MONTPELIER — Residents will soon be able to again take tests to get their driver’s licenses as the state continues to open back up during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
At his regular Monday news conference, Gov. Phil Scott said he plans to announce later this week more timelines to re-open the state’s economy. The governor said those plans, depending on the data, will likely include a timeline for indoor dining at restaurants to resume.
According to the state Department of Health, there were two new cases in Vermont of the virus that causes COVID-19. That total is now 983. The death toll remains 55.
But Scott didn’t have to wait to announce the Department of Motor Vehicles will start offering more services. Starting Monday, residents could take their learner’s permit tests online at dmv.vermont.gov. Those who pass will receive their permit in the mail in three weeks. This does not apply for those seeking to drive motorcycles or commercial vehicles.
Wanda Minoli, commissioner of the DMV, said starting June 8, the department will resume offering driver’s license exams.
Minoli said those at the department understand how difficult its been to have these services suspended.
“We also know that there are a lot of young people right now who have had many exciting opportunities and important activities taken away because of COVID. That includes learner’s permits and driver’s license tests. I grew up in Montpelier and I remember very clearly the excitement I felt when I had the opportunity to head to that big, beautiful building at 120 State St. to take my road test. For teens, getting a driver’s license is a milestone, a right of passage and a newfound freedom and independence.”
She said she also understands the difficulty placed on families who otherwise could have had another driver available to run errands or check on family members during the pandemic.
Minoli said those who had a driver’s exam or commercial vehicle exam canceled due to the virus should expect to hear from a member of the department to reschedule. She said addressing the backlog will be the department’s first priority and starting Wednesday residents who hadn’t made an appointment but need to do so now can call 828-2000 to schedule a test.
To address the backlog and get things going again, Minoli said the department will be using third-party test examiners who are certified driving instructors and employed by a driving school.
She said some of the department’s offices will also soon open back up. She said starting June 8 the department’s offices in Montpelier, South Burlington and Rutland will be open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays for driver’s license exams by appointment only. Commercial driving exams will take place at the department’s locations in Colchester and Rutland.
Minoli said all in-person interactions will take place outside. She asked drivers to wipe down their vehicles before the exam and to leave windows open when possible to increase airflow prior to the test. She added no more than two people may be in the vehicle during the exam and masks must be worn by the driver and the examiner.
Minoli said starting June 5, the state will resume its motorcycle training program. She said by the end of June residents should be able to apply for motorcycle permits at the department’s website.
CLARENDON — The state and its partners are getting better at distributing food to those left low on income by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We know we have 3,000 gallons of Thomas Dairy milk,” said Kim Williams, community outreach coordinator for Vermont Foodbank, on Monday at the Rutland Southern Vermont Regional Airport, where as of 9:30 a.m. 170 cars were waiting in line to be loaded with food by members of the Vermont National Guard. “Usually every single one of those gallons is given out. To start, we’re giving out two gallons of milk per family. We give out 25 pounds of produce from Black River Good Neighbors.”
The event was scheduled to run from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. At one point, organizers said 300 vehicles were in line.
On May 15, Vermont began implementing the Farmers to Families Food Box Program, a U.S. Department of Agriculture program aimed at doing two things, giving farmers somewhere to sell what they produce, and getting food to people who need it. According to the Vermont Foodbank, the Abbey Group was awarded a bid by the state to handle the distribution of food.
The schedule for future food distribution events can be found on Vermont Foodbank’s website at bit.ly/0601Food.
“I feel like over the past few weeks it’s gotten better,” said Williams. “Communication and people waiting have been big things, and I think we’ve come far with that, working with the (Agency of Transportation), the Agency of Human Services, they have water, they go through the line counting cars, it’s a big thing letting people know what’s happening.”
About a month ago, the National Guard and Vermont Foodbank were at the airport distributing “meals ready to eat” to anyone who wanted them. This was done at state airports across Vermont.
On Monday, cars lined up along the road leading to the airport. Each got milk, chicken and produce.
“People don’t have to get out of their cars, they don’t even have to roll down their windows if they don’t want to, they can hold up their fingers to let people know how much food they need,” said Williams. “We put food in the trunk or in the back seat of the car so there’s no contact that has to happen.”
Nina Abbey, vice president of operations at Abbey Group, said her company was approached by the state about bidding on the Farmers to Families Food Box Program contract. She said Abbey Group has been working on a distribution daily since May 15 and will do so until the program ends.
