Montgomery: After COVID-19 disrupted two school years, lawmakers on Monday voted to delay an upcoming state requirement for third graders to pass a reading test before moving up to the fourth grade. The House of Representatives voted 68-27 for the bill by Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, that would delay the promotion requirement, now set to take effect next year, by two years. The bill now goes to Gov. Kay Ivey. The high-stakes promotion requirement is set to take effect at the end of the 2021-2022 school 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. The bill would move the implementation to the 2023-2024 school year. “These kids have had 14 months of not normal schooling. All they are asking for is a little compassion,” said Rep. Barbara Drummond, D-Mobile. “I have never ever had a bill where I’ve had so many educators call me.” The bill passed with bipartisan support. During an earlier committee meeting, members of both parties described the difficulties students and parents had in keeping up with schoolwork during the pandemic when classrooms were closed.
Kenai: Nearly half of residents 16 and older are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, while more than half have received at least one dose, state public health officials said. Data from the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services shows that 46.9% of state residents had received both doses, while 52.6% had received at least one dose, the Peninsula Clarion reports. These rates were above the national average, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These milestones were reached days after Alaska opened up vaccination appointments to children 12 and up following the CDC’s approval of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for that age group. Anchorage revoked its mask mandate on Friday ahead of its planned expiration date, the same day Juneau’s mask order was eased to allow fully vaccinated people to go in indoor public areas or at crowded outdoor events without a mask. Alaska’s average daily case counts are now trending down significantly statewide, though a few regions are still in the highest alert category based on their current per capita rate of infection, the Anchorage Daily News reports.
Phoenix: The coronavirus pandemic seems to be in a new phase in the state, as vaccinations have increased, and policies have relaxed. After more than a year of several surges in cases, hospitalizations and deaths, trends have been remaining steady at far lower levels than previous months. More people are getting vaccinated against COVID-19 and safely taking off their masks. “We’re at the beginning of the end,” said Dr. Joe Gerald, an associate professor of public health at the University of Arizona’s Mel & Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health. Gerald said he foresees cases continuing at a moderate level through the summer before tailing off in July or August but doesn’t think there is a strong likelihood of a massive outbreak like those last summer and winter. Dr. Joshua LaBaer, executive director of the Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute, has an optimistic view of the pandemic’s trajectory. “I actually feel like we do see the end in sight,” he said. “ It would take a lot for us to get to a point where we would see a surge like before.” That’s because vaccinations are increasing, with about 44% of all Arizonans having received at least one dose, although vaccine administration is at a pace much slower than previous months as demand wanes. Health experts have said it will take at least 70% of the state’s population to get vaccinated in order to reach what’s known as herd immunity, where enough people are immunized to prevent future outbreaks.
Fort Smith: City officials are looking into why sales taxes were higher than anticipated for all but the first two months of COVID-19’s onset. Sales taxes collected in May 2020 through March 2021 have consistently outpaced monthly totals for the year prior. In 2020, the revenues resulted in roughly $1.8 million more from the three city sales taxes than in 2019. The total sales taxes, which include a 1.25% county sales tax, were more than $1 million above budget, according to City Administrator Carl Geffken. “Has it become part of the underlying amount of sales tax we’re going to receive, or is there an issue, a topic, an item – something – that’s going to make all of this sales tax revenue that we’re not anticipating to come in, is it going to make it a one-off?” Geffken said. Fort Smith Finance Director Andy Richards has reached out to the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration for further details about the source of the increased sales taxes. Tax revenues were expected to fall during March and April 2020, when businesses including bars, restaurants, salons and barbershops were either shut down or greatly limited in their service to prevent the spread of COVID-19. But nonessential retail was never restricted in Arkansas as much as in states with full lockdowns.
Palm Springs: Riverside County will remain in the orange tier for another two weeks after its COVID-19 metrics ticked up slightly and remained above the threshold for lifting more business restrictions, according to data released by public health officials Tuesday. The county reported a case rate of 2.8 new daily cases per 100,000 residents, compared to last week’s 2.7. The county’s coronavirus test positivity rate is 1.6%, and its positivity among at-risk populations is 1.9%, Public Health Director Kim Saruwatari said during a Board of Supervisors meeting. Last week’s positivity rate was 1.6%, and positivity among at-risk populations was 1.8%. In order to move into the least-restrictive yellow tier, a county needs to report fewer than two daily new cases per day, a positivity rate less than 2% and less than 2.2% positivity among at-risk populations, for two consecutive weeks. The county has been in the orange tier of the state’s four-tiered, color-coded reopening framework since April 6. The state plans to eliminate the tier system and fully reopen its economy June 15 if there is enough vaccine supply for all eligible residents ages 16 and older and if hospitalizations rates remain stable and low, especially among fully vaccinated Californians, according to the state’s COVID-19 website.
Denver: Gov. Jared Polis announced that some cities will begin to accept state-issued digital identification during traffic stops. A major goal of the digital ID program is to reduce how much time officers spend on the side of the road during traffic stops, the Colorado Public Radio reports, to limit the chance of being hit by passing cars. The Colorado State Patrol was an early adopter of the digital ID allowance. Stops are, on average, 10% shorter when someone uses a digital license, trooper and spokesperson Josh Lewis said. The digital ID works through a smartphone app called myColorado that people can show when they are pulled over, according to state Digital Transformation Director Russell Castagnaro. He said 150,000 people have signed up for a digital ID so far, and 78,000 have used it in the past year. Denise Maes, the public policy director for the ACLU of Colorado, voiced concern about rights to privacy and advised that people should know they do not need to give their phone to an officer. Troopers are trained not to handle people’s phones if they elect to use the digital ID, Lewis said. Rather, people should show the ID on their phone to the officer.
