Montgomery: Gov. Kay Ivey on Monday signed legislation banning so-called vaccine passports, making Alabama the latest state to try to prohibit requiring proof of a COVID-19 vaccination to enter a business, school or event. The legislation by Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, would prohibit government entities from issuing “vaccine or immunization passports” or other “standardized documentation for the purpose of certifying immunization status.” The bill makes exemptions for child immunization forms and “other applicable state law.” It would also prevent people from being denied entry to businesses, universities and state agencies if not vaccinated against COVID-19. The legislation does not specify a penalty for violations. The state House stripped language that would have exempted health offices and nursing homes and added that universities cannot require students to have vaccines developed after Jan. 1, 2021. “I am supportive of a voluntary vaccine and by signing this bill into law, I am only further solidifying that conviction,” Ivey said in a statement released by her office. “I made the choice to get the COVID-19 vaccine and glad for the peace of mind it brings. I encourage any Alabamian who has not gotten their shot to roll up their sleeves, and if you have questions, consult with your health care provider.”
Anchorage: The state’s largest ski area in Girdwood ended its winter season over the weekend – the latest the season has run in a decade, resort managers say. Alyeska Resort on Sunday ended a winter ski season that had been extended due to a large amount of snow, Alaska’s News Source reports. The resort marked the last day of the season by hosting a COVID-19 vaccine clinic and offering a lift ticket as a prize for those who received a shot. Steve Kruse, an avid skier, said this was one of the best ski seasons “in maybe eight or nine years.” The resort plans to offer downhill mountain biking during the summer season, set to begin June 11.
Phoenix: A Native American nation says a lack of direct outreach and trust kept it from participating in COVID-19 vaccine trials. Moderna asked the Hualapai Tribe by email about participating in its vaccine trial. Tribal officials asked the company to go through its media team, meet face-to-face or arrange an online video meeting, Hualapai Chairman Damon Clarke said. The small community of 2,300 registered members was fearful of becoming mere test subjects in a larger experiment. In the end, Moderna representatives did nothing outside of email, and with so little information and no trusted relationship with the company, Clarke said Hualapai leaders declined to participate. Even if the Hualapai Tribe, nestled along the southwest corner of the Grand Canyon, had wanted to participate in COVID-19 research trials, Clarke said it would not have had the resources to do so. “The federal government, they only appropriate so much money to the Indian Health Services … our expectations are high, and yet we get the lowest medical treatments in the country,” he said. Only two of Arizona’s 22 federally recognized tribes – the Navajo Nation and the White Mountain Apache Tribe – participated in COVID-19 vaccine trials, according to David Wilson, director of the Tribal Health Research Office at the National Institutes of Health.
Little Rock: The state will begin giving lottery tickets and gift certificates for hunting and fishing licenses to people who get COVID-19 vaccines, Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced Tuesday. He said $20 scratch-off lottery tickets or $20 Game and Fish gift certificates will be offered to residents who get their first dose starting Tuesday. The incentives will be available starting June 1 at local health units and at special events around the state. Arkansas has maintained one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country. About 39% of the state’s population has gotten at least one dose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The announcement follows efforts in other states to offer incentives for people to get vaccinated, including special lottery prizes. Hutchinson said Arkansas couldn’t legally offer a similar statewide drawing. The state is spending $2 million to buy 50,000 scratch-off tickets and 50,000 gift certificates for the promotion. The state on Tuesday announced 329 new coronavirus cases, bringing its total since the pandemic began to 340,515. The state’s COVID-19 hospitalizations rose by five to 200, and deaths rose by four to 5,824.
Livingston: The state has cited and fined a Foster Farms chicken processing plant that saw a deadly coronavirus outbreak last year, saying the company failed to protect its workers. The state Division of Occupational Safety and Health’s penalty of $181,500 is one of the steepest citations issued during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Sacramento Bee reports. A representative for Foster Farms told the paper the company “does not have a comment” on the citations. Cal/OSHA alleged Foster Farms failed to “establish, implement and maintain” an effective system for communicating with its employees and contract employees on COVID-19 in the workplace. It also failed to effectively communicate with its own management about outbreaks and to communicate measures it was taking to prevent exposure to the virus, according to Cal/OSHA. The agency opened an investigation after receiving notification that an employee died of COVID-19 complications, the newspaper reports. Following its probe, the agency alleged Foster Farms and one of its staffing agencies failed to immediately report at least four employee deaths at the company’s processing plant in Merced County last summer. The Livingston facility was temporarily shut down in August after at least 358 employees tested positive for the virus, and at least eight employees died.
Denver: Gov. Jared Polis has announced a weekly state lottery for five residents to win $1 million to incentive COVID-19 vaccinations, amid other state bids to overcome public vaccine hesitancy. “Rather than gamble on getting COVID, let’s take a chance on winning a million dollars,” Polis said Tuesday. Colorado is setting aside $5 million of federal coronavirus relief funds that would have gone toward vaccine advertising for five residents to win $1 million each. The drawings will take place every week starting June 4 until July 7. Every adult resident who has been vaccinated by the end of May will be entered in the first drawing. To be eligible, residents need to be 18 years old and have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine. Nearly 3 million residents, about half of the state’s population, have received their first dose – slightly higher than the U.S. average of 49.5%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Just over 40% of Coloradans are fully vaccinated, compared to the U.S. average of about 39.5%. The state will also announce scholarship awards for 12- to 17-year-olds who get vaccinated, Polis said.
Hartford: A judge has upheld the state’s requirement that children wear masks in schools, rejecting a challenge by some parents who said that mask-wearing can be harmful and that education officials exceeded their authority. The ruling released Monday affirms the legitimacy of mask requirements in schools this academic year but does not address any guidance on masks that may be issued for the next school year. The state Department of Education has not yet decided whether to require mask in schools for the 2021-22 academic year. Officials said they will be monitoring updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The decision by Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher in Hartford upheld Gov. Ned Lamont’s coronavirus-related emergency orders that granted the state Department of Education authority to require masks. Moukawsher cited decisions earlier this year by the Legislature and the state Supreme Court upholding the governor’s right under the state constitution to issue emergency orders in response to COVID-19. The ruling came in an August lawsuit filed by the CT Freedom Alliance and several parents and their children that challenged the requirement. Brian Festa, co-founder of the CT Freedom Alliance, said his group plans to appeal to the state Supreme Court.
