Montgomery: Delta is now flying bigger airplanes in and out of the capital city, and it will allow even more people aboard beginning in May. The changes are part of a plan to increase airline capacity in Montgomery toward pre-pandemic levels. The airport reported Delta started the month with bigger aircraft making the airline’s four daily flights between Montgomery and Atlanta, meaning more seats for passengers. Capacity will increase again May 1 when Delta starts allowing middle-seat passengers for the first time this year. One pandemic change that’s not going away is Delta’s new cleaning and sanitation procedures. The airline has announced that they’ll become permanent. Federal guidelines require air travelers to continue wearing masks. American Airlines resumed nonstop flights between Montgomery and Washington, D.C., earlier this month. The airport also offers nonstop flights to Charlotte, North Carolina, and to Dallas.
Juneau: Gov. Mike Dunleavy has announced that Alaska will conduct a national advertising campaign to support its tourism industry. The Republican governor also reiterated in a Friday news conference his assertion that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention should allow a cruise season. “This is an economic death grapple right now with individuals that are focused on health,” Dunleavy said. Another hurdle is a federal law that requires cruise ships that enter Alaska to stop in Canada, which will not allow stops this year as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, KTOO Public Media reports. Dunleavy has signed a resolution asking Congress and President Joe Biden to exempt Alaska from the law. Democratic state Sen. Jesse Kiehl sponsored the measure. He said the cruise season can happen despite the pandemic. “The simple fact is that this is a live-or-die moment for the economy of a huge portion of our state,” Kiehl said. Dunleavy’s office said tourism businesses will soon receive relief grants. The governor said details of the aid plan will be announced this week.
A bronze sculpture depicting a dragon was removed from display at HonorHealth in Scottsdale one day after it was unveiled following backlash from members of the Asian community, according to reports. (Photo: Screenshot from HonorHealth YouTube video)
Scottsdale: HonorHealth unveiled a sculpture Friday intended to recognize health care workers combating COVID-19, but the hospital removed the piece Saturday following criticism that the work was offensive to Asians because of its depiction of a Chinese dragon to symbolize the pandemic’s origins. The sculpture, created by HonorHealth staffer Vincent Russo, depicts a dragon wrapped around a masked health care worker carrying a sphere or orb. Controversy surrounding the sculpture was first reported by Justin Lum of Fox 10, who on Saturday received confirmation from an HonorHealth spokesperson that the sculpture was no longer being displayed after “the symbol of the Chinese dragon was interpreted negatively among our Asian community.” The company apologized and said it removed its social media posts about the sculpture, according to its statement to Lum, who is vice president of the Arizona chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association. “As a proud Asian American, I can’t interpret the meaning of the statue any other way,” he said. Russo addressed the controversy on Facebook, saying that there was no intent to “hurt or diminish others” and that he began planning for the sculpture a year ago before an attack in Atlanta made violence against Asian Americans a prominent subject in the news.
Fort Smith: Mercy Fort Smith celebrated a milestone this month when it administered its 20,000th dose of COVID-19 vaccine. Kevin Goff, 20, of Booneville received the hospital’s 20,000th dose during his scheduled appointment April 2. Goff wanted to get the vaccine to protect himself and those he encounters at his job at Walmart in Booneville. “I got it mainly so I don’t get COVID, and I don’t spread it to others. Especially with where I work, I’m with customers a lot,” he said. Arkansas has expanded vaccine eligibility to include anyone 16 or older. The Mercy Fort Smith vaccine clinic now has online scheduling available; those registering can select their date and time when they sign up for the vaccine. Mercy has worked through its earlier vaccine registration lists. Anyone who thought they were registered but hasn’t been contacted can now schedule one of these online appointments. To schedule, go to mercy.net/fsmvaccine, or call (833) 364-6777.
Los Angeles: The city has opened up vaccines to younger people, days ahead of the state broadening eligibility to everyone 16 and up. An option to book vaccine appointments for residents 16 and older at city-run inoculation sites appeared on the registration website starting Saturday, the LA Times reports. “We are excited to open vaccination appointments for Angelenos 16 and older,” Mayor Eric Garcetti said in a statement. “We continue to receive a limited supply of vaccines, and when we receive greater supply in the weeks ahead, the city will be ready to administer even more vaccines quickly and safely.” The expansion of vaccine eligibility in Los Angeles follows similar moves by the Southern California counties of Riverside and San Bernardino, Santa Clara County in the San Francisco Bay Area, and Fresno County in the central valley. People 16 and up can get the Pfizer vaccine, while the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are for people 18 and older. However, California public health officials warned Thursday of decreases in supply because of a national reduction of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine in coming weeks.
Colorado Springs: About 3,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine have been confiscated from a medical spa after El Paso County health officials observed problems in vaccine storage Friday, prompting the state health department to investigate the vaccination process there. The state health department announced Friday night that it suspended vaccinations at Dr. Moma Health and Wellness Clinic because of those observations earlier in the day and said investigators were working to determine if what was seen was isolated. A spokesperson for the county health department, Jared Verner, told The Gazette that 150 syringes of vaccine will have to be destroyed because the state cannot verify proper handling and temperatures were maintained at the clinic, which had been administering the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. The fate of the remaining 3,000 doses confiscated by the Colorado National Guard will depend on the results of the state’s investigation, he said. According to its website, the clinic offers mostly aesthetic services such as facials, acne treatment and tattoo removal and is led by Sylvienash Moma, who holds a doctorate of nursing degree. More than 1,000 vaccination appointments at the site were canceled Saturday in addition to another 6,000 scheduled through May 8, the state health department said.
Hartford: High school proms and graduation ceremonies can take place this spring but should have precautions to reduce the possibility of spreading the coronavirus, the state’s Department of Public Health said. Attendees should wear masks and practice social distancing regardless of their vaccination status, the department said Friday as it issued a series of guidelines. Events also should be held outdoors with a scheduled rain date, rather than moving indoors. Schools holding indoor events should consider reducing capacity, health officials said. Also, delaying events until later in the school year or after it ends will give more students the opportunity to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The state recommended schools set up mass testing sites and require attendees to show proof of a negative test for the virus result within 72 hours of the event. Schools also should consider not serving food and drinks to reduce the amount of time people have to take off their masks, the state said. Event planners “will also have to consider the potential downstream consequences of hosting or attending large events with limited control over the movement and interactions among attendees, which could include quarantining an entire class of students if a single case of COVID-19 is present at an event,” the state said.
