MONTPELIER — While the state continues to trend in the right direction in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Phil Scott isn’t ready to declare victory.
At his regular Wednesday news conference, the governor noted he’s been “turning the spigot,” or opening the economy back up, since mid-April. He said two weeks ago he took his largest turn, allowing manufacturing and construction to return at full capacity.
“That makes this week an important time to look closely at the data,” Scott said.
And the data continues to look good. According to the state Department of Health, four new cases of the virus were reported Wednesday, bringing the total in the state to 971. There has not been an additional death so that number remains 54.
The governor said as a result, he’s ready to take more steps. He didn’t go into detail, but Scott said Friday he expects to give a time frame for additional close-contact businesses to start back up again, such as cleaning services and gyms. He also plans to announce the amount of people who can gather together will be increased from 10 to 25.
Scott said overnight summer camps should also expect some guidance for reopening Friday. The governor said, depending on the data, indoor dining at restaurants will be making a return “in the not-too-distant future.”
“But while it’s tempting to declare victory based on the numbers here in Vermont, as I’ve said many times, we’re not an island. So we also have to keep an eye on what’s going on around us.”
The governor said since Sunday, New Hampshire has had 242 cases of the virus that causes COVID-19 and 43 deaths. Massachusetts has seen 2,000 cases and 675 deaths. Over that same time, he said Vermont has seen 13 cases and no deaths.
He said he’s asked state officials to monitor neighboring states to see when it would be smart and safe to open Vermont back up to out-of-state tourism.
“None of this has been easy. And I know it’s especially difficult and stressful for business owners and workers alike who are trying to comply with new rules while waiting for their businesses to restart or their jobs to return,” he said.
Despite being surrounded by states that have not been faring as well as Vermont and tens of thousands from those states constantly traveling in and out of Vermont, Scott credited his administration’s quick actions to shut things down for the state’s current positive outlook. He said residents also took his “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order seriously.
“Having that good, solid foundation to begin with has led us to the point where we’re seeing good numbers now. But it was all because of what we did in the beginning, I believe,” he said.
The governor said there appears to be “some light at the end of the tunnel” with the surrounding states because their number of positive cases is starting to come down.
Wearing a mask in public in Vermont continues to be an issue. Some municipalities, such as Burlington and Bennington, are requiring people to wear masks when shopping. The governor has resisted implementing a statewide mask order, saying he would rather educate people on the importance of masks instead of forcing them to wear one.
Dr. Mark Levine, commissioner of the state Department of Health, said the virus can spread in droplets from breathing and talking. Levine said even though someone might feel fine, they could still have the virus and could unknowingly spread it to others. Health officials have said in the past someone wearing a mask during this pandemic is doing so to protect others, no necessarily to protect themselves.
Rutland Regional Medical Center administrators are expecting a loss of up to $14 million as result of the pandemic, and may have to cut up to 45 full-time positions, according to Claudio Fort, president and CEO of the hospital.
Some changes to hospital operations are estimated to continue for 18 months to two years unless a vaccine or treatment for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, becomes available.
On Tuesday, Fort appeared in a video posted to YouTube, explaining that administrators were trying to develop a budget they could bring to their own board of directors in June and, if approved, to the Green Mountain Care Board on July 31.
Among the ideas being considered are the reduction of positions. On Wednesday, Fort said if that idea moves forward, it could affect about 50 employees because some of the positions cut may be part-time.
Other ideas include a reduction in overtime, a change in the hospital’s contribution to retirement plans, and a freeze for all employees’ wages for a year. If the union, which represents licensed nurses, agrees to the freeze, the savings is expected to be about $1.8 million.
Fort said the hospital’s administrators are working to offset an expected loss of about $6 million, because RRMC, like other Vermont hospitals, was not allowed to perform elective procedures and testing, and $8 million from the hospital’s investments in the stock market. The losses are estimated, based on current trends, to be about $14 million by the end of RRMC’s fiscal year on Sept. 30.
The video was an attempt to be as “transparent as possible,” according to Fort.
“I want the staff at the hospital to know, ‘Here are some of the things we’re looking at, folks,’ I want to be as upfront with people as possible,” he said.
Fort described the situation as “everything being on the table” to reduce costs but said the proposed budget has not been finalized.
In April, with revenues down and a reduction in utilization of services because of the state restrictions, about 150 employees, or almost 9% of the staff was put on unpaid furlough. Some staff members were called back earlier this month when the hospital was allowed to resume elective surgeries and tests, but Fort said Wednesday that the overall loss, under the one proposal, would be 45 full-time equivalent positions. However, he added that if the union will not agree to the wage freeze, up to 25 additional full-time equivalent positions may need to be cut.
Administrators are hoping to meet that goal through attrition by not replacing people who quit or retire. Fort said the process of identifying others who might be affected is ongoing but said senior leaders have been asked to look at their staff for possible reductions.
“We don’t have those identified yet and finalized yet so there’s still quite a bit of work to do to get there,” he said.
Trying to prepare a potential budget means estimating what operations will look like as COVID continues to be a factor, Fort said.
