Montgomery: After the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted classroom learning, Gov. Kay Ivey faces a decision whether to delay next year’s high-stakes requirement to hold back third graders who aren’t reading on grade level. Ivey has through Thursday to sign legislation by Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, that would push back the promotion requirement from the 2021-22 school year to the 2023-24 school year. If she does not sign the bill, it will die by what is known as a pocket veto. Ivey spokeswoman Gina Maiola said Wednesday that the bill is under review. The promotion requirement is set to take effect at the end of next year, but supporters argued it would be unfair to force the requirement on students who were out of the traditional classroom for long stretches during the pandemic. Opponents have argued that it would be a disservice to students to delay the requirement – a part of a broader state program to boost literacy – or that the state should wait until latest test scores are available to decide. Rep. Terri Collins, R-Decatur, who sponsored the original measure in 2019, has argued lawmakers should wait and see the latest test scores before deciding if a delay is needed.
Juneau: About 60% of applications for a pandemic rent relief program are still awaiting processing, nearly three months after the application deadline. The pending applications are among 25,257 that cleared initial income and documentation hurdles for the program administered by the Alaska Housing Finance Corp, KTOO Public Media reports. The program is aimed at helping people who qualify by covering up to a year of rent and utility payments. The application deadline closed in early March. Given the high level of interest in a different relief program last year, the corporation built its paperwork and review process with speed in mind, officials said. Daniel Delfino, who directs the corporation’s planning and program development department, said stopwatch tests were used to determine how quickly workers processed different versions of paperwork. Nonetheless, Delfino said it’s no consolation for those awaiting the help “that we’re one of the fastest states in the country to get the money out the door if they can’t pay their rent or their utility bill.” The program receives about 600 to 800 phone calls daily, mostly from people asking about the status of their applications, Delfino said. A website status checker shows about 800 unique user visits a day.
Phoenix: The state’s standards for allocating scarce medical resources during crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic have been revised to resolve a months-old federal complaint. The updated Crisis Standards of Care now reflect “legal requirements and best practices regarding the needs of people with disabilities and older adults,” according to a statement from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Civil Rights released Tuesday. The complaint, filed July 17 by several advocacy groups, argued that the state’s crisis standards, allowed because of COVID-19, discriminated against older Arizonans, people of color and those with disabilities. “We’re very glad that we have standards that would now ensure that all patients, including those with disabilities, would receive equitable treatment,” said Maya Abela, a supervisory attorney with the Arizona Center for Disability Law. The federal Office of Civil Rights provided technical assistance and used a “collaborative process” to revise the guidelines, the federal statement says. “This is a significant step forward for all residents of our state,” Jon Meyers, executive director for The Arc of Arizona, said in a statement Tuesday.
Little Rock: The American Civil Liberties Union asked a federal judge Tuesday to strike down a new law that made the state the first to ban gender-confirming treatments or surgery for transgender youth. The ACLU filed a lawsuit challenging the new prohibition, set to take effect July 28. It prohibits doctors from providing gender-confirming hormone treatment, puberty blockers or surgery to anyone under 18 years old, or from referring them to other providers for the treatment. The ACLU filed the lawsuit on behalf of four transgender youth and their families, as well as two doctors who provide gender-confirming treatments. The lawsuit argues the prohibition will severely harm transgender youth in the state and violate their constitutional rights. “If the health care ban goes into effect, it will have devastating consequences for transgender youth in Arkansas,” the lawsuit said. “These young people will be unable to obtain medical care that their doctors and parents agree they need – and those already receiving care will have their treatment abruptly halted – which could have serious and potentially life-threatening consequences.” Republican lawmakers enacted the ban in April, overriding a veto by GOP Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
Pedestrians make their way along the car-free Great Highway on April 28, 2021, in San Francisco. (Photo: Eric Risberg/AP)
San Francisco: When the coronavirus hit, the environmentally friendly city closed more than 45 miles of streets to automobiles so people could exercise and socialize safely. Now, pedestrian advocates want to keep some of San Francisco’s most prominent streets off-limits, like the main road into Golden Gate Park. Others are pushing back, saying they need to drive to work, drop off kids and get around. The debate has been marked by dueling rallies and strident arguments over safety and climate change in the densely packed city. On social media, customers threatened to boycott a bakery whose owner expressed support for reopening the main oceanside thoroughfare known as the Great Highway to cars; others came to her defense. The president of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors was mocked for likening the closure of John F. Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park to the Jim Crow South, including by fellow African Americans. The city’s streets are scheduled to reopen 120 days after Mayor London Breed lifts the COVID-19 emergency declaration, which could come next month, and officials are studying which corridor closures could become permanent. The Board of Supervisors will have the final say, said Tamara Aparton, a city parks spokeswoman.
Fort Collins: The popular outdoor swimming pool at City Park will open Saturday for the first time in nearly two years, and neighborhood pools throughout Fort Collins are opening on time this year without the COVID-19 restrictions that limited their use last summer. Officials kept City Park Pool closed throughout 2020 in response to public health orders designed to slow the spread of the coronavirus. It’s slated to remain open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily through Aug. 21. “We’re anticipating a very packed pool this summer with pent-up demand to do things and get outside of the house,” said Aaron Harris, interim recreation director for the city of Fort Collins. All the neighborhood pools that Splash Pool Services operates within Poudre School District boundaries were scheduled to open Wednesday – the first day of summer vacation for PSD students – with most dropping the reservation requirements, capacity limits and other COVID-19 restrictions that were in place when they finally were able to open in late June and early July last year, Splash co-owner Amy Casady said Tuesday. “I won’t say its 100% back to normal,” Casady said, “but we are definitely on our way.”
Hartford: The state Senate on Tuesday passed legislation requiring employers to recall certain workers who were laid off at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and afterward in order of seniority. The bill, which passed on a 19-15 vote, now awaits action in the House. Under the proposal, private-sector employers with at least 15 employers must notify laid-off employees in the janitorial and maintenance, food service and hospitality industries in writing about positions they’re qualified to fill that become available. Workers with the most seniority would get preference for the open job and would have no less than five days to accept or decline the offer. Sen. Julie Kushner, D-Danbury, co-chair of the General Assembly’s Labor and Public Employees Committee, said the legislation will help ensure that businesses don’t try to “save the bottom line a bit” as they emerge from the pandemic and hire less-senior employees to fill open jobs. Sen. Paul Formica, R-East Lyme, a restaurant owner, said while he understands the thought behind the bill, it’s too intrusive on small businesses. He also noted the legislation applies to people laid off after March 10, 2020, and before Dec. 31, 2024, which is more than three years away.
