Here are the latest developments regarding the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic throughout New England:
New HampshireThe New Hampshire House can proceed with in-person sessions this week without providing remote access to medically vulnerable lawmakers, a federal judge ruled Monday.
Seven Democratic lawmakers sued Republican House Speaker Sherm Packard last week arguing that holding in-person sessions without a remote option violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and the state and federal constitutions, and forces them to either risk their lives or abandon their duties as elected officials.
They sought a preliminary order requiring remote access, but U.S. District Court Judge Landya McCafferty denied their request. Without ruling on the merits of the case, she said the speaker can’t be sued for enforcing a House rule that is “closely related to core legislative functions.”
“While today’s ruling is a setback, history will judge New Hampshire House Democrats favorably for standing for public health and democracy during this pandemic,” said House Democratic Leader Renny Cushing, one of the lawsuit’s plaintiffs. “Unfortunately, this case has exposed the callous indifference of House Republican leadership toward our most vulnerable members during the COVID-19 crisis that has taken the lives of a half a million Americans.”
Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the 400-member House has met several times at the University of New Hampshire ice arena, outside on a UNH athletic field, and — after former Speaker Dick Hinch died of COVID-19 — from their cars in a parking lot. The sessions scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday will be held at a sports complex in Bedford that offers more space to spread out than the previous facilities, as well as separate entrances for members from opposing parties.
Lawmakers will sit 10 to 12 feet apart and will be encouraged to remain in their seats. Masks will be mandatory for legislative staff, media and other non-members but only “recommended” for the lawmakers themselves. Similarly, non-members who have recently traveled, have COVID-19 symptoms or have been in close contact with someone with the virus cannot attend, but for lawmakers, staying home under those circumstances is only a recommendation.
There will be separate seating areas for those who choose not to wear masks and for those who are unable to wear masks due to disabilities. A large garage door next to the non-mask-wearing section will be opened to allow maximum air flow.
“We will continue to work with all House members to ensure that if they choose to attend any legislative meeting in person, that they can be confident that we are taking a high degree of precaution, and have extensive health and safety measures in place,” Packard said in a statement.
But Cushing said the ruling makes clear that the speaker is “solely to blame for active and obvious exclusion of members of the House.”
“As we teach our children, just because you can do something does not mean you should,” he said.
Nearly 70,000 people have tested positive for the virus in New Hampshire, including 252 cases announced Monday. The number of deaths stood at 1,154.
The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in New Hampshire has decreased over the past two weeks, going from 383 new cases per day on Feb. 7 to 375 new cases per day on Sunday.
House masks: Labor union members plan to hand out personal protective equipment outside the sports complex where members of the New Hampshire House will be meeting this week.
The 400-member House is meeting Wednesday and Thursday in Bedford, where they will sit 10 to 12 feet apart to prevent spread of COVID-19. Democrats with serious medical conditions went to court seeking remote access to the sessions, but a federal judge declined Monday to order Republican Speaker Sherm Packard to accommodate them.
While the House will provide members with masks and hand sanitizer, members of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades and the AFL-CIO of New Hampshire also will be at the facility’s entrances with similar supplies, including mask and gloves.
Remote learning: One New Hampshire school is planning to hold remote learning for two weeks following the winter vacation, despite Gov. Chris Sununu’s executive order requiring schools to offer in-person instruction to all students for at least two days, starting March 8.
The decision regarding Profile School in Bethlehem, which would be in effect as of March 1, is not expected to conflict with the order, Kim Koprowski, chairperson of the school board, said Monday, the Caledonian-Record reported. The school serves students in grades 7 through 12.
“My understanding of it is there were a handful of schools in the state that are totally remote and he is trying to push those to go to two days a week,” she said. “Since we have been doing that all year, we’ve been face to face, with the exception of a remote period. You could call us hybrid. We should be good.”
A message seeking comment was left Tuesday with the state Education Department. The executive order allows schools to return to remote learning for 48 hours if necessary due to COVID-19 infections. After that, state approval would be required.
Koprowski said that although COVID-19 numbers are trending down, “they are still not at the level they were last fall before Thanksgiving and Christmas.”
The numbers: Nearly 74,000 people have tested positive for the virus in New Hampshire, including 259 cases announced Tuesday. One new death was announced, for a total of 1,155.
The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in New Hampshire has risen over the past two weeks from 349 new cases per day on Feb. 8 to 378 new cases per day on Monday.
VermontThe state of Vermont is continuing to expand the ages of people eligible to get the vaccine against the coronavirus, officials said Tuesday.
At the same time, officials announced that the progress Vermont is making in getting people vaccinated is making it possible for people who have been fully vaccinated to visit with people outside their households, even those who have not been vaccinated.
“We continue to see encouraging trends across the nation and in Vermont the spread of the virus continues to go down,” Gov. Phil Scott said Tuesday during the regular virus briefing. “It’s a reminder that we are getting closer every single day to vaccinating all the most vulnerable who want it and it continues to be our top priority.”
Meanwhile, the federal government is continuing to increase the amount of vaccine that will be distributed to Vermont and another vaccine is expected to be approved for use soon, which would further increase the availability of vaccines, Scott said.
On Monday, the state will open up vaccines appointments to people who are 65 and older. And the state expects to release information next week about the vaccination process for those aged 16-to-64 who have medical conditions that make them high risk for COVID-19 complications or death.
Scott said officials have made no decisions yet about the next step after the high-risk groups are vaccinated, but officials will have that discussion soon.
Scott announced last week that effective Tuesday, Vermonters who are fully vaccinated can travel without quarantine and people who have been fully vaccinated from outside Vermont can visit the state without quarantining.
On Tuesday, he expanded that.
“Effective today, anyone who has been fully vaccinated may gather with another household, regardless of whether the other household has been fully vaccinated or not,” Scott said. “If you’re parents are fully vaccinated, you can go to their house for dinner or vice versa.”
Others who have been vaccinated can visit friends, even if the friends haven’t been vaccinated.
But the easing of restrictions only applies to one household at a time. Scott said they expect to announce further easing of the restrictions in the days and weeks to come.
Relief package: Vermont lawmakers are preparing a COVID-19 relief measure to provide assistance to people and businesses across the state while waiting for Congress to pass a bigger package.
The plan being considered supports a variety of programs for children, businesses and long-term investments in health care.
Lawmakers say they can’t wait for the $1.9 trillion national package being considered in Washington.
“We have to be ready for that, but until it happens, that money isn’t real yet,” said Democratic Senate President Pro Tem Becca Balint.
The package, which doesn’t have a price tag yet, but would be in the tens of millions of dollars range, would be paid for by leftover federal cash and one-time money from the governor’s budget.
One specific suggestion would be $10 million for business grants, with a cap of $150,000, aimed at businesses that weren’t helped by other programs.
The numbers: On Tuesday the Vermont Department of Health reported 82 new cases of the virus that causes COVID-19, bringing the statewide total since the pandemic began to just under 14,700.
There were 36 people hospitalized in Vermont with COVID-19, including 12 in intensive care.
There were two additional deaths, bringing the total since the state of the pandemic to 199.
The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in Vermont did not increase over the past two weeks, going from 137.57 new cases per day on Feb. 8 to 106.57 new cases per day on Feb. 22.