Montgomery: A partnership will offer 1,500 free rides over the coming months to help bridge COVID-19 vaccination access issues. HandsOn River Region and Uber have partnered with the city on the program, which will not require the Uber app. Rides are available on weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. People can access free round-trip rides by calling 211. “Challenges create opportunity, and Montgomery – like cities around the world – continues climbing out of our generation’s greatest challenges in the COVID-19 pandemic,” Mayor Steven Reed said in a statement. “However, this crisis led us to use innovative ideas in our response and recovery efforts.” The Montgomery Rides Program reduces the barriers to citywide vaccination and could be replicated in other public health programs in Montgomery.” Reed earlier this year said the city was exploring possible solution to vaccine access issues. The city has co-hosted several drive-thru and walk-up vaccination clinics, though experts say issues remain around the state in getting vaccine to vulnerable populations who may be elderly, infirm or without reliable transportation. The ride program will provide round-trip transportation from the city to vaccination sites in Montgomery, Autauga and Elmore counties.
Anchorage: The Anchorage Assembly has extended into June a local COVID-19 emergency declaration, approving a shorter extension than Acting Mayor Austin Quinn-Davidson requested, with some Assembly members indicating this latest extension, the city’s eighth, could be the last. The Assembly voted 6-4 Tuesday to extend the declaration, first enacted in March 2020, to June 11. Without the extension, emergency orders – including a mask mandate – would have expired, the Anchorage Daily News reports. Quinn-Davidson had asked that the emergency declaration be extended into mid-July. The Assembly also called for regular reports from the mayor’s administration on efforts to transition from emergency operations to normal operations. Assembly Chair Felix Rivera, who voted yes on the extension, asked Quinn-Davidson to continue loosening restrictions. Rivera said he would like to see the declaration’s effects be “as minimal as possible” by June. Other members who supported the declaration said that to revoke emergency orders now could put at risk public health gains that have been made.
Phoenix: Maintaining focus and keeping grades up has been challenging for many students over a year spent learning virtually due to the pandemic. High school seniors faced the added challenge of preparing for postsecondary education, with filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid from home a significant part of that. Many still haven’t submitted it. More than 3,000 fewer seniors have completed the form than by this time last year in Arizona, a more than 9% decline, according to data tracked by the National College Attainment Network as part of its #FormYourFuture campaign. That could signal a possible drop in postsecondary school enrollment for the coming school year on top of last year’s smaller decline. The drop was steeper at high schools in lower-income areas and in communities of color. The FAFSA helps the U.S. Department of Education determine eligibility for financial assistance via loans, grants or scholarships or work-study. More than 27,400 Arizona high school seniors have completed an application so far, according to data from the Arizona Commission for Postsecondary Education’s FAF$A Challenge. “Navigating the postsecondary process was not easy for most students and families before the pandemic, and it is especially difficult for those coming from first-generation, low-income backgrounds,” said Dolores Ramirez, Phoenix Union High School District postsecondary articulation specialist.
Little Rock: The effort to keep the state’s Medicaid expansion another year faced uncertainty Tuesday, with the program falling short of the votes needed for its reauthorization in the Legislature. The House voted 53-31 for the budget bill for Medicaid and the expansion program, falling short of the 75 votes needed for its reauthorization. Another vote was scheduled Wednesday on the legislation, which had already been approved by the Senate. Arkansas’ Medicaid expansion has sharply divided Republicans, who control a majority of the Legislature, since it was first approved in 2013. Past efforts to reauthorize the program have faced repeated votes before winning narrow approval. The bill failed after the House rejected a proposal to consider the expansion budget separately from the Medicaid budget. Lawmakers last month approved a plan to overhaul the expansion program to encourage participants to work after a work requirement was blocked by the courts and President Joe Biden’s administration. That overhaul must be approved by the federal government.
Los Angeles: Hollywood’s theatrical business may be slowly rebounding, but for some exhibitors the past year has been catastrophic. Pacific Theaters – which operates some 300 screens in the state, including the beloved ArcLight theaters and the historic Cinerama Dome in Hollywood – said Monday that it will not be reopening. “This was not the outcome anyone wanted, but despite a huge effort that exhausted all potential options, the company does not have a viable way forward,” a Pacific Theaters representative said in a statement. Los Angeles County recently expanded capacity for indoor moviegoing to 50% after more than a year of being closed, but many smaller chains have struggled to remain solvent. The ArcLight theaters were a favorite of many entertainment industry professionals and celebrities, with locations throughout Southern California. The ArcLight Hollywood was the first in the chain to open in 2002 featuring the then-novel concept of reserved seating and ushers who introduced each showing. Latecomers were not admitted. The Cinerama, a concrete geodesic dome on Sunset Boulevard, is an official historic monument and a tourist attraction in and of itself, featured in movies like Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” Its custom curved screen is one of only three of its kind in the world.
Colorado Springs: Nearly 4,000 people who received COVID-19 vaccinations at a medical spa in the city need to be re-vaccinated because health officials have been unable to verify that the vaccines were properly stored there, the Colorado Department of Public Health said Tuesday. The department stopped vaccinations at Dr. Moma Health and Wellness Clinic on Friday after county health officials observed storage concerns. About 3,000 doses of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were confiscated, according to The Gazette, as the state launched an investigation into whether what was seen by health officials was isolated. On Tuesday, the department said the shots given at the clinic are considered invalid because the clinic was unable to provide documentation that the vaccines were kept at the proper temperature. No one answered the telephone at the clinic Wednesday, and there was no way to leave a message. According to its website, it 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. After consulting with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the department released guidance saying that people who received one dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines should should start their two-shot vaccination series over again.
Bristol: The nation’s longest continuously operating amusement park is hoping to capitalize on eased restrictions as it approaches a milestone year. Lake Compounce announced last month that it has pushed up its opening date three weeks, to May 8. The park is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year. Officials said some changes will be noticeable, like new lighting and a new main gate area. Face coverings, social distancing and temperature checks also will be a part of the experience, and plexiglass has been installed in some areas. “We have clean teams that walk around the park. New plexiglass will be installed to protect both the guest and the team member. And depending on the ride, there might be different restrictions or regulations,” Northeast Marketing Director Amy Thomas told WTNH-TV. “But, overall, it’s not quite business as usual, but we’re really excited to open the park and get back to riding roller coasters.” The park also will feature a new logo and a new, six-story waterslide called Venus Vortex. Currently, outdoor event venues in Connecticut can open to half-capacity, up to 10,000 people. Indoor stadiums and arenas are limited to 10% of capacity.
Wilmington: The state’s economy has recovered significantly since the start of the pandemic a little more than one year ago, according to an economic expert. “A recovery is clearly underway,” said Patrick Harker, president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, during a Zoom conference Tuesday with the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce. But it’s still not back to normal, he warned. Payroll data, for example, shows Delaware has recovered more than 60% of the jobs lost at the start of the pandemic but is still down about 24,500 jobs, Harker said. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate in the state has fallen from 13.4% a year ago to 6.3% now, he said. In February 2020, just before the pandemic, the state’s unemployment rate was 4.5%. The Department of Labor has received nearly 200,000 unemployment claims since the start of the pandemic. While unemployment rates are dropping, the state still receives thousands of claims a week. Finance and insurance, which are collectively responsible for nearly 30% of Delaware’s gross domestic product, remained “basically unscathed” this past year, according to Harker, former president of the University of Delaware. But other industries, such as tourism and hospitality, are hovering around 50% of “pre-pandemic numbers,” he said.
District of Columbia
Washington: Some independent pharmacies are questioning whether health officials have the authority to require them to use the D.C. Health vaccine portal system instead of their own, WUSA-TV reports. Local and smaller pharmacies have started receiving doses of COVID-19 vaccine through a partnership with the federal government, not the city. But Dr. LaQuandra Nesbitt of D.C. Health said in a briefing Monday that local pharmacies cannot use their own registration systems. “We believe the most equitable approach to getting vaccines out is centralized scheduling,” Nesbitt said. Dr. Michael Kim of Grubb’s Pharmacy in the Capitol Hill neighborhood said the department still needs to provide more information. Alfred Addico, co-owner of Dupont Circle Pharmacy, said many of his customers have been eagerly waiting to receive the shot through his business. Nearly 200 people have joined a waiting list, anticipating a phone call from Addico. When asked if he will follow D.C. Health’s instruction, Addico said he’s choosing to stick with his original plan since the supply is from the federal government. “We have been in the community every day,” he said. “We know the customers, we know where they live, and we know what their needs are, so we know them better than D.C. Health.”
Fort Lauderdale: When the next school year begins in August, students across South Florida will be expected to return to their classrooms. Online classes, which started when schools shut down in March 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic took hold, are ending in three of the state’s largest districts. The superintendents in Miami-Dade and Broward counties made the announcement Tuesday, while Palm Beach County officials announced their decision last Friday. Schools reopened for face-to-face learning in October, and more than half of the students returned to classrooms. “There will be no blended, hybrid or remote learning for students,” Broward Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie told the school board. “It’s about the best way to teach kids,” Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said. He tweeted that parents who want children to remain at home will have the opportunity with the Miami-Dade Online Academy. Smaller districts in Florida have also decided to end remote learning for the next school year. Runcie said he considered three factors in making the decision for Broward County schools: that teachers can easily get the COVID-19 vaccine, an effort to make vaccinations to children 12 and older, and poor academic results and social struggles over the past year.
Stonecrest: A state lawmaker is calling for Gov. Brian Kemp to remove Stonecrest’s mayor from office amid a report into the city’s use of $6 million in COVID-19 relief funds. Sen. Emanuel Jones, D-Decatur, said he plans to provide the full investigative report to Kemp, the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice, which he previously asked to investigate how the money was spent, accusing Mayor Jason Lary of misusing the funds for his own personal gain, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports. “There’s a whole bunch of money missing, and someone needs to be held accountable,” Jones said. Lary has previously denied Jones’ accusations, claiming the state senator has a vendetta against him. When asked about Jones’ threat to go to the governor, Lary told the newspaper: “In this country, innocent until proven guilty.” The Stonecrest City Council voted Monday to waive attorney-client privilege on the report, allowing public access to the document. City Attorney Winston Denmark conducted the investigation after council members said their requests to the mayor’s office for information on the funding program were being ignored. In an email to city leaders and media outlets, Denmark said his report “is well over 100 pages.” However, only Lary and the City Council have seen the report so far.
Honolulu: State lawmakers moved this week to delay pay raises that were due to go in effect for themselves, the governor, Cabinet officials and judges, citing lingering economic struggles due to the coronavirus pandemic. “The timing is not the best right now for salary increases at these levels,” with Hawaii enduring the highest unemployment rate in the nation, House Speaker Scott Saiki, a Democrat, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “We have a high number of commercial leases being canceled. There’s still some work we have to do for our economic reopening.” Pay raises of 10% were scheduled to go into effect for legislators July 1 as recommended by the state Salary Commission in 2019, before the pandemic hit and while Hawaii recorded record tourism numbers. Instead, SB 1350, which the House initially approved Tuesday, would defer the raises until January 2023. Gov. David Ige, a Democrat, said he supported suspending the pay raises and noted he had already told his Cabinet he wouldn’t accept the raise recommended by the commission and asked his Cabinet members to do the same. “As public servants, it is our duty to do our part to help the state rebuild the economy, while keeping the health and safety of our community our top priority,” Ige said in a statement.
Boise: The state House on Wednesday approved legislation prohibiting mask mandates by government entities, voting 47-22 with no Democratic support to send the bill to the Senate. Republican Gov. Brad Little has never imposed a statewide mask mandate, but a handful of counties and about a dozen cities have done so in an effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. “This is a matter of our personal rights and our liberty,” the bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Karey Hanks, told fellow lawmakers. Contradicting public health experts, she cited information she has that masks aren’t effective in preventing disease. She also said some victims of sexual violence find wearing masks to be traumatic if they had their faces covered while being assaulted. Opponents said mask mandates are a local issue, and they effectively prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Private businesses could still require masks if the bill becomes law. If a government agency or official imposed a mask mandate, any declared emergency would be terminated, according to an amendment to the bill.
Springfield: The University of Illinois Springfield Innovation Hub, UIS Center for State Policy and Leadership, and the Community Health Roundtable will host a public webinar at noon Friday. The “COVID-19 and the Health of the Community: Moving from the Old to the New Normal” webinar via Zoom is free of charge. Panelists will discuss the baseline pre-pandemic health outcomes of people in Sangamon County; how social determinants of health, such as housing quality and affordability, have earned increased attention during the pandemic; and the trajectory of the pandemic in light of recent trends in health care practices, new COVID-19 cases, vaccine administration and coronavirus variants. Panelists include Dr. David Steward, retired faculty member, SIU School of Medicine and convener of the Community Health Roundtable; Ty Price Dooley, UIS associate professor of public administration; and Dr. Vidya Sundareshan, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at SIU School of Medicine and medical adviser to the Sangamon County Department of Public Health. The discussion will be moderated by Molly Lamb, executive director of the UIS Center of State Policy and Leadership. Attendees should register online at go.uis.edu/COVIDwebinar.
Indianapolis: Some community leaders fear questions about the safety of Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 shot will only fuel the vaccine skepticism they’ve been trying to combat. For months, leaders in the city’s Black, Latino and underserved communities have been fighting a history of racism, mistrust, and issues of lack of representation and language access around the COVID-19 vaccine. Community centers, churches, clinics and nonprofits have joined forces to bring the vaccine to Black and Latino neighborhoods. Bilingual volunteers have helped thousands of Spanish-speaking Hoosiers register to get their shot, and multiple virtual informational panels have been hosted to help debunk myths. But with federal health officials recommending a pause in the administration of the J&J vaccine due to six reported cases of a rare blood clot found in women after receiving the shot, the challenge may grow. “This could be a setback,” said Ebony Walker, practice manager at Oak Street Health, which provides accessible primary care for Medicare patients and has organized vaccine pop-up clinics. “People that were skeptical to begin with could hear that there’s a side effect. And they could feel justified in the fact that they were not on board with being vaccinated or that they were planning to wait or not be vaccinated.”
Ames: In an already digital society that the COVID-19 pandemic has made even more so, an Iowa State University professor says he hopes parents and legislators recognize the growing need to help children learn how to be safe and healthy online. “My personal wish about this is that we use this opportunity to recognize we’ve put ourselves in a box,” psychology professor Douglas Gentile said. “We’ve been digging a hole, and COVID made us dig a lot faster.” Gentile has worked with the DQ Institute – a global think tank with roots in South Korea and Singapore that describes itself as “dedicated to setting global standards for digital intelligence education, outreach, and policies” – to design a framework for digital literacy education. Gentile and colleagues recently reported in a published commentary that their survey of more than 145,000 children in 30 countries from 2017 to 2019 found 60% of 8- to 12-year-olds were exposed to digital risks such as cyberbullying, gaming disorder, violent content and “sexual grooming.” He said he couldn’t quantify how much those risks have changed over the past year, when the pandemic pushed even more aspects of daily life online, notably school instruction. But Gentile said the greater the digital access children have, the more opportunities there are for problems.
Mission: A particularly contagious variant of the coronavirus that is sweeping through Brazil has been detected for the first time in the state as health officials ramp up their response to the mutations. The Kansas Department of Health and Environment’s announcement Tuesday that the P.1 variant has been detected in Sedgwick County means the state now has all three of the most widely spread variants. The agency said it is investigating how the person became infected and whether others may have been exposed. Earlier this month, the South African variant was identified for the first time in Kansas in someone from Finney County. Another variant first identified in the United Kingdom also has been found in several counties. Lee Norman, secretary of health and environment, urged Kansans in a statement to wear masks, physically distance and get vaccinated. According to state data, 35% of the state’s 2.9 million residents had received at least one COVID-19 shot as of Wednesday. Adrienne Byrne, Sedgwick County health director, said the findings also show the importance of getting tested for the virus that causes COVID-19.
Louisville: A majority of Kentuckians favor getting a COVID-19 shot, according to a new poll released by the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky. It found 71% of the 807 adults polled throughout the state said they already have or probably will get vaccinated, Ben Chandler, foundation president, said at a news briefing Wednesday. And of the 29% who said they probably or definitely would not get the vaccine, about half said they might consider vaccination with more time and more information. “Kentucky has a shot at herd immunity,” Chandler said. “We believe there is opportunity here in Kentucky to grow the COVID-19 vaccination rate.” Public health officials consider herd immunity – when enough people are vaccinated to stop spread of the virus – likely to occur at 70%-85%, Chandler said. About 50% of adults in the state have received at least one dose, he said. If people who say they intend to get the vaccine follow through, “that gets us right at the edge of herd immunity here in Kentucky,” Chandler said. The news comes as Gov. Andy Beshear is trying to get at least 70% of Kentuckians 16 and older inoculated. At that point, the Democratic governor said he would lift many of the restrictions in place, including capacity limits and curfews on restaurants, bars and many public gatherings.
Shreveport: The proportion of first responders in Caddo and Bossier parishes vaccinated for COVID-19 is less than 50% for agencies reporting numbers. First responders were in the first group to receive vaccinations. Agencies in the Shreveport-Bossier area provided vaccinations to more than 550 first responders, which does not include the Shreveport Police Department or Bossier Parish Sheriff’s Office. The Shreveport Fire Department, Bossier Police Department, Bossier Fire Department and Caddo Parish Sheriff’s Office provided numbers of initial vaccinations offered by the departments. Out of 1,599 first responders across all four agencies, just 34% were inoculated. Shreveport police and Shreveport fire offered the vaccine when the first group rolled out. Shreveport police were unable to provide an exact number of vaccines administered due to a third party that collected the information.
Bangor: Bates College lifted a 12-day lockdown aimed at containing an outbreak of COVID-19, and in-person classes resumed Wednesday. David Joshua McIntosh, vice president for campus life, told students the school was immediately “lifting the in-room restriction” it imposed April 1. “We are confident that we have contained the outbreak that began with social gatherings” during the last weekend of March, McIntosh said. The college still has more than 30 students who tested positive in isolation housing – half the number it had at the peak of the outbreak. Six students remain in quarantine, and the college will continue to conduct coronavirus tests for the rest of the week out of an abundance of caution. Meanwhile, the Cumberland County jail is working with the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention to contain an outbreak. Nearly 30 people – 27 inmates and two employees – have tested positive for the coronavirus, jail officials said. Inmates and staff started showing symptoms last week. Over the weekend, all inmates at the jail and staff were tested for the virus, and another 24 inmates tested positive, officials said.
Annapolis: Takeout cocktails, which have proved a vital lifeline for struggling restaurants and bars during the pandemic, are set to become permanent under legislation the General Assembly passed Monday. The House and Senate granted final, last-minute approval to a bill that grants local jurisdictions the power to approve the sale of cocktails and other alcoholic beverages for off-premises consumption or delivery. The near-unanimous votes came on Sine Die, the final day of the three-month legislative session. Under the bill, restaurants and bars would be allowed to sell mixed drinks and cocktails in sealed containers to customers who are also buying food. Eateries and taverns would have to get sign-off from the local licensing board if their jurisdiction passed a local law allowing for takeout alcohol sales. The bill calls on counties to “weigh the need to promote the economic recovery of different categories of small businesses in the wake of COVID-19.” Gov. Larry Hogan allowed carryout alcohol sales in his March 19, 2020, emergency order as pandemic shutdowns, capacity limits and social distancing requirements threatened businesses across the state. Bar and restaurant owners said to-go alcohol sales were a lifesaver when profits plummeted. The bill was sent to Hogan’s desk for his signature.
Boston: University of Massachusetts trustees voted Wednesday to approve President Marty Meehan’s proposal to freeze tuition for most students over concerns that many are struggling financially because of the coronavirus pandemic. The vote applies to all in-state undergraduate and graduate students at the Amherst, Boston, Dartmouth and Lowell campuses for the academic year that starts in the fall. The freeze also applies to out-of-state students at Boston, Dartmouth and Lowell. “This freeze was made possible by the active management of university finances at the system and campus levels,” trustees Chair Robert Manning said in a statement. “The decisions made over the last year have ensured that the university will emerge from the pandemic in a strong, stable financial condition.” The university has also increased its institutionally funded financial aid to a record high of $352 million this fiscal year. “We recognize the very real challenges that our students and their families continue to face due to the pandemic and we are committed to doing everything within our control to lessen the burden while also preserving the quality of a UMass education,” Meehan said in a statement. UMass has about 75,000 students across the four undergraduate campuses and a medical school in Worcester.
Lansing: Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration on Tuesday extended workplace coronavirus restrictions for an additional six months, including a requirement that employers prohibit office work if employees’ jobs can feasibly be done remotely. The emergency rules, issued in the fall, could be modified or withdrawn before they expire in mid-October. An advisory group of business, labor and health care leaders is assessing a phased return to offices and may make recommendations to the governor as soon as next week. Sean Egan, the state’s director of COVID-19 workplace safety, said “some tweaks” possibly could have been made to the regulations now if not for Michigan’s spike in infections. It has the country’s highest two-week case rate, with hospitals treating more than 4,000 adults with confirmed infections – a daily record surpassing the previous high from a year ago. A coalition of business groups had criticized the restrictions on office work, citing competitiveness issues, the mental health of employees, and negative effects on downtowns and municipal governments. Business leaders also have contended there is little evidence of spread within carefully managed offices. Egan said the rules allow employers to have workers in the office. “It’s the employer making the determination. So there is room there for them to maneuver,” he said, adding that the state may provide more clarity on the “feasibility” standard.
St. Cloud: More than a year after COVID-19 slammed the door on theaters, stages and music venues, live shows are beginning to return to Central Minnesota. A relative lull in the pandemic in February and March gave venues and audiences hope for the return of live entertainment. However, with ongoing restrictions and a potential for another spike in cases, live shows will likely be different for months to come. The Paramount Center for the Arts is planning a “soft reopening” in May, with three weekends of live Vietnam War-era music performed by the Fabulous Armadillos. The Paramount’s first shows will be limited to 200 people, or about 25% of the theater’s capacity. Household groups and “COVID pods” will be seated together, and guests will be asked to head straight to their seats and remain there during performances. Meanwhile, in Waite Park, a long-awaited outdoor venue will host some of the area’s first live shows since the start of the pandemic, including GREAT Theatre’s rescheduled performance of “Cinderella” in late July. The Waite Park amphitheater, originally set to open last summer, is now set to host its first shows in early June. “It really is a little bit of luck,” Executive Director Dennis Whipple said, “to think they built an outdoor theater that’s ready to go post-COVID.”
Jackson: Health officials said 78 people in the state have tested positive for the coronavirus after being fully vaccinated, and one died. “We knew we would see some because (the vaccine is) not 100% effective at preventing any illness,” State Health Officer Thomas Dobbs said during a Tuesday media briefing. “It’s been fortunately an uncommon thing.” The Moderna vaccine is more than 90% effective against COVID-19 six months after the second dose is administered, according to the most recent study. Pfizer said its vaccine is 91.3% effective in preventing the disease caused by the coronavirus. While Johnson & Johnson’s shot, currently facing questions related to rare blood clots, has a lower effectiveness against COVID-19 at 66%, it’s highly successful at preventing hospitalization and death in infected people, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. In proportion to the more than 630,000 people who have been fully vaccinated in the state, the risk of contracting the virus afterward is very low, State Epidemiologist Paul Byers said during the briefing. “If you think of the several hundred thousand cases that we’ve had to date from COVID, and you put that in perspective with the total number of individuals who’ve been vaccinated, we’re talking about less than 80 cases,” Byers said.
Branson: The tourist town is ditching its mask mandate early after electing a new mayor who ran on a platform that called for doing away with it. “The city heard your voices loud and clear,” newly elected Mayor Larry Milton said after the Board of Alderman voted 6-0 on Tuesday night to repeal the public masking ordinance effective Friday. The ordinance was first enacted July 31 after extensive discussion amid rising COVID-19 case counts. Last month, the Board of Aldermen voted 4-2 to repeal it but delayed implementation until May 24 to allow Branson’s tourism industry an opportunity to vaccinate its front-line workers. But that wasn’t fast enough for voters, who on April 6 decisively elected Milton to the city’s highest office and remade the composition of the Board of Aldermen. The discussion leading up to the vote was heated, with one community member called masking mandates “diabolically evil.” Milton called for everyone to support Branson’s business community, regardless of how policy differences over masking requirements played out. “I want to be very clear with this message,” the mayor said. “If this ordinance passes, I will encourage and fully support any business that continues to mandate masks. I will support anybody who chooses to wear a mask.”
Helena: Gov. Greg Gianforte issued an executive order Tuesday banning the development or use of vaccine passports in the state. The move by Gianforte comes as vaccine passports – documents used to verify COVID-19 immunization status and allow inoculated people to more freely travel, shop and dine – have been portrayed by Republicans across the country as a heavy-handed intrusion into personal freedom and private health choices. Montana’s order prohibits state agencies from requiring COVID-19 vaccines to access state services or facilities. It also prohibits the state from issuing or funding such documentation and from sharing individuals’ vaccination status with other entities. Finally, it prohibits businesses in the state from requiring customers to be inoculated to access services. Gianforte, a Republican who got his first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine earlier this month, was diagnosed with the coronavirus last week and is recovering and isolating in his home. He said in a statement that he encourages Montanans to get the vaccine, but receiving it is “entirely voluntary” and will not be mandated by the state. “We are committed to protecting individual liberty and personal privacy,” Gianforte said. The Legislature is also considering several bills that would ban the use of vaccine passports.
Lincoln: The state Department of Health and Human Services and Nebraska Public Health Lab have confirmed that the New York variant of the coronavirus, known as B1.526, has arrived in the state. The initial case was identified as a Douglas County resident. An investigation is underway and ongoing. The B1.526 variant has been spreading throughout the United States, specifically in the Northeast, and is still being studied to determine the level of contagiousness and severity. Testing platforms like Test Nebraska and others will still produce a “positive” result for the strain, and COVID-19 vaccines are expected to remain effective.
Carson City: Gov. Steve Sisolak said Tuesday that he hopes each of the state’s 17 counties will be able to reopen at 100% capacity by June 1. A roadmap unveiled in February set May 1 as a target date by when Sisolak and state health officials planned to cede some decision-making power over Nevada’s coronavirus guidelines to local officials. It directed counties to prepare to set capacity and social distancing guidelines but kept a statewide mask mandate in effect and reserved the right to tighten restrictions if coronavirus variants proliferated or if vaccination rates remained low despite availability. Sisolak said counties would still retain control over decisions, and his intention was not to influence or take ownership over reopening decisions. “This is the first piece of good news that I’m able to deliver in a long time,” the first-term Democrat said at a news conference. From Las Vegas to the state’s rural north, local officials have for weeks deliberated over plans to reopen businesses and lift capacity caps on private gatherings upon regaining control. In Washoe County, home to Reno, officials are weighing plans to lift social distancing requirements as soon as 50% of the population is vaccinated. In rural Nye County, commissioners are considering making masks optional altogether – a choice Sisolak said he has not given them the authority to make.
Concord: The speaker of the state House wants to revisit a decision by an appeals court to vacate a judge’s ruling that upheld his refusal to provide remote access to legislative sessions to lawmakers at a higher risk of serious complications from COVID-19. Lawyers representing Sherman Packard are planning to seek a rehearing on the case, according to court documents Wednesday. Seven Democratic lawmakers sued 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 forces them to either risk their lives or abandon their duties as elected officials. Meanwhile, a state House seat left vacant by the COVID-19 death of previous Speaker Dick Hinch will remain in Republican hands, following a special election. Bill Boyd, a town councilor in Merrimack, won Tuesday, defeating former state Rep. Wendy Thomas, a Democrat. He received 2,531 votes; Thomas got 2,144 votes. Independent candidate Stephen Hollenberg got 104 votes. Hinch died Dec. 9, a week after he was sworn in as speaker.
Woodland Park: It is the state’s responsibility to remove trash along its highways, but some residents say the garbage is out of control this year. Grassy shoulders are covered in car parts and soda cans, and shrubs are festooned with tattered plastic bags. A frustrated Mayor Keith Kazmark recently accompanied a crew from the Woodland Park Department of Public Works to pick up a child’s mattress that had been a roadside eyesore for weeks along Route 80. Trash, especially around exit ramps, is a perennial problem, but the COVID-19 pandemic has made it worse. “We all see the litter and are extremely concerned by it,” said JoAnn Gemenden, executive director of New Jersey Clean Communities. The organization has 65 Adopt-A-Highway groups that have taken on cleaning sections of highways, and 12 more are pending. But the pandemic has limited the ability of many of these groups to get out and clean up, Gemenden said. For one thing, COVID-19 has reduced crew sizes. Instead of four workers traveling in one car, coronavirus restrictions mean that often only one person can occupy a car, she said. Some workers are reluctant to go out during the pandemic at all. Another contributing factor was the COVID-19-related suspension of Passaic County’s SLAP, the program that provides inmates to pick up trash along roads.
