Disney smiles, boardwalk shots, parklet program: News from around our 50 states

·51 min read


Montgomery: Gov. Kay Ivey said Wednesday that the state is shifting to personal responsibility in the fight against COVID-19, keeping her promise to let a statewide face mask order expire Friday. Ivey said she’s issuing a “greatly slimmed down” health order that has few restrictions. It encourages people to keep taking precautions such as voluntarily wearing masks but no longer includes a statewide mask order. Alabama opened vaccine eligibility to anyone 16 and older two days ago, and state health officials said virus hospitalizations, percentage of positive tests and daily case numbers are hitting some of the lowest numbers in a year. But Alabama also ranks last in the country for the percentage of people who have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “We are finally rounding the corner. While we haven’t whipped this deadly disease just yet, it appears that, thank the good Lord, we are in the home stretch. Please, please continue to use good common sense, and we will see the end of COVID-19 soon,” Ivey said. The Republican governor said she’ll keep wearing a mask around others after Friday and urged other Alabamians to do the same. She also urged people to respect businesses who require customers to wear masks.


Anchorage: The Anchorage School District will implement weekly coronavirus tests for high school hockey players after at least 64 students either tested positive for the virus or were told to quarantine because they were in close contact with someone who had. The district said all the cases can be linked to two recent competitive hockey tournaments, Alaska’s News Source reports. “Unfortunately, we’ve gotten to the point where we have enough positive cases related to hockey that we are having to take extra precautions to keep schools open and keep kids safe while they are participating in ASD hockey,” said Kersten Johnson, the Anchorage School District’s senior director of secondary education. Johnson said the district will pay for the tests, and starting next week they will test for the virus until the end of the season. Players who have received the vaccine do not have to test, nor those who have tested positive in the past 90 days. The school district is also testing high school wrestlers every week as required by an executive order by the mayor. “For hockey, it is a little bit different. We’ve seen a rise in cases that are associated with hockey and felt the need to take that precaution,” Johnson said. The district’s high school hockey season was pushed back to the spring because of public health orders that deemed indoor gatherings inappropriate.


Phoenix: Pima County can continue to enforce its face-mask mandates to reduce the spread of the coronavirus in spite of an executive order issued by Republican Gov. Doug Ducey that bars local orders, according to an informal opinion issued by Arizona’s attorney general Tuesday. However, the opinion issued by Attorney General Mark Brnovich’s office said the governor could order the state health department to issue rules barring local mandates or ignore the opinion and try to enforce his executive order on his own. Three Republican lawmakers sought the opinion late last month after Pima County’s health department said it would continue to enforce its mask mandate despite Ducey’s new order barring local rules. Ducey cited lower COVID-19 cases and rising vaccination rates to end most business restrictions and revoke the ability of cities and counties to issue mask mandates. The opinion came on the same day Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego said she would keep the city’s mask mandate in place. “I stand with the majority of the Phoenix City Council who agree that the governor’s unilateral decision to order cities to abandon mask requirements is a case of significant government overreach,” Gallego said in a statement. “The governor’s authority is not without limits.”


Little Rock: Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Tuesday that he opposes government-mandated COVID-19 “vaccine passports” to access services, but he also said private businesses should have the right to require vaccinations. The governor echoed other Republicans’ opposition to state-required proof of vaccination. However, he said he favored giving employers latitude to require vaccinations, comparing them to drug tests. “I think you have to give latitude to the private sector,” Hutchinson said, saying some venues may want to make vaccinations a requirement to enter. “As a government, no, the state is not going to be requiring or mandating vaccinations.” A state bill filed last week would prohibit government-mandated vaccine passports. The Department of Health said Arkansas’ coronavirus cases rose by 163 to 331,261 total since the pandemic began last year. The state’s COVID-19 deaths grew by five to 5,653. The state’s active cases, meaning ones that don’t include people who have died or recovered, dropped by five to 1,602. COVID-19 hospitalizations rose by seven to 152. More than 1.2 million of the nearly 1.9 million vaccine doses allocated to the state have been administered so far, the department said.


Vanessa White, owner of Santa Paula Fitness, leads an exercise class on Monday, March 29, 2021.
Vanessa White, owner of Santa Paula Fitness, leads an exercise class on Monday, March 29, 2021.

Oxnard: A gym owner is protesting a Ventura County panel’s vote to drop lawsuits against businesses that violated COVID-19 health orders while she could be forced to close over the high costs of obeying the rules. “It felt like a punch to the gut,” said Vanessa White, who with her husband, Kevin, co-owns Santa Paula Fitness. The Board of Supervisors unanimously decided in mid-March to dismiss suits against three gyms and two restaurants that allegedly refused to close their indoor operations as required by the state’s purple-tier limits. The establishments were the lone holdouts after county officials settled with the other 13 businesses the board sued over the issue, attorneys said. After voting in a closed session devoted to litigation, supervisors described the decision as an “act of goodwill” that came in concert with the state’s loosening of indoor restrictions under the more permissive red tier. Since then, they have acknowledged that the suits became moot after the state relaxed the rules. It’s not clear how many fines have been levied against the businesses, but penalties appear to be minimal. Only two citations amounting to $500 could be substantiated Friday. White said she applied for every form of aid she could for her business over the past year but owes $75,000 in back rent.


Denver: The state has reported its first two cases of a coronavirus variant first found in Brazil that has proven adept at infecting people who previously contracted the virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notified the state health department that two Boulder County residents tested positive for the variant, The Denver Post reports. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said it is investigating whether they traveled to other countries or states where the variant is spreading and is also attempting to find other people who were potentially exposed. Officials did not identify the two people or say whether they lived in the same household. It was not immediately known if they had symptoms. The CDC has reported 289 cases of the same variant in 25 states across the U.S. Health officials in Colorado have collected a sample in all coronavirus cases for genetic sequencing tests to determine which variants are spreading and where. Officials have found 1,268 cases linked to “variants of concern,” versions of the virus believed to be more contagious, more severe, and more difficult for immune systems to identify and destroy. The state health department has urged residents to continue following safety guidelines, including wearing masks and social distancing.


Hartford: State officials are looking into the possibility of eventually having to administer booster shots of COVID-19 vaccines in nursing homes, while also vaccinating new residents and staff who are coming into the facilities without having had a shot, Gov. Ned Lamont said Monday. About 5% of the nursing home population has been turning over each week in Connecticut. The newcomers are overwhelmingly not vaccinated, said Josh Geballe, Lamont’s chief operating officer. As a short-term fix, the state has asked the Connecticut National Guard to vaccinate those new admissions. “But in the meantime, we’ve also been working with our acute care hospitals to make sure that they’re vaccinating on discharge,” Geballe said, adding that nursing homes have been told they need to have a “vaccination partner” established with a pharmacy or other organization. Lamont told reporters his administration has been “thinking about” the possibility of having to administer booster shots to nursing home residents, a segment of the population that was hit especially hard by the pandemic. Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration and a Connecticut resident, said it’s a “an open question” whether younger people will get a booster shot.


Julia Gilley, a counter sales employee at Grotto on the boardwalk in Rehoboth Beach, prepares a stack of napkins while working at Grotto for the summer in 2015, when she was attending the University of Delaware.
Julia Gilley, a counter sales employee at Grotto on the boardwalk in Rehoboth Beach, prepares a stack of napkins while working at Grotto for the summer in 2015, when she was attending the University of Delaware.

Rehoboth: From frying french fries to greeting guests, the state’s coastal businesses rely on a strong workforce to meet the tourists and residents who flock to their favorite restaurants, hotels and shops in the summer. But as more people get vaccinated against COVID-19 and make plans to hit the beaches, “help wanted” signs remain in many windows up and down the coast. Some business owners have called this year’s hiring season a “nightmare,” while others in the hospitality industry worry an employee shortage may worsen if the state further lifts pandemic-related restrictions and capacity limits. Especially after a winter that has been one of the busiest on the books for many businesses in Delaware’s resort towns, owners and managers are bracing for a busy summer season and hoping they have enough staff to ride the wave. While some beach businesses hire employees year-round, and others quadruple their staff during the summer, employers consistently say they’re feeling the pressure this year. Some are getting creative, calling local schools in hopes of finding students on summer break or flagging people down on the street as they walk by the restaurant. The Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce heard from enough businesses that it plans to host a job fair for the first time in years.

District of Columbia

Washington: In another sign of a return to pre-pandemic normalcy, the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts has announced plans for its 50th anniversary season, including a September grand reopening, WUSA-TV reports. The Kennedy Center canceled its season last year but began welcoming some people back for performances in September 2020 as part of a D.C. pilot program. The mid-September reactivation of the Kennedy Center campus will include an opening curated and hosted by Michael Tilson Thomas and the unveiling of two immersive, interactive exhibits, plus a new life-size statue of John F. Kennedy on the grounds of the REACH, the Kennedy Center said in a release. The new season will include four artist residencies – including from The Roots and jazz artist Robert Glaspar – and numerous new works. “I can think of no better way to reemerge from the darkness of these last many months than to reopen with a vibrant, season-long celebration of the center’s rich history and the bright future of the arts in our nation,” Kennedy Center President Deborah F. Rutter said.


Orlando: At Walt Disney World, the smiles won’t have to be hidden for much longer. Starting Thursday, visitors to the theme park resort will be able to remove their masks temporarily for outdoor photos, the company said on its website. The change tweaks a requirement that all workers and visitors age 2 and up wear masks except when they are actively eating or drinking, provided they are socially distanced and not moving about. The mask mandate includes those who already have been vaccinated. Workers and visitors have been required to wear masks, get temperature checks upon arriving and follow social distancing markers while in line ever since the Florida theme park resort reopened last summer after closing for more than two months because of the coronavirus pandemic.


Athens: The Athens-Clarke parklet program was extended Tuesday, and the College Square outdoor dining plaza is now permanent. The parklet program was introduced at the start of the pandemic when the need arose for safe outdoor dining. Parklets were created by converting business-adjacent parking spaces or small sections of road into mini-parks with small dining areas. Tuesday’s commission vote extended the program, as well as the outdoor retail areas pilot program. The Washington Street outdoor retail program permits outdoor dining space and alcohol service for restaurants and retail stores in the area. The parklet program is tied to the COVID-19 local emergency ordinance currently in place, so the program will be extended for as long as that order is active. As a part of the extension, commissioners voted to have the Government Operations Committee develop plans for an ongoing parklet program that would continue past the emergency ordinance. Once that plan is developed, commissioners would vote on whether to make the parklets permanent sometime this summer, which would allow for a smooth transition from the temporary program.


Honolulu: The island of Kauai has rejoined the state’s Safe Travels program, which means out-of-state visitors can skip quarantining if they test negative for the coronavirus up to 72 hours before their flight. As of Monday, travelers to Kauai were allowed to bypass a 10-day quarantine by presenting pre-travel negative coronavirus tests, Hawaii News Now reports. The county had opted out of the program in December because of the global rise in virus infections. “We are now in a much better place today to have travelers coming in, and I think as more vaccines get out, generally speaking, the entire world will be in a better place,” Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami said. The island since December welcomed back some interisland travelers and adopted “resort bubbles.” The county’s resort bubble program, or Enhanced Movement Quarantine, allowed visitors to travel to Kauai if they got two negative coronavirus tests and spent three days either on another island or at a county-approved resort property. If they stayed at one of the resorts, they wore monitoring devices but could roam the resorts’ grounds and use amenities. Kawakami said rejoining the Safe Travels program will help buoy local businesses that struggled because of the public health restrictions.


Boise: Gov. Brad Little issued an executive order Wednesday banning state government from requiring or issuing COVID-19 “vaccine passports.” The Republican governor is also preventing state agencies from providing information on a person’s vaccine status to individuals, companies or government entities. Little, who has gotten the vaccine, said he strongly encourages others to get vaccinated as well. But he said he has serious concerns that a vaccine passport requirement will violate medical privacy rights. The White House has ruled out a national “vaccine passport,” saying it is leaving it to up the private sector if companies want to develop a system for people to show they’ve been vaccinated. All Idaho residents age 16 and older are now eligible to get a vaccine. About 70% of residents age 65 and over have already opted to get a shot. State officials say more than 325,000 Idahoans are fully vaccinated, and an additional 170,000 have received one dose of vaccines requiring two doses. More than 180,000 people in Idaho have been infected with COVID-19, and nearly 2,000 have died. About 1.8 million people live in the state.


