2020: Challenges from every possible direction
Editor’s note: 2020 was unlike most years. Wow. A global pandemic reached even this small part of the world to turn our lives upside down, and you read about it in the Addison Independent. But if the unprecedented health crisis was the year’s big story, there were many other stories that touched Addison County. We present this look back to help you bring to mind the big stories and some of the smaller ones.
Have a happy new year in 2021 — you deserve it!
January 2020 began with confirmation that incumbent Middlebury Selectwoman Laura Asermily wouldn’t seek another three years on the town’s governing board. She said it was time for someone to bring new energy to the panel. As it turned out, Asermily’s time off the board would be short-lived; she agreed to serve on an interim basis from December to the March 2021 Town Meeting Day, to fill in for Selectman Victor Nuovo, who stepped down in November.
Bristol residents this month took steps to renovate and generate new interest into the community’s ice rink off Airport Drive. Bristol also made wonderful progress in expanding its “Bristol Trail Network,” an interlinked series of scenic pathways through area forests and fields around the village.
Construction in January was under way on an affordable housing project off Armory Lane in Vergennes. The Addison County Community Trust project was to include 14 one-bedroom, nine two-bedroom and one three-bedroom apartments. Completion of the project was anticipated in July.
The Little City welcomed a new city manager in January: Daniel Hofman, a Poughkeepsie, N.Y., native who had most recently served as top administrator of the city of Guyton, Ga.
Another “new kid on the block”: Thomas Thompson, whom the Porter Medical Center board selected as new interim president of the county’s health care hub. He replaced Dr. Fred Kniffin, who had agreed to fill a temporary leadership role after former PMC President Seleem Choudhury had abruptly resigned the previous October following complaints that he had plagiarized parts of some of his Porter newsletters.
Nearly 80 of Middlebury College’s lowest-paid employees got some welcome news in January, in the form of an automatic pay bump. College leaders OK’d the wage hike in recognition that some of its workers’ wages had “fallen behind the market.”
Bristol bade farewell to one of its beloved characters — Irene Lawrence, and 87-year-old known for her spunk, kindness and love of people and music. She was a regular at the Hatch 51 watering hole on Main Street, where she had many friends, among them members of the county’s music scene.
The Foster Motors auto dealership in Middlebury was sold to a familiar face and company: Todd Stone of G. Stone Motors.
The Addison Northwest School District board in January rejected, on legal grounds, a pair of petitions seeking to change the ANWSD’s articles of agreement in a manner that would have allowed individual towns a final say before their local schools could be closed. At the same time, the board adopted a 2020-21 budget that among other things called for Addison Elementary School to be repurposed for alternative education programs.
Some added turmoil in ANWSD — Superintendent Sheila Soule announced her resignation, effective June 30. But she had more news on that front during February.
Meanwhile, some Addison Central School District residents voiced concerns about potential school closings in the Middlebury area. Constituents of the two smallest ACSD schools — in Weybridge and Ripton — were particularly anxious, while a group of Middlebury residents said they were concerned about the potential for smaller, non-viable schools taking resources away from Mary Hogan Elementary. Like their ANWSD counterparts, the ACSD board declined citizen’s petitions that sought more local control over individual elementary schools.
And ACSD residents in January would also learn that the seven elementary schools in the district needed a combined $17.4 million in repairs aimed at bringing the aging buildings up to construction, handicap-access and safety codes. This deferred maintenance was largely a product of past school boards trying to keep education spending down through the years. The ACSD board will spell out its long-range plans for district school buildings in a facilities master plan due to be released before March town meeting.
January concluded with a harbinger of a dramatic health care crisis that would paralyze Addison County — and indeed the entire world — and play a dominant role in our lives in 2020. Middlebury College announced it was recalling its students studying in China, out of a desire to protect them from the coronavirus, which causes the disease COVID-19.
February began with the Centers for Disease Control, the Vermont Department of Health and Porter Medical Center preparing citizens for the inevitable arrival of the coronavirus. At Porter, officials assembled an “action plan” to prepare for more visits from people showing symptoms of the virus, characterized by a high fever, aches and pains, nausea, lethargy and in some cases, temporary loss of the sense of taste and/or smell. The elderly and people with medical conditions were warned to be on particular guard against getting the coronavirus.
Middlebury Regional EMS announced it would seek a substantial increase in fiscal year 2021 funding from the towns to which it provides emergency response services. The announced increase for Middlebury, MREMS’s largest service area: a jump from $21,240 to $84,950. Officials said the increase was needed to allow the nonprofit to pay its workers better wages, and save toward the purchase of new ambulances.
Local human services officials lobbied against what they warned could be substantial cuts in federal food assistance programs. At issue were new, proposed rules governing the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as Food Stamps.
Orwell residents in February rallied on behalf of their town hall, a 179-year-old structure that was being targeted for removal as part of a $6-million plan to renovate and expand the neighboring Orwell Village School. The town hall has long been used for cafeteria and gym services for Orwell students, but the building has fallen into disrepair. Among the issues: A subpar heating system, antiquated electrical wiring, and insufficient access for people with disabilities. The Orwell project was just part of a larger, $59.5 million capital project that the six Slate Valley Unified Union School Districts would be asked to decide on March 3.
