Montgomery: Gov. Kay Ivey this week urged people to wear masks in public after a statewide mandate expires next month. Ivey has been adamant that she will not extend the mask mandate past April 9. On Monday, her office released designs for signs for businesses to use to request patrons to wear masks. The designs range from “Mask Preferred” to “Mask Required For Service.” Face coverings “remain one of the most successful tools we have to keep folks safe from COVID-19,” Ivey said in a statement. “Masks are soon to be a memory but until then, lets wear them out.” Alabama expanded eligibility Monday for COVID-19 vaccinations, adding more than 2 million people to the groups who can get a COVID-19 shot in Alabama and roughly doubling the number of residents now eligible. The additions include more front-line workers; people 55 and older; those with intellectual and developmental disabilities; and residents ages 16 to 64 with certain high-risk medical conditions. The qualifying medical conditions include cancer, chronic kidney disease, diabetes, smoking, obesity, sickle cell disease and heart conditions. State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris on Friday said most adults will now be eligible for shots and urged people to be patient as they seek vaccination appointments.
Juneau: People who are fully vaccinated do not need to wear masks at work in the city when they are in their own workspace away from the public and unvaccinated colleagues, under an updated emergency order that took effect Tuesday. Acting Mayor Austin Quinn-Davidson’s office, in a release, called the update an easing of an existing mask mandate “that balances vaccination progress in Anchorage with the importance of masks in reducing transmission of COVID-19.” Under the order, employers would have to verify an employee’s vaccination status, “in a manner consistent with workplace anti-discrimination laws.” Masks still are required in Anchorage in indoor public settings and communal spaces outside the home and at outdoor public gatherings. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers a person fully vaccinated two weeks after their second dose of a two-dose vaccine or two weeks after receiving a one-dose vaccine. In the Anchorage area, 27% of those 16 and older are considered fully vaccinated, information provided by the state health department shows.
Phoenix: COVID-19 vaccine appointments opened Wednesday morning to all Arizonans 16 and older, and the rush to get them was huge. All available slots for state-operated COVID-19 vaccine sites were taken within 20 minutes, health officials said in a tweet, but more will be available at 11 a.m. Friday, when the state will release tens of thousands of new appointments for the following week. The five vaccine sites operated by the state are State Farm Stadium in Glendale, Arizona State University’s Phoenix Municipal Stadium in Tempe, Chandler-Gilbert Community College, the University of Arizona in central Tucson and, as of this Friday, Yuma Civic Center in Yuma County. Vaccine appointments are also available at individual pharmacies, through their websites, and through some individual counties. To book and schedule vaccines, go to podvaccine.azdhs.gov. Those without computer access or needing extra help registering can call 844-542-8201 to be connected with someone who can assist in scheduling. People can contact the call center when it opens at 8 a.m., as it gets canceled appointments released to it daily.
Little Rock: Cities won’t be able to enforce their own mask mandates to curb the coronavirus when the state ends its requirement as soon as next week, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Tuesday. The Republican governor told reporters he expected Arkansas’ requirement to end March 31, saying the state has so far met the criteria for positive coronavirus tests and hospitalizations that he set for the mandate’s end when he lifted most of the state’s virus restrictions last month. Hutchinson said officials are still working on guidance for cities, employers and schools systems. He said school districts will likely have a local option, and businesses can have their own requirements, but cities couldn’t have that option. “We’re going to go on this together,” Hutchinson said at his weekly virus briefing. “One statewide standard is what I expect to announce next week.” Before Hutchinson signed the state’s mask mandate last year, he had allowed cities to enforce mask ordinances that did not include penalties for not complying.
Sacramento: With improving coronavirus numbers continuing to fall, much of the San Francisco Bay Area can reopen to a greater degree, and 94% of California’s population is out from under the most severe restrictions, officials said Tuesday. San Francisco, Marin and Santa Clara counties were among those moving to less restrictive tiers in the state’s four-level system. The three joined neighboring Santa Mateo County as the latest Bay Area counties to move into California’s “moderate” tier for coronavirus restrictions, meaning restaurants and other businesses can serve more customers. Higher-risk businesses including bowling alleys and outdoor bars that don’t serve food can reopen. San Francisco Mayor London Breed and Director of Health Dr. Grant Colfax said the expanded activities could begin Wednesday. Breed credited swift vaccinations and ongoing safety precautions for the shift. “This year has been so tough on so many – from our kids and families, to our small businesses and their employees – and this move to the orange tier and reopening more activities and businesses than we have since last March gives us all more hope for the future,” Breed said in a statement.
Fort Collins: About 1,000 front-line essential restaurant and food service workers received COVID-19 shots during a mass vaccination clinic Tuesday at The Ranch events complex. The Larimer County Department of Health and Environment received additional vaccines from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to administer to the workers who recently became eligible under the state’s Phase 1B.4 vaccine distribution plan. The industry has been hit hard by the pandemic, with the county reporting that restaurant workers have experienced the highest occupational unemployment rate at nearly 28%, and 30% of the county’s restaurant workers are people of color whose communities have experienced higher-than-average COVID-19 case rates. County restaurants have seen as much as a 50% decrease in revenue since March 2020. Carol and Tim Cochran, owners of the Horse & Dragon Brewing Company in Fort Collins, were among those vaccinated Tuesday, along with employees. “This is a start in the right direction,” Carol said as the couple waited in the observation line after receiving the one-dose Johnson & Johnson shot. “Once we can get almost everyone vaccinated, we will be able to open with abandon and not be worried about being a vector for the disease.”
