Business as unusual: Working through COVID-19

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Business as unusual: Working through COVID-19

Wed, 03/25/2020 - 5:36pm -- tim

by Rachel Feldman, Vermont Business Magazine Governor Phil Scott and Administration officials are making it clear that Vermonters can do one thing to help slow the spread of COVID-19: stay home. For Vermont employers and employees, this means finding unusual ways of doing “business as usual.”

Scott’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order, one of the strongest in the nation as of print, impacts individuals and businesses alike.

The order directs Vermonters to stay home beginning at 5 pm, March 25 until at least April 15, with the exception of essential reasons, such as obtaining food or medical supplies. For businesses, employers and the workforce, this means non-essential businesses and nonprofits must immediately suspend in-person operations, implement new ways to sell goods, transition to remote operations where possible, or stop operations for the time being.

“We know this is a great hardship,” said Vermont Department of Health Commissioner Mark Levine, MD.” However, the strategy is “scientifically sound,” evidenced by a graph Dr Levine displayed (ABOVE), showing the exponential increase in Vermont’s COVID-19 cases over a two-week span. On March 7, Vermont had one positive case.

On March 25, 123 people in Vermont tested positive for COVID-19.

“I need you to stay home,” Scott said. “Doing so will save lives, it’s just that simple.”

Read the full text of the addendum to the Executive Order.

Business Assistance

“The best thing we can do for our business community is to get through this crisis quickly, and that can only happen if we put the best interests of Vermonters first,” said Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development Secretary Lindsay Kurrle.

For Vermont retail businesses, Kurrle made it clear that online and telephone orders, curbside pickups and delivery services are vital operational practices for public health and safety.

Businesses deemed non-essential under Scott’s directive, and are unable to continue operations under remote circumstances but feel they can continue safely operating, are urged to fill out a “Continuation of Operations” form on the ACCD website: https://bit.ly/covid-vt-business-operations.

Kurrle said every business that completes the form will receive a response, though this does not mean an assurance of continued operations. (SEE 'ESSENTIAL' LIST BELOW)

Additional information and updates will be provided daily via the ACCD website, (accd.vermont.gov), Kurrle said. The business community is also urged to sign up for the Agency’s e-newsletter: http://eepurl.com/gV_NNn.

$2 Trillion Federal Assistance

At a press conference with Governor Scott and administration officials, Vermont’s US Representative Peter Welch presented the outline of the federal government’s $2 trillion COVID-19 financial package. He also praised Governor Scott’s leadership and the state’s response to the health crisis.

Welch said that while that state is working on keeping Vermonters healthy, it’s the job of the federal government to be “the bank of last resort” and keep the nation’s economy healthy.

Welch and Scott recognized the efforts of Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, who is the chief Democratic negotiator on the Appropriations Committee.

While the financial plan is not yet finalized, there are three major bullet points:

  1. $8.3 billion in health and unemployment insurance benefits (already passed)
  2. $100 billion for assistance to unemployed, to help Medicaid and to support meals for school children and seniors (already passed)
  3. $2 trillion (still in progress). This is the big bill still being worked out in the Senate and which must still go through the House.
  • $300 billion to individuals. Anyone who files a 2019 return and earns $75,000 or less will receive a one-time $1,200 check, or $2,400 for couples filing jointly, although this might not come until May. They also will receive $500 per child. The amount scales down until it phases out completely for people earning $99,000, or $198,000 for joint taxpayers. Welch emphasized that weekly unemployment benefits would be increased by $600 a week. In Vermont the highest amount is just over $500. This is to provide an actual living wage for the millions across the nation who will be out of work and extends for four months. It also assumes the need could last longer. Checks to individuals who filed tax returns electronically could come as soon as three weeks, while paper filers might have to wait five to six weeks.
  • $367 billion small business loan and grant program up to $10 million per firm and could be used for expenses like mortgages and salaries up to $100,000. The business loans come with a forgiveness feature if jobs are preserved.
  • $500 billion for big business, but not Trump administration holdings and this comes with an oversight proviso. Nor can companies use it to buy back stock. The airlines will get nearly $60 billion.
  • $130 billion for hospitals, which are incurring enormous costs in fighting COVID-19 while setting aside money-making elective procedures.
  • $150 billion for states who are incurring their own substantial costs while also losing billions in tax revenue.

Welch repeated his catch phrase, that while the financial package is massive and the largest in the nation’s history, “It’s better to do too much too soon, than too little too late,” in other words, doing more now rather than having to do more later.

See summary of Senate package HERE.

Vermont COVID-19 Relief Legislation Summary

The day Scott issued the “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order, the Vermont House and Senate passed H.742, which includes a number of provisions to address the COVID-19 outbreak.