Middlebury Union High School identified a new principal — Justin Campbell, who’d been serving as top administrator of Hanover High School in New Hampshire. Campbell took some time in February to meet with students, staff and local families as he prepared to take the reins of MUHS on July 1. He would replace longtime MUHS Principal Bill Lawson, who was retiring.
In other ACSD personnel news, Superintendent Peter Burrows entered the mix to become the new top executive of the Burlington School District. He was one of three finalists who submitted to public interviews for the post. He ultimately withdrew from consideration, in order to stay with the ACSD.
Meanwhile, Mount Abraham Union High School officials began exploring new ways to offer education to a declining number of students. With community feedback, school leaders drafted a series of scenarios that ranged from maintaining the status quo, to closing the high school and tuitioning the district’s older students to the high school of their choice.
Over in the Vergennes area, the Addison Northwest School District was beginning to look for a new leader after Superintendent Sheila Soule told the school board in late January that she would be leaving the job at the end of the school year. But in mid-February she signed a contract to spend two more years as ANWSD’s top administrator. Soule did not point to one specific thing that changed her mind, but said board members were very supportive of her and they truly want what is best for the students in the district and for the community.
Addison County residents were asked to provide basic demographic data about their respective households as part of the latest decennial census. Federal Census Bureau officials stressed the importance of the data, used in part to calculate federal aid and representation in Congress.
Just across the border in Rutland County, more than 100 animals were seized from a farm at 671 Kimball Road in Brandon. Among the animals taken from the farm: 15 cats, 12 dogs, 16 pigs, 34 goats, 24 sheep, 14 rabbits, four horses and a cow. The property owner, William Hegarty, pleaded not guilty in Rutland Superior Court to two counts of animal cruelty.
American Legion Post 19 in Bristol opened a new “virtual living room” in which area veterans could speak to their healthcare providers via video link. This new service, made possible through the Veterans Administration, allowed veterans to save time and money they would otherwise spend on trips to healthcare centers for checkups.
Town Hall Theater Executive Director Mark Bradley announced in February he would step down after 18 months in the role. He helped advance the THTs technology and its sustainability as the Middlebury area’s community arts hub. The THT board selected Middlebury UndergrounD co-founder Lisa Mitchell to fill the post.
And it was the end of an era at Vergennes City Hall. Longtime City Clerk Joan Devine was retiring after 38 years on the job. She was, at the time, the longest serving municipal clerk in Addison County.
March was the month during which COVID-19 took hold of people’s lives, and didn’t let go — whether they’d caught the virus, or not.
New interim Porter Medical Center President Tom Thompson was quickly presented with his first major health care crisis — the first cases of COVID-19 to seep into Addison County. Porter, like hospitals throughout the state, canceled elective surgeries to prepare for a potential, major influx of COVID-stricken patients. The hospital and Helen Porter Rehabilitation & Nursing set up strict hygiene/facemask protocols for those entering those respective buildings. Thompson, with three decades of experience as a hospital administrator, served notice he was up to the task of managing the county’s health care hub.
In an effort to socially distance, Porter primary care providers ramped up their use of telemedicine, through which physicians conduct exams of patients through a computer screen.
Middlebury College sent most of its students home in early March, amid concerns of a potential spread of the coronavirus. The institution suspended in-person classes and asked students to stay home after an extended spring break. This decision came on the heels of the state’s first reported case, in Bennington County.
By mid-March public school districts in Addison County and beyond closed their buildings and shifted to online learning with students taking their classes virtually. This provided the students with some continuity of learning during the pandemic, but placed more stress on educators and parents/guardians, in addition to the stress on the students.
One only had to look at the shrinking community calendar listings in the Addison Independent to see that many civic groups, clubs, recreation programs and museums were canceling events, in an effort to avoid the potential spread of the virus between groups of people.
Milk prices fell from $19.28 per hundredweight in December 2019, to $18.78 in March.
Businesses began taking a hit, ranging from restaurants to manufacturing industries. People were concerned about visiting stores, and thus limited their spending — particularly the many who had lost jobs or who had been placed on extended furloughs. State, federal and local agencies helped link affected businesses to the federal Payroll Protection Program and other aid opportunities.
Homeless shelters in Vergennes and Middlebury had to alter programming for those needing a safe place to stay during the pandemic. The John Graham Emergency Shelter put in new safety protocols for its guests to ensure everyone stayed at least 6 feet apart, while the Charter House Coalition in Middlebury had to temporarily close its North Pleasant Street warming shelter. The state of Vermont paid for scores of homeless folks to instead stay in local motels and hotels.
While families and businesses started to keep a low profile, that wasn’t an option for social service organizations, who either continued to provide in-person services (with social distancing and facemasks), or by telephone and Zoom conferences. The phone and computer became vital lifelines for those in need of counseling during the bleak days of quarantining.
Churches closed, though many continued services through social media and Zoom.
