Montgomery: The state is expanding eligibility later this month for COVID-19 vaccinations to more front-line workers, residents with certain chronic health conditions, and people 55 and older, officials announced Friday. “We have been concerned that many people at high risk and others engaged in close-contact work have not been eligible to receive the vaccine yet, but with the additional vaccine supply we are better able to meet the needs of Alabama residents,” Gov. Kay Ivey said in a statement. The expansion, starting March 22, will add more than 2 million people to the groups who can receive a COVID-19 vaccination in Alabama, roughly doubling the number of people now eligible. But demand continues to exceed supply and will increase the competition to find shots. State Health Officer Scott Harris said eligibility was expanded because of the expectations of the public and health officials that the supply will jump over the coming weeks. “I would just encourage people to please remember to be patient. They have been patient for so long and we are really very very close to having enough vaccine to go around. I think in a month, probably six weeks at least, there is going to be more than an adequate supply of vaccine,” Harris said Friday.
Juneau: State Sen. Lora Reinbold was allowed to participate in a floor session Friday after special accommodations were made for the Republican who legislative leaders say has refused to comply with protocols meant to guard against the spread of the coronavirus at the Capitol. Before the session started, the chamber doors were closed, which is unusual, and the sergeant at arms stood in front. When Reinbold approached, holding her phone to record the interaction, she was directed to a visitors’ gallery, where she sat alone. Roll, typically called with lawmakers pressing buttons at their desks, was called orally. Two days earlier, senators voted to allow leadership to restrict access by Reinbold to the Capitol until she complies with rules aimed at curbing the virus’s spread. Reinbold continued Friday to wear the type of clear face shield she has worn since the session started in January, which leaders say does not comply with the rules. She also said she was working from her Capitol office and showed up before the start of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which she chairs, before turning the gavel over to her vice chair and participating by video conference.
Phoenix: The state can meet President Joe Biden’s goal to offer vaccinations to everyone who wants one by May as long as the federal government supplies enough doses, Gov. Doug Ducey said Friday. “If we have the supply, we certainly have the infrastructure,” Ducey told Phoenix radio station KTAR-FM. Arizona is scheduling COVID-19 vaccines for people 55 and older through four state-run mass vaccination sites in Phoenix and Tucson, and the state plans to lower the threshold to age 45 on April 1. Counties have their vaccine allotments and criteria to get them; some are prioritizing essential workers. Ducey said he’s focused for now on the “coalition of the willing” but plans to turn his attention to people who are apprehensive and communities where people don’t have cars or otherwise struggle to get to drive-thru inoculation sites. Low-income areas and communities of color have lagged wealthier and whiter ZIP codes in vaccination rates. Ducey’s top health official, Dr. Cara Christ, said the state is beginning intensive outreach efforts in areas with low levels of vaccination. Christ, director of the Arizona Department of Health Services, said she expects to open appointments for people 35 and older sometime in April and to meet Biden’s May 1 deadline for appointments to be open for everyone.
Little Rock: An additional 18 deaths from COVID-19 were reported Saturday by the Arkansas Department of Health, in addition to 314 more confirmed or suspected coronavirus cases in the state. There have been 326,813 confirmed or suspected cases and 5,455 deaths since the pandemic began, according to the health department. The seven-day rolling average of deaths in the state has increased during the past two weeks from 10 per day Feb. 25 to 22 on Thursday, according to data from Johns Hopkins University, while the seven-day average of new cases decreased during the same time frame, from 560.7 daily to 310. Arkansas ranked 17th in the nation in new cases per capita with 260.8 per 100,000 population, according to the Johns Hopkins data. Gov. Asa Hutchinson said the state is on schedule to meet President Joe Biden’s goal to make all adults eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine by May 1, assuming the available supply is sufficient. He expanded the state’s eligibility last week to the rest of those in its 1B category, which he said in a statement was expected to be completed this month.
Los Angeles: Coronavirus hospitalizations in Los Angeles County slipped below 1,000 for the first time in nearly four months, officials reported Saturday, as case rates also remained low and as much of the state prepared for some restrictions to be lifted. The number of patients with COVID-19 in LA County hospitals hit 979, the fewest since Nov. 23, the county health department said. The 3,250 people hospitalized statewide represented a drop of more than 85% since peaking around 22,000 in early January, the state Department of Public Health said Saturday. State officials announced Friday that 13 counties would be eligible to open restaurants, movie theaters, gyms and museums at limited capacity Sunday. The easing of restrictions is a result of the state hitting a 2 million equity metric aimed at getting more vaccines into low-income communities. The counties eligible to reopen included Contra Costa and Sonoma in the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles. San Bernardino and Orange said they’d reopen those businesses Sunday, although LA County officials said they’d wait until Monday. Another 13 counties – including San Diego, Sacramento, Riverside and Ventura – are expected to reopen Wednesday under a different metric. Hard-hit Kern and Fresno in the central valley remain in the most restrictive tier.
Denver: Gov. Jared Polis said he expects every resident to be eligible to get vaccinated by mid-April, a faster timeline than what President Joe Biden previously announced. On Thursday, Biden said he’s directing all states to open vaccine eligibility to all ages May 1. “In Colorado, we always aim to do better,” Polis said at a news conference Friday. “We’re very competitive, and … we’re able to announce today that we expect we will be there by mid-April. We will have that date in the next week or two as we further refine our supply projections.” When eligibility opens to all residents, providers will be able to use their own discretion to prioritize those in higher-risk categories, said Scott Bookman, COVID-19 incident commander. Polis made the prediction Friday as he also announced that residents over age 50 and essential workers would be eligible by March 19 – two days earlier than previously expected. By March 17, vaccine providers should have information on how to sign up for the latest eligible group, Polis said. The state estimates about 2.5 million people will be eligible in this group, Bookman said, including workers in the Postal Service, restaurants, higher education and those over the age of 16 with one high-risk condition.
Hartford: Some lawmakers and the state’s restaurant association are raising concerns about the General Assembly’s latest effort to phase out single-use food containers, noting that many restaurants continue to rely heavily on takeout orders because of the pandemic. Rep. Stephen Harding, R-Brookfield, the top House Republican on the Environment Committee, said while the legislation would not bar restaurants from using expanded polystyrene containers until 2023, he still believes it makes sense to wait on passing the bill. “My biggest concern here is implementing legislation that would put further costs and mandates on these restaurants just as they’re trying to open their doors once again and trying to make some level of profit,” said Harding, noting the uncertainty of when the coronavirus threat will finally be over. “This could last longer than we all expect, unfortunately,” Harding said, pledging his support once “we’re on the other side of this pandemic.” Sen. Christine Cohen, D-Guilford, the committee’s top Senate Democrat and owner of a bagel restaurant, said lawmakers purposely delayed implementation because of the financial challenges restaurants have faced, but the material is “incredibly harmful” to the environment and must be addressed. The bill advanced to the House for further action.
Wilmington: The chief justice of Delaware’s Supreme Court says jury trials and additional in-person court proceedings could return to state courts in June if current COVID-19 trends continue. In a statement Friday to judicial officers, employees and members of the Delaware Bar Association, Chief Justice Collins Seitz Jr. said the latest trends are encouraging, with the rates of positive tests, hospitalizations and deaths all down significantly from the peak in January. The Delaware State News reports Seitz also said vaccination clinics are planned for the judiciary and its justice partners. Seitz said he anticipates the state moving to Phase 3 of the courts’ reopening plan, assuming that “the downward trend in COVID-19 cases continues, and the vaccine becomes more widely available as promised.” In Phase 3, the courts will maintain current health safety precautions, including COVID-19 screening and temperature checks at the entrances to court facilities, as well as mask requirements and social distancing. He said due to the backlog of criminal cases, they will be given top priority during Phase 3.
District of Columbia
Washington: People gathered downtown Saturday to protest utility shut-offs that are still happening amid a pandemic that has delivered a financial wallop to many, WUSA-TV reports. Saturday’s demonstration outside the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services comes as a local D.C. moratorium on Pepco shut-offs, which has been in place since last year, is set to expire next month. Signs at the protest directed messages at President Joe Biden for not establishing a national moratorium on utility cutoffs for people who are having trouble paying the bills during the pandemic. A federal judge in Ohio recently ruled that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lacked the authority to issue a nationwide moratorium on rental evictions – the second such ruling issued by a federal judge in two weeks. U.S. District Judge J. Campbell Barker in the Eastern District of Texas had earlier determined that the moratorium was unconstitutional. The Justice Department is appealing that order.
Tallahassee: A measure that would shield businesses from COVID-19-related lawsuits could make it before the state Senate this week, providing another key test for a measure that supporters assert will protect against frivolous lawsuits but that critics worry could give blanket immunity to most business owners, including long-term care facilities, who negligently put the public and their workers in danger during the pandemic. Earlier this month, the House approved liability protections for most businesses, planning to later take up another bill specific to health care providers. The version coming before the Senate combines both into a single bill and would put pressure on the House to follow suit. And it could provide Democrats, who are generally opposed to the bills, with more opportunities to advocate for changes they hope will favor workers and consumers. Gov. Ron DeSantis has urged his allies in the Republican-controlled Legislature to make the COVID-19 liability issue a priority during their 60-day session, which is entering its third week. He has argued that a spate of lawsuits could translate to the loss of jobs. Immunity from such lawsuits is especially important for long-term care facilities. State health records show nearly 11,000 residents in those facilities died from the pandemic.
Savannah: The South’s largest St. Patrick’s Day parade is canceled, as is the boozy riverside festival that accompanies it. Regardless, the city has been preparing for its largest crowds since the yearlong pandemic began – an influx officials worry could bring a surge in coronavirus infections. The Irish holiday typically means Savannah’s manicured squares and magnolia-shaded sidewalks are packed with thousands of gaudy green revelers March 17. But with Georgia still reporting at least 1,000 new COVID-19 infections daily while ranking last in U.S. vaccinations, city officials again pulled the plug on this year’s parade. Likewise, Savannah City Hall withheld a permit for the sprawling St. Patrick’s festival that’s typically a magnet for beer-fueled revelry along the city’s riverfront promenade. But the city’s top tourism official expected hotels in the downtown historic district to be 90% full over the weekend – the busiest in the past year. Meanwhile, the owner of a new $375 million hotel and nightlife development covering a quarter-mile along the riverfront promoted a festival beginning Friday that Mayor Van Johnson called “a slap in the face” to the city’s efforts to curb coronavirus infections by forgoing events that draw big crowds. But Plant Riverside was relatively quiet Saturday morning.
Honolulu: The state won’t need to furlough or lay off workers because it will be receiving more financial help from federal coronavirus relief legislation, Gov. David Ige said Thursday. The Democratic governor had warned in December that the state would need to furlough more than 40,000 employees to balance the budget after plummeting tourism depleted tax revenue. Ige said his planned furloughs would cut worker pay by 9.2% and take effect Jan. 1. But Ige delayed the furloughs after Congress approved a second round of pandemic relief in December. The third and latest package signed by President Joe Biden, which provides Hawaii with about $1.6 billion to bolster its budget, allows Ige to take furloughs off the table completely. Hawaii’s tourism-dependent economy has been hit hard by the pandemic as hundreds of hotels shut down and furloughed and laid off workers. As of December, Hawaii had the highest jobless rate in the nation, at 9.3%, but that’s an improvement over the peak of 23.6% last April. Hawaii’s counties also will receive funding to help their budgets, and money will go to public schools, the University of Hawaii, and rent and mortgage assistance. The state Department of Health will receive funding to cover COVID-19 vaccinations and mental health and substance abuse programs.