Abbey said she was on a conference call last week with U.S Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., talking about the program and other issues.
“We were able to advocate for extending this program beyond June 30 so that our Vermont farmers can get a lot more of their produce into the market,” Abbey said.
With COVID-19 closing schools and restaurants, many dairy and other food producers found themselves without customers, hence the creation of the Farmers to Families Food Box Program.
“Certainly, anything with our local area, we want to be involved,” said Abbey Thomas, an owner at Thomas Dairy, which buys milk from seven farms around Rutland and processes it into various products.
“We’re packing right now about 16,000 gallons a week, all different products,” said Perry Thomas, another owner. He said this program is giving Thomas Dairy a place to sell 3,000 gallons of milk that would otherwise be surplus. He said the company provided 1,500 gallons to Castleton University and the University of Vermont on a weekly basis until they abruptly closed their campuses owing to the pandemic.
“This week I think it will just about make up for it,” said Perry Thomas. “We’ve been super fortunate to find other avenues for our milk.”
Mike Edwards, of the Rutland area, said he’s been on disability, but COVID-19 has impacted him as well.
“I get part-time help where I can, but with this all going on, it’s cut right out,” he said.
Stu Davis, of West Rutland, said he came to the airport a few weeks ago when MREs were being distributed. Things were going smoothly on Monday, he said. He came to the airport to get food for himself, his wife and their son.
“We’ve been sort of cutting back on doing stuff, not much to do right now or places to go,” he said from his vehicle. “We did some fishing, caught some fresh fish.”
Voices — virtual and otherwise — have been raised around the state over the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.
As large protests around the country were held, demonstrations in Vermont — in Burlington, Bennington and Montpelier late last week and elsewhere in the state this week — proceeded peacefully and often with the support of local police and public officials.
Rachel Siegel, executive director of the Burlington-based Peace and Justice Center, said the group was maintaining a list of all the demonstrations it could find on its website’s blog. She said the incident in Minneapolis was only the latest example of the issues with race and policing in the U.S.
“When we see blatant violence that everyone agrees is violence ... at the very least there needs to be a mechanism to stop employing those officers,” she said, referring to incidents in Vermont where officers fired for acts of violence were either returned to their jobs or hired at other Vermont police departments.
Tabitha Moore, director of the Rutland branch of the NAACP, said a protest had taken place in Brandon on Sunday night, and were planned for Rutland and Castleton on Monday. She said a daylong event is being planned for Sunday at Main Street Park in Rutland.
“It’s really great to see so many people coming out and offering support through demonstration,” she said. “My hope would be their next step would be to join their local racial justice organization ... then take that energy into nonviolent direct action in their homes, in their workplaces, in their places of worship.”
Moore said people need to come to terms with the prevalence of racism.
“This didn’t happen because those guys were encouraged to do it outright,” she said of Floyd’s killing. “It happened through our inaction. It happened because we are so complacent and so quick to dismiss incidents as not being racist when they have racist roots. ... It’s time to accept that it’s real, and it’s insidious.”
She said the road to incidents like the killing of Floyd begins with incidents like a recent one in Rutland, where a man recorded himself haranguing a cleaning crew at the downtown shopping plaza.
“These are the types of attitudes where, when we allow them to go unchecked, police find themselves where they think it’s OK to do what these officers did in Minnesota,” she said.
Numerous police departments around Vermont weighed in with emphatic statements that it was not OK.
“What I have seen on video from the mishandled attempt to arrest George Floyd is beyond disturbing,” said Col. Matthew T. Birmingham, director of the Vermont State Police, said in a statement issued late last week. “This kind of conduct has no place in policing. It goes against everything we are taught from our earliest days in training academies. It goes against our mission to protect and serve the public. It goes against our oath and our badge. It goes against human decency.”
A statement from the Rutland City Police Department was worded even more strongly, referring to the incident as “murder,” and explicitly denouncing the officers responsible.
“Every community throughout this country deserves to know their police department exists to ‘serve and protect,’” the statement read. “The phenomenon that marginalized communities fear for their safety when dealing with police is real.”
Brandon Police Chief Christopher Brickell said he believed all Vermont police officers felt the same outrage and shame after watching the actions of the Minneapolis officers.
