The summary is transcribed live, maybe paraphrased, and will contain spelling and grammatical errors until I am able to edit it once the press conference ends.
As of noon today we report 1,345 new cases for a Toal of 127,246 COVID-19 cases in Lousiana.
Cases are from 15,105 tests. 94% of today's cases were from community spread and 94% were collected int the past week.
There are 1,457 COVID-19 positive patients currently hospitalized, this is a decrease of 14 from yesterday's and is the 5th day there has been a decline in hospitalizations.
We hit a death milestone today surprising 4k deaths, with 50 new deaths reported today for a total of 4,028.
We have seen sustained improvements in regards to cases, hospitalizations, and case positivity. They are all too high but it beats the trajectory we were previously on since Memorial Day. We are doing better but have some work left to do.
We completed Surge testing in EBR parish sponsored by HHS at 56,711 tests were administered.
Fixed sites will remain in Lake Charles, Lafayette, and Alexandria while supplies last.
New Orleans now has surge testing open and will continue past next Friday.
Everyone who got tested was able to receive a mask and they were educated by the Department of Health on how to protect themselves and their communities from COVID.
These are the only sites that allow people to be tested without symptoms in Louisiana and we saw many asymptomatic got tested and found out they were positive.
Estimates are between 25-40% of people who get COVID will be asymptomatic, which is what makes this pandemic so hard to control because asymptomatic people are less likely to be tested and more likely to transmit the disease to others because they do not know they are infectious.
Mask is a proxy for a test result.
If you have COVID symptoms or been exposed to someone with COVID get tested. Call your doctor. Call 2-1-1 to find a test site with you.
Dr. Gina Laguard of Regional Medical Director of Region 9 / Northshore
Collectively Northshore makes up 12% of the state's population with over a 500,000 population the Northshore is home to both rural and urban living.
COVID is widespread on the Northshore and in all five Northshore parishes.
The cases and deaths from the Northshore represent 10% of the states.
All of the Northshore parishes Are higher than the federal threshold.
However, mitigation efforts are showing that the incidence of COVID is decreasing.
Percent positivity in all 5 parishes is above the Federal Threshold, but at least 2 of the parishes have shown a decrease in case positivity.
The age group that accounts for the majority of cases increases is 18-29 years of age.
Hospitals have the capacity, they have beds, ventilators, and PPE. However, their biggest challenge is staffing.
With community spread the people who work int he hospital are exposed and they too have fallen ill. Not all of it is COVID, keep in mind there are still other illnesses in the population.
I am hopeful in the region we will continue to work tirelessly to test the residents and work closely with parish leadership to provide the best testing, but it is becoming a challenge with limitations we have and the amount of the strike teams we have.
Right now we are working with National Guard, LCMC, and Oschner. We had two surge sites one in Livingston and Tangipahoa and were able to test over 1,400.
9,100 people have been tested in the community with the 178 tests per day.
Work closely with the hospitals to ensure they have what they need to deliver services.
Work with leadership to make sure mitigation measures are in place.
"Slow the pace. Cover your Face."
It's not too much to ask to wear a mask.
It is one of the most cost-effective ways to reduce the spread of COVID.
Mandates may affect how we live, learn, work, worship, socialize but they are necessary to curb the spread of the disease.
This is a collective effort. We must work together to reduce the spread of COVID.
Shows a picture of her 63-year-old cousin Nadine.
Nadine was retired from Loyola after 30 years of work experience but rejoined the work market.
March 9th was the first case in Louisiana. 7 days later Nadine became symptomatic.
She lived in New Orleans but it was atypical symptomology.
Her presentation was initially GI symptoms and we did not know that association at the time.
5 days later she was in the emergency room, the next day she was intubated and on April 3rd she passed away. She tased away on her son's birthday and 23 days before her 64th birthday.
So I'm sensitive when some feel they lost their sense of freedom. So when I hear people say it is my right not to wear a mask and congregate in large groups. What about my right to live? What about your right? I understand, but it is about doing what we know is right. Doing what we know is right and doing the right things. Wearing a mask might have saved my cousin. It was before we knew this. Avoiding large crowds and socially distancing may have saved my cousin. We know from contact tracing we have been able to track her exposure to possibly a gathering were others had symptoms at that time. Or maybe it was exposure at work. We know these mitigation efforts work. Masks are cheap. Five dollars is the economic impact of that mask, and if worn properly it reduces the spread of COVID, versus the cost of hospitalizations -- the cost of death -- the years of life lost?
When you look at the workforce 18-60 we've had over 1,400 deaths those are years of lives lost too soon. That was our workforce.
