As the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to grow, the State must take stronger action to flatten the curve of infection through social distancing, increased testing, and other harm reduction measures. The State must also plan for the economic impact and work to build social safety nets.
Increased Access to Testing
The Commissioner of Health announced on Friday, March 27, that the State will increase access to testing. The state will continue to prioritize testing for vulnerable populations, which includes health care workers and patients who are hospitalized, in long-term care facilities or with underlying health conditions. However, doctors will now have more latitude to order tests for patients with mild and moderate symptoms.
You still need to CALL your health care provider to be evaluated and determine if you need a test. DO NOT go to a testing site without an order from your provider.
Tests will still be prioritized, and patients who are NOT experiencing symptoms will not be tested.
“Stay Home, Stay Safe” Order
Governor Phil Scott issued a “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order and directed the closure of in-person operations for all non-essential businesses. These restrictive measures are in place to minimize all unnecessary activities outside the home to slow the spread of this virus and protect the public. The Governor’s order directs Vermonters to stay at home, leaving only for essential reasons, critical to health and safety. If leaving the home, Vermonters should adhere to social distancing policies, including remaining six feet from others (except for those with whom they share a home) and thoroughly and regularly washing hands.
Governor Phil Scott directed schools to remain dismissed through the end of the 2019-2020 school year. Districts will close schools for in-person instruction and be required to implement continuity of learning plans for remote learning. The Agency of Education will provide technical guidance to districts on how to implement continuity of learning plans, specifically looking to address challenges around equitable access to learning opportunities, Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) for students with disabilities, continuation of school meals, and school attendance and school calendar requirements.
The Vermont General Assembly passed two COVID-19 emergency response bills, and has resumed work using remote methods, including publicly accessible Zoom meetings and secure remote voting. See http://legislature.vermont.gov for access to committee agendas and livestreams.
The legislature passed a bill to ease restrictions and regulations in the health care system in order to maximize flexibility and adaptability. We also expanded access to unemployment benefits and adapted components of open meeting law to allow groups, including municipal governments, to conduct essential business while observing public health guidelines and maintaining public access to their work.
I want to share a number of resources about food security and access during this difficult time.
Please refrain from overbuying or hoarding large quantities of food. Grocery stores are being restocked regularly and we need to make sure that there is plenty of food to go around, especially those who may have limited opportunities to run food shopping errands.
Some grocery stores, including Burlington’s City Market food cooperative, have instituted a designated morning shopping hour for elders and immuno-compromised or high risk people, so they can effectively practice social distancing. This will happen from 7am – 8 am daily at both City Market locations. Learn more about City Market’s reaction to COVID-19.
The Burlington School District is providing daily grab-and-go meals at a variety of sites for students. You can pick up meals Monday through Friday between 9am and 10 am at the North Avenue Alliance Church and Edmunds school and between 10:30 am and 11:30 am at the Sustainability Academy and Champlain Elementary. There are many additional sites providing meals throughout the week. Read more on the school district’s Coronavirus prep page or call 802-864-8416.
COVID-19 Update from representatives Brian Cina and Selene Colburn
We are continuing to gather and share as much information regarding the COVID-19 crisis as possible.
As many of you know, Governor Scott provided additional guidance this week that included limiting gatherings to less than 50 people and closing schools, child care centers, bars, and restaurants until at least April 6th. Many of us have already had our lives impacted dramatically by these developments. In addition to our work as legislators, we are both trying to manage changes in workflows at our other jobs. Brian has transitioned his busy social work practice to a telemedicine model, providing support to many people, and Selene is telecommuting with the University of Vermont while assisting her family through area school closures. We are thinking of you all and your families as you try to adjust and cope. We recognize that many may already be struggling to meet basic needs. Please let us know how we can help!
We’ll be holding a Zoom call with Representative Diana Gonzalez of Winooski and any interested participants this Friday at 4PM, to provide further updates, collect your questions, and answer as many of them as we can. See more details, below.