Will the hospital operate at 80% capacity? At 90% or 95% capacity? Fort said those questions are still unanswered, as well as whether the hospital will get any more fiscal relief from the federal or state government.
In addition, there remains a possibility COVID cases could increase if, for instance, students return to school or there’s a resurgence during flu season. A situation like that could cause another shutdown, Fort said.
“There’s so much uncertainty here on how the future looks for us, that’s what makes it incredibly, incredibly challenging to predict,” Fort said.
Gov. Phil Scott recently announced that hospitals would be able to resume other procedures, including those that require an overnight stay at the hospital. Fort said that would help patients get the care they need but said he didn’t expect it would immediately improve the hospital’s financial position.
The Rutland hospital is not operating at peak efficiency because of safety measures the staff won’t compromise because they protect patients from exposure to COVID.
“I want to make sure that the public have the trust that if you need care, don’t be scared to come to the hospital,” he said.
In the video, Fort also talked about RRMC’s COVID response. Some steps that were taken while planning for a surge of COVID patients are being scaled back although Fort said preparations are still in place if Vermont and Rutland County see a spike in COVID cases.
For instance, the endoscopy unit has been returned to its intended use and isn’t in active use as a potential negative pressure unit for COVID patients.
However, there has been no change to policies like barring visitors, social distancing, mandatory face masks and additional cleaning protocols.
“We anticipate those being in place, basically, until there is no threat of future spread which w anticipate is going to be 18 to 24 months,” he said.
The hospital is in the second year of a three-year contract with the licensed nurse’s union.
MONTPELIER — A key legislative committee has embraced a multiple-choice approach to plugging a now-anticipated $133 million hole in the state’s education fund and, as promised, one of the choices won’t be raising property taxes beyond the levels that were projected before the COVID-19 crisis hit.
It took some last-minute refinements, and theirs won’t be the final word, but members of the House Ways and Means Committee coalesced behind the proposal during a pair of virtual sessions this week.
Though two members were missing from the afternoon session, Rep. Janet Ancel, D-Calais, chair of the influential committee, said the otherwise unanimous decision sent as clear a signal as possible to school districts, including several that are readying to vote, and in some cases re-vote, budgets for the coming school year.
“It’s going to make a big difference,” Ancel predicted on Tuesday. “Particularly for those towns that are about to vote this is actually going to be a big deal to have this (legislation) moving.”
Of particular note, according to Ancel, is the absence of any additional reliance on the property tax to address a shortfall that is still well north of nine figures despite trending in the right direction in recent weeks.
Earlier estimates suggested the funding gap could be as wide as $167 million and while $133 million sounds a bit better, it’s still $133 million.
The anticipated shortfall is tied to tanking revenues generated by consumption taxes in a Vermont economy that is still slowly reopening amid the ongoing pandemic.
While short on specifics, the bill passed by the committee includes options that range from a federal bailout to borrowing and almost everything in between.
Property taxes aren’t on the list as Ancel and others on the committee have pledged amid projections that relying on them to wipe out an ocean of red ink would require crippling increase in the education property tax that at one point was forecast at a jaw-dropping 22 cents.
Eager to end any uncertainty about what the committee might do, Ancel gently nudged members to make a decision she said would take an important issue off the table.
“I’d love to get this voted today, but I don’t want to force a vote if people need more time with it,’ she said.
That was more than enough of a nudge as members said they were satisfied with a proposal that keeps all of the options they are willing to entertain in play, while ruling out the one they were never interested in.
Some of the options are more palatable than others and none is more appealing from the committee’s perspective than using federal funds to address the state revenue shortfall. Barring a supplemental appropriation or a more flexible interpretation of how Vermont can use its $1.25 billion share of the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act that won’t be possible.
On the opposite end of a spectrum that includes tapping other sources of revenue and “reducing costs” is borrowing — either from some other state fund, or more conventional short-term financing.
While that might ultimately be necessary, Ancel and others agreed borrowing should be a last resort.
State Treasurer Beth Pearce, who attended the online session, agreed — endorsing the suggestion that any borrowing associated with the current crisis be limited to a term of five years.
“Borrowing is never a revenue source, but it is a mechanism to pay your bills,” Pearce said.
Much of the committee’s discussion on Tuesday focused on a feature of the proposal that would have lowered the target amount carried in the education fund’s stabilization reserve fund from 5 percent to 2 percent of its annual total as part of the strategy for dealing with the projected shortfall.
All agreed the reserve was a useful tool to manage fluctuations from one year to the next, even as some wondered whether now was the time to plan to carry an estimated $38 million more than is needed to cover the cost of the state’s public education system.
“There’s no point in having a reserve if you can never ever use it,” said Rep. George Till, D-Jericho.
Mark Perrault, of the Joint Fiscal Office, said the reserve was used this year, is now long gone and the committee was debating what that should look like in an audit.
“This is sort of an abstract exercise in deciding how you want to present the (balance) sheet more than it is a real discussion about money,” Perrault said. “You can add ‘$20 million’ to the stabilization reserve … bring it up to 5% and the deficit ... gets bigger, or you can go the other way and reduce it and the deficit becomes smaller.