Norwich: The Senior Resources Agency on Aging’s Senior Nutrition Program has worked to meet increased need during the COVID-19 pandemic through revision of the Congregate Meals Program and expansion of the Home Delivered Meals Program. According to Kathy Chase, director of contracts at Senior Resources, more than 400,000 meals were provided to about 3,500 older adult residents of Eastern Connecticut in the past year. The Older Americans Act Nutrition Program began in 1972 to reduce hunger and food insecurity, promote socialization, encourage health and well-being, and delay adverse health conditions. Meals are prepared to meet the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, so they are appropriate for everyone including those with diabetes or other chronic health conditions. Older Americans Act programs including the Senior Nutrition Program are managed through Area Agencies on Aging. When possible, the Congregate Meals Program offers meals in a group setting such as a senior center so that participants can socialize and engage in additional activities. There are no income guidelines for this program; donations are requested but not required. Priority may be given to persons of greatest need. To apply, visit seniorresourcesec.org.
Wilmington: A pilot of a walk-up COVID-19 vaccination clinic Wednesday was testing a process that could help inoculate people who’ve had difficulty registering for a shot. The event was limited to those who received a voucher from community groups in recent days. Being able to serve walk-ups without appointments at future vaccination events could help Delaware reach underserved communities and satisfy the state’s equity goal, state officials said. More than three months into the vaccine rollout, state data shows people in minority groups have received fewer vaccinations compared with white residents. Throughout the rollout, the state has asked those eligible for the vaccine – mostly older adults – to register online for an appointment waiting list and to monitor availability at pharmacies and other providers in the meantime. The system has led to frustration and confusion as demand continues to outpace supply. “We know that there is a disconnect at times with technology,” said AJ Schall, director of the Delaware Emergency Management Agency. State officials said walk-up events could be a solution for older residents who have had difficulty navigating the online system and could target areas where vaccination rates are low, though they are less efficient than large drive-thru events that require preregistration.
District of Columbia
Washington: Because of the pandemic, the National Park Service will limit access to the Tidal Basin during this year’s peak bloom of D.C.’s cherry blossoms, WUSA-TV reports. NPS spokesperson Mike Litterst said in a release Tuesday that the restrictions were in accordance with guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and DC Health and were made in consultation with the National Park Service Office of Public Health. “The National Park Service will limit all vehicular and pedestrian access to the Tidal Basin, East Potomac Park and West Potomac Park during the peak bloom period of the cherry blossoms as a public health precaution to mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” Litterst said in the release. This year, peak bloom is expected April 2-5, but the park service said restrictions are tentatively in place from March 26 through April 12. Updates or changes to the restriction dates will be posted on NPS’ social media. The National Park Service encourages those who want to take in the splendor of the cherry blossoms at peak bloom to do so virtually via its website.
Tallahassee: A state House committee approved a bill Wednesday to better prepare for public health emergencies, ranging from ensuring the state is well-stocked with personal protective equipment to allowing the governor more flexibility in spending to deal with a crisis. The bill approved by the House Pandemics & Public Emergencies Committee on a 14-4 vote also addresses how deaths are reported, would allow the Legislature to override a governor’s executive orders, and seeks to better inform the public on state spending on its response and emergency orders. The bill would require the state public health officer to develop a plan for every foreseeable public health emergency and update it every five years. It also spells out that health emergencies could include the release of toxic chemicals and nuclear agents, as well as biological toxins. But the four Democrats who opposed the bill took issue with provisions that limit emergency orders issued by local governments. “We should not be severely restricting the emergency powers of local governments. I think that makes us less safe, and I think that mayors shouldn’t have to ask permission from Tallahassee in order to be the mayors they were elected to be,” said Democratic Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith.
Atlanta: All Georgians 16 and older will be eligible for COVID-19 shots beginning Thursday. Gov. Brian Kemp made the announcement Tuesday, saying supplies of the vaccines continue to rise, and he’s confident that enough older adults have been vaccinated to open up inoculation to the broadest possible population. Figures from the Georgia Department of Public Health show the state has administered 3.2 million doses overall, with nearly 2.1 million people getting at least one dose. The number of doses being administered has shown a clear upward trend in recent weeks, with a peak of more than 85,000 doses given March 15, the first day Kemp expanded eligibility to current levels. Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium will get a boost in capacity starting Thursday when the Federal Emergency Management Agency adds doses to a site that had been run by Fulton County. Measures still show demand outstripping supply in metro Atlanta, while appointments are abundant in other areas. Kemp said the state directed 70% of this week’s 450,000 doses to metro Atlanta and areas north of the city “to put more supply where the demand is highest.” Georgia continues to lag most other states in vaccination, ranking second worst behind Alabama in the number of doses administered per 100,000 people 18 and older.
Honolulu: There was a drop in the number of Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students who went to college last year after graduating from Hawaii’s public schools, which a group of educational leaders attributes to the pandemic. A report by the Hawaii P-20 Partnerships for Education shows 35% of Native Hawaiians in the class of 2020 enrolled in college upon graduation, a decline from 44% for the class of 2019, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reports. Figures for Pacific Islander graduates fell to 29% from 35%. According to the report, Hawaii’s public high schools had a record graduation rate in 2020, but far fewer graduates enrolled in college: 50% of last year’s graduating class went straight to college, down from 55% the previous year. It was the steepest one-year dip ever recorded, the newspaper reports. “The negative effects of the pandemic on educational progress in general are not equal across socioeconomic and demographic groups,” said Stephen Schatz, executive director of Hawaii P-20 Partnerships for Education. “In particular, economically disadvantaged, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders saw some pretty precipitous declines.” Schatz said the education community needs to act on the premise that the pandemic had an effect on all students’ academic and mental health.
Boise: Legislation extending the tax filing deadline from April 15 to May 17 will be among lawmakers’ top priorities when they return to work April 6, a high-ranking state senator said. Republican Senate President Pro-Tem Chuck Winder said this week that he expects the Senate and House to expedite legislation to delay Idaho’s tax deadline a month to match the federal tax deadline that has again been pushed back because of the pandemic. “I’m hopeful that we can get back and get it done as quickly as possible,” he said, adding that lawmakers have numerous tools such as suspending rules to speed bills through both the House and Senate. The Internal Revenue Service announced last week that it has delayed the traditional federal tax filing deadline until May 17, providing more breathing room for taxpayers and the IRS to cope with changes caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Legislation was introduced last week in the state House to make the change for Idaho taxpayers. But the Legislature shut down a day later, on Friday, after six of the 70 House members tested positive for the virus within a week. Shortly after the shutdown, the Idaho State Tax Commission issued a statement saying the state’s filing deadline is still April 15, and it will be up to the Legislature to change it when it reconvenes.
