As we move into a week that is sure to be marked by further uncertainty and concern, while Vermont and the nation grapple with our responses to the COVID-19 virus, I want to provide some updates from the Vermont legislature and beyond.
A state of emergency
As you likely know, Governor Phil Scott declared a state of emergency in Vermont on Friday, March 13th and announced some immediate safety measures, while acknowledging the situation will continue to evolve. These include:
- A ban on public gatherings or events of 250 or more people.
- Restrictions on visitors to nursing homes, assisted living and long-term care facilities, and hospitals.
- Extension of unemployment benefits to cover wage replacement for COVID-19 related absences.
- Extensions for Department of Motor Vehicles license renewals and registrations.
- The suspension of non-essential travel for state employees.
- Additional measures to assess impacts on the state and guide our response.
To date, state officials are not recommending the closure of Vermont’s public schools. I know this flies in the face of what a lot of us are reading and what many of my constituents are asking for and I’ll make that sentiment known to the Governor’s Office and Agency of Education and encourage you to do the same if you feel strongly about this. At the same time, I understand the balance officials are grappling with. Our public education system functions as one of the largest social service delivery models in the state and ensures that children and families facing food insecurity and unsafe living situations have a place to get their needs met during the day. My understanding is that the situation is evolving quickly and that they’re working to assess when they believe the most meaningful time to close our schools will be, in our efforts to flatten the curve of the COVID-19 spread. I suspect these guidelines will be changing rapidly in the coming days.
The Governor’s executive order says that, “no school superintendent or school board shall cause a student or parent to be penalized for student absences that are the result of following medical advice or the guidance of [the Vermont Department of Health] or arising from the concerns of parents or guardians relating to COVID-19.” This means that you can choose to keep your kids at home without penalties if you feel that is best for the safety of your family or your community.
The Vermont legislature adjourns
On Friday, March 13th, the legislature made the difficult decision to adjourn until Tuesday, March 23rd. During this time the statehouse will be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected. IT staff will be working to pilot remote working infrastructure and some committees will be continuing their work. You may have heard a lot about how many legislators are in high-risk categories, particularly given our median age (60+). My understanding is that while this is certainly a matter of concern, the decision to temporarily adjourn the statehouse is primarily related to the location’s role as a disease vector, with representatives working in a full and active building while necessarily coming and going from local communities in every corner of the state. Legislators will be working in their home communities over the coming week and monitoring the situation as we determine next steps. Please reach out to me with any questions or concerns, as I will be working in Burlington with a focus on constituent communications for the coming week.
This does not mean that the legislature has abandoned the needs of Vermonters impacted by COVID-19. This is an absolute focus of our work, whether we are in the statehouse or working remotely. Prior to adjournment, the House took some initial actions to respond. As described by House Speaker Mitzi Johnson:
“Highlights of our work today include:
- Adapted unemployment insurance eligibility to make it clear that COVID-19 affected businesses & individuals are eligible to receive unemployment.
- Ensured employers’ unemployment insurance experience rating is not affected by COVID-19 related claims.
- Passed a resolution calling on the federal government to refrain from detaining or arresting undocumented immigrants in health care settings during this health care crisis.
- Passed a health care workforce bill that will allow retired medical professionals with valid licenses from other states to join the workforce, streamlines the process for the Agency of Human Services to fund providers in the state to sustain them through the healthcare crisis, and prohibits coronavirus-related copayments. [SC: There are many additional measures in this bill to ensure access to healthcare and human services.]
- Approved an amendment to expand our paid sick days law to businesses with five or more employees that work 30 hours a week or more.
Passing these bills was a preparatory step to ensure that as federal responses are clarified, the Senate has the ability to act quickly on a COVID-19 package when we reconvene. We await additional details from any forthcoming relief from the federal government, as well as clarity on the emergency powers the administration invoked today to ensure we are all working in harmony to put the very best package forward to help Vermonters weather this crisis.”
A progressive response
It’s been eye-opening to see growing support for an expansion of healthcare access, social services, and workers’ rights, at the local and national levels, as we navigate through this crisis. And it’s hard not to observe how quickly the situation is both exposing the fault lines in our current systems and encouraging us to think about swift and visionary changes. I found Farhad Manjoo’s recent New York Times editorial (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/11/opinion/coronavirus-socialism.html) to be particularly illuminating, if not exactly heartening.
Organizations such as the Vermont AFL-CIO, Rights and Democracy, the Champlain Valley Democratic Socialists of America, and the Burlington Tenant’s Union have started to articulate what a progressive response to the pandemic should look like. I’m grateful that the Burlington Progressive Party steering committee is also considering this and that members of the steering committee (including my district-mate Brian Cina) are at the table as discussions among like-minded groups move forward. Expect further announcements in the coming week.
As many of you know, many organizations and legislators (including the Vermont Climate Solutions Caucus) have been working around the state to push for bold climate action and put Vermont on a track to meet our emissions reductions goals. Watch climate caucus co-chairs Rep. Sarah Copeland-Hanzas and Sen. Chris Pearson discuss their initial thoughts on what the state’s COVID-19 response means for our climate agenda: https://www.facebook.com/VTClimateCaucus/videos/195232965137348/
Finally, it has been inspiring to see so many Vermonters mobilize to coordinate mutual aid tools. Here are some of the Burlington-based efforts that I am aware of:
A sign-up form for Burlington-based volunteers:
A Quarantine Delivery Request form:
A UVM mutual aid coordination spreadsheet:
A form for college-aged babysitting volunteers:
A Facebook group to discuss Burlington mutual aid efforts:
It’s unclear to me how these volunteer-led services will coalesce over the coming weeks, but it is wonderful to see the many efforts people are making to support each other at this time.
Here are some songs to wash your hands to, if you need help counting to 20 (I do!) and are tired of Happy Birthday (for the record, I always choose When Doves Cry by Prince):
Broadway performer Laura Benanti recently tweeted her recognition that many high schools are cancelling their musical productions and invited young performers to share some of their performances. The results are phenomenal! If you want to entertain yourself while practicing social distancing and throw some love to disheartened theater kids all around the country, this is the thread for you:
If all this has you wanting to change our world, while still experiencing hope, joy, and pleasure, I strongly recommend the work of adrienne maree brown, the author of Emergent Strategy and Pleasure Activism, whose recent posts on COVID-19 provide helpful perspectives: