Smithsonian exhibit, summer camp boom, turn on the lights: News from around our 50 states

·51 min read


Tuscaloosa: The city’s schools will continue their Monday-through-Thursday schedule of in-person classes for the rest of the 2020-21 school year, according to Superintendent Mike Daria. He said Tuscaloosa City Schools will resume five days of face-to-face instruction next fall for the 2021-22 school year. “As we’ve worked to make the decision for the last part of the school year, we’ve looked at everything from our employee vaccinations, the needs of our virtual students, balancing the needs of educators and the needs of our students,” Daria said. “We want to make sure the instruction is robust and strong.” Keeping the status quo will help virtual students and provide TCS the opportunity to continue meal distribution for families on Fridays, according to a news release from the school system. About one-third of TCS students take virtual classes full time, many instructed by educators who are teaching face-to-face classes during the week as well. “Our virtual students’ schedules are important,” Daria said. “It’s important that they have access to their instructors at the times they have access to (them) now, and that includes time on Friday.” Keeping classrooms empty on Fridays also allows for deeper cleaning of school facilities. And TCS has plans for a Monday-Friday summer learning program.


Anchorage: Gov. Mike Dunleavy has said he’s feeling better after contracting the coronavirus last month. Dunleavy said Friday that while his voice still gets slightly hoarse if he talks for too long, his other symptoms are now mild. He said he had a bad headache, fever, chills and body aches for several days. Dunleavy was scheduled to finish his isolation period last Saturday. There have been more than 56,000 coronavirus cases and 301 virus-related deaths in Alaska as of Friday, according to data from the state Department of Health and Social Services. Dunleavy, a Republican, said his experience with the virus has not changed much about how he thinks the state should respond to the pandemic. He encouraged people without allergies to receive vaccines to mitigate the spread of the virus, KTOO-FM reports. “If you get the virus, you’re out of commission for 14 days,” Dunleavy said. “You don’t want to spread this to others – you don’t want to be part of that. If you get the vaccination – after your first shot, you’ve got a pretty good dose of immunity for the most part, if everything works out. And then you don’t have to end up under house arrest.”


Bartenders Chase Watts, right, and Luke Valenzuela make drinks at Culinary Dropout in Phoenix on May 22, 2020.
Bartenders Chase Watts, right, and Luke Valenzuela make drinks at Culinary Dropout in Phoenix on May 22, 2020.

Phoenix: Restaurant workers may have to wait a little longer for their chance to sign up for COVID-19 vaccines, despite the fact that their jobs often require interaction with customers. The Arizona Department of Health Services classifies restaurants as “essential services.” This previously meant restaurant workers would be able to sign up for vaccines once their county reached Phase 1B of distribution. But the state switched away from its phase-based distribution plan Monday and started an age-based plan for access to shots. State-run vaccination sites are now welcoming anyone 55 and up. The next age bracket includes those 45 and older. The new plan, however, isn’t uniform across the state. Individual counties are each developing their own plans, merging aspects of the original and the new to form hybrid plans. These plans allow counties to prioritize essential workers as they choose. Holly Poynter, public information officer for the Arizona Department of Health Services, said while the state receives federal recommendations on who should be prioritized, “local allocators may further subprioritize populations in each phase based on vaccine supply.” Restaurant owners can help employees get vaccinated by submitting a Phase 1B Employer Vaccine Request Form, available through ADHS.


Little Rock: The state on Monday expanded eligibility for COVID-19 vaccines to another 180,000 people, including manufacturing workers and essential government employees. Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced Arkansas would fully open up access to the remainder of the 1B category under the state’s vaccination plan. The move also opens up the vaccine to those working in public transportation and grocery stores, as well as people with developmental and intellectual disabilities. Arkansas had previously made the vaccine available to those at least 65 years old, teachers, health care workers, law enforcement, and workers at poultry plants and other food manufacturing facilities. Hutchinson said demand was less than expected when the state held vaccination clinics over the weekend. He also announced Arkansas was setting up a statewide vaccination scheduling system. Up to 30 employees will be staffing a call center to help residents make appointments, the governor said. The expanded eligibility does not include food service workers, despite the state last month lifting most of its restrictions including capacity limits on restaurants and bars. They are currently in the 1C category, which Hutchinson said he hoped to make eligible by next month.


San Jose: Santa Clara County will not participate in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s plan to have Blue Shield control COVID-19 vaccine distribution, a newspaper reports. County Executive Jeff Smith said late Monday that the county will not sign a contract with the health insurance company because it would not improve speed or efficiency, The Mercury News reports. The state’s switch to a vaccine appointment and delivery system administered by Blue Shield was expected to be completed by March 31. Skepticism, however, has surfaced among the state’s 58 counties. So far, Kern County is the only county to sign a contract with Blue Shield. But 41 federally qualified health centers, 28 hospitals, four large medical groups, three pharmacies and three tribal clinics have signed on, according to the company. In Santa Clara County, Smith characterized Blue Shield’s role as “adding bureaucracies.” The state turned to Blue Shield to create uniform rules and increase the rate of vaccinations, with the state’s My Turn system serving as the central portal for getting appointments. Blue Shield is also tasked with improving targeting of hard-hit communities.


Buena Vista: Three cases of the coronavirus variant originating in South Africa have been reported at a correctional facility in the town, officials said. The Colorado State Public Health Laboratory said two employees and one inmate tested positive after being randomly selected for tests intended to detect potential variants, KDVR-TV reports. They are now in isolation. The state lab is expected to check all confirmed coronavirus-positive results for the variant. People who test negative are expected to receive vaccinations, including family members and those who have been in close contact with workers at the facility. The vaccinations at the facility are part of a health department policy that has prioritized people “for emerging risk of rapid spread of COVID-19,” health officials said. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is investigating an outbreak that began in October at the Buena Vista Correctional Complex, a state prison for men about 100 miles west of Colorado Springs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the virus variant from South Africa spreads quickly and is more contagious.


