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News roundup: Vt. lawmakers reconsidering in-person session in January due to omicron variant

An orange background with vermont news round up written, with a small green graphic of vermot on the "R" of roundup
Elodie Reed

Vermont reporters provide a roundup of top news takeaways about the coronavirus and more for Tuesday, Dec. 21.

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While Vermont's pandemic state of emergency has ended, the delta and omicron variants are now circulating around the state. Click here for the latest on new cases, and findthe latest vaccination data online any time.

1. Vermont officials report COVID hospitalizations drop

Vermont's COVID hospitalizations dropped slightly Tuesday, as the state's key pandemic metrics stabilize after hitting all-time highs earlier this month.

Some 56 Vermonters are now hospitalized with the virus, including 17 in the ICU. That's down from a high of more than 90 people two weeks ago.

The state's seven-day positivity rate was unchanged today, at 4.4% – likewise down from more than 5% earlier in December.

In all, health officials tallied 240 new COVID infections statewide.

Vermont's vaccination data – updated today – shows 85% of Vermonters 5 or older have now gotten at least one vaccine dose, including 52% of 5-to-11-year-olds.

- Matthew Smith

Canada reinstates COVID testing requirements for trips lasting less than 72 hours

Starting Tuesday, Canada has reinstated its testing requirements for Canadians crossing the border for trips lasting less than 72 hours.

The country had dropped testing requirements for fully-vaccinated Canadians who crossed the border into the US but returned within three days.

Now Canada's health minister announced all travelers will need proof of a negative COVID-19 test when entering Canada, including citizens returning after short trips.

- Matthew Smith

Lawmakers reconsidering in-person Statehouse session in January

Legislative leaders are reconsidering their decision to meet in person at the Statehouse in January because of rising concerns about the omicron COVID variant.

Last week, the Joint Rules Committee adopted a series of safety measures. That includes mandating masks for everyone entering the Statehouse and requiring all lawmakers and staff be vaccinated or have proof of a recent negative test.

But Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint says this decision is being reviewed because of the rising number of COVID cases in Vermont.

"Or whether we should start the session perhaps a few weeks in as remote, and then see if the numbers come down, we certainly were not anticipating such a big surge happening again right before the legislative session,” Balint said. “It's very disappointing."

Balint says it's likely that a final decision will be made next week.

- Bob Kinzel

Lawmakers to consider legislation allowing municipal boards to hold public meetings remotely

Vermont lawmakers will consider legislation in January that would allow municipal boards to hold public meetings remotely.

But Windham County Sen. Jeannette White says she doesn’t want select boards and city councils to conduct public business via Zoom indefinitely.

“I don’t want to extend that for too long – I just get a little bit queasy about doing it just ongoing and ongoing,” White said.

Vermont’s open meeting law requires municipal bodies to hold public meetings in a physical location.

With COVID case counts in Vermont at their highest level since the beginning of the pandemic, many municipal officials are asking lawmakers for a temporary reprieve from that requirement.

- Peter Hirschfeld

Senate president pro tem wants to consider statewide indoor mask mandate in January

Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint says she wants key Senate committees in January to consider legislation that would impose a statewide indoor mask mandate to help limit the spread of COVID-19.

In a special session this fall, lawmakers passed a billgiving individual towns the authority to impose an indoor mask mandate, but Gov. Phil Scott threatened to veto a statewide requirement.

Balint says the issue needs to be reconsidered because of the omicron variant.

"Many more towns, even smaller towns, have taken advantage of that legislation than I think perhaps the governor anticipated, so I do think there's an appetite to talk about it,” Balint said. “I think we have to talk about it."

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, nine states currently have indoor mask mandates.

- Peter Hirschfeld

2. Dairy task force wants authority extended to analyze how aid measures will impact industry

A legislative task force is recommending Vermont help its dairy farmers through measures like paying nearly $4 million in farmers’ premiums for federal insurance programs over the next two years, and encouraging schools and prisons to purchase Vermont milk.