Weekend visitors fill Rehoboth Beach on May 22, a day after some of Delaware's mask rules were loosened. (Photo: Chuck Snyder/Special to Delaware News Journal)
Newark: The Hugging Mayor had empty arms around this time last year. Vance Funk still walked Main Street, where he can be found almost every early morning, but social distancing and COVID-19 meant no more hugs for the gregarious 78-year-old. But as vaccination rates rise, mask rules are loosened, and capacity restrictions are abolished, the Hugging Mayor is back, as are his fans. “It’s a real nice feeling, and it’s good to be back,” he said. Many Delawareans are upbeat and brimming with hope as crowds begin to form again at restaurants, concert venues and sporting events. Over the weekend, shoulder-to-shoulder crowds returned to spots like the Bottle & Cork in Dewey Beach for its weekly “Jam Session” concert filled with cover bands, beer and dancing – the latter of which had been banned, but now the “Footloose” jokes can be retired. Dr. David Tam, president and CEO of Beebe Healthcare, has seen the shift in mood from a unique vantage point, having begun the job March 17, 2020. “It was like parachuting into combat,” he said. Tam said it’s important not only to use this time to reconnect with people after an extended isolation but also to talk about pandemic experiences with friends and family. He also suggests using this time to tackle other important things that were paused, such as seeing a doctor for a regular check-up.
District of Columbia
Washington: Black residents make up more than 80% of the city’s coronavirus cases, according to new data analyzed by the Washington Post. Although Black and white residents each represent 46% of D.C.’s total population, according to 2019 U.S. census data, white people account for less than 10% of cases in recent days. The spike displays the nation’s racial divide and reflects issues of accessibility when it comes to disseminating COVID-19 vaccines. The Post’s tracker reports 44.5% of the city’s population has received a vaccine. For the roughly 70% of vaccinations with racial data, the city estimates about 19.8% of Black residents are fully vaccinated, compared to 28.8% of white residents. “There’s a disparity in who’s getting vaccinated,” Neil Sehgal, an assistant professor of health policy at the University of Maryland, told the Post. “And if those cases that we’re seeing are concentrated among unvaccinated people, and fewer Black residents of D.C. are getting vaccinated, it seems to reason that our Black neighbors are at a greater risk of contracting COVID today than at any point in recent memory.” According to Sehgal, barriers that may be keeping people from getting vaccinated include limited transportation, difficulties getting time off work to get a shot, and complicated sign-up systems.
Tallahassee: Residents and visitors to the Sunshine State are expected to have increased protections against pandemic-related fraud and scams under a bill signed Tuesday. The measure went to the desk of Gov. Ron DeSantis after the Florida House and Senate both passed the legislation unanimously during the normal session this past spring. The new law prohibits someone from trying to profit by lying about the authenticity, effectiveness or availability of personal protective equipment. It also prohibits someone from making money by offering access to a vaccine for COVID-19 or any other pandemic disease. The new law allows the state’s attorney general to shut down websites or other media platforms disseminating false information about vaccines or fraudulently selling PPE.
Augusta: As the number of COVID-19 patients in the city’s hospitals has dwindled along with new cases across the nation, a new normal may be settling in, health officials said. University Hospital dropped into the single digits in COVID-19 inpatients Monday, its lowest level since last June, spokeswoman Rebecca Sylvester said. The eight patients admitted to the hospital last week were the lowest in a quite a while, said Reyne Gallup, University’s chief operating officer for acute care services. The Georgia average for daily cases as of Sunday was 450.71, a 52.85% decrease from April 23. In light of the lower demand, University has closed its COVID-19 cohort units, negative-pressure units where those patients were concentrated and could be cared for by a dedicated team, and is now relying on a series of roughly two dozen negative-air pressure rooms for those patients when they come in, Gallup said. “We’ve moved away from the cohort of an entire wing or area to putting them in rooms that have the capability to manage that airflow,” she said. The hospital has the ability to quickly transition back if there is a surge, Gallup said. “We definitely have through all of this transition been able to figure out a path moving forward, either to expand or decrease the ability to care for the COVID population,” she said.
Honolulu: Gov. David Ige said Tuesday that people will no longer have to wear masks outdoors as the number of COVID-19 cases drops and as more people get vaccinated. The Democratic governor said he would maintain a requirement that people wear masks indoors. The same rules will apply regardless of whether someone is vaccinated against COVID-19. Still, Ige said he would encourage those who are in large groups outside to continue to wear masks. “The virus is still circulating in our community, and unvaccinated people are particularly at risk. And until more are vaccinated, we must continue to take precautions indoors and in large groups because those actions are important to slow the spread of COVID-19,” Ige said at a news conference. He also said that starting June 1, he would allow ocean sports competitions like surfing contests and canoe paddling races to take place. Ige said 57% of Hawaii’s population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, while just under half of the population has been fully vaccinated.
Preston: A state Department of Health and Welfare office that helped people apply for Medicaid, food stamps, child care assistance and other benefits will close next month. The state’s lease for the small-town space expires at the end of June. The office hasn’t been open to the public for a year because of the coronavirus pandemic. The three Preston employees will keep working for the department, and officials said people would still be able to apply for self-reliance benefits by phone, fax machine or online. The next closest office – about 70 miles north in the city of Pocatello – will remain open to the public. “While closing an office is not without some impact, we want to assure individuals and families that services are still available,” department director Dave Jeppesen said in a statement. “The department enjoyed a long-standing and close partnership with the building owner for many years, but the need for face-to-face services has diminished and most of the work can be completed virtually.” The department will still provide in-person services to people in the region for some programs like behavioral health and child protection services. There are 18 other department offices open to the public across the state.