Albuquerque: Authenticity and the idea of adventure steeped in culture have fueled the state’s award-winning “True” tourism campaign for more than a decade. That won’t change, but Tourism Secretary Jen Paul Schroer said Tuesday that it was time to refresh the brand ahead of what she said will be a “complete rebirth of New Mexico’s tourism economy” as more people are vaccinated and as more public health orders prompted by the coronavirus pandemic are relaxed. Schroer unveiled the new “New Mexico True” logo and tagline during a virtual announcement that included a glimpse of the video storytelling that will drive the latest iteration of the tourism campaign. The new design features the state symbol – the iconic zia, whose origins are rooted in the Indigenous community of Zia Pueblo – and the classic slogan of “Land of Enchantment.” Aside from staying on the cutting edge of the marketing game, officials said the goal is to reignite demand for New Mexico’s unspoiled outdoor expanses, its cuisine and culture following a year in which the state lost out on more than $3 billion in visitor spending, and tens of thousands of leisure and hospitality workers were left jobless. The downturn forced by the pandemic followed several years of consecutive record-breaking tourism numbers for New Mexico.
Buffalo: Buffalo Bills and Sabres fans will have to show proof they’ve been vaccinated against COVID-19 if they want to attend games, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz announced Tuesday. “Our goal is to have a 100% full house for the Bills and the Sabres starting in the fall,” Poloncarz said during a daily briefing. “Our plan is that unless you are vaccinated, you will not have entry to the stadium. It is easy. It is safe.” Ticket-holders entering Highmark Stadium for NFL games or the KeyBank Center for NHL games will be asked to show digital proof they are fully vaccinated using New York state’s Excelsior Pass cellphone app. Both venues are owned by Erie County. There will be no religious or other exemptions. “There’s no God-given right to attend a football game,” Poloncarz said. The Buffalo Sabres announced last month that fans could attend ice hockey games in April if they provided proof of vaccination or a recent negative coronavirus test result. Erie County’s vaccination rule won’t affect the remainder of the Sabres’ current season.
Raleigh: State House members on Tuesday commenced their biennial efforts to give local school systems more flexibility over when they can hold classes, as a committee passed several school calendar measures. Current law requires K-12 districts to open the school year no earlier than the Monday closest to Aug. 26 and end no later than the Friday closest to June 11. There are exceptions, such as for districts where weather-related school closings are common. One statewide bill approved by a House education committee would permanently move up the start date by a week. Other local measures applying to one or a few districts would allow even earlier starts or provide school boards wide-ranging calendar flexibility. Some local bills would only allow temporary changes for two or three years. The General Assembly approved a uniform calendar law in 2004 in response to parents and businesses worried that traditional summer vacations from school were diminishing, making it harder to find young people who could fill seasonal jobs at the coast. The Senate has blocked efforts through House legislation over the years to eliminate or weaken that base law. Some sponsors of the new bill say schools need flexibility to address academic failings caused by virtual learning during the pandemic.
Bismarck: A group submitted a proposed ballot measure Tuesday that aims to raise the approval threshold for changing the state constitution through the citizen-initiative process. The citizen-led Protect North Dakota’s Constitution wants to change voter approval of constitutional amendments from a simple majority to 60%. The petition, submitted to Secretary of State Al Jaeger following a press conference at the state Capitol, also seeks to limit ballot measures to a single issue. Retired Maj. Gen. Michael Haugen, a previous adjutant general of the North Dakota National Guard and former member of the state Board of Higher Education, is co-chairman of the group. Haugen, who lives in Fargo, said constitutional amendments have been put before voters in every election cycle for more than a decade, Often, he said, they have contained “confusing language that addresses multiple issues” and are routinely backed by out-of-state interests. Citizen initiatives allow residents to bypass lawmakers and get proposed state laws and constitutional amendments on ballots if they gather enough signatures from voters. North Dakota is among about two dozen states with some form of an initiative process.
Cincinnati: The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County is offering take-home coronavirus tests in select drive-thru windows. UC Health and the Health Collaborative will continue to offer on-site virus testing, but there is also a take-home option. “We realize that our customers may not be able to find a day or location that’s convenient for them. And if you or someone you love need a COVID test for work, school, travel, time is of the essence,” a press release said. The Ohio Library Council, with the Ohio Department of Health, will provide free Abbott BinaxNow at-home coronavirus test kits, along with eMed telehealth sessions. The tests provide 15-minute results. A device with a camera and microphone is required in order to access a telehealth appointment and complete the test. The tests are part of a statewide effort to provide widespread accessibility of free testing throughout Ohio. At least 90 public libraries are a part of the initiative.
Oklahoma City: The City Council on Tuesday did not vote as scheduled on a proposal to lift the city’s mask mandate, which is due to expire April 30. The proposal to end the mandate was removed from the council agenda. City health officials have recommended keeping the mask requirement. In McAlester, the City Council ended its mask requirement. “Now that these vaccines are rolling out, I don’t think we need a mask-mandating ordinance,” Counciler Zach Prichard told the McAlester News-Capital. “I don’t want our mask mandate to be a disincentive to get vaccinated.” The Oklahoma State Department of Health on Wednesday reported 406 new coronavirus cases and 25 additional COVID-19 deaths, bringing the total number of infections to 444,288 and the statewide death count to 8,093 since the pandemic began.
Eugene: A large winery has notified its workers that they must show proof they’ve received a COVID-19 vaccine by May 20. Many workplaces are weighing similar requirements as pandemic restrictions loosen, KLCC reports. King Estate Winery sits on more than a thousand acres outside Eugene. Chief Operating Officer Brent Stone said it’s like a small city, with about 70 employees and workers working close together on bottling lines. He said concerns about workplace safety and preventing a coronavirus outbreak are behind the vaccine requirement. “It’s coming from a really good place, in our minds,” Stone said. “It’s really intended to be supportive and not punitive by any means.” Stone said King Estate has offered on-site vaccination clinics and an additional vacation day as incentive, with paid sick time for vaccine recovery. During the pandemic, weekly food boxes have been available to workers, and the winery boosted its minimum wage to $15 an hour. University of Oregon Law School Associate Professor Liz Tippet said employers can require their workers to get the vaccine, with some exemptions. But she expects most won’t go that far. It’s also in people’s interest to get the vaccine, especially those who interact a lot with others in the workplace, she said.