Chicago: About 1,000 inmates scheduled for release in the next nine months could soon be set free as part of a settlement of a federal lawsuit filed last spring amid a growing COVID-19 health crisis in state lockups, a lawyer involved in the case said Tuesday. The settlement calls for the release of low- to medium-risk inmates who are within nine months of their release date and eligible for certain good-time credits, according to a court document filed Tuesday. The Illinois Department of Corrections agreed to “use its best efforts” to process the awards within the next month, the document says. Attorney Sheila Bedi said the settlement applies to about 1,000 inmates, and she believes thousands more should be released. “It remains a public health crisis,” Bedi, a professor at Northwestern University, told the Chicago Tribune. “It is still very much a real issue.” In a statement, Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s press secretary, Jordan Abudayyeh, said the Department of Corrections has consistently reviewed prisoner records to find those eligible for 180 days or less of earned discretionary sentencing credit. A consortium of Chicago civil rights attorneys and community activists filed the lawsuit seeking the release of as many as 13,000 inmates, arguing that prisons “pose a particular risk of spreading the COVID-19.”
Indianapolis: The governor announced Tuesday that he will lift the statewide mask mandate and remaining COVID-19 business restrictions in two weeks. Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb said in a speech from his Statehouse office that Indiana’s steep declines in coronavirus hospitalization and death rates along with the growing number of people fully vaccinated justify the steps starting April 6. Holcomb said he hoped the state was seeing the “tail end of this pandemic” that has killed nearly 13,000 people in the state over the past year. The date for ending the mask mandate was picked to coincide with the ending of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament now being held in Indianapolis and to allow more time for people with at-risk health conditions to get vaccine shots, Holcomb said. Local officials would still have the authority to impose tougher restrictions in response to COVID-19 cases in their communities, and face masks would still be required in K-12 schools for rest of this school year, he said. But some health experts worry it is premature to lift the statewide restrictions, pointing to the steep increase in hospitalizations and deaths Indiana saw beginning in September after the governor lifted most business restrictions before reinstating crowd limits after winning reelection in November.
Des Moines: The state Department of Public Health has acknowledged it significantly overestimated how many of Iowa’s senior citizens have been vaccinated against COVID-19. The department said March 12 that 94.9% of Iowans 65 or older had received at least one dose of a vaccine. Gov. Kim Reynolds said at a news conference March 17 that 95.3% of Iowa seniors had received at least one dose, and she touted such statistics in explaining why the state could soon be able to offer vaccinations to all residents 16 or older. But the numbers didn’t square with much lower estimates reported by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On Tuesday, health department spokesperson Sarah Ekstrand said in an email that the state estimates were wrong. She said agency staff mistakenly had counted some seniors twice because those people were included in listings of Iowans receiving an initial dose of the vaccine and in listings of those receiving a second dose. After realizing their mistake, staffers recalculated and determined that 421,553 of Iowa’s 513,872 senior citizens – or 82% – had received at least one dose of a vaccine by Tuesday, Ekstrand said. On Tuesday, the CDC was reporting just 76% of Iowa seniors had received at least one dose of a vaccine.
Topeka: The only Asian American lawmaker serving in the Legislature says he was physically threatened in a western Kansas bar by an out-of-state patron, who questioned if he had been carrying COVID-19. In social media comments posted Friday, state Rep. Rui Xu, D-Westwood, said the man confronted him and, using an expletive, asked why he was wearing a face mask and whether he was carrying the coronavirus. “That’s a pretty specific dog whistle at Asian Americans from the last year,” said Xu, who is Chinese American. “Most of the anti-Asian American rhetoric that has happened has had some form of that message.” Moments after the confrontation, Xu said he heard the patron searching for him in the bar, yelling that he was going to “kick his ass.” Xu said he visited the Russell sports bar after featuring as a guest on a PBS television show based in nearby Bunker Hill. Xu said he was in the bar with the show’s host, who is white and also wore a mask but wasn’t targeted. “Everybody at the bar who’s actually from Russell was amazing and kind and I had a good time,” Xu said, adding that he doesn’t think where the incident happened is important.
Frankfort: The state’s COVID-19 vaccination program continues to ramp up, Gov. Andy Beshear said Tuesday. Some 198,447 Kentuckians received a dose last week, breaking a previous weekly record of about 165,000 in early March. The Democratic governor noted that while demand continues to be high, some vaccine sites in western and eastern Kentucky have open appointments. He urged residents in those regions to sign up if they are eligible. Beshear also announced the opening of a vaccination site at the Kentucky Dam Village Convention Center in Gilbertsville. “This is a new site we stood up in western Kentucky to ensure the area was getting significant amounts of vaccine,” Beshear said. “As of today, they have more than 2,000 available appointments in this coming week. That means any Kentuckian, age 50 and up, if you’re in that area, we need you to sign up.” The Bluegrass State’s vaccination program is currently in phase 1C, which includes people 50 and older, anyone older than 16 with high-risk medical conditions, and anyone deemed an essential worker. Starting April 12, all residents 16 and older will be eligible for a shot.
Baton Rouge: In response to updated federal guidance on social distancing in schools, officials have approved revisions to the state’s minimum COVID-19 health and safety standards for school facilities. Effective immediately, the revisions to the standards remove the specific physical distancing requirement of 6 feet and insert the provision that distancing requirements shall be in accordance with current Louisiana Department of Health guidelines, as informed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On March 19, the CDC updated its K-12 school guidance to reflect the latest science on physical distance between students in classrooms. The CDC now recommends that, with universal masking, students should maintain a distance of at least 3 feet in classroom settings. “Louisiana’s education leaders are committed to ensuring a safe and productive learning environment as we move incrementally toward the restoration of normal classroom and school operations,” said Sandy Holloway, president of the Louisiana State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Holloway’s approval of the revisions, by emergency rule under interim authority, is scheduled to be ratified by the full board at its next regular meeting April 21.
