MONTPELIER — As cases of COVID-19 linger and continue to grow in the state, Gov. Phil Scott on Tuesday signed into law a bill that will give municipalities flexibility in how they decide to hold Town Meeting Day votes in the interest of safety.
Scott made the announcement during the state’s bi-weekly press conference updating the public on the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The law, which originated in the House as H.48, gives towns the ability to push back the date of their annual town meeting, and allows towns to require town clerks to mail ballots to all active registered voters in the town.
Scott noted that mail-in ballots were used by the state during the general election in November, “when the virus wasn’t as prevalent as it is today.”
“I strongly urge local officials to take advantage of this, and use the mail-in voting for Town Meeting Day and upcoming local elections,” Scott said.
In normal years, Franklin County towns like Highgate, Franklin, Montgomery, Sheldon, Enosburgh, the village of Enosburg Falls, Fairfield, Bakersfield and Fletcher hold traditional town meetings, where community members crowd into gymnasiums or auditoriums to vote on budgets and elect officials.
Should a town or school district decide to move the date of its meeting, the new law states that the current municipal officers will serve until the new annual meeting and successors are chosen.
State officials are urging towns like St. Albans City and Town, which use Australian ballots, to mail ballots to all voters, so as to avoid lines and crowds at polling places.
Earlier this month, Vermont’s Joint Fiscal Committee agreed to commit $2 million from what’s left of Vermont’s share of the CARES Act to help offset towns’ election costs. Money from the appropriation could be used by towns and school districts to cover the cost of purchasing blank Australian ballots and other printing and mailing expenses.
The bill also authorizes the Secretary of State’s Office to provide all necessary guidance to town clerks and election officials on how to conduct a safe election.
“Although Vermonters value traditions like town meetings and voting in person, I strongly urge local officials to take advantage of the flexibility this law affords by mailing each registered voter a ballot for upcoming elections,” Scott said in a statement. “Not only would it accomplish the primary objective of helping keep our friends, families, and neighbors safe, but it will also increase access to the democratic process, ensuring Vermonters don’t need to choose between their right to vote and risking attending a town meeting gathering during a pandemic.”
Scott also announced that flags were to fly half-staff Tuesday to remember the 163 Vermonters lost to the pandemic in the 10 months since the state’s first fatality.
Defending vaccination plan
Scott took part of Tuesday’s press conference to defend the state’s vaccine distribution plan, which is set to enter its second stage next week.
Scott’s comments were in response to concerns comparing Vermont’s vaccine distribution plan to those in other states, which are offering broader vaccine eligibility. For example, in neighboring New York State, individuals age 65 and older, along with those in a number of professions including public education, were eligible for vaccination starting Jan. 11.
Scott said Vermont’s plan is tied to supply from the federal government.
“Without the supply, they’re not going to be able to vaccinate more people,” Scott said. “Overpromising is not the answer.”
Scott said if the state’s weekly allotment of vaccine doses from the federal government increases, the state can scale up its distribution plan accordingly. The state is finishing up the first phase of distribution and will begin the second phase on the week of Jan. 25, opening up eligibility to Vermonters age 75 and older.
Once those age 75 and older are vaccinated, the state will open up eligibility to those age 70 and older, followed by those age 65 and older or who have been diagnosed with a specific list of conditions. Two doses are required for full vaccination with either of the two vaccines approved for emergency use.
As of last week, the state was receiving an average of 8,800 doses per week, which is down from the initial 11,000 per week that was expected.
“Our vaccination plans are strong and optimistic, and need only be matched by supply from the federal government,” said Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine. “Vermont’s approach follows the data very closely and is focused first and foremost on preserving life.”
Scott said the phone number and website that can be used to schedule vaccination appointments will be unveiled in the coming days.
Cases slowing down
Mike Pieciak, commissioner of the Agency of Financial Regulation, said the most recent batch of regional COVID-19 case data provides “a much more optimistic outlook,” suggesting the country may have surpassed a third peak in cases.
He said new case growth is slowing in every region of the country, with 41 states experiencing a decline in new cases over the last week. However, Pieciak noted that the last 15,000 deaths nationwide occurred at the fastest rate seen yet. He also noted new modeling from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggesting that a new strain of the virus, known as B117, which is far more transmissible but doesn’t lead to worse outcomes, could become the dominant strain the U.S. by March.
Pieciak said the recent surge in new cases in Vermont following the holiday season appears to be slowing, but cases will likely remain high.
Vermont recorded 102 new cases Tuesday. The death toll stands at 163.