These include (among other measures):

  • Appropriating $450,000 for emergency medical personnel training;
  • Allowing the Vermont Agency of Human Services to waive provider taxes, expand nutrition services capacity, waive certain health care regulations, authorize payments to health care providers, and advance payments to Medicaid providers;
  • Supporting federally qualified health centers (FQHCs) and rural health centers (RHCs);
  • Relaxing credentialing requirements for health care services;
  • Issuing temporary medical licenses during the state of emergency;
  • Allowing recently-retired medical professionals to resume practicing in order to support COVID-19 response efforts;
  • Streamlining the professional licensing process (especially for health care providers);
  • Authorizing the Vermont Department of Financial Regulation to issue emergency rules designed to expand health care coverage, reduce costs, and facilitate reimbursements;
  • Adding flexibility for refilling prescriptions;
  • Expanding telehealth services (including recognizing the medical licenses of professionals from New York, New Hampshire, or Massachusetts); and
  • Temporarily suspending vehicle inspection enforcement and penalties.

Always Evolving

As of press time, Vermont officials indicated more announcements would be coming, likely every day.

Municipalities and law enforcement will receive guidance with suggested practices in the coming days, according to Department of Public Safety Commissioner Mike Schirling.

In the meantime, Vermont has suspended all Amtrak services as of March 25.

Vermonters can track the number and location of positive COVID-19 cases at the Vermont Department of Health’s website by viewing the following link: https://www.healthvermont.gov/response/infectious-disease/2019-novel-coronavirus

RESOURCES

Vermont Department of Health: https://www.healthvermont.gov/covid19

Vermont Department of Taxes: https://tax.vermont.gov/coronavirus

Vermont Department of Labor: https://labor.vermont.gov/

Vermont Agency of Commerce and Community Development: https://accd.vermont.gov/covid-19-guidance

U.S. Small Business Administration: https://www.sba.gov/

Vermont WiFi Hotspot Map: https://vtpsd.maps.arcgis.com/apps/webappviewer/index.html?id=c926d155167d4a5586e8e1aca1701cfa

Governor Phil Scott’s Executive Orders: https://governor.vermont.gov/document-types/executive-orders

Vermont Economic Development Authority: https://www.veda.org/

Vermont Small Business Development Center: https://www.vtsbdc.org/

Vermont Manufacturing Extension Center: https://www.vmec.org/

Vermont Emergency Management: https://vem.vermont.gov/

Vermont Retail and Grocers Association: https://vtrga.org/

ESSENTIAL Services or functions in Vermont deemed critical to public health and safety, as well as economic and national security include:
a. health care operations such as COVID-19 testing and clinical research, hospital personnel and other healthcare providers, public health workers and other healthcare service providers, laboratory services, caregivers, logistics, technology, security and custodial support, blood and plasma donors and mortuary services;
b. law enforcement, public safety and first responders, including fire, ambulance services, emergency medical technicians and emergency management personnel;
c. critical infrastructure including utilities, telecommunication, airports and transportation infrastructure;
d. construction necessary to support the COVID-19 response and maintain critical infrastructure;
e. critical manufacturing, including food and animal feed manufacturing, processing and supply, pharmaceuticals and other manufacturing necessary to support the COVID-19 response as well as economic and national security;
f. retail serving basic human needs such as grocery stores, pharmacies, other retail that sells food, beverage, animal feed and essential supplies, provided, these retail operations shall be conducted through on-line and telephone orders for delivery and curb-side pickup to the extent possible;
g. fuel products and supply;
h. hardware stores, provided, these retail operations shall be conducted through on-line and telephone orders for delivery and curb-side pickup to the extent possible;
i. transportation sector and agricultural sector equipment parts, repair and maintenance, provided these retail operations shall be conducted through on-line and telephone orders for delivery and curb-side pickup to the extent possible;
j. trash collection and disposal, recycling and operations and maintenance of drinking water and wastewater/drainage infrastructure;
k. agriculture and farms, animal shelters, production and delivery of seed, chemicals and fertilizers, CSAs and veterinarians;
l. lodging, to the extent required to support COVID-19 response, critical infrastructure and national security;
m. other building and property services for the safety, sanitation and operations of residences or other businesses;
n. mail and shipping services;
o. news media;
p. banks and related financial institutions, provided, however, routine retail banking operations shall be limited to transactions conducted through automated teller machines, drive-through services and online and telephone services;
q. providers of necessities and services to economically disadvantaged populations; and
r. other vendors of technical, security, logistics, custodial and equipment repair and maintenance services necessary to support the COVID-19 response, critical infrastructure and national security.