Everywhere there were signs of resiliency and reminders that Addison County takes care of its own — and others. Aqua ViTea, Vermont Soap and App Gap Distillery in Middlebury pooled their equipment and resources to make and donate several 55-gallon drums of hand sanitizer to Porter Medical Center. The United Way and other nonprofits received generous donations to keep up with the increasing demand for food, clothing and assistance in paying household bills.
An all-volunteer group called Addison County Mutual Aid sprung up. Leaders in 21 county towns directed a force of 400 volunteers who helped out in ways large and small to make sure locals could meet their needs during the pandemic.
Addison County voters were able to attend/vote at their respective March town meetings during the first week of March, before the virus had come to Vermont. They showed strong support for virtually all school budgets, bond issues, municipal spending plans and various referenda. One of the major exceptions: A $59.5 million capital bond proposal for the Slate Valley Unified Union School District, which included a renovation and expansion project for the Orwell Village School. That bond proposal was rejected by a 2,489-719 tally.
Vergennes elected Lynn Jackson Donnelly as its deputy mayor, and picked David Austin and Tara Brooks to serve on the city council. Darla Senecal joined the Bristol selectboard, while incumbent Michelle Perlee secured another three-year term. In Middlebury, voters re-elected incumbent Brian Carpenter and newcomer Dan Brown to their selectboard.
A major Middlebury business was sold in March: Denecker Chevrolet on Route 7. The new owners are the father-son team of Chris and Christopher Mackey, who operate Ford and Subaru dealerships in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., as the Mackey Auto Group. The transaction ensured that Tom Denecker would continue to manage the business at the site he had acquired from Jerry Shea six years earlier.
In Ferrisburgh, folks mourned the loss of a 17-year-old camel named “Ollie” who died following an illness. Ollie’s calm presence among a flock of sheep in a pasture off Route 7 had regaled passing travelers for several years.
As Addison County recorded its 23rd case of COVID-19 and Vermont entered its third week of staying home and staying safe, Porter Medical Center in Middlebury was adapting its facilities and resources in anticipation of a surge in COVID-19 patients. The hospital’s preparations included doubling from three to six its number of “negative-pressure” rooms, which are designed to prevent potentially contaminated air from spreading to other areas of the hospital.
Nearby Middlebury College, whose campus was now mostly empty, was adapting its facilities and resources as well — to provide housing for Porter staff, should that become necessary.
Meanwhile, the sleepy buzz of students arriving at school each morning was replaced in a few select locations by the manic buzz of staff and volunteers, who gathered in school kitchens to prepare hundreds of meals, package them and load them onto school buses. Educators then took turns riding around on the buses, helping deliver meals — and smiles and encouragement and the occasional ChromeBook charger — to the homes of students who needed them.
It didn’t take long for our neighbors to find other creative solutions to each challenge that emerged from the pandemic. Local religious leaders conducted services online. Telemedicine was expanded. Addiction recovery programs gathered their clients virtually. And Vermont legislators took their own business — which by now was almost exclusively COVID-19 business — online.
Undaunted by public health restrictions that discouraged them from shaking hands, hugging or breaking bread together, Vergennes residents gathered every evening for a vehicle parade, complete with banging pots and pans.
The Mount Abraham Unified School District’s Expanded Learning Program created — in just three days — a childcare program for essential workers, which immediately began to flourish.
There was kindness. Weybridge clothing designer Molly Smith made free masks for health care workers. Vergennes-based WowToyz donated thousands of age-appropriate toys to county students who were stuck at home because of the pandemic.
And there were struggles.
With many businesses shuttered, more and more people found themselves out of work.
The price of milk plummeted as restaurants, schools and other institutional customers remained closed, leaving local dairy farmers with so much extra milk they found it was cheaper to dump it. With stores closed and social distancing taking hold there was suddenly very little demand for advertising and the Addison Independent reduced its printing schedule from twice a week to only once, while focusing more work on online delivery of the news.
As economic activity slowed, so did the state revenue it generates. By the middle of the month, Vermont officials were predicting an $89 million shortfall in the state’s education fund and local school districts began planning for large spending deficits.
Things were looking grim for higher education, too. The state colleges system just barely escaped closure, and locally, more than 1,200 Middlebury College employees began crossing their fingers when the school predicted COVID-19 would take a serious toll on its finances.
But by months’ end, local educators were digging deep, figuring out what “distance learning” should mean and how best to implement it. Workers began to master Zoom and other virtual meeting technologies. Neighbors looked out for neighbors. And Vermont began to flatten the curve.
Vermont’s COVID-19 curve stayed mostly flat throughout May, and successive announcements from Gov. Scott signaled a gradual restart of local economies.
Construction, manufacturing and distribution operations were allowed to increase to full capacity, which in Middlebury meant the resumption of the downtown rail bridges project.
Major infrastructure work, including paving and sidewalk projects, also began in Bristol and Vergennes.
Early in the month, as fears about catastrophic COVID-19 surges began to fade, elective medical and surgical procedures were phased back in to the health care industry.
