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Vermont House Decides To Cancel In-Person Start To 2021 Legislative Session

A person walks toward the Vermont Statehouse past the snowy lawn.
Elodie Reed
VPR File
The Vermont Statehouse as seen on the first day of the 2020 legislative session. State representatives decided to nix their in-person meeting for the first couple days of the 2021 session. State senators still plan to gather on the session's first day.

Vermont reporters provide a roundup of top news takeaways about the coronavirus, a change in plans for the start of the legislative session and more for Thursday, Dec. 17.

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The latest coronavirus data:


1. Health officials report 136 new COVID cases, but no deaths

The Vermont Department of Health reported 136 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday.

Of those cases, 69 were in Chittenden County. The new infections were recorded in 13 of Vermont’s 14 counties.

The state has now identified 6,149 coronavirus cases since March.

A total of 22 people are currently hospitalized with the disease, including four in ICUs.

State officials did not report any new deaths Thursday. Since the start of the pandemic, 105 people have died in Vermont.

- Abagael Giles

Plattsburgh hospital to lead N.Y. North Country COVID-19 vaccinations

The Champlain Valley Physicians Hospital in Plattsburgh will lead the coronavirus vaccination efforts in New York's North Country.

On Wednesday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo assigned the hospital to be the vaccination hub coordinator for the region. Cuomo says it could take six to nine months for vaccinations to bend the course of the pandemic.

About 4,000 New Yorkers have been vaccinated so far. More than 6,000 New Yorkers are currently in the hospital due to COVID-19, with 57 in the North Country.

- Matthew Smith

Second wave pushing Montreal toward hospital capacity limits

The spread of COVID-19 in Montreal is outpacing the city's first wave and could soon put area hospitals over capacity.

The Montreal Gazette reports the city saw more than 600 new infections Wednesday, topping off more than 4,000 new cases in just the last week.

Montreal-area hospitals have capacity for about 1,000 beds for COVID-19 patients. There are currently more than 380 people hospitalized in the city with the disease.

- Matthew Smith

Vermont House nixes in-person meetings in January

The Vermont House will meet remotely when the legislative session opens on Jan. 6.

Legislative leaders had first planned to have the 150 House members meet in person for two days at the Barre Auditorium. That space, they said, was large enough for members to be physically distant during opening ceremonies.

But they reconsidered after coronavirus cases continued to rise in Vermont.

Burlington Democrat Jill Krowinski is the lead candidate for House speaker. She says the news that the New Hampshire House Speaker died from COVID-19 a week after the lawmakers there met in-person was especially sobering.

“After talking with members in my caucus, it's clear that after what happened in New Hampshire with their first day, concerns really spiked,” Krowinski said.

The 30-member Vermont Senate still plans to meet in Montpelier on the first day, and then will shift to a remote session.

- John Dillon

2. UVM starts layoffs amid backlash

The University of Vermont has started layoffs in the College of Arts and Sciences.

VTDigger reports at least three senior lecturers were laid off Monday, including one of the college's few teachers of Indigenous history and culture.

The layoffs come just two weeks after the college announced 23 liberal arts programs would be cut to cover what it says is an $8.6 million budget gap, due to low enrollment and other pandemic costs.

The cuts have faced widespread backlash. At a virtual press conference held Thursday, geology professor Paul Bierman said his department doesn't see how the cuts are strategic.

“There was nothing about impact, nothing about funding, nothing about land grant mission, nothing about publications, international reputation, the number of students we teach,” he said. “There was one metric: the size of our undergraduate programs.”

On Wednesday, the UVM English Department endorsed a unanimous vote of “no confidence” in administration due to the cuts.

- Matthew Smith and Anna Van Dine

3. Teens not as likely to access Health Department website for COVID info

Teenagers can contract and spread COVID-19 like adults, but information about health guidelines often gets to them indirectly.

Christie Vallencourt is the Chronic Disease Information Director at the Vermont Department of Health. She says the Health Department's ads on the social media platform Snapchat are mostly seen by 13- to 17-year-olds.

“They're not often coming to the website, but they are seeing the ads, and they are seeing the information, and they’re engaging with the information, but they're not going as far as to go and find out more,” Vallencourt said.

Instead, the Health Department relies on health care providers, parents, and teachers to get the message to young people.

Read/hear the full story.

- Anna Van Dine

4. Restaurant chef/co-owner: 'We can't pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and outwork this'

The pandemic has devastated the food and beverage industry.

The National Restaurant Association says 10,000 restaurants around the U.S. have closed their doors in just the past three months.

Neil Solis, chef and co-owner of The Daily Planet in Burlington, bought the decades-old restaurant in January.

