MONTPELIER — Gov. Phil Scott has announced limited indoor dining at restaurants can resume and he’s allowing some interstate travel as Vermont continues to open up during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
At his regular news conference Friday, the governor said despite an outbreak in Winooski he was ready to take another “turn of the spigot” to reopen the economy. Health officials said over 30 people there have been infected with the virus that causes COVID-19.
But according to the Vermont Department of Health, there were only two new cases of the virus to report Friday, bringing the total confirmed cases to 1,027. No one is currently hospitalized due to the virus and the death toll remains 55.
Scott said starting Monday restaurants can offer indoor dining at 25% capacity.
“One of the things Vermont is known for is local food and craft brews, so I know how important this sector is to our economy,” he said.
Those looking to eat inside at a restaurant will have to make reservations and the restaurant will have to offer disposable menus, maintain a 6-foot distance between tables and close their bars, among other restrictions.
The governor said he understood the state has a long way to go to help restaurants get back on their feet and he knows they can’t survive at 25% capacity, “but we’ve got to start somewhere.”
He also announced lodging establishments can increase their capacity to 50%. Those establishments and restaurants will have more people to serve because the governor said starting Monday he’s going to allow some from out-of-state to come to Vermont without having to quarantine, depending on where they are coming from.
Michael S. Pieciak, commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation, has been analyzing the data that informed the governor’s decision to ease restrictions. The data from Pieciak Friday showed while some areas, such as the southeastern part of New Hampshire and all of Massachusetts, were seeing continued high rates of infection, some areas are in better shape.
He presented a map showing all of the counties in New York and New Hampshire that border Vermont had fewer than 400 cases per million people. That’s the threshold the state has picked for allowing people to come into Vermont without having to quarantine themselves for 14 days.
All but three counties in Maine fall under that threshold, as do other counties in New Hampshire and several in New York. Vermonters traveling to those counties also no longer have to quarantine once they return home, though they will still have to follow any travel restrictions the state they are going to may have.
A map of the approved counties will be updated every Monday and can be found at the Agency of Commerce and Community Development’s website at accd.vermont.gov/
The governor said he expects to further reduce quarantine requirements in the coming weeks.
Those who are homeless continue to be housed in hotels in motels because the pandemic has shut down the shelters. Secretary of Human Services Mike Smith said there are about 1,000 homeless people being housed in lodging facilities. He said that’s unsustainable, both because it costs the state too much and because those people do not have access to the services they need.
Smith didn’t give any details, but he said a plan will be presented in the next week or so to the legislature to address the transition of that population from their current lodgings.
BARRE — Convicted kidnapper Harley Breer has until November to find a state that will allow him to move there or he will receive a life sentence in Vermont.
Breer, 50, pleaded no contest on May 28 in Chittenden County criminal court in Burlington to felony counts of second-degree aggravated domestic assault and second-degree unlawful restraint. He also admitted to two violations of probation.
Breer has been placed on home confinement in Marshfield until Nov 1. He’s looking at moving to Maine and may have a job lined up there. But the state he wants to move to will need to accept him.
He can’t move to a state that borders Vermont, which includes Massachusetts, New York and New Hampshire. But if he does find a state that will accept him, he will be placed on probation there for 45 years.
If he is unsuccessful, he will receive a zero to life sentence meaning he will be placed on furlough, the strictest form of probation referred to as jail on the streets, for the rest of his life. Breer faces a life sentence because he was charged as a habitual offender. If he violates his probation he can be taken directly to prison and it would then be up to the Department of Corrections when he could be released.
For the domestic assault and unlawful restraint convictions, in September 2018, Breer grabbed a woman he had been seeing and slammed her head into the center console of his truck about three times in Marshfield, according to court records. The woman told police she and Breer were driving around looking for bears and talking when Breer got angry with her. She told Breer she wanted to get out of the vehicle, but he told her he didn’t want “any third parties involved” and he also didn’t want her walking.
Breer was on probation at the time.
In May 2017, Breer, representing himself, entered into a plea agreement and was sentenced to 20 to 45 years to serve, all suspended with credit for time served, and placed on probation for 45 years on a felony count of second-degree aggravated domestic assault and two misdemeanor counts of disturbing the peace by phone.
According to court records, Breer beat a woman in November 2011 and left threatening voice messages on her phone. He was also accused of stealing her car and going on the run before being captured in New Hampshire.
He previously spent eight years in prison after being convicted in 1999 in a high-profile kidnapping case.
Breer had been held without bail at Southern State Correctional Facility in Springfield when he filed a motion asking for his release due safety concerns about the novel coronavirus pandemic. Washington County State’s Attorney Rory Thibault said Friday those hearings on the motion reignited discussions of a possible resolution between himself, Breer who was again representing himself on the criminal charges, and attorney Robert Sussman who was representing Breer on the probation violations.