Hartford: The state is on track to receive more than $10 billion in federal COVID-19 funding in the Democratic coronavirus relief legislation before Congress, including $4 billion worth of stimulus payments, members of the state’s all-Democratic House delegation said Tuesday. Eligible residents among an estimated 1.5 million Connecticut households are set to receive up to $1,400 in direct payments under the massive 628-page bill, which is now awaiting final approval in the House of Representatives. “That relief is going to be seen at the dinner table and assisting in terms of the day-to-day, ongoing efforts, on behalf of our citizens to make ends meet,” said U.S. Rep. John Larson, who represents the state’s 1st Congressional District. The federal lawmakers said Connecticut is set to receive funds for a variety of COVID-19-related needs. Those include expanded food assistance, rental and mortgage assistance, statewide and community-based vaccination clinics and outreach, health insurance subsidies, school safety improvements, child care tax credits, and an estimated $276 million in direct aid to financially struggling child care providers.


Dover: The state says it’s reviewing new federal guidance that eases restrictions for those who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. The Delaware Division of Public Health told the Delaware State News on Monday that it will determine how to incorporate the federal updates into the state’s guidance for residents. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now says people who are fully vaccinated can gather indoors with others who’ve been fully vaccinated without wearing a mask or social distancing. Vaccinated people can also come together in a single household with people who are considered at low risk for severe disease. For instance, fully vaccinated grandparents could visit healthy children and grandchildren. A person is considered fully inoculated two weeks after receiving the last required dose of the vaccine. However, the CDC is continuing to recommend that fully vaccinated people wear masks and maintain social distancing when in public.

District of Columbia

Washington: The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has acquired the vial that contained the first dose of COVID-19 vaccine administered in the United States as part of its plans to document the global pandemic and “this extraordinary period we were going through.” The acquisition, along with other materials related to that first vaccine dose, was announced by the museum Tuesday to mark the upcoming one-year anniversary of the pandemic. Associated Press journalists were given an exclusive backstage look at the newly obtained materials, which include vials, special shipping equipment, and the medical scrubs and ID badge of the New York City nurse who was America’s first COVID-19 vaccine recipient. “We wanted objects that would tell the full story,” said Anthea M. Hartig, the museum’s director. “Everything from the scrubs to the freezer unit that shipped the vaccines.” Although there are a host of coronavirus-related anniversaries taking place, the museum is choosing to mark Thursday – March 11, the day last year that the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic. That’s also the week that much of American life shut down as the coronavirus made inroads into offices, homes and sporting events.


Miami Beach: Local faith leaders and the fire department have joined resources to expedite vaccination of older adults starting with the homebound and those in low-income housing. Through late February the initiative was responsible for delivering 5,466 shots in the city, where a relatively high 17% of its 92,000 residents are 65 and over, including hundreds of Holocaust survivors. “We’re not responding with lights and sirens, but we are responding to a need in the community,” Miami Beach Fire Chief Virgil Fernandez said. Firefighters already have an “evacuation list” of people they need to get to safety during hurricanes. To go beyond that, they turned to temples and churches that minister to and are familiar with many of the neediest in the community. Rabbi Mendy Levy of the Chabad Hasidic movement helps train health care providers who treat Holocaust survivors, some of whom can be retraumatized by triggers such as injections and white coats after being subjected to experiments carried out by doctors in concentration camps. It’s crucial that firefighters and nurses take the vaccines to a welcoming setting, such as a synagogue or a patient’s home, and visit with them and their families. “Though it’s a trigger, so in general they are afraid, they recognize this is a God-given gift,” Levy said.


Atlanta: Every hospital or nursing home patient could designate at least one person who would have at least one hour of access each day under a bill approved by the state House on Monday. The legislation – a response to hospitals, nursing homes and other care facilities banning visitors for months at a time during the coronavirus pandemic – now moves to the Senate for more debate. Gov. Brian Kemp implemented a ban on visitors at long-term care facilities in April by executive order. In September, Kemp eased those restrictions by putting in place a phased approach to allowing visitors based on the severity of a COVID-19 outbreak in a particular area. House lawmakers held multiple hearings during which they heard emotional testimony saying people were suffering because of loneliness and avoiding medical care to avoid being cut off from loved ones. “People have things they need to say,” said Rep. Bonnie Rich, R-Suwanee, who recounted her own severe illness in the hospital with her husband by her side. “What kind of society denies this? How many people have died in the last year with things they needed to say to loved ones? Is there anything really more important?” Hospital representatives raised concerns that the measure could heighten the risk of the virus spreading among vulnerable populations.


Honolulu: The state Department of Health has launched a mental health crisis counseling hotline to provide residents support amid the coronavirus pandemic. The new program, called “Ku Makani – The Hawaii Resiliency Project,” offers counseling, education and information for people experiencing mental health crises during the pandemic, Hawaii News Now reports. The program has trained counselors on each island and serves people who speak multiple language, with staff fluent in Ilokano, Spanish, Hawaiian, Tongan, Vietnamese, Mandarin, Japanese, Palauan and Samoan. The state Department of Health received a $2.1 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to create the program. Residents can access it by calling Hawaii CARES 1-800-753-6879 and selecting option No. 1. Calls can be made between 4 and 9 p.m. on weekdays and state holidays and from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. The service is available for children, teenagers and adults.


Boise: A state House panel on Tuesday approved legislation banning anyone under 21 from buying cigarettes or electronic smoking products. The House Health and Welfare Committee on Tuesday approved the measure that will bring Idaho in line with the federal smoking age. Former President Donald Trump signed a law last year that bars tobacco sales to anyone under 21. Supporters said Idaho stores are already abiding by federal law, but state law needs to be changed to avoid confusion and confrontations in stores. Opponents said the law will limit local governments in prohibiting specific types of smoking products. Opponents also said young people ages 18 to 20 who can legally do such things as join the military or buy a house should be able to buy cigarettes or vaping products. There was concern among some lawmakers that the legislation could prevent local leaders from banning smoking in parks. But backers of the legislation said the ability for cities and towns to do that is found in other areas of Idaho law. “We are not trying to stop anyone from saying where you can and can’t smoke,” Pam Eaton, of the Idaho Retailers Association, told lawmakers. “We’re just trying to make uniform the laws retailers have to follow.”