Chicago: Vice President Kamala Harris on Tuesday urged Chicago union members to share their experience receiving a COVID-19 vaccine and act as “role models” for family and friends who may be reluctant even as the state prepares to open access to all adults. Harris visited a vaccination site in the city that opened last week for union workers. Chicago officials also hope the dedicated site will improve vaccination rates among Black and Latino city residents. After touring the site, Harris spoke to union members and said the site was “a model for the country” and told a group that their next task is encouraging others to receive a vaccine once eligible. “We’re all here to make a statement we understand the significance of getting vaccinated, that it’s bigger than us,” she said. “We are doing it because we know this is a room of role models, and people look to you to see how things should be done.” Illinois health authorities reported 2,931 confirmed and probable cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday and 13 additional deaths. Since the start of the pandemic, Illinois has reported more than 1.2 million cases and 21,395 deaths. The state plans to open vaccine access to everyone 16 and older starting Monday.


Brian Shapiro, fourth-generation owner of Shapiro's Delicatessen, speaks about the effects of the NCAA tournament on downtown Indianapolis.
Brian Shapiro, fourth-generation owner of Shapiro's Delicatessen, speaks about the effects of the NCAA tournament on downtown Indianapolis.

Indianapolis: Bars and restaurants say they have not heard from public health officials after reports that an NCAA fan who visited a number of local restaurants died of complications from COVID-19 after leaving the city. Shapiro’s Delicatessen was one of the restaurants University of Alabama student Luke Ratliff visited while in Indianapolis to watch the Crimson Tide basketball team compete. On March 20, Ratliff tweeted a picture of a Shapiro’s pastrami on rye piled high on a plate and a bowl of mac and cheese, both sitting on a blue tray. Owner Brian Shapiro said an employee confirmed Ratliff’s visit, and it was his understanding the 23-year-old wore a mask, picked up a takeout order and left. But after seeing the picture from Ratliff’s Twitter account, Shapiro said it does appear Ratliff dined in. “The contact tracers should have been on top of this,” he said, adding that he blames Alabama “for not being proactive enough” more than local and state health officials. “The bigger question is why didn’t Alabama be more proactive with our board of health?” Shapiro said. Neither health officials nor contact tracers have reached out to his restaurant. Restaurants have a particular reason to be on edge after at least nine employees of the renowned St. Elmo Steak House contracted the coronavirus, and a longtime bartender died.


Iowa City: Coronavirus cases are on the rise again this week in city schools, resulting in 12 classrooms being temporarily closed due to exposure and more than 500 children in quarantine. Among those quarantined are 564 students and 22 staff, while 99 students and four staff tested positive for the virus, according to the school district’s data dashboard. Staff in the district of roughly 14,000 students have been vaccinated against COVID-19. The district follows the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for close-contact quarantine after exposure to the virus. Students and employees will be asked to quarantine if they spend 15 cumulative minutes within 6 feet of someone positive for the virus over a 24-hour period. If that happens in a classroom, students and staff may be asked to quarantine, resulting in a temporary classroom closure. Earlier this school year, the state of Iowa broke with the CDC’s guidance and said quarantine isn’t necessary if masks were worn at the time of the exposure. Iowa City schools sided with the CDC and still require quarantine regardless of mask usage. Iowa City’s rise in cases is mirrored across the state. At a news conference last week, Gov. Kim Reynolds acknowledged that cases have been rising but said she has “not seen evidence to suggest it’s leading down a concerning path.”


Valley Center: The city’s school district is considering dropping its mask mandates and social distancing rules after a former Sedgwick County commissioner complained the policies are “irrational” because the number of COVID-19 cases is declining. The school board held a special meeting Monday in response to the complaint from former commissioner Richard Ranzau, who invoked a new state law that requires a school board hearing within three days of a complaint being filed and a final decision within a week of the hearing. On Tuesday, the Blue Valley School District in Overland Park canceled a similar hearing after a man who attended refused to wear a mask or leave. The Valley Center board decided to meet again Thursday to vote on the objection. The district had planned to keep the restrictions in place for the final weeks of the school year, The Wichita Eagle reports. Ranzau, whose son attends Valley Center High School, said the restrictions implemented in August are no longer valid because COVID-19 infection rates in Sedgwick County have dropped to between 3% and 4%, and school employees now all have access to vaccinations. The district, however, estimated only about half of its 550 total staff have been vaccinated.


Frankfort: Gov. Andy Beshear signed bills Wednesday directing more than $1 billion in federal relief money for big-ticket items including broadband expansion, school construction and water projects. The infusion of federal money offers a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” for long-term investments to attract businesses, create thousands of jobs and improve quality of life, the Democratic governor said. It will also strengthen the state’s competitiveness in the post-pandemic economy, he said. A bipartisan group of lawmakers joined Beshear as he signed bills appropriating money flowing from the pandemic aid package championed by President Joe Biden and passed by congressional Democrats – including Kentucky’s lone Democratic congressman, John Yarmuth. State government in Kentucky is expected to eventually receive about $2.4 billion. Bills appropriating chunks of the aid passed shortly before Kentucky’s legislative session ended. “Everyone saw the potential,” Beshear said. “Everyone agreed that it was the right thing to do. And that now is the time to capitalize on this once-in-a-lifetime chance – a chance to invest in our people and a chance to rocket forward into our future.”