Horses clear the first jump during the Winterthur Bowl race at the 39th Annual Point-to-Point at Winterthur in 2017. (Photo: KYLE GRANTHAM/THE NEWS JOURNAL)
Wilmington: After getting shelved last year – and doused with a heavy rain the year prior – Winterthur Museum is poised to hit the ground running with its Point-to-Point steeplechase May 30. This annual horse race is on pace to be one of the first major Delaware events of the year. The Division of Public Health approved Winterthur’s COVID-19 plan, allowing up to 3,600 guests for the event next month. This pandemic rendition of Point-to-Point will include pod seating for up to 10 tailgating guests per tent, race director Jill Abbott said. All attendees are required to bring masks and wear them wherever they can’t maintain a safe distance of 6 feet from others outside their group or household. Holders of lifetime rights have until Thursday to purchase their spaces. It costs $500 to become a lifetime holder. The remaining spaces will be offered to the general public Friday. A small number of exclusive tailgate tents are available for purchase by the general public. For more information, call (302) 888-4994, or contact [email protected]
District of Columbia
Washington: Another technical glitch for D.C.’s unemployment claims website has left thousands of people waiting weeks for benefits, WUSA-TV reports. Website problems have cropped up several times during the pandemic. Unemployment benefits have been a lifeline for people out of work amid economic shutdowns. “I’ve been unemployed for a year now waiting for everything to get back to normal,” said bartender Liz Danko, one of the thousands of D.C. workers forced to rely on unemployment benefits during the pandemic. The latest website update hit Danko in mid-March. “Then all of a sudden, I’m like, ‘Where’s my employment this week?’ ” she said. “The website says it is $0, paid out.” Four weeks later, after countless hours on the phone and numerous emails, she still has no benefits and no solution from the city on how to get them. “The thing is, we have a system I always say that was coded … when Elvis had No. 1 hits,” D.C. Councilwoman Elissa Silverman said. She said she hopes all the issues the district’s unemployment system has caused will be a wake-up call to her fellow council members and the mayor. She said the city is building a completely new unemployment claims website, but it won’t be ready until 2022.
Fort Lauderdale: Gov. Ron DeSantis attacked YouTube and its parent company, Google, on Monday, accusing the tech giant of censorship for its decision last week to remove from its platform video of a coronavirus discussion he organized where his panel criticized lockdowns and some mask-wearing as ineffective. DeSantis said YouTube’s contention that video of the March 18 panel violates its ban on the posting of disinformation is an attempt to stifle dissent against the federal government’s pandemic response. That discussion included Dr. Scott Atlas, a radiologist who was a coronavirus adviser to former President Donald Trump, and other physicians who support DeSantis’ decision to open Florida’s economy with few restrictions. Monday’s attack is part of a bigger war DeSantis and other Republicans are waging against social media giants, including Facebook and Twitter, contending they discriminate against conservatives. During a Tallahassee press conference with Atlas and other doctors who were on his earlier panel, DeSantis said YouTube was working “in service of the ruling elite.” YouTube says it took down the DeSantis panel video because some participants said children should not wear masks because they are ineffective at that age and a possible health hazard. YouTube said that contradicts U.S. government guidelines.
This photo from Rabun County, Ga.'s Tiger Drive-In theater website shows Tweety Bird, one of three renovated 1960s campers available through AirBnB that overlook the theater screen. (Photo: Tom Major/Tiger Drive-In)
Tiger: The Tiger Drive-In, one of only five drive-in theaters left in the state, was able to open for its summer season in April 2020 when all indoor cinemas remained closed amid the pandemic and proved a hit with residents of the small Rabun County town of Tiger and surrounding areas. While box office numbers across the globe took a nosedive last year, “we had our best year ever,” owner-operator Tom Major said, “and we did it without Hollywood.” Some of the most heavily advertised, hotly anticipated big studio releases for 2020 saw repeated delays and cancellations due to theater closures. Though films like “Wonder Woman 1984” and “Tenet” would’ve drawn even bigger crowds to venues like the Tiger, Major said classic titles like “Grease” and “Dirty Dancing” still sold out every night. Even when local multiplexes began reopening at limited capacity later in the year, the Tiger offered more to its patrons than a regular theater ever could. From livestreamed concerts featuring acts like Blake Shelton and Metallica to performances by local bands and even a Democratic Party of Georgia event, the site transformed itself into a cultural hub for the community. “There was a dance studio in Clarksville that couldn’t hold its indoor recitals, so they filmed them, and we showed them on our big screen,” Majors said.
Wailuku: Maui County will soon require second coronavirus tests for trans-Pacific travelers flying directly to the island. In addition to the current state-required pre-travel tests, people flying into Maui County from outside Hawaii will now be required to get negative virus tests when arriving at the Kahului Airport to avoid quarantine, Mayor Michael Victorino told reporters Wednesday. People who refuse either test will be required to quarantine for 10 days on Maui. The pre-travel tests must occur at most 72 hours before passengers take their flights. “This secondary test has been designed to determine if visitors and returning residents are contributing to the large rate of COVID-19 here in Maui,” Victorino said. He estimated the program may take up to 10 business days to put in place. A study conducted in November by Maui health officials found that 2 out of every 281 travelers who consented to second, follow-up coronavirus tests at the airport tested positive, the Maui News reports. A county spokesperson could not be reached for comment Wednesday by the Maui News regarding how much the new testing program will cost.