Meanwhile, schools in the Vergennes- and Bristol-area school districts were delivering up to 1,800 meals a day to schoolchildren hunkered down at home with remote learning.
At the other end of the age spectrum, local senior citizens — many of them with the assistance of Elderly Services Inc. — were learning how to use Zoom and other online meeting platforms to rekindle old friendships — or even start new ones.
Such examples of resilience and creativity could be found everywhere, but they were occasionally punctuated with sobering personal stories.
Whiting resident Keith Mattison shared what it was like to be hospitalized because of COVID-19. Weybridge resident Doug Wilhelm detailed his own struggle with the disease. And Dr. Wesley Clark, an anesthesiologist at Porter Medical Center who had volunteered at a hospital in New York City at the height of the pandemic there — described for our readers the things he had seen and the perspective he had gained.
Still, day by day, especially as warm weather settled in, a new sense of cautious hope began to take hold.
Local stores were allowed to reopen, albeit on a limited basis. Soon after, bars and restaurants were allowed to reopen, with restrictions — just in time for Memorial Day and the unofficial start of summer.
But with large gatherings still prohibited, a lot of “summer” things — including Memorial Day parades — were about to get canceled.
For the first time in their histories, Vergennes Day and Brandon’s Basin Bluegrass Festival were called off.
Bristol’s Fourth of July Parade and the annual Tour de Farms local foods bike ride also fell victim to COVID-19.
So, too, did the largest and most popular local gathering of them all — Addison County Fair and Field Days.
With virtually no one on campus, certainly not the entire senior class, Middlebury College held its commencement ceremony online — which left some disappointed students and families feeling as if graduation had essentially been canceled.
Down in Shoreham village, residents mourned the impending closure of a 143-year-old icon: St. Genevieve’s Church. There were too few worshippers and the building needed too many repairs to keep it running, according to the Burlington Catholic Diocese.
As the pandemic raged on, mostly outside of Vermont’s borders, a scientific consensus was developing around the benefits of wearing face coverings, which were seen as an additional way to help slow the spread of COVID-19.
By month’s end, the Vergennes City Council had begun discussing the possibility of requiring people to wear facemasks in certain settings.
Two and a half months into the pandemic a tragedy in Minneapolis sparked an abrupt shift in the national conversation, whose effects would eventually be felt here in Vermont.
On May 25 a white Minneapolis police officer killed an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, by kneeling on his neck for more than eight minutes as Floyd lay facedown in the street in handcuffs.
Video footage of the killing spread like wildfire and thousands of people around the world took to the streets in protest.
Vigils and demonstrations were held all over Vermont, including in Brandon, Bristol, Middlebury and Vergennes.
A few days after Floyd was killed, anticipating the kinds of conversations that would soon emerge in Vermont, Gov. Phil Scott announced the formation of the Governor’s Racial Equity Task Force.
As the month wore on, and conversations about racism, white supremacy and police brutality began to escalate around the country, the “defund the police” movement, whose aims include reforming the scope and funding of law enforcement agencies, began to capture the national spotlight.
In the three Addison County communities that have their own police departments — Bristol, Middlebury and Vergennes —citizens began to press town officials about law enforcement policies, training and funding. Vergennes residents called for the formation of a citizen review board to oversee the city’s police department.
At the same time, another debate began brewing, both nationally and at home — about facemasks.
Even as frontline health care workers pleaded with the general public to wear masks, which mounting scientific evidence suggested would slow the spread of COVID-19, fierce resistance developed from people who viewed it as a violation of their personal freedoms.
Reluctant to impose ordinances — and knowing full well that enforcing such ordinances would be next to impossible — officials in Bristol, Middlebury and Vergennes opted instead for resolutions or statements of support for businesses that decided to require face masks.
Those masks would end up being prominent feature of local graduation ceremonies.
After the class of 2020 had spent the final months of their high school careers in quarantine, local school officials went out of their way to make graduation as special as possible, to make up for the fact that large gatherings were not allowed. But masks were still required.
And when the last graduation cap soared through the air and fell to the ground, school officials turned their attention to September and what back-to-school might look like.
Soon the Bristol-, Middlebury- and Vergennes-area school districts announced they would bring students back into the classroom — for at least some of the time.
Then Vergennes school officials began talking about expanding their middle school, and Middlebury school officials began to focus on how many of their district elementary schools they could afford to keep open, and the school district that includes Orwell had its annual budget voted down. Again.
Meanwhile, more things reopened, like hotels and homeless shelters. Other things closed permanently, like the state’s last unlined landfill in Salisbury — for reasons completely unrelated to the pandemic.
Still other things moved online, like the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival.
As June came to an end, a wild and contentious presidential election season was well under way. Closer to home, an outspoken attorney from Middlebury announced his candidacy for one of the most obscure and misunderstood public offices in the land — high bailiff.
There was some good news at least for some people in 2020 — sellers of real estate. According to local experts who spoke to the Independent early in July, demand was strong for homes, especially in the county’s villages. Out-of-state buyers were helping create the market, they said, and a percentage of those customers were also looking for country homes.