Boise: The first significant piece of legislation aimed at trimming a governor’s powers during declared emergencies while increasing the Legislature’s power cleared the state Senate on Friday and is headed to the House. The Senate voted 27-7 to approve the measure that targets emergency powers during human-made events, such as a terrorist attack. A companion House bill targets a governor’s authority during natural disasters. Both bills have similar language. Lawmakers say the coronavirus pandemic showed that the state’s current system is a relic from the Cold War that concentrates too much power in the executive branch. Should a governor have the authority to declare an emergency “and then, without limitation, ad infinitum, forever and ever maintain that power and overturn the law, declare martial law, and exercise government by the military without ever calling upon the Legislature to consider the issue?” Republican Senate Majority Leader Kelly Anthon asked his fellow senators during debate on the Senate floor. Democratic Sen. Grant Burgoyne noted that the legislation supported by Republicans was caused by a pandemic that many in the GOP consider a hoax. “This fight against this horrible virus is not over – we still have work to do,” he said. “And in my estimation, this legislation is not equal to the task.”
Chicago: The Chicago River was dyed a bright shade of green Saturday after Mayor Lori Lightfoot reversed an earlier decision not to tint the waterway for a second year because of the coronavirus pandemic. Crews on boats began dumping green dye into the riverfront about 7 a.m. after Lightfoot authorized the dyeing ahead of St. Patrick’s Day, delighting pedestrians with the vivid scene. Chicago residents Lori Jones and Mike Smith surveyed the green waters, saying they were glad the tradition that dates to 1962 was resumed this year. “We truly missed it last year, as a lot of other things in 2020,” Jones, 59, told the Chicago Tribune. Last year, Lightfoot abruptly canceled the city’s 2020 parades and the river dyeing just days before they were to take place in the early days of the pandemic. She called off the parades again this year due to the lingering pandemic and said the river would once again not be dyed. But a Lightfoot spokesman said in a statement that the city opted “to honor the long-standing tradition” and authorized its partners, the Chicago Plumbers Union Local 130, to dye the river. The event was not publicized in advance “in order to minimize crowds and avoid congregating,” the spokesman said.
Indianapolis: Downtown Indianapolis began to emerge from the pandemic Saturday with a widespread slate of live music, dance, murals, storefront art and more outdoor activities. The goal of “Swish,” an arts and culture festival, is to safely celebrate alongside the NCAA Tournament. Almost 600 artists and creative professionals, many of whom have endured decimated incomes after a year’s worth of cancellations, are contributing to “Swish,” which will run through April 5. “Think about it from the human standpoint: One, we’re coming off of winter. Two, it’s winter with COVID,” said Karen Haley, executive director of the Cultural Trail, one of the organizers of the event. “All of us, I think, are just itching to have anything to do outside in places where we can be physically distant and still be able to be with your friends and family.” Organizers of the festival and beautification efforts include Visit Indy, Downtown Indy, Keep Indianapolis Beautiful, IndyHub, the Indianapolis Cultural Trail Inc., Indianapolis Urban League, Indiana Humanities, the Indianapolis Airport Authority, the Arts Council of Indianapolis and Indiana Sports Corp. All of the activities are free and open to the public. And they’re outdoors, along with plenty of signs reminding people to social distance and wear masks.
Iowa City: As coronavirus cases plummeted, the state quietly extended by three months a $3.9 million contact tracing contract with a company owned by a major Republican Party donor and supporter of Gov. Kim Reynolds, according to documents released Friday. After a one-day emergency bidding process in November, the Iowa Department of Public Health hired MCI, an Iowa City telemarketing firm, to trace the contacts of residents infected with the virus. The award of the original two-month, $2.3 million contract came during a surge in cases that filled up hospitals with patients and after months of complaints from counties about a shortage of contact tracing workers. MCI is owned by Anthony Marlowe, who was a delegate to the Republican National Convention last year and has emerged as a top donor for Republican Party groups and candidates in recent years. His company performed extensive telemarketing and data work for Donald Trump’s two presidential campaigns and also provided services for Reynolds’ political campaign. The public health department said in November that MCI was the highest-scoring out of 14 bidders and that its political connections played no role in it getting the contract. The company had been pitching its services to the state since the beginning of the pandemic.
Mission: A hospital had to throw away 570 doses of vaccine because of a refrigeration mistake, officials say. Lawrence Memorial Hospital said in a news release that city and county health officials transferred the doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to the hospital Wednesday. The hospital then put them in a freezer, not realizing they were thawed. Confusion arose because most doses are shipped frozen, but the health department had received this batch in a refrigerated state. The hospital reached out to J&J for guidance and was instructed that the doses would have to be discarded. LMH Health President & CEO Russ Johnson described what happened as a “heart-wrenching situation for our hospital,” which he said is reviewing processes aimed at preventing vaccine waste to prevent future errors. Health officials also have requested replacement doses and are working to reschedule appointments. Meanwhile, it isn’t clear whether the statewide state of emergency for the coronavirus pandemic will remain in effect past March 31, when it is due to expire. The Republican-controlled Legislature would have to extend it, and some GOP leaders want to let it and any remaining restrictions expire with new cases down.
Frankfort: Gov. Andy Beshear on Friday signed legislation allowing the state to waive the overpayment of some pandemic-related unemployment claims. The bill, which won bipartisan support, applies to some people who left their jobs early in the pandemic due to concerns about exposure to COVID-19. At the time, as Beshear encouraged people to stay “Healthy at Home,” the state signaled they’d be eligible for jobless assistance. Recipients, however, were later informed the money had to be given back. Beshear’s administration pointed to the U.S. Labor Department for the mix-up. On Friday, the Democratic governor said in a social media post that signing the measure was “the right thing to do to help Kentuckians as we recover from the pandemic.” The bill’s main sponsor was Republican Sen. David Givens. The measure seeks to remedy the unintended problem that was hanging over some Kentuckians by allowing the state Labor Cabinet to waive overpayments when the unemployment office was at fault. Recipients would be expected to request the waiver. Lawmakers had pointed to the hardships the reimbursements would cause people who, through no fault of their own, were being asked for the money back.