Portland: The state’s lobster catch dipped slightly last year as fishermen dealt with the coronavirus pandemic, but the final totals were better than some feared. Fishermen caught more than 96 million pounds of lobsters in 2020, the Maine Department of Marine Resources said Wednesday. That total broke a string of nine consecutive years in which harvesters brought at least 100 million pounds of lobsters to land. Maine is by far the biggest lobster fishing state in the country, and the harvest is central to the state’s economy and heritage. Members of the industry feared at the outset of the pandemic that it would be difficult to equal previous years’ hauls because of the toll of the virus on the economy and the workforce. However, the 2020 catch would have been a state record as recently as 2010. Patrice McCarron, executive director of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association, said prices were also competitive despite difficulty shipping and worldwide economic turmoil caused by the pandemic. The industry focused on opening up domestic retail sales, such as at supermarkets, to keep prices strong, McCarron said. The industry also pivoted to more online direct-to-consumer sales. Some lobstermen even took to selling lobsters from tanks in their own garages and homes.
Annapolis: The U.S. Naval Academy has begun to ease restrictions that were put in place after an outbreak of COVID-19 cases. The Capital Gazette reports the academy in Annapolis is allowing food to be delivered again and midshipmen to perform outdoor meetings and formations. Student interaction is still limited to roommates with the exception of socially distanced formations outside. The school’s salon and barbershop, Midshipman store and other services will resume appropriate services. The academy had experienced an outbreak of the disease, and nearly 200 midshipmen were moved to local hotels in order to expand quarantine and isolation space. But there are still students in quarantine. And the number of cases isn’t decreasing fast enough to resume in-person classes, which will remain online through Friday.
Boston: Nearly 60 school districts received permission from the state education commissioner to delay the resumption of full-time, in-person learning for elementary school-age children, which the state set for April 5, authorities say. The 58 districts that received a waiver include Brockton, Chelsea, Springfield and Somerville. Commissioner Jeffrey Riley is still weighing the requests of 10 other districts, including Boston and Worcester – the two largest in the state – The Boston Globe reports. Riley also denied requests from six districts, which the state would not identify. “We are pleased that 90% of districts will have their elementary schools back fully in-person by April 5, with all elementary schools in the Commonwealth fully in-person by May 3,” Riley said in a statement Tuesday. “Bringing all our kids back to school is crucial for their educational progress, emotional and social well-being, and we will continue to work with districts to bring students back ahead of their waiver-approved return dates.” The state has directed middle schools to fully reopen by April 28 and is still accepting waiver requests. A return date for high schools has not been scheduled.
Detroit: A restaurant owner who likened the state’s coronavirus restrictions to her childhood in communist Eastern Europe was released Tuesday after four nights in jail for ignoring orders to shut down. Marlena Pavlos-Hackney paid a $15,000 fine and satisfied authorities that Marlena’s Bistro and Pizzeria in Holland finally would remain closed while it lacks a food license. Her supporters boarded up the doors but also turned the building into a symbol of defiance with signs such as “Stop the Injustice.” Some bars, restaurants, gyms and other businesses have been fined for violating Michigan’s restrictions during the pandemic. But Pavlos-Hackney’s arrest before dawn Friday broke new ground and angered her allies, especially Republican lawmakers. Pavlos-Hackney is “Michigan’s first political prisoner of the pandemic,” state Sen. Tom Barrett said on the Senate floor Tuesday, even offering to take her spot in jail. “Come in the broad daylight. I just need a minute to pack my toothbrush,” Barrett said, aiming his words at Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. State regulators yanked Pavlos-Hackney’s food license in January for serving indoor diners and breaking other rules related to preventing the spread of COVID-19. But the restaurant, 180 miles west of Detroit, stayed open – and customers flocked there.
Minneapolis: Twin Cities commercial real estate managers are fearful Target Corp.’s decision to leave a main downtown Minneapolis location will become a trend that will continue to diminish office space needs. Target informed the City Center’s manager this month that it will no longer need the 985,000 square feet of office space it rents in the 51-story tower because it is permanently moving to a hybrid remote work model for 3,500 employees. Target’s lease expires in 2031. The company said many headquarters employees are currently working remotely. The COVID-19 pandemic has darkened many buildings in the downtown business district as employees adjust to working at home to avoid contracting the coronavirus. Building managers are bracing for additional fallout from the big retailer’s decision to leave the City Center, the Star Tribune reports. A recent Cushman & Wakefield national survey revealed that 81% of employers across 35 markets expect to switch to a work-from-home model post-COVID-19. According to C&W, about 22% of Minneapolis’ core business district’s 28.4 million square feet of office space is vacant.
Jackson: The Jackson Convention Complex will host a mixed martial arts competition Saturday, its first big live-audience event since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down venues where large gatherings were commonplace. Oak View Group Facilities, the group that manages and operates the Jackson Convention Complex, announced in a news release that the venue will host the ongoing fight series, Empire Fighting Championship. The Empire FC X is a mixed martial arts event that will have 17 fights at the convention center. “Our team has been working tirelessly with local officials to ensure proper safety protocols are in place to have spectators attend an event here in at the Jackson Center Complex,” Mark Arancibia, general manager for Oak View Group Facilities, said in the news release. The convention center will have a limited capacity of 1,000 people for the event and will have predetermined, socially distanced sitting areas, Arancibia said. He said the Jackson Convention Complex has hosted some high school volleyball matches with spectators, but Saturday’s competition will be the first professional sporting event. Fans will be required to wear masks inside the convention center. There will also be hand sanitizing stations throughout the space.
