MONTPELIER — State officials say cases of the novel coronavirus are starting to come down in Vermont and nationally.
Also, they gave a briefing on the latest relief efforts passed by Congress.
Just last week, Michael S. Pieciak, commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation, said cases of the virus had never been higher in the U.S.
At Gov. Phil Scott’s regular Tuesday news conference, Pieciak, who analyzes the pandemic data, said this week’s data “provides a much more optimistic outlook for our country, for our region and for our state. Suggesting, even, that the U.S. may have surpassed its third peak.”
Pieciak cautioned, as residents have seen during the past 10 months, things can change quickly, for the better but the worse as well.
He said the national case rate has declined each of the past seven days. He said there’s been an 18% decrease in new cases reported this week. Pieciak noted this is the first sustained decrease in cases that isn’t associated with a decrease in testing related to the holidays.
“More encouraging, new case growth is slowing in every region of the country. So the improvements we’ve seen are not limited to a small handful of states, but in fact 41 states experienced case decreases over the past week,” he said.
Also, Vermont has seen its daily case counts drop. There were 142 new cases reported Friday, 123 reported Monday and 102 reported Tuesday.
The state continues to vaccinate residents and will start giving shots next week to Vermonters who are 75 years old or older and don’t live in a long-term care facility. The state is finishing up vaccinating health care workers, first responders and those at such facilities.
According to the state’s vaccine dashboard, more than 28,300 people have received their first shot of the vaccine, or about 6% of the state’s population older than age 16. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require two shots, weeks apart, for maximum efficacy. Nearly 6,200 people have been given their second shot in Vermont.
Congress has passed more legislation aimed to help businesses impacted by the pandemic.
Former Barre Mayor Thomas Lauzon, a certified public accountant, is a member of a task force the governor created to help the state’s economy through the pandemic.
Lauzon gave a presentation Tuesday talking about what programs are available and for whom they are available. More information about the programs can be found at the website for the Agency of Commerce and Community Development.
Lauzon said the Employee Retention Tax Credit was created by the CARES Act, passed last year in response to the pandemic, and improved upon by the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021. He said the tax credit is refundable and is calculated on payroll and health expenses.
“Employers will receive almost immediate access to dollars by reducing required payroll tax deposits or by receiving a refund of taxes,” he said.
He said businesses that qualify will need to show a “full or partial suspension” of operations or a percentage of reduced revenue.
Lauzon said businesses that receive this tax credit can apply for a loan from the Payroll Protection Program (PPP) as well. He said businesses couldn’t have both under the CARES Act.
Lauzon said the amount an employer receives per employee for the tax credit has been increased from $5,000 to $14,000. He said there is no application for the tax credit, it is taken on IRS Form 941/943.
He said the Families First Coronavirus Response Act included a refundable tax credit, too. This one generally applies to all employers with fewer than 500 employees.
This tax credit is given to businesses that provided leave to employees from April 1, 2020 to March 31 of this year.
Lauzon said businesses can again apply for the first round of PPP funding. He said the rules are largely the same as before. He said those who are self-employed and partnerships are eligible for the loan.
He said borrowers who were approved for a PPP loan previously, but didn’t draw the full amount, canceled the loan or repaid what they were given can go back and take that money out again.
Lauzon said the qualifying restrictions on the second round of PPP loans are slightly narrower. He said eligible businesses will need to have 300 or fewer employees and show a 25% reduction in revenue through a traditional quarter, or three months time, instead of through a whole year. He said businesses cannot receive the second version of a PPP loan unless they have been given the first.
Lauzon said there’s another loan available, the Economic Injury Disaster Loan. He said unlike a PPP loan, this loan is not forgivable and is made directly with the Small Business Association to meet financial obligations and operating expenses. This loan is generally available to businesses with fewer than 500 employees, including nonprofts. Businesses that are in an “economically distressed area” and experienced an economic loss of 30% are eligible for an additional advance of about $10,000 which is a grant. The loan amount will generally be about six months of working capital, Lauzon said.
Also, he said Congress established the Shuttered Venue Operations Grant. This grant has made $15 billion available for businesses such as movie theaters, zoos and other live venues that have had to shut down due to the pandemic. Lauzon said $2 billion has been set aside for businesses with fewer than 50 employees.
He said grant funds will be given on a tiered structure with those suffering the greatest revenue loss going to the top of the list.
WILLIAMSTOWN — The Select Board has pumped the brakes on a request it remove two town roads from a trail network that is set to reopen in mid-May while urging the president of the local ATV club to do his level best to secure an off-road option in the next 30 days.
The move buys the Billtown Wheelers time to do what some suggested during Monday night’s remote board meeting it should have done already — find a way around Boyce and Tripp roads.
Though there aren’t many residents on those roads, the folks who live there never wanted to be part of the on-road trail network approved by the board, and narrowly supported by voters, last year.
Most of them signed a petition asking the roads be removed as part of the board’s annual review of the ordinance because some of them said the experience is just what they’d expected.
