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130 organizations urge Scott to delay Vermont reopening, citing food, housing issues

Published: 6/10/2021 9:34:58 PM
Modified: 6/10/2021 9:35:02 PM

As Gov. Phil Scott prepares to lift the state’s remaining COVID-19 restrictions in the coming days, 130 businesses and organizations have signed a letter urging him to wait until more protections are in place for vulnerable Vermonters.

The coalition — spearheaded by Hunger Free Vermont, the Vermont Foodbank and Capstone Community Action — points to emergency funding that has been essential to people who need access to healthy food and safe housing.

“The recovery for Vermonters with low incomes, for those experiencing homelessness, and for those facing hunger, will be slow,” the letter reads. “Maintaining access to critical FEMA-funded programs supporting Vermonters’ access to basic needs like food, emergency housing, and more depends upon the continuation of a declared State of Emergency in some form.”

The coalition asks Scott to ensure that prepared meals remain available to participants of the state’s emergency housing program; a “ramp down” of the Vermont Everyone Eats Program, which has allowed restaurants and hubs to provide meals to those in need; and a continuation of the 3SquaresVT emergency benefit allotments “for as long as possible.”

“We believe that, unless a new plan is in place to ensure all in Vermont can meet these two most basic needs, our entire recovery is jeopardized,” the letter says.

The group includes signees as wide-ranging as Cabot Village Store, Brattleboro Housing Partnerships and the Screamin’ Ridge Farm in Montpelier.

Scott has been waiting to reopen until 80% of Vermonters receive their first vaccine shot. As of Tuesday, 79.4% had been vaccinated, leaving only 3,139 more Vermont residents needed to meet the requirement for Scott to drop the emergency order.

The group applauds “efforts to ensure that gaps remain filled while work continues on more permanent solutions.”

“The increased vaccination rate and continual decrease in COVID cases are certainly cause for celebration, but most people in our state are still living in a state of emergency,” it reads.

For example, 12% of Vermonters say their children don’t have enough to eat because families can’t afford to feed them, and 23% are struggling to cover daily expenses, the letter says, citing statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau. Jobs have become available, but a lack of services like child care and transportation is still keeping them from work. Many Vermonters cannot find housing, and 12% report struggling to pay rent.

“There’s sort of this understanding that Vermonters are good people, and we’re just going to step up, and we’re going to figure out some way — but this is beyond the ability of churches, and community action agencies and food pantries and the Foodbank,” said Anore Horton, executive director of Hunger Free Vermont.

The letter also says that the lack of affordable housing and food accessibility before the pandemic — 1 in 10 Vermonters experienced food insecurity before March 2020, according to an annual USDA study — has exacerbated the effects of COVID-19.

“We request that, when reducing COVID restrictions to help open up our economy, you will also recognize the ongoing health and economic distress of many Vermonters and sustain key elements of the Emergency Order to protect Vermonters who are food insecure and facing homelessness,” the letter says.

John Sayles, CEO of the Vermont Foodbank, said the organization’s operations have changed dramatically during the pandemic. In the past year, the Foodbank distributed nearly twice as much food as the year before, he said.

And now, though COVID-19 cases have sharply declined in the state, food distribution is not decreasing, Sayles said.

“We want to make sure that people continue to get the support they need while we transition to whatever the new normal is going to be,” he said.

The Scott administration is actively considering how to maintain FEMA funding for pandemic-related housing and food programs.

In an interview this week, Scott’s legal counsel, Jaye Pershing Johnson, said the governor may issue an executive order to continue certain pandemic response efforts — such as emergency food distribution and initiatives to house vulnerable Vermonters — after the state of emergency is lifted.

But the administration believes that an executive order could help ensure that federal dollars for Vermont’s emergency food distribution and non-congregate housing programs continue to flow to the state.

“Without an order, we would not be entitled to continue those programs and continue to be reimbursed by FEMA,” Johnson said.

Johnson said it appears the state could continue to receive FEMA funding for housing and food distribution until at least September.

Responding to the letter Wednesday, Jason Maulucci, a spokesperson for Scott, said the governor “shares the same concerns as Hunger Free Vermont and the other organizations.”

Scott has determined that “the best path forward” is to issue the executive order “to retain expanded federal housing and food security assistance, among other initiatives.”

But Maulucci made clear that the governor does not intend to keep the state of emergency in place for long.

“As the public health emergency from Covid-19 ends, it would not be responsible for the governor to retain such extraordinary authority, and the powers delegated to him should be restored to the regular order of the legislative process,” Maulucci said.

Horton has heard the governor suggest during press briefings that he may extend some benefits stemming from the emergency order but wasn’t aware of specific plans. Her organization has been in contact with the administration throughout the pandemic.

“If that decision has been made, I think I would count that as a success for our advocacy, in addition to a success for the governor’s team working to protect everybody in Vermont,” she said.

The letter “is not a criticism of Gov. Scott and his administration,” Horton said, but rather an effort to “reject that what we aspire to is the old normal.”

“We learned in the pandemic that it’s actually possible to house everyone in our state, and it’s possible to feed everyone in our state,” Horton said. “Now we need to take those lessons, and we need to turn them into permanent policies. We need to figure out the systems and structures that are going to allow that to continue.”

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