Shreveport: A teachers union has sued a northwest Louisiana school system, saying a $1,000 bonus discriminates against women, older workers and disabled people. The Caddo Parish School Board approved the “Caddo Heroes Stipend Allocation” for full-time employees who were present for at least 90% of their scheduled workdays during the 2020-21 school year. Red River United, a local of the American Federation of Teachers, filed its lawsuit Monday and announced it at a news conference the same day, news outlets report. “This year has been grueling, and every employee who has shown up for our students is a hero. That doesn’t change just because someone had to take time off to have a baby or went in for emergency surgery,” union President Jackie Lansdale said, according to KSLA-TV. Lansdale said Tuesday that with 3,000 members in Bossier, Caddo and Red River parishes, Red River United is the state’s largest local representing teachers and other school workers. Teacher aide Amanda Lowery told the news conference she can’t get the supplement because, as a paraprofessional, she does not get maternity leave and had to take extended sick leave, at 65% pay, after having a baby in February, The Times reports. “I was excited when I heard about the heroes pay, but then once they said I can’t get it, it’s like, well, what am I going to do now?” Lowrey said.


Calais: The state will work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to get COVID-19 vaccines to residents in rural and underserved communities, officials with the state said Tuesday. The administration of Democratic Gov. Janet Mills said the state and FEMA will partner on a mobile vaccination unit, only the second of its kind in New England. The unit will start by bringing vaccines to Oxford on Monday, the governor’s office said. It will then go to 10 other communities in Maine, including Fryeburg, Calais and Madawaska, the office said. “The clinic will complement our existing vaccination efforts well and allow people in rural communities to more easily get the vaccine, protecting their health and that of their loved ones and helping us to win the fight against COVID-19,” Mills said in a statement. The governor’s office said the unit is expected to vaccinate at least 250 people per day. It will use the one-shot vaccine from Johnson & Johnson, the office said. Appointments will be required, Maine Department of Health and Human Services Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said. Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, called the use of the unit “a major step forward” for Maine’s vaccination effort. Maine is one of the most rural states in the U.S.


Annapolis: Gov. Larry Hogan continues to back his administration’s purchase of 500,000 coronavirus tests from South Korea, even after a blistering legislative audit last week concluded that the procurement process was deeply flawed. At a news conference Monday, Hogan called the audit report “partisan nonsense” and said he “wouldn’t change a single thing.” “I’m still very happy with the tremendous success of acquiring these test kits,” he said. “It was probably one of the biggest accomplishments throughout this pandemic.” Hogan has lauded the purchase of the tests as an example of international cooperation in the early days of the pandemic, when testing and other resources were scarce. But the tests have since become a thorn in the Republican governor’s side, creating fodder for critics who say the purchase was little more than an expensive spectacle. The half-million virus tests had to be returned, largely unused, and replaced with new ones after a Maryland laboratory found they did not comply with federal regulations. The combined cost of both batches, plus a chartered flight for the first set of tests, came in at about $12 million, according to the legislative audit released Friday.


Boston: Gov. Charlie Baker received his COVID-19 vaccine Tuesday. The Republican governor got his first dose of the Pfizer vaccine at the Hynes Convention Center in Boston. Baker, 64, has repeatedly said he would not move to the head of the vaccination line but would instead wait until he was eligible under federal guidelines. Massachusetts on Monday opened vaccine eligibility to residents 55 and older, as well as to all adults with one of several medical conditions that put them at greater risk from the disease. Baker said he preregistered and was notified last week that he could receive the vaccine. “So far I feel great,” the Republican told reporters. “This vaccine is a critical tool to end the pandemic. It’s also a critical tool to help people feel safe and to help them protect themselves, their families, their friends, their co-workers, their neighbors.” The Hynes site opened last month to replace a mass vaccination site at Fenway Park, which closed because it was needed for the 2021 Red Sox season. CIC Health, which is running the site, said last month that the two-shot Pfizer vaccine will be administered at the Hynes, subject to change depending on vaccine availability.


Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan will stick to a virtual graduation ceremony but allow graduates to at least watch the event on screens inside the football stadium, officials said. The university has been criticized by some parents and students for not having a traditional graduation in the stadium even as COVID-19 vaccines become widely available and as restrictions on large gatherings are eased. The football stadium now can be opened at 20% capacity, a reason that was given Thursday for opening it to graduates May 1. The commencement speakers will be elsewhere but visible on screens at the Big House. Family members cannot be inside the stadium. “We’re grateful that changes in public health guidelines and conditions in our student community now allow us to offer the experience of being together in Michigan Stadium when their hard-earned degrees are conferred,” President Mark Schlissel said. It’s the second year that a traditional graduation has been canceled at U-M because of the coronavirus.


Minneapolis: State health officials on Tuesday reported nearly 500 residents are hospitalized due to the coronavirus as case numbers continue to rise despite the state’s vaccination campaign. The Minnesota Department of Health on Tuesday reported 3,014 new confirmed cases and four more deaths over the past three days. Reporting had been delayed due to a technical issue on Saturday and the Easter holiday Sunday. Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm expressed concern at the growing number of cases, citing a seven-day test positivity rate of 6% that continues to show signs of increasing after climbing above the caution threshold of 5% last week. “You’ve heard us mention a number of times, especially in the recent couple of weeks, that we’re definitely not out of the woods yet with this pandemic,” Malcolm said during a news conference. She said hospital bed use due to COVID-19 has increased 40% in the past 10 days, and 497 Minnesotans were hospitalized Tuesday, including 114 in intensive care. Malcolm said the state’s efforts to prioritize vaccinations in populations most vulnerable to the virus could prevent a spike in cases, hospitalizations and deaths as seen during a surge late last year.


Jackson: The state is receiving about $29.7 million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to support COVID-19 vaccination efforts. The award is part of $3 billion in coronavirus relief funding approved by Congress to bolster vaccinations, particularly among minority populations. “We are doing everything we can to expand access to vaccinations,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle P. Walensky said Tuesday. “Millions of Americans are getting vaccinated every day, but we need to ensure that we are reaching those in the communities hit hardest by this pandemic.” About 75% of the total funding must focus on specific initiatives intended to increase vaccine access and acceptance among racial and ethnic minority communities. At least 60% must go to support local health departments, community-based organizations and community health centers. Funds can be used to train trusted community members to conduct door-to-door outreach to raise awareness about COVID-19 vaccines and help individuals sign up for appointments, according to the CDC. Money can also be used to hire community health workers who perform culturally competent bilingual health outreach.


