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COVID-19: Bill to boost salaries for Vermont’s essential workers gets hung up; NH camp that harvests ice to remain closed

  • An antique ice box is seen at Rockywold Deephaven Camps in Holderness on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

  • The ice harvest on Squam Lake for the Rockywold Deephaven Camps in Holderness on Wednesday, January 16, 2019. GEOFF FORESTER

  • Each morning, workers at Rockywold-Deephaven Camps deliver blocks of ice to the rustic cabins that have no modern refrigeration. The ice was harvested on Squam Lake by teams of volunteers in the winter and then packed with sawdust and stored in the ice house. Blocks are hosed off to clear away the sawdust. Courtesy

Published: 5/25/2020 9:12:44 PM
Modified: 5/25/2020 9:12:39 PM

MONTPELIER — A bill that would boost pay for essential workers on the front lines of the coronavirus crisis has stalled in the House due to concerns that it may not qualify for federal coronavirus relief money.

SB 346, which the Senate passed in early May, would provide $60 million in additional pay to employees who were designated “essential” when the governor ordered the closure of most in-person businesses beginning in March. The bill provides grants that could be distributed to 33,500 people including grocery store and pharmacy workers, child care providers and nursing home staff.

The amount workers receive would be determined by how many hours they work. The maximum grant is $1,000 per month, and the minimum is $600.

But concerns have been raised over the timeline that the grants would be given out. The current version of the bill states that grants would be provided for the months of March, April and May.

Now that these months have passed, with only a week left in May, Rep. Mike Marcotte, R-Newport, and chairman of the House Commerce and Economic Development Committee, said he thinks these grants would be more like bonuses than hazard pay.

Because the payments would be retroactive, Marcotte said he’s not sure the bill meets the definition of hazard pay, therefore making it ineligible for the $1.25 billion in federal CARES Act money the state received.

“We’re questioning whether the feds would say that’s more bonus pay than hazard pay,” Marcotte said. He’s worried that if the federal government determines a few years down the road that the program isn’t eligible, Vermonters will have a big bill to pay.

“If it was a million or two or three, that’s one thing. But we’re talking $60 million,” Marcotte said. “And the way our budget is going, it’s not going to look good the next few years because of decreased revenue coming in. We really can’t afford to make a mistake and have to pay that back.”

Marcotte said the committee does not feel comfortable moving the bill forward without confirmation from the state’s congressional delegation that it would qualify for federal aid.

Back to school survey

The New Hampshire Department of Education is asking for input from parents, teachers and education leaders on the reopening of schools in the fall.

The School Transition Reopening and Redesign Task Force, or START, is looking into what school will look like in September once classes resume and is doing survey.

The survey can be found online.

Portable restrooms return

The Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife is working to return portable toilets to fishing accesses across the state.

The portable toilets were removed in March due to concerns about COVID-19.

Now, the state is working with private contractors to return them to many of Vermont’s boat ramps, non-motorized boat launches and shore fishing locations. The timing comes as marinas in Vermont are allowed to open.

The numbers

The New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services announced three new positive test results for COVID-19 on Monday bringing the total in the state to 4,197.

DHHS also announced one additional death related to COVID-19, bringing that total to 210. There are currently 420 people hospitalized in New Hampshire due to the virus, about 10% of the total cases.

The Vermont Department of Health announced four new cases on Monday, two in Rutland County, one in Chittenden County and one in Grand Isle County. That brings the total number of cases in Vermont to 962.

Camp to stay closed

The Rockywold-Deephaven Camps in Holderness decided to cancel its summer season, marking the first time in the program’s 123-year history rustic cabins will be closed for the summer.

The camp is well known for its antique ice boxes that use blocks of ice for refrigeration instead of electricity. Each winter volunteers go out onto Squam Lake and cut hundreds of blocks of ice that are hauled up and stored in sawdust, waiting to be cleaned off and delivered daily to the camps at Rockywold-Deephaven.

General Manager Kathy Wheeler posted on the camp’s website on May 21 that this summer getaway was moving on to 2021.

“Given this rigor and the historic significance of the COVID-19 disease,” Wheeler wrote “we’re confident that this is the right decision for all those who love RDC, and for the health of the institution in the future.”

She continued: “We will be holding a virtual special shareholder meeting in the coming weeks to address the Camp’s financial future.”

Wheeler also said that guests can choose to receive a full refund or use the money to reserve a spot for summer 2021.

By design, the Rockywold-Deephaven Camps offer a rustic summer experience, which feels frozen in time. That’s in part to the old-fashioned harvesting use of ice.

In the dead of winter, a massive circular saw and chainsaws cut blocks of ice — 12 inches by 15 inches by 19 inches — that are loaded the onto a truck and moved to an ice house.

The blocks are packed in sawdust, which acts as a natural insulator, until they could be used to refrigerate food the old-fashioned way, with an old-style ice box.

Concord Monitor staff writer Ray Duckler and material from the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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