Since the pandemic, his restaurant has been operating at a loss, and he's been struggling to qualify for government assistance.

He told Vermont Edition he's had to turn to the local community for financial support to get his restaurant through this pandemic winter.

“This big restaurant in downtown Burlington with downtown Burlington rent — we need 200 people on Saturday night to come in and turn around tables. Like, that's how we survive,” Solis said. “So that's just not an option. We can't pull ourselves up by the bootstraps and outwork this. It's impossible right now.”

Solis has launched a GoFundMe page to raise money to keep The Daily Planet open, and says he isn’t going to give up on the restaurant.

Hear the full conversation.

- April Qian

5. Vermont Foodbank receives record-breaking $9 million donation

The Vermont Foodbank, the state's largest hunger-relief organization, has received a record-breaking $9 million donation.

Seven Days reportsthe donation came from MacKenzie Scott, ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Scott, who is also an author, has pledged to give the majority of her wealth to charitable organizations.

Vermont Foodbank CEO John Sayles says the donation was a surprise and called it “transformational.” It's the largest gift the Vermont Foodbank has ever received.

Sayles says the nonprofit plans to work with its partners to determine how best to use the gift.

- Brittany Patterson

6. Sanders teams up with Republican senator to get $600 checks into COVID relief bill

An unusual political collaboration that includes Sen. Bernie Sanders is largely responsible for a decision to include a second round of direct payments to most Americans in a new COVID relief bill.

Sanders, considered to be the most progressive member of the Senate, teamed up with conservative Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley to insist the payments be part of any compromise plan.

The original proposal was to send $1,200 to most Americans, but the amount was lowered to $600 in the final bill.

Sanders says this scaled back payment amount is still an important step forward.

"Given the fact that nobody was even talking about direct payments last week, that the negotiations had gone on and on and on -- nobody was talking about direct payments -- I'm proud that we were able to get this into the bill,” he said.

Sanders and Hawley were threatening to shut down the federal government if the payments were not included in the final legislation.

- Bob Kinzel

7. Gov. seeking applicants for Cannabis Control Board.

Gov. Phil Scott is seeking applicants to the state's new Cannabis Control Board.

The three-person body will create the state's laws and regulations for a legal marijuana marketplace, and craft rules for cannabis growers, wholesalers, retailers, and labs that will test legal marijuana products.

The board's rules will prepare the state for legal retail marijuana sales by 2022.

Middlebury will be the first Vermont town to ask residents whether they'll allow legal cannabis sales, with a question now on their Town Meeting Day ballot.

- Matthew Smith

8. Outdoor pool once again on Town Meeting Day ballots for St. Albans City, Town

St. Albans voters will consider another proposal for a municipal pool on Town Meeting Day.

The St. Albans Messenger reports the new project proposes a seasonal outdoor pool near the base of Hardack Hill, the St. Albans Town recreational area.

A previous $5.5 million plan for a year-round pool was rejected last year. It was supported by City voters but narrowly defeated by St Albans Town voters by just 32 votes.

The St. Albans City Council reviewed the downsized project this week. It'd be undertaken only by St. Albans City at a cost of about $4 million.

- Karen Anderson

More from VPR: Proposed Pool Depends On Wave Of Cooperation In St. Albans

9. No government approval, but 'Vermontilator' could still be useful

A prototype for a simplified ventilator developed by University of Vermont researchers did not receive federal approval earlier this year, but the designer of the device says it could still be put to use.

Jason Bates, a professor of medicine at UVM, created what became known as the "Vermontilator" in the spring, when it appeared the U.S. was facing a significant shortage of ventilators used to treat COVID-19 patients.

Bates says while he's doubtful the device will be needed in the U.S., it could be adapted for use in developing countries.

"Whereas there may not be an acute need for such a ventilator in the United States, in other parts of the world that are really short of medical supplies and medical facilities, there remains such a need,” he said.

Bates says the Vermontilator's main benefits are that it's cheap to make and easy to repair.

Read/hear the full story.

- Henry Epp

10. Some parts of Vermont got 40 inches of snow Wednesday

A powerful winter storm has left residents in some parts of Vermont digging their way out of feet of snow. The National Weather Service in Burlington reports the state’s four southernmost counties were hit the hardest.

Parts of Bennington and Windsor counties reported more than 40 inches of snow Thursday. Danby and Pawlet in Rutland County recorded more than 30 inches. And in Londonderry in Windham County, 26 inches of snowfall was reported.

While not unheard of, the National Weather Service says it’s unusual to see such a big storm at this time of year.

- Brittany Patterson

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