Ammon Bundy (Photo: Ada County Sheriff’s Office via AP)
Boise: Anti-government activist Ammon Bundy was arrested twice in two hours Thursday on suspicion of trespassing at the Statehouse. Police said he returned to the Capitol building shortly after bailing out of jail on the first arrest. It wasn’t immediately known why Bundy was at the Statehouse, but it marked the fourth and fifth times the man known for leading a 2016 armed standoff at an Oregon wildlife refuge has been arrested in Boise since August, with all but one occurring at the Statehouse. Bundy has been banned from the government building since August after he and dozens of others – many of them members of his People’s Rights organization – staged a series of protests at the Statehouse over coronavirus-related measures. In one of the protests, angry, unmasked protesters forced their way into a House gallery with limited seating, shattering a glass door in the process. Video taken by an onlooker during the first of Bundy’s two arrests Thursday shows Idaho State Police officers lifting him from a wheeled cart and placing him a police car. Bundy repeatedly asks the officers, “By what authority are you arresting me?” Idaho State Police spokeswoman Lynn Hightower said officers used the wheeled cart, which looks somewhat like an oversized jogging stroller, because Bundy refused to leave the building under his own power.
Springfield: To make COVID-19 shots more available and combat vaccine hesitancy, Hospital Sisters Health System began to give doses without an appointment Monday at HSHS Medical Group’s drive-thru clinic in the parking lot of Scheels. The site will inoculate people 16 and older with Pfizer’s vaccine from 10 a.m. to noon and from 1 to 4 p.m. every day through Friday, said Tammy Lett, the medical group’s vice president of operations. HSHS decided to offer “walk-in” availability of vaccine at the system’s Springfield site because of increasing supplies of vaccine and waning demand for appointments made online, she said. Lett, a registered nurse, said she is “very concerned” about rising number of COVID-19 cases statewide. Making vaccines even more convenient to obtain could help stem the resurgence, she said. “We’re trying to get out as much information as we can,” Lett said. “The vaccine is safe. Come get it.” Public health officials have said fatigue among the public to wear masks and social distance, combined with more easily transmissible and potentially more deadly coronavirus variants, are contributing to the resurgence of cases in Illinois and across the country, almost exclusively in the unvaccinated population. Lett cited a “false sense of security” among some that they are protected as others get vaccinated.
Baylor fans cheer during the championship game of the 2021 NCAA Tournament on Monday, April 5, 2021, at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Ind. (Photo: Grace Hollars, Grace Hollars/IndyStar)
Indianapolis: Hospitality workers who supported the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, from stadiums to hotels to restaurants, were first left off COVID-19 vaccine priority lists and then largely left out of the rigorous March Madness safety plans. Many were exposed to large crowds, sometimes maskless, during the weeks businesses swelled with visitors. As the tournament ended, the city’s most famous restaurant – a popular tourist spot – announced it was temporarily closing after nine employees contracted COVID-19. Then on April 3, his 45th birthday, its longtime bartender Michael Gaines died. After the news of the outbreak and death at St. Elmo, The District Tap co-owner Michael Cranfill recalled that he and other people in the industry had lobbied for vaccine prioritization. “I think there could have been different policies and prioritization in place,” he said. “Hindsight 2020, but this was something that was brought up and discussed.” Despite the hospitality industry lobbying Gov. Eric Holcomb for priority in vaccinations, the state took largely an age-based approach that frustrated many workers who deal directly with customers. “The first thing people wanted to do is to go out and use the service industry again,” said lighting technician Jay Higginson, who works at a nightclub.
Des Moines: Another person associated with the state Senate has tested positive for the coronavirus, staff reported Monday morning. The person tested positive Saturday and was last in the Capitol building Wednesday, according to an email from Senate Secretary Charles Smithson. The notification did not identify the person who tested positive, but it was the second reported case associated with the Senate this legislative session. Senate staff reported the first case March 29. There have been seven reported cases associated with the Iowa House of Representatives. Legislative leaders have routinely not identified those who have tested positive with the virus. Safety protocols that Republican leaders have put in place do not require disclosure of cases, although leaders have encouraged it.
Overland Park: A judge dismissed a lawsuit filed against the Blue Valley school district by a Johnson County commissioner who was denied entry into a district meeting because she refused to wear a mask. Johnson County District Judge Robert Wonnell ruled Friday that Commissioner Charlotte O’Hara had no standing to file the lawsuit under a state law passed last month that details how people can object to COVID-19 restrictions. O’Hara said she has a medical condition that exempts her from wearing a mask, and she was told unless she could show proof of the exemption, she could not attend a Tuesday hearing on the mask mandate, The Kansas City Star reports. In a motion to dismiss the lawsuit, Blue Valley officials argued O’Hara was not harmed by the district’s enforcement of the mask rule. The hearing was postponed after another person refused to wear a mask, and it was held virtually Wednesday. The district also argued O’Hara doesn’t have standing to challenge the law because she is not an employee, student, parent or guardian of district student. She does have grandchildren in the district. District officials announced Thursday that Blue Valley will keep its mask requirement until the end of the school year.
Gov. Andy Beshear greets a motorist who arrived for her vaccine at the Cardinal Stadium parking lot's COVID-19 vaccination site. The site — at the Purple Lot — will be available for the next seven weeks for vaccinations. April 12, 2021 (Photo: Matt Stone/Courier Journal)
Louisville: Gov. Andy Beshear vowed Monday to lift capacity restrictions at most venues and businesses once 2.5 million Kentuckians have received at least their first COVID-19 shot, offering an incentive to accelerate the vaccination pace. The Democratic governor’s announcement coincided with the opening of the state’s largest vaccination site at Cardinal Stadium in Louisville. The goal is to vaccine 200,000 people in the next seven weeks at the massive drive-thru location, he said. More than 1.5 million Kentuckians have received at least their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine, but Beshear has stressed recently that many sites have available openings. He’s hoping the new the vaccination goal for ending capacity restrictions at most businesses and venues will offer an enticement to pick up the pace. That threshold could be reached in as little as 31/2 weeks given current vaccine supplies, but “realistically” it’s probably going to take four to six weeks to achieve it, he said. “But it is all up to us,” the governor said. “Every single individual’s choices can get us closer to that normalcy we’ve been looking for.” Meeting his “vaccination challenge” also would result in removing physical distancing restrictions as well as curfew restrictions on bars and restaurants. A mask mandate would remain.