For those that have had COVID, we know that some still have issues with their lungs, kidneys, neurological systems. There is a cost to that. Especially to the healthcare system.
We ask that you wear a mask. That's simple. We ask that you avoid large crowds. That's easy. We ask that you physically distance at least 6 feet. How easy is that? We ask that you wash your hands and frequently disinfect common surfaces and stay at home and better yet stay at home if you re not well. These are simple asks to help reduce the spread of COVID in our state.
I wish my cousins had that opportunity to wear a mask, I wish we knew what we knew know and had restrictions on gathering sizes and knew about social distancing. We've learned a lot about COVID from March 9th to now but 1,400 deaths today? We can do better as a state.
I'm hopeful because our numbers are improving showing these migration measures are working.
Please mask up. Socially distance. Continue hand hygiene and disinfect surfaces.
Stay home if not well.
I worry about the children beginning school this week. They have the right to got to school and not have parents, staff, and faculty worry about the high cases of COVID in our community.
Giv. John Bel Edwards
If you have any doubts about the mitigation measures working just look at the data.
You can see it was about 2 weeks after the mask mandates and restrictions that we began to turn around the numbers and it has been consistent at least up to now.
When people hear we are doing better they think they can lift up on doing what they are doing, but we are doing betterbecauseof adherence. We know that if everyone wore a mask, washed their hands, stayed home when sick we would see a much larger impact on our numbers.
A reminder that we remain in the red zone as determine the day the White House Taskforce.
Some of you have heard of the verdict from Judge Janice Clark held in place the restrictions and mitigation measures. This is not the last legal challenge but I am confident that I am doing what is necessary. We are following the science. We are following the data. We are implementing best practices and recommendations from the CDC and White House Taskforce. I am doing with the authority I have as Governor, as I am authorized to do by the Constitution and Statutory Law of Louisiana, to respond to this Public Health Emergency. I am not just authorized, because we are talking about lives I am obligated to do these things as well.
It does not make it easy. It is absolutely essential. It is legal. We know without any doubt it is effective. This is not an academic exercise, it is not theoretical. We know it works.
We still have significant work to do in Louisiana, as we remain at No 1 per capita in the United States.
More than 2.5% of our state's population has been infected and that's just confirmed cases we know there are a lot more individuals who have had it and never were tested.
If we want as much of our economy to be open as possible -- but safely, our schools -- but safe, if we want to be able to engage in as much normalcy as possible... it is the mitigation measures that will allow this to happen.
We can get to a transmissions rate of <1 without Phase 1 or stay-at-home but it requires everyone doing their part -- that is what the modeling shows. We are on that track now if we can maintain it long enough to get below 1. If everyone would do their part we would see much more dramatic results and more quickly.
Title 3 which deals with the National Guard will stay in place until the end of the year.
They are a key part of our strategy.
From receiving, warehousing, distribution of PPE, ventilators, testing, going out to nursing homes as part of strike teams, you name it.
While we are excited to hear it will be extended to the end of the year we are upset to hear that we along with other states will have to pay 25% of the costs until the end of the year, while two states, Texas and Florida will not.
I do not begrudge these states but I will tell you there is not a rational basis to distinguish Louisiana between those two states when we have ridden the crest of both the first and second surge as evidenced by the fact we have more cases per capita than any other state. So I will be working through the Congressional Delegation to re-urging the White House to extend that 100% coverage to Louisiana.
The 25% cost share is about 2.5 million a month so we are talking about a little more than 10 million dollars. So it is not an insubstantial amount of funding.
WorkSearch has been implemented by the Louisiana workforce commissions.
Understands there is considerable anxiety because the $600 federal benefits have expired, know the state benefit is $247 a week and people cannot survive on that
It is time to get those who can back into a job and find work.
There are several thousand jobs available in Louisiana so that is what we are trying to do now.
Each week in order to recetrtify the individual will have to share the 3 employers that were contacted and no jobs were available.
It is also being done because we are concerned about the state's unemployment trust fund.
That trust fund started out with 1.1 billion dollars and is now down to 270 million today and we cannot pay benefits if it is solvent.
We need to either cross the threshold whereby the law increases the payroll tax on employers or employers have a surcharge.
Either way that's a functional tax increase and we do not want to do that. So we are asking for help from the Congressional Delegation and National Governors Associations and directly with the White House in order to get their assistance on this matter.
WorkSearch is back in place. Does not affect people whose employment isn't available because of the restriction that has been imposed due to COVID 19 or an employee who has COVID-19.
Critically important to the state's economy that people enter the workforce.
Census response rate