Chicago: Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Monday said the mass vaccination site at Chicago’s United Center will be limited to city residents because the federal government wants to ensure people most in need are being vaccinated. According to officials, more than 40,000 people 65 and older booked appointments at the United Center since registration began Thursday, but fewer than 40% were Chicago residents. Lightfoot said Monday that the disparity prompted discussions about ensuring the appointments were open to more Black and Latino city dwellers. Pritzker said as a result of weekend negotiations with the Federal Emergency Management Agency over the United Center vaccination policy, the state is securing additional doses on top of its usual allotment to be used at federally run mobile vaccination sites outside Chicago. Those who made their appointments prior to Sunday’s eligibility change can keep their appointments, Pritzker said. A second website is being established so suburban Cook County residents can eventually sign up for vaccine appointments at the United Center. Chicago public health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said the site may eventually be open to all Illinois residents.


Two orders sit ready for pickup Monday, March 1, 2021, at 317 Burger in Indianapolis. When COVID-19 and the stay-at-home order hit, food delivery companies offered a vital service to restaurants. It kept them working, especially with capacity limits. But, the delivery service also takes a percentage cut from each order, which means less money for the restaurant.
Two orders sit ready for pickup Monday, March 1, 2021, at 317 Burger in Indianapolis. When COVID-19 and the stay-at-home order hit, food delivery companies offered a vital service to restaurants. It kept them working, especially with capacity limits. But, the delivery service also takes a percentage cut from each order, which means less money for the restaurant.

Indianapolis: While customers of 317 Burger are devouring truffle fries and burgers ordered through a delivery app, the locally owned restaurant is eating a chunk of the cost. Delivery services are both a blessing and a curse for the local restaurant industry, which has been relying on providers such as Uber Eats, Grubhub and DoorDash to stay afloat during the coronavirus pandemic. “Takeout works if you are at full capacity, and you couldn’t fit another person in the restaurant, but you still have a person making food and whatnot,” said 317 Burger owner Bill Ficca. “But if you’re only allowed to operate at a fraction of your capacity, and then you pay someone 30% of your retail price or your menu price, you lose money.” A new proposal making its way through the Indianapolis City-County Council would temporarily limit the fees that third-party food delivery services charge to restaurants, an attempt to protect a local food industry already struggling to stay afloat. The ordinance, which is up for a council vote March 15, would restrict fees to 15% of the pretax cost of the meal for delivery services and 5% for other services such as credit card processing or online pickup fees. The restrictions would sunset 90 days after Marion County eliminates restrictions for indoor dining, which is now limited to 75% capacity.


Des Moines: Des Moines Public Schools is giving middle and high school students who might otherwise have received failing grades this school year the chance to raise their grades this summer or next school year. “It felt like an F wasn’t necessarily representative of students necessarily not learning,” said Sarah Dougherty, Des Moines schools director of secondary teaching and learning. “It could represent a whole lot of things, a whole lot of hardships on our community and our families and our students during the pandemic.” The solution is to give students incompletes and the chance to either make up the classes this summer or retake them during the 2021-22 school year. The move, described as for one year only, was prompted by the learning disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. School officials opted to start the 2020-21 school year completely online despite a state mandate that districts offer at least 50% in-person instruction, and the district continued instruction online in November through January after receiving a waiver from the state due to the high number of coronavirus cases in Polk County. As of Feb. 12, 15.3% of middle schoolers and 59.1% of high schoolers in the district had a D or F in at least one course.


Wichita: Middle and high school school students in the state’s largest school district will be able to return in person five days a week after spring break as more staff members are vaccinated and coronavirus numbers improve. The Wichita Eagle reports the Board of Education in the 47,000-student district voted 6-0 Monday to make the change, which will take effect starting March 29, though the district will continue to offer a virtual learning option. Elementary students already had been learning in person five days a week. But older students are attending classes in a hybrid mode in which they learn at home part of the time and and in person the rest of the time. School data on COVID-19 cases and quarantines has been improving. As of Friday, the district reported 307 employees were in active quarantines, down from 622 as of Jan. 8. The district has administered 4,590 first doses of a vaccine to school staff as of Sunday. Meanwhile, the community has begun vaccinating more essential workers. About 30,000 workers in the aviation supply chain, 3,500 public safety officials, 1,700 licensed child care providers and 1,100 meatpacking workers may begin scheduling appointments through the county’s website Tuesday, Sedgwick County Manager Tom Stolz said.


Frankfort: About a quarter of the state’s adults have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, Gov. Andy Beshear announced Monday, and he expects that number to rise as more vaccination sites open and supplies increase. “This is, in many ways, a race against time against the variants,” Beshear said at a virtual news briefing. “If we can continue that downward trajectory while increasing the number of people vaccinated, then we can hopefully get to the end of this thing sooner rather than later.” Kentucky reported 331 new confirmed coronavirus cases, the lowest number of new cases since Sept. 14. Beshear also announced 10 coronavirus-related deaths. Dr. Steven Stack, Kentucky’s public health commissioner, advised that fully vaccinated Kentuckians should continue wearing face coverings and follow social distancing guidelines in public. The state’s test positivity rate is 4.06%. The positivity rate is an indicator of the extent of the spread of the virus, according to the World Health Organization. If the rate is less than 5% for two weeks, and testing is widespread, the virus is considered under control. Fifteen of Kentucky’s 120 counties are reported to be in the red zone – the most serious category for COVID-19 incidence rates.


Baton Rouge: On the one-year anniversary of its first confirmed COVID-19 case, the state widened COVID-19 vaccine eligibility to anyone 16 and older who has among two dozen high-risk medical conditions, Gov. John Bel Edwards announced Tuesday. The broader eligibility sweeps hundreds of thousands of additional people onto the access list starting immediately. The Democratic governor’s decision adds anyone with hypertension asthma, cancer, diabetes, sickle cell disease, chronic kidney or liver disease, chronic pulmonary disease, Down syndrome, heart conditions, a weakened immune system or one of several other preexisting conditions. Smokers and people who are overweight also are eligible. In addition, people who work at homeless shelters, jails and group homes now have access. Those who are 16 or 17 will have access to the Pfizer vaccine because it is the only vaccine currently authorized for younger people. The hopeful news about broadened vaccine access fell on the same day Louisiana marked a more somber benchmark. Exactly a year prior, the state received confirmation of its first coronavirus case in the New Orleans area. Since then, 9,044 deaths from COVID-19 have been confirmed across the state, and hundreds of additional deaths are suspected.