Baton Rouge: The state has opened a vaccine hotline to help people schedule appointments and connect those reluctant about getting the shot to medical professionals who can answer questions. The hotline at 1-855-453-0774 is part of the Louisiana health department’s outreach work to bolster COVID-19 vaccination rates in a state that exceeds many of its Southern neighbors but lags much of the nation. Hotline hours are 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 8 p.m. Sunday. The call center aims to assist those who have been unable to navigate online scheduling systems for vaccine doses because they don’t have internet access or aren’t tech-savvy. But the health department also sees it as a way to provide science-based information about the vaccines to those who may be on the fence because of worries about safety. Gov. John Bel Edwards said the state is shifting some workers it hired to do contact tracing to staff the vaccine hotline instead. The contact tracing work has never produced as much robust information as state officials had hoped. Meanwhile, the Federal Emergency Management Agency will open its first Louisiana mass vaccination site next Friday in Baton Rouge, capable of administering up to 3,000 shots a day, President Joe Biden’s administration announced Friday.
Portland: Organizers of the Portland Pops July 4th celebration said the event is canceled again this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. The city, Shamrock Sports & Entertainment, and the Portland Symphony Orchestra issued a joint statement Friday saying the event has been canceled “in order to ensure the health and safety of the community.” The organizers said they’re hopeful for next year. “We are excited to explore the possibility of continuing this beloved tradition in 2022,” the statement said. The statement also said the city is considering the possibility of still holding a fireworks display. The event and fireworks were both canceled last year. Meanwhile, schools in one of the state’s largest school districts are going remote this week because illness is preventing bus drivers from working. Lewiston school Superintendent Jake Langlais said in a Sunday letter to parents that the transportation staff is dealing with three cases of the coronavirus and two other medical situations. “I know this impacts each and every family,” the letter said. “However, if we cannot transport our students we need to be remote.”
Annapolis: Statewide disparities in COVID-19 vaccinations expose barriers that underserved populations face in avoiding life-threatening infection. Maryland’s early vaccination rollout shows a pattern of racial disparity mostly among Black and Latino residents. Health care disparities hold a firm grip on communities of color in the state, a reality that has only worsened with the pandemic. According to state data, an average of 62% of vaccine doses have gone to white residents, with only 21% going to Black Marylanders. In Prince George’s County, Latino residents make up 20% of the population, but only 5.7% have received two doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, according to the county’s vaccine dashboard. As of April 6, Black people in Baltimore City have received 28.5% of the total vaccinations administered, despite accounting for 62% of Baltimore’s population. “We need to see decisions and structures put in place for those with the greatest need for the vaccine because they are the ones that are getting sicker,” said Dana Moore, Baltimore City’s first chief equity officer. Health officials say they are working toward prioritizing vaccines for minority residents, but so far the data has not shown significant changes.
Worcester: The College of the Holy Cross has restricted all in-person activities, including varsity sports, until at least Wednesday in response to dozens of new coronavirus cases on campus. Contact tracing shows that of at least 40 new cases, most are linked to outdoor gatherings of students during warmer weather and Easter break travel, the Jesuit school said Friday. Classes will be held remotely, the library is closed, and Sunday Mass was livestreamed. Students who live off campus will not be allowed on, except for virus testing, visits to health services and picking up food from the dining hall. Students who violate the restrictions face “serious consequences,” the school said. “We’ve noticed more close contacts converting to positive cases than earlier in the year. More students who test positive are also reporting more serious symptoms than in the past,” the school said. The college, with about 3,000 students, will reevaluate restrictions Wednesday.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer talks about the statewide COVID-19 vaccination effort during a press conference Monday outside the Eastern Michigan University Convocation Center, which was hosting a vaccination clinic, in Ypsilanti, Mich. (Photo: Lon Horwedel/Detroit News via AP)
Lansing: Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Monday outlined her priorities for spending billions of dollars in federal coronavirus relief aid, saying the focus should be on long-lasting initiatives to help small businesses, support job growth and upgrade neglected infrastructure. Other priorities include additional public health and mental health funding, expanded access to preschool and child care, and programs to address pandemic-related learning loss. The Democratic governor said the $18 billion-plus coming to Michigan as part of a $1.9 trillion rescue package is a “once-in-a-generation opportunity.” About $5.7 billion is for state government, $4.4 billion is for municipalities, and $3.9 billion is for K-12 schools. Both Whitmer and the Republican-led Legislature will need to agree before much of the funding is disbursed.
Minneapolis: Rising commodity prices, good weather and two rounds of government aid in 2020 led the state’s farmers to their most profitable year in nearly a decade. A report from the University of Minnesota Extension and the Minnesota State Agricultural Centers of Excellence pegs median farm net income at nearly $107,000 last year following seven years of low profitability. By contrast, from 2013 to 2019, the state’s median annual farm profit hovered between $27,000 and $42,700. Economists say 2020 provided “a sigh of relief,” though they are measured their assessment because of the volatility of farming, the Star Tribune reports. Without government aid, Minnesota farmers would have experienced an eighth straight year of low profitability, said Pauline Van Nurden of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Farm Financial Management. “Farms did have a successful year last year – a profitable year – given all of the challenges of the pandemic,” Van Nurden said. “It was the first year in eight years that they’ve really seen strong profits. It’s been a pretty long downturn up until now.” Government support played a key role in farm profits last year, accounting for 12% of gross farm income for the average producer.
Raymond: Hinds Community College is offering free classes this summer, using federal coronavirus relief money to cover the costs of tuition, fees and books. Registration opened Monday for new students at the central Mississippi college. Classes begin June 1. The college said in a news release that people can earn up to 12 hours of credit through the free in-person or online courses. The classes are available to current Hinds students, dual enrolled students, high school graduates, transfers from other colleges and university students who want to take summer courses at Hinds. Information is available at hindscc.edu/summer.