Hartford: As other governors have announced plans to end a $300-a-week supplemental unemployment benefit to encourage people to find work, Connecticut is offering a $1,000 signing bonus. Starting May 24, up to 10,000 people considered to have been unemployed on a “long-term” basis will be able to sign up on the state Department of Labor’s website and ultimately get paid the bonus after they’ve spent eight weeks in their new full-time job. “You see the big athletes get a signing bonus. Why don’t you get a signing bonus as well?” asked Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat, who announced the new initiative Monday. He said he didn’t consider ending the federal supplement, as many states are doing. He acknowledged there are still residents afraid to work because of COVID-19 and thought it was fair to keep the $300 benefit in place. “But that said, I wanted to do everything I could to incent people to get back to work, make it easier for them to be able to get back to work. If it’s child care, if it’s transportation, if it’s clothing, maybe the $1,000 helps.” he said. “It makes it a little easier for them to get back in the game.”
Wilmington: Health and community leaders gathered Sunday to help vaccinate newly eligible teenagers at The Warehouse teen center in an effort to combat vaccine hesitancy and close disparities in Black and brown communities. The event aimed to inoculate some of Delaware’s first eligible teens after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on May 10 authorized the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for use in people 12 to 15 years old. Teenagers and parents expressed their relief and gratitude about receiving the vaccine and encouraged others to sign up for the shots. While she was initially hesitant to get the vaccine, 17-year-old Anaya Patterson was persuaded to do so after hearing from her vaccinated friends and family who remained healthy after getting their shots. Patterson, a board chair at The Warehouse, hoped to do the same and set an example for other teens by getting vaccinated at the event. “I think that I could also be that motivating force for everyone else who is hesitant on getting it,” she said. “I just want to be healthy and leave this all behind me.” Dr. Yvette Gbemudu, chief medical officer at the Henrietta Johnson Medical Center, acknowledged the vaccine hesitancy among Black and brown communities and said she hoped the event would alleviate some of those worries.
District of Columbia
Washington: Mayor Muriel Bowser has loosened mask restrictions in the district Monday following last week’s change in guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, WUSA-TV reports. The new recommendation from D.C. Health and Bowser’s office says those who are fully vaccinated do not have to wear a mask indoors or outdoors, except in certain settings. D.C.’s updated mask guidance went into effect immediately. Bowser also said businesses have the right to require patrons to wear masks when they enter an establishment. She said district officials will still require masks in Metrorail and MetroBus areas, schools and child care centers, homeless shelters, schools, health care settings and correctional facilities. Bowser said COVID-19-related mandates for summer camps and recreation centers have also been updated.
Tallahassee: City commissioners are likely to devote the bulk of millions of dollars in federal funding to replenishing public-sector revenue losses accrued during the height of the pandemic last year. They also hope the funding can chip away at homelessness and augment affordable housing and human services. Commissioners will get their midyear budget update Wednesday when city staff present an itemized preliminary budget and preplanning efforts to spend the $46.2 million coming as part of this year’s congressional pandemic relief package. Funds cannot be dispersed until the city’s application to the U.S. Treasury is approved. It will be released in two chunks over the next year, 50% in the next month or so and the rest no more than one year after the first allocation. Budget staff have identified how it could best be spent in the community while also replenishing city coffers after a tough budgetary year. Last year, staff predicted $23.4 million in lost revenue linked to the coronavirus’ impact, mostly due to drops in sales and gas tax, utility collection, recreation and other service, public transit and flights. Staff is recommending $28.2 million in relief money go toward addressing those losses in the general fund and covering losses in capital funding, taxes and other fees.
Atlanta: People held in a metro-area jail are being denied access to pens, effectively eliminating their ability to communicate with their lawyers by mail, according to a filing in federal court. Civil rights groups sued Clayton County Sheriff Victor Hill and several of his high-ranking subordinates in July, alleging that overcrowding, a lack of personal protective equipment and limited access to cleaning and sanitation supplies were putting people in the county jail at risk of exposure to the coronavirus. A judge in December approved class-action status for the lawsuit, meaning it would include all current and future detainees. After lawyers began communicating by mail with a large number of detainees, jail officials abruptly changed policy to declare pens contraband, confiscated all detainees’ pens and stopped selling them through the commissary, according to a filing Thursday in federal court. The “unprecedented policy” has no legitimate purpose, keeps people held in the jail from being able to communicate confidentially with their lawyers by mail and makes it difficult for the lawyers to gather necessary information from their clients, the filing says. It also violates the constitutional rights of the lawyers and their clients and “supports an inference of unlawful retaliation for protected speech,” the filing says.
Honolulu: The University of Hawaii will soon require students to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 to attend in-person classes or be on campus. The rule will take effect when at least one of the three COVID-19 vaccines currently authorized for emergency use receives full approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reports. That could happen this summer. “It is clear that a vaccinated campus is a safer campus for everyone, and a fully vaccinated student community enables the best opportunity for a healthy return to high-quality face-to-face teaching, learning and research,” University of Hawaii President David Lassner said in a statement. The University of Hawaii System’s enrollment is about 49,600 across 10 campuses. Students can request exemptions from the requirement for medical or religious reasons. Those who are not vaccinated will be able to enroll in online courses. Other schools in Hawaii have not made the vaccine a requirement yet. “We evaluate potential policy on our own schedule and will be in communication with our students, faculty and staff as we move into summer,” Hawaii Pacific University spokesman Stephen Ward said. Gov. David Ige said the state is not yet considering requiring vaccines for younger students.