“The abuse of power and force used to kill George Floyd was at its most basic level, not police work,” he wrote in a statement posted to the department’s Facebook page Monday. “In fact it was criminal. It is unacceptable in our role as protectors, peacekeepers, and public servants. I work with a caring group of officers, all of whom are human. They work hard each day to make sure they represent our department well and serve as members of our community. Unacceptable deaths, and the indifference to the life of a human being are simply not who we are.”
Montpelier Police Chief Tony Facos echoed those comments and stated that Vermont’s police agencies had been working to connect with marginalized communities, but that there was still work to be done.
“We cannot ignore the fact that many in our community may once again, or have always been, living in fear of the police,” he said.
Moore said the statements were important, but they were not enough on their own and departments needed to back up those words with actions, connecting with racial justice advocate in their communities. She said Vermont State Police had been doing reasonably well on that score, but results with local departments were more mixed.
She recalled a discussion a year ago in which she said City Police Chief Brian Kilcullen agreed with her that the city could use a fair and impartial policing committee and that it had yet to form one.
“Hopefully, that’s a next step,” she said.
Kilcullen said he recalled the conversation and was unable to provide any specific reason why the committee had not been formed yet.
“Going forward, we’ll resurrect those discussions,” he said.
Kilcullen said he believed in the value of racial awareness training and that he was not aware of any racially motivated incidents with his officers during his tenure — though there were a number of high-profile incidents and a discrimination lawsuit brought by an African-American officer prior to Kilcullen’s arrival. He did say there was one complaint of motorist who claimed to have been pulled over under false pretenses because there was an African-American passenger in the car.
“We reviewed the video, called the person in and reviewed the video with the person,” Kilcullen said. “The person said, ‘I guess I owe somebody an apology.’ That’s the only allegation that I remember since I’ve been here. ... That’s not to say that we’re perfect or to say there were not issues that were not brought to our attention.”
A downtown business owner maintains the city’s parking ordinance isn’t being enforced.
Ivan Rochon, of Desjardins Rochon Jewelers, went to the Board of Aldermen Monday asking for help in keeping downtown employees from taking up on-street parking — a recurring issue that resulted in the board passing a 3-hour parking limit several years ago.
“The number one reason people don’t go downtown is they can’t find a parking spot,” Rochon said. “I’ve been fighting this for years. ... I see the same cars every day and so does our parking enforcement officer.”
Rochon stressed that he wasn’t asking the board to do anything but enforce the laws it already has on the books.
“It won’t cost a penny,” he said. “It’ll actually bring in revenue. ... Green Mountain Power, they buy their employees passes (to the downtown parking deck). There’s one person at Green Mountain Power who parks out front. If he got ticketed, he would move on.”
While the board was broadly sympathetic to Rochon, the aldermen engaged in a 25-minute argument about what, if anything, they could or should do for him.
Alderwoman Melinda Humphrey quickly made a motion to refer the request to the Public Safety Committee, but Alderwoman Sharon Davis said there were several layers Rochon should go through before the issue arrived at the board’s doorstep. She said Rochon’s concern was with the officer responsible for monitoring downtown parking, and as such should be directed to the police commission. She said she also saw this is an issue of communication with downtown businesses, which she said was the Downtown Rutland Partnership’s responsibility.
Alderman William Gillam echoed that position.
“The Board of Aldermen does not enforce the rules,” he said. “We make the rules.”
Rochon said he had spoken to the chairman of the police commission and to the DRP and hadn’t gotten anywhere.
“If we don’t enforce the laws, what are they?” he asked.
Alderwoman Rebecca Mattis argued that the board did have a role in making sure the laws were enforced, and Alderman Chris Ettori pointed out that parking meter revenue — and the decline thereof — already had been referred to the Public Works Committee and that perhaps Rochon’s complaint could be heard as part of that discussion.
Ultimately, Humphrey withdrew her motion in favor of one referring the matter to the police commission, with a request that the commission report back at the next Board of Aldermen meeting.
It was unanimously approved.
“This is a time to take a hard look at the uncomfortable truth that lurks in American history. A truth that surfaces when injustice is so blatant.”
Alis Hedlam, Op-ed, A4
George Floyd’s brother, Terrence Floyd, urged protesters not to commit acts of violence in his family’s name. A8
Rest home deaths
Federal health authorities have received reports of nearly 26,000 nursing home residents dying from COVID-19, according to materials prepared for the nation’s governors. B2