Baton Rouge: Gov. John Bel Edwards declared Sunday a “day of prayer and remembrance” for the more than 9,000 Louisianans who have died from COVID-19 since the outbreak began a year ago. Sunday marked the one-year anniversary of the first COVID-19 death in the state. “Sadly, there are thousands of empty seats at churches, Sunday dinners, family celebrations, homes, businesses and schools all across our state,” the Democratic governor said in a statement. “As we mourn, I am calling on all Louisianans to join me and Donna on Sunday for a moment of prayer or remembrance for those we have lost and their families and friends who need our support now more than ever.” The health department has confirmed 9,122 people have died in the state from COVID-19, and hundreds of additional deaths are suspected from the disease caused by the coronavirus. More deaths continue to be announced daily. But public health officials hope wider availability to vaccines will stem the number of new deaths, and already the daily death toll from COVID-19 in Louisiana has fallen as more people have received immunizations. Nearly 18% of the state’s total population has received at least the first dose of the two-dose vaccine regimens available, according to state health department data.
Augusta: The Legislature has approved a bill designed to eliminate barriers to coronavirus screening, testing and immunization. Proponents of the bill called it the “COVID-19 Patient Bill of Rights,” and it passed the Legislature during a session that stretched from Thursday into early Friday. The proposal requires state-regulated insurers to cover coronavirus screening, testing and immunization at no cost to patients. Democratic House Speaker Ryan Fecteau, a leading proponent of the bill, said the proposal is about “making sure nothing prevents Mainers from getting the health care they need to protect themselves, their families and loved ones from this serious virus.” The proposal also stops health care providers from charging patients any sort of fee related to coronavirus preventative services. The proposal now goes to Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, who has said she supports the bill. She has 10 days to sign it, and it would become effective immediately.
Annapolis: The state is extending its income tax deadline by three months to July 15. Comptroller Peter Franchot made the announcement Thursday. No interest or penalties will be assessed if returns are filed and taxes owed are paid by the new deadline. The extension applies to individual, pass-through, fiduciary and corporate income tax returns. The comptroller said the extension is due to legislation at the state and federal levels that affects 2020 tax filings and provides economic relief for taxpayers harmed by the COVID-19 pandemic. In Maryland, passage of the RELIEF Act in February required extensive revisions to previously released forms and software programs used by tax filers and tax software vendors. At the federal level, the passage of a third stimulus package this week necessitates more changes to federal and state forms even as the traditional April 15 tax filing deadline approaches.
Pittsfield: Newly vaccinated residents were treated to a mini-concert Saturday when famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma brought out his instrument after getting his second shot. Ma took a seat along the wall of the observation area Saturday at Berkshire Community College and played for about 15 minutes, saying he “wanted to give something back,” Richard Hall of the Berkshire COVID-19 Vaccine Collaborative told The Berkshire Eagle. “What a way to end the clinic,” Hall said. The quick concert came a year after Ma started posting recordings of himself using the hashtag #SongsOfComfort on social media. “In these days of anxiety,” he wrote on Twitter on March 13, 2020, “I wanted to find a way to continue to share some of the music that gives me comfort.” Since then, he also has played surprise pop-up concerts for essential workers.
Lansing: Visitors will be allowed at state prisons for the first time in a year starting March 26, the Corrections Department said Friday. Visitors will be given a rapid coronavirus test and have their temperature checked. Physical contact between prisoners and visitors will be prohibited. “Connections with family and the community lead to greater offender success,” department Director Heidi Washington said. “With the continuation of vaccines, and cases within the MDOC on a steady decline, the department is prepared to provide in-person visits without jeopardizing the safety and well-being of our inmates and staff.” Visits must be scheduled in advance. Information will be posted at michigan.gov/corrections. More than 25,000 prisoners have tested positive for the virus since the start of the pandemic; 139 have died. There were 788 active cases Wednesday, the Corrections Department said, including 615 at Bellamy Creek in Ionia and Egeler in Jackson.
Minneapolis: Gov. Tim Walz on Friday announced he is easing several coronavirus restrictions, citing rising vaccinations and declining COVID-19 cases. “I’m here to tell you that we’re winning. We’re winning, and this thing is coming to an end,” Walz said in a livestreamed announcement. “Today is the day that a lot of things are going to start to change that you’re going to notice.” Starting at noon Monday, religious services will no longer have occupancy limits, though social distancing will still be required. Gathering limits will increase to 50 people outside and 15 people indoors with no household limits. Pod sizes for outdoor youth sports can increase to up to 50 people. Bar and restaurant capacity will also go up to 75% with a limit of 250 people and bar seating for parties of four. Capacity for gyms, fitness centers and pools increases to 50%. There will be no occupancy limits for hair salons and barbershops. Entertainment venues will be able to open at 50% capacity with a limit of 250 people. Starting April 1, larger venues with normal capacities over 500 can allow up to 3,000 people for seated indoor venues and 1,500 people for non-seated indoor venues. The limit for large seated and non-seated outdoor venues is 10,000 people, meaning the Twins will be able to welcome fans for the baseball team’s home opener.
D’Iberville: A casino along the Gulf Coast is offering employees $150 for each COVID-19 vaccine shot they receive. The Sun Herald reports employees at Scarlet Pearl Casino Resort in D’Iberville who take vaccines that require two shots will get $300. The casino has also partnered with a hospital to have vaccines administered at its clinic. CEO LuAnn Pappas told the newspaper the casino wants to mitigate the impact COVID-19 has had on the hospitality industry. She said casino directors all have received COVID-19 vaccinations, and they are required for all managers. The casino is also giving employees time off to get the vaccine at another site.