Unemployment and other assistance:
As a result of closures and social distancing measures, many employees and small businesses have already been affected.
Unemployment and underemployment benefits are available and we’re working to expand access to them and loosen requirements for COVID-19-related situations. We have heard reports that these phone lines are jammed at times. We understand that the Department of Labor is hiring additional workers to handle the volume of calls.
The Agency of Commerce and Community Development is asking Vermont businesses to share COVID-19 virus impacts through a dedicated email address: email@example.com. The Agency has also established a hotline so that businesses may call to report impacts and be directed to resources: (802) 461-5143. The hotline will be staffed Monday through Friday, 7:45 a.m. – 4:30 p.m. The state has applied for disaster relief funding that may be an additional source of assistance. This may free up unemployment insurance eligibility for self-employed workers.
The Executive Director of the Vermont Economic Development Authority has outlined a proposed emergency, low-interest loan program for Vermont businesses to enable them to weather cash flow shortages caused in part COVID 19. We will keep you posted on this and other potential forms of relief as they become available, including those that apply to self-employed Vermonters.
The City of Burlington has ordered a stoppage of all electric and water utilities shut-offs. Green Mountain Power and Vermont Gas have also suspended shut-offs. Pending state and federal legislation is working to provide relief from evictions, utilities shut-offs, and other forms of foreclosure and debt. This is a moving target and we recognize the critical importance of providing maximum relief to all people who are faced with dramatically shifting circumstances, as well as those who were previously experiencing hardships and vulnerabilities that will be compounded by this situation.
A progressive coalition responds:
A coalition of organizations held a press conference on Tuesday, March 17th, in which we provided information about public health and social distancing, identified ways to engage in mutual aid, recognized the importance of solidarity from the local to the global levels, and issued demands to the local, state, and federal government for immediate action. These demands are as follow:
(1) Antiracism // Actively oppose all racist and xenophobic responses to the coronavirus, particularly those which impact our Asian siblings and comrades, and those already impacted by the terror of Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids, detention, deportation, and family separation. Oppose any attempt from the local to federal level to use the present crisis to increase state violence through surveillance, curbing civil liberties, or attacks on migrants. Use executive powers and municipal resolutions to limit the ability of police, ICE, and CBP to hold undocumented people in increasingly dangerous detention facilities. Ensure equitable access to healthcare for all immigrants, people of color, queer and trans people, people with disabilities, and low-income individuals and families in our communities.
(2) Workplaces // Immediately implement full paid medical leave and universal unemployment benefits for all people who are sick, who must self-quarantine due to health risk factors, who must take time off from work to care for a sick family member or loved one, or whose places of employment are closed due to the covid-19 pandemic in both the public and private sector. Guarantee pay for all public employees throughout the crisis, even if ordered home. Ensure that covid-19 testing and treatment is free, fully accessible, and free of bias to people across the state, and implement mandatory testing for healthcare, childcare, home-aid, and food service workers, the responsibility for which resides with employers and should not place undue burden on employees. Ensure that farmworkers, domestic workers, gig workers, and others who have been excluded from labor protections receive equal treatment. Ensure that benefits and protections are not conditioned on immigration and citizenship status.
(3) Housing // Institute an immediate moratorium on evictions at the city and state level, as many cities around the country have done, and on payment for public utilities. Institute a moratorium on rent charges while public and private sector employment is interrupted during the crisis. Provide housing, food, and all healthcare necessities to houseless people. End the break-up of encampments of people experiencing homelessness. Work toward a moratorium on mortgage payments.
(4) Schools // Create a meal delivery strategy to ensure that low-income students who rely on schools for free and reduced cost breakfast and lunch do not go hungry in isolation, as in Rutland, where AFSCME union bus drivers are carrying out food deliveries throughout the crisis. Ensure that all families have access to quality childcare despite the closure of Vermont public schools. Provide equitable access to remote instruction for students with special education and ELL needs. Guarantee access to clear protocols and cleaning supplies for all janitors in public schools, kitchens and food delivery, and public buildings to decrease risk for vulnerable people.
