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Scott: Outbreaks are to be expected

Gov. Phil Scott said a COVID-19 outbreak in Winooski is likely to be followed by others as the state continues to slowly reopen.

Scott said during a news conference Wednesday that he was watching the situation in Winooski — about which little information was available but has been reported as involving seven new cases — as his administration worked on requirements for indoor dining, which he hopes to announce Friday.

The governor said indoor dining will be “very curtailed” at first, and that he was not prepared to let bars reopen.

“We have a very long way to go to get our restaurants back on their feet, but we have to start somewhere,” he said.

Scott said he was also working on plans to allow some out-of-staters to visit Vermont without quarantine restrictions, and is looking at increasing the allowed capacity of lodging facilities and campgrounds.

“Nothing about this virus is ideal,” he said. “We’ve done as much as we can to open up as much as we can as safely as we can.”

He said he believed certain regions within Vermont’s neighbors in the Northeast had low enough infection rates that it would be safe to allow residents from there to visit without the required 14-day quarantine, and that he hoped to have talks with those states’ governors about reciprocal arrangements.

Scott said Vermont businesses were struggling to survive and he urged lawmakers to move quickly to pass the emergency relief package he submitted last week. He said the health and economic crises needed to be responded to with equal senses of urgency.

Vermont Health Commissioner Mark Levine said he had just received a report on the Winooski outbreak moments before the news conference, and was unable to offer much detail because the data was still being analyzed. He said a “cluster” was identified late last week, describing it as being made up of people “in the community” and not associated with a long-term care facility. He said testing opportunities were quickly arranged for residents, with 200 people coming for tests on Monday and Tuesday.

“We don’t have a lot of data even on the exact number or the nature of these cases,” he said, adding that the department was conducting “extensive and comprehensive interviews.”

He said they expect expanded testing to reveal more cases, possibly as many as 20.

“This is the nature of this virus,” he said. “When we find clusters or identify outbreaks, we expect cases to increase.”

The governor said he was not taking the outbreak as a sign that the state was reopening too quickly nor that he expected more outbreaks like it.

“The trick is to confine them, surround them, so they can be mitigated,” he said. “If we saw numerous outbreaks around the state at the same time, I would be concerned. ... Sporadic outbreaks are something we have to get used to, accustomed to.”

Scott was also cautious about the prospect of allowing sporting events, noting that professional leagues are playing to empty stadiums.

“We have to walk before we run,” he said. “We’re a long ways away from getting back to anything near normal. ... Little League — those are the areas we’d like to get kids back to doing something normal as quick as we can. We’ll be talking about that in the next couple weeks.”

gordon.dritschilo @rutlandherald.com

Montpelier announces new police chief

MONTPELIER — Though it happened by complete coincidence, the Capital City has hired a man that local officials believe is the first black police chief in Vermont at a time when the nation is protesting the treatment of black people by law enforcement.

The city held a news conference via Zoom Wednesday morning to introduce the community to Brian Peete.

Peete, 44, will start working alongside current Chief Anthony Facos on June 15, after he completes the two-week quarantine necessary because of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Facos is retiring after 35 years of service. Peete is expected to take over July 1.

City Manager William Fraser said Peete has had a long career in law enforcement and the military. Fraser said the last two police chiefs were Montpelier residents who had worked their way up the ranks, but this new police chief hails from out of state.

Peete had been working as the police chief in Alamogordo, New Mexico, and was born and raised in Chicago. Fraser said the city had 19 people apply for the job of the city’s top law enforcement official, but Peete was the best candidate of the bunch, and quickly became the city’s top choice.

“He impressed us with his demeanor, knowledge, breadth of experience, leadership skills and emphasis on mental health awareness and response,” the city manager said.

Fraser said the hope is Peete will continue the police department’s high level of services put in place by Facos.

Peete first served in the U.S. Air Force, working his way up to region manager of the Office of Special Investigations. He then served as a police officer in Chicago, following in his parents’ footsteps, and held multiple positions there before taking the job as police chief in New Mexico.