“We’re not talking about real money here,” he added.
Committee members generally agreed the 5% target was largely “aspirational” and whether it was 2 percent or 5% the fund would likely have to be replenished with borrowed money.
“I still have a fantasy that we’re going to be able to use enough federal money that we won’t have a deficit and we will not have to borrow and the reserves will be – maybe not at 5% — … (but) better than 2%,” Ancel said.
Ancel conceded that was probably wishful thinking and a combination of options — including reducing costs at the state and local levels — would be needed.
“I don’t want to close the door to cost reductions being part of the solution,” she said.
Ancel was least enthusiastic about borrowing to cover costs and successfully lobbied for the last resort language that was included with respect to that option.
Ancel said the most attractive attributes of the bill, which will now be considered by House lawmakers, is that it fixes the income yield that will be used to set the homestead property tax rate, as well as the non-homestead tax rate at levels that were discussed before most budgets were approved on Town Meeting Day in March.
That doesn’t mean school tax rates won’t increase in many, if not most, communities. However, it does mean those increases won’t be compounded by an additional sharp spike needed to replenish the education fund to make up for the loss of revenues that will continue into the fiscal year that starts July 1.
While Vermonters continue to self-quarantine, time goes on bringing birthdays, holidays and anniversaries that inspire different kinds of celebrations even when the event is as big a milestone as the 60th wedding anniversary today of Rutland’s Norman and Thelma Fontaine.
Thelma, 88, said they met in Burlington while working at Marcell Motor Express, a business that has since shut down, in Burlington. Their first date may not have happened under the most romantic circumstances, as she told it.
“He came to my house so I could do his income taxes. Then he took me out to dinner, and so on and so forth and that was it,” she said.
Thelma added, Norman, 87, “never did pay me for my income tax work.”
Norman said he knew she was the woman for him because he “just could not stay away from her, so I decided to marry her.”
Thelma retired in 1988 from her job as an accountant, while Norman retired in 1995 from his job as a truck driver.
When they were first married, they lived in Burlington but then moved to Keene, New Hampshire, before coming back to Vermont, where they’ve lived in Rutland since 1976.
Asked about the secret for staying together for six decades, Norman said the marriage was “pretty good.”
“A lot of times, not everything is not smooth, smooth, but we know how to cope with that and keep on going,” he said.
Thelma added Norman was a “great guy.”
“I have to say that, he’s standing right beside me,” she joked. “But he is a great guy. He’s easy to be with. He’s got a lot of patience with me. We had four children together, wonderful children,” she said.
The couple’s son, Michael Fontaine, lives and works in Dublin, Ireland, but their three daughters are well-known in their Vermont community.
Norma Segale, of Montpelier, is the co-manager of the Central Vermont Medical Center Auxiliary Gift Shop, a part-time job she took after retiring as the owner of the Peach Tree, a women’s clothing and lingerie store in Montpelier. Cherie Bizzarro is the assistant to the superintendent at the Rutland City Schools, and Susanne Engels is principal of Northeast Primary School in Rutland.
“Pretty important kids, huh,” Thelma added.
By email, Engels said the Fontaines children can’t have a big party like they did for the couple’s 50th anniversary,
“However, we can celebrate them by pointing out their accomplishment of being married for 60 years. We’re finding ways to remind them about how good and rare long lasting marriages are these days and giving them a fun opportunity to talk about each other and keep inspiring us and their grandchildren,” she said.
Bizzarro added by email it was an “honor” to celebrate her parents’ 60th wedding anniversary.
“In this day and age when families split apart and divorce is so prevalent, I think how blessed and thankful I am to have parents who love each other and have worked hard at having a successful marriage. They had the confidence and faith in me and my siblings to expect nothing less than independence and self-reliance. It has served us well throughout out adult life,” she said.
Segale added by email that the pandemic had been tough on her parents.
“My childhood friends oftentimes referred to our family as the ‘hugging family.’ We hugged everyone as we came and left the house. So, as you can imagine, this COVID pandemic is hard on them. No hugging. Now that the weather is nicer, we have been able to have backyard lunches with them. But other than that, it’s been porch check ins, with food and supply drop offs, lots of phone calls and Facetime and full-family Zoom calls,” she said.
Segale added that flowers, balloons and a special meal will be delivered today but a family gathering won’t be planned until it’s safe.
Norman said on the verge of his 60th wedding anniversary, he still found his wife was very patient with him.
“She’s very knowledgeable of everything. You could talk to my wife about almost anything and she’s got the answer,” he said.
Thelma had another thought about the longevity of her marriage to Norman.
“We were just meant for each other, that’s all. Right from the very beginning,” she said.
Inn under fire
Rutland Town Select Board votes to cite Holiday Inn for violations culminating in a boiler room gas explosion in September. A3
SpaceX rocket launch scrubbed because of sketchy weather was to have been the first space flight launch from U.S. soil in nearly a decade. A8