Portland: There are going to be more happy campers this summer as more camps choose to reopen despite the pandemic, providing millions more kids an opportunity to gather around a campfire. Most camp directors sat out last summer as the coronavirus raged across the country, either because of state restrictions or because of concerns about keeping kids healthy. But with cases declining and more people vaccinated each day, many are feeling more confident about reopening this season. Parents are scrambling to get their kids signed up before slots are filled in Maine, where at least 100 overnight camps will be open. “Given all that kids have gone through, it’s an amazing opportunity for them that gives them a glimpse of normal life in a world that’s far from normal,” said Elisabeth Mischel, of Short Hills, New Jersey, who’s sending her two boys, 11 and 13, to camp in Maine. At Camp Winnebago, owner Andy Lilienthal said camp directors know how to keep kids safe – there were no infections at his camp last summer – and they’ll make adjustments needed to carry on. His biggest concern at this point is that there’s so much demand amid worries about the emotional toll the pandemic is taking on kids. “It makes me sad to turn people away,” he said.


Annapolis: Gov. Larry Hogan is proposing a $1,000 bonus for state employees. The Republican governor submitted a $74 million supplemental budget Monday to provide for the bonuses. The governor’s office said the bonuses are made possible in part by the early and aggressive budget actions taken last year in response to projected revenue impacts from COVID-19. Hogan said the bonuses recognize the hard work of state employees, who have overcome significant challenges to deliver essential services to Marylanders during this public health emergency. The supplemental budget for the bonuses will need approval by the General Assembly. If they are approved, they would take effect April 14 for most employees and April 21 for University System of Maryland employees.


Boston: Unions representing teachers and firefighters have proposed having firefighters administer COVID-19 vaccines to educators, who become eligible to sign up for their shots later this week. Union leaders are scheduled to meet Wednesday with the state’s health and human services secretary to discuss the plan, which they say would make the process of inoculating teachers faster and more convenient. “Our educators are working during the day, and the majority of them are already in schools … and they can’t be at a computer all day hitting ‘refresh’ trying to get an appointment,” Beth Kontos, president of the American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, told The Boston Globe. “It would be much better if we could deliver our vaccine to school sites.” Unions have already met four times with Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders about the proposal, she said. About 400,000 teachers, school staff and day care workers are eligible to sign up for vaccinations starting Thursday. The proposal is based on the process that was used to vaccinate first responders, many of whom got shots in their workplaces. Kate Reilly, a state COVID-19 Response Command Center spokesperson, said in a statement that Sudders “has recurring meetings” with education officials and unions.


Lansing: Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is asking Michiganders to turn on the lights outside their homes for an hour to remember thousands of people who have died from COVID-19. The remembrance will occur from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday, one year after the state first confirmed coronavirus cases. Michigan has seen more than 16,600 confirmed or probable deaths tied to the disease and more than 658,000 infections, spurred by surges last spring and in the fall and winter. Whitmer said Monday that turning on porch lights will “remember those we’ve lost and remind ourselves that even in times of darkness, we’re in this together. As we mark this occasion, we also look towards the light at the end of the tunnel.” The authorization of three vaccines will protect people from COVID-19 and help the country and economy return to normal, she said.


Minneapolis: The state is expanding eligibility for vaccines after reaching its goal of inoculating at least 70% of people ages 65 and older, Gov. Tim Walz announced Tuesday. The state will expand eligibility to the next two phases at once starting Wednesday to include people with underlying health conditions and those at a risk of workplace exposure, including about 45,000 people who work at food processing plants. Walz said the state expects to have 70% of seniors vaccinated by Wednesday, weeks before an earlier projection of the end of March. The governor said he feels a “real sense of urgency” to ramp up vaccination efforts to diminish the impact of coronavirus variants spreading across Minnesota. The next two phases include about 1.8 million people. Providers are encouraged to prioritize vaccinating individuals with underlying health conditions who would be most at risk of hospitalization or death due to the virus. They include Minnesotans with sickle cell disease or Down syndrome, those in cancer treatment or who are immunocompromised from organ transplant, and those who have oxygen-dependent chronic lung and heart conditions. Front-line workers in food service, food retail, food production, manufacturing, agriculture and public transit, among others sectors, are also eligible.


Jackson: The state’s top public health official is urging people to continue wearing masks in public to slow the spread of the coronavirus, even after Republican Gov. Tate Reeves lifted a mask mandate. Dr. Thomas Dobbs, the state health officer, said during a news conference Monday that Mississippi has seen a significant decrease in hospitalizations from COVID-19 in recent weeks, but “we’re not done with the COVID pandemic.” “Just like in a baseball game, if you’re up a run or two in the sixth or seventh inning, you don’t just lay down and let the other team just go at it on offense,” Dobbs said. “It’s time to continue with some of the safety measures we have in place. Continue to mask in public. Continue to avoid indoor social gatherings. And get vaccinated when it’s your turn.” The Health Department said Monday that more than 488,000 people in the state of 3 million have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, and nearly 276,000 are fully vaccinated. Dobbs said Mississippi is closing the gap on racial disparities in vaccinations. Black people, who comprise 38% of the population, now represent 25% of those who have received at least one dose, up from about 17% in early February.


St. Louis: A year after the state confirmed its first COVID-19 infection, local governments on Monday continued to relax coronavirus restrictions as the number of cases in the state declines and vaccinations efforts expand. Gov. Mike Parson and St. Louis County Executive Sam Page announced the state’s first case March 7, 2020 – a woman from the county who had recently returned after studying in Italy. “Since COVID-19 struck Missouri one year ago, we have worked nonstop to take a balanced approach, fight the virus, and keep Missourians as safe as possible,” Parson said in a statement Monday. “A tremendous amount of work has been accomplished over the past 12 months, and I could not be more proud of Missourians for their efforts.” Page announced Monday that several health orders prompted by COVID-19 will be eased, effective immediately. Those include increasing public gathering limits from 10 to 20 people and allowing businesses to stay open until midnight. Also Monday, the Cape Girardeau County Commission voted unanimously to rescind the county’s mask mandate, effective immediately, and replace it with a statement saying wearing masks is “highly recommended” to help control the spread of COVID-19.