Tony Taylor prepares to receive a dose of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine from Sgt. Reilly Gallagher, of the Illinois Army National Guard, during a vaccine clinic put on by the Sangamon County Department of Public Health and the Illinois National Guard at the SMTD Transfer Station in Springfield, Ill., Tuesday, May 25, 2021. “Just happened to walk by and being nosy and that’s how it happened,” said Taylor why he stopped in to get the vaccine. (Photo: Justin L. Fowler/The State Journal-Register)
Springfield: The state has officially crossed the 40% threshold of people fully vaccinated against COVID-19, another important milestone as the state moves closer to normalcy with Memorial Day approaching. The Illinois Department of Public Health said Tuesday that 5,112,262 people had been fully vaccinated through either two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, representing 40.12% of the population. IDPH also said 65% of adult residents had received at least one dose, with 49% being fully vaccinated. Overall, the state has provided 10,990,171 vaccines since the vaccination program began in December, with 49,402 being reported Tuesday. The seven-day average remains steady at 79,485 vaccinations per day, the highest since May 11. The success of the vaccination program has allowed for a significant decline in caseloads, with Tuesday marking the third consecutive day of fewer than 1,000 cases reported. IDPH said 808 new cases were reported, with 17 new deaths. The statewide coronavirus test positivity rate remained steady at 2.7%, with the rate as a percentage of total tests ticking down to 2.1%, the lowest since March 13.
Indianapolis: Nearly 20 state legislators are protesting Indiana University’s decision to require all students and employees to receive COVID-19 vaccinations, and they want the governor to block the move. A letter dated Tuesday to Gov. Eric Holcomb calls on him to prohibit any state university from mandating vaccines that don’t have full U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval. The letter follows IU’s announcement Friday that COVID-19 shots will be required for the fall semester on all of its campuses. “Enforcing a mandate that students and faculty accept a vaccine that does not have full FDA approval is unconscionable,” said the letter written by Rep. Jim Lucas of Seymour and signed by 18 fellow Republican House members. No high-ranking Republican leaders, however, signed the letter. The governor’s office said Holcomb would review the letter after he returns Thursday from a trip to Israel. IU spokesman Chuck Carney said university officials are prioritizing the safety of students and employees. “IU’s vaccine policy is a clear path forward that will ensure a higher rate of immunity and the opportunity to give our students, faculty and staff a more typical university experience,” Carney said.
Des Moines: A group representing pork producers urged the federal government Tuesday to let them continue an effort to speed up the processing of pigs into bacon and ham despite a union’s claim that the increased volume endangers workers. The National Pork Producers Council, an industry trade group, sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture calling on the agency to appeal a ruling by a federal judge that it argued would needlessly slow production and hurt farmers still recovering from problems associated with the coronavirus pandemic. “The U.S. pork production system, the most advanced in the world, is characterized by robust competition, innovation and efficiency. With the stroke of a judge’s pen, the lives of many hog farmers will be upended if this misguided ruling takes effect,” said NPPC President Jen Sorenson, communications director for Iowa Select Farms, the state’s largest pork producer based in West Des Moines. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which represents 33,000 pork slaughterhouse workers, said the judge’s ruling recognized that the USDA failed to consider worker safety when it finalized the faster production speeds. UFCW International President Marc Perrone said the USDA must conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the impact of increased line speeds on worker safety.
Topeka: The state’s COVID-19 emergency declaration is set to expire Friday. It may end on Friday, period, without being renewed, depending on what legislative leaders do with it. The feeling is that it’s time to be done. Under a new law passed this year, Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly has less power to take executive action regarding disaster emergencies such as COVID-19. Whereas before such requests for emergency extensions happened under the State Finance Council, in which the governor chaired over GOP legislative leaders, they now will happen solely under the jurisdiction of the Legislative Coordinating Council, comprised of only legislative leaders. If the LCC does extend the declaration, it’ll be at most an extension of 30 days. Tussles over extending the emergency declaration have reached peak moments throughout the pandemic, when the executive and legislative branches argued over matters ranging from mask mandates to forced business closures. For the most part, though, such extensions have been relatively drama-free. But this time, lawmakers may actually lean against an extension, as the pandemic subsides, vaccinations rise, and guidance for face coverings loosens. Kelly will still be requesting an extension of the emergency declaration, the governor’s office confirmed.
Frankfort: The state will reopen its prisons to visitors starting next month, as the COVID-19 vaccination rate has risen among inmates, Gov. Andy Beshear said. Visitations will resume the week of June 20 at Department of Corrections and Juvenile Justice facilities, the governor announced Tuesday. More than 75% of adult inmates in state custody have been vaccinated, he said. The state halted in-person visits more than a year ago in response to the pandemic. Visitors must be vaccinated and will be expected to wear a mask and practice social distancing, the Democratic governor said. Each inmate will be allowed two visitors at a time. “Remember, this is a setting where if there is a COVID outbreak, we have seen that it can be devastating, how quickly it can be spread,” Beshear said. Several coronavirus outbreaks were reported at Kentucky prisons and jails during the pandemic. The new visitation guidelines don’t apply to county jails.
Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards is ditching most of his pandemic restrictions, such as mandatory masks. (Photo: Travis Spradling, AP)
Baton Rouge: Gov. John Bel Edwards announced Tuesday that he’s scrapping nearly every remaining coronavirus restriction in Louisiana and lifting the statewide requirement that students must wear a mask in the classroom and at school events. The Democratic governor will keep his public health emergency declaration in place, but the state will have almost none of the rules governing businesses and behavior that were enacted over the past nearly 15 months of the pandemic. “There’s no doubt we are in a better place today than we’ve been at any point thus far in the pandemic,” Edwards said. “And that is because of medical science.” Edwards cited the wide availability of COVID-19 vaccines in Louisiana, saying anyone who wants the protection offered by a shot can receive one. But many people aren’t bothering, with only 31% of the state’s 4.6 million residents fully vaccinated against COVID-19. The final vestiges of the restrictions that Edwards had left in place over the past month – including limits on bars, live music venues, athletic events and large gatherings – all will be removed under the new executive order to take effect Wednesday. Masks still will be required on public transit, in health care facilities, and in prisons and jails, as suggested by federal officials. School district and university leaders can choose to require masks.