St. Louis: A task force appointed to examine concerns about a troubled jail is urging the city to create an independent oversight board to help oversee the lockup, according to a report released Friday. Task force leaders shared the report with Mayor Lyda Krewson. The Rev. Darryl Gray, a longtime racial justice advocate who chairs the task force, said the creation of an oversight board is an “urgent priority.” Krewson and Public Safety Director Jimmie Edwards said they’ll review the recommendations. After three violent outbursts in as many months at the downtown City Justice Center, Edwards blamed the uprisings on “angry, defiant, very violent people,” but inmate advocates blamed poor treatment of the detainees. Inmates have complained about unhealthy and inhumane conditions and expressed worries that the jail’s COVID-19 precautions fall short. City leaders have cited coronavirus protocols that include 14-day quarantine periods for each new detainee, masks replaced upon request and testing anytime a detainee or a nurse detects symptoms. The task force also recommended more recreation time for inmates, limiting the length of stay in a holding cell to a maximum of 24 hours, faster response to medical needs, and a renewed effort to reduce legal logjams that have kept some pretrial detainees in jail for well over a year.
Helena: A legislative committee voted Friday to restore funding for two positions within the state health department that are dedicated to serving Native American communities. State Rep. Jonathan Windy Boy, D-Box Elder, brought the amendment to restore the funding for the the American Indian health director and the tribal relations manager, saying the panel’s earlier elimination of two jobs held by Native Americans doesn’t “look good out there to Montana.” Republican Rep. Matt Regier of Kalispell had argued that the positions were redundant, that other health department workers could work with tribes and that there are other tribal liaisons in state government. Adam Meier, director of the Department of Public Health and Human Services, told the committee Thursday that the employees do important work. The House Appropriations Committee voted 15-9 Friday to restore the $481,000 in state and federal funding for the jobs for the next two years. Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte supported restoring the funding, spokesperson Brooke Stroyke has said. The proposed eliminations of the positions were among several moves made by the GOP-controlled Legislature this year that have triggered concerns from some Native Americans and their allies who fear they are losing influence and representation.
Lincoln: Gov. Pete Ricketts endorsed a bill Wednesday that would make permanent his emergency order to let restaurants offer alcohol with takeout orders during the pandemic. The governor’s comments came one day after lawmakers gave the measure first-round approval. “Certainly, this pandemic has demonstrated that a lot of these regulations were not necessary, providing no public benefit,” Ricketts said when asked about the issue at a news conference. Sen. Suzanne Geist, the bill’s sponsor, said she introduced it to help local businesses recover some of the revenue they lost due to government-mandated social distancing restrictions. The bill could still be tweaked to address concerns raised by some senators. Under the measure, drinks could only be sold in a sealed, tamper-evident container and not partially consumed.
Las Vegas: Gov. Steve Sisolak announced Friday that he planned to accelerate the state’s reopening timeline. The Democratic governor reversed plans to limit the number of concerts, conventions and trade show attendees to 1,000 people and decided to allow them to host up to 50% of total venue capacity – the same as most businesses in the state – starting March 15. The decision will allow the Las Vegas Convention Center and venues like 20,000-seat T-Mobile Arena on the Las Vegas Strip to apply for permits to accept thousands more people. The move won quick praise from the hospitality industry. “The meetings and convention business is critical to our economy with tens of thousands of jobs depending on it,” Nevada Resort Association President Virginia Valentine said in response to the decision. “All in all, Las Vegas’ reopening momentum continues to build.” Sisolak has said he’s leveraging all state resources to administer vaccines quickly. On Thursday, he expanded eligibility to front-line workers in the restaurant, hospitality and hotel sectors, following reports from Las Vegas-area health officials that slots were going unfilled. Health officials also promised that by this week people 55 and older with underlying health conditions will be able to book vaccination appointments at pharmacies.
Concord: The state will receive more than $9.4 million in federal grants to help fight substance use disorder and bolster access to mental health services under the coronavirus relief package signed into law in December, New Hampshire’s congressional delegation said Friday. “The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a tremendous toll on Granite Staters’ mental health, with many people experiencing acute stress, anxiety, depression and trauma as they grapple with the devastating impacts of this crisis,” said U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee who pushed for the provision. “The substance use disorder epidemic has been exacerbated by COVID-19, with both patients and treatment providers struggling to get the resources and support they need to stay afloat,” she said in a statement. The package includes a total of $4.25 billion in funding for substance use disorder treatment and mental health care.
Trenton: While Gov. Phil Murphy has pledged to be transparent throughout the coronavirus pandemic, his administration has denied or slowly responded to requests for records related to spending, communications and decision-making. The pandemic has sparked an explosion of public data, yielding a sprawling COVID-19 website, updated daily with data and other information – including the numerous executive orders over the past year – created by Murphy’s office and the state’s health department. Broad requests for COVID-19-related spending have also been answered, but the administration has blocked information from the public. It’s unclear how much more is being withheld than usual, given the dozens of dozens of pandemic-related executive orders and purchase orders, among other official actions, that have created public records. It’s not unusual for governors to cite one of the handful of exceptions when denying records, but the state’s Government Records Council, which oversees the public records law, also says certain documents like payment vouchers should be released without delay. That hasn’t happened with some COVID-19-related records requests. Murphy last week said it might take time to release some records but recommitted his administration to transparency. “We are doing, I promise you, our level best to be transparent in every single way,” he said.
Albuquerque: With the slowing of the coronavirus outbreak, Albuquerque Public Schools will resume in-person learning for five days a week starting April 5, though students can continue remote learning for the rest of the school year. New Mexico’s largest school district announced its startup date Friday after the state Public Education Department earlier in the week said all schools were expected to reopen classrooms after spring break. The district’s Board of Education was briefed on the reopening plan but did not vote on it. Mask-wearing will be required, and social distancing will be expected, interim Superintendent Scott Elder said. “The reality is that full reentry will create situations in classes where we are unable to keep people 6 feet apart, but we’re assured that is OK,” Elder said. “But the goal is to maintain social distancing … to the greatest extent possible.” Albuquerque Public Schools officials said they were trying to arrange extensions for teachers in high-risk groups to allow them to wait to return to in-person instruction until two weeks after being fully vaccinated.