He was hired in April 2018, but resigned in November after he submitted a whistleblower letter alleging the city was “dysfunctional and experiencing low morale and confidence in its leadership,” according to published reports. He was suspended by the city after the letter was submitted; he filed a lawsuit claiming the action taken against him was retaliatory.

Fraser said he dug deeply into the matter and “came away even more convinced that Brian Peete is the right choice for Montpelier.”

He said a difficult administrative environment created by city officials conflicted with Peete’s professional ethics. The city manager said it was clear Peete still had overwhelming support of many in the Alamogordo community, including those who worked with and for him.

“His integrity throughout the ordeal is inspiring,” Fraser said.

Peete said getting this job was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and insisted he would not let the community down. He said he chose Montpelier, in part, because he wanted a home, a community for his family, which includes his wife, Natalie, and their 6-year-old daughter, Gabriella, and the city appeared to be a good fit and checked many of his boxes.

“It feels like home,” he said.

He said the police department’s reputation was another draw. Peete said the department has a strong culture of service to the community and he wants to follow the lead set by Facos in terms of inclusion, accountability, transparency, community-based service and 21st century policing.

Peete’s hiring comes as those in the country and parts of the world protest against the treatment of black Americans by police. The protests were spurred by the killing of George Floyd, a black man, late last month when a white police officer pressed his neck to the ground with his knee for nine minutes.

Though the hiring process took months to complete and was started well before any protests took place, the timing of his hiring couldn’t have been better.

Videos have been shared on social media where police appear to be engaging in brutality where the protests were started due to complaints against police brutality. Members of the media are being targeted by officers with rubber bullets and teargas, one photojournalist lost an eye from a rubber bullet, and peaceful protesters are attacked and arrested.

Peete said in an interview with The Times Argus on Wednesday he always felt law enforcement was a calling and a purpose for him. He decided to take on a leadership role because working as an officer in Chicago he saw an older law enforcement culture that wasn’t good, adding there was a darkness around the culture. Peete said he believes when someone joins an organization they should do so with the hope of giving back or making it better or both. He said he wanted to work to change the culture.

Peete recalled a time in Chicago where someone was shot and a young kid was upset about it. He said he hugged the child and then the child pushed away because he didn’t want to be seen hugging a police officer. Peete said other officers also gave him a hard time about hugging the kid.

“That’s not right, you know. Because once you kind of get that crust on you, that wall, you don’t become human anymore and I don’t want to feel that,” he said.

Peete said he wanted to take on a leadership role to show other officers it was acceptable to hug an upset child in his line of work, among other things.

Peete said what these protest videos shows is something abolitionist Frederick Douglass talked about. He paraphrased Douglass and said, “those in power don’t want to relinquish it.”

Peete said he tries to see the silver lining and he draws strength and confidence from some officers pushing back so hard against the protests because they know their way of policing is over.

He said there are leaders in law enforcement whose voices are now being amplified with a message of serving their communities.

“I’m sorry that people have to go through what they’re going through. All that means is it just pushes our profession back more. It allows for a narrative to be created that we are an absolute. That all police officers are like this. When in actuality we’re not,” he said.

Disclosure: At the invitation of City Manager William Fraser, Executive Editor and Publisher Steven Pappas served on the community group that interviewed and evaluated the three finalists for the Montpelier police chief position.

eric.blaisdell @timesargus.com

Barre Town sees massive mail-in voting for annual election

BARRE TOWN — Residents overwhelmingly approved the town budget and narrowly approved $40,000 for the “Rock Solid” marketing campaign during a “drive-thru” election, where more than 900 people mailed in their ballots.

The town historically has voted on a budget and elected officers in May, but that had to change due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. In April, the Select Board elected to hold a “drive-thru” election instead of the typical election at Barre Town Elementary & Middle School in an effort to stop the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19.