St. Joseph: With COVID-19 cases on the decline and vaccinations on the rise, two mid-sized cities are easing restrictions. St. Joseph Mayor Bill McMurray on Monday ended the requirement to wear a mask, effective Wednesday, the St. Joseph News-Press reports. Meanwhile, in mid-Missouri, the health department for Columbia and Boone County is reducing restrictions on bars, restaurants and other businesses. McMurray initially opposed ending St. Joseph’s mandate but relented after the City Council voted 5-4 in support of doing away with it. The decision was ultimately McMurray’s because he had been given authority over the mandate earlier in the pandemic. Opponents of ending the mandate cited concerns about Buchanan County’s vaccination rate of 13%, one of the lowest in Missouri. “I hope everybody will exercise good judgment and wear their masks in situations that we are very close to people,” McMurray said. “We’re not out of the woods yet.” In Columbia, health director Stephanie Browning announced a new order that ends limits on the size of gatherings at bars, restaurants, entertainment venues and other businesses, the Columbia Daily Tribune reports. The order also eliminates limits on the number of spectators for sports and activities.
Helena: A sixth lawmaker has tested positive for the coronavirus during this year’s legislative session, COVID-19 panel chairman Sen. Jason Ellsworth said Tuesday. The identity of the lawmaker was not released. The legislator is quarantining away from the Capitol, according to a statement by Ellsworth. The legislator was last in the building “within the past few days” and tested positive “within the past day,” according to panel spokesperson Kyle Schmauch. More than a month has elapsed since legislative leaders last confirmed a positive test among lawmakers. Coronavirus testing for legislators and legislative staff is available inside the Capitol on a weekly basis. The Legislature’s COVID-19 panel, tasked with addressing coronavirus-related rules during the session, has not met in more than two months.
Lincoln: A scaled-down version of the Nebraska State Fair in 2020 finished with a nearly $1.8 million profit, a substantial improvement over a disastrous fair the previous year, according to an annual audit. An audit by BKD of Lincoln found last year’s fair had revenue of nearly $6.5 million, a drop of about 37% from 2019, The Lincoln Journal-Star reports. However, because fair officials chose not to have a carnival or paid entertainment in response to the coronavirus pandemic, expenses declined to $3.7 million, about $7 million less than in 2019. With other factors such as interest and depreciation, the fair ended with a net profit of about $1.8 million. The 2019 fair incurred a nearly $1.5 million loss after managers spent heavily on entertainment to celebrate the fair’s 150th anniversary before bad weather caused a sharp drop in attendance. Fair officials had to lay off nearly half the staff and take out $1.1 million in credit to cover bills. An audit taken after that fair said Patrick Kopke, the fair’s former chief of finance, paid nearly $150,000 to a company he created for services that weren’t performed. Kopke was charged with felony theft. He has pleaded not guilty.
Carson City: In his first trip since being confirmed, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra visited the state Tuesday to talk up the Affordable Care Act and efforts underway to expand coverage and reduce the cost of health care. The secretary is one of several surrogates President Joe Biden dispatched to drum up support for his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package, which includes funding for people who lost health care coverage amid the pandemic. “I hope Nevadans take full advantage of what it does to help middle class families on the edge” during the pandemic, Becerra said. At a Carson City health center, he announced an extension of the special enrollment period for the federal health insurance marketplace to Aug. 15. Former Gov. Brian Sandoval was one of the few Republican governors to create a state-based exchange and expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. The law reduced the size of Nevada’s uninsured population drastically. Sandoval on Tuesday called the decision one of the most important he made as governor and said the politics “were not as complicated as one would think.” State lawmakers from both parties supported his approach due to Nevada’s high uninsured rate, he said. Amid the pandemic, Sandoval hopes state governments consider similar policies.
Concord: The state will host its second mass vaccination site this weekend at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Vaccinations are by appointment only, and there were still slots for those eligible to schedule appointments at the state’s online site, VINI. The state hopes to vaccinate 8,000 people this weekend at the speedway. The site will be open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. The Pfizer vaccine will be the only option offered. About 12,000 people were vaccinated at the first mass vaccination clinic at the speedway March 6-8.
Trenton: Renters can now apply to receive up to a year’s worth of housing assistance after the state launched its online application for $353 million worth of grants for low- and moderate-income households behind on payments due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Those who have missed rental payments since March 13, 2020, can apply for assistance at the Department of Community Affairs website at njdca.onlinepha.com. The application site launched Monday at 9 a.m. and will remain open until the state receives enough applications to distribute all of the $353 million. More than 350,000 New Jersey households are behind on rent payments, according to U.S. census data from late February. Renters cannot be kicked out of their homes during New Jersey’s eviction moratorium, but landlords are still submitting tens of thousands of eviction filings in court for nonpayment of rent. Rental assistance payments could be distributed directly to landlords as early as May.
Santa Fe: The Legislature is asserting its budgetary authority over $1.6 billion in new federal aid that dwarfs year-to-year spending adjustments, setting an agenda for economic recovery that Gov. Lujan Grisham could challenge with her veto pen. Congress and President Joe Biden approved the $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package this month that funnels billions of dollars directly to New Mexico’s state government, school districts and local governments. A state Senate finance committee quickly channeled about $1 billion of that economic relief to accounts and initiatives that avoid future payroll tax increases on businesses, underwrite college tuition for in-state students, and backfill lost income at state museums and more. A final budget bill approved by the Legislature devotes federal relief of $600 million to replenishing the state’s unemployment trust fund. The fund began borrowing from the federal government last year to fulfill unprecedented unemployment claims. Lawmakers earmarked another $6 million for the state fair in Albuquerque, along with $14.5 million to bolster spending at state parks, historic sites and New Mexico’s world-renowned public museum system. Those facilities were closed down for much of the past year as a health precaution against the pandemic.