New York: With somber words and music set against a backdrop of images of New Yorkers taken by the COVID-19 pandemic, the city on Sunday marked a year since word broke of the state’s first fatalities from the coronavirus, a fearful moment of reckoning that sent officials rushing to close businesses and schools. The elaborate evening ceremony on the Brooklyn waterfront paid tribute to the approximately 30,000 city residents killed by the virus since March 2020. The event began with a performance by the New York Philharmonic and included remarks by faith leaders and poetry from the city’s youth poet laureate. Throughout the ceremony, faces of the pandemic’s New York City victims were projected onto the Brooklyn Bridge in the background. A visibly emotional Mayor Bill de Blasio called the total number of lives lost in the city “a number we can barely imagine” and noted it represented more than lost in World War II, Vietnam, the Sept. 11 attacks and Superstorm Sandy combined. As devastating as the losses have been, he said, “everyone we’ve lost, what they did goes on. What they contributed, what they created, the love they gave goes on.” The death toll in the broader New York City metropolitan area now stands at more than 65,000, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Durham: Duke University issued a quarantine order for all its undergraduates effective Saturday night due to a coronavirus outbreak caused by students who attended recruitment parties, the school said. The university said in a statement that all undergraduate students will be forced to stay in place until at least March 21. Suspension and dismissal from the school are potential punishments for “flagrant or repeat violators.” Over the past week, the school has reported more than 180 coronavirus cases among students. There are an additional 200 students who may have been exposed and have been ordered to quarantine. The school said in the statement that the outbreak was “principally driven by students attending recruitment parties for selective living groups.” Duke said it would provide a policy update Thursday.
Bismarck: Improving oil prices and pending federal coronavirus aid have state lawmakers expecting a slightly better revenue forecast than what was used as a budgetary starting point in January. State budget analysts, the economic consultancy Moody’s Analytics, and the Legislature’s own economic consultancy, IHS Markit, on Tuesday will present their budget predictions that will be used as guidelines to craft the state’s upcoming two-year budget. Republican House Appropriations Chairman Jeff Delzer and his Senate counterpart, Ray Holmberg, said lawmakers are expecting increased tax revenues but will be cautious with priorities when they adopt a blueprint. The revenue assumptions are important because the Legislature will use the numbers in making final spending decisions. Until now, the Legislature has idled major spending bills until the new economic assumptions are released. A forecast adopted in January estimated projected tax revenues for the 2021-23 budget cycle at $3.95 billion, based on the pair of competing revenue forecasts. Tuesday’s estimates will provide a fresh set of numbers, although they only include three months’ worth of new data.
Columbus: A bill restricting governors’ abilities to issue public health orders during a pandemic is unconstitutional and a violation of the separation of powers, according to Gov. Mike DeWine, who planned to veto the latest legislation headed for his desk while holding out hope for a compromise. The GOP-controlled House approved the final version of the bill Wednesday, and it now heads to DeWine with what his fellow Republican legislative leaders believe is a veto-proof majority in both chambers. The measure is the latest effort by Republican lawmakers to rein in DeWine’s authority to issue statewide orders such as mandatory mask-wearing and limits on the size of crowds at sporting events. Among other provisions, the bill limits public health orders to 90 days and would allow the Legislature to terminate them after 30 days with a “concurrent resolution,” a fast-tracked vote different from normal legislation. “I’m very concerned about a future governor and health departments around the state not having the tools they need to keep the people of the state safe,” DeWine said. And allowing legislatures to overturn a governor’s order with by resolution and not actual legislation is “clearly unconstitutional,” he said.
Oklahoma City: The Chickasaw Nation announced Saturday that it is now offering the COVID-19 vaccine to all Oklahoma residents. “We are pleased to do our part to help put an end to this pandemic,” said Chickasaw Nation Governor Bill Anoatubby. “Working together, we can help protect our family, friends and neighbors as we help speed our return to a greater sense of normalcy.” Anoatubby called for continued mask-wearing, social distancing and frequent hand-washing. The tribe is offering vaccinations by appointment at its drive-thru site in Ada and at its health clinics in Purcell, Ardmore and Tishomingo. Those receiving a vaccination must be 18 or older for the Moderna vaccine and 16 or older for the Pfizer vaccine. The Oklahoma State Department of Health is offering shots to people in three phases of the state’s four-phase plan, recently adding child care workers, higher and Career Tech education and critical business workers to those eligible. More than 1.1 million vaccinations had been administered by the health department as of Friday. The department on Saturday reported 431,991 total virus cases and 7,486 deaths due to COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, since the pandemic began.
Portland: The state made national headlines when it placed teachers ahead of its oldest residents in the line for a scarce supply of COVID-19 vaccine and then again when a committee advising the governor on vaccine equity flirted with making race a determinant for when a person could get inoculated. Now, three months into the vaccine rollout, the state has begun a pilot program that allows some federally qualified health centers to offer shots to anyone they serve, even if that patient does not fall into any currently eligible categories. These centers must still prioritize patients who are currently eligible under Oregon rules, but the pilot program gives health care providers for the most at-risk populations more latitude and resolves a conflict between federal and state priorities on vaccine equity. The Biden administration last month began distributing vaccine to federally qualified health centers under a program designed to get shots into the arms of the most economically and socially disadvantaged Americans – seasonal and migrant farmworkers and those Americans living in poverty, for example. But those centers in Oregon found their hands tied because state rules on vaccine eligibility hadn’t yet expanded to migrant farmworkers, those with preexisting conditions or other vulnerable groups, so they couldn’t give them shots.