Columbia: The health department on Tuesday announced it identified the state’s first case of a new coronavirus variant. Missouri’s Department of Health and Senior Services announced a Jackson County resident tested positive for a variant first identified in South Africa. The agency said a commercial lab identified the variant during genome sequencing. Health department Director Dr. Randall Williams in a statement urged people to continue taking preventative measures, such as wearing a mask and social distancing, as new variants spread to Missouri. “We also continue to ask that individuals consider getting vaccinated when they are able,” Williams said. “The vaccines that are currently available in the United States appear to be effective against these variant viruses.” Missouri found cases of another variant, this one first identified in the United Kingdom, back in February. The agency said there are at least 35 active cases of that faster-spreading variant in the state.


Helena: The state has a new program to provide rental assistance for people who have lost income and are at risk of housing instability due to the pandemic, Gov. Greg Gianforte said Tuesday. The Legislature has appropriated $17 million in federal funding for the Montana Emergency Rental Assistance program. State officials estimate it will help about 8,000 renters stay in their homes. “The last year has brought real, serious challenges to hardworking Montana families through no fault of their own,” Gianforte said in a statement. “Emergency rental assistance will help Montanans, who have struggled financially through this pandemic, get back on their feet and remain secure in their homes.” Gross household income cannot exceed 80% of the area median income for renters to be eligible for the program. For example, income for a family of four in Missoula County cannot exceed $60,150, while income for a family of three in Yellowstone County cannot exceed $57,600. Renters can receive a monthly maximum of $2,200 for past-due and future rent payments, up to $300 for past-due and future utilities including gas and electric, and $50 per month for internet. Households can access assistance dating back to April 1, 2020.


Lincoln: Residents who stop working temporarily to care for a family member with a serious health condition could claim unemployment benefits under a bill that state lawmakers advanced Tuesday. Legislators gave the measure first-round approval with a 27-11 vote. The proposal by Sen. Megan Hunt, of Omaha, would allow workers to collect benefits if they left a job due to family caregiving needs but are planning to return to work. Hunt said the bill will help caregivers who might otherwise struggle financially while caring for a loved one and will help the state avoid costly long-term care services in cases where no one else is available to take care of the person with a health condition. Some senators objected to the cost. The Nebraska Department of Labor estimates that, based on 2020 data, the state will pay out $749,927 in unemployment benefits each year. Hunt argued that 2020 is a bad year to use as a measurement because of the coronavirus pandemic, which left many people severely ill and caused unemployment to surge.


Syringes with the COVID-19 vaccine on  March 31, 2021, in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Syringes with the COVID-19 vaccine on March 31, 2021, in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Las Vegas: State and federal health officials are taking mobile COVID-19 vaccination units this week to the Nye County community of Pahrump and a northern Nevada tribal site in Carson City. In Las Vegas, a drive-thru COVID-19 testing site was open Wednesday at Allegiant Stadium. The Southern Nevada Health District reported Tuesday that it had more vaccination slots available than people booking appointments at its biggest shot sites. The Cashman Center conference hall near downtown has not reached its capacity of 7,000 appointments a day, district official JoAnn Rupiper said. Sites also are open at the Las Vegas Convention Center and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas student union. Everyone 16 and older in Nevada became eligible to receive the vaccine Monday, and officials on Tuesday reported the percentage of the state population fully vaccinated topped 21%. Two Federal Emergency Management Agency mobile vaccination units are traveling the state for 30 days to offer shots to people in places where medical facilities are otherwise limited. Officials aim to provide at least 250 shots a day of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine to walk-up registrants ages 18 and older.

New Hampshire

Concord: U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan says state residents have lost more than $950,000 to pandemic-related fraud, identity theft and other scams, and she’s pushing federal officials to do more to stop it. Hassan, a Democrat, wrote to the Federal Trade Commission on Wednesday asking how it plans to use $30.4 million in pandemic relief funding to combat scammers she called “a danger to the health and financial security of Americans.” As of Monday, the commission had received more than 425,000 reports of such scams, Hassan said, including 1,461 from New Hampshire. The scams include offering quick access to stimulus payments and phony treatments to prevent or cure COVID-19. Meanwhile, more than 86,000 people have tested positive for the coronavirus in New Hampshire, including 402 cases announced Tuesday. No new deaths were announced, keeping the total at 1,249. The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in New Hampshire has risen over the past two weeks from 295 new cases per day March 22 to 401 new cases per day Monday.

New Jersey

Trenton: An assemblyman wants extra coronavirus testing and vaccination sites at the Jersey Shore, perhaps along the boardwalk for the summer season. Assemblyman Ronald S. Dancer – a Republican who represents a district that includes Allentown, Englishtown, Manalapan, Matawan, Roosevelt, Upper Freehold, Jackson and Plumsted – called for the state Department of Health to send more COVID-19 resources toward the coast in anticipation of warm-weather crowds. “The state could help protect the health and safety of tourism and hospitality professionals, year-round coastal residents, and tourists considering vacations at the shore, by setting up mobile coronavirus testing and vaccination units along the boardwalk or other prominent locations,” Dancer said in a news release Tuesday. “This would support an economic recovery down the shore while responsibly addressing coronavirus concerns.” Tourism contributes about $41 billion toward the state’s economy each year, according to the New Jersey Tourism Industry Association. Tourism-related taxes save each household $1,545 in property taxes annually, according to the association. In Asbury Park, social distancing measures resulted in a $700,000 drop from previous years in beach badge revenue, Mayor John Moor said.

New Mexico

Albuquerque: The New Mexico National Guard and Civil Air Patrol have logged more than 1.6 million miles over the past year as part of the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, and officials say the work is not over as they try to get more people vaccinated. New Mexico on Monday made all residents 16 and older eligible for the vaccine. About 30% of the state’s eligible population already is fully vaccinated, and nearly half the population has received a first shot, according to the latest state data. Guard soldiers have been operating a vaccine distribution center in southeast Albuquerque, which U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich toured Tuesday. The effort will benefit from funding included in the federal government’s most recent pandemic relief package, specifically $20 billion that the New Mexico Democrat said will supercharge vaccine distributions nationwide. The recovery package also included $50 billion for testing, genomic sequencing of virus variants and contact tracing. New Mexico also will get nearly $7 million in grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, on top of nearly $21 million previously awarded to the state Department of Health, as a result of the U.S. government waiving all cost-sharing requirements related to the federal disaster declaration issued last year.

