3.20.2020 – COVID-19

What a difference a week or so makes. It is truly amazing to see the consciousness that has arisen and how Vermonters are stepping up to the task before us regarding the novel coronavirus and the resulting COVID-19 illness.

Working from home has been very interesting – in some ways good (having our dogs at my feet during telephone conversations) and in others disconcerting (thinking about all the committee work we have done and whether or not it will make it through the process). The only bills we as a Legislature really need to pass are the FY2021 Budget and a way to pay for it. Other legislation, like the Transportation Bill, would be good as well but not completely necessary as we would revert to last year’s budget amount.

However, we did spend a lot of time on an Agriculture Housekeeping Bill that includes a number of provisions important to the Agency of Agriculture, Food, and Markets. I am now in conversation with my counterpart in the Senate to see if there’s a way we can get most, if not all, of what we’ve done through the House and Senate and to the governor’s desk.

This has also been an opportunity for learning. One of the very helpful things I’ve learned how to do is have group meetings on Zoom. Speaker Mitzi Johnson has held two meetings this week with all House committee chairs via Zoom and the dialogue has been very informative and helpful.

A process has been put in place allowing organized communication with the Scott Administration that cuts down on extra work. One of our committee chairs receives and submits questions and suggestions through a Google docs form. Since many people may have the same questions, it cuts down on the number of responses that the governor’s staff has to focus on.

A great example of this has to do with the requirement for dog licensing by April 1 and the need for a rabies vaccine if a dog is due for it. To be clear, rabies vaccines are very important, and dogs should be kept current. However, rabies clinics in our area were creating an opportunity for exposure to everyone present because social distancing is difficult when you’re trying to give a dog a shot. I asked the question and found out that this is something that would actually have to be changed in statute. However, there are options for Town Clerks in the meantime to delay the April 1 deadline (I’ve heard April 30, May 1, and June 1 so far) and/or eliminate the penalty for failing to meet the deadline. It’s also my understanding that the governor has asked for some language to rectify the problem.

Another point that hasn’t been solved quite yet is the fact that the list of essential workers does not include agricultural workers. As a result, they can’t send their children to childcare. This is something that needs to be corrected quickly if we want to keep our farms running. In coming weeks, we may find that our local farms are more important than ever, especially if our transportation infrastructure begins to falter or farmworkers in California become ill and can’t harvest crops.

I have also asked that farmers’ markets, farm stores, and other local food sources be considered essential services, just like grocery stores are. Farmers need the income to keep their businesses going and we don’t want them to struggle just before the next growing season begins. It has been reported that one Vermont artisanal cheesemaker anticipates losing $5 million in income due to the virus, in part due to restaurants closing. I would suggest that, just as we are supporting our restaurants by buying take out food, we could go online to buy our favorite cheeses directly from the producers if possible.

The Scott Administration has been working hard to make it easier for those who have lost their jobs due to the virus to apply for unemployment insurance. Claim Center hours have been increased to include Saturday hours between 9 AM until 3 PM in addition to the existing Monday – Friday: 8:15 AM – 6:00 PM. Contact details include telephone numbers 1-877-214-3330 (Monday – Saturday) and 1-888-807-7072 (Monday – Friday, only), and a 24 hour online form at Labor.Vermont.gov.

Another recent update is that the filing and payment deadline for personal income tax has been extended to July 15 for federal and state returns. This due date applies to small businesses that report income on a Schedule C of their personal income tax return as well as to corporations.

Now, more than ever, we need to take care of ourselves and our neighbors even if only remotely. I called my 94-year-old neighbor to find out how he was doing, and he said, “Hi Carolyn, do you need anything?” That made me smile. It’s odd to be in the group that now needs to be careful about being exposed to COVID-19. Typically, my inclination is to be out and about helping others, but I find myself being encouraged to “hunker down” and avoid contact.

It may seem an odd thing to say but this kind of situation is a large part of why I moved to Vermont 48 years ago. Having experienced the ramifications of two major power black outs in the New York City area, I knew that I wanted to be in a place where I could grow my own food, heat my own house, and contribute to a community that was of a manageable size. This meant that I did not earn the kind of income I might have had I stayed in a more populated place, but I have different kinds of “savings accounts.” One is a couple of freezers full of food produced mainly on our farm and another is a chicken coop with hens that produce delicious eggs. Anyone who knows me is aware of the fact that I have way more yarn and fabric than anyone should, but it allows me to start sewing masks that, while they won’t be Centers for Disease Control-approved, may help out in a pinch.

As a legislator, I am, perhaps, most proud of how those of us who serve in Montpelier are all working together to make things better for Vermonters during this difficult time. While politics in Montpelier have never been nearly as toxic as they can be in Washington, DC, we seem to have dropped all of that pretense and rolled up our sleeves to get through this together. If you want more information, the website www.healthvermont.gov might be helpful as well as calling 211. Please observe all the precautions you’ve heard a million times and stay well.