(5) Funding // Recognize that the resources exist to meet all of these demands, that excuses based on fiscal responsibility are themselves grossly irresponsible, and that we have a unique opportunity to redirect funding to institutions for the public good. We can and should pay for these resources by redirecting funds from police, immigration enforcement, and military projects which enact violence on people of color, immigrants, poor people, and fellow workers around the world. Private employers must be pressured to cover lost pay and other expenses faced by their employees to the greatest extent possible.
Signatories to these demands include AFSCME 1674, Black Rose Burlington, The Bread &, Roses Collective, Brass Balagan, Burlington Progressive Party Steering Committee, Burlington Showing Up for Racial Justice, Burlington Tenants Union, Champlain Valley Democratic Socialists of America, Gender Inclusive VT, Kunsi Keya Tomakoce, Migrant Justice / Justicia Migrante, Peace & Justice Center, Rights and Democracy, Socialist Resurgence, Vermont Coalition for Ethnic and Social Equity in the Schools, Vermonters for Justice in Palestine, Vermont State Labor Council, and AFL-CIO.
You can see a broadcast of the press conference here:
The legislature adjourned until March 24th with the possibility of a longer adjournment. Senate committees have been working remotely this week and House committees are likely to do the same beginning next week. Plans are underway to move key legislation forward, particularly necessary responses to COVID-19 at the state level. See https://legislature.vermont.gov/ for up-to-date committee agendas and House and Senate calendars.
Please keep up with updates from the Department of Health for guidelines and services:
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.
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.
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:
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:
As we head back to Montpelier this week after the Town Meeting break, Representative Cina and I have an update from the statehouse.
We’re so grateful to continue representing Burlington’s Chittenden 6-4 district in Montpelier. We want to share our thinking on a few of the big developments in the legislature this session:
We’ve long supported not just an increase in the minimum wage, but a livable wage for all Vermonters. The legislature made incremental progress toward this goal with the recent passage of a bill to raise the minimum wage from $10.96 an hour to $11.75 in 2021 and to $12.55 in 2022. Governor Scott vetoed this much-needed raise, but the legislature managed to override his veto and the bill will become law! This is the first time that the legislature has successfully overturned a veto from the Governor since 2009, when the House and Senate overrode then-Gov. Jim Douglas’ vetoes of both a state budget and Vermont’s landmark same-sex marriage bill.
The Global Warming Solutions Act turns Vermont’s Paris Accord and comprehensive energy plan goals for carbon emission reductions into requirements. It requires the state to create a plan for meeting these targets, utilizing a climate council. It also gives individuals a cause-of-action tool for court intervention if Vermont fails to develop or effectively enact its plan. It’s past time for Vermont to keep its promises to address the climate emergency. This bill, which passed the House on a strong vote of 105-37 creates a framework for meaningful climate action moving forward. We have much more work to do.
A bill to create a legal, taxed and regulated market for recreational cannabis passed the Vermont House on a vote of 90-54 and is on its way back to the Senate. The two bodies will likely seek to resolve differences in their approach in a conference committee. We support the call to expunge previous marijuana possession convictions for Vermonters harmed by past policy.
We believe a paid family leave program is an important assurance that Vermonters can care for a new child, a loved one, or themselves. The privatized paid family leave program put forward by the Vermont House and Senate raised serious concerns for us. It had a challenging eligibility threshold and many gaps in coverage, including lost mandatory personal leave benefits. It would have been paid for entirely by employees, with no employer contributions. For these reasons, we voted (unsuccessfully) to send it back to a conference committee for more work. The bill moved to the Governor’s desk, where it was vetoed. We voted to override the Governor’s veto, because we believe a paid family leave program — even a deeply compromised one — is too important to wait for. Unfortunately, this effort failed by a single vote.
