3.13.2020 – COVID-19 and the Vermont State House

The Vermont State House has not been unaffected by the coronavirus, COVID-19. As the week progressed, meetings were occurring daily to plan for emergency situations. The Chairs of the House committees met with Speaker Mitzi Johnson to determine what needed to be done to prepare in case our worst fears became reality. Mitzi, in turn, met with Senate leadership and Gov. Phil Scott’s administration to determine our plan of action.

Everyone’s major goal is to keep Vermonters informed, safe, and free of COVID-19. As I write this, there are now four presumptive positive cases and one case that has been confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, so halting the spread of the virus is our first goal. It is important to not panic knowing that much of the population could contract COVID-19 and not be severely affected. Older Vermonters and those with compromised immune systems are most at risk for severe illness. While containing the virus is Job #1, if the worst happens, we want to be prepared for as many eventualities as possible.

Conversations about steps to take focused on the needs of working people. Concerns about Vermonters who live paycheck to paycheck who might feel ill but think they need to go to work to keep their households afloat, pay the mortgage, etc., but then spread the virus to co-workers. Vermonters who might want to be tested or feel they should go for medical help but don’t have health care coverage that will pay for it. What about workers whose employers close temporarily due to COVID-19? Will they qualify for unemployment insurance?

There is great concern regarding the eventuality of schools closing and what happens to children who rely on school for their meals. In some cases, children are sent home with backpacks full of food for the weekend. How can we make sure they are fed? What will happen regarding childcare for people who need to go to work?

We took testimony from a longtime employee of the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets, Diane Bothfeld. She laid out some of the measures that are taken for continuance of operations. Our questions included how farmers will continue to do their work if they contract COVID-19? The average age of our dairy farmers is in the neighborhood of those that seem to be at most risk. Will the milk and grain trucks continue to run? Dairy is worth $3 million a day to the state. What about our farm workers, some of whom are undocumented? If they experience the symptoms, will they fear getting the help they need because Immigration and Customs Enforcement might be waiting for them at medical facilities?

We spent most of Friday working through a series of bills and resolutions that would take care of many of these potential problems. We passed a resolution that asks the “U.S. Department of Homeland Security to issue an official statement that employees of its Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection agencies will not arrest any person based on immigration status at a hospital, healthcare facility, or coronavirus testing site for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic emergency.”

On Friday, the Governor declared a state of emergency that gives him certain powers to act in the public’s good. He took several steps to limit the spread of the disease and address some of the questions that are posed above.

In terms of limiting the spread he asks that the following prohibit visitor access for the time being: All State licensed nursing homes, the Vermont Psychiatric Care Hospital (VPCH), Middlesex Therapeutic Community Residence, State licensed assisted living residences, Levels III and IV residential care homes, intermediate care facilities for individuals with intellectual disabilities, and all State therapeutic community residences. The goal is to reduce facility-based transmission but does not apply to medically necessary personnel or visitors for residents receiving end of life care. Any visitors will be screened in accordance with recommendations by the Commissioner of the Vermont Department of Health. Hospitals other than VPCH are asked to develop visitation policies and procedures that conform to a minimum standard which shall be developed by the Agency of Human Services.

One provision that may have a huge impact on our ski industry is the prohibition “of all large non-essential mass gatherings of more than 250 people in a single room or single space at the same time for social and recreational activities, such as an auditorium, stadium, arena, large conference room, meeting hall, cafeteria, theater, or any other confined indoor or confined outdoor space.”

What is not included is the “normal operations at airports, bus or railway stations where 250 or more persons may be in transit. It also does not include typical office environments or retail or grocery stores where large numbers of people are present, but where it is unusual for them to be within arm’s length of one another. Questions from commercial recreational entities, event sponsors and others shall be directed to the State Emergency Operations Center which shall provide appropriate guidance.”

All non-essential out-of-state travel by State employees is suspended in order to protect State workers and further contain the virus. They are also encouraged to work from home when possible. From an agricultural perspective, food safety activities like meat and dairy inspection will continue.

The Adjutant General of the National Guard of the State of Vermont has been asked to call into Active State Service all units “for the purpose of assisting and supporting the State of Vermont, in its efforts to respond to the conditions created or caused by COVID-19 in order to alleviate hardship and suffering of citizens and communities and in order to preserve the lives and property of the State.” The Adjutant General will work in consultation with the Department of Public Safety and Vermont Emergency Management to carry out their responsibilities.

The Department of Financial Regulation will be working with the Departments of Labor, Tax, and Finance and Management to “collect data on the state’s demographics and analyze the potential and actual impacts of a COVID-19 outbreak on the state’s population, the labor force and the economy, including state revenues.”

The Governor directs the Department of Labor to extend unemployment insurance to workers affected by the virus who miss work because they are following doctor’s orders to quarantine or self-isolate. If a business closes temporarily because of COVID-19, the workers will not have to do work searches. A survey will be done by the Agency of Commerce and Community Development in conjunction with the U.S. Small Business Administration and the Vermont Small Business Development Center “to determine the economic impact of losses for the disaster period as compared to the same period of the preceding year for the purpose of applying to the U.S. Small Business Administration for SBA Economic Injury Disaster Loans.”

In order to reduce the risk of infection for Vermonters who may have licensing and registration deadlines with the Department of Motor Vehicles, the Commissioner of Motor Vehicles will develop a plan to extend those deadlines.

At this point, there is no order to close Vermont’s schools, but a contingency plan is being developed by the Agency of Education in case that action is recommended by the Vermont Department of Health and Vermont Emergency Management. Student absences that are the result of following medical advice due to COVID-19 will not be penalized.

It was inspiring to see how well the House, Senate, and Scott Administration worked together to quickly pass legislation that put in place a solid framework for dealing with all contingencies for the good of all Vermonters. Ultimately it was decided that the Vermont State House would close, we would leave Montpelier for a week, and reconvene on March 24, unless it is determined that we should not come back.