Kalispell: The $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill approved by the U.S. Senate over the weekend includes funding for Amtrak’s Empire Builder route, which runs through northern Montana. Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester proposed the legislation to provide up to $166 million to reinstate furloughed Amtrak employees and restore daily service on the carrier’s routes, the Daily Inter Lake reports. The bill now moves to the House, where it is expected to be approved before heading to the desk of President Joe Biden to sign. The Empire Builder and other long-distance routes were cut because of a massive decline in passengers as a result of the pandemic. The company furloughed about 1,250 employees nationwide. The Empire Builder route was reduced to operating three days a week between Chicago and Seattle and Portland, Oregon. It services a dozen communities in Montana, including Whitefish, where more than 55,000 passengers board or disembark annually. “Folks on the Hi-Line depend on Amtrak to stay connected, and its full return will boost the economy and create good-paying jobs across the region,” Tester said.


Omaha: Officials may start using mobile sites to help expand the number of places where residents can get a COVID-19 vaccine as available doses increase, Gov. Pete Ricketts said Monday. His comments came as the number of new vaccinations administered continues to trend upward, with dips on weekends. “Certainly, that may be one thing we do,” Ricketts said at a coronavirus news conference. Health officials inoculated a new one-day high of 20,949 people Thursday. Statewide, 12% of Nebraska residents who are at least 16 years old have been fully vaccinated, according to the state’s online tracking portal. Nebraska hospitals that are working through the state’s vaccination program have received 502,470 doses so far. The state has also received 109,735 through the federal government’s retail pharmacy program, which distributes vaccines to local pharmacies. Ricketts said the state has seen success with mass vaccination sites, such as the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department’s location at Pinnacle Bank Arena in downtown Lincoln. Nebraska officials are still giving top priority for vaccinations to residents who are at least 65 years old, a group that accounts for a large majority of the state’s coronavirus deaths.


Las Vegas: Health officials reported Monday that about 1 in 6 people statewide has received at least a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine since shots became available in mid-December. “I do think progress is starting to finally click and continue to increase,” said James English, COVID-19 response operations chief in Washoe County, where state statistics show 16.8% of residents have received their first shot, and 9.8% have been fully vaccinated. In Clark County, home to Las Vegas, the first-dose figure was about 16.2%, with the Las Vegas area nearing 200,000 people fully vaccinated – almost 8.5% of the area population, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services. Statewide, the number of first doses was nearly 16.5%, and full vaccinations reached almost 9%. English said he expected vaccinations to “ramp up” during the next couple of weeks. Washoe County health officials said they have received the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and plan to begin administering it for the first time this week. Some area pharmacies and other providers in Reno and Sparks received the single-shot vaccine last week. A first shipment of about 15,000 Johnson & Johnson vaccine doses also arrived in Las Vegas last week.

New Hampshire

Concord: Looking beyond the pending coronavirus relief package, some town managers in the state worry about the future of small businesses, infrastructure projects and caring for older adults. “Businesses are trying to reopen, they’re trying to have some normalcy, but if they don’t survive, we’re going to have a lot of empty storefronts” and concern about a property tax base loss, said Steve Fournier, Newmarket town manager, during a call hosted Monday by U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H. Shaheen said there is some funding in the pending $1.9 trillion package for small businesses. Some managers are hoping for money for infrastructure projects. A fund in the package is included to help state and local governments with them. Butch Burbank, town manager in Lincoln, said the town is planning for the expansion of water storage facilities for fire protection. He also expressed concern about retaining workers in service industries, and Shaheen said the relief package contains funding for job retraining and the restaurant industry. In Sunapee, Town Manager Donna Nashawaty said more broadband expansion funds would be welcome and expressed concern that some seniors are still isolated. Shaheen there is funding in the bill for services for seniors, including mental health programs.

New Jersey

Middletown: With the state’s commercial fishing industry about to receive a second round of federal coronavirus aid, boat owners and those who run fishing-related businesses say the extra money is helping to keep them afloat amid a sea of red ink. New Jersey’s fishing industry received $11 million last March under congressional pandemic relief. And it should get roughly the same amount under a second bill passed by Congress in December, U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. said Monday. Pallone, D-N.J., held a news conference at the Belford Seafood Cooperative in Middletown with boat owners and those who run related businesses. Many said the extra money could make the difference between working and not working this spring and summer. “In the fishing industry, we’re no strangers to uncertainty. We have overcome many challenges, but nothing prepared us for 2020,” said Jung Kim, owner of a bait and tackle shop in South Amboy. He estimated his store lost up to 65% of its business over the past year, including a sharp dip in wholesale supply distribution. The charter fishing industry also sustained deep losses last year as normally packed boats were subjected to capacity limitations in the name of slowing the coronavirus’ spread. Many customers simply stayed away.

New Mexico

Santa Fe: The state House of Representatives endorsed a tax increase Monday that would boost subsidies for insurance coverage on the state health insurance exchange. The bill, which moves to the Senate for consideration, has the support of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. A similar proposal to broadly increase the surtax on insurance premiums won House approval and stalled in the Senate last year, as the federal government repealed its health care provider fee that helped support state insurance markets established under the Affordable Care Act. About 45,000 residents of New Mexico rely on the insurance exchange for health care. At the same time, separate enrollment has swelled during the coronavirus pandemic in Medicaid insurance for people living in poverty or on the cusp as the federal government pours extra money into the program. As the economy recovers and Medicaid enrollment unwinds, state insurance regulators hope to lower costs for many consumers of marketplace insurance policies and broaden the enrollment pool to make the exchange more useful and sustainable. House Republicans stood in unified opposition to the surtax increase. GOP House minority caucus chair Rebecca Dow of Truth or Consequences described the bill as an affront to small business amid the economic fallout from the pandemic.

