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Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Copeland Hanzas Drops Bid for House Speaker, Endorses Krowinski

Posted By on Wed, Nov 18, 2020 at 2:50 PM

Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas

Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas (D-Bradford) has exited the race for speaker of the Vermont House, likely clearing the path for Rep. Jill Krowinski (D-Burlington) to lead the chamber in January.

Days after Speaker Mitzi Johnson (D-South Hero) lost her House seat this month, Copeland Hanzas became the first candidate to declare her interest in the speakership and began lobbying colleagues for support.

"Through those conversations it became clear to me that Jill Krowinski is very well respected and that many members of the House see her ascendancy to the speakership as a logical next step," Copeland Hanzas said. "I'm quite certain she will be a fine speaker, and I'm happy to support her."

In addition to Krowinski, at least one other candidate remains in the running. Rep. Charlie Kimbell (D-Woodstock), a two-term moderate from the Upper Valley, said he's continuing to seek support for his candidacy, but he acknowledged that he was unlikely to prevail. "It's still possible, but the odds are long," he said.

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Tuesday, November 17, 2020

Burlington High School to Relocate to Macy's for In-Person Learning

Posted By on Tue, Nov 17, 2020 at 10:26 PM

Burlington High School - FILE: OLIVER PARINI
  • File: Oliver Parini
  • Burlington High School
After months of remote learning, Burlington High School students will return to classrooms early next year in the vacant Macy's building downtown.

Nine school commissioners voted Tuesday night in favor of leasing the former department store for three and a half years while the district decides what to do about cancer-causing chemicals found on campus. Commissioners Monika Ivancic (Ward 7) and Kendra Sowers (North District) abstained; board Chair Clare Wool (Ward 6) also did not cast a vote.

The district will pay $1.2 million the first year, and rent will increase by 3 percent each subsequent year. It will also pay more than $3 million to renovate the building, which is owned by the developers of the adjacent CityPlace Burlington site. Superintendent Tom Flanagan said the district is "aggressively" pursuing state aid to help pay for the new digs.

Commissioner Stephen Carey (Ward 2) said that while it's not ideal, the arrangement gets students back into classrooms as soon as possible and presents creative learning opportunities.

"I'm excited about the potential for a dynamic downtown high school that's connected to the city in the way that none of our schools are," Carey said. "I think our community and our students are going to adapt really well to it."

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Vermont Restricts Hospital Visitations, Announces New Testing Sites

Posted By on Tue, Nov 17, 2020 at 4:13 PM

  • Gov. Phil Scott
Vermont has reinstated stringent hospital visitation protocols and will make testing more available to the general population this week amid a record number of new coronavirus cases.

Gov. Phil Scott's administration outlined the developments during a press conference Tuesday, projecting a bleak outlook for the coming weeks as the virus continues to creep through the state.

"We're seeing rapid growth, and this growth is not because of tourists," Scott said. "Not because of restaurants. Not because of gyms. Not because of schools. It's because adults continue to get together with other adults — multiple households, inside and outside — in situations usually involving alcohol where they stop taking precautions."

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Drought Disaster Declared for 10 Vermont Counties

Posted By on Tue, Nov 17, 2020 at 4:00 PM

The feds designated the 10 counties in red a disaster area. Farmers in adjoining counties (orange) are also eligible for aid. - U.S. DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture
  • The feds designated the 10 counties in red a disaster area. Farmers in adjoining counties (orange) are also eligible for aid.
Federal officials have declared 10 counties in Vermont to be a natural disaster area due to the 2020 drought — a decision that allows farmers who lost crops to lack of rainfall to apply for disaster aid.

The counties are Addison, Bennington, Chittenden, Washington, Rutland, Windham, Windsor, Orange, Essex and Caledonia. Under federal law, the adjoining counties are also eligible for aid, meaning that farmers in all of Vermont and certain counties in New York, Massachusetts and New Hampshire will also qualify for aid over the next eight months.

Vermont farmers estimated at least $27 million in crop losses due to the drought. Corn and hay yields were down by as much as 75 percent, steams and farm ponds ran dry, and farmers were forced to haul water and feed animals harvested hay when pastures dried up. In Ferrisburgh, farmer Erik Andrus lost acres of rice that he'd planted.

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Monday, November 16, 2020

COVID-19 Testing Underway for Vermont Teachers, School Staff

Posted By on Mon, Nov 16, 2020 at 10:03 PM

Samples at the Vermont Health Department lab - FILE: OLIVER PARINI ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • File: Oliver Parini ©️ Seven Days
  • Samples at the Vermont Health Department lab
As coronavirus cases continue to reach record highs in Vermont, the Agency of Education and Department of Health embarked on a new initiative this week to offer COVID-19 tests to thousands of K-12 teachers and staff around the state.

The tests are “part of our ongoing offense against the virus,” Health Commissioner Mark Levine said at a press conference last week, a “surveillance strategy” that will give the state an idea of how prevalent the coronavirus is in Vermont communities.

This week, asymptomatic personnel at all public schools in the state — as well as at five independent schools chosen because of their geographic location and size of their staff — can take an on-site COVID-19 test. Each school district must have a designated COVID-19 coordinator or school leader to “oversee the logistics of distributing, accepting, logging, boxing and shipping the kits,” said Agency of Education spokesperson Suzanne Sprague.

The Agency of Education is not aware of any other state conducting this kind of school staff surveillance testing, Sprague added.

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School Board to Consider Leasing Macy's as Temporary High School Space

Posted By on Mon, Nov 16, 2020 at 7:35 PM

  • File: Courtney Lamdin ©️ Seven Days
  • A sign at BHS
The Burlington School Board on Tuesday will consider approving an agreement to convert the former Macy's store downtown into a high school while the district investigates cancer-causing chemicals found on campus.