We continue to work with the Legislative Workers’ Caucus and AFL-CIO to fight for H.428: an act relating to collective bargaining, which would allow public employees to organize more easily into a union.
S.108: An act relating to employee misclassification passed and was signed by the Governor. This new law permits the Attorney General to enforce complaints of employee misclassification under the workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance laws.
The House Progressive Caucus is working on an amendment to the state revenue bill that will seek to recapture revenue from Trump-era federal tax cuts for the wealthiest Vermonters for investments in climate action, environmental protection, and the development of a regenerative economy.
We continue our work with the Climate Solutions Caucus to improve renewable electrification standards, expand the role of Efficiency Vermont to help Vermonters transition more broadly away from fossil fuels, improve building efficiency codes, and develop an informed workforce in the building trades who are capable of advising Vermonters on efficiency issues.
We believe the state should move forward with participation in the Transportation Climate Initiative (TCI) a proposed regional, twelve-state cap-and-invest program with the goal of reducing carbon emissions in the transportation sector. Equity is a major tenant of TCI. We must direct the millions of dollars TCI will bring to assist low- and moderate-income and rural Vermonters with access to sustainable and cost-saving transportation solutions. Any climate policy solution needs to be a just transition for our most vulnerable Vermonters.
We support a ban on new fossil fuel infrastructure in the state of Vermont.
We will advocate for a just transition from an extractive economy to a regenerative economy, using a public process that builds a state-wide roadmap developed through Peoples’ Assemblies in every region of the state.
Following the creation of Indigenous Peoples’ Day in 2019, the Vermont General Assembly is poised to take further bold action regarding the rights of Abenaki and other Indigenous Peoples. In order to heal the trauma of colonization, we must acknowledge the truth and come together in a process of reconciliation. We are moving forward with an apology from the State of Vermont for its part in the eugenics movement, which included the abduction, sterilization, and institutionalization of Abenaki people, people with disabilities, people living in poverty, and immigrants. We plan to grant free hunting and fishing licenses to Abenaki people. We will add Abenaki place names to State park signs. We will create a Truth and Reconciliation Task Force to explore the best restorative process for engaging the community in the development of a plan for moving forward in a meaningful way.
We support a task force to explore a possible apology and reparations by the State of Vermont for the institution of slavery. We have faced much resistance despite community support for this restorative work. Until we acknowledge the roots of current systemic racism in the legacy of slavery, we will perpetuate injustice.
We support the No Más Polimigra campaign for fair and impartial policing policies to end collaboration between local police forces and federal immigration authorities.
We will continue to collaborate with the Social Equity Caucus to seek ways to protect Vermonters from racist harassment, threats, and hate speech.
We’re seeking improvements to use-of-force policies, through statutory requirements, data collection, training, and citizen oversight.
We continue to introduce bold proposals to decriminalize substances and activities that don’t warrant criminal justice involvement. Together we’ve introduced bills to decriminalize sex work, safe consumption facilities, plant medicines such as kratom, psilocybe mushrooms, ayahuasca, and peyote, and small amounts of non-prescribed buprenorphine, a drug used to treat opioid use disorder. We also support the de-felonization of all drug possession charges. The House recently voted to provide some criminal immunity for sex workers who are victims of crimes.
A major overhaul of Vermont’s criminal sentencing structure, starting with property crimes, will result in a net reduction in sentence length. The legislature is also working to simplify community supervision categories and prevent Vermonters from returning to corrections settings as a result of technical violations. Together, these reforms have the potential to reduce prison sentences and save money for Vermonters.
We’re working with our colleagues in the Women’s Caucus to push for innovative reforms and immediate protections in the women’s correctional facility in South Burlington. We believe a transformative, restorative approach to rehabilitation will better serve women whose incarceration is a direct result of past traumas and substance use disorder. We call for the immediate implementation of an independent reporting tool for women who may be continuing to experience significant harassment and abuse inside Vermont’s corrections system.