Moscow: The Idaho State Board of Education approved the budgets for the state’s four-year higher education institutions Monday, keeping tuitions mostly flat and including few significant increases in fees or other costs. It’s the second year the board has opted not to raise tuition at the University of Idaho, Idaho State University or Boise State University for Idaho students seeking a bachelor’s degree, the Moscow-Pullman Daily News reports. That move has drawn broad support from university leaders. Brian Foisy, the vice president for finance and administration at the University of Idaho, said his school is also keeping tuition flat for out-of-state undergraduates and for graduate students. “The only increases are a 3.9% professional fee increase for the College of Law and a relatively minor increase in our overall student activity fee,” Foisy said. “These are actually not proposals that come forward from the administration of the university but actually proposals that come from the students themselves.” Tuition and fees for undergraduates seeking bachelor’s degrees at the University of Idaho total $8,340 for in-state students and $27,576 for out-of-state students. Foisy said that’s significantly lower than average student-borne costs at similar schools.
Springfield: The state is now officially allowing vaccinated people to go without masks in both indoor and outdoor settings, aligning with new federal recommendations issued last week. People who have received a full COVID-19 vaccine series can resume daily activities without wearing a mask, including many indoor activities considered high risk, such as dining, seeing a movie or attending a crowded worship service at a local church, the Illinois Department of Public Health determined Monday. Masks are still recommended in medical settings and on public transportation. Gov. J.B. Pritzker said the new guidelines were a step in the right direction toward normalcy for the state but also supported those who are still cautious about taking off their masks before the pandemic is fully in the rear view. Dr. Ngozi Ezike, IDPH’s director, reminded people that the pandemic still isn’t quite over and implored them to get vaccinated and join others in taking off their masks. “While more than 64% of adults in Illinois have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, we need to increase that number,” Ezike said. “To slow down disease spread and the development of even more deadly variants, we need as many people as possible to be vaccinated.”
Indianapolis: Lawyers for Gov. Eric Holcomb are deriding the state attorney general’s arguments that he can block the governor from asking the courts to stop a new law giving legislators more authority to intervene during public emergencies. Holcomb’s lawyers maintain in a new court filing that Attorney General Todd Rokita is making “absurd” arguments that he alone has the legal authority to represent the state in court and can decide whether the new law is constitutional. The legal dispute between the two Republicans stems from Holcomb’s lawsuit arguing that the law passed this spring by the GOP-dominated Legislature is unconstitutional because it gives lawmakers a new power to call themselves into a special legislative session during emergencies declared by the governor. Holcomb’s lawyers said in Monday’s Marion County court filing that the governor’s office was created by the state constitution to head the executive branch, while the attorney general was created by state law and can’t supersede the authority of the governor or the courts. Rokita’s office didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment Tuesday.
Des Moines: For its annual Day of the Dead holiday program, the Des Moines Art Center this year will be remembering the names, faces and stories of Iowans who lost their lives to COVID-19. The center is seeking submissions for its “Día de los Muertos: Recuerdo” (“Day of the Dead: I Remember”) program, which will span six weeks beginning in mid-September. “The COVID-19 pandemic has left many communities all over the world grieving,” Museum Educator Mia Buch said in a news release. “We intend to honor the lives of those lost in Iowa by making their stories a part of our yearly Day of the Dead celebration, where the traditions of the Latinx community provide ways to come together and bring us closer to our loved ones who have passed.” The 21st annual celebration will be mainly virtual but will include traditional dance, food, music and art. There also will be a memorial slideshow of honoree submissions, and the art center will select four for feature videos to be posted on its website and social media channels. Honorees will be considered regardless of age, gender, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation, the art center said in its release. The honoree submission form, available online, is due by Aug. 1. Submissions for the feature honoree videos are due by May 31.
Topeka: Schools are stepping up efforts to administer COVID-19 vaccines to newly eligible 12- to 15-year-olds as more districts relax mask rules or face pressure to do so. Hundreds of students from public and private schools gathered Monday to get immunized at Topeka High School. “We were surprised that so many people were here,” said Richard Bolejack, as he took his daughter, a freshman at nearby Shawnee Heights High School, to the vaccine clinic. “We were like, ‘Wow,’ because we didn’t think that would be the case.” The students were joined by Gov. Laura Kelly, who touted the effort as the state aims to increase its vaccination rate. School districts from Manhattan to Olathe are conducting similar clinics, and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment and the Kansas National Guard are chipping in support as needed. But the governor pointed to a statewide drop in demand, stressing that the next frontier would be making COVID-19 shots available at doctor’s offices throughout the state. “We thought it very important to take the vaccines to the people, rather than expecting them to come to something like this,” Kelly said. “They made it very clear that wasn’t going to happen anymore.”
Frankfort: Cutting off the extra federal payments going to unemployed Kentuckians would hurt the state’s economy as it recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic, Gov. Andy Beshear said Monday. The Democratic governor said he’s willing to consider ending the weekly $300 federal unemployment payment eventually but quickly added: “That doesn’t mean we will.” The extra money is set to expire in September. The Bluegrass State’s most powerful Republican, U.S. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, criticized the extra federal benefits Monday. He said governors are “having to clean up this mess” as many businesses struggle to find workers. Meanwhile, two GOP state lawmakers urged Beshear to terminate the supplemental payments, saying the benefit is contributing to a labor shortage. Beshear said he’s trying to “thread the needle” of maintaining the extra federal payments that pump tens of millions of dollars into the state’s economy each week while encouraging people to go back to work as the economy fully reopens. Much of the extra money is spent at grocery stores and other retail businesses, the governor said. “An immediate termination of those extra benefits would hurt our economy and hurt a lot of groups – restaurants and others – that have suffered during this pandemic,” Beshear said.
New Orleans: A federal appeals court on Monday declined to review last year’s decision by a federal judge that expanded early voting and mail balloting in Louisiana during last fall’s presidential election. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans said the case is now moot, rejecting arguments from two key state Republican officials that the ruling by U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick in Baton Rouge was wrong and could set the stage for more such orders. The ruling from a panel of three judges said in part that “even assuming that issues similar to those that arose in this case as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic may come up again in future cases, there is no indication that the parties in those cases will be unable to use the tools available to obtain meaningful review.” State officials agreed to expand voting opportunities during summer elections to prevent the spread of the coronavirus but were unable to reach accord on the fall elections. Dick ordered similar expansions for November and December balloting. Her Sept. 16 order was the result of a lawsuit filed by voting rights advocates, including the Louisiana State Conference of the NAACP and the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice.