New York

Syracuse: The state will lower COVID-19 vaccine eligibility from age 65 to 60 this week and will soon loosen restrictions on vaccination sites that local officials have criticized, under a plan Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced Tuesday. Cuomo said anyone who qualifies will be able to be vaccinated starting Wednesday. Eligibility is also open to people with certain health conditions and to certain essential workers including teachers, health care providers and police officers. The Democratic governor said promises of more vaccine shipments have made him comfortable with increasing eligibility, even with overall supplies still too low to vaccinate everyone eligible in New York. His office had previously estimated 7 million New Yorkers were eligible before the list grew to include millions more with underlying medical conditions. “But the supply is increasing,” said Cuomo, who spoke at a vaccination site in Syracuse. Cuomo said New York will allow additional essential workers to receive the vaccine starting March 17: public and certain nonprofit employees who interact with the public, public works employees, child service case workers, sanitation workers and building service workers. “These are the people who are the everyday heroes,” Cuomo said.

North Carolina

RV camping at Rodanthe Watersports and Campground on the NC Outer Banks, Nov. 2020
RV camping at Rodanthe Watersports and Campground on the NC Outer Banks, Nov. 2020

Nags Head: Officials with the Cape Hatteras National Seashore say its beaches on North Carolina’s Outer Banks recently saw a record-breaking surge in visitors. The Virginian-Pilot reports the national seashore recorded nearly 87,000 visitors in January. The park said in a news release that the number breaks the record for January 2020 by 5,000. The Cape Hatteras National Seashore has 67 miles of shoreline from Oregon Inlet to Ocracoke. People visit in the winter months for walks on the beach, shell collecting and reeling in fish. Dave Hallac, superintendent of the National Parks of Eastern North Carolina, said the desire for escape from coronavirus-related isolation helped fuel the increase in visitors. “More people are seeing the beauty of the seashore during the winter,” he said Friday. “You can pretty much drive from anywhere on the East Coast to the Outer Banks in a day.” The park saw 2.6 million visitors during 2020 despite the fact that Dare and Hyde counties had blocked access to the beaches from March to May because of the pandemic. The number was the still highest in 17 years.

North Dakota

Bismarck: The Republican-led Legislature has relaxed a requirement for lawmakers to wear masks in House and Senate chambers. The Senate on Monday endorsed the rule change with the needed two-thirds vote. The House met the two-thirds threshold Friday, before sending the change over to the other chamber. Most Democrats opposed the change, along with only a handful of GOP lawmakers. Only a couple of lawmakers have announced publicly that they have been infected with the coronavirus since the session began Jan. 5. Democratic House Minority Leader Josh Boschee said the mask mandate in the chambers should “absolutely not” go away. “It’s worked,” he said. Lawmakers decided ahead of the session that convened in January to require masks at the state Capitol to help protect lawmakers and the public, despite opposition by ultraconservative members of the Republican-controlled Legislature. No one has been sanctioned under the rule, despite a relatively lax attitude toward wearing face coverings by many members. The amended rule only allows lawmakers to be maskless on chamber floors. The public and media still must wear a face covering.


Cincinnati: Dancing is again allowed at weddings, proms and banquet hall events, state health officials clarified this week. A March 2 health order lifted the 300-person capacity limit for banquet halls and catering facilities. The order didn’t explicitly mention dancing, but an Ohio Department of Health spokeswoman confirmed the order replaced a November health order temporarily banning socializing in congregate areas and dancing. Gov. Mike DeWine put that ban in place as cases and hospitalizations were rising statewide. The new order applies to “wedding receptions, funeral repasts, proms and other events, whether or not food is served, at banquet facilities.” Facilities must adhere to the business safety guidelines issued in orders Sept. 23 and July 23. That includes face coverings for everyone except when eating or drinking, which must be done while seated. “In short, dancing is permitted by both the Sept. 23 order, and for those specific types of events mentioned in the recently amended mass gathering order,” Ohio Department of Health spokeswoman Alicia Shoults wrote in an email.


Oklahoma City: State health officials plan to start offering COVID-19 vaccines Tuesday to workers in a wide range of essential industries, a move that will immediately make a vast majority of Oklahomans eligible. Also on the list for the vaccine beginning Tuesday will be child care workers and students and employees at colleges, universities and vocational schools. “This is a big step,” Oklahoma Deputy Health Commissioner Keith Reed said. “By the time we roll this group in, we’ve practically covered everyone in the state.” Reed said the latest expansion should include all but about 500,000 Oklahomans. Oklahoma’s list of essential industries includes a wide range of jobs, including manufacturing, construction, communications, energy, finance, state and federal government, transportation and retail. Oklahoma currently ranks tenth in the nation with 20.9% of its population having received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That compares to a national average of 18.1%. Meanwhile, Oklahoma’s seven-day rolling averages of coronavirus test positivity rate, daily new cases and daily deaths have all declined over the past two weeks, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.


House of Roses townhomes under construction on Oregon Street in downtown Redding.
House of Roses townhomes under construction on Oregon Street in downtown Redding.

Portland: The state’s housing problem was further exacerbated in 2020 by the COVID-19 pandemic and wildfires. Lawmakers are considering options that include building more shelters, extending the grace period by which tenants must pay back their rent, increasing homeownership access to low-income individuals, and an effort to reduce housing disparities for communities of color. The housing bills being considered in Salem were outlined by House Speaker Tina Kotek alongside housing committee chairs Sen. Kayse Jama, D-Portland, and Rep. Julie Fahey, D-Eugene. “Oregon had a housing crisis before the pandemic dramatically worsened income inequality and wildfires devastated the housing supply in vulnerable communities,” Kotek said Monday. “The Legislature has worked hard in recent sessions to turn the tide, and this moment demands that we keep pushing forward.” The 17 bills lawmakers presented include $535 million in new state investments for increasing affordable housing, addressing homelessness and supporting homeownership. Lawmakers say they are also “expecting significant federal support” from the federal government.