Senate Minority Leader Randy Brock, however, says without more explicit economic analysis, it’s not obvious how the recommendations will actually impact the state’s dairy industry, which has lost more than 40% of its conventional farms since 2012.

“Rather than say, here we think this is a good idea to do, but we have no idea what the benefit is gonna be, we aren’t able to measure, and I don’t think that’s good enough for us,” Brock said.

The task force is also recommending its authority be extended – in order to provide that economic impact analysis.

- Elodie Reed

3. Pension task force likely to suggest using $150 million in federal funds to address shortfalls

A task force assigned to overhaul Vermont’s pension system won’t unveil its recommendations until early January.

But task force co-chair Sarah Copeland Hanzas says the final report will likely suggest using $150 million in federal money to address pension shortfalls for teachers and state employees.

“And I expect it could also include a request for more one-time money, and possibly ask the state to make a commitment of ongoing investment in paying down the unfunded liability in both systems,” Copeland Hanzas said.

The task force is also expected to recommend cuts to pension benefits.

But increases in state contributions to the pension plans would mitigate the need for reductions to benefits.

- Peter Hirschfeld

4. Champlain Housing Trust buys Days Inn in Shelburne

The Champlain Housing Trust has purchased the Days Inn in Shelburne, its second major acquisition this month and the eighth lodging establishment it has purchased since 2013.

The trust’s Harbor Place motel will eventually shift operation to the Days Inn site, with plans to redevelop the Harbor Place site into nearly 100 affordable homes and rentals designed to help ease the region's housing shortage.

Trust officials are working with the town of Shelburne to redevelop the Harbor Place property into permanent housing.

The purchase and rehabilitation costs for the hotel are covered by a $7.3 million grant from the Vermont Housing & Conservation Board using federal coronavirus relief funds.

- Associated Press

5. New plan makes opportunity for development of backcountry ski glades on Camel’s Hump

A new land management plan for the Camel’s Hump region could set the stage for the development of new backcountry ski glades.

A glade is a stretch of trees spaced wide enough apart to ski through – they're either naturally occurring or achieved by tree cutting.

New ones haven't been allowed in the Camel's Hump area since at least 1991.

The new Long Range Management Plan for Camel’s Hump creates the opportunity for them to be established in places where timber harvests have happened.

Jason Nerenberg is with the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation:

“Those are the places that they’re not so sensitive or so steep that we’re precluded from managing timber there, so they might be really great places to also manage skiing,” Nerenberg said.

The plan also sets the stage for establishing official ski glades at Huntington’s Bald Hill and off the Callahan Trail in Duxbury. And it allows relocations of the Long Trail and Catamount Ski Trail.

Before any new ski glades are created, extensive permitting and community engagement will need to occur.

- Abagael Giles

6. Vermont Library Association issues statement against push to remove books about race

The Vermont Library Association has issued a statement against the push, in some states, to remove books on racism and Black history.

A school district in Texas removed about 400 books from its libraries citing the “appropriateness” of the books’ contents. Many of the books deal with race and history.

The Vermont Library Association Monday said it stood firmly against legislation that restricts or impedes any education on racial injustice and diversity.

The association said the move in Texas was alarming, and it works against the values of equity, diversity and inclusion that libraries stand for.

The library association is also working on a rapid response plan to assist any librarian in the state who is asked to remove books from the shelves.

- Howard Weiss-Tisman

7. St. Albans culinary instructor wins Food Network show holiday baking competition

A St. Albans culinary instructor has won a holiday baking competition on a popular Food Network show.

Adam Monette, a culinary arts teacher at the Northwest Career and Technical Center, was the winner of the eighth season of the popular Holiday Baking Championship show.

The show was recorded earlier this year, but the finale – and Monette's big win – wasn't revealed until it aired Monday night.

Monette's win of the baking championship means he'll take home a $25,000 prize and will be featured in the Food Network magazine.

- Matthew Smith 

Elodie Reed compiled and edited this post.

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