Augusta: The state might extend the ability of its residents to use telehealth services beyond the coronavirus pandemic. Many people have transitioned to telehealth during the pandemic, in part to avoid crowded doctor’s offices. Democratic Sen. Heather Sanborn of Portland has proposed a bill to guarantee Maine health care providers have a right to provide telehealth services in the future. Sanborn’s proposal would also allow health care licensing boards to create rules and practices for health care workers. She said it’s time for the state to “make it clear that telehealth is a proper form of health care delivery and ensure that people across our state can continue accessing these critical services no matter where they live or what the circumstances are.” The proposal would add language to health care licensing board statutes to guarantee providers have a right to provide it, Sanborn said. The measure is expected to be considered in committee.
Salisbury: Outdoor stages, family entertainment, local art, diverse food and beverages will return to downtown this year for the National Folk Festival. The Sept. 10-12 event will mark the 80th National Folk Festival and the third time the event takes place in Salisbury. Organizers hope the in-person celebration taking over downtown will also be a strong sign of the city’s continued recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, which previously delayed the anniversary festival in 2020. Festival organizers announced the event’s first six performers this week: Balla Kouyate & Famoro Dioubate, the Del McCoury Band, Grupo Rebolu, the Savoy Family Cajun Band, Shemekia Copeland and the Sri Lankan Dance Academy of NY. “These artists hint at the extraordinary diversity of cultural traditions that will be featured at this year’s National Folk Festival – the event’s 80th anniversary – and each represents the highest level of achievement and excellence,” said Lora Bottinelli, National Council for the Traditional Arts executive director. “There are no repeats from 2018 or 2019, and it’s all free!”
Boston: The state’s three casinos continued their pandemic recovery in April. The nearly $85 million in gross gambling revenue at the casinos was up slightly from the $84 million in revenue in March, according to data released Monday by the state gambling commission. Massachusetts collected more than $24 million in taxes from gambling in April – the most since before the start of the pandemic. Revenue was up at both Encore Boston Harbor and the Plainridge Park slots parlor in Plainville but declined slightly at MGM Springfield month over month. The state’s casinos are still operating under capacity limits meant to control the spread of the coronavirus. The Massachusetts Gaming Commission plans to meet before the end of this month to discuss loosening occupancy and mask-wearing rules. Massachusetts casinos were closed in March 2020 because of the pandemic but were allowed to reopen last July under strict capacity limits.
Lansing: The state will reinstate a requirement that people receiving unemployment benefits show they are actively searching for work, effective May 30, but has no plan to end a $300 weekly federal supplement going to 816,000 jobless residents. All seven of the state’s Republican U.S. House members wrote a letter to Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Monday urging a halt to the extra payment, which is on top of maximum state benefits of $362 per week. “We call on you to end participation in this program to get our state’s economy back on track and ensure our employers have access to the talent they need to return to normal,” they wrote, echoing a call that at least one small-business group made last week. But Lynda Robinson, spokeswoman for the state Unemployment Insurance Agency, said it does not plan to end any federal unemployment programs, including for self-employed or gig workers who began qualifying at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. The work-search requirement, which was waived starting in March 2020, will be restored. Claimants will have to conduct at least one work-search activity for each week they certify for benefits.
St. Paul: With masks off for many and summer on the horizon, a return to travel is expected to help fuel the economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. America’s $1.1 trillion travel industry was among the sectors hit hardest by the pandemic, suffering a never-before-seen 42% decline in revenues in 2020. In Minnesota, the $16.6 billion leisure and hospitality industry took a $7.1 billion hit in 2020, with the largest decline in lodging, where revenues fell 37%. On the upside, an Explore Minnesota Tourism survey found that 6 in 10 Minnesota tourism and hospitality businesses surveyed had already returned to pre-pandemic business levels or expect to get there by the end of the year. The overall forecast is that 2021 will see an 80% increase in revenues from 2020. That means travelers who are aching to get out of town but not yet ready to get on an airplane are in a prime position to feed the state’s economic recovery.
Jackson: If COVID-19 were a fire, it’s not down to the embers yet. “There’s still some flame,” Mark Horne, Mississippi State Medical Association president, said during a livestreamed discussion Friday. Daily COVID-19 cases reach have average roughly 200 to 230 cases, State Epidemiologist Paul Byers estimated. While that’s much lower than the numbers when the coronavirus surged in winter, thanks to vaccines, coronavirus variants still pose a problem, among other issues. State Health Officer Thomas Dobbs predicted the state would likely soon see a bump in cases, but not to the extent of the winter months. “In a way, we’re halfway through the pandemic; it’s just gonna go slowly,” Dobbs said. “I really do believe you’re likely to get COVID or the vaccine.” Getting vaccinated, all three officials agreed, is the key to keeping healthy and returning to the state closer to normal. The Mississippi State Department of Health reported 608 newly confirmed virus cases Tuesday, including more than 400 identified over the past several months and added to the overall tally. The health department also reported 11 coronavirus-related deaths Tuesday. Since the virus hit the state in March 2020, a total of 315,634 cases and 7,268 coronavirus-related deaths have been reported.