Harrisburg: A pandemic power struggle that has raged for a year between the Democratic governor and Republican-led Legislature will land on voters’ laps next month in the form of two proposed constitutional amendments that could limit the length of disaster emergencies. Republicans wasted little time getting a statewide question about disaster emergencies onto ballots for the May 18 primary after losing a court ruling in July over a similar resolution that would have ended Gov. Tom Wolf’s disaster declaration. Constitutional amendments must pass both chambers in two consecutive, two-year sessions but do not require the governor’s backing. GOP leaders have denounced the wording for the referendums, developed by the Wolf administration, as loaded language. Because they are ballot questions, all voters are eligible to participate in the primary. “They clearly wrote it in a way for it to fail,” Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, said in February, arguing the state’s disaster emergency has gone on too long. “Look, even a benevolent dictator is still a dictator. And when you have unilateral control, one individual, that’s what you have.” It’s unclear how much of Wolf’s authority would be curtailed by passage of the amendments.
Providence: Accidental drug overdose deaths in the state jumped by 25% in 2020 over the prior year, to their highest level since records have been kept, health officials said Wednesday. There were 384 accidental overdose deaths last year, most involving opioids, according to the state’s Overdose Prevention and Intervention Task Force, which released the final overdose data for the year during a virtual briefing. That was up from 308 in 2019. The previous high was 336 in 2016. The records date to 2009. Fentanyl was involved in about 3 out of 4 overdoses in 2020. Cocaine-involved overdoses also increased in 2020. Roughly 3 in 4 cocaine-involved deaths also involved fentanyl. Alcohol was involved in about one-third of the deaths. Most of the overdoses were in people ages 35 to 44, and 3 out of 4 were among men. The state is responding to the issue with the distribution of 10,000 naloxone kits, an overdose reversal medication. The isolation of the pandemic has been cited as a possible factor in the increase in deaths last year. “Illegal drugs have always been dangerous, but right now they are more deadly than ever,” state health department chief Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott has said. “If you do use drugs, do not use alone, and make sure that your friends and family have naloxone available.”
Columbia: The state House on Wednesday passed a proposal to require all schools to offer in-person classes five days a week starting the last week in April and continue to offer them next school year no matter what happens with the COVID-19 pandemic. The House also removed from the Senate resolution a requirement that teachers be paid extra if they have to teach students both in the classroom and online. The extra pay proposal had to be taken out because education officials and lawmakers were still working to figure out parameters like whether teachers get credit for an online class if the lessons are simply streamed without interaction with students who are not in person, said Rep. Raye Felder, R-Fort Mill. “We’re not leaving those teachers hanging, doing all that additional work?” Rep. Wendy Brawley, D-Hopkins, asked Felder during Wednesday’s debate. “We plan to continue to work on that,” Felder said. The House passed the resolution 106-7, and it faces one last procedural vote before being sent back to the Senate. Senators passed a version with the extra pay and a different deadline, so either they will have to agree to the House version, or the two sides will have to work out their differences in a committee.
Sioux Falls: Alcohol abuse is driving an uptick in liver diseases in the state and across the country, a sign of “collateral damage” from the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Christine Pocha, a transplant hepatologist at Sioux Falls-based Avera Medical Group and Fellow of the American Association of the Study of Liver Disease, said large medical centers across the U.S. are seeing 30% to 50% increases in patients with acute or worsening liver disease. And with survival rates from afflictions like liver disease and cirrhosis as low as 10% in severe cases, that has coincided with a drastic jump in deaths associated with such diseases. The South Dakota Department of Health recently reported the number of residents who died from liver failure last year –234 – was 76% above the state’s 10-year average. “What we see now is the collateral damage of the pandemic,” Pocha said. “Factors such as isolation due to quarantine, unemployment, financial difficulties, the decreased access to in-person medical and intervention support, as well as the overall additional stress of the pandemic, are driving the uptick in cases.” Historically, liver diseases are most prevalent in middle-aged men. But Pocha said several years ago, more cases started appearing in younger patients and women, a trend “fueled by the pandemic.”
Portland: Gov. Bill Lee on Tuesday announced that one of North America’s largest manufacturer of coronavirus testing swabs will establish a new manufacturing and distribution operation in the state. Puritan Medical Products, a medical supplies manufacturer headquartered in Maine, will open a factory in Orlinda, state officials said in a news release. The project will result in 625 jobs over the next five years. Puritan has played a major role in the United States’ efforts to conduct enough testing to help corral the coronavirus pandemic. The company’s total production of flock tip swabs and foam swabs has increased from 15-20 million swabs a month to 70-90 million per month. The Orlinda factory is expected to produce up to 200 million swabs per month.
Austin: Local health authorities are toning down some pandemic safety rules for people who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, Austin Public Health announced Tuesday. “As more people become vaccinated in our area, we are able to move to more lenient requirements for those individuals,” Interim Austin-Travis County Health Authority Dr. Mark Escott said in a statement. “However, we have not yet reached herd immunity in our community.” People are considered fully inoculated two weeks after their last dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to Austin Public Health officials. Those who are fully vaccinated are no longer asked to quarantine after exposure to the coronavirus if they do not have any symptoms. Additionally, they will not be required to wear a face covering in settings and situations deemed safe by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Under the CDC’s current guidance, released April 2, people who are fully vaccinated can meet with others who are fully vaccinated indoors without wearing masks or social distancing. They can also interact indoors without masks and social distancing with people within their households who are not fully vaccinated and are not at high risk for severe symptoms from COVID-19, according to the guidance.
Orderville: Popular tourist lodging company Airbnb has released a list of its most searched destinations for the upcoming summer, and the tiny town of Orderville is No. 6. As the weather warms and COVID-19 pandemic restrictions relax, the state’s national parks are preparing for an influx of tourists that is already breaking records. Zion National Park, the nation’s third most popular national park and Orderville neighbor, saw more than 300,000 visitors in January and February alone this year, topping records for the winter months. “The forecast looks like it’s going to be a really busy year; there’s a lot of pent-up energy around the country and the world. Because we have open space and we’re accessible, the demand is high,” Greater Zion Office of Tourism Director Kevin Lewis said. In a February report from the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah, senior tourism analyst Jennifer Leaver found that visitors spent a record $253.6 million at Zion in 2019. And once visitors are here, they also spend their vacation money in surrounding gateway communities, like Orderville. In Airbnb’s February report, the company found that home hosts earned a collective $1 billion during the pandemic, an average of $7,900 per year.