Albany: Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie was one of two lawmakers who said they tested positive for the coronavirus Tuesday, though both Democrats said they were experiencing only mild symptoms. Assembly member Ron Kim of Queens announced his positive test on Twitter, saying he was in isolation. Kim has been one of the loudest voices calling for Gov. Andrew Cuomo to be impeached as the governor faces scandals revolving around the classification of nursing home deaths and allegations of sexual harassment. Kim said Cuomo had vowed to “destroy” him during a private phone call for nursing home criticism he felt was unfair. Cuomo has denied the allegation. Heastie, who represents the Bronx, said he would be working from his Albany residence as he and other leaders of the Legislature try to reach a state budget deal with Cuomo by the April 1 deadline. Heastie tested positive despite receiving the first of two vaccine doses March 6. It generally takes two weeks after a second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna COVID-19 vaccine for a person to build full protection. “I am in frequent contact with my physician and look forward to a full recovery,” Heastie said in a statement. The Assembly began meeting virtually when the pandemic struck last year to limit the spread of the virus among lawmakers and staff.
Raleigh: Gov. Roy Cooper on Tuesday eased several restrictions that will soon allow businesses to open at greater capacity and more people to assemble indoors and outdoors. Starting Friday, bars and sports and entertainment venues can open at 50% capacity indoors or outdoors, with the 11 p.m. cutoff for on-site alcohol consumption fully lifted. Restaurants, breweries, wineries, amusement parks, gyms and bowling alleys can fully reopen outdoors and at 75% capacity indoors. Museums, aquariums, retail businesses and shops, hair salons and personal care businesses can operate at 100% capacity indoors and outdoors. Gatherings not otherwise included in the updated executive order set to expire April 30 will increase to 50 people indoors and 100 people outdoors. The statewide mask mandate will remain in place, and the required 6 feet of physical distancing may not allow businesses to reopen at the capacity caps outlined. “These are significant changes, but they can be done safely,” Cooper said at an afternoon news conference. The announcement comes as a handful of North Carolina counties have expanded COVID-19 vaccine eligibility to all adults, regardless of age, health condition or job type, due to limited demand in their areas.
Bismarck: A popcorn machine has been removed from the North Dakota Capitol after it twice triggered fire alarms that brought firefighters to the building this week and caused legislators to evacuate. Rep. Mary Johnson was on her third batch of popcorn Monday afternoon when the machine triggered the alarms for the second time that day. Johnson said she wasn’t aware of a policy that bans popcorn poppers, toasters and other food appliances from the building, with the exception of the Capitol Cafe. House Majority Leader Chet Pollert said the popcorn helped bring together House Republicans, whose caucus has been “a little strained” due to the coronavirus pandemic and the House expulsion of former Rep. Luke Simons, the Bismarck Tribune reports. “Popcorn cheers people up for a reason,” Pollert said. “And now it’s gone, and that’s the way it goes.” Facility Management Director John Boyle said the policy was established to prevent the activation of fire alarms.
Columbus: Multiple local health departments are sounding the alarm about legislation restricting their ability to respond to emergencies such as the coronavirus pandemic. The agency heads laid out their concerns in letters to Republican Gov. Mike DeWine on Tuesday, documenting how the bill would slow down or block local officials from ordering businesses to close or requiring residents to quarantine or isolate without a medical diagnosis. “Board of health orders are crucial tools to mitigate a situation, allowing time for a full investigation of a situation before it becomes urgent or worsens,” Franklin County health officials wrote. “Orders like these are utilized sparingly and almost always involve guidance and expertise from the CDC or the Ohio Department of Health.” The department and several other public health agencies opposed Wednesday’s steps by House and Senate Republicans to override DeWine’s veto of the bill. But GOP legislators made good on their promise to check the authority of their fellow Republican by issuing the first override of his term after a yearlong battle over how the state should respond during a health emergency.
Oklahoma City: A state Senate panel voted Monday to endorse the confirmation of Dr. Lance Frye as commissioner of the Oklahoma State Department of Health. The Senate Health and Human Services Committee’s vote on Gov. Kevin Stitt’s nominee sent the pick to the full Senate for a vote. A member of the Oklahoma National Guard, Frye previously served as residency program director and professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Oklahoma State University’s Center for Health Sciences. “His extensive medical and military experience is a reflection of his longstanding commitment to serving others in times of crisis and uncertainty,” Stitt said in a statement. “He was the right man for the job at the height of the pandemic, and I’m confident his leadership will continue to benefit the health and lives of Oklahomans.” Stitt’s last pick to lead the health department, Gary Cox, was forced to resign after the same Senate committee refused to take up his nomination last year. Meanwhile, newly reported coronavirus cases in Oklahoma continued to decline Wednesday, and the number of people receiving COVID-19 vaccines was rising. The seven-day rolling average of new cases in Oklahoma dropped by 41.1% during the past two weeks, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
Portland: Three students have filed class-action lawsuits against the state’s two largest colleges saying they were charged full price for online classes of poorer quality than in-person classes. When the University of Oregon and Oregon State University closed their campuses because of the coronavirus pandemic, they didn’t offer to refund students’ tuition bills, The Oregonian/OregonLive reports. The University of Oregon says on its website that in order to provide quality education now and in the future, it cannot discount tuition. The universities did agree to refund portions of their room and board. “The University of Oregon, we believe, has unfairly continued to charge tuition payers for all of the things they were not allowed to experience and use during the COVID-19 campus closure and switch to online classes,” said Steve Berman, managing partner of Hagens Berman and attorney for students in the class action. Caine Smith filed the suit against Oregon. Danielle Pranger and Garrett Harris filed the complaint against Oregon State. The suits, filed in Multnomah County Circuit Court earlier this month, did not specify how much they are seeking in damages.
Harrisburg: As life languished in the early days of the pandemic and most people stayed home, vandals left their mark in Philadelphia. The graffiti in March 2020 included multiple swastikas and other symbols of hate, including the white supremacist symbol “1488” that partially pledges allegiance to Hitler. And a disturbing message was found inside a public restroom in the city, which had a powerful Black voting bloc capable of determining the outcome of an election: “We need to re-implement Jim Crow.” Hate symbols found that day were among 330 incidents reported last year in Pennsylvania by the Anti-Defamation League – a record high since the ADL started tracking cases in the state five years ago. Most of the incidents involved white supremacist propaganda, while 96 were anti-Semitic incidents, and eight were white supremacist events. The findings line up with those noted by the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, the top civil rights agency in the state, and numerous personal experiences shared on social media. The accounts from individuals and agencies all illustrate an important point: As life slowed down during the pandemic, hate did not, experts said.