Residents were urged to vote by mail as much as possible, but they did have the option Tuesday of going to the Department of Public Works garage and filling out a ballot in their cars. In total, 1,121 residents voted. Of those, 971 voted by absentee ballot. That’s a significant increase in turnout when 723 residents voted in last year’s local election, most of them in person.

Residents voted 831-249 to approve the proposed general fund of $4,047,821, which is an increase of $259,445, or 3.72%, over the current budget.

According to the town, the largest new item in the general fund is $56,060 for new lights at the softball field. The budget also includes an increase of $34,020 due to the information technology service provider the town uses.

The police department is seeing its full-time wages go up $23,275. This is due to the department filling two open officer positions.

The fire department is seeing a $33,120 decrease because the town has paid off breathing equipment purchased for firefighters.

Residents also approved the proposed highway budget by a vote of 970-137. That budget is $3,180,375, a increase of $79,565, or 2.56%, over the current budget.

The biggest increase in that budget is $28,435 for employee benefits with the bulk of the increase coming from health insurance premiums.

There is also an additional $24,510 for winter maintenance.

There was one contested race Tuesday. Justin Bolduc defeated Melissa Battah 721-321 for a two-year open seat on the town’s Select Board. The seat is open because Board chairman Tom White did not seek re-election. Bolduc has previously served on the town’s Budget Committee.

The Barre Area Development Corporation had asked residents for $40,000 for its “Rock Solid” marketing campaign. Barre City residents approved such a request on Town Meeting day in March by a 2-to-1 margin. But the result was much closer in Barre Town, with the request approved by a vote of 544-538.

Long-time Town Clerk and Treasurer Donna Kelty is retiring next year. So the town asked residents if they wanted to move from an elected treasurer position to an appointed financial director or chief financial officer. The town clerk position would still be elected.

Voters approved the charter change 857-222. The approved budget includes $27,400 for the new position so the person the town hires can work alongside Kelty before she retires.

The only article that didn’t pass was $4,000 for the Barre Heritage Festival. This year’s event has already been canceled because of the pandemic.

Voters also approved $5,500 for Project Independence, but the program that helps older and disabled residents has announced it will not open back up after the pandemic so that money will not be allocated.

eric.blaisdell @timesargus.com

Scott talks race and Trump

Republican Gov. Phil Scott said Wednesday that President Donald Trump’s trip this week to a D.C. church caused a peaceful protest to become “something uglier.”

“I was watching in disbelief,” he said on Wednesday. “You could see it unfolding right before your eyes. I knew as soon as he said he was going someplace important it would turn into a spectacle.”

Scott was asked early in his Wednesday news conference about his thoughts on the Monday incident, in which peaceful demonstrators protesting the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers were violently dispersed to make way for a presidential photo opportunity at St. John’s Church in Washington, D.C. The event has been condemned by the Episcopal bishop responsible for the parish.

Scott said people do not have to accept the violence that has sprung up at the protests to think about how we as a society can do better on racial issues, and that the United States needs leadership to unite us.

“I’m trying to do this here in this state,” he said. “I suggest the president read what President (Barack) Obama wrote, what President (George) Bush wrote and follow that lead.”

Scott acknowledged that the racial equity task force whose creation he announced earlier this week might sound like “another government gimmick,” but it had been in the works for weeks and that he genuinely believed it would help.

“At the end of the day, it’s up to us,” he said. “We have a responsibility, each and every one of us, just to be better people, treat others the way you want to be treated.”

Scott also said that Vermont needed to grapple with its own racism.

“We’re not immune to what’s happening across the country,” he said. “We need to accept that and open our eyes. ... We may not think what we say is racist ... but some of what is heard means different things to different people.”

Vermont has the second-highest white population in the nation behind Maine. It is around 96%.

During the news conference, Health Commissioner Mark Levine expressed concerns about the protests from an epidemiological standpoint. He said while protesters appeared to be doing well in terms of wearing masks, the gatherings were of a larger size than he was comfortable with from a public-health standpoint and encouraged “COVID-responsive” protests.

gordon.dritschilo @rutlandherald.com

A crew of landscapers from Landshapes, of Richmond, plants the summer display of flowers outside the State House in Montpelier on Wednesday.