Two people of color did not share good news at the same time. A Brandon resident detailed to the Independent what he believed was a racist report by a witness to a harmless incident at Middlebury’s recreation park, and then an over-reaction by law enforcement. At about the same time, a departing Middlebury College professor said in a campus-wide email she had gone through a “racist hell” during her three years at the college.
Almost all the county’s organized Independence Day festivities were called off, but a group of diehards preserved one tradition on a Bristol side street — the Great Bristol Outhouse Race. A team including head ringleader Cam Perta, Emma Radler and rider Bryson Knight prevailed. Perta, arguably the world’s leading outhouse racing enthusiast, won his second straight title.
More than five years in the making, the new downtown Middlebury rail tunnel began taking shape as workers in mid-July kicked off a comparatively brief 10-week period of intense building. Tunnel progress would be measured one massive concrete section at a time, until all 422 of them were hoisted into place by five gargantuan cranes. Work was scheduled to take place around the clock and forced detours for vehicles, pedestrians and freight trains.
On July 16, government began going off the rails in Vergennes. At a meeting watched online by six-dozen residents, City Manager Dan Hofman unveiled a series of July 15 text messages between him and then Mayor Jeff Fritz in which Fritz said members of the city police force were intimidating residents and made remarks that Hofman interpreted as threats toward the deputy mayor and an alderman.
Councilors then voted to accept Fritz’s resignation, and he left the meeting. Fritz said later the remarks directed at other councilors were made in confidence and “in jest,” and were intended to refer to political rivalry. But the meeting exposed political divisions about policing and other issues, and several days later, Councilor Bill Benton resigned, citing “vitriol and distrust” in the community.
Eight days later, Fritz and two more councilors submitted letters of resignation, leaving the council without a quorum and able to do little except pay bills until the city held a September special election to fill four vacancies.
Several residents at the July 16 meeting and afterward likened the events to a coup, while others believed the resignations that followed were a joint effort. Councilors on both sides denied any coordinated planning.
Several residents filed Freedom of Information Act requests for emails and phone calls, and some were not happy with Hofman’s level of cooperation. Others, including the heads of two city committees, were not pleased with Hofman’s public treatment of those who disagreed with him about how a sidewalk project should be handled, among other issues. In all, it seemed to many that work needed to be done to put the city’s governance and frame of mind back on track.
Meanwhile, the college released a plan to bring many students back on campus for a somewhat shorter semester, with quarantining, no interscholastic sports, regular testing and many other steps. Some were skeptical, others were enthusiastic.
Most of area’s public schools opted for a mix of in-person and remote learning, while the Otter Valley district opted to start with an all-remote approach.
The year 2020 answered yet another question: What’s August without Addison County Fair and Field Days? The answer: A little bit duller and sadder.
At least again there was a bit of good news. It turns out when people have to spend a lot of time at home and aren’t spending their cash traveling, many of them decide to take on home improvement projects or hire someone to do them. Builders and building supply firms were doing well. One contractor told the Independent he felt a little guilty about saying it, but his sector was “thriving during this time.”
Vergennes set a date to repopulate the city council: A special election was scheduled for Sept. 22, and before long 14 candidates signed up to compete for the four openings, a healthy sign for the city.
Not too many races were contested on residents’ Aug. 11 primary ballots. Locally, Middlebury attorney Dave Silberman bested perennial candidate Ron Holmes in a surprisingly high-profile Democratic Primary race for High Bailiff. Holmes did get on the General Election ballot as a Republican running for high bailiff.
On the GOP side of the primary, county voters backed Gov. Phil Scott in his re-election bid and Scott Milne in his bid for lieutenant governor. On the Democratic side, they backed Phil Zuckerman to challenge Scott and Molly Gray to square off with Milne.
Work continued day and night on construction of the train tunnel through downtown Middlebury.
Addison Central School District continued its multi-year effort to evaluate consolidation options. In August officials released a study that claimed the system could save $41.5 million over 10 years by closing four schools. The suggestion was not universally popular.
The Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival has been a fixture on the summer schedule, and it managed to succeed again in an online format after kicking off late in August.
On Aug. 31 Marble Works Pharmacy, with branches in Middlebury, Bristol and Vergennes, closed without warning after years of serving a loyal customer base. Those customers had their information transferred to Walgreens Pharmacies in Bristol and Middlebury, and many weren’t happy with service there. Questions quickly arose about the propriety of the closure and the handling of patient data.
In the wake of the final summer Voices in the Park anti-racism presentations on the Vergennes city green came news in early September that in the past four years statistics from traffic stops showed that Vergennes police had treated people of color differently from, and generally not as leniently as, white drivers after pulling them over. City officials pledged to do better, and record-keeping had already improved.
On Sept. 3, Bashiru Abdulaziz, the Brandon man who believed his race affected the way his actions were reported and how he was treated by Middlebury police in July, met with the officers and Police Chief Tom Hanley. All said they felt better afterward, but Abdulaziz said “drastic measures” were necessary to shift how police view and treat people of color.