A person receives a dose of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine during the mass vaccination clinic at the Hammon's Student Center on Thursday, April 8, 2021. (Photo: Andrew Jansen/News-Leader)
Springfield: A “mega vaccine event” mounted at the campus of Missouri State University on Thursday and Friday didn’t meet its stated goal of vaccinating 10,000 people, despite the fact that Gov. Mike Parson said earlier in the week that the event would welcome walk-ins with no online registration needed. Even so, turnout broke a single-day state record for vaccinating people against COVID-19, according to a Springfield-Greene County Health Department news release issued early Friday evening. The health department said that over the two-day event, 6,131 Missourians were vaccinated with Johnson & Johnson’s one-dose shot. On Friday, 4,385 doses were administered, breaking a single-day record of 3,999 doses set earlier by St. Charles County. The health department said Springfield’s mega event was “the largest one-dose vaccination event in the state of Missouri to date.”
Helena: The last time the Legislature directed money to college students who need it most, it set aside $2 million, and private foundations matched the amount for a $4 million total over the 2021 biennium. This time, various proposals for need-based aid have come and gone for smaller amounts, but the most recent federal coronavirus aid package directs a whole lot more to campuses – $38 million over two years – said Tyler Trevor, deputy commissioner for budget and planning in the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education. “So we’re doing really good in financial aid world,” Trevor said of the money universities are getting from the American Rescue Plan Act. Part of the idea is that students who had to drop out of college because of the pandemic can get some assistance going back. Trevor said campuses have to use half of their recovery money toward “emergency aid,” which has similar criteria to Pell Grants. Pell Grants go to students who demonstrate financial need. In Montana, they account for some 37.5% of the Montana University System enrollment, but they’ve made up as much as 47%, Trevor said. The money isn’t limited to being used on tuition. It can cover room and board or a laptop for a student who suddenly has to take courses online.
Omaha: Residents who have tested positive for coronavirus antibodies in the past three months are no longer required to quarantine if they get exposed to the virus again, but they’ll still have to wear a mask in public, state officials said Monday. Officials plan to update the state’s public health requirements this week to match new guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said Felicia Quintana-Zinn, an administrator with the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. Previously, people who were exposed to the virus were required by the state’s health directives to self-isolate for at least 14 days. “If you have a positive test result that shows you’ve got the antibodies, and you’ve been exposed, then you don’t have to quarantine like you normally would,” Gov. Pete Ricketts said at a news conference. “But you still have to wear a mask in public.” About 29% of Nebraska residents 16 and older have been fully vaccinated, according to the state’s online tracking portal. As of Monday, there were 168 people hospitalized with the virus in the state, a figure that has risen in recent weeks but is substantially lower than the record highs of mid-November, when nearly 1,000 were hospitalized. The state has confirmed 214,351 cases and 2,221 deaths since the pandemic began.
Las Vegas: A new expo center has opened downtown, marking a first step toward recovery after conventions and trade shows came to a halt last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A new $103.5 million Expo at World Market Center opened Friday ahead of five days of market show dates this week at the sprawling facility near the Spaghetti Bowl interchange on Interstate 15. The twice-a-year trade show draws thousands of home and gift industry professionals to Las Vegas to see new designs in furniture, bedding, lighting, flooring and home decor. The three-year project is an investment by Blackstone, International Market Center parent company. At 315,000 square feet, the Expo was designed as a gateway between the temporary market exhibits and permanent showrooms on the 5 million-square-foot World Market Center Las Vegas campus. Company CEO Bob Maricich noted that the trade show is the first in Las Vegas since conferences and conventions were shuttered in March 2020 to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
Concord: A federal appeals court has vacated a judge’s ruling that upheld the state House speaker’s refusal to provide remote access to legislative sessions to lawmakers at a higher risk of serious complications from COVID-19. Seven Democratic lawmakers sued Sherman Packard, a Republican, arguing that holding in-person sessions without a remote option violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and the state and federal constitutions and that it forced them to either risk their lives or abandon their duties as elected officials. A federal judge ruled against them, saying the House could proceed with in-person sessions. But the Boston-based 1st Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday sent the case back to the judge in Concord with instructions to hold further proceedings to determine if the plaintiffs are “persons with disabilities within the meaning” of the ADA or the federal Rehabilitation Act. The court also ruled that the Concord judge “should also determine whether – and to what extent – changing circumstances may moot the plaintiffs’ claims,” as vaccines become more available. House Democratic Leader Renny Cushing said the decision was “a great victory for democracy,” WMUR-TV reports. “It sends a clear message the Legislature is not above the constitution and ADA.”
A dealer conducts a game of roulette at the Hard Rock Casino in Atlantic City, N.J., on July 2, 2020, the first day the casino was allowed to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo: Wayne Parry/AP)
Atlantic City: The coronavirus outbreak sent profits plunging at Atlantic City’s casinos by more than 80% last year, according to figures released Friday by state gambling regulators. But despite those dismal numbers, seven of the nine casinos still managed to eke out a profit, no matter how small, in 2020. The state Division of Gaming Enforcement reported the nine casinos collectively posted $117.5 million in gross operating profits in 2020. That was down from nearly $594 million a year earlier, before the pandemic forced casinos to close for 31/2 months and limited their operations even after reopening. Gross operating profit reflects earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and other expenses and is a widely accepted measure of profitability in the Atlantic City casino industry. “Atlantic City and its casinos endured their most challenging year in history,” said James Plousis, chair of the New Jersey Casino Control Commission. Even after being allowed to reopen in July, the casinos’ earnings were limited by travel restrictions, limited amenities and canceled entertainment, he said. “Yet, through responsible management, the casinos proved that in-person gaming could happen safely,” Plousis said. “As tourists return to the shore, they can have every confidence Atlantic City is safe for the summer.”