Dover: The state is jumping on the trend of offering cash and other incentives to entice children and adults to get COVID-19 vaccines. State officials said Tuesday that Delawareans 12 and older who are vaccinated between now and June 29 will be entered to win $5,000 in cash and additional prizes in twice-weekly drawings conducted by the Delaware Lottery. The eligibility extends to all children between ages 12 and 17 who have already received vaccines. The drawings will be held on Mondays and Fridays from May 31 through June 30. Other prizes include a four-day vacation, a full scholarship to a Delaware public university, state parks passes, and tickets to the Firefly Music Festival and minor-league baseball games. State officials also will reimburse small businesses including restaurants, bars and gyms that provide vaccine incentives to customers. The incentive campaign will culminate June 30, when any state resident who has received the vaccine in Delaware will be entered to win a $302,000 cash prize and two low-number state license plates, which are coveted by some Delawareans. In the meantime, Delawareans vaccinated at locations managed by state officials between now and June 29 will receive a $10 gift card.
District of Columbia
Washington: Data on how COVID-19 vaccines affect people with chronic illnesses and autoimmune diseases is lacking, but a local woman has an app for that, WUSA-TV reports. D.C. area-based founder Elizabeth Tikoyan originally launched the Healp app in January 2020, after being diagnosed with Lyme disease and suffering long-term effects. When she struggled to find anyone with a similar experience to connect with, she developed the app to connect people all across the world with chronic illnesses. It looks like a dating app, but each user shares their illness and what information they’re hoping to learn. Then they swipe accordingly. Now, it’s sharing anecdotes from users who got a COVID-19 vaccine. “It’s nice to see – oh, she has ulcerative colitis. And she was nervous, but she didn’t have a reaction or whatever it might be,” said Chloe Colvard, who also has ulcerative colitis and other autoimmune conditions. People like Colvard and Tikoyan are at a higher risk of severe illness if they contract COVID-19. “There was a lot of fears among the chronic illness and autoimmune disease communities around answers regarding the vaccine,” Tikoyan said. “Like are people responding well? If not, what are some of the reactions? Is it different than people who don’t have my condition?”
Orlando: The state is joining a growing list of Republican-led states that plan to end participation in a federal program that gave an extra $300 per week in benefits to the unemployed during the pandemic. The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity announced Monday that the state will withdraw from the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program effective June 26. State labor officials said private-sector employment increased by 18,800 jobs last month, and more than 460,000 online job postings were made throughout the state for job-seekers. “Florida’s employers are also seeing employment growth, as more Floridians, including some who completely left the workforce, are now eagerly reentering the workforce,” said Dane Eagle, secretary of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity. “Transitioning away from this benefit will help meet the demands of small and large businesses who are ready to hire and expand their workforce.” Florida will continue to participate in other federal pandemic-related unemployment programs aimed at the self-employed, people who already have exhausted their unemployment benefits and gig workers. These federal benefit programs also are set to expire in early September.
Atlanta: Gov. Brian Kemp says public agencies in the state can’t require people to prove they have been vaccinated against COVID-19, a step his administration says ultimately means no agency can require anyone to get a shot. The Republican governor issued an executive order Tuesday banning so-called vaccine passports and saying state immunization records can’t be shared with any private company aiming to create such a record. “While I continue to urge all Georgians to get vaccinated so we continue our momentum in putting the COVID-19 pandemic in the rearview, vaccination is a personal decision between each citizen and a medical professional – not state government,” Kemp said in a statement. Georgia has the eighth-lowest rate among states for COVID-19 vaccinations among residents 12 and older, according to data from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Kemp is running for reelection in 2022 and has been taking steps to shore up support among Republican voters still restive over claims that Kemp didn’t do enough to overturn President Joe Biden’s victory in Georgia. Opposition to vaccine passports, even though they’re not in widespread use, may be driven in part by reluctance among many conservatives to get inoculated against COVID-19.
Kailua-Kona: Some Big Island officials question the need to pump money into tourism promotion, with the pandemic highlighting the economic downside of reliance on visitor spending, but a measure to reallocate budget funds was voted down. The issue came up at a county council budget meeting last week, West Hawaii Today reports. North Kona Councilman Holeka Inaba was concerned that other areas of Hawaii County’s $609.1 million budget were being neglected. Inaba proposed removing $359,000 from the Department of Research and Development’s $459,000 line item for tourism promotion contract services. “I feel that this money could be better used elsewhere,” Inaba said. “We have goals that state that tourism is compatible with historic and natural resources. That it’s not intrusive on our local communities, that it helps to strengthen private, public and international partnerships and makes us a resilient community,” Inaba said. “And I don’t believe that to be true, as we’ve seen over the last year. With tourism gone, we were in the hole.” Inaba’s measure died on a 3-5 vote. Those voting against the measure said the funds focus on the importance of responsible tourism. “We want our tourists when they come to come and be pono and responsible tourists. And when we take away this money, we are not going to be able to articulate that message,” said Puna Councilwoman Ashley Kierkiewicz.
Boise: Education officials said Monday that the state’s primary challenge in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic is helping students make up lost ground. The State Department of Education identified that as a top priority in its draft plan for spending $440 million Idaho is receiving in federal rescue money for more than 300,000 students in grades K-12. The U.S. Department of Education requires the plan to receive money from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund that’s part of the American Rescue Plan signed into law by President Joe Biden in March. State officials face a tight timeline. They’re taking comments on the plan through June 1, then will send it to the Idaho State Board of Education for approval. The plan must be submitted to the U.S. Education Department by June 7. Mike Keckler, a spokesman for the board, noted its eight members had a role in coming up with the draft plan. One of them, Linda Clark, coined the term “unfinished learning” in describing what the pandemic has caused among Idaho students. State officials said last fall’s early reading assessment showed a 5% drop from the previous year in K-3 students reading at grade level. Students from low-income families fell further behind than their peers.