Springfield: The city is ditching its indoor mask rule – but not until summer break begins for the area’s public school students. The City Council voted Monday to drop the requirement after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance last week that Americans who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 need no longer wear face masks. Springfield-Greene County Acting Health Director Katie Towns said waiting until 11:59 p.m. May 27 for the change to take effect “will allow children not yet eligible for a vaccine to continue to be protected with masks.” She said that “we need to spend these next two weeks working hard to improve our vaccination rates while we wrap up school.” Towns told the council that Greene County’s rolling seven-day coronavirus infection rate has declined 93% since its wintertime peak. “These lower numbers give us confidence in our ability to continue to respond to COVID-19,” she said, citing health department efforts such as contact tracing investigations to slow the spread of the disease. Missouri’s major cities and many nearby counties, including Kansas City, St. Louis and St. Louis County, all ended mask mandates Friday.
Great Falls: The state posted 148 new COVID-19 cases Tuesday, bringing Montana’s total active confirmed reports to 974. Cascade County reported 27 new cases Tuesday. The county continues to lead the state in active reports, now with 225 active cases. The county has recorded 8,780 recoveries and 169 deaths. The state has 108,285 recoveries, 1,602 total deaths and 5,175 active hospitalizations from the coronavirus, according to the state website covid19.mt.gov. The state has administered 1,345,671 tests for the coronavirus, which is 1,671 more than Monday. The first case of COVID-19 in Montana was reported March 11, 2020. To date, there have been a total 774,587 total doses of COVID-19 vaccine administered in the state and 370,768 residents fully immunized against COVID-19. Yellowstone County added the most new cases in the state with 36 new reports, bringing its total to 151 active cases. Gallatin County added 23 new cases for a total of 75 active cases in the county. Missoula County now has 46 active cases of the virus after adding 14 new cases Tuesday.
Omaha: Lawmakers rejected state-mandated coronavirus protections for meatpacking workers Tuesday, with opponents arguing that slaughterhouses have already taken precautions and that the pandemic is nearly over. Lawmakers voted, 25-18, to sideline the measure for the rest of the year, even though supporters said it was necessary to ensure that all plants are keeping their employees safe. “It’s not whether or not a plant cares about their employees,” said Sen. Tony Vargas, of Omaha, who sponsored the bill. “There is a need for consistency.” The bill faced an uphill battle because of opposition from Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts, who said Monday that it wasn’t needed. Lawmakers narrowly advanced the measure through an initial vote earlier this month, but supporters at the time fell three votes short of the 30 they would have needed to override a veto. Nebraska’s meatpacking companies complained that the bill imposes unrealistic mandates on the industry, including a requirement to maintain a 6-foot distance between employees in break and locker rooms. “It’s just not workable,” said Sen. Julie Slama, of Peru. But Sen. Ray Aguilar, of Grand Island, said he’s spoken with workers who are still fearful about working in plants and want protections in place for one more year, as the bill would have mandated.
Las Vegas: The state jobless office said Monday that it has signed on with an identity verification system that requires an additional step to let new regular unemployment insurance applicants securely provide personal information online. The Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation said the system, called ID.me, is meant to ensure security and streamline claims. Beginning Tuesday, applicants for regular claims will be required to use the new system if told to do so by the unemployment office, according to the department. Department employment security chief Lynda Parven said the system has been used for Nevada’s Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program and now for regular applications. It is required under the federal Continued Assistance for Unemployed Workers Act of 2020. She called providing benefits to legitimate claimants the top priority. Parven said the credential service provider is federally certified and already being used by more than 25 states, the Department of Veterans Affairs, Social Security Administration, Department of the Treasury, and retail and service organizations.
Concord: The state is getting nearly $10.7 million in federal grants through the federal pandemic relief package signed into law this March to support efforts to combat substance use disorder and increase access to mental health services, New Hampshire’s congressional delegation said Tuesday. The funding comes in addition to $16.3 million provided in the emergency COVID-19 relief package that was signed into law in December for substance use disorder treatment and mental health care. The funds are coming from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “The pandemic has placed an enormous strain on Granite Staters and underscored the urgent need to provide support for those grappling with mental health challenges and substance use disorders,” U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan said in a statement.
Trenton: Gov. Phil Murphy remained firm Monday that face coverings would still be required indoors at public places for the foreseeable future even after New York officials said they will lift the state’s mask mandate this week. At a briefing just an hour after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo made his announcement, Murphy said lifting the requirement for vaccinated residents would be impossible to police and could lead to a new wave of COVID-19 cases, since the majority of New Jerseyans are still not fully inoculated. “We need to know unequivocally that doing so will not lead to a backslide in our progress,” he said. It leaves New Jersey among a shrinking pool of states that still require virtually all residents to wear masks inside restaurants, stores and other businesses. Murphy said several times Monday that he will lift the mandate “in the not-so-distant future” but did not offer a timeline or what benchmarks need to be met. “This is not always-and-forever, folks,” he said. “We just need a little more time on the clock.” Republicans were quick to blast the Democratic governor. “Instead of following the science here in New Jersey, we have a governor who continues to restrict personal freedoms to cater to the irrational fears of a timid liberal constituency,” said state Sen. Michael Testa, R-Cape May.
Las Cruces: All new Dona Ana County employees will be required to be vaccinated against COVID-19 as a condition of employment. The policy was announced Saturday in a return-to-work memorandum from county manager Fernando Macias, a copy of which was obtained by the Las Cruces Sun-News and verified as authentic by county attorney Nelson Goodin. The memo says county employees will resume working on site effective June 1, with all locations adhering to the New Mexico Department of Health’s public orders pertaining to the COVID-19 pandemic, including changes to the state’s mask mandate Friday that drop mandatory face coverings for fully vaccinated individuals in most situations. Because the county’s mask mandate was enacted in an ordinance, Goodin said the Board of County Commissioners would consider the first reading of a new ordinance mirroring the new mask mandate for publication at their open meeting next week. With 90% of the county’s employees now vaccinated against the disease caused by the coronavirus, Macias wrote to the rest of the workforce: “I strongly encourage you to do so as soon as possible.” The memo doesn’t say whether new employees may request accommodations for the vaccine requirement under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
New York: Andrew Giuliani, the son of former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, announced Tuesday that he is seeking the Republican nomination for governor, potentially setting up a battle with third-term incumbent Democrat Andrew Cuomo. “Giuliani vs. Cuomo. Holy smokes. It’s Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier,” the 35-year-old said in an interview with the New York Post. He also posted a video on Twitter that assailed Cuomo for, among other things, barring gatherings and closing businesses and schools as the coronavirus began killing thousands of New Yorkers last March. “At the first sign of a problem, they chose to shut us down. They take away our freedoms. They quarantine healthy people,” he said. The younger Giuliani served as a White House aide under former President Donald Trump and has more recently been a commentator for the conservative network Newsmax. He has never run for public office. Andrew Giuliani first came to public attention at his father’s 1994 mayoral inauguration when, at age 7, he mimicked his father’s gestures at the podium and repeated some of his words. The spotlight-stealing antics were lampooned by Chris Farley on “Saturday Night Live.”