Thibault said he was in favor of the plea agreement because the victim in the 2018 assault didn’t want the case to drag on and there were some credibility issues because her story had changed regarding a shirt of hers that was ripped and whether the shirt ripping was part of the assault. Questions about the victim’s credibility is a problem when there was no other witness to the crime.
If the case had gone to trial, he said there was a likelihood a jury could have found Breer not guilty due to reasonable doubt. And while he was confident he would have prevailed in showing Breer violated his probation, that wasn’t a guarantee so Breer could have been released back on a less-strict form of probation.
Thibault said he understood the concern those in central Vermont have expressed at Breer being in the community again. That’s why he put in language not allowing Breer to move to a bordering state and if he moves back to Vermont in the future he will receive the furlough sentence.
“I think it could be easy for somebody to look at his record and assume that he’s getting away with something or that the state has yet again caved and given up in terms of prosecuting him. I am fully cognizant of the risks that many offenders like Harley Breer present to the community. And there are many anxious days and sleepless nights thinking about how best to protect and serve people in this community. That duty is also bound by the facts and evidence available. And more often than not, it is in fact a hard call of whether to enter into and accept a plea agreement. Those agreements are based on weighing a number of different factors, and in this case I would not have agreed to this if I didn’t think that this is a better outcome than where the state could have ended up given some of the deficiencies in evidence and issues with the procedural history of past cases,” he said.
MONTPELIER — The head of the state Department for Children and Families is calling it a career after some turbulent years and his replacement is ready to step up.
Gov. Phil Scott announced this week that Commissioner Ken Schatz will retire June 26. He will be replaced by Deputy Commissioner Sean Brown.
Over the course of his career, Schatz has worked as city attorney for Burlington, deputy defender general, as a juvenile defender and as general counsel for the Agency of Human Services. He took over as the head of DCF in September 2014.
Schatz said he was planning to retire this year.
“It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while, to be candid. I have been commissioner for almost six years. I had thought about when is the appropriate timing,” he said.
Schatz said the novel coronavirus pandemic has been a challenge for the state to deal with, but now that things are opening back up, he felt it was the right time to retire.
When Schatz took the job the department was under scrutiny because of the deaths of two young children, 2-year-old Dezirae Sheldon and 14-month-old Peighton Geraw. Sheldon had been in DCF custody weeks before she was killed by her stepfather. Geraw’s family had been visited by a DCF worker hours before his death.
“Those two child fatalities, of children who had been in DCF custody, weighed very heavily on our system and, from my perspective, it was important to try and address and strike the appropriate balanced between child protection and reunification of children with their parents.
Schatz had to deal with another tragedy less than a year into the job. In August 2015 Jody Herring gunned down DCF worker Lara Sobel, 48, outside of the department’s offices in downtown Barre. Herring also killed three of her family members in Berlin. She has since pleaded guilty to four counts of murder and sentenced to life in prison without parole.
The final straw for Herring appeared to be when her young daughter was taken from her custody by the state. Schatz said Sobel’s death was “incredibly devastating and challenging for all of us involved in child welfare.”
“It was horrific, let’s be clear. The idea of a murder of a committed, well-meaning, smart professional doing her best to support children and parents was just unbelievable. I think it forced us to be more concerned about safety of our staff, safety of other providers. Not just DCF, but other human service providers. So we had to be more mindful of issues relating to personal safety. We also had to continue to do our best to appropriately provide supervision and support for both the children and the parents that we’re engaged with,” he said.
The department’s offices were located inside City Place at the time of Sobel’s death, but they moved back into the courthouse next door for added safety because according to officials there are armed sheriff’s deputies inside the building at all times when it’s open.
After the murders, multiple people spoke publicly about how the sympathized with Herring. They talked about how their children had been taken away by the department.
Schatz said child welfare is an incredibly challenging arena. He said the department tries to do its best to protect children and support families. He pointed out, however, the department doesn’t make decisions unilaterally. The department works alongside the state’s attorney’s office, attorneys who represent families, as well as the judge who has the final say in child custody matters in family court.
“We’re part of a system, to be sure. But to me, it was very important to do our best to stabilize our system to strike the balance appropriately,” he said, adding the department does its best to make sure children remain with their parents.
Schatz said he’s proud of the department’s staff and the work they do. He was also proud of the effort made to raise the age of someone eligible for youthful offender status. He said science shows brains haven’t fully developed until someone is in their 20s. So he said it’s important if someone who is 18 years old is accused of committing a crime to be able to handle the matter in family court so that person doesn’t have a public criminal record dragging them down as they go forward in life.