Harrisburg: State, county and city governments in Pennsylvania will receive about $13 billion from the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 rescue package making its way through Congress – a huge sum of money at a time when the state is projecting a multibillion-dollar deficit. The state’s share of that will be about $7.3 billion, while the other $5.7 billion will go to local governments, officials with the Independent Fiscal Office told the Senate Appropriations Committee on Monday. Governments can use the money to pay for costs associated with responding to the pandemic or to backfill revenue losses inflicted by the pandemic’s effects, they said. It cannot finance tax cuts, they said. The Independent Fiscal Office has projected a roughly $2.5 billion deficit for state government next year, with much of the rising costs being driven by long-term nursing care for a growing number of elderly residents. Pennsylvania’s tax collections this year through February, the eighth month of the fiscal year, were slightly behind last year’s collections when adjusting for $1.8 billion that the Department of Revenue said was collected in this fiscal year because of delayed tax-filing deadlines last year.

Rhode Island

Providence: The state plans to get all K-12 teachers, school support staffers and workers at state licensed child care facilities their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine by the end of March, Gov. Daniel McKee said Tuesday. The shots will be administered starting as early as this week at the 30 local vaccination clinics already established around the state, the Democrat said during a news conference at a Pawtucket vaccination site. Staffers at public, private and parochial schools will be eligible. Support staff including paraprofessionals, clerical staff, custodial staff, bus drivers and others are included in the plan, he said. “Getting our teachers, school staff and child care workers vaccinated is one of the best things we can do right now to support students, families, schools and our economy,” McKee said Tuesday. The only exception will be in Providence, where a clinic exclusively for school and day care workers will be set up to administer the shots, state Education Commissioner Angelica Infante-Green said. To reach the state’s goals, about 18,500 teachers, school staffers and child care workers need to be vaccinated, said Tom McCarthy, director of the state Department of Health’s COVID-19 unit. People will be vaccinated based on where they work, not where they live, he said.

South Carolina

A lotto ticket display at a gas station in Greer.
A lotto ticket display at a gas station in Greer.

Greenville: Sales of lottery tickets have soared during the coronavirus pandemic. Experts attribute the trend to a lack of other entertainment options, federal stimulus payments that left players flush with cash and two big jackpots earlier this year. Slightly more than $2 billion was spent on lottery tickets in South Carolina between mid-April 2020 and the end of last month, an increase of more than $300 million, or almost 19%, compared to the same period in the prior year. “This has been a very unusual and in many ways unprecedented year,” South Carolina Education Lottery spokesperson Holli Armstrong said in an email. The increase in sales of lottery tickets has led to a corresponding boost in the amount of scholarship money that the state has for students attending its technical colleges and universities. Projections of lottery revenues available for funding scholarships have increased by nearly 20% in recent months. The proposed state budget prepared last week by a state House committee includes $575 million in lottery revenues, nearly $52 million more than Gov. Henry McMaster put in his spending plan in January. On the flip side, another likely result of the increase in lottery ticket sales is that some players spent more than they could afford without winning.

South Dakota

Sioux Falls: The state Department of Corrections won’t say how many of its staff or those in their care are receiving COVID-19 vaccines. Almost a third of the state’s adults have been vaccinated. And though staff and those incarcerated have been offered shots, officials with the department have refused on multiple occasions to say how many have opted to receive one. The corrections department started releasing daily updates on inmate and staff COVID-19 case numbers in late April 2020 after news outlets reported the department wouldn’t publicly share case numbers, as routinely done in other states. But there’s been no sign the department would make a similar move when it came to vaccines. About 2,300 people in the state’s prison population have contracted the coronavirus, according to the department, giving the state prison system the third-highest infection rate in the nation based on a state-by-state prison COVID-19 tracker from the Marshall Project and the Associated Press. Seven incarcerated men have died with COVID-19. As of Tuesday, one person in prison had COVID-19. A few cases have popped up in the past few weeks after the department reported in late January that all inmates had recovered from the disease.


Nashville: The city intends to vaccinate 10,000 residents in one day at a drive-thru event at Nissan Stadium on March 20 – the largest mass vaccination drive announced in Tennessee so far. The event will exclusively use the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, so participants won’t be required to seek a second dose elsewhere, according to the Nashville Metro Public Health Department. The event will last from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. in stadium parking lots A through D, according to a news release. Registration begins 10 a.m. Wednesday at Eligibility is limited to people age 65 or above in or vaccination phases 1A, 1B or 1C, according to a news release announcing the event. There is no sign-up process available by phone. To keep lines as short as possible, those who sign up for the Nissan Stadium event are encouraged to come to the event with multiple registrants in a single car but not more people than the number of doors on the vehicle. Nashville officials expect the stadium event to be the first of several “large-scale drive-thru events” in the coming weeks, and state health officials have considered similar events at Dollywood in Pigeon Forge and Nashville Superspeedway in Lebanon.


Austin: Despite Gov. Greg Abbott’s statewide mask mandate ending Wednesday, the Austin area’s top public health official said he wanted to hold off on relaxing pandemic rules because of an uptick in hospitalizations over the weekend. Dr. Mark Escott, interim Austin-Travis County health authority, told members of the City Council and the County Commissioners Court that he recommended keeping the area in Stage 4 of Austin Public Health’s risk-based guidelines until at least the end of the week. Austin and Travis County businesses must still require customers to wear masks as part of a local ordinance passed in July, city and county officials said Tuesday. Those rules are set expire next month, but Austin and Travis County leaders said they will stay in place until then. Under the city and county rules, people can face criminal charges if they walk into a business without a mask and refuse to leave if asked by the business. It’s still unclear whether Abbott will challenge the local decision on masks. Past pandemic policies have been superseded by the governor’s pandemic-related executive orders. However, the rules in July were set in place by Escott as the area’s health authority, not Mayor Steve Adler or Travis County Judge Andy Brown.