Newport: A business owner is seeking a new trial in his fight against the state’s mask mandate during the pandemic. Andre Desautels, the owner of Derby Port Press in Newport, was sued by the state after he refused to wear masks in his store, which offers printing services and was also a pickup spot for packages. In February, United Parcel Service Inc. severed its relationship with the store, saying it refused to comply with the company’s uniform policy, which includes wearing masks. Police and the Vermont attorney general’s office had warned Desautels several times to comply with the emergency orders or face fines, the Caledonian-Record reports. Desautels argued that the mask mandate was unconstitutional. Last month, a Vermont judge upheld the state’s mask mandate, and a hearing on potential fines is pending. Desautels has hired a new lawyer who filed a motion last week seeking another trial, with complaints about how his former lawyer handled the case, the newspaper reports. Vermont reported 29 cases of the coronavirus Wednesday for a statewide total of at least 21,480 since the pandemic began. Four new deaths were reported for a total of 237 to date. According to the state Health Department, 29 people were hospitalized with COVID-19, with four in intensive care.
Richmond: Public transit systems from Northern Virginia to Hampton Roads are looking for a path forward after losing riders and revenue during the pandemic. Some transit systems have been harder hit than others. The Greater Richmond Transit Co. faced a “potentially catastrophic budget deficit” since eliminating fares last March in response to the pandemic and reductions in public funding starting in July of this year, according to the organization’s annual report. Federal pandemic relief and Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation emergency funding covered the deficit, according to the report. The transit system lost about 20% of riders when comparing March-November 2019 with the same nine-month period in 2020. Almost 350,000 riders boarded Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority buses per day on average in 2019, including passengers in Northern Virginia. That number dipped to 91,000 average daily boardings in 2020, according to Metro statistics. Hampton Roads Transit buses served 10.7 million people in 2019 and 6.2 million in 2020. The decline has carried into 2021. Almost 1.6 million passengers took HRT transit buses in January and February 2020, and just over 815,000 have in 2021, resulting in a nearly 50% decrease.
Olympia: State health officials said Wednesday that 115 more cases of fully vaccinated people testing positive for the coronavirus have been discovered out of 1.7 million people who have been fully inoculated against COVID-19 in Washington. A total of 217 of the “breakthrough cases,” as they are known, have now been recorded in 24 of the state’s 39 counties, the state Department of Health said. Officials also said Wednesday that they are investigating five suspected deaths of people who experienced vaccine breakthrough. The people who died were between 67 and 94 years old, and all had multiple underlying conditions, officials said. Four lived in long-term care facilities. Officials said breakthrough cases are expected with any vaccine. The breakthrough cases in Washington represent about 0.01% of the fully vaccinated population. A person is confirmed with vaccine breakthrough if they test positive for the coronavirus using a PCR test or antigen test and received their final dose of the COVID-19 vaccine more than two weeks before the positive test.
Morgantown: West Virginia University announced Tuesday that it will temporarily stop administering the COVID-19 vaccine manufactured by Johnson & Johnson. The announcement came hours after the U.S. recommended a “pause” in using the single-dose vaccine to investigate reports of rare but potentially dangerous blood clots. Dr. Clay Marsh, the state’s coronavirus czar and vice president and executive dean of WVU Health Sciences, noted that the federal recommendation occurred amid an investigation of unusual clots in six women between the ages of 18 and 48. One person died. “The fact that CDC and FDA are acting out of caution for 6 clotting episodes in 6.8 million doses given should reassure West Virginia residents that we are watching any and all associated findings in those vaccinated to make sure safety is our priority,” Marsh said in a statement. Until the cases are reviewed, WVU will pause the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccines on all campuses out of abundance of caution, the statement said. The university will work with people scheduled to receive the J&J doses to enable them to receive doses for Pfizer and Moderna vaccines based on availability.
Madison: The state Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that Gov. Tony Evers’ administration does not have the authority to issue capacity limits on bars, restaurants and other businesses without the Legislature’s approval, a ruling that comes two weeks after the conservative-controlled court struck down the state’s mask mandate. The high court also ruled last year in a similar case that the Democratic governor needed the approval of the Legislature, which is controlled by Republicans, to issue an emergency declaration that shut down businesses early in the coronavirus pandemic. There has not been a statewide capacity limit restriction in place since October. That order limited the size of indoor public gatherings to 25% of a building’s or room’s occupancy or 10 people in places that don’t have an occupancy limit. The on-again, off-again order was blocked by a state appeals court that month. The high court ruled 4-3 on Wednesday that the order issued by Evers’ Department of Health Services meets the definition of a rule, which by law must go through the Legislature. The court’s four conservative justices ruled against Evers, while three liberals dissented. “At a time when public health experts are imploring pandemic-weary Wisconsinites to stay vigilant, a faulty statutory analysis once again leads this court to undermine public health measures,” Justice Ann Walsh Bradley wrote for the dissent.
Cheyenne: The state health department is remind residents who lost a loved one to COVID-19 that they may apply for federal reimbursement of funeral expenses to help ease some of the financial stress and burden caused by the pandemic. A dedicated toll-free phone number to call is 844-684-6333. Federal Emergency Management Agency representatives are available to assist callers from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday. The helpline has received thousands of calls, causing some callers to receive a busy signal. Having the required documents ready when calling can ease some of the congestion, officials said. Individuals who feel they need crisis counseling are encouraged to call Wyoming 2-1-1. The service provides free, confidential, health and human services information and referrals.
From USA TODAY Network and wire reports
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Cinerama, trash pileup: News from around our 50 states