Raleigh: Young drivers whose attempts to get their provisional license were stymied by COVID-19 pandemic delays in the past year would get a timing break under legislation headed to Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk. The Senate agreed unanimously Monday evening to House changes to a bill that would cut the amount of time drivers must hold a learner’s permit before seeking a license that lets them drive unsupervised. The time would be reduced from 12 months to six, but the shorter window would only last for those applying for the “Level 2” license through the end of the year. Bill supporters are seeking Cooper’s signature to make it become law. Original bill sponsor Sen. Vickie Sawyer of Iredell County said the measure still assists those teenagers who couldn’t advance because driver’s education classes were postponed as school activities were shuttered. The young motorists who benefit from the proposed change would still have to log 60 hours behind the wheel with a supervising parent, be at least 16 years old and pass a road test to qualify for the provisional license. Earlier versions of the bill would have reduced permanently the wait time to either six or nine months.
Bismarck: The state’s top oil regulator says crude production grew in March and should keep rising throughout the summer, following a lackluster start to the year. The state’s daily oil output increased 2% to 1.108 million barrels per day in March, according to figures released Friday. State Mineral Resources Director Lynn Helms attributed the uptick to oil companies bringing more wells online that had already been drilled but not yet fracked, a necessary step before a well starts producing oil. Fracking, also known as hydraulic fracturing, involves injecting water, sand and chemicals down a well at a high pressure to form cracks in rock to release oil. At the height of the oil industry’s woes earlier in the coronavirus pandemic, just one crew was working in the state to bring newly drilled wells online. Now there are nine, The Bismarck Tribune reports. Eighteen rigs were drilling for oil in North Dakota on Friday, up from the single digits last summer. Helms described the turnaround as “a nice, gentle recovery.” Oil production in March was nearly 25,000 barrels per day more than in February. Natural gas production grew by 6% in March to 2.879 billion cubic feet per day. The industry captured 94% of the gas it produced and is meeting the 91% target set by state regulators to help alleviate the wasteful flaring of excess gas.
Cincinnati: The state no longer requires fully vaccinated people to wear masks indoors in most situations, under a revised health order released late Monday afternoon. The revised order sets separate face covering and social distancing rules for people based on their vaccination status. The order will expire June , along with all other remaining health orders except those for nursing homes, assisted living facilities and data collection. The order, retroactive to 4 p.m. Friday, aligns Ohio with new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which said last week that vaccinated people can return to many of their pre-pandemic activities. People who are not fully vaccinated against COVID-19 – defined as two weeks past the first dose of a single-dose shot or the second dose of a two-dose regimen – are still required to wear facial coverings and keep social distancing indoors; outdoors when unable to consistently maintain a distance of 6 feet from others outside their family or household; and on public transportation or in taxis or ride-sharing vehicles. Everyone, regardless of vaccination status, is still required to wear a mask on planes, trains, buses and other public transportation under the order. Businesses can set their own policies. The K-12 school mask mandate remains in place.
Oklahoma City: The state will end a $300-a-week supplemental unemployment benefit next month, Gov. Kevin Stitt announced Monday. To incentivize unemployed people to return to work, Stitt said the state will offer a $1,200 stipend for the first 20,000 workers who get off unemployment and work at least 32 hours per week at a qualifying job. Claimants can begin applying June 28. “As Ronald Reagan once said, the best social program is a job,” Stitt said at a trucking company in Oklahoma City, flanked by several employers who said they are having a hard time finding workers to fill jobs. “These Oklahoma companies are open for business and ready to grow.” The additional $300-a-week federal supplement, along with pandemic unemployment assistance for gig workers and contractors, will end June 26, Stitt said. About 90,000 Oklahomans currently receive the additional benefit, according to the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission. Chad Warmington, the head of The State Chamber, an association of businesses and industries in Oklahoma, said many of his members complain that some unemployed residents are making more in jobless benefits than they would at a job.
Salem: A bill that would reinstate Oregon’s moratorium on foreclosures for those experiencing financial hardship during the coronavirus pandemic passed the state Senate on Monday. The bill, which would allow homeowners to put their mortgage in forbearance at least through June 30, passed on a 19-9 vote and now moves to the House. The previous state moratorium expired at the end of 2020, but many homeowners continued to struggle to catch up on mortgage payments. The bill could be extended until the end of the year if Gov. Kate Brown lengthens the statewide emergency period. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the state’s existing housing crisis has only been exacerbated. In late April, more than 30,000 Oregon homeowners said they were not caught up on their mortgage payments, based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent Household Pulse Survey. Lawmakers have pushed the housing crisis to the forefront during this year’s legislative session. Last week, they passed a bill that extends the time renters have the time to pay back rent, from July until the end of February 2022. That legislation is now on the governor’s desk.