Harrisburg: Police officers, firefighters and grocery workers will start getting the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine in about two weeks as the effort to immunize school workers wraps up, Gov. Tom Wolf said Friday. Wolf also said he was confident Pennsylvania will meet President Joe Biden’s directive to make everyone eligible for a vaccine by May 1. “We can meet that timeline,” Wolf said, appearing by video with lawmakers on a vaccine task force. “We want to get everybody vaccinated as quickly and fairly as possible. That’s what we’re trying to do here.” Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Lancaster, a vaccine task force member, said the plans mean “a spring of hope is upon us.” The group getting special priority after teachers includes police, prison staff, grocery workers, volunteer and professional firefighters, meat processors, and farm workers. Wolf said planners have to figure out how those doses will be administered, suggesting the initiative could take many forms. Wolf said all who currently qualify for the vaccine, the so-called 1A group that includes older people and those whose medical conditions put them at risk, should be able to get an appointment for their first shot by month’s end.
Providence: The state is easing some coronavirus restrictions on businesses as vaccination efforts across the state ramp up and as hospitalizations continue to decline, Gov. Daniel McKee said Friday. Starting immediately, restaurants will be able to space indoor tables 6 feet apart, rather than 8 feet, and bar areas where food is being served will be allowed to remain open until midnight, instead of 11 p.m., McKee announced at a news conference. With the spring planting season approaching, capacity limits for outdoor areas at garden shops are being lifted entirely, although indoor restrictions remain, he said. Also, state Commerce Secretary Stefan Pryor announced a series of restriction-easing measures that take effect next Friday. They include allowing restaurants to seat up to 75% of indoor capacity, up from 66%, and increased attendance at catered events, including weddings, to 100 people indoors and 200 people outdoors, up from 30 and 100. Houses of worship will also be allowed to host services at up to 75% capacity. Retail stores would be allowed to have one person per 50 square feet indoors, up from one per 100 square feet. Big-box stores will be allowed to have one person per 100 square feet, up from one per 150 square feet. Offices will be able to welcome up to 50% of workers, up from 33%.
Columbia: The state House has approved a bill that would make sure churches and other religious organizations are treated as essential services during a state of emergency. The bill given key approval on a 73-39 vote Thursday also says religious groups still have to follow safety protocols and occupancy rules during emergencies. The proposal said churches and other houses of worship can’t be closed if other essential businesses are open. Last spring while temporarily closing restaurants, beauty salons, gyms and other businesses because of COVID-19, Gov. Henry McMaster repeatedly said closing churches would violate the freedom-of-religion provision in the U.S. Constitution. After a routine affirmation this week, the bill will be sent to the Senate. “This just allows a church to be on an even footing – a religious organization to be on an even footing with all other businesses deemed to be essential services,” said Rep. John McCravy, R-Greenwood. Democrats who opposed the bill said it was unnecessary because of the constitutional protection churches have and could lead to churchgoers to not take precautions and put themselves in danger.
Rapid City: The National Park Service has denied state officials’ request to shoot off fireworks over Mount Rushmore again this year. Fireworks returned to Mount Rushmore last year for a Fourth of July celebration that included a campaign stop by then-President Donald Trump. It was the first time Mount Rushmore has hosted a fireworks show since 2009. But NPS Regional Director Herbert Frost wrote a letter to state tourism officials Thursday saying the NPS would not grant their request for fireworks again this year, KOTA-TV reports. The denial was first reported by political website The Hill. Frost said the parks service is still evaluating the risks from the 2020 show, and he’s concerned about both the park and employees’ safety. He said that the service’s tribal partners expressly oppose fireworks at the monument and that the large crowds such an event would draw would make social distancing difficult if not impossible. Gov. Kristi Noem tweeted in response that the best place to celebrate America’s birthday is Mount Rushmore.
Knoxville: The University of Tennessee on Thursday announced it will return to a “fully in-person campus experience” starting in the fall. According to a news release, that will include in-person teaching in classrooms at capacity, normal campus housing, reopening dining halls and allowing more fans at athletic events. “As case counts continue to drop and vaccines become more readily available, we are nearing a turning point in this pandemic,” Chancellor Donde Plowman said in a statement. “We’ve heard time and again from students and members of our faculty how much more effective and meaningful learning can be when we are together in person.” The Knoxville campus moved its classes online last March after spring break around the same time the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. The university has since partially reopened with reduced capacity in residence halls and classrooms.
Austin: The number of newly confirmed or suspected coronavirus cases in the state rose by 4,638 on Saturday, down from a one-day increase of 6,078 reported Friday, according to the state health department. The department also reported 156 more deaths, for a total of more than 2.7 million cases since the pandemic began and 45,474 deaths due to COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus. That state’s death toll is the third highest in the country, trailing California’s and New York’s, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. The seven-day rolling averages of both new cases and deaths in Texas have declined during the past two weeks, according to the Johns Hopkins data. The average number of new cases dropped from 7,964 daily on Feb. 25 to 4,648 on March 11, while the average number of deaths fell from 220.6 to 168.9 per day during the same time period. The health department reported that more than 7.9 million Texans have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
St. George: Residents can apply for pandemic rental assistance through a new online application starting Monday, state officials announced. “Emergency Rental Assistance is an important program that can help Utah renters impacted by the pandemic to stay in their homes,” Department of Workforce Services Deputy Director Nate McDonald said in a statement. “While we recognize that a pause in accepting applications may cause concern, it will help to ensure the updated program runs smoothly and will allow local community action program agencies to work through their existing backlog of applications.” Utah renters have typically applied for assistance through local community action program agencies, but starting Monday they can simply go online to rentrelief.utah.gov. Renters are eligible if they have combined household income at or below 80% of area median income, have qualified for unemployment, experienced a reduction in income or incurred significant costs due to the pandemic, and are experiencing housing instability. Applicants may be prioritized and expedited if they have been unemployed for at least 90 days or are at or below 50% area median income. Those worried about making rent for March should ask their landlords to develop a plan for payment, according to instructions from the state office.