New York

Albany: Lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo struck a budget deal that capped nursing home profits and established how much the long-term care facilities must spend on resident care and staffing. The nursing home industry reforms include a 5% cap on profits as well as requiring facilities to spend a minimum of 70% of revenue on direct resident care, according to budget documents released Tuesday. Nursing homes must also spend a minimum of 40% of revenue on resident-facing staffing, provided that the amount shall be included as part of the spending on resident care. The new provisions would take effect Jan. 1, 2022, the documents show. The reforms are part of the $212 billion budget on which state lawmakers were voting Tuesday night after missing the deadline to have a spending plan at the beginning of the fiscal year, which started April 1. “Every day, families across the state entrust the safety and health of their loved ones to nursing homes, and as this unprecedented public health crisis has shown, some performed admirably, but some did not,” Cuomo said in February, revealing some details of the reforms. Cuomo on Tuesday also signed a bill repealing COVID-19 legal liability protections granted to nursing homes and hospitals, under the Emergency Disaster Treatment Protection Act.

North Carolina

Asheville: Making shelter a right and boosting Buncombe County’s community paramedics, a program touted by police-defunding activists, are among priorities listed by City Council members for an expected $26 million in federal pandemic aid. The money would come from the recently passed $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan whose details local governments are awaiting to understand how exactly they can spend the money. Council members talked about the massive aid injection – equal to about 13% of the city’s nearly $200 million budget – during a March 31-April 1 retreat. More recently, several council members responded to questions about their priorities for the money, noting those could change after they learn more about spending guidelines. Among priorities were focusing on rising homelessness, including making shelter a basic right; setting up a low-barrier shelter for people turned away from other places; and expanding on the county’s community paramedic program that seeks to address mental health, substance abuse and other issues without the need for law enforcement intervention. “I think it is pretty clear that cities have been experiencing an exponential increase in homeless,” Mayor Esther Manheimer said Friday, noting she has heard similar stories from other mayors.

North Dakota

Bismarck: The state Supreme Court plans to resume in-person oral arguments in June. The Bismarck Tribune reports in-person arguments will be subject to parties agreeing to appear physically. If either party wants to appear remotely, the proceedings will be conducted entirely electronically. District courts will still have discretion to conduct proceedings remotely. Chief Justice Jon Jensen said some courts may decide to increase in-person appearances, but available facilities and local restrictions will dictate how proceedings are conducted. The Supreme Court also is considering making some pandemic protocols permanent, such as allowing defendants to plead guilty to Class C felonies in writing without appearing in court. The justices have met in person occasionally for case conferences, but they haven’t met for any hearings, according to State Court Administrator Sally Holewa. Justice Gerald VandeWalle, 87, was hospitalized due to COVID-19 twice last summer.


Columbus: Several Republican lawmakers want to make sure those who don’t want a COVID-19 shot don’t face any penalties because of that decision. A state House bill introduced Wednesday would allow Ohioans to decline a COVID-19 shot – or any other vaccine – because of religious reasons, medical reasons or natural immunity. The proposal would prevent anyone who chooses not to be vaccinated from facing discrimination, being denied services or forced to require masks, or facing other penalties financial or social from businesses, schools or government. “This is a matter of freedom,” state Rep. Jennifer Gross, R-West Chester, said of her bill. “The purpose of this legislation is to allow people to choose to do what they feel is best for their own body and protect individuals from any consequences or hardships for choosing one way or the other.” Gross’ bill is backed by Ohio Advocates for Medical Freedom, an anti-vaccination group that advocates for the right to choose or refuse any medical treatment or procedure. The bill also is supported by 15 GOP lawmakers, several of whom told reporters they’d forgo the shot or wait to get one. Gross, a nurse practitioner who said she’s pro-vaccine, told the Dayton Daily News she would wait to get a COVID-19 vaccine, preferring “to watch it for a couple of years.”


Vaccinations are being administered at a drive-thru at the Oklahoma City Indian Clinic.
Vaccinations are being administered at a drive-thru at the Oklahoma City Indian Clinic.

Oklahoma City: The state will drop its residency requirement for COVID-19 vaccinations, the health department announced Wednesday. Beginning Thursday, the state will offer vaccines to people who reside in neighboring states and beyond. The Oklahoma State Department of Health said increasing supply and progress in the state’s vaccination efforts allowed for the change. Oklahoma is among the first states in the U.S. to openly offer its vaccines to nonresidents, according to the health department. Several Native American tribes also have been offering vaccinations to anyone old enough, regardless of affiliation or residence. So far, about 27% of adults in Oklahoma are fully vaccinated, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly 44% have had at least one dose. Deputy Commissioner of Health Keith Reed said in a statement that the state was happy to welcome its neighbors in an effort to put an end to COVID-19 in the region. He hoped other states that have fared well in vaccine administration would follow suit. “This virus does not adhere to boundaries drawn on a map, so by ensuring high vaccination rates across the region – not just Oklahoma – we are providing an extra layer of protection for our residents,” Reed said. Recently, Oklahoma has seen more appointments go unfilled.


Portland: A measure that would reinstate and extend a moratorium on foreclosures until Sept. 1 amid the COVID-19 pandemic passed the state’s House of Representatives on Tuesday. Unlike the bill that was passed by lawmakers last June, the new legislation would not protect commercial property owners – those who own more than five properties or properties with more than four housing units. The moratorium would be retroactive to Dec. 3 and could be extended until the end of 2021 by the governor. The latest bill, which passed in the House 38-21, moves to the state Senate. “I assure you that Oregonians need this sort of protection. Without it, I fear that we face even more economic distress,” said Rep. Paul Holvey, D-Eugene. “More Oregonians will become homeless if this bill does not pass.” In March, more than 6% of Oregon homeowners – more than 65,000 – said they were not caught up on their mortgage payments, based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent Household Pulse Survey. Financial hardships during the pandemic have only exacerbated the state’s ongoing housing crisis, making the issue a top priority for lawmakers, even prior to this legislative session.