Auburn: The bicentennial parade that will celebrate 200 years of Maine statehood will finally take place in August after a long delay caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The Maine Bicentennial Commission said Tuesday that the parade will be held Aug. 21 in downtown Auburn and Lewiston. The event was originally slated for spring 2020. The delay means Maine will actually be 201 years old during the event. Event planners “are very excited that the pandemic response has progressed to a point that will now allow us to share the excitement of this event with people throughout Maine,” said the bicentennial commission chairman, Democratic state Sen. William Diamond. The parade is among numerous bicentennial events that were postponed by the pandemic. The commission said more details about the plans for the event will be released when the parade date nears. More than 70% of eligible Maine residents have gotten at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, Democratic Gov. Janet Mills said Tuesday. That means the state has far surpassed President Joe Biden’s goal of getting 70% of American adults a shot by July 4, she said. “We are getting shots into arms at a nation-leading pace, seeing our case counts trend downward and getting back to normal,” Mills said.
Annapolis: The state’s chief judge is updating COVID-19 health measures for courthouses and judicial facilities to enable vaccinated people to enter them without face coverings next week. Court of Appeals Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera issued the orders Tuesday in response to modified protocols from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They will be effective June 1. The new orders will allow all judicial employees and court visitors over the age of 2 who are fully vaccinated to enter judiciary facilities without masks, unless the administrative judge or state court administrator determines there are certain settings that may require them. In jurisdictions that may require certain additional health measures, the administrative judges of the circuit court and district court must determine together whether to maintain restrictions. The administrative orders stipulate that those who have not been vaccinated must continue to wear masks. However, if they are participating in a court proceeding, a judge may require them to remove their mask and use a provided face shield.
Boston: A 150-year-old agricultural fair canceled last year because of the pandemic is returning this summer, organizers said. The 154th Marshfield Fair is scheduled for Aug. 20-29, the fair’s board of directors announced Tuesday on Facebook. Vendors and exhibitors have already been contacted. “We already reached out to see who would still be interested in returning even with restrictions, and a good portion of them said they would,” said Leonard LaForest, president of the Marshfield Agricultural and Horticultural Society. The fair, held almost entirely outdoors, will likely not still be subject to many COVID-19 guidelines by August, he said. It draws farmers who show off their brightest flowers, largest vegetables and best-bred livestock and offers entertainment, arts and crafts exhibits, carnival rides and games, and food stalls. The fair typically draws about 160,000 people over its 10-day run. Meanwhile, this week the Boston Symphony Orchestra is bringing back its “rolling recitals” – a series of free, pop-up shows around the city. The performances began Wednesday and will continue Thursday in conjunction with Old Town Trolley Tour and Boston Duck Tours. The orchestra performed a similar series of pop-up shows in the fall.
Michigan Sen. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield, stands behind Gov. Gretchen Whitmer during a bill signing at Long Road Distillers in Grand Rapids. (Photo: Michigan.gov)
Grand Rapids: Canned cocktails will be less expensive and can have a higher alcohol content starting this summer after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a package of bills at a distillery Monday. Under the legislation signed at Long Road Distillers, private wholesalers such as distilleries can sell canned cocktails with up to 13.5% alcohol, up from 10%, starting in August. The legislation also decreases the tax on mixed spirits from 48 cents to 30 cents per liter. “This is a great example of bipartisan legislation that will create jobs and help our small businesses grow, and shows what we can do when we work together,” Whitmer said in a news release. “Distillers are a growing industry in Michigan, and these bill make it easier for distillers to distribute their products.” The pandemic has sparked greater interest in canned cocktails, according to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. “Ready-to-drink cocktails saw a huge increase in 2020 and show no signs of slowing down,” David Wojnar, council senior vice president, said in a news release. Many distillers revamped their operations to produce hand sanitizer at the peak of the pandemic, including Long Road Distillers, Whitmer said during the signing. Michigan will come back from the pandemic stronger than ever “because of small businesses like this one,” she said.
St. Paul: Housing officials are urging legislators to proceed carefully in negotiating an end to a moratorium on rental property evictions. While other state coronavirus restrictions are being lifted, lawmakers have failed to reach a compromise on ending the eviction moratorium. Housing commissioner Jennifer Ho said the anxiety of both owners and renters is real. “Why would the Legislature want to inflict unnecessary harm that creates a chaotic environment when we’re all tired from what we’ve been through with the pandemic and the economy?” Ho asked. Because of COVID-19, landlords dealing with unpaid rent, loud parties, police calls and threatening behavior haven’t been able to evict tenants, Minnesota Public Radio News reports. “We have people that are behaving badly in our properties, and we need to bring some relief to their neighbors who have put up with their nonsense for far too long,” said Cecil Smith, president of the Minnesota Multi Housing Association. Democrats want landlords to hold off on most evictions for financial reasons for a year after the moratorium lifts, then provide at least 30 days’ notice before canceling a lease or moving to evict a person for failing to pay rent or otherwise breaking a lease. Gov. Tim Walz wants legislators to reach an agreement instead of him rescinding the order.
Jackson: People protested Tuesday near the Mississippi Capitol and the state Supreme Court building to demand Gov. Tate Reeves call legislators into special session to restore a medical marijuana initiative that voters approved in November and that justices recently overturned. In the 6-3 ruling May 14, the high court also invalidated the entire initiative process that allows citizens to petition to bring issues to a statewide vote. Justices said the process is outdated, so the medical marijuana proposal was not properly on the ballot. About 1.3 million Mississippians voted in November, and more than 766,000 voted in favor of the medical marijuana proposal – about 10,000 more than voted for then-President Donald Trump, who easily won in Mississippi despite losing his race for a second term. One handwritten sign Tuesday said: “New Math: 6 > 766K.” Brandon Allen, 35, a military veteran from Pearl, sat holding a sign with the slogan: “Special Session Now Tater Tot.” Allen said he knows veterans who have post traumatic stress syndrome, and marijuana could help them. “I don’t think the government should tell people how they should and shouldn’t live,” he said, moments before a band at the event started playing the Willie Nelson song “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die.”