Santa Fe: Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a $7.4 billion general fund spending plan for the coming fiscal year that boosts state funding for public education, early childhood services and more – while using her veto pen Friday to assert sole authority over $1.6 billion in new federal pandemic relief funding. General fund spending will increase by 5% during the fiscal year that starts July 1, with more than one-third of the increase directed toward education. The governor vetoed the Legislature’s recommendations for spending more than $1 billion in federal relief on initiatives that avoid future payroll tax increases on businesses, underwrite college tuition for in-state students, backfill lost income at state museums and more. New Mexico’s $1.6 billion share of financial relief approved by President Joe Biden and Congress dwarfs that state’s incremental annual increases in spending on state agencies and education. Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said that the state is waiting on instructions from the U.S. Treasury Department on how relief funds may be used and that the executive branch of state government has full authority to assign the money. That clashes with legal interpretations from leading legislators.
New York: Some 51,000 more New York City students will return to in-person schooling later this month, bringing the total number of students in school buildings to 365,000 out of 960,000 non-charter public school students, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Monday. “We have just over 50,000 students who have opted in for in-person learning again across all grade levels,” the Democratic mayor said at a virtual news briefing. “They are all welcome back.” Parents whose children were attending school remotely were given a two-week window ending last Friday for opting back in to classroom learning. De Blasio said he was not surprised that the majority of families choose to stick with remote schooling. “My view is, a lot of parents were really focused on the scheduling question,” the mayor said. “They had gotten into a schedule that worked for them with remote. The kids had gotten used to and like the teachers they had. And they didn’t want to disrupt that. I think that’s where most parents were at.” De Blasio said some parents may still choose online learning next fall, but he expects that “the vast majority of parents are going to want their kids in school five days a week.”
A statue in Burgaw commemorating the NC Blueberry Festival, which was canceled this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo: EMMA DILL/STARNEWS)
Wilmington: This year’s North Carolina Blueberry Festival has been canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic and resulting state restrictions on mass gatherings. “This decision is very difficult to make, but we do it to keep our vendors, volunteers and visitors safe,” Pete Cowan, the festival’s sponsorship chairman, said in a press release. “The Blueberry Festival Board has looked at this from all sides; and we cannot get around the fact that the festival attracts over 40,000 people and current state mandates on outdoor gatherings just won’t allow us to hold the festival.” The celebration, founded in 2003 as a way to celebrate the local blueberry harvest and Pender County tourism, is typically held on the third Saturday in June in Burgaw, with events that include the Tour de Blueberry bicycle race, a barbecue cook-off and a blueberry recipe contest. The festival was also canceled in 2020. To support local farmers, organizers said several have been invited to sell blueberries at the Burgaw Courthouse Square on June 19. The N.C. Blueberry Festival Association plans to hold other community events this fall that will include festival-themed activities, blueberry pancakes and other sweet treats. It will also participate in the Town of Burgaw Blueberry Drop on New Year’s Eve.
Bismarck: The state reported 48 more people had tested positive for the coronavirus Sunday, bringing the statewide total for active cases to 1,111. The average number of cases has been on the rise in recent weeks. Over the past two weeks, the rolling average number of daily new cases has increased by 20%, according to Johns Hopkins University researchers. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 276,426 people – representing more than 36% of the state’s population – have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. About 26% of people have completed the vaccination process, according to the CDC. The state’s Department of Health did not report any new deaths Sunday, but four more people were hospitalized with the virus. A total of 35 people were hospitalized with COVID-19, but only three were in intensive care units. Over the course of the pandemic, 1,471 North Dakotans have died after contracting COVID-19.
Cincinnati: The state’s mask mandate remains in effect, officials clarified after confusion over a new order that replaced 18 others. Last week, Gov. Mike DeWine announced the state would simplify coronavirus-related restrictions on businesses, events and more. At the same time the revised order was issued, another order rescinded 18 others, including the state’s face mask order. People who only saw the latter might have thought that meant facial coverings and other mitigation measures, such as requiring space between tables at bars and restaurants, were no longer required. But the new, broader order stated in the second section that masks were still required in indoor spaces outside one’s home and other situations. Ohio Department of Health Director Stephanie McCloud signed a revised health order Friday meant to clear things up. The revised order also includes new language that clarifies that tables at restaurants, bars and banquet facilities must be spaced 6 feet apart unless there is a physical barrier between them. DeWine has said all health orders, including the mask mandate, would be lifted when Ohio reaches a rate of 50 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents during a two-week period. That number was 183.7 on Thursday.
Tulsa: A citywide mask mandate for the public is expected to end April 30, according to Mayor G.T. Bynum. “There has not been a spike in contagion resulting from spring break,” Bynum said Friday after meeting with Tulsa Health Department officials. “If these trends continue through the end of the month, the Health Department’s recommendation is that the city’s mask ordinance can expire as scheduled on April 30. I support this recommendation.” Bynum said private businesses are allowed to require masks, and restaurant and bar employees must continue wearing them. Events with more than 150 people must also meet spacing requirements, and events of more than 500 people must have a safety plan approved by health officials, Bynum said. Tulsa and Oklahoma City officials each approved mask mandates in July. The Oklahoma City Council is scheduled to vote Tuesday on whether to allow its mandate to expire April 30 as well.
Salem: Demand for COVID-19 vaccines is leveling off in some counties, even as eligibility drastically expands. All Oregonians over age 16 will be eligible for a shot April 19. But officials expect by mid-May – well before the state achieves enough community immunity to stop the coronavirus’ spread – some areas will have more shots than people willing to get them. The Oregon Health Authority doesn’t track or estimate the number of people refusing shots overall or in certain categories, OHA spokeswoman Delia Hernandez said. But after weeks of eligibility for seniors, state data is beginning to reflect that vaccine hesitancy. In seven of the state’s less populous counties, less than half of those 65 and older have been vaccinated, OHA said. Asked why they might hesitate to get the shot, most residents’ responses fell into three broad categories: Some are concerned the vaccine was developed and approved too quickly, with unknown long-term side effects. Others say the vaccine is pointless if recipients still have to wear masks and socially distance and if immunity wears off quickly. And still others have a general distrust of government. Jennifer Benson, 66, of Damascus, said she was “unsure if we should be controlled to get the vaccine.”