They went out of their way not to blame members of the club, but, they said the ordinance generated significant ATV traffic and most of it didn’t follow the rules spelled out in the ordinance, creating a nuisance they don’t want to see repeated.
Shaun Boyce, who served on the committee that crafted the ordinance now on the books, said that document specifically allowed a simple majority of residents to request their roads be removed — or added — to the trail network.
Chairman Rodney Graham acknowledged as much, while noting the final decision rests with the board, which had to postpone the discussion when too many people turned out for its in-person meeting last week, and didn’t make much more headway during Monday’s virtual session.
Some residents — Boyce, Dick Flies and his wife, Kate, among them — want Boyce and Tripp roads removed from the town-sanctioned trail. Others like Rood Pond road resident Chris Peloquin, argued that would prevent people who live in his section of town from using the trails on roads where residents aren’t complaining.
The board’s strong preference involves a scenario where members don’t have to pick sides — a sentiment expressed in various ways by Graham, Francis Covey and Matthew Rouleau.
The discussion opened with Billtown Wheelers’ president Travis Pierce noting the club had secured permission from 11 landowners to allow the trail to run across their property and ended with Graham strongly encouraging him to make it an even dozen in order to avoid a head-on collision over Boyce and Tripp roads.
The possible solution involves a Pleasant Street property owner whom Pierce said was initially interested, but later had second thoughts about allowing the trail to cross his property.
Graham said renewing that conversation would be a good idea, because the board would eventually have to make a decision and, absent a workable alternative, it would leave some people unhappy.
Resident Mike Covey echoed those who suggested ATV enthusiasts were getting blamed for the bad behavior of those unwilling to follow the rules.
“Don’t conflate the law breakers with the good folks who are doing things right,” he said. “None of us has any use for those folks who are breaking the law.”
Meanwhile, Covey suggested the board consider expanding the trail network instead of trimming two roads from the original list of 20 included in the ordinance.
“The simple solution would be to open all roads (to ATVs),” he said.
That would nullify the need to persuade the Pleasant Street property owner to allow the trail to cross his property, because Pleasant Street itself would be a trail.
The suggestion prompted Graham to note that while there might be considerable support for the idea among ATV enthusiasts, there would be opposition including from some who would be “afraid” to publicly object.
“We still have many people who are very concerned about this trail system,” Graham said. “It’s not just limited to one road.”
“I don’t feel the town is ready to open all the roads (to ATVs) at this point and time,” he added, even as Covey was openly wondering how many signatures would be required to force a public vote.
That wouldn’t change an ordinance that entitles residents to request their roads be removed from the trail system or quell complaints from those, like Gilbert Road resident Audrey Fargo, who said she was forced to call State Police last year to deal with a persistent problem involving ATV riders, who were rude, spooked her horses eventually forcing her to move the animals to a field that wasn’t ready for them.
“We’re not against the use of ATVs,” she said. “We’re against the use of ATVs in this manner ... It’s very disheartening.”
The list of complaints on Boyce and Tripp Road was longer, and board members were told every rule contained in the ordinance — from speed to hours when ATVs could use the roads — were routinely violated without consequence.
Dick Flies conceded club members might not be to blame, but said the surge in usage accompanied adoption of the ordinance.
Graham said if the board did decide to grant the request and remove Boyce and Tripp roads from the trail system, there is no guarantee ATVs wouldn’t continue to use those roads, but speed limit signs would be removed and enforcement and other support available through the Vermont ATV Sportsman’s Association would no longer be available on those roads.
“It doesn’t mean it will solve all the issues,” he said.
Kate Flies said it would be a good start. Enforcement, she said, is nonexistent, the speed limit is routinely ignored and her biggest fear the recently filed petition will be too if the club isn’t able to strike a deal with the property owner on Pleasant Street.
“If this person doesn’t give his approval does that mean our request will be turned down?” she asked.
Graham said that would be up to the board, which would prefer an off-road solution that would allow it to honor the pending request without creating an obstacle for those who use the trail system. He asked for an update at the board’s Feb. 8 meeting.
In other business, board members again balked at a nonprofit organization’s offer to construct a “beaver baffle” to prevent beavers from clogging the culverts that run under industry street and agreed to cancel town meeting this year.
Board members agreed their budget request and other local issues that are typically discussed and on the floor of town meeting will be decided by Australian ballot on March 2.
Rouleau said he was comfortable changing the voting method in light of the pandemic, but suggested the board stick with Town Meeting Day.
“Our lives have been turned upside-down enough, if we can normalize the day we vote, I’m all in favor of it,” he said.
Though the change will only effect the March elections some members were more interested than others in exploring a more permanent shift. That would require voter approval, and even those interested in the idea didn’t propose adding the question to the ballot this year.
“You have to move us through the pandemic. And you have to get the economy up and running again. You need to unite the Divided States of America. Above all, you have to lead, and do so with dignity.”
Vermont ski areas report two-foot snow totals from the recent storm. B1