St. Louis: After a year off due to the coronavirus pandemic, fireworks will return to the St. Louis riverfront on Independence Day, but Fair St. Louis will have to wait another year. Organizers of Fair St. Louis announced Wednesday that the Fourth of July Fireworks Spectacular will begin around 9:40 p.m. July 4. The fireworks will be launched from barges on the Mississippi River. Organizers also plan a parade that will begin at 10 a.m. July 3. But Fair St. Louis won’t return to the Gateway Arch National Park until 2022. The event is traditionally one of the nation’s largest Fourth of July festivals, drawing tens of thousands of people.
Billings: The state Department of Corrections has reported about half of the people in custody are choosing not to get vaccinated against COVID-19, despite being held in communal living situations that increase the risk of infection. Department spokesperson Alexandria Klapmeier said there is a 50% vaccination refusal rate across the state, The Billings Gazette reports. So far, 1,405 inmates in state prisons have been fully vaccinated. The Montana State Prison has vaccinated 51% of its facility population, or 820 of 1,453 people, officials said. The Montana Women’s Prison vaccinated 49% of its facility population, or 102 of 206 people. Some locations are doing better than others, with the Great Falls Regional Prison reporting it vaccinated more inmates than it currently has in custody. “The DOC continues to provide information to inmates about the benefits of vaccination and offer vaccine to inmates who have declined previously,” Klapmeier said. She noted that everyone booked into department-run facilities is offered COVID-19 vaccine, but not everyone accepts the offer. Officials said the state’s two largest jails – Yellowstone County jail and Missoula County jail – are seeing lower rates of vaccination.
Omaha: Gov. Pete Ricketts urged lawmakers Tuesday to uphold his veto of a bill that would let more residents collect food-assistance benefits, arguing that it would slow the state’s recovery from the pandemic. The Republican governor said in his veto letter that the measure would create a disincentive for recipients to seek better-paying jobs at a time when many businesses are desperate for workers. “We should remove any incentives that would slow reopening, regrowth, re-employment and reconnecting,” he said in his letter to lawmakers. “Whether intended or not, (the bill) discourages Nebraskans from returning to work.” The veto issued Monday drew swift condemnation from advocates for the poor, who argued that many recipients are working families with children who are still struggling because of the pandemic. They also pointed out that the expansion would be paid with existing money and have no impact on the state budget. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as SNAP or food stamps, is paid with federal money. Supporters also noted that the measure was temporary, with an expiration date of Oct. 1, 2023, although Ricketts countered that government benefits are almost never revoked once they’ve been offered.
Fireworks explode over Victorian Square in Sparks, Nev., during the 2010 Star Spangled Sparks celebration. (Photo: RGJ file)
Sparks: A year after being canceled due to the pandemic, Fourth of July festivities are returning to downtown this summer. The Nugget Casino Resort will host its 21st Star Spangled Sparks fireworks show July 4. Food and craft vendors will set up on Victorian Square, with fireworks going off around 9:40 p.m., weather permitting. The Nugget parking garage is expected to fill quickly. Shuttle service to Victorian Square will be available. Event information and music during the fireworks will be broadcast live on KKOH News Talk 780 AM radio. Dogs, barbecues, tents and glass bottles are not permitted on Victorian Square during special events, according to Sparks City Ordinance. The Reno Aces also announced a fireworks show July 4 at Greater Nevada Field. There are not any fireworks shows planned around Lake Tahoe this year.
Concord: A state House committee split evenly along party lines Tuesday on a proposal to prohibit most businesses from asking customers or employees whether they’ve been vaccinated against COVID-19. The committee on executive departments and administration voted 9-9 on amending a Senate-passed bill to add several vaccine-related provisions favored by Republicans. It reached the same outcome on a Democrat-backed amendment, meaning both versions will go to the full House next month with no committee recommendation. Under the GOP-led amendment, businesses could not inquire about someone’s vaccine status or require employees to be vaccinated against the disease caused by the coronavirus, with some exceptions for hospitals and long-term care facilities. It also would give the Legislature control over whether schools could require students to receive any future vaccines. Democrats argued that public health officials, not lawmakers, should decide which vaccines should be required for school enrollment and that businesses should be allowed to make decisions based on public safety. “For God’s sake, this is a respiratory disease,” said Rep. Peter Schmidt, D-Dover. “If there’s anything human beings need to do, it is to breathe on a very, very frequent basis.”
Sarah Strate, 25, takes part in a new pilot program run by Autism New Jersey that aims to vaccinate people with disabilities. (Photo: Courtesy of Autism New Jersey)
Trenton: From sensory rooms to sign language interpreters and in-car service, the state is offering accommodations at its vaccine sites to help people with disabilities get their free COVID-19 shots. The state has six mega-sites where it assures residents adjustments can be made: the Meadowlands Racetrack in Bergen County, Rockaway Townsquare mall in Morris County, the New Jersey Convention and Expo Center in Middlesex County, Rowan College in Gloucester County, Moorestown Mall in Burlington County and the Atlantic City Convention Center. “I came away very impressed with the thought and sensitivity that went into planning with respect to accommodations,” said Paul Aronsohn, the state’s ombudsman for individuals with intellectual or developmental disabilities, after a recent tour of the locations. “You could tell a lot of thought went into it. It wasn’t just making sure that people with mobility challenges had wheelchairs.” A hodgepodge of agencies, including the National Guard, the Office of Emergency Management, the state Department of Health and county officials, shape the experience from the start. The sites had workers walking the registration and vaccination lines “to make sure people didn’t seem agitated or uncomfortable in any way,” said Aronsohn, a former Ridgewood mayor.