Ashley Conte, a registered nurse with Allegheny Health Network, gives Wei Wei Zhang her first dose of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine Monday at NextTier Connect at Pittsburgh East in Monroeville, Pa. (Photo: Nate Guidry/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)
Harrisburg: The state will expand vaccine eligibility to all adults beginning Tuesday, nearly a week ahead of schedule, as supply begins to catch up with demand and as officials try to keep pace with a mutating coronavirus. Vaccine providers told the Health Department they were having trouble filling appointments, signaling that it was time for the state to abandon its phased rollout and make COVID-19 vaccines available to everyone 16 and older, the acting health secretary, Alison Beam, said Monday. The quickened pace comes as Pennsylvania grapples with a spring surge in coronavirus cases and hospitalizations. “We need to maintain acceleration of the vaccine rollout, especially as case counts and hospitalization rates have increased,” Gov. Tom Wolf said in a statement. Most states have already established universal eligibility ahead of an April 19 deadline set by President Joe Biden. Wolf had said last week that the state was taking a more gradual approach in hopes of avoiding the kind of bottleneck that occurred when Pennsylvania rapidly expanded vaccine eligibility to everyone 65 and older in January. The state has since improved its vaccine rollout. About 39% of the population has now received at least one dose, 11th among all states, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Providence: Al Fresco on the Hill is returning to the city. The program to allow struggling restaurants on Federal Hill to set up tables on the street in a safe manner is scheduled to start May 14 and run for about 20 weeks through early October, Mayor Jorge Elorza said Friday. Under the program, a portion of Atwells Avenue will close to motor vehicles on Fridays and Saturdays from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Rick Simone of the Federal Hill Commerce Association said about 25 restaurants are planning on participating, but he expects that number to grow.
Charleston: An epic staffing shortage has unnerved area restaurant owners who fear the inability to meet customers’ expectations will jeopardize businesses they kept afloat throughout the pandemic, The Post and Courier reports. Restaurateurs are frantically paring down menus and abbreviating service hours in hopes of compensating for unfilled positions. For employees, though, there are no workarounds for the pent-up demand for dine-in meals colliding headlong into restaurants struggling to rebuild their staffs. Forced to deal with customers who didn’t use their pandemic year to acquire compassion, workers say they’re facing unprecedented stress that’s made them reconsider their decision to stick with the hospitality industry. Giselle Gaeta, who works at the Summerville location of Cuban Gypsy Pantry, said she and her colleagues are scrambling to cover a shortfall with the restaurant down five employees. But her best wasn’t enough for a recent customer who bypassed the pre-calculated tip choices on his check to leave a “custom tip” of 8% on a $57.88 bill. “Smile & be a little more polite,” he wrote, drawing a little happy face to show what he had in mind. Beyond the chaos that customers can see, Gaeta said patrons don’t appreciate the huge volume of to-go orders that restaurants are now processing.
Sioux Falls: Half of the population age 16 and over has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, the state Department of Health announced Saturday. Health officials opened vaccine eligibility to anyone over 16 last Monday. Nearly 300,000 residents in total have received at least a single dose of the vaccine, and about 70% of those people have completed their vaccinations. “This milestone would not have been possible without the help of our healthcare professionals and all responsible South Dakotans who’ve chosen to be vaccinated,” Secretary of Health Kim Malsam-Rysdon said in a statement. “Vaccinations is the quickest way out of this pandemic.” However, Malsam-Rysdon warned that there has been a 75% jump in COVID-19 infections among people in their 20s over the past six weeks. The state has reported 2,413 people with active infections, including 238 new cases. There are 102 people in the hospital with COVID-19.
Nashville: State labor officials are continuing to offer free online courses to help people without work during the pandemic advance their skills. The Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development said the Coursera Workforce Recovery Initiative will run through the end of 2021. The department said thousands of Tennesseans took advantage of the program last year. Coursera partners with 200 leading university and industry educators to offer thousands of courses across business, technology and data science that help prepare people with no degree or technology background for entry-level work in fields that include IT support, project management, UX design and data analytics. Tennesseans interested in the program can create an account on Jobs4TN.gov and email their name and phone number to [email protected]
Registered nurse April Burge administers the first dose of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine to Texas Gov. Greg Abbott at the Ascension Seton Medical Center on Dec. 22. (Photo: Ricardo B. Brazziell /American-Statesman)
Austin: Gov. Greg Abbott said Texas is “very close” to reaching herd immunity against COVID-19, an assessment that runs counter to recent comments by health experts and his own medical adviser. Speaking to Fox News on Sunday, Abbott touted the state’s relatively low coronavirus numbers. Roughly 19% of Texans are fully vaccinated. More than 70% of the state’s seniors have received a vaccine. More than 50% of Texans 50 to 65 years old have received a shot, Abbott said. “I don’t know what herd immunity is, but when you add it to the people who have acquired immunity, it looks like it could be very close to herd immunity,” he said. Estimates vary on what percentage of the population must be protected from the disease to reach herd immunity. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, has said the number could be as high as 85%. Abbott’s own medical adviser, Dr. John Zerwas, said this month that even if the goal is 70%, “we’ve got a ways to go.” He said the rising number of vaccinated Texans could be slowing the spread of the virus. Other health experts were less optimistic. Lauren Ancel Meyers, director of the UT COVID-19 modeling consortium, attributed the drop in coronavirus numbers to changes in behaviors and policies at the local level.
Salt Lake City: A clothing store was forced to close for a day after employees said a man refused to wear a mask and then threatened to shoot everyone in the store. “I asked him to put a mask on, and immediately he just started to be really combative about the whole thing,” Stockist employee Josh Edgar told KSTU-TV. “After a couple of minutes, I got him out of the store. Meanwhile, he was still yelling at us and calling us names.” When the man was outside, he threatened to come back with a gun and shoot the place up, Edgar said. “My mind just went to Atlanta and Denver and everywhere else that there has been a mass shooting as of late,” Edgar said. Employees called the police, and owner Helen Wade closed the store for the day Sunday. A statewide mask mandate had expired Saturday, but Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall extended the city’s mask mandate. Businesses around the state are still able to mandate masks as they wish. The store reopened Monday without further incident. Still, Wade said she is concerned this type of behavior might occur again at her store. “I am definitely scared that we are going to see more of this,” she said.