Springfield: The state reported fewer than 1,000 new coronavirus cases Monday – the first time it has seen consecutive days of fewer than 1,000 cases since July 2020. The Illinois Department of Public Health reported 933 new cases Monday, following 943 reported Sunday. Testing combined with fewer cases means a lower positivity rate, with IDPH reporting a 2.7% positivity rate Monday and the rate as a percentage of tests staying steady at 2.2%. The state saw a peak Nov. 6, 2020, with 18,049 new cases reported that day. Since then, daily cases have declined 95%, and the positivity rate has dropped from 11% to less than 3%. IDPH also announced Monday that it would be implementing a new program allowing officials to monitor early warning signs for the coronavirus and its variants in wastewater. The program, started in association with the Discovery Partners Institute of Chicago, will begin in 10 counties at the outset and eventually expand to 35 counties by the summer, with all counties across the state having some form of the system by the end of the year in a $5.5 million implementation. Dr. Ngozi Ezike, director of IDPH, said the new system would provide for a better warning system for possible outbreaks, as the virus is visible in fecal matter almost immediately after infection.
Indianapolis: The state’s attorney general argues in new legal filings that the governor is wrongly trying to use the courts to expand his powers with a lawsuit challenging the authority legislators have given themselves to intervene during public emergencies. Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb asked a judge last month to block the new law passed by the GOP-dominated Legislature following criticism from many conservatives over a statewide mask mandate and other COVID-19 restrictions that Holcomb imposed by executive orders. Attorney General Todd Rokita, also a Republican and past Holcomb rival, claims in court documents filed late Monday that he is within his legal authority to turn down Holcomb’s request to take the dispute to court after the Legislature overrode the governor’s veto of the new law. His office’s court filing repeatedly calls Holcomb’s lawyers “unauthorized counsel” in asking for them to be removed from the case. “A lawsuit by the Governor against legislators to invalidate a law enacted over the Governor’s veto amounts to a demand for a ‘super’ veto via the judiciary,” the filing says. “It is no small thing for one branch of government to drag another branch of government to account before the third branch of government. No constitutional provision secures to officials of any branch such extraordinary power.”
Des Moines: The state has paid $29 million to $30 million in fraudulent unemployment insurance claims since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the head of the state’s workforce agency says. During a quarterly board meeting, Iowa Workforce Development Director Beth Townsend said the agency has increased its fraud detection efforts since March 2020 but still has seen a large uptick in claims from applicants lying about their qualifications for benefits. Some organized crime rings have targeted state workforce agencies with fraudulent claims during the pandemic, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Inspector General. Congress increased the amount of money unemployed workers could receive, making jobless benefits more attractive. Plus, as millions of people filed claims, busy state employees had less time to weed out suspicious applications. According to an inspector general’s report in February, California and New York each disclosed that they been hit with at least $1 billion in fraudulent claims. “We were very fortunate in Iowa because we have practices and programs and safety mechanisms in place pre-pandemic that certainly helped us prevent most of the fraud that a lot of other bigger states were seeing,” Townsend told the board. “We have enhanced those as the pandemic has gone on.”
Topeka: The Kansas Statehouse and the state Museum of History will reopen to visitors next month. The reopenings were announced by the State Historical Society, which provides tours in the Statehouse near downtown Topeka and operates the museum in west Topeka. Both had been closed to the general public because of the coronavirus pandemic. The Statehouse visitor center will be open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday starting June 1. While groups can request guided tours of the building, tours of the dome won’t be offered. The Museum of History will reopen June 2, with visitors allowed from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Sixteen state historic sites across Kansas also are open.
Louisville: Black residents now account for about half of all new COVID-19 cases in the city, officials said Tuesday – a development Mayor Greg Fischer called “alarming.” In Jefferson County, about 22% of residents are Black and, until recently, had been showing proportionate rates of death and infection, Fischer said at a news briefing with health officials. Louisville reported 592 new coronavirus cases and 55 deaths last week. Though cases overall have begun a gradual decline, younger people, particularly Black residents, are now accounting for more of the new cases, said Dr. Sarah Moyer, director of Louisville Metro Health and Wellness. Moyer cited lower rates of vaccination as a key factor. Rates are high among both Black and white residents 60 or older, Moyer said, but “a greater percentage of our younger Black Louisvillians have not been vaccinated yet.” Sadiqa Reynolds, president and CEO of Louisville’s Urban League, said she is well aware of the lower rates of vaccination against COVID-19 among younger, Black Louisvillians and is working with Moyer and other city health officials to improve outreach to those individuals. She said she’s heard frequent comments from younger people involved in job training, education and other programs that they do not fully trust the COVID-19 vaccines first introduced in December.
Lafayette: It could take until 2023 for the state to regain all the jobs lost amid the pandemic, one report says. Still, even though most of Louisiana’s major metropolitan areas fell short of their job projections for the first quarter of 2021, the forecast shows reason to be optimistic for future growth. The University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s B.I. Moody III College of Business released its economic forecast for the second quarter of 2021 on Friday, showing job growth slowed across the state in the first three months of the year. The report’s author, economics professor Gary Wagner, noted that future projections have improved. But it will take most of the state’s metro areas more than a year to fully return to pre-pandemic job levels in Wagner’s latest forecast. The state added fewer than 8,000 jobs in the first quarter, for a growth rate of about 0.4% – the lowest since the COVID-19-related job losses of the second quarter of 2020. As of March, the state had regained about 45% of the jobs lost due to COVID-19, compared to about 70% nationally. Wagner’s forecast estimates the state will not recover all pandemic job losses until 2023. Louisiana’s unemployment rate continued to fall as the year began, though at a slower rate than previous quarters, going from 7.9% at the end of 2020 to 7.5% in the first quarter of 2021.