Philadelphia: Vaccination appointments in the city will be open to anyone 16 and older starting April 19, but health officials are still asking younger, healthy adults to wait to schedule appointments. The city’s health commissioner, Dr. Thomas Farley, announced the moved-up date for opening vaccines to the general public Tuesday. Department officials had said in previous updates that they wanted to wait until May 1 because they were worried that younger, tech-savvy Philadelphians would schedule appointments quickly, making it more difficult for those at most risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19 to find appointments. Farley said President Joe Biden had asked Philadelphia and other cities around the country to move up their plans to open vaccines to anyone who wanted them to April 19. Philadelphia on Monday opened vaccine appointments to the last of its priority groups, which includes sanitation workers and postal workers. Farley said he has asked vaccine providers to keep making older people a priority, as well as those with health concerns. On Tuesday, he asked younger, healthier residents not to make a rush on the system when it opens appointments.

Rhode Island

Providence: Opening regional vaccination sites is critical to helping make sure that everyone in the state who wants a COVID-19 shot has access, even if they can’t make it to a mass vaccination site, Gov. Daniel McKee said Wednesday. The Democrat, after touring new regional sites in Westerly and East Providence, said 97% of all Rhode Islanders have access to a vaccination site within a 15-minute drive. The East Providence site opened in collaboration with Barrington, Warren, Bristol, Pawtucket and Tiverton. The state currently has the capacity to administer 160,000 shots a week, something he expects will soon expand to 200,000 per week, accelerating the state’s economic reopening plan. “Every piece that we’re putting in place is critical,” he said. “Everywhere where we can get more and more people identified that they’re ready to get the shot, we’re going to be in a better spot when the supply starts meeting our demand.” The goal is to make it safe enough to have parades and fireworks on July Fourth and for the summer folk and jazz festivals in Newport. “We’ll get back to that kind of summer that we all want to enjoy,” he said. A little more than 25% of the state’s population has already been fully vaccinated, according to state Department of Health statistics released Wednesday.

South Carolina

Charleston: The American Civil Liberties Union sued Gov. Henry McMaster this week, arguing that his executive order requiring state agencies to “immediately expedite” employees’ return to the office amid the coronavirus pandemic exceeds the governor’s authority. The complaint, filed Monday in state court, asked that a judge halt McMaster’s order, which the ACLU said “is contrary to the safety, security, and welfare of the state.” “Governor McMaster’s return-to-in-person-work order ignores public health guidelines and the continuing serious health risks posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and people with disabilities, women, and caregivers will bear the brunt of the impact,” ACLU of South Carolina legal director Susan Dunn said in a statement. McMaster issued the order last month, as vaccinations ramped up and cases declined, advising state agencies to “immediately expedite” the return of nonessential state employees to in-person work. According to the lawsuit, the order, which affects more than 24,000 state employees, was issued on a day when there were 776 new COVID-19 cases in South Carolina, with a seven-day moving average of 1,224 cases per day. The plaintiff, an employee at the College of Charleston, said she has been working remotely for a year and also caring for her son while he does virtual learning at home.

South Dakota

Sioux Falls: U.S. Rep. Dusty Johnson received a shot of a COVID-19 vaccine Tuesday as part of an effort to promote widespread vaccinations in order to extinguish the pandemic. “This is how we get back to normal,” Johnson, a Republican, said shortly after receiving the shot at a Sanford Health facility. South Dakota opened vaccine eligibility to anyone 16 and older Monday, and it has recorded one of the nation’s highest rates of people fully vaccinated. But the congressman noted that as a man in his 40s, he represented a demographic that has been hesitant to get a vaccine. Although Johnson had an opportunity to get the vaccine when members of Congress received early access, he decided to wait until it was widely available. “Now is the time for people to step up, even if they’re young, even if they’re healthy,” he said. The state reported no new deaths Wednesday for a sixth day in a row, leaving the total pandemic death count in the state at 1,938. That’s the longest South Dakota has gone without recording a new death since this time last year. Nearly half of adult residents have gotten at least one dose of a vaccine.


Nashville: Gov. Bill Lee on Tuesday joined fellow Republicans nationwide in advocating against COVID-19 vaccine passports, which are being developed in some areas of the world to let inoculated people travel, shop and dine more freely. No city, county or government entity in Tennessee appears to have suggested forcing businesses to require patrons to show a vaccine passport. The legislation Lee is supporting, brought this week in the General Assembly, raises questions about existing vaccination requirements in public schools. The bill moving through the Legislature would not prevent a private business from instituting its own vaccine requirements, according to a copy of the proposed amendment. It passed the House health subcommittee Tuesday. “I think vaccine passports are a bad idea. I do not believe that government should impose vaccine requirements or mandates in any way,” Lee told reporters, while urging the GOP-controlled General Assembly to advance the legislation. Lee said he hoped private businesses also don’t impose vaccine passport mandates but said he doesn’t believe “that government should impose itself in the private affairs of business practices.”


Open Eyes Beyond Border on March 28 held a Q&A session about the COVID-19 vaccine for seniors in Austin's Vietnamese community.
Open Eyes Beyond Border on March 28 held a Q&A session about the COVID-19 vaccine for seniors in Austin's Vietnamese community.

Austin: Fed up with difficulties related to COVID-19 vaccine access, multiple Vietnamese American organizations in the city say they’re taking it upon themselves to help vulnerable populations within their community. While Austin Public Health has distributed translated information regarding COVID-19 vaccines, those who work directly with the local Vietnamese community say the resources are not reaching people, namely those who are older in age, because of barriers related to language, culture and technology. “We have older people who do not speak English, who don’t know how to get on to the website; they don’t know how to register,” said Tony Pham, 67, a member of the Austin Vietnamese Senior Citizens Association. The channels through which seniors in the Vietnamese community get their information are disconnected from social media platforms like Twitter. Many in the older Vietnamese population also do not use email. To dispel some fears related to the vaccine, a local organization called Open Eyes Beyond Border worked with the senior association in late March to hold a vaccine information session, where medical professionals from the area answered questions in Vietnamese. The organization will work with a local pharmacy to hold a pop-up vaccination event this weekend in North Austin.


Dixie Regional Medical Center.
Dixie Regional Medical Center.