Study after study continues to show local school districts will see fewer students in the years to come. A preliminary Aug. 11 report from the New England School Development Council for the Mount Abe district said the same thing: MAUSD enrollment would decline by 15 percent in the next decade.
Middlebury College’s opening plan got off to a good start: 99.999% of its students tested negative twice. Still, college officials didn’t fool around. Several students who failed to follow COVID-19 rules were sent home quickly, and later in the month more were disciplined. Over the fall semester 29 students were sent home and 108 were disciplined.
High school athletes started practicing with the expectation they would play games or run races by Sept. 21, granted with a host of safety protocols in place, but it didn’t quite work out that way. Most athletes didn’t compete until October after state officials delayed the official green light until after the 21st.
In September it became clear that neighbors’ opposition to an expansion and upgrade of Vergennes Residential Care on the city green — a project approved by the city and popular among residents and businesses — could place plans in jeopardy. As 2020 neared its end there was no news of progress in resolving neighbors’ appeal of the permit without a lengthy legal case the developers said could doom the project.
Vergennes finally had a full city council after its Sept. 22 election. Sort of. Elected were Dickie Austin, Ian Huizenga, Jill Murray-Killon and Mel Hawley. But Hawley’s margin over David Small was a single vote, and a recount was quickly scheduled. Hawley prevailed by a healthier margin, and the former longtime city manager had a new role in city government.
Speaking of finally, on Sept. 18 a ceremonial train ride through Middlebury’s massive new downtown rail tunnel signified the completion of the project to the point where Main Street and Merchants Row could re-open. Shopkeepers reeling from the double blows of a multi-year construction project and an international pandemic breathed (carefully through masks) a half-sigh of relief.
In a move that could have dire long-term consequences for one of Addison County’s nursing homes, the Green Mountain Care Board at the beginning of October rejected Porter Hospital’s request for a 5.75% increase in its commercial rate as part of its fiscal year 2021 budget, instead determining the hospital should make do with a 4% hike.
With no exceedingly bad news on the COVID-19 front, Addison Northwest School District’s two elementary schools in October took the first steps to return all ANWSD pupils from kindergarten to grade 6 back to full-time, in-school learning. The Addison Central School District also moved from its hybrid model to full in-person learning, five days a week, for students in the same grades.
Tom Thompson, who began serving as interim president and chief operating officer of UVM Health Network Porter Medical Center this past February, was made the permanent head honcho at Porter in October.
Orchard owners in October said that the story of this year’s apple season had four chapters: a dry summer, August rain, gorgeous pick-your-own weather, and COVID-19. A minor summer drought contributed to more concentrated flavors, but enough moisture got into the ground by the start of harvest season to allow the fruit to “size up.” Orchards had to adapt their businesses to the ongoing presence of the pandemic, but the season was going well … until it hit a bump.
Champlain Orchards in Shoreham closed temporarily, after 27 seasonal apple pickers tested positive for COVID-19. All the affected orchard staff were working in Vermont through the federal H-2A visa program. They arrived in Shoreham on Sept. 14 after flying from Jamaica to JFK airport and traveling together by chartered bus to Vermont. Near the end of the two-week quarantine period, one of the workers began to display symptoms of the disease and tested positive for COVID-19. Champlain Orchards owner Bill Suhr was complying with all public health recommendations and working with state health and agriculture officials to isolate the workers and ensure they have what they need. State health officials did not believe the case originated in Vermont. Health officials tested 101 people over the weekend, including all 55 of the orchard’s H-2A workers.
Every October, participants in Addison County’s CROP Hunger Walk raise awareness and money to relieve food insecurity in our community and around the world. Despite COVID-19, organizers ramped up efforts in Addison County this October to provide nutritional resources for food shelves and programs. A reimagined version of the group walk — one that involved solo walks — raised more than $8,450.
A California couple, Matthew Robinson and Serena Kim, acquired Middlebury’s historic Swift House Inn from longtime owners Dan and Michelle Brown, who said they plan to stay in town.
Locals found out that it would be quieter than usual on the Middlebury College campus this winter as college officials announced that Middlebury’s January term will be held remotely and that students will not begin arriving for the spring 2021 semester until Feb. 24-25.
Lt. Cory Lozier, the former commander of the Vermont State Police’s Tactical Services Unit, in October took command of the VSP’s New Haven barracks.
Local political activists were preparing for the worst-case outcome on Election Day — an election that’s too close to call that evening and a rule-defying president who deliberately spread doubts about the validity of mail-in ballots and threatened to declare himself the winner before all ballots were counted. To make sure America’s election proceeds within the law, activists in October were staging training sessions and lining up citizen volunteers to be ready to peacefully protest to make sure every vote would count.
Addison County town clerks planned for a huge number of early ballots arriving at their offices, and in the last week of October some reported that 40%-50% of all ballots that had been mailed out were already returned.
The Vergennes City Council and Vergennes City Manager Daniel Hofman made final the Separation Agreement that Mayor Lynn Donnelly first announced at the end of a 90-minute closed-door council meeting on Oct. 21. Hofman would stay on the job until Nov. 13, and after that he will receive as his severance full pay and benefits until Jan. 15, as well as be paid for unused vacation time.