Albuquerque: The superintendent of the state’s largest school district has backtracked on a promise to channel federal relief of at least $6 million toward staff bonuses after state auditors warned that it would probably violate state constitutional provisions against giving away taxpayer dollars. Scott Elder, superintendent of Albuquerque Public Schools, last week announced $1,000 each to full-time teachers and staff and $500 bonuses to part-timers as a “one-time additional payment for COVID-related work” through the pandemic. But in an online video Tuesday, Elder said the payments had been flagged as a potential violation of the anti-donation clause of the New Mexico Constitution. “I have some extremely difficult news to share, and I ask that you not lose faith,” Elder said. “I just don’t want you to plan for money that may not arrive.” State Auditor Brian Colon said the clause prohibits retroactive compensation after services are rendered. “It’s very disappointing that Albuquerque Public Schools didn’t do its homework and follow the rules,” he said. “Unfortunately, I know that education professionals have worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic, and there are going to be a lot of disappointed folks out there, including my wife,” who is a teacher at Van Buren Middle School in Albuquerque.
Albany: Vaccinated kids ages 12 to 17 will have a chance to win a full ride to a public university or college in the state, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday. The governor said the state will raffle off 50 scholarships, which would cover four years of tuition, room and board, books, and supplies. New York will hold weekly drawings on Wednesdays to randomly select 10 winners. Parents or guardians can enter children who have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine since May 12. Schools across the country are using mascots, food trucks and prize giveaways to try to get kids vaccinated before school lets out for the summer. Cuomo said children who get vaccinated earlier will have the best chance at winning. It’s unclear when applications for the lottery will open up, but people can sign up for notifications on a state website. “If you get the vaccine earlier, you’ll have more chances to win because you’ll be in the first-week pool, the second-week pool, the third-week pool, the fourth-week pool, etc.,” Cuomo said at a Wednesday press conference. Since Monday, New York has been offering scratch tickets for a $5 million lottery for people who get vaccinated at ten of roughly 30 state-run vaccination sites. That pilot program runs through Friday.
Raleigh: With employers struggling to fill positions as post-pandemic restrictions end, state senators advanced a proposal Wednesday giving $1,500 bonuses to unemployment benefit recipients who return to work this summer. The Senate Commerce Committee gave bipartisan support to the measure, which would offer bonuses – but only if federal labor officials allow the state to use money coming from Washington that’s made unemployment benefits more generous during the COVID-19 pandemic. The bill also would place additional requirements upon current beneficiaries to respond to job interview requests, or they could ultimately see benefits cut off. “It’s a good first step to helping us address the workforce shortages that we have in North Carolina right now,” Sen. Chuck Edwards, R-Henderson County, told the committee. The additional $300-a-week federal benefit is proving to be a disincentive to some displaced workers, according to bill supporters. Several senators say they’ve been told by local employers that they can’t find enough people to hire, even while increasing wages. “This crisis is widespread; it’s impacting all industries, all sizes all across North Carolina,” said Nicole Hendren with Catapult, a North Carolina-based employer consultant on personnel and other issues.
Bismarck: Two Republican legislators are asking state health officials to stop calling residents to offer information on COVID-19 vaccines. Sens. Jessica Bell and Nicole Poolman sent a letter to State Health Officer Dr. Nizar Wehbi expressing concern about the role of government in “personal health choices” and patient privacy. Both lawmakers said they had heard from constituents who were called and given vaccine information. Poolman said the people to whom she talked wanted to know how state government knew they hadn’t been vaccinated, the Bismarck Tribune reports. Health officials say the callers are state employees who are trained in privacy laws. In a letter responding to Bell and Poolman, Wehbi said since COVID-19 is still “circulating in our communities,” people who aren’t vaccinated are at the highest risk of contracting the disease, and vaccine reminders are not unusual. “Reminder/recall outreach is a well-established, effective tool that has been used to increase immunization coverage rates for years,” he wrote. Letters also were sent to people 65 and older who did not have a recorded COVID-19 vaccine. The patient information is in a secure database owned by the state Health Department, according to Wehbi.
Columbus: Public entities and private employers would be prohibited from requiring vaccinations, and workers could not be fired for refusing, under GOP legislation pending in a state House panel. The bill before the House Health Committee also strengthens the notices schools must provide parents about exemptions they can seek against having children vaccinated. It would repeal a law requiring college students to disclose whether they’ve been vaccinated against hepatitis B and meningococcal meningitis. The legislation never mentions COVID-19 or the coronavirus, but in testimony, sponsoring Rep. Jennifer Gross referred to employers including hospitals requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination. Gross, R-West Chester, is a nurse practitioner who said she believes in vaccinations and in personal choice and hasn’t gotten a COVID-19 shot. The bill is strongly opposed by the Ohio Vaccine Coalition, a newly formed group representing numerous hospitals, state associations of doctors and nurses, other health care groups, and major business entities including the Ohio Chamber of Commerce. “This legislation has the potential to reverse decades of immunity from life-threatening, but vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles, mumps, hepatitis, meningitis and tuberculosis,” the group said in a statement.
A worker, wearing protective gear, checks in a person at a mobile testing site for the coronavirus in Oklahoma City. (Photo: Sue Ogrocki/AP)
Oklahoma City: OU Health will close its public coronavirus testing site in the city at the end of the month, as cases and demand for the tests have declined. At one point, OU Health was conducting more than 800 tests a day. “As COVID-19 cases continue to decline in Oklahoma, our community testing numbers have gone down to less than 50 a day,” said Erin Walker, assistant vice president of Operations at Oklahoma Children’s Hospital OU Health. With testing offered at physicians’ offices and through the Oklahoma City-County Health Department, Walker said a public testing site on the campus is no longer necessary. OU Health-Tulsa’s public testing location closed a month ago. Virus testing has declined across the state, data from the Oklahoma State Department of Health shows. According to the state’s most recent epidemiology report, there were 19,161 tests performed across the state the week of May 9, and 1,043 were positive. In comparison, weekly testing numbers in January were often above 100,000, with positivity rates between 15% and 20%. Since August 2020 through the end of April, more than 71,000 people were tested through OU Health in Oklahoma City. OU Health will still perform pre-procedure coronavirus tests for patients.
