information.

The most comprehensive place to stay up-to-date with the situation in Vermont remains the Vermont Department of Health website. 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 for any reason, please call your primary care physician before going in person for testing or medical care. Don’t wait too long to seek medical treatment – local medical providers are still available to help with non-COVID health issues. If you do not have a primary care physician, you can call Vermont 2-1-1 for assistance finding a doctor.

Spring Break Appreciation and Census Reminder
This week is spring break for many local school children, and while this means a break from their new world of online learning, it also enhances the lonliness, boredom and loss many kids are feeling. Spring break is often a time to hang out with friends, do special programs, go on trips, or visit relatives, but none of that can happen this year. Be sure to send the kids in your life some extra love as they navigate this new reality. This week also provides a break for many of the teachers and school staffers who have been working extremely hard to create an entirely new form of school in a matter of weeks. As a mother of school-age kids, I know how hard teachers and school staff have been working to educate, feed, connect with, and keep kids safe during this crisis. They have gone above and beyond, working countless hours to help kids throughout this crisis. Many schools have set up online gratitude pages for parents, students, and community members to share messages of love and appreciation for teachers, school staff, and educational leaders (for example, read about ACSD newsletter for information about gratitude efforts in that district). Be sure to send teachers and school staff your love and gratitude too!

Another reminder to complete the U.S. Census! Apparently, only Maine, New Mexico, West Virginia and Alaska have lower response rates than Vermont. The Census data is used to determine federal funding allocations, which now more than ever is really important. So, visit the U.S. Census website to complete the Census while staying safe at home. A note for Middlebury College students – the College will complete the Census for you so you’ll be counted in Vermont, which is important for our tiny state. Thanks Middlebury College!

Finally, in addition to being school break, this week is special for a couple more reasons. Wednesday is the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day, a day to celebrate our fragile planet and natural environment. I hope you’ll do something to mark this important anniversary and honor Mother Earth. There are lots of online events, but I plan to get outside and plant a few trees with my kids. Thursday evening marks the start of the month-long observance of Ramadan for Muslims in Vermont and around the world. During Ramadan, Muslims fast until sundown and “observe a time of spiritual reflection, improvement and increased devotion and worship.” The month ends in Eid Ul-Fitr, which breaks the fast with a joyful celebration of gratitude.

Happy Earth Day and Happy Ramadan! May we all look forward to joyful celebrations of gratitude. We’re all in this together. Take care, stay home, and be in touch.