Meanwhile, the Vergennes City Council chose former longtime city manager Mel Hawley as deputy mayor over fellow new Councilor Dickie Austin in a 4-3 vote.
In the first week of November many were expecting to breathe a sigh of relief now that one of the most divisive national elections in our history would finally be over. But … we all had to hold that breath while the presidential election results were sorted out.
At least we had some closure here in Vermont. Addison County followed the broader trends across the state by backing GOP incumbent Gov. Phil Scott, Democratic lieutenant governor candidate Molly Gray, and Presidential candidate Joe Biden. Turnout was heavy, with more than 78% of registered Addison County voters casting ballots. The fact that mail-in ballots were sent to every voter to ensure as much social distancing as possible surely pumped up overall turnout. Biden topped Donald Trump in all 23 Addison County communities, with the final county tally being 14,963 for Biden, 6,292 for Trump.
Two local groups that formed to keep the public’s eye on potential post-election fraud held rallies in Bristol and Middlebury during the days following the election as counting of mail-in ballots delayed final results in some states and Trump urged public officials in swing states not to count all the votes.
In county election contests, all incumbent state representatives and senators won re-election. Middlebury Democrat Dave Silberman breezed to victory in the race for Addison County high bailiff, a competition that turned out to be one of Addison County’s most active and expensive clashes on Nov. 3. He beat his nearest challenger by around 3,000 votes.
Just as everyone was looking at the election, hackers broke into the computer system at UVM Health Network, which includes Porter Medical Center in Middlebury. The cyberattack meant that health care providers couldn’t look at electronic records for patients, including records of their past care. The patient scheduling and email systems were also affected. The six hospitals in the network continued to provide care, but communications were hampered for much of the rest of the month.
With one big election over, the Mount Abraham Unified School District board said that Superintendent Patrick Reen would soon make recommendations for managing costs in the Bristol-area schools that could result in closure of one or more school buildings. A vote could come as soon as Town Meeting Day.
The Slate Valley Unified Union School District said it was considering sending 7th- and 8th-graders from the Orwell Village School instead to Fair Haven Union High School next year.
Young and first-time hunters combined to bring 105 deer to Addison County’s seven wildlife reporting stations after going out during Youth Hunting Weekend, and archery season got off to a strong start.
The Vermont Folklife Center announced it would hold its annual gingerbread house competition and exhibit virtually this year. Contestants would send in photos of their creations, and VFC would post the images on its website.
Theater advisers at Mount Abraham and Middlebury union high schools figured out a way to get the student thespians involved and plan to stage a couple of plays — albeit with no live audiences. Mount Abe in late November performed “A Simpler Time,” with the play shown on NEAT TV. In early December the theater kids in an empty auditorium at MUHS staged a one-act version of Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Night’s Dream” that was livestreamed so theatergoers could enjoy the shows as they were being performed.
After getting a request from just-elected High Bailiff Dave Silberman, the Middlebury selectboard agreed to place a referendum on the 2021 town meeting warning asking residents if they’re open to the prospect of cannabis retail stores operating in town. Silberman argued that a positive vote by the people would give the town ample lead time to draft zoning and public safety ordinances that would give the community control over where cannabis retail stores might be sited. Retail cannabis sales will be allowed statewide beginning in spring 2022.
Vermont, like the rest of the country, began to grapple with a surge in COVID-19 cases by mid-November. State officials put in place slightly tighter restrictions designed to bolster social distancing and reduce the spread of the disease. Vermont reported 72 cases of COVID-19 on Nov. 11, breaking the previous record for the most cases reported in a single day. The state’s total case count rose to 2,535, with 59 deaths. In the first 11 days of November, Vermont saw its total number COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic jump by 15% as the Green Mountain State reported 339 new cases of the disease. Over that period Addison County saw nine new cases bringing its total to 135. By the end of he year those numbers would be substantially larger.
With the beginning of the surge, it was no surprise when Gov. Scott announced that the start of winter high school sports practices — which had been set for Nov. 30 — were indefinitely postponed.
With COVID-19 spiking, Addison County’s municipal highway department heads began working toward a written mutual-aid pact that would make formal the existing handshake agreements to help out each other in times of need. The fear is that enough members of a town’s road crew, and their subs, could be sick with COVID-19 and not be able to clear snow from the roads at some point this coming winter.
After Middlebury College kept its COVID-19 case count steady after seeing only two student-cases in the first fortnight of the semester — perhaps thanks in part to vigilance that included sending 29 students home for violating COVID precautions — three more student COVID cases sprung up on campus. This was followed by two more during the days around Nov. 21, when students went home for holiday break.
The spike in cases also began to be seen in county elementary schools with cases popping up in Middlebury and Starksboro schools.
Many Addison County towns are considering how COVID-19 would change the long-held tradition of residents gathering at annual meetings and discussing business, including debating and amending town budgets. A new law would enable town officials to put more issues up for Australian ballot on Town Meeting Day without first getting approval of voters — just for this coming year.