Portland: For the first time in months, restaurants in Multnomah County – the state’s most populous and home to Portland – will open for 50% capacity for indoor dining after meeting COVID-19 vaccination goals. Gov. Kate Brown announced Tuesday that half of Oregon’s counties will move to the “lower risk” level Thursday. That category allows a county to significantly reduce its COVID-19 restrictions – 50% capacity for indoor dining, theaters, gyms and other indoor entertainment spaces. It also expands indoor gatherings to 10 people and retail store capacity to 75%. “The science is clear: Vaccines are very effective in keeping people safe from COVID-19, and they are the key to returning to normal life and lifting health and safety restrictions statewide,” Brown said. Earlier this month, the Democratic governor set statewide and county COVID-19 vaccination targets, with the hope of reopening the state’s economy. Brown said most statewide coronavirus-related restrictions will be lifted when 70% of residents 16 and up have received their first COVID-19 vaccine dose. Currently, more than half of Oregon’s eligible population 16 and up have received at least a first dose. In Multnomah County, at least 67% of people in that age group have received at least one dose.
Harrisburg: The state Department of Health has dropped its legal action against more than 40 restaurants that were accused of defying orders to close indoor dining and maintain social distancing protocols. The Health Department had filed two separate complaints alleging that restaurants were violating pandemic restrictions that Gov. Tom Wolf imposed in December in response to a winter surge in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths. The state had sought an order to shut down in-person dining, as well as damages. Department officials said that most restaurants came into compliance and that the pandemic has since eased. “The majority of restaurants have come into compliance with the secretary of health’s orders to protect their customers from the spread of COVID-19 within their communities,” said Health Department spokesperson Maggi Barton. She said that with the pandemic in retreat, nearly all of the state’s remaining restrictions are slated to be lifted on Memorial Day. The Health Department petitioned Commonwealth Court last week to discontinue the matter, and the court granted the request Tuesday.
President Donald Trump tours a Honeywell plant that produces N95 masks. (Photo: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI, AFP via Getty Images)
Providence: A factory once praised by former President Donald Trump for ramping up production of N95 face masks in the early days of the pandemic is laying off nearly 500 workers as the coronavirus threat eases and demand for the face coverings wanes. A spokesperson for Honeywell International told WPRI-TV on Wednesday that about 470 jobs at the Smithfield facility are being cut. Employees are being urged to apply for other jobs at the company, and some eligible workers will receive severance, he said. “We are now seeing a dramatic reduction in demand for N95s in the U.S. as many states are ending or scaling back mask mandates and vaccinations are being widely distributed,” Eric Krantz said in a statement. “For these reasons, Honeywell is adjusting its N95 operations and ceasing manual production of N95s at our facility in Smithfield.” The company is shifting production of N95s to “more efficient, automated production lines” that were created during the pandemic, he said. The disposable respirators are critical safety equipment for health care workers and others. “We appreciate the hard work and dedication these employees displayed in helping to protect American frontline workers battling the pandemic,” Krantz said.
Columbia: Gov. Henry McMaster has signed into law a bill clarifying that beach towns can’t eliminate free parking along state roads without permission from state officials. The new law is the latest face-off in the longtime struggle between people who can afford to live at the beach and those who want to visit. The law requires state permission to change parking along a state road. It also requires that any fees charged by beach towns for parking only offset the amount spent to provide services to visitors. Most of those provisions were already in state law. Supporters felt they needed to be clarified after towns, mostly close to Charleston like Isle of Palms and Folly Beach, first closed the roads to their islands when the COVID-19 pandemic began last year and later banned free parking after the governor ordered beaches to reopen in late spring 2020. Those barrier islands have a long tradition of allowing people to park on the side of state-owned roads, pop open the hatchback or truck tailgate, pull out some towels and coolers, and head for the waves and sand. But in the past few decades, beach bungalows have given way to million-dollar mansions, and traffic snarls are constant on sunny, summer weekends. State law says once public access is allowed to the beach, it must always be maintained.
Sioux Falls: Both the state Department of Education and South Dakota Board of Regents said Monday that COVID-19 vaccines won’t be required for students or staff to return to public schools and universities this fall. Regents spokeswoman Tracy Mercer said such a requirement would not be a “campus-by-campus” decision but a board decision or a legislative matter. For example, state law mandates that college students have their a variety of immunizations, such as against measles, mumps and rubella, Mercer noted. There was no effort by lawmakers this spring to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations, and the Regents don’t plan to mandate the immunizations either, Mercer said. The board’s decision follows its repeal of mask mandates on campus earlier this month. The DOE and Department of Health don’t have plans to add COVID-19 shots to the list of required vaccinations for school entry, DOE deputy secretary Mary Stadick Smith said. “We remain confident in parents taking responsibility for their children and ensuring they are properly protected with immunizations,” Daniel Bucheli, the health department’s communications director, said in December about the DOH’s decision.
Sharon Short moves large packages onto a conveyor belt Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019, at the FedEx Ground Olive Branch hub. (Photo: Max Gersh / The Commercial Appeal)
Memphis: As FedEx is hiring more, employee turnover is increasing, too. The rate of new hires and turnover at the Memphis-based logistics giant have both been steadily climbing for years, according to its 2021 Environmental, Social and Governance report. FedEx’s new hire rate and turnover rate were 43% and 38%, respectively, in fiscal year 2016. Those rates climbed to 71% and 65% in 2020. FedEx fiscal years run from June 1 to May 31. The company has needed more employees to handle record package volumes during the COVID-19 pandemic. It sought to hire 70,000 people for its holiday peak season, and FedEx Ground alone was recently hiring 8,000 employees weekly heading into the holidays. At its vital World Hub in Memphis, FedEx Express has installed multiple temporary pay raises to attract and retain more hourly employees. In a statement addressing the higher turnover rate, FedEx said it’s “constantly evaluating and enhancing our pay, benefits and hiring incentive programs to ensure they remain highly competitive.” People often leave front-line positions due to the work being physically taxing, having challenging hours or providing little warning in terms of shift scheduling, said Rebecca Kolins Givan, an associate professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers.
El Paso: The University of Texas at El Paso has not seen a positive coronavirus test among students, faculty or staff in three weeks. The university’s Environmental Health and Safety department was not aware of any UTEP employees or students who were sick with COVID-19 as of Monday morning – the first instance of a COVID-19-free campus since March 13, 2020, according to a UTEP news release Monday signed off by UTEP President Heather Wilson. “It isn’t over yet, but today was a milestone and I just wanted to let you know,” the release said. For the fall and spring semesters, as well as the latter part of last spring, the university provided distance learning. Since March 2020, the university has conducted more than 59,000 tests for the virus. The school finished administering a final round of second doses of COVID-19 vaccines Friday. UTEP’s vaccination program has provided more than 30,000 vaccines to El Pasoans. As of Monday, 52% of El Pasoans 12 and older were fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and 66.4% were partially vaccinated, according to El Paso’s COVID-19 data tracker. The university is still encouraging the public to get a vaccine if able and to wear masks until fully vaccinated.