Providence: The state’s two largest hospital groups did not violate laws or break state policies when they offered COVID-19 vaccinations to their board members before they were eligible, but they did erode public confidence in the fairness of the vaccination process, state Attorney General Peter Neronha said Tuesday. Front-line health care workers were among the first people in Rhode Island to be eligible for a shot, but Lifespan and Care New England, after vaccinating workers at high risk of exposure, offered vaccinations to board members and some other employees, no matter their age or risk level. The move drew criticism from people who said many high-risk residents were being denied vaccinations and prompted the attorney general’s investigation. “The appearance or perception that certain connected or wealthy individuals were, by virtue of their seat on a hospital board of directors, being given an opportunity to ‘jump the line’ months in advance was upsetting to many and fueled anxiety among everyday Rhode Islanders who were dutifully waiting their turn,” the attorney general wrote in a letter to management at both organizations and the state Department of Health. However, the state gave the hospital groups wide discretion on whom they should vaccinate, the letter said.
Columbia: The South Carolina House gave key approval Tuesday to the state’s $9.8 billion budget, which provides small raises for most teachers and some law enforcement officers but not for other state employees. Republican leaders promised either a bonus or a raise for most lower-paid state employees if somewhat rosier predictions about the state’s economy recovering from the COVID-19 downturn come true after taxes are collected this spring. “To make sure we thank state employees and we recognize their hard work and their sacrifice – we need to do that with an increase in their pay,” said Rep. Murrell Smith, the Republican chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which writes the budget. Smith said if for some reason tax collection isn’t enough to ensure revenue every year for a raise, he will push for a bonus. Smith was responding to Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, who made her annual trip to the front of the House to ask for the raises. “State employees are pretty fed up with being told to wait until next year,” the Democrat from Orangeburg said. State employees appreciated the praise for working through the pandemic. But “there’s no paper that goes along with that praise,” Cobb-Hunter said. She promised she would ask for a 5% raise later this year.
Sioux Falls: Students will again miss out on school-sanctioned prom this year because of COVID-19 precautions but can instead celebrate with a “grand march” at their school. Still, that’s not stopping parents and students from hosting off-site, unsanctioned prom events. Carly Uthe, a spokesperson for the Sioux Falls School District, said in an email Monday that the district began discussing prom in January, and district leaders and high school principals decided by February that the grand march opportunity would still “provide seniors with a memorable experience with their classmates.” The sheer number of seniors at each school and the need for social distancing and mask-wearing led officials to determine a dance would not comply with health and safety protocols, Uthe said. But that’s not enough for some. To make the end of high school memorable for their seniors, parents at Sioux Falls’ high schools are hosting proms on their own dime. Lincoln High School parents plan an “Underground Prom” at The Social, a local event venue. Washington High School’s unsanctioned prom will be held at the Convention Center. Roosevelt High School is combining a prom and senior party into one event at the South Dakota Military Heritage Alliance. Parents with all three said masks will be required at their proms.
Memphis: Citing demand slack for COVID-19 vaccinations, the city of Memphis and Shelby County announced Monday that COVID-19 vaccine eligibility would expand to everyone 16 and up, with appointments opening Friday for vaccinations next week. The move is a long-awaited one for thousands of people who haven‘t been eligible for a vaccine because they weren’t old enough or didn’t have preexisting conditions. It also marks the start of the final push toward herd immunity from COVID-19 and an attempt to return to some sort of normalcy. “Our aim is to get as many shots into as many arms as fast as we possibly can. And the phenomenon that we were seeing was not only were we not having all of our appointments filled, but we were having people double-book and triple-book appointments and then being no-shows,” said Doug McGowen, the city’s chief operating officer and leader of vaccine efforts for Shelby County. The move toward eligibility for nearly everyone could lead to demand outstripping supply again, something that hasn’t been the case over the past few weeks, as the city and county have had to put out repeated calls for appointments to be filled. McGowen said Tuesday that the public may need to be patient when appointments open to everyone Friday.
Austin: Launching a legal fight against a fellow Republican, state Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller has sued Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick – as well as the entire Texas Senate – in a bid to strike down a rule requiring visitors to the chamber to take a coronavirus test. Senate rules require a negative test, conducted in a tent outside the Capitol’s north entrance, before anybody can walk onto the Senate floor, sit in the overhead gallery or enter a Senate committee room for a hearing. Joined by conservative GOP activist Steven Hotze of Houston, Miller’s lawsuit seeks a court order striking down the testing requirement as a violation of free speech and the right to petition the government as protected by the Texas Constitution. “Government power cannot be exercised in conflict with the constitution, even in a pandemic,” said the lawsuit, filed in state District Court in Travis County. “Texas law does not and cannot empower Patrick or the Texas Senate to impose a medical test before one is able to participate in their government.” Patrick, who presides over the Senate, praised the rule shortly after it was unanimously adopted by senators in January at the start of the legislative session, saying it would protect senators, staff and visitors alike.
St. George: All Utah adults can now begin signing up for a COVID-19 vaccine, with the state having accelerated its timetable for opening the shots up to younger age groups. Previously, vaccines were only available to people 50 or older, along with health care workers, teachers, care facility staff and select other groups. Gov. Spencer Cox announced last week that the vaccines would be available to younger people sooner because as much as 15% of the state’s supply wasn’t being claimed by those in the eligible age groups. State health officials say nearly 1.2 million vaccines have been administered statewide, with about 25,000 per day reported over the past week. Some teenagers 16 and older were also eligible under the new rules. Cox urged people to try to sign up quickly, saying the sudden change in eligibility rules would likely mean there won’t be enough vaccines for all of those interested. But the goal was to use every vaccine available without letting any go to waste, Cox said. “We always want to keep demand above availability,” the Republican governor said during a televised news conference on PBS-Utah.