Vergennes-based John Graham Housing & Services in early December was busy preparing itself, and its clients, for an arduous Vermont winter during which homeless people would have the added challenge of finding service during the COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately, John Graham and other shelters throughout the state are being given more resources to care for homeless persons who are, in some cases, showing up in a more fragile state as a result of a virus that is making them feel more isolated than usual. In 2020 the Legislature committed $32 million to support homeless shelters and affordable housing initiatives during the pandemic.
For the second straight year the region’s deer hunters broke the post-2005 record for most bucks taken during Vermont’s 16-day November rifle season. Hunters brought 427 bucks to the county’s seven wildlife reporting stations to be weighed, and according to Fish and Wildlife Deer Project Leader Nick Fortin also said hunters reported 220 more online after shooting them in a county town. There were still a few more weeks of bow and muzzleloader deer hunting to go.
When the numbers were all tallied by the end of December, county wildlife reporting stations reported they had handled more deer in 2020 than in any year since the Independent has been tracking the count — and it wasn’t close. The previous record of 1,345 came in 2018 for the combined total of all seasons — rifle, Youth/ Novice Hunting Weekend, archery and muzzleloader. Then, 2019 came close, with 1,324 weighed locally. This year that number soared to 1,745. To put that count in perspective, as recently as 2010 and 2011 county weigh stations handled fewer than 800. There were many trophy bucks weighing over 200 pounds, but the most impressive was the 262-pounder that Chris Hanson shot in Shoreham during rifle season.
St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Middlebury welcomed a new priest, The Reverend Paul V. Olsson, on the first Sunday of Advent. Taking an old tradition with a pandemic twist on it, members of the congregation welcomed Rev. Olsson by driving up to his new residence — in five-minute increments — and dropping off a pound of something (coffee, baked goods, chocolate, whatever). The drop-off lasted three hours.
After Gov. Phil Scott issued an executive order suspending multi-household gatherings, officials in Addison County’s three biggest school districts had the option of questioning students and staff about possible violation of COVID precautions during Thanksgiving break. But they chose not to. Some people found the new guidelines confusing, and district superintendents were fielding inquiries from community members who didn’t know what to expect the Monday after Thanksgiving.
As the number of COVID-19 cases in Vermont grows, it was not surprising to see that prominent members of the community were infected. Rutland Northeast Superintendent Jeanne Collins contracted the disease early in the month and went into quarantine with her family.
The Fuentes-George household in East Middlebury had a rocky start to the holiday season. The entire five-person family contracted the coronavirus just before Thanksgiving and spent the next 10 days in isolation, dealing with varying degrees of nausea, headaches, lethargy, congestion and coughing. Thankfully they all recovered, but the experience was not pretty and they urged everyone to take precautions to avoid coronavirus. But this virus is persistent; they were practicing social distancing and still the disease shot through the family.
By the second week of December the Middlebury College Snow Bowl and Rikert Nordic Center had sized up how to offer skiing with pandemic social distancing precautions. They made some snow, more fell, and the two country institutions began opening trails.
After Addison Northwest officials repurposed Addison’s elementary school this fall, and Addison Central School District officials weighed whether to close several schools, it seemed inevitable when Mount Abraham Unified School District Superintendent Patrick Reen announced his consolidation plan. Reen suggested repurposing three elementary schools in the Bristol-area district, bringing sixth-graders into the middle/high school, and eventually merging with Addison Northwest. He said the moves would save money and expand educational programming beyond what would otherwise be possible, since student numbers are predicted to continue falling for years to come. He predicted the district would have to let go of 75 employees. Many residents in Lincoln, Starksboro and New Haven — where the elementary schools would no longer host classes — were not welcoming of the plan. Lincoln town officials hired a lawyer to plan resistance.
As Addison Central moved closer to choosing elementary schools to shutter, groups in Ripton and Weybridge started a petition drive to withdraw their towns from the seven-town ACSD. The hope was to keep their local elementary school open and continue sending older students to middle and high school in Middlebury. Votes were scheduled for January.
Former Middlebury selectboard member Laura Asermily was tapped to return to the board to fill the remaining three months of the term of Selectman Victor Nuovo, who resigned in November to put more time toward writing.
Sterling and Evelyn Muth in Orwell counted up their blessings, including two young children, and decided to give back to the community. This December (and the preceding few months) they spent much of their free time organizing an effort to get Christmas trees to people who couldn’t afford them. “I want children to have a great Christmas, and help families have an easier time during December,” Sterling said.
On Dec. 16 a ray of hope shone brightly from the Middlebury Regional EMS headquarters where Porter Hospital RN Jon Rasmussen was the first person in Addison County to receive the newly approved coronavirus vaccine. By the end of the month, Porter expected to have vaccinated a few hundred of its employees against the disease that cast a shadow over 2020. It was the first stage of a plan to provide vaccinations across Addison County and the entire nation. It will take months to carry out, but as the year cane to a close people were optimistic for a healthier 2021.
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