He’s not sure what happens next, but Schatz said he’s ready to enjoy retirement.
“I’ve had a full career. I’ve done a lot of really interesting things. I’m looking forward to enjoying some time at home and maybe doing some traveling once the pandemic ends,” he said.
Schatz’s replacement didn’t see himself becoming the commissioner of the department when he took a job with the Agency of Human Services in 1997. He became deputy commissioner in April 2014, a few months before Schatz took over.
But Brown said the work has become a calling for him.
“For me, I really enjoy serving Vermonters, Vermonters in need and working with our partners across the board. And so this just happened to be a logical step for me in terms of where I am right now and I’m excited for the opportunity,” he said, adding it was bittersweet to see Schatz go because they made a good team.
His work as deputy commissioner has focused on the economic side of the department so he’s been collaborating with the other divisions within the department and is familiar with them. But he said he will need to dive into all aspects of the department to get a good handle on things.
Brown said he wants to continue with the work Schatz started and to build on it. The pandemic has caused massive damage to the economy and he said a big priority for him will be supporting residents with the programs and services the department offers. He said the department worked quickly to have its staff working from home to help stop the spread of the virus and they now need to assess how that will look going forward, including when the pandemic is over.
“I think there’s some tremendous opportunities there. We made a lot of temporary changes to our processes to really make it easier for Vermonters to access our programs and waived some different requirements that really paved the road for folks to access benefits and services much easier. I think we need to evaluate how those worked. I think many of them worked well and we want to consider whether we want to make some of those permanent changes,” he said.
Lia Rubel, of Barre, is on a mission: Provide smartphones and other WiFi capable devices to seniors who can’t afford them but need them now during the COVID-19 pandemic to meet with their doctors.
Rubel has collected 30 devices and is hoping to secure at least 70 more.
Rubel, a 2019 graduate of Spaulding High School and a sophomore at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, is the Vermont representative to the nonprofit group TeleHealth Access for Seniors which began in March with the goal of collecting smart devices and cash donations to provide elderly patients and veterans with access to healthcare services via video chat and to sustain the patient-doctor relationship during the pandemic.
“Given COVID-19, most medical practices have switched to a telehealth model where doctors connect with patients via video chat. However, many elderly patients lack the camera-enabled devices necessary to attend these appointments. Essentially, what we do is collect old smartphones, tablets and laptops and we donate them to elderly patients so they can remotely connect with their doctors. What this does is allow elderly patients to stay at home and avoid the risk of COVID-19 infection,” she said.
To get the world out she is using social media and other public platforms and has met with three Rotary clubs in Vermont. “What we’re looking for are camera enabled devices with a touch screen,” Rubel said.
The devices are distributed through health partners. Rubel is working with the VA Hospital in White River Junction, which received 26 units on Tuesday, and is planning to contact other health providers.
“It’s an invaluable service for us. We have patients from the Canadian border to the Massachusetts border and some of them simply can’t make it here,” said Karen Campbell, chief of volunteer services at the hospital.
Rubel learned about TeleHealth Access for Seniors from her friend Hannah Verma, one of the cofounders of the group.
Verma, a Yale senior, started three organizations with fellow Yale students Tiffany Wong and Aakshi Agarwal and with her brother, Arjun, a student at Lake Highland Preparatory School in Orlando, Florida. The two siblings came up with the idea after talking to their parents, both physicians, about the challenges of treating patients through telehealth.
The two opened a GoFundMe account based in Oakland, Florida and have expanded their operation to 26 states including Vermont. So far the group has donated 700 devices through 55 partners and raised $16,000 to buy new equipment.
Along with video telehealth appointments with medical professionals, the devices can be used to connect with family and friends and is especially useful for residents in nursing homes who cannot receive visitors, Rubel said.
TeleHealth Access does not pay for WiFi but does provide a list of WiFi hot spots. In addition, the group provides printed guides in multiple languages explaining how to use the devices and has volunteers available to offering technical support via phone and email.
When Rubel receives a donated device she makes sure not only is the device working and WiFi capable but also that there is no personal information on the phone. If there is she wipes it clean to protect the donors.
Anyone interesting in donating a device or giving a cash donation can visit telehealthforseniors.org. Devices must have a camera and be able to connect with WiFi.
TeleHealth Access for Seniors is working in partnership with Benefit Books a 501(3) nonprofit organization. TeleHealth expects to receive 501(3) nonprofit status soon but in the meantime is working through Benefit Books as its fiscal sponsor.
“If you have a smart device you aren’t using this is a simple and effective way to help out during this pandemic,” Rubel said.
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