By Guy Page
Some recent environmental and fiscal decisions made by Vermont state government are being rethought, or at least second-guessed, due to the coronavirus.
Plastic bag ban. On July 1 of this year, Act 69 of 2019 will prohibit food establishments (including grocery stores) from providing single-use plastic grocery bags or straws. A store may sell paper bags, but for no less than 10 cents. Supporters want Vermonters to transition to reusable shopping bags made of cloth, recycled plastic, or other material of choice.
A bold move that made environmental sense to many in 2019 now may make less public health sense. Last year, no-one was worrying about infected store workers touching reusable bags, many made from non-porous, transmission-prone materials. Disposable plastic bags can be thrown away. Reusable bags, however, must be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected with each use lest they contaminate not only the customer but possibly the next store bagger who handles it.
Possible changes to Act 69 implementation are being discussed by both supporters and critics. Jim McCullough (D-Williston), a strong backer of the bill, this morning responded to a Vermont Daily inquiry with this informative opinion: “I feel we could bifurcate the law (keep bags at 7/1 and delay start of other single use items) if the July 1 date is still not out of the ‘risk zone.’ I would guess that call would need to be made by May 1 to allow for proper inventory to be maintained/purchased.” Meanwhile, Vermont trade organizations say they, too, have been considering the pandemic implications of Act 69 – there should be more news in a day or two.
Commuting via carpool and bus. Earlier this month, the House Transportation Committee was crafting legislation urging Vermonters to carpool and ride the bus more, to reduce carbon emissions. This week, Green Mountain Transit Authority closed its Burlington terminal and stopped the Barre-Montpelier commuter link, to reduce coronavirus transmission. Carpooling violates the six-foot “social distancing” rule, unless your ride is a stretch limo. In other words, just days after the committee was discussing in earnest a law seeking workforce measures to make employees carpool and ride the bus more, Covid-19 immediately and severely curtailed both practices.
No-one is saying that Covid-19 restrictions on travel and plastic bag bans should remain once the pandemic passes. But concern that an unforeseen public emergency would make these initiatives unhealthy was never significantly discussed.
Paid family leave is an initiative some opponents may now wish they had supported. As the federal government mobilizes on a huge (and hugely expensive) scale to ensure workers’ financial security due to lost wages and illness, a far more modest, proactive plan might have been prudent – in retrospect.
This year’s second-guessing is next year’s planning.
The pandemic also has changed how some in the Vermont media do their job:
For Better – Local community news outlets like the Chester Telegraph participate (remotely of course) in the governor’s press conferences. Sure, the big dogs – VT Digger, Seven Days, VPR, the TV stations – are still there, either in person or remotely. But now thanks to remote access made necessary by ‘social distancing,’ press from the hills and hollers can ask the Guv a question, too.
For Better II – Some lawmakers are showing their journalistic chops. Sen. Tim Ashe (D/P Chittenden) may have learned a thing or two from domestic partner Paula Routly, co-publisher of Seven Days. At 5:30 pm every day he goes live on Facebook with concise, useful, ‘just-the-facts’ updates. (See synopsis of yesterday’s post below.) Rep. Anne Donahue (R-Berlin), a newspaper editor and daughter of longtime Northfield News editor/publisher John Donahue, has been publishing highly readable, useful reports on how the Vermont health care system has responded to Covid-19.
For Better III – Paywall begone, at least for Covid-19 coverage in the Brattleboro Reformer/Manchester Journal/Bennington Banner chain. As a public service, all coronavirus stories are now carried in front of the paywall.
For worse – for high-interest meetings, the Legislature’s teleconference system is a flop. Busy signals are turning people away. So far Vermont Daily has heard nothing but beep-beep-beep when trying to call into the Legislative Joint Rules or All House Members conference calls. We were able to listen to and participate in a Senate Gov Operations Committee meeting, which went fairly smoothly except for some rude comments made by anonymous callers. Until the Legislature’s IT department can solve this problem, Vermonters will wonder with some justification if they’re getting all the important news.
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State and local government and major health and social service providers are in “grace mode” for people unable to make payments, Sen. Tim Ashe (D/P – Chittenden) said on his daily 5:30 Facebook Post:
Moratorium on power/gas/communications shutoffs – Today Vermont’s Public Utilities Commission ordered a temporary moratorium on involuntary natural gas, electric, and telecommunications service disconnections effective immediately through April 30th.
Vermonters have been worried about how shut-offs would impact people during this crisis, when access to key services is more important than ever. Today’s action ensures continued essential services for those whose reduced incomes may make paying the bills impossible in the short term.
Moratorium on UVMMC bill collecting by phone – Also, UVM Medical Center told Sen. Ashe that it will cease telephone call bill collecting for the near future.
No penalty for late payments on federal, state taxes – The IRS announced yesterday it will not be charging interest for failure to make payments on time, during the state of emergency. The Vermont Dept. of Taxes will be announcing a similar plan on Friday.
Read more of Guy Page’s reports.