Portland: Catholics can now return to churches with greatly relaxed coronavirus restrictions. The Diocese of Portland changed its guidance for the 141 Catholic churches in Maine just as the state prepared to eliminate mask requirements in most settings. Maine’s indoor mask order went away Monday. Masks will no longer be required for any person at any time, inside or outside churches, the diocese said. Pew seating arrangements that establish 6 or more feet of distance between people are also eliminated. The diocese said it’s restoring distribution of Communion to homebound Catholics, and indoor choir practices can be held without distancing. Many churches will provide space in areas such as parish halls for spread-out seating during services, the diocese said. Livestreaming of services will also continue, the diocese said. “We hope that by continuing to offer a variety of ways to participate in Mass and through updating these protocols, all will feel welcomed to grow in their faith together in Christ,” Bishop Robert Deeley said.
Annapolis: The state held its first of 40 consecutive $40,000 lottery drawings Tuesday for people who have been vaccinated against COVID-19. The Maryland Lottery said the first winner lives in Baltimore County. State law allows lottery winners to remain anonymous. There will be 39 more drawings for $40,000 in the $2 million total promotion, which ends with a $400,000 prize July 4. The drawings are being done with a computer program that randomly selects a number from within the range of numbers provided to the lottery by Maryland’s health department. To be eligible, a participant must be an adult resident who has received a vaccine dose in Maryland. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 68.3% of the state’s adults have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Gov. Larry Hogan is hoping to reach 70% by Memorial Day. “Congratulations to the first winner of our $40,000 VaxCash lottery drawing!” Hogan wrote on Twitter with a flurry of video balloons and noting a website for people to schedule appointments. The Hogan administration highlighted health metrics Tuesday that continue to improve. The statewide coronavirus positivity rate has dropped below 2% for the first time of the pandemic. The state reported 160 new confirmed cases – the fewest since March 26, 2020.
Boston: The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority is boosting some subway and bus service this summer, with ridership continuing to increase as the pandemic wanes. The MBTA carried more riders the week of May 10 than it has in any week since the COVID-19 pandemic began, WBZ radio reports. The changes come as all COVID-19 restrictions in Massachusetts are scheduled to end this Saturday, although passengers will still be required to wear face coverings while on public transportation or in stations. The T will increase the frequency of the Red, Orange and Blue line trains as well as Green line trolleys on the C, D and E branches starting June 20. Buses will run with greater frequency on dozens of routes on the same date, while several previously eliminated routes will be restored, according to the T.
Lansing: Republicans on Tuesday advanced a bill that would prohibit state and local health officials from requiring COVID-19 vaccinations for children and were also poised to ban governments from mandating vaccine passports. Neither concept is under consideration in the state. But GOP lawmakers said they want to be proactive. “While they might not be mandating something, they’re certainly creating a scenario where mandates are being pushed. I just wanted to ensure that that wasn’t going to happen in this space. Parents should be allowed to make the decision on this,” Sen. Lana Theis, of Brighton, said of her legislation that would prevent the use of a state or local emergency order to require COVID-19 vaccines for minors. It won Senate approval on a 20-16 party-line vote. Democrats called the bill needless and noted that if the COVID-19 vaccine were added to the list of immunizations children need to attend school, the state allows for exemptions. Both bills would need to clear the other chamber before heading to Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who has said state officials are not looking to mandate COVID-19 vaccinations. About 58% of residents 16 and older have received at least one dose.
St. Paul: The state reported 256 new coronavirus cases Tuesday, the fewest since September, according to a report from the Minnesota Department of Health. Across the state, 11 more Minnesotans died of the disease: one person in their late 40s, two in their 50s, three in their 60s, three in their 70s, one in their 80s and one in their 90s. The total number of people who have tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19 since the pandemic began reached 599,477 cases Monday, and 7,381 people have died, according to MDH. Since the onset of the pandemic, 31,883 people have required hospitalization for COVID-19 in the state.
Jackson: Neurosurgeon Dr. John Daniel Davis IV has been nominated by Gov. Tate Reeves to serve on a board that governs public health, Department of Health officials announced Tuesday. Davis was tapped to complete the six-year term of Dr. Ed D. “Tad” Barham on the Mississippi State Board of Health. Barham died earlier this year of coronavirus complications. Davis is a graduate of both the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. He currently works as a neurosurgeon at NewSouth NeuroSpine in Flowood. “It is truly a special opportunity and unique honor to serve on this Board,” he said in a statement Tuesday. “I am committed to sound, science-based policy with efficient execution, and I look forward to addressing important matters that impact the health and lives of Mississippians.” Before Davis officially joins the board, he must first be confirmed by the state Senate. A native of Jackson, Davis graduated from Jackson Preparatory School as the Star Student in 1984 and received his bachelor’s degree in biological engineering, graduating summa cum laude from Mississippi State University.
Kansas City: The city will receive more than $8 million in federal money to address issues related to homelessness, officials said. Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas and U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver announced the $8.3 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on Saturday. Some of the money will help pay for 140 beds in the tiny homes village initiative. That program, announced last month, will provide transitional housing and other services to people experiencing homelessness. Lucas said the city has made progress in addressing housing needs, but more work needs to be done. Officials said the federal money will provide a significant boost to those efforts. “Ensuring all Kansas City families have access to safe and affordable housing must and will remain a priority well into the future – and this funding allocation from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development helps providing the funding necessary to do so,” Lucas said.
Kalispell: Amtrak’s Empire Builder train has resumed daily service from Chicago to Seattle and Portland, including a dozen stops along Montana’s Hi-Line, after cutbacks made due to the pandemic. The Empire Builder stops in Wolf Point, Glasgow, Malta, Havre, Shelby, Cut Bank, Browning, East Glacier Park, Essex, West Glacier, Whitefish and Libby in Montana. Whitefish is the busiest stop, with more than 55,000 passengers boarding or disembarking there in a typical year, the Daily Inter Lake reports. “Whitefish depends on the reliable service – and economic boost – that the Empire Builder route brings, and we are thrilled that service is returning to seven days a week,” Whitefish Mayor John Muhfeld said in a statement. “With travel season right around the corner, this is just the shot in the arm our economy needed as we work to build back after the pandemic.” Amtrak reduced service on most of its long-distance routes to three days a week in October as ridership dropped because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Amtrak was provided $166 million in the most recent federal coronavirus relief bill to return to normal operations and reinstate about 1,200 workers.