Harrisburg: The president of the state’s largest teachers union expressed support Monday for in-person instruction in the fall, calling it a “top priority” now that many teachers have been vaccinated and older children have become eligible for COVID-19 shots. “As more students are vaccinated over the summer, we believe that in-person instruction is achievable in a way that keeps everyone safe,” said Rich Askey, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, which represents 178,000 active and retired educators, health care workers and others. “Educators and support professionals look forward to working with school district leaders, parents and community members to get students on a pathway to achievement as we emerge from this pandemic.” Askey’s statement came days after the leaders of the nation’s two major teachers unions, including PSEA’s parent union, the National Education Association, called for a full return to in-person learning. Most Pennsylvania schools have already resumed at least some in-person instruction, though some are sticking with virtual learning at least through the end of the current academic year. In March, the state prioritized teachers for the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine in a bid to help schools reopen.
Providence: The state’s economy is growing as it emerges from the coronavirus pandemic, but it still trails the region and nation, according to a new report. Rhode Island’s gross domestic product is projected to have grown by 3.5% in the first quarter, but that lags New England, with projected growth of 5.2%, and the nation, at 6.4%, according to a report published Tuesday by the Center for Global and Regional Economic Studies at Bryant University and the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council. Rhode Island’s “growth gap” existed before the pandemic but only widened over the past year, the report said. The state regained some jobs but has not made up for losses suffered at the start of the pandemic, according to the report. “We’ve come a long way from our economic freefall last spring,” RIPEC President and CEO Michael DiBiase said in a release, “but the briefing reveals stubborn structural weaknesses that are slowing our recovery and make the Ocean State more vulnerable in the future.”
Columbia: Gov. Henry McMaster has signed into law a bill that forces death row inmates for now to choose between the electric chair or a newly formed firing squad in hopes the state can restart executions after an involuntary 10-year pause. Two inmates who have exhausted their appeals immediately sued, saying they can’t be electrocuted or shot because they were sentenced under a prior law that made lethal injection the default execution method. South Carolina had been one of the most prolific states of its size in putting inmates to death. But a lack of lethal injection drugs brought executions to a halt. McMaster signed the bill Friday with no ceremony or fanfare, according to the Legislature’s website. It’s the first bill the governor decided to deal with after nearly 50 hit his desk Thursday. “The families and loved ones of victims are owed closure and justice by law. Now, we can provide it,” McMaster said on Twitter on Monday. Last week state lawmakers gave their final sign-offs to the bill, which retains lethal injection as the primary method of execution if the state has the drugs but requires prison officials to use the electric chair or firing squad if it doesn’t.
Sioux Falls: The number of state residents receiving an initial dose of a COVID-19 vaccine has slowed dramatically in recent weeks, prompting medical experts and community leaders to turn to personal conversations to battle misinformation around getting a shot. Just over 4,000 people across South Dakota received their first shot last week, according to the Department of Health – a big drop-off from 26,000 in a week at the end of March. At that point, the state seemed to defy a trend of skepticism in states dominated by Republican politics. South Dakota had boasted one of the nation’s highest vaccination percentage rates; just weeks later, its ranking has tumbled to 24th. “Demand just plummeted,” said Julia Yoder, a spokeswoman for the Brookings Health system who has also been overseeing mass vaccination sites for Brookings County. “Before you couldn’t keep enough in stock, and then it went to crickets. We couldn’t convince people to sign up.” South Dakota appears to have run into what Alan Morgan, the head of the National Rural Health Association, called a “rural wall” of vaccine hesitancy. He said much of the messaging has not been “relevant” to rural communities, adding that “politicians, government officials and movie stars” are not the best messengers to reach rural communities.
Memphis: Federal support will leave the COVID-19 vaccination site at the Pipkin Building on Wednesday. In six weeks of a federal partnership, the site never lived up to its capacity to administer 3,000 shots a day, or 21,000 each week. Weekly vaccine allocations locally are also set to decline from 60,000, officials said Tuesday, a response to decreased demand. “At any time, if we get a tremendous increase in uptake of vaccinations, we have the ability to flip the switch and to build that capacity back up,” said Gina Sweat, director of fire services at Memphis Fire Department, adding the caveat that a return of federal resources would be unlikely. Help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency arrived April 7. Within the first two weeks of operation, the site nixed appointments in favor of walk-ins but never doled out 3,000 shots a day. In the final four weeks, most days the site never broke 1,000 shots. “I think the closest we came to that was about 2,500 a couple of days,” Sweat said. On Monday, one of FEMA’s last days at the site, 791 doses were administered, city data shows. The Pipkin site will still remain open for vaccinations. Beginning Thursday, the Pipkin site will be open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday to Saturday. Appointments are not required.
Austin: The state on Monday joined the growing number of its counterparts that will stop paying the federally funded $300 in extra pandemic-related weekly unemployment aid, as businesses that scaled back or shuttered during the pandemic are reopening. The extra benefits in Texas will end June 26, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott said in a letter to the Biden administration. He joins at least a dozen other governors, all Republicans, who are opting out of the additional federal unemployment benefits this summer. The money is part of President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion relief measure approved in March and is set to expire in September. But business groups urged Abbott to opt out early, arguing it was hampering the Texas economy’s rebound. Other expanded unemployment benefits in Texas, including one making gig workers and the self-employed eligible for assistance for the first time, will also end in June. Factors besides the extra money help explain why people who are out of work might be reluctant to take jobs. Government surveys show that some still fear exposure to the coronavirus. Many women, especially working mothers, also left the workforce to care for children still in online school for at least part of the week.