St. George: Intermountain Healthcare, which operates the major hospitals in southwestern Utah, announced Monday that it would be relaxing some of its visitor restrictions thanks to decreasing coronavirus case rates across the state. “As our understanding of the disease and transmission has evolved, we’ve decided to allow visitors for patients with COVID-19 for visitors at lowest risk of getting infected,” Kristin Dascomb, Intermountain Healthcare’s medical director for infection prevention for employee health, said in a press release. The new guidelines say for COVID-19 patients, visitors who have proven recovery from the disease in the past 90 days or have proof of completing a COVID-19 vaccination series at least 14 days prior to their visit will be allowed in most cases. In the case of a laboring mother, two visitors are allowed, with one visitor allowed to stay in the postpartum room. Children, infants and newborns in intensive care units are allowed two visitors in most cases. End-of-life patients can have up to eight visitors, with four visitors in the patient room at a time. All visitors must continue wearing face masks and must use hand sanitizer throughout their visits.


Montpelier: As more residents get vaccinated, Gov. Phil Scott announced a three-month plan Tuesday for loosening COVID-19 restrictions, with a goal of being largely back to normal by July 4. “We’re in the last laps of this very long and difficult race, and this plan will show how we finish strong,” Scott, a Republican, said in his twice-weekly virus briefing. “But I want to be really clear: The key to getting there are vaccinations, which is why we’re laser-focused on making sure as many Vermonters as possible get them. And it’s why when you’re eligible, you need to sign up.” Vermont’s travel guidance will change Friday and be focused on testing rather than quarantining. Unvaccinated Vermonters returning to the state will be required to be tested for the coronavirus within three days, and visitors can come to Vermont without quarantining as long as they have a negative test within three days of arriving, Scott said. Vaccinated people can continue to travel without restrictions, he said. Mostly outdoor businesses, low- or no-contact professional services, retail operations, and farmers’ markets will move from sector-specific to universal guidance April 9. That will be followed by most other sectors May 1. Gatherings will be allowed to increase in size. Masking and physical distancing will still be required.


Richmond: The Virginia Employment Commission says jobless workers collecting unemployment compensation will soon have to look for jobs again to receive benefits. The Virginian-Pilot reports the weekly job search, a requirement of state and federal law, was temporarily suspended during the pandemic. The commission said in a news release that the unemployed will be notified soon of its reinstatement. The requirement is to apply for two jobs each week. It also applies to people who get Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. People will be required to report information about their job searches to the state each week. Virginia Employment Commissioner Ellen Marie Hess said the requirement is coming back as demand for workers rises and as COVID-19 vaccines become more widely available.


Seattle: A state senator has apologized after she participated in a legislative video hearing while she drove a car to the Capitol. The Seattle Times reports that Sen. Rebecca Saldana, D-Seattle, said her attempt to multitask Tuesday morning while driving to Olympia was “not in compliance with the law.” The Legislature passed a distracted-driving law in 2017, following testimony by families of people killed in vehicle crashes. Washington state code forbids several behaviors, among them “watching video on a personal electronic device.” Saldana, vice chair of the Senate Transportation Committee, appeared on TVW’s livestream behind the wheel, with a virtual Capitol as background. She fielded a question about clean fuels. Saldana said she meant to disable the video and only use audio functions. She also wore lightweight ear buds; the law forbids earphones if they block outside sounds such as ambulances. The standard citation fine is $136 for a first offense. “I have supported legislation about penalties for distracted driving, and like all drivers in Washington state, I must be subject and accountable to that law and all traffic laws,” Saldana said in a statement. “Accordingly, if I receive a citation for this driving infraction, I will pay the fine.”

West Virginia

Charleston: The state will receive $3.3 million for affordable housing from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. West Virginia’s U.S. senators, Democrat Joe Manchin and Republican Shelley Moore Capito, announced the funding Tuesday. Most of the money, $3.1 million, will go to the housing trust fund, which gives grants to build and preserve affordable housing units for low-income earners. About $200,000 will go to the Charleston-Kanawha Housing Authority for programs to help public housing residents become self-sufficient and for homeless foster youth. “Many of our fellow West Virginians are currently experiencing homelessness, including children and families, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only worsened this heartbreaking issue,” Manchin said in a statement. Capito said that “providing access to affordable housing for West Virginians who have fallen on tough times is an essential part of our public housing sectors.”


People walk near the stadium and food booths at the Wisconsin State Fair.
People walk near the stadium and food booths at the Wisconsin State Fair.

Milwaukee: The Wisconsin State Fair wants public feedback on comfort levels toward large events, COVID-19 health safety measures and more ahead of this year’s fair. The fair linked a short survey – at bit.ly/39vLkDp – to posts on its social media channels that asks participants for information, such as whether they plan to attend, how they would view sponsoring companies and when they typically purchase tickets. Survey participants have a chance to win a $50 Visa gift card. The winner will be chosen and notified April 23. Last year, the Wisconsin State Fair was canceled for the first time in 75 years over the coronavirus pandemic. The 2021 fair is scheduled for Aug. 5-15.


Cheyenne: The state Department of Health has announced multiple coronavirus variants were discovered in Wyoming over the past several months. The Wyoming Public Health Laboratory recently analyzed genetic sequencing from multiple samples collected from residents since November and found at least 40 cases involved the variant first found in the United Kingdom, more than 40 cases combined involved two variants found in California, and one case involved the variant found in South Africa, the Wyoming Tribune Eagle reports. “Because this is far from a comprehensive review of all positive patient samples, the true number and geographical spread of variants of concern in Wyoming is likely greater than what has been identified,” state Epidemiologist Dr. Alexia Harrist said. Harrist said it is likely that all four of the variants have represented some of the virus transmission in Wyoming over the past several months, raising concerns because the variants have been shown to transmit more easily. “The best way for people to protect themselves from getting sick is to get a COVID-19 vaccine, which are available to the general public now throughout Wyoming,” Harrist said. “We still also recommend staying home when you are sick, avoiding large gatherings and wearing masks in most public settings.”

From USA TODAY Network and wire reports

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Disney smiles, boardwalk shots: News from around our 50 states

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