Capitol Improvements

14 Vermont dairy farms stopped producing milk in May

Fourteen Vermont dairy farms stopped producing milk in the month of May, according to the Agency of Agriculture.

Meanwhile, lawmakers are hearing from more than just the milk products industry on how to allocate $50 million of dairy relief proposed by the governor.

Secretary of Agriculture Anson Tebbetts said this week that in May 2019, only one dairy farm stopped producing milk.

The agency inspects all Vermont dairy farms for compliance with sanitation and water quality rules on a monthly basis.

“They let us know we no longer need to come to their farm for inspection because they’re no longer milking cows or shipping milk,” said Tebbetts, explaining how the agency keeps a tab on the number of dairy farms producing milk.

Prior to May, there were about 760 dairy farms milking cows.

“Usually it’s a pretty strong indication of closure,” he said. “Sometimes farmers do come back into business and they’ll let us know, but we have very few that are in a seasonal situation. This is a pretty strong indication it was a very difficult month.”

Tebbetts said the farms that stopped producing were scattered across the state and were mostly small to medium-sized producers. The state considers anywhere between 0 to 59 cows a small farm; 50 to 199 cows a “certified small farm;” 200 to 699 cows a medium sized farm; and anything over 700 cows to be a large farm.

With measures to contain the COVID-19 pandemic closing many places that buy milk and milk-derived products such as restaurants, schools and colleges, the demand for milk has dropped substantially, hurting what was already a challenged industry.

Tebbetts said Republican Gov. Phil Scott, as part of a larger relief package, has proposed spending $50 million from the federal CARES Act, designed to address economic damage caused by the pandemic, on Vermont’s dairy farms and cheese makers. He said under the proposal, $40 million would go to milk producers while $10 million would go toward cheese makers.

He said these funds are aimed at carrying farmers and cheese makers into the fall where, by then, hopefully, the markets will have opened up.

Tebbetts added that many other small businesses are in the same situation as dairy farms.

Marty Mundy, executive director of the Vermont Cheese Council, said Tuesday that a survey her group took of its members in March showed 58% of them reported a dip in income of between 25% and 75%. She said about 10% were concerned they would have to close.

Mundy said cheese makers are having to decide whether or not to cut production, which also will lead to lost income later on. She said some in the industry, those whose cheese is sold to tourists and the like, haven’t felt the pinch yet — but likely will.

“It really will be more survival funds than anything else,” she said of the governor’s relief proposal.

Sen. Brian Collamore, R-Rutland, who sits on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, said testimony was taken by his committee last Friday.

“Originally it came across as a $50 million package, and as you might imagine as soon as people become aware that there is funding available, hands go up and ask to be included,” he said.

Collamore explained that Scott’s proposal is being handled much like a state budget would; the governor makes the proposal, lawmakers make changes through the normal process and, ultimately, Scott signs it, vetoes it, or lets it pass into law without his signature.

“All of a sudden the farmers who do vegetables, beef and poultry said, ‘Hey, we’d like to be included, too,’ and so we began taking testimony on that,” said Collamore. “Some members of the committee definitely feel we should not limit it to just dairy farms.”

Collamore said he supports dairy farms, but testimony is being taken from others in the agriculture industry that have been impacted by the pandemic. He said other types of farms have suffered, as have migrant workers, the Meals on Wheels program, and those who make food for schools.

“We also received some indication from the Senate Appropriations Committee that it probably will not be $50 million, it might be less than that,” he said. “I don’t know by what amount. So all of a sudden this is a very fluid situation and we are going to still be taking testimony. Nothing has been decided yet, there’s been no vote taken. We will continue to take testimony from all these groups and try to decide what the fairest way is to begin to help our agriculture segment.”

keith.whitcomb @rutlandherald.com


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