St. George: The popular outdoor sculpture gallery Art Around the Corner makes its return this month, with a full collection of pieces set for installation ahead of the scheduled St. George Art Festival, which starts April 2. The popular open-air gallery was most recently updated in 2019, with the COVID-19 pandemic delaying any 2020 updates, but residents can expect to start seeing new pieces of work move into place along the city’s downtown streets in the coming weeks. The new collection is expected to draw works from artists across the U.S., in addition to sculptures from well-known local artists like Matt Clark, Marcia Robinson-Rouse and Cheryl Collins. Other familiar names include northern Utah sculptors Deveren Farley, Dana Kuglin, Gary Lee Price and Dan Toone. “Art Around the Corner’s 2021-2022 Outdoor Sculpture Gallery will be the perfect celebration of a community reconnecting after a very challenging year,” said Marianne Hamilton, the chair of the board that organizes the event. “The new show includes a very diverse range of styles and materials, from traditional bronze sculptures to pieces crafted from recycled and reclaimed metal components, and will feature everything from a winged angel to a revered historical figure to a heavy-metal rocker.”


Montpelier: The number of new coronavirus cases in the state is increasing, but cases among older Vermonters and deaths continue to decline, officials said Tuesday. Statistics also show the vaccination campaign that focused on older Vermonters first is producing results, with fewer cases in long-term care facilities, fewer hospitalizations, fewer patients in intensive care and fewer deaths. Despite the recent increase in cases, officials expect the number positive tests reported in the state to hold steady over the next several weeks and then decline as the vaccination program continues. The state is estimating there will be seven to 15 deaths in March, down from 71 in December, 34 in January and 25 in February. “We are concerned, but it seems to be at least steady and level, and we do feel that our strategy as we continue to vaccinate those by age-band after we get through this high-risk category will be beneficial to the state,” Gov. Phil Scott said Tuesday during the twice-weekly virus briefing. The statistics were released as state officials said they were moving to Thursday when people ages 16-54 with high-risk medical conditions will be able to register for vaccinations. The plan had been for that group to begin registering March 15, but fewer people in the 55-64 category were registering than expected.


Richmond: Gov. Ralph Northam said Tuesday that he hopes the state has reached the final stage of the coronavirus pandemic as the vaccination rate grows and the number of new COVID-19 cases goes down. The Democratic governor said Virginia has already reached a goal of administering an average of 50,000 vaccine shots a day. And he said 1.5 million residents – or 18% of Virginians – have received at least one dose. The state also reported more than 1,500 new coronavirus cases Monday. That number is far below the nearly 10,000 new cases that were reported in mid-January as cases surged following the holidays. But Northam, who is a physician, cautioned that a return to normal won’t happen until the state has reached “herd immunity.” That is when the virus can longer find the human hosts it needs to survive and mutate. “The vaccines are a light at the end of a long tunnel, and that light gets brighter every day,” Northam said at a news conference. “For now, we need to keep doing the things that we know work. Wash your hands. Wear your mask. Keep your distance. But there is every reason to be hopeful that things are getting better for all.” Northam urged people to answer their phones to make sure they receive calls from health officials who are scheduling vaccine appointments.


Seattle: Local officials say the start of in-person classes for some special education students and preschoolers has been pushed back to March 29. Seattle Public Schools had hoped to resume classroom learning for some students this week. The new target date was announced Tuesday by the district and the teachers union. The Seattle Times reports the announcement comes after intense opposition from the union to the district’s move to summon 700 educators back to buildings this week to teach students ahead of an agreement on expanding in-person instruction. Those educators were supposed to report to their buildings Monday to ready their classrooms for learning, but a campaign by the Seattle Education Association asked them to stay remote. A safety check of some district buildings by union and district officials, an independent HVAC system contractor and the state Labor & Industries department found no major issues. The two parties are still working on an agreement to offer in-person services to about 10,000 students, including kindergartners and first graders. The timeline is the first jointly released by management and labor for any type of in-person instruction since the pandemic began. Seattle Public Schools is the state’s largest district, with about 50,000 students.

West Virginia

Charleston: West Virginia University will get a $307,000 grant to study best practices for online tutoring in science, technology, engineering and math fields for undergraduate students in response to learning loss during the pandemic. U.S. Sens. Shelley Moore Capito and Joe Manchin announced the funding for the West Virginia University Research Corporation through the National Science Foundation. “The COVID-19 pandemic created major challenges for all of our educational institutions, forcing students to adapt to new methods of learning,” Capito said in a news release. Manchin praised the National Science Foundation for continuing to be a “great partner for West Virginia and our universities.” “I look forward to seeing the benefits of this research for students in West Virginia and across the nation,” Manchin said.


Madison: About 2 million more residents, including those with certain preexisting conditions, will be eligible for COVID-19 vaccines in the next round to be announced later this week, the state’s deputy health secretary said Monday. That would be the single largest expansion of vaccine-eligible people in Wisconsin since the first doses began trickling into the state in mid-December. Those were targeted to front-line health care workers, then expanded to those over age 65, and this month a group of 700,000 people, including all teachers, was made eligible. Health officials have been under pressure to broaden those eligible to people with underlying health conditions that could put them more at risk of serious illness should they get COVID-19. State health officials have been working to determine which conditions will qualify and are expected to announce the next group Thursday, said Julie Willems Van Dijk, deputy secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. It didn’t make sense to allow such a large group of people to become eligible earlier when vaccine supply was limit to only 70,000 doses a week, Willems Van Dijk said. Expanding too fast and creating a hope that vaccine is available even though supply already can’t meet demand remains a concern, she said.


Casper: Teton County health officials have detected the coronavirus variant that originated in South Africa. The Teton County Health Department said Monday that a sample from a resident who tested positive for the virus in January revealed the variant, the Casper Star-Tribune reports. Health officials said the person did not travel prior to becoming infected. The state Department of Health has not announced any other cases of the variant. County Health Officer Dr. Travis Riddell has encouraged residents to get tested for the coronavirus if they have symptoms or come in contact with someone who tested positive. “Testing is still our best mechanism to identify people who test positive for COVID-19 and to quickly work to determine their close contracts so that we can reduce the spread of COVID-19 in our community,” Riddell said. Health officials have advised that residents should continue to follow safety guidelines such as mask-wearing and social distancing.

From USA TODAY Network and wire reports

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Smithsonian exhibit, summer camp boom: News from around our 50 states

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