Burlington: The University of Vermont is promising to “take strong and swift action” against students who violated the school’s COVID-19 safety restrictions at a Lake Champlain beach. Hundreds of young people flocked to Burlington’s North Beach to enjoy the summerlike weather Saturday. UVM Vice President Gary Derr said if UVM students at the beach weren’t social distancing or wearing masks, they could be subject to school discipline. At the beginning of the semester, the students agreed to follow Vermont’s COVID-19 guidelines. Derr said officials are examining videos of people at the beach. “We are going to be looking that over,” Derr said. “We are going to be looking at other information we might have, and if we can successfully identify individuals that were up there that were violating university policy, we will take strong and swift action on this.” The university reported nearly 100 new coronavirus cases last week. The total number of cases for the spring semester is now more than 500. “Our message to everybody is not who was there or who wasn’t there,” Derr said. “We all need to be safe. … Now is not the time to back down.”
Norfolk: A federal grand jury has indicted four people for their roles in a scheme to use the identities of 35 state prison inmates to secure more than $300,000 in pandemic-related unemployment benefits, federal authorities said Friday. Two women worked with two inmates at correctional institutions to collect information of other inmates to apply for the unemployment benefits, according to a news release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia. The two men who were serving time were accused of providing information for inmates where they were incarcerated, according to the news release. The four people charged and the prisoners whose IDs were used shared about $335,000, prosecutors said. Although the conspirators initially obtained $436,834, the Virginia Employment Commission was able to reclaim some of that after discovering the fraud, according to the news release. Mary Benton, 38, of Portsmouth, and Angelica Cartwright-Powers, 35, of Norfolk, face multiple charges, as do inmates Michael Lee Lewis, Jr., 41, of Chesapeake, and Michael Anthony White, 38, also of Chesapeake. If convicted, the conspirators face a maximum of five years in prison on a conspiracy charge and 30 years in prison on each fraud charge.
Tacoma: Pacific Lutheran University will cut three dozen full-time positions to stabilize its budget after a monthslong review by faculty of potential reductions. The cuts will eliminate majors in German and Nordic studies; minors in classical studies, German and Norwegian, and the Master of Science in finance degree, The News Tribune in Tacoma reports. “While difficult, this work is an essential step in our strategic plan, and will allow PLU to remain true to its mission,” President Allan Belton said in a statement. Course offerings won’t be affected until the 2022-23 academic year, and the university will work with students to complete their major or minor if they are already enrolled. The reductions affect departments across the university, according to Antonios Finitsis, an associate professor in the university’s religion department. Finitsis also served as chair of the Faculty Joint Commission, which was responsible for reviewing enrollment data, the demand for majors, minors, and graduate programs and the faculty needed to support them. “Even though it was painful, upsetting, anxiety-generating work, we did the absolute best we could,” Finitsis told The News Tribune. Belton told faculty last year that the university was facing declining enrollment, anticipated budget shortfalls and impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Charleston: Gov. Jim Justice on Monday urged more residents to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and made a plea for residents to trust medical experts. The Republican said more than 75% of residents 65 and older have received at least one vaccine dose, but he has a goal of at least 85% coverage. The state opened up eligibility to all residents 16 and older last month. “We’re constantly looking for arms to put vaccines in,” Justice said at his coronavirus news briefing. More than 90% of total doses currently in the state have been administered. About 37% of West Virginia’s 1.78 million residents have received at least one vaccine dose, state data show. Nearly 26% are fully inoculated against the illness that has killed 2,745 people in the state so far. Justice addressed people who may be holding out on rolling up their sleeves: “You may be sitting there and thinking, ‘Well, now that there’s been a bunch of people to get vaccinated, I can slide by and just not get vaccinated.’ Oh, what a chance you’re taking.” He noted the danger of coronavirus variants that are more infectious and deadly. Monongalia County, home to West Virginia University in Morgantown, announced Monday that it has nearly 200 identified cases of variant strains. Officials said there are 164 cases of the California variant and 32 of the U.K. variant.
The sign outside Aldo Leopold Community School in Green Bay, Wis., welcomes back students upon their return to in-person classes in March 2021 after almost a year of virtual learning due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo: Sarah Kloepping/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin)
Madison: Almost all urban schools in the state taught their students virtually in December, compared with only a fraction of rural schools, according to a study released Monday. The Wisconsin Policy Forum released findings based on a state survey of Wisconsin schools that participate in the National School Lunch Program. About 4 of every 5 public and private schools responded to the survey, which found 80% to 90% of urban schools had all or mostly virtual instruction in December depending on the grade. That compares with 40% to 50% of suburban schools and 14% to 18% of rural schools. The Wisconsin Policy Forum noted that the data is ambiguous in some cases. For example, if a grade is marked as 40% virtual, that could mean either all students are virtual two days a week, or most students are attending class in person five days a week, but 40% chose an all-virtual option. Data for the early months of 2021 isn’t available yet.
Cheyenne: Lawmakers ended a monthlong legislative session without agreement on resolving a $300 million education funding shortfall. House and Senate members remained at odds late Wednesday on where cuts should occur, how to spend federal funds and whether to impose a 0.5% sales tax if state reserves fall below a certain level, the Casper Star-Tribune reports. The legislative session, extended two days because of a blizzard that shut down the Capitol in March, ended with one of the session’s major items still on the table. The K-12 shortfall has been exacerbated by a coronavirus-related downturn in fossil-fuel markets that is straining Wyoming’s economy and state revenue. Lawmakers had agreed to a supplemental budget with $430 million in cuts, an unusually big revision for a general session. Legislators write the state’s two-year budget in even-numbered years and focus mainly on non-budget matters in odd-numbered years. Last year, state agency cuts imposed by Gov. Mark Gordon, a Republican, slashed 10% from the $3.3 billion, two-year budget he signed just months earlier. The cuts in this year’s supplemental budget bring the overall budget well below $3 billion. Now, Wyoming will keep burning through state savings to keep its school districts funded.
From USA TODAY Network and wire reports
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