District officials have agreed to lease the 150,000-square-foot vacant storefront for $8 per square foot, plus taxes, utilities and insurance, for three and a half years, according to a memo from Superintendent Tom Flanagan.

Rent would cost $1.2 million in year one and would increase by 3 percent each subsequent year. The Cherry Street building is owned by the developers of the CityPlace Burlington project, which is slated for construction on an adjacent parcel.

School commissioners earlier this month agreed to allow Flanagan to pursue a lease but have not yet signed off on its terms. If the deal is approved, the district would also pay more than $3 million to fit up the space before students could move in early next year, according to Dave Farrington, one of the owners.

The district is seeking state and federal funding for the project, Flanagan's memo says.

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Vermont's Hospitality Industry to Get $75 Million in Aid

Posted By on Mon, Nov 16, 2020 at 5:43 PM

Church Street Marketplace earlier this year - FILE: LUKE AWTRY ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • File: Luke Awtry ©️ Seven Days
  • Church Street Marketplace earlier this year
Vermont lawmakers approved $75 million in additional relief for the state’s hospitality industry over the weekend as surging COVID-19 cases dimmed the state's winter business prospects.

Restaurants, bars and lodging businesses were already among the businesses eligible for grants of up to $300,000 under a $76 million economic recovery program that the legislature approved over the summer.

But officials feared the hospitality industry, as it faces new restrictions and an uncertain holiday season, needed an additional lifeline, said Joan Goldstein, commissioner of the state Department of Economic Development.

“It’s really going to be hard for them to get through the winter, and we just thought this was the best way to help them survive,” Goldstein said Monday.

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Pine Touts Experience in Formal Mayoral Campaign Announcement

Posted By on Mon, Nov 16, 2020 at 2:44 PM

City Councilor Brian Pine - COURTESY OF BRIAN PINE
  • Courtesy of Brian Pine
  • City Councilor Brian Pine
City Councilor Brian Pine (P-Ward 3) formally announced his campaign for Burlington mayor in a virtual press conference on Monday, pledging to rely on his three decades of experience in local politics if elected to the top post at City Hall.

Pine kicked off the announcement with a pre-recorded clip at the Northgate Apartments in the New North End, the birthplace of his local political activism. In the video, Pine recounted his work in the 1980s to help residents purchase the low-income housing complex, saving it from a plan to revamp the units into market-rate condos.

Pine said his experience advocating for people “left at the margins” will inform how he’d govern as mayor.

“We need more than a custodial government for our city. We need bold action, grounded around a commitment to values,” he said, adding, “I want Burlington to once again be a city government that stands for positive change.”

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Independent Report Faults DOC, Medical Contractor in Death of Black Inmate

Posted By on Mon, Nov 16, 2020 at 1:06 PM

  • Courtesy of Gilbert Johnson
  • Kenneth Johnson
Updated Wednesday, November 18, at 3:22 p.m.

The Department of Corrections could have done more to save the life of an inmate who died last December at a northern Vermont prison, according to a law firm hired by the state to investigate his death.

In a 38-page report issued Monday, attorneys with Downs Rachlin Martin concluded that DOC policies and personnel failed to protect Kenneth Johnson, a 60-year-old Black man who died after an undiagnosed tumor obstructed his airway. The firm also faulted Centurion, the medical contractor that ran the infirmary at Newport’s Northern State Correctional Facility, where Johnson was lodged.

The report questioned whether Johnson’s race contributed to his substandard treatment, concluding that “implicit bias likely played a role.”

The investigation found that authorities were aware that Johnson was in medical distress as early at 10 p.m. on December 6, but failed to respond appropriately to his requests for help. Though Johnson “appeared to be gasping for air,” according to one officer, staff neglected to summon a doctor or transport him to a nearby hospital.

After a Corrections officer found Johnson collapsed on the floor of an infirmary bathroom at 12:38 a.m. the next morning, prison staff ordered him to stay in bed and threatened to send him to a holding cell if he failed to comply, the report found. One supervisor told him to “knock it off.”

Johnson was discovered unresponsive at 2:17 a.m. and was pronounced dead shortly thereafter.

The firm concluded that the department and Centurion "could have and should have done more to assist Mr. Johnson during his health crisis," noting that he was "clearly and visibly in substantial distress during that time period.”

"While corrections staff did not completely fail in responding to these complaints, at the end of the day, their response was insufficient to keep Mr. Johnson from dying from a tumor-caused breathing obstruction," the report’s authors wrote. "That should not have happened."

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Friday, November 13, 2020

Scott Bans Multi-Household Gatherings, Closes Bars Amid COVID Spike

Posted By on Fri, Nov 13, 2020 at 12:28 PM

Gov. Phil Scott and Health Commissioner Mark Levine at a previous briefing - FILE: JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • File: Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Gov. Phil Scott and Health Commissioner Mark Levine at a previous briefing

Updated 5:30 p.m.

A deflated Gov. Phil Scott has imposed a series of new restrictions on social life — banning multi-household gatherings, shuttering bars and suspending recreational sports leagues — in response to an unprecedented wave of new coronavirus cases. 

Scott appeared resigned as he revealed the restrictions at his regular press briefing Friday. Declaring Vermont at a "tipping point," he said his hand was forced once it became clear that many people were ignoring his recent pleas to recommit themselves to prevention efforts.

"We have no choice but to restrict social gatherings, whether at home or in a parking lot," he said. "So, starting today, multi-household gatherings — both inside and out, whether it's public or private spaces — are prohibited."

Vermont reported 84 new infections Friday, bringing the state's seven-day average to its highest-ever level of 59, and the Vermont Health Department says it is now dealing with more "outbreaks" and "situations" than at any other time during the pandemic. Many of those cases, officials say, trace back to private gatherings.

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