Montpelier: Amtrak passenger rail service could be back on track in the state within the next few months, officials said. Service on the two trains that serve Vermont – The Vermonter, which runs from Washington, D.C., up the eastern side of Vermont before crossing the state and then ending in St. Albans, and the Ethan Allen Express, which travels between Rutland and New York City – was suspended last year because of the coronavirus pandemic. “We’ve had some preliminary discussions with Amtrak on this, and we had said that we’re looking forward to them coming back and being fully operational,” Scott said Tuesday during his COVID-19 briefing. “We just don’t know exactly when it’s going to be.” Amy Tatko, a spokeswoman for the Vermont Agency of Transportation, told the St. Albans Messenger that restart talks are underway. “We hope to make an announcement within the next several weeks as to what that timeline will look like,” she said. Despite the suspension of service, Amtrak trains have been operating on the Vermont lines to train staff.
Richmond: Gov. Ralph Northam said Tuesday that the state will soon relax some coronavirus-related restrictions for social gatherings and entertainment venues. Starting April 1, Northam said, social gatherings such as weddings may have up to 50 people indoors. Outdoor gatherings can have up to 100 people. Indoor entertainment venues will be able to operate at 30% capacity or with up to 500 people. Outdoor venues can operate at a 30% capacity with no limits on the actual number of people. For example, a baseball stadium that holds 9,500 fans will be able to host a crowd of roughly 3,000. That will give people room to socially distance, Northam said. Indoor recreational sporting events will be able to have 100 people per field or 30% capacity. Outdoor events will be able to accommodate 500 people per field or 30% capacity. “These are measured changes,” the Democratic governor said at a news conference. “We still have a strict gathering limit and a universal mask mandate and capacity restrictions both indoors and outdoors.” Social gatherings in the state are currently limited to 10 people indoors and 25 people outdoors. Some in the wedding business say relaxing the limits to 50 people indoors and 100 people outdoors may still be too restrictive.
Woodland: The state Department of Labor and Industries has fined this southwest Washington city for potentially exposing staff to COVID-19 when councilmembers went without face masks during meetings. According to the citation received Friday, Woodland did not comply with the governor’s COVID-19 emergency proclamation banning businesses from operating unless all customers inside the building are wearing facial coverings, The Daily News of Longview reports. “Despite councilmembers choosing not to wear facial coverings at all times, the city continued to facilitate these meetings and expose their employees to the potential spread of COVID-19,” the citation said. “Continued operations in contravention of the orders of the governor unnecessarily endangers employees and creates a substantial probability that death or serious harm could result.” The violation was corrected during the L&I inspection, according to the citation. Woodland Mayor Will Finn could not be reached for comment Monday. Last year, the state received complaints from citizens and staff about people not wearing masks during council meetings. The council has held mostly in-person meetings since June 1, after voting unanimously May 20 to do so “regardless of Gov. (Jay) Inslee’s stay-at-home order.”
Charleston: The state’s vaccination campaign will turn to young people to stem transmission rates after giving shots to most senior citizens. The new strategy to focus on shots for residents ages 16 to 29 comes after officials said they are seeing an increase in doses delivered. “When you have the resources available, you open up multiple fronts against the enemy to deplete their capability,” James Hoyer, a retired major general leading the state’s coronavirus task force, said Wednesday. “In this case the virus is the enemy.” Republican Gov. Jim Justice said more than 70% of residents 65 and over are at least partially vaccinated, but he set a new goal of covering 85% of that population. But he said the state’s focus could now begin shifting to high school and college students and other young adults. “We’re seeing significant transmission occurring with our younger people,” Justice said. He opened up vaccinations to all West Virginians 16 and up Monday. Dr. Clay Marsh, the state’s coronavirus czar, said younger and older people are turning up sicker at hospitals, which he attributed to variants of the coronavirus circulating. The number of coronavirus patients has increased 40% in under two weeks to 212 people.
Madison: Assembly Speaker Robin Vos called on the state’s business community to “step up” and return workers to offices around the Fourth of July, joining Wednesday with the state Senate’s top Republican in praising Wisconsin’s COVID-19 vaccination efforts. Vos and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu offered rare praise for Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ administration, giving it credit for increasing vaccinations. During the virtual event hosted by Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state’s largest business lobbying group, they also pushed for a return to pre-pandemic work routines. “We don’t keep people going through all this rigmarole, which was necessary for a certain amount of time, but we’re now moving beyond it,” Vos said. “It’s up to the business community to step up with government to show the world that we can safely reopen and not have this pandemic hangover really impact our economy going forward in way that none of us want.” Vos’ call for people to return to offices echoes President Joe Biden earlier this month raising the possibility of beginning to “mark our independence from this virus” by the Fourth of July. “That’s the date that I’m looking at,” Vos said. “Kind of that, really, kick start of summer where the vast majority of people want to be outside.”
Cheyenne: State lawmakers are working on competing proposals to address a projected $300 million shortfall in K-12 education funding over the next two years and are looking to solutions for a longer-term deficit in school funding. The state’s rainy day fund of about $1.3 billion is available to cover the short-term shortfall. But House legislators are working on a bill that would phase in cuts of about $68 million over the next three years, and a Senate proposal would cut $130 million from the school finance model, The Wyoming Tribune Eagle reports. Lawmakers are working on a solution with two weeks left in the legislative session. House lawmakers also are discussing a proposal to raise the state sales tax from 4% to 5% once the state’s primary savings account falls below $650 million. The rainy-day fund could reach that threshold as soon as the 2023-24 biennium, legislative staff estimate. Many senators want to explore other possible cuts before supporting tax increases. One proposal includes increasing class sizes. The House bill is set for a final reading this week, with several amendments possible. Lawmakers will likely use that legislation to bridge the difference between the two chambers, according to Senate Education Committee chair Charles Scott of Casper.
From USA TODAY Network and wire reports
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Underground proms, popcorn problems: News from around our 50 states