Vt. lawmakers return to Statehouse Tuesday for COVID-19 vote

Published: Mar. 23, 2020 at 5:02 PM EDT
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Vermont lawmakers are set to return to the Statehouse Tuesday to vote on a package of bills tackling the immediate effects of COVID-19, including widespread layoffs and increasing health care access. But when it comes to how far these bills will go in rebuilding the economy, top lawmakers say this is just the beginning.

Businesses and workers are hurting because of the coronavirus. "We wanted to keep things as normal as possible, but that's not happening right now," said Paul Brown with Cold Hollow Cider in Waterbury Center.

Brown has had to drastically scale back his business to keep his workers and customers safe from the virus. Though he hasn't had to lay anyone off yet he's one of many business owners feeling the economic ripple of COVID-19.

"There's not a single employee here that can work remotely. It's not that way. It's all hands on and interaction with the customers," Brown said.

After a week long hiatus, the Legislature is slated to vote on a few bills which provide immediate aid to hospitals and laid off workers. Senate President Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden County, says the bills are designed as an immediate fix to fight the impacts of the virus.

"The level of complexity of the problems being thrown at us is overwhelming at this point, so we're trying to make smart decision, smart decision, smart decision -- one at a time," Ashe said.

The bills waives employer fees for laying someone off and expands unemployment to people who have to stay home as a result of the virus.

"There are some people who might be vulnerable themselves or someone at their home, so they might be going back and forth in ways that are risking the spread of infection," Ashe said.

At the same time, Governor Phil Scott Monday pitched a plan to add $600 to the maximum of unemployment and expand benefits to people who don't pay into the state's trust fund.

"Apply to folks who are independent contractors. That's your Uber drivers, and to self-employed folks in the past who did not qualify but whose incomes have collapsed," Scott said.

The measure also simplifies telehealth access and gives more medical providers the ability to practice in Vermont.

Back at Cold Hollow Cider, Brown says he'd welcome any ideas from the Legislature to help small businesses. He says he's fortunate that he's entering his off season and is still shipping out some products. "When I say we're equipped to deal with it more than most -- maybe slightly -- but if this continues and continues, it's not going to be a pretty sight," he said.

Meanwhile, logistical issues continue in how to conduct Tuesdays voting as well as allowing press access while practicing social distancing.

Senator Ashe says lawmakers will vote in a staggered manner where a handful will vote in the Senate chamber and then switch out with the next group.

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