St. George: Zion National Park has increased the ticket price for a ride on one of its highly popular shuttles from $1 to $2 per person, per day, in a pandemic-related move. After receiving public comment, the park went ahead with the increase to help cover staffing and operational costs associated with the ticket system. With the pandemic raging last summer, the national park used a ticketing system through Recreation.gov to control crowds and maintain social distancing. The ticket system provides predictable access to the Zion Canyon Scenic Drive, which covers the park’s main canyon and handles the vast majority of the 4 million-plus visitors who come to the park each year. Officials say they expect the ticket system to remain in place through the summer and potentially into the fall, and staff is needed in multiple locations to take tickets, answer questions, keep lines short and maintain social distancing and other pandemic guidelines, according to an April press release from the NPS. “Visitation has increased dramatically from early pandemic levels, necessitating reestablishment of visitor services and work can no longer be delayed on critical park projects, and it is therefore no longer financially feasible to absorb operational costs associated with the ticketing system,” according to the release.
Montpelier: Gov. Phil Scott is asking all Vermonters to show their appreciation for emergency medical service workers by getting vaccinated against COVID-19. Scott has declared this week as EMS week. More than 100,000 requests for EMS response are answered yearly across the state, the Republican governor said Monday. “Add to that the unprecedented challenges required of the state’s individual emergency responders and 168 licensed ambulance and first responder services during the pandemic, and you come up with 2,800 of our fellow Vermonters who deserve every moment of the EMS Week recognition that started on Sunday,” he said in a statement. More than 30 EMS-led vaccination clinics are planned around Vermont this coming weekend, providing the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to anyone at least 18 years old, according to the Health Department. A list of walk-in clinics is available on the Health Department’s website.
Richmond: The state is expecting a half-billion-dollar budget surplus by the end of June, blunting the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the economy, and officials are awaiting a $4.3 billion federal deposit in the state’s coffers any day. Secretary of Finance Aubrey Layne told legislators Monday that he expects state revenues to exceed expenses by more than $500 million in the fiscal year that ends June 30, the Richmond Times Dispatch reports. Layne also expects Virginia to receive its share of federal aid from the latest congressional relief package in one lump sum soon, leading to a special legislative session to determine how to spend it. That federal money doesn’t include $6.6 billion that the federal government is sending to the state for specific categories of programs, such as support for education, child care, transportation and public health. “I don’t think anyone 14 months ago would have thought we’d be in as good a position as we are,” Layne told the House Appropriations Committee. A year ago, state revenues plunged by $700 million in April, compared with the same month in 2019, as Northam and the Assembly froze more than $2 billion in new spending in the budget they’d adopted March 12, 2020, the same day the governor declared a public health emergency.
Bremerton: Kitsap County health officials are teaming up with businesses, community organizations and just about anyone who’s up for hosting a COVID-19 vaccination clinic to immunize a broader swath of the population. “We’re going to take the vaccines to people where they are,” said Dr. Gig Morrow, Kitsap Public Health District health officer. Already gone are the days when a limited supply of COVID-19 immunizations included long lines at mass vaccination clinics around Kitsap. Roughly half the county’s population 16 and older is now fully vaccinated. But health officials know there are others willing to get vaccinated if it were convenient. Morrow said the health district is working with a local auto dealership to offer COVID-19 shots, and Peninsula Community Health Services will soon offer them aboard Washington State Ferries’ Bremerton run. No appointment is necessary, and the shots are free. To top it off, the health district has partnered with Crane’s Castle Brewery in East Bremerton to offer shots to those having a pint of beer from 4 to 8 p.m. Thursday. The Washington Liquor and Cannabis Board has temporarily suspended a ban on free alcohol to allow establishments to give away a drink for those who get a poke in the arm.
Charleston: Gov. Jim Justice said Monday that he plans to reach out to leaders in the Legislature to decide how to allocate the latest in federal pandemic relief funding. Justice said his staff is working on a spending plan for $678 million from the package signed into law by President Joe Biden. He said House and Senate input will be sought next week. The funding represents half of what the state will receive to offset economic setbacks from the coronavirus pandemic. Because West Virginia’s current unemployment rate is not significantly higher than its pre-pandemic level, the state will receive the rest of its nearly $1.4 billion allotment next year. An additional $516 million is going to every county and some larger cities. The money can be used by state and local governments for relief from the public health crisis. Under guidance the Treasury Department released along with the numbers, it also can be used to offset harm to workers, small businesses and affected industries; to invest in water, sewer and broadband systems; and to replace lost public-sector revenue. Essential workers also can qualify for premium pay under the program. Officials cannot cut taxes, pay down debt or bolster the state’s rainy day fund with the relief package.
Madison: Republican legislators want to end the $300-per-week federal unemployment supplement, which they said Tuesday hurts businesses that are struggling to fill vacancies as customers return amid a loosening of coronavirus restrictions. Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Sen. Howard Marklein, chairman of the Legislature’s budget committee, called on Democratic Gov. Tony Evers to support the bill they unveiled with the support of a couple of Wisconsin business owners. Evers, who could veto the bill, signaled his opposition. His spokeswoman Britt Cudaback said that “if Republicans are interested in putting this pandemic behind us, they’ll stop playing politics with our economic recovery” and approve Evers’ state budget proposal. Democrats have generally been supportive of the additional unemployment payment, saying other barriers to work are fueling the worker shortage, not the $300. They also point out that Wisconsin’s unemployment rate of 3.8% is below the national average of 6% and near what it was before the pandemic hit. The bill comes after the state chamber of commerce, more than a dozen trade groups, more than 50 local chambers of commerce and others called on Evers to return the state’s unemployment payments to pre-pandemic levels.
Casper: Tickets to the College National Finals Rodeo are on the table as an incentive for COVID-19 vaccine recipients, the Casper Star-Tribune reports. The Casper-Natrona County Health Department is holding a “COVID Block Party” on Friday outside Eastridge Mall, giving the rodeo tickets to those who get their shots at the event. A raffle will also offer chances at tickets to performances by ZZ Top and Foreigner, as well as to Casper Comic Con, the newspaper reports.
From USA TODAY Network and wire reports
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Clinics for kids, ban on pens: News from around our 50 states