Lincoln: The Winnebago Tribe – one of two federally recognized tribes of Ho-Chunk Native Americans and one of four tribes in Nebraska – has reached what state officials called a “truly exemplary milestone” with a 71% COVID-19 vaccination rate for those 16 and older and a 64% rate for those 12 and up. The tribe believes in actively maintaining and improving the lives of its members and preserving its rich cultural heritage, the state Department of Health and Human Services said in a release. Dannette R. Smith, CEO of the state agency, said in a Facebook Live briefing that “the Winnebago Tribe has done an exemplary job vaccinating their residents and serve as a valuable model for outreach and care.” The reservation is located in northeastern Nebraska in Thurston County. Tribal Council offices are in the town of Winnebago.
Reno: The state’s embattled unemployment office may finally get the technological makeover desperate residents have been hoping for. A bill introduced in the Legislature last week would set aside $54 million in eligible federal funds for major software upgrades at the Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation. That’s at least $7 million more than top agency administrators estimated they would need to overhaul the “vintage code” now running on its computers. Those systems were overwhelmed by a flood of fake unemployment claims filed at the height of the COVID-19 crisis, leaving thousands of legitimate claims unpaid as the Silver State’s tourism-driven economy collapsed. Gov. Steve Sisolak, who has repeatedly called for changes at DETR, lauded the legislation as a good way to give agency officials the “system they need.” Court- and governor-appointed fixers have spent countless hours puzzling over DETR’s well-documented struggle to pay out credible claims, eventually issuing a pair of dense reports that sought computer upgrades, training improvements and a whole host of other changes meant to reduce the backlog. DETR leaders did not bring forward legislation to implement those changes, a decision that left some agency critics and Republicans fuming at recent hearings.
Concord: Residents are feeling more comfortable with activities like eating inside a restaurant, going to a state beach and getting their hair cut, according to a Granite State Poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. About half of those polled said they are currently comfortable with attending a wedding with 50 or more people, going to a bar or pub, going to a gym or health club, and going to a movie theater, according to the survey published Wednesday. Even though New Hampshire no longer has a statewide mask mandate, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that fully vaccinated individuals no longer need to wear masks in most situations, people responding to the survey said they are wearing masks at only slightly lower rates than in December. The survey said 83% said they always wear a mask while shopping at a grocery store or pharmacy, down from 89% in December, while only 10% said they rarely or never do this. A total of 69% said they wear a mask when getting restaurant takeout food, down from 75% in December. Relatively few people continue to wear a mask when socializing with family or friends with whom they don’t live or while exercising outdoors. Also, nearly 75% surveyed said they are at least partially vaccinated against COVID-19.
Atlantic City: Gross operating profit in the city’s casinos soared in the first quarter of this year to more than $95 million – more than three times the amount they earned in the first quarter of 2020, when the COVID-19 shutdown wiped out half of March. Figures released Monday by the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement show eight of the nine casinos posted increases in their gross operating profit, with only Bally’s posting an operating loss. James Plousis, chairman of the New Jersey Casino Control Commission, said this year’s figures are not evenly comparable to the first quarter of 2020 due to the coronavirus-related shutdown. So he chose to compare this year’s performance to the first quarter of 2019, when all the casinos were operating and the pandemic had not yet occurred. Under that comparison, the casinos’ first quarter earnings this year are 11% higher than they were in he first quarter of 2019, he said. “The strength of internet gaming and the safe return of tourists to Atlantic City are a powerful combination,” he said. “Last week’s lifting of casino capacity restrictions bolsters confidence for a strong recovery this summer.” Internet gambling continued its strong performance in New Jersey in April, even with Atlantic City casinos open for business again and patrons returning to try their luck in person.
Santa Fe: The state probably overpaid unemployment insurance benefits by an estimated $250 million during the coronavirus pandemic amid a backlog of investigations into potentially fraudulent claims, the budget and accountability office of the Legislature announced in a research report. Analysts briefed members of the Legislature’s lead budget-writing committee last week on the trajectory of record-setting unemployment claims during the pandemic. New Mexico has paid out more than $3 billion in unemployment claims through its Workforce Solutions Department since the pandemic was declared in March 2020. That put the state unemployment trust fund into insolvency and in debt to the federal government. The Workforce Solutions Department last year reassigned staff to help keep pace with a tide of claims as jobs and personal income dried up, and the department drafted workers from other state agencies to answer phones from people who lost jobs and were desperate to sign up for unemployment payments. “The surge and staffing reassignments exacerbated already rising rates of improper payments,” financial analysts at the Legislative Finance Committee found. Analysts attribute $133 million of the estimated overpayments to fraud. The remainder was not linked to intentional deception.
New York: In the Far Rockaway section of Queens, nearly 460 residents have died of COVID-19. That’s 1 out of every 146 people who live in the seaside neighborhood, making for one of New York City’s highest death rates. Yet no other place in the city has a lower percentage of vaccinated people. As of Monday, only 29% of people living Far Rockaway’s ZIP code, 11691, had received even one COVID-19 vaccine dose, according to data from the New York City Health Department. That compares to a rate of 49% citywide and nationally. The situation in the community of about 67,000 people illustrates the challenges facing health officials in many places as they try to overcome hesitancy fueled by mistrust, misinformation and fear. “We have a good amount of people that still don’t want to get vaccinated, for whatever reason,” said Diana Catalan, a health clinic manager involved in the Far Rockaway inoculation effort whose father, a neighborhood resident, died of the coronavirus in February. Some people want to wait a few months to see how vaccinated friends and family respond to the shots, she said. Some have heard unfounded conspiracy theories that the vaccine is dangerous. Others just feel no urgency, having escaped serious harm so far.