The Utah Natural History Museum has announced the Explorer Corps, a scavenger hunt for outdoor markers in each of the state's 29 counties. (Photo: Utah Natural History Museum)
St. George: There’s a new way to explore the state this Memorial Day weekend. The Utah Natural History Museum has kicked off the Explorer Corps, a scavenger hunt for markers recognizing iconic natural or cultural history in each of the state’s 29 counties. “People should experience not just the Mighty Five but all of the beautiful places off the beaten paths,” Utah Office of Tourism Director Vicki Varella said at the kickoff event Tuesday. Locals and visitors can find the markers through the Explorer Corp app or through a paper passport found online or at a local library. “The program promotes travel and tourism throughout our state and is another avenue for Utah counties to build back better,” Brandy Grace, CEO of the Utah Association of Counties said in a video. The challenge runs from this Friday through Labor Day and includes giveaways through natural history-themed summer programming for all ages, a press release said. Each marker was designed and fabricated by O.C. Tanner and was placed in collaboration with the support of several organizations and state officials, including Gov. Spencer Cox, who virtually spoke at Tuesday’s event. The Explorer Corp program has been in the works for a few years with pandemic setbacks but came to fruition this year.
Montpelier: State Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine is reminding Vermonters who got a Pfizer or Moderna vaccine to ensure they get their second dose. “It really is key to your health. Getting both doses gives you the highest level of protection from COVID-19,” he said Tuesday during the governor’s twice-weekly virus briefing, adding that the full vaccine series also offers better protection against coronavirus variants. “We know that these are still circulating. We know that the vaccine is doing a great job with them, and we need to keep doing everything we can to keep them at bay. This means getting as many Vermonters fully vaccinated as we can,” Levine said. About 76.9% of the state’s eligible population has had at least one dose, and 88.8% of people ages 65 and older are fully vaccinated, according to Mike Pieciak, commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation, who has been following the COVID-19 trends for Vermont.
Richmond: A federal judge has approved a settlement in a lawsuit focused on a beleaguered part of the state’s unemployment system in an effort to speed up benefits for people who are out of work. U.S. District Judge Henry Hudson approved the settlement Tuesday in a suit filed last month on behalf of five women who alleged “gross failures” to provide needed help as required by law amid the coronavirus pandemic. Virginia has done well in quickly processing simple unemployment benefits for eligible individuals as applications surged amid the pandemic, but the state has recently been dead last for timely processing of certain claims that require additional adjudication, data show. The judge’s order directs the Virginia Employment Commission to increase the number of unemployment insurance claims adjudicated each week. It also says the agency shall “substantially resolve” at least 95% of unpaid claims awaiting adjudication by Labor Day. And it directs the commission to improve communication with applicants and recipients and begin planning for a process to automatically provide information to each claimant about how to apply for other government assistance programs.
Omar Rodas, left, reads information about the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine after receiving his first shot Tuesday while sailing on a Washington state ferry from Bremerton to Seattle. (Photo: Ted S. Warren/AP)
Seattle: People can now get a COVID-19 vaccination on a ferry. The state Department of Transportation and Peninsula Community Health Services are offering shots aboard Seattle-Bremerton ferry runs this week, through Thursday. Another round of shots will be given next week, from June 1 to 3. KOMO reports interested passengers can get a shot on sailings departing from mid-morning until late afternoon. Among those getting vaccinated onboard the ferry from Bremerton to Seattle on Tuesday was Gavin Davis, who was taking the ferry to his job in Seattle working a night shift in security and loss-prevention. Davis said because he works nights and sleeps during the day, he had not yet found time to get vaccinated, but when he boarded the ferry and was told he could get the shot on his way to work, he accepted and got the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine.
Morgantown: People who have received all their COVID-19 vaccinations no longer will be required to wear a mask outdoors on West Virginia University campuses, the university said Tuesday. The school will continue to require masks indoors in most situations, WVU said in a news release. Vaccinated individuals in groups of fewer than 10 indoors on campus may decide as an entire group to remove masks. Masks in spaces such as personal vehicles and private offices are not required for vaccinated or unvaccinated people, the statement said. On June 1, the university will ease requirements for out-of-state travel for vaccinated people, who do not need to get tested for the coronavirus or quarantine for five days following out-of-state domestic travel. Such travelers who are not vaccinated must continue to quarantine and are recommended to be tested for the virus, the statement said. The university said vaccinated international travelers do not need to quarantine upon return but should get a test afterward and self-monitor for symptoms. Unvaccinated individuals are strongly discouraged from traveling internationally and will be required to quarantine for seven calendar days after travel and get tested.
Milwaukee: The Milwaukee Brewers on Wednesday announced changes to policies for fans at American Family Field, effective for games beginning Tuesday, June 1. The Brewers previously announced attendance would go from its current maximum of 50% capacity to 100% capacity June 25. “As we move toward 100% capacity, we look forward to the return of policies that will enhance the fan experience throughout American Family Field,” said Rick Schlesinger, the Brewers’ president of business operations. Fans who are fully vaccinated will not be required to wear masks in the stands during games. Following U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, the Brewers ask that fans who are not vaccinated continue to wear masks when not actively eating or drinking. Cash will be accepted at a limited number of concession stands. The majority of concession stands, as well as portable kiosks and retail locations, will remain cashless, with credit cards accepted as well as contactless payment such as Apple Pay and Google Pay.
Cheyenne: COVID-19-related hospitalizations are at their highest level since January across the state, the Wyoming Tribune Eagle reports. The 58 patients in hospitals with the coronavirus remain far below November’s peak of 247, according to the paper, but are “very concerning” to medical officials.
From USA TODAY Network and wire reports
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