MONTPELIER — Ending family homelessness, expanding broadband internet and promoting local shopping are some of the things Vermont must do in order to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a task force formed by the governor in April.
The Local Support and Community Action Team released its first report on Tuesday, said Paul Costello, the team’s leader. Costello is also the executive director of the Vermont Council on Rural Development.
His team is one of three appointed by Gov. Phil Scott in April and tasked with coming up with ways to help the state recover from the economic damage caused by measures to slow the spread of COVID-19. The others are the Employer Financial and Technical Support Team, and the RestartVT Team. Combined, they form the Economic Mitigation and Recovery Task Force.
Costello’s came up with six recommendations, he said. Ending family homelessness was among them.
“We’ve invested the resources today so that families that have been homeless are currently housed, and the provision and connection of services by bringing together both resources and implementation partners to drive that forward is, to us, something that’s possible and doable,” said Costello. “Its actionability was part of the filter we used to build these recommendations, which are preliminary recommendations, this isn’t the end of the work by any means.”
Other recommendations included linking local food producers, processors, and suppliers to people in need, supporting child care and youth programming with more generous and flexible Restart Grants, more financial assistance for small businesses, especially those owned by minorities and women, implementing a year-long statewide “buy local” challenge, and expanding broadband internet.
Lack of high-speed internet was a topic of discussion in Vermont prior to the pandemic, he said.
“It’s become the essential utility of the 21st-century economy, and for people to be out of that is a fundamental challenge to their cultural opportunities, their educational opportunities, their health and the economic progress of rural communities,” said Costello.
Team member Oliver Olsen, of Londonderry, said all of the recommendations made are things that can and should be done, and some are more for the short-term than others. He said broadband is a good example of something the state can do that will help it out of the pandemic crisis and set it up for success in the years to come.
“We looked at a whole range of issues and some of these things have been out there for a long time, and some have really come into focus as a result of the pandemic, and we thought it was worth examining all these issues and try to be thoughtful about where we’re going in the state and not just putting a Band-Aid on the challenges we’re facing with COVID,” he said. “As important as that is, we have an opportunity to spring forward beyond this current crisis to solve some of the systemic problems that have been exacerbated by the current pandemic.”
Olsen runs an information technology company in Londonderry. He’s also on the State Board of Education and served in the House of Representatives for six years.
He said expanding broadband to the level needed in Vermont is a costly endeavor, but there are options.
“There’s a significant amount of federal finding that’s being made available, so we have an opportunity to leverage some federal funding to get creative and serious about solving some of these problems, such as broadband, and this pandemic has exposed some fissures,” he said.
Olsen said the Board of Education has heard from many educators and school leaders about how not having equitable access to broadband has been a barrier to educating students. Olsen noted the team’s report cites the Brookings Institution, which estimates half of working Americans are doing so from home during the pandemic, and many will keep doing so once it’s over.
“When 50% of America is working remotely, not having reliable access to broadband and wireless telecommunications infrastructure in all parts of the state is going to make it a challenge for Vermont to move forward if we don’t address this issue,” he said.
In the coming weeks, the team will be planning community visits, likely to be held digitally, where people in those communities will come together and share information on what has worked for them, with the idea being their ideas and best practices will be shared with other towns and cities, said Costello.
Besides recommendations, the team is working to connect communities so they can share ideas and tell others what’s been working for them, said Costello.
“Yesterday, we ran a statewide Zoom meeting with 170 or so leaders from downtowns across the state,” said Costello on Wednesday. “Some of them are planning commission people, some of them were town managers, some of them were local downtown coordinators, all of whom are looking at, should we be shutting off some of the streets in our downtowns, can we be bringing restaurants outside, can we be opening up retail to take racks of clothes or books outside to sell, so that we can maintain physical distancing but also open up the local community center and support local commerce more directly.”