Raleigh: A broad tax cut proposal from Republicans in the state Senate that began its advance in the chamber Tuesday also contains federal COVID-19 relief money to give more aid to businesses that previously received federal or state pandemic assistance. GOP finance leaders unveiled an amended version of their tax plan, some of which was already revealed in March and contained an individual income tax rate reduction and more generous standard deductions. The latest edition also would increase the amount of per-child deductions by $500. If approved, more low-income individuals would pay zero income tax, and all filers would see their monetary tax burdens reduced. Republicans have made rate reductions and deduction increases a cornerstone of their fiscal policy since a landmark overhaul in 2013 consolidated taxes to one flat rate and scaled-back credits. “We are proposing yet another tax cut because we believe people spend their money better than government does,” Sen. Paul Newton, a Cabarrus County Republican and Senate Finance Committee co-chairman, said during a news conference. “Allowing North Carolinians to keep their own money is the best form of stimulus our economy could have.”
Bismarck: The month of May continues to be a slow one for increasing the rate of COVID-19 vaccinations, according to state figures. The North Dakota Department of Health update released over the weekend showed 48.5% of residents have received at least their first dose of vaccine, roughly the same percentage from a week prior. The level has increased by less than 2 percentage points for the month. Health officials say 289,745 residents have received at least one dose of a vaccine, and 268,060 people, or 44.9% of the population, have completed the required series of shots. The COVID Tracking Project reports there were more than 147 new virus cases per 100,000 people over the past two weeks in North Dakota, which ranks 17th in the country for new cases per capita. One in every 1,523 people in the state tested positive in the past week. North Dakota ranks 13th-highest per capita in the number of deaths at about 202 fatalities per 100,000 people, according to project researchers.
Columbus: October will be a busy month for marathoners, as the state’s three biggest races all hold events within days of each other thanks to rescheduling driven by the coronavirus pandemic. The Columbus marathon announced Tuesday that registration opens June 1 for an in-person event Oct. 17. Race organizers didn’t announce a cap on participants but said they could limit registrations based on guidance from health officials. The race, normally held in October, is the second-largest marathon in Ohio, with 3,594 finishers in 2019. Last fall’s race was canceled by the pandemic. The Cincinnati marathon, the biggest in Ohio with 3,874 finishers in 2019, is normally held in May but is now planned for Oct. 31. The Cleveland marathon, the third-largest in Ohio with 1,397 finishers in 2019, is also normally held in May and is now scheduled for Oct. 24. Both canceled their spring races because of the coronavirus. The resumption of the Columbus race can bring some normalcy back to people’s training regimens, said race director Darris Blackford. “Our race by no means replaces or diminishes the hardship and suffering so many have endured and continue to face as a result of COVID-19, but it does provide a welcome distraction to the stresses of the pandemic,” he said in a statement.
Oklahoma City: Gov. Kevin Stitt signed key legislation Monday to implement a $9 billion spending plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1. The budget appropriates nearly 8% more funding than the current year’s budget, largely to make up for cuts and decreased spending last year due to the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The general appropriations bill Stitt signed outlines state funding for various agencies. Stitt and Republican legislative leaders announced an agreement two weeks ago on an $8.3 billion spending plan. Still, Stitt spokeswoman Carly Atchison said the final budget bills approved by the Legislature authorize a total of $9.06 billion in spending for fiscal 2022. Among the key provisions in the agreement is an increase in funding for public schools of $171.6 million, or 6%, from last year’s funding levels, and a diversion of more than $800 million into a state savings account. The Legislature also fully funded an expansion of the state’s Medicaid program approved by voters last year. The budget agreement includes cuts to the corporate and top individual income tax rates and restoration of the refundability of the earned income tax credit, which is designed to help low-income Oklahomans.
Portland: As the Portland Trail Blazers continue their run in the NBA Western Conference Playoff, Gov. Kate Brown announced Monday that the Moda Center will debut vaccinated sections this week with increased capacity and fewer physical distancing restrictions. Fans in vaccinated sections who are 16 or older must provide proof they have been fully vaccinated. Fans not eligible will sit in areas where they must continue to physically distance. According to officials, all fans will still be required to wear a mask. “When fans left the Moda Center last March, it was one of the first signs this pandemic was about to change our lives in ways we hadn’t previously imagined,” Brown said. “Vaccines are the key to our return to normal life.” Brown urged residents to get vaccinated right away if they haven’t yet. “Don’t miss your shot to cheer on the Blazers as they make a run at a championship,” the Democratic governor said. In addition, Brown announced that businesses, venues and faith institutions in “lower risk” counties may follow suit with the Moda Center and create vaccinated sections. She said vaccinated sections in businesses would not need to adhere to physical distancing, capacity limits or masking requirements.
Harrisburg: A state House committee voted on party lines Tuesday to keep portions of the governor’s coronavirus disaster emergency in place until October but end fast-track contracting rules and other provisions. The resolution, which requires approval from both legislative chambers but not from Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, is designed to stop the use of no-bid contracts, require people on unemployment aid to look for work and end social distancing mitigation rules. The State Government Committee vote came just one day after the proposal was introduced by the Republican House floor leader, Rep. Kerry Benninghoff of Centre County, and exactly a week after state voters passed a pair of constitutional amendments to give lawmakers greater authority over disaster declarations. Republican Rep. Russ Diamond, who has opposed mask-wearing and other virus mitigation efforts, said he hoped to make changes to the legislation before a final vote. Diamond said voters in his Lebanon County district did not want any provisions to remain in place for months to come. All Democrats on the committee voted no. Wolf’s mitigation orders are currently being phased out, and on Monday the governor’s acting labor secretary outlined a schedule for resumption of job-search requirements.
Providence: When the Rhode Island State House reopens to the public June 1, some coronavirus restrictions will remain in place, Gov. Dan McKee announced Tuesday. Visitors will be allowed Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. but will have to sign a log book, have their temperature taken and wear face masks in all common areas. No proof of vaccination will be required. Some areas will remain off limits for health and security reasons, the Democratic governor said. “Any choice to enable remote work, bring employees back in person, or any combination of the two will also be left to the discretion of each office,” he said in a statement. McKee had come under criticism for keeping the State House closed to the public even as most coronavirus restrictions on the economy have been lifted. He had previously announced it would reopen June 1 but without details. Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, also a Democrat, last week questioned why the building remained closed. She announced Sunday that she will run for governor.
Clemson: In the wake of Gov. Henry McMaster’s order rendering all local mask mandates non-enforceable, the city is considering passing an “in case of emergency” ordinance that would reinstitute the mask mandate if the community experiences a future resurgence of COVID-19. “You still have the ability to do a mask ordinance. You just can’t reference the governor’s emergency order as the justification for it; it has to be based on your local conditions,” interim City Manager Andy Blondeau said. Clemson may take a cue from Athens, Georgia, where the college town’s mask mandate is only triggered if cases reach 100 per 100,000 people, according to its 2020 ordinance. The Clemson City Council ordered Blondeau to consult local health officials on what that “trigger” would be based on past pandemic data and local population numbers. Meanwhile, Clemson University has lifted certain on-campus mask rules for vaccinated people, according to a campus message sent out Friday. Fully vaccinated people will not have to wear masks – unless in a classroom – and will not have to be tested weekly for the coronavirus, according to the campuswide email. People who have not received a full series of COVID-19 vaccines will still be required to be tested weekly and wear masks on campus.
Sioux Falls: A South Dakota State University professor is researching whether antiseptic nasal spray may help reduce the risk of coronavirus infection, after he used it on a trip to his home country of India, which is facing a severe outbreak of COVID-19. The spray isn’t a “magic bullet,” but it may provide another layer of protection if used correctly, said Saikat Basu, an assistant professor in the department of mechanical engineering at SDSU. He conducted his research before, during and after his trip to India and published a paper on it by May 1, but the South Dakota Department of Health cautions against the spray’s use. “Given no U.S. studies have been conducted on this, the SDDOH cannot advocate for, or recommend, the use of this nasal spray until further research is done and it receives FDA approval,” spokesman Daniel Bucheli said. “Neither Secretary Kim Malsam-Rysdon or Dr. Joshua Clayton have spoken about this, given it’s not an approved COVID-19 prevention or treatment tool.” One of Saikat Basu’s collaborators on the project, Dr. Diane Joseph-McCarthy, of Boston University, said people use nasal sprays for asthma and other respiratory diseases, but the protocol they researched for delivering the spray almost-horizontally could potentially be applicable to any respiratory disease.
Memphis: Local elected officials and health leaders spent 2020 begging people to stay home ahead of holiday weekends in an effort to keep COVID-19 case rates and deaths down. This holiday weekend, Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris is going to the movies. He’s going to Target without his mask. He’s going to travel, the mayor said during a news conference Tuesday. “It’s been a long time since we have been back to movie theaters, and I’ll be going to see whatever is coming out, but I don’t care what it is – I’ll be in the movie theaters seeing it this weekend. I’ll likely take a trip or two to Target because that’s what people do,” he said. After all, he is vaccinated. The tone of Harris and Shelby County Health Department Deputy Director David Sweat reflected the changed circumstances on the ground ahead of Memorial Day weekend. While Shelby County is not close to its goal of 700,000 people vaccinated, it’s about halfway there. “I think that we all deserve to reap the rewards of the hard work that a lot of people have put into bringing us to this point,” Sweat said. “If you’re fully vaccinated with a group of your friends, enjoy the weekend.” Harris and Sweat pressed those who aren’t vaccinated to get their shots. Sweat noted five deaths related to COVID-19 over the weekend, calling them unnecessary.
Austin: After three-day tickets to the Austin City Limits Music Festival sold out in record time last week, music fans scrambled for a second shot when the festival released single-day tickets Tuesday. Highlighting the appetite for live music experiences as COVID-19 vaccinations rise, single-day tickets also sold out swiftly. The tickets went on sale at noon. According to the festival, there was a six-ticket limit in place for customers. At 1:35 p.m., messages posted to the festival’s official social media channels announced that ACL Fest was sold out, once again in record time. By mid-afternoon, plenty of tickets were available on ticket resale websites, with the $135 fee marked up to $300 or more. ACL Fest takes place Oct. 1-3 and 8-10 at Zilker Park. Country legend George Strait, pop superstar Miley Cyrus and rap breakout Megan Thee Stallion will kick the fest off Friday nights. On Saturdays, teen pop wunderkind Billie Eilish and Australian electro-dance outfit Rufus Du Sol take top billing, with Doja Cat, ’90s rockers Modest Mouse and singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers playing support. Grand dame of rock and roll Stevie Nicks and rap superstar DaBaby will close out the fest on Sundays with female music innovators St. Vincent and Erykah Badu, the latter of whom shifts to Friday on Weekend 2.
St. George: The Washington County Justice Court reopened for some in-person hearings this week, with yellow phase protocols in place. Courts across the state had been closed for in-person hearings for 14 months since the onset of the pandemic and have held hearings through Webex. With Washington County seeing fewer cases, going from the red phase to yellow, the court administration has been discussing how to proceed for those wanting in-person hearings. Washington County Attorney Eric Clarke said there one in-person hearing roughly a month ago was a test run on court hearings in the yellow phase and required everyone who attended to be tested for the coronavirus and wear a mask. The Administration of Courts is requiring a 10-person limit in any courtroom as part of the Pandemic Response Plan. The Washington County Justice Court will also participate in contact tracing. The Administration of Courts does not have a plan or a standard for opening the District Court yet. “Protocols don’t reflect where the community is,” Clarke said. He said he anticipates the District Court keeping Webex for certain types of hearings and is meeting with administrators this week to find out how remote hearings will be implemented into normal court proceedings.