Montpelier: Gov. Phil Scott on Friday announced some small changes to restrictions on social gatherings and restaurant rules amid the pandemic. Two households may now gather together, and that pairing doesn’t have to be the same each time, as earlier restrictions required, he said at his twice-weekly virus briefing. That means children can again have playdates, “which we know have been sorely missed and will be good for the mental health and emotional well-being of the kids as well as parents,” he said. Also, restaurants are now allowed to seat six people at a table from different families, rather than from just one household as was previously required, he said. “Of course, masking, distancing and every other guideline remains in place,” he said. Vermont has taken one of the most cautious approaches in the country to slow the spread of the coronavirus and reduce deaths and hospitalizations, Scott said, adding that he knows it has caused a lot of frustration. “I hear from people everyday who think we should be moving faster to reopen like some other states have,” he said. “But I want to remind Vermonters there’s a reason we have the lowest number of deaths in the country and the lowest death rate in the continental U.S.”
Richmond: Officials said Friday that the state expects to meet or possibly exceed President Joe Biden’s commitment to make all adults eligible for COVID-19 vaccines by May 1. “As we look at the supply and the pace and the demand here in Virginia, we really think we will easily meet that May 1 marker and potentially even outpace it by a couple of weeks,” state vaccine coordinator Dr. Danny Avula told reporters. Avula also said the goal won’t require the state to rethink its distribution strategy. Virginia has administered more than 2.5 million doses of vaccine, with 19.5% of the population having received at least one dose, according to health department data. All parts of the state have opened up vaccine eligibility to a second phase of people that includes front-line essential workers and people ages 16-64 with an underlying medical condition. Avula said he thinks that second phase, referred to as 1b, can be completed by mid-April or sooner in some parts of the state. Health districts would then move into a third phase of eligibility that will cover other essential workers at their own pace, he said.
Olympia: All public schools in the state will be required to offer students an in-person learning option starting next month – with school districts having to meet an average of at least 30% weekly in-class instruction by April 19 – under an emergency proclamation Gov. Jay Inslee said he will sign this week. The proclamation, announced Friday, allows for a staggered start, with all kindergarten to sixth grade students being provided an opportunity for hybrid remote and in-person learning by April 5, followed by all other K-12 students by April 19. Inslee and state schools Superintendent Chris Reykdal cited mental health and academic concerns for students over the past year of school closures. “Many, many of our children have not been able to thrive as we wish them to do so without on-site education,” Inslee said. “For them, we’re taking action today.” Students must be offered no fewer than two days of on-campus, in-person instruction per week, but students can remain fully remote if their families choose. Some public school teachers have resisted returning to the classroom during the COVID-19 pandemic, despite the governor’s urging, citing concerns about safety.
Charleston: Gov. Jim Justice’s near-daily ritual of reading the ages and hometowns of people who died from the coronavirus stretched to nearly 19 minutes Friday. Justice takes the first minute or two of his thrice-a-week coronavirus briefings to honor the dead. This time, the Republican governor had to make up for 165 deaths that went unreported, news he first revealed Wednesday. State officials said a list of more than 60 health centers and nursing homes did not report the deaths to state health authorities, which Justice apologized for and again called “totally unacceptable.” Dr. Ayne Amjad, the state health officer, said a further vetting of the data found three fewer coronavirus deaths than reported earlier in the week. “Being transparent is what we strive to be,” Amjad said. Justice said 84% of the previously unreported deaths occurred in December 2020 and January. Officials blamed the issue on facilities not filling out death reports online to the state’s health department in a timely matter. Despite the unreported deaths, Justice said other coronavirus metrics still looked positive. The daily positivity rate for coronavirus tests continued to decline to 2.79%, down from a peak of 17.45% in late December. State data shows 20.8% of residents are partially vaccinated against COVID-19, while 13% are fully vaccinated.
Green Bay: Thousands of Wisconsin Teamsters are celebrating after President Joe Biden signed a coronavirus relief bill into law and ensured that the workers no longer have to worry about their pensions being cut in half. The American Rescue Plan includes the Butch Lewis Emergency Pension Plan Relief Act of 2021, which directs the Pension Guaranty Benefit Corp. to allocate billions of dollars to avoid the drastic cuts. It should in turn shore up the Central States Pension Fund, a multiemployer fund for 1.3 million retired Teamsters, 23,500 of whom live in Wisconsin. Many of those retirees have come to depend on payments to survive, said Brad Vaughn, a member of the Wisconsin/Green Bay Committee to Protect Pensions. “To say we are ecstatic would be an understatement,” Vaughn said. “It was so emotional for everybody. It’s hard to even get a grasp on how many people’s lives it will affect in a positive way.” The retirees formed regional committees across the state to lobby Congress first to reject the proposed pension cuts, which happened in May 2016, and then to support the Butch Lewis Act. They raised funds to send members to rallies, as well as to lobby Wisconsin’s congressional delegation.
Cheyenne: The closures implemented after the state confirmed its first coronavirus case a year ago and the uncontrollable nature of the virus led to an unprecedented economic downturn, which placed more pressure on Laramie County’s nonprofits to meet the demand for food assistance and help with rent and utilities. For the NEEDS Inc. food pantry, the higher demand translated to a 369% increase in the amount of food they were getting out the door and into the community. Pantry Manager Damon Hart said although it was difficult to see so many people struggling, the experience reinforced the mission of NEEDS and why the volunteers do what they do. At the start of the pandemic, it was still unclear exactly how transmissible the virus was and what precautions would keep people safe. Hart said volunteers sanitized frequently and did everything they could to keep their doors open and help more people. “Knowing how much we mean to the community, it really changed our outlooks a lot,” Hart said. “Hearing their stories made us really grateful that we were able to help.” Their ability to assist so many residents was made possible by businesses and the larger Cheyenne community stepping up to support the cause. “I would hate to know what would’ve happened if we had not received that help,” Hart said.
From USA TODAY Network and wire reports