Montpelier: The state is expected to reach 80% of eligible residents vaccinated against COVID-19 in the next week to 10 days, prompting the governor to drop remaining pandemic-related restrictions before July 4, state officials said Tuesday. Gov. Phil Scott and state officials said they have been pleased with progress on vaccinations since the governor on Friday challenged the state to reach the 80% mark. As of Tuesday, 76.9% of Vermonters ages 12 and older had received at least one dose, state officials said, after discovering the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had some duplicated numbers. That means another 17,250 residents need to start vaccines to hit the 80% target, they said. “We’re heading toward a time when about 3 out of every 4 Vermonters will be vaccinated, which significantly lowers the chance you’ll encounter someone who is unvaccinated,” Scott said. “The chance someone has COVID is getting lower every single day.” The vaccination rate continues to lead to a decline in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths, officials said. Vermont went a week without a COVID-19-related death last week, making it one of the only states to do so, said Mike Pieciak, commissioner of the Department of Financial Regulation, who has been following the COVID-19 trends for Vermont.
Petersburg: Petersburg City Public Schools on Monday became the only district in the state to offer free coronavirus testing for students and staff in the school setting, as part of the Increased Community Access to Testing program. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services notified the district last month that it was selected for the free school testing program. ICATT expanded its testing services in schools to ensure that the school environment is safe for learning, stop the spread of COVID-19 and keep classrooms open. Petersburg is one of 27 school systems nationwide to take part in the program. “School COVID-19 testing is one more layer of protection that helps us attend school in person safely,” said Dr. Maria Pitre-Martin, superintendent of Petersburg City Public Schools. Anyone who wants a coronavirus test can ask on the two days per week testing is available at multiple school buildings. Parents of students younger than 18 will have to sign a one-time consent form for students to have access to testing. Students and staff who test positive will be contacted directly. “Regular COVID-19 testing can quickly detract, trace and isolate COVID-19 positive individuals, and that will help us lower the risk of transmission,” Pitre-Martin said.
Spokane: Some top agriculture groups are upset with Gov. Jay Inslee because farmworkers were not covered in last week’s announcement that fully vaccinated employees do not have to wear a mask or socially distance at work. Washington Farm Labor Association Executive Director Dan Fazio and Washington Farm Bureau Chief Executive John Stuhlmiller issued a joint statement this week saying Inslee failed to disclose that these new rules do not apply to vaccinated farm workers who live in temporary housing. “As the 2021 harvest season launches, this double standard for the agricultural community is not based on current science, is creating widespread confusion and is financially catastrophic,” the executives said, calling that unfair. Thanks to widespread testing and vaccination, farmworker facilities in Washington state are much safer than local communities, achieving a nearly 100% vaccination rate, the ag executives said. They said the emergency regulations will be in place during the heart of the harvest season unless the governor acts. Washington farmers annually employ tens of thousands of migrants to produce the state’s bounty of agricultural products, including apples, cherries, grapes, asparagus and many other perishable crops.
Charleston: The state would pay unemployed people a $500 sign-up bonus for returning to work under a plan expected to be finalized soon. The bonus would be half of what Republican Gov. Jim Justice initially suggested could be offered to workers. He said earlier in May that the bonus would be $1,000, which would require the employer to pay half and the state to cover the rest. On Tuesday he said he didn’t want to “put any additional pain on our small businesses” even though he believed some would “gladly step up and pay the $500 match.” He said he expects the bonus, which “may only be the $500,” to come out of the state’s coffers. The governor said the program could be finalized by the time of his next coronavirus briefing, likely later this week. “We need to encourage people to get back to work,” Justice said. He announced earlier this month that the state will end its additional pandemic-era boost for unemployment benefits June 19, including the additional $300 a week for those without a job. West Virginia’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate dropped slightly to 5.8% in April – the lowest since March 2020, when it was 5.3%.
Madison: Republicans who control the Legislature convened Tuesday and within seconds ended a special session called by Democratic Gov. Tony Evers to expand Medicaid, dashing chances for the state to receive a one-time bonus of $1 billion in federal coronavirus relief funding. The Senate and Assembly gaveled in and adjourned the special session in mostly empty chambers with only a handful of lawmakers in attendance. The Assembly session lasted all of about 40 seconds, while the Senate was done in less than 10 seconds. There was no debate, let alone any votes taken, on the bill Evers called on the Legislature to pass. It marked the latest in a long line of defeats for Democrats on the issue. Democrats have for years advocated in vain to expand eligibility for the state’s Medicaid program known as BadgerCare Plus. This time, with the $1 billion in federal pandemic aid at play, Democrats said it made no sense not to join 38 other states in accepting expansion. Republicans who have long opposed expansion called the latest attempt a political stunt, saying they don’t want to move people from private insurance to the BadgerCare Plus plan and worry the federal money will dry up, forcing the state to pay a higher share. Evers, in a statement after the vote, called it “breathtaking” that Republicans would turn down $1 billion.
Cheyenne: A new report made public last week has highlighted the potential benefits for workers as state lawmakers consider expanding Medicaid. The Commonwealth Fund and George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health has projected Medicaid expansion would create 1,900 jobs in the state, with two-thirds in the health care industry, the Wyoming Tribune Eagle reports. Leighton Ku, university professor and lead author of the study, said more than $100 million in additional federal funds allotted for the state would create new employment opportunities and go to hospitals, pharmacies and health care providers likely to give the money to their employees. That would generate more spending for the state’s economy, which Ku estimates at about $4 million in the first year. Medicaid expansion would also benefit uninsured workers in the hospitality, food service and retail industries, a separate university report said last week, estimating more than half of the state’s uninsured workers come from the industries, based on 2019 numbers. “This data is pre-pandemic, and when you think about what happened during the pandemic and how hospitality got hit really hard, this data suggests it’s only gotten worse for these low-wage workers,” said Joan Alker, the second report’s co-author.
From USA TODAY Network and wire reports
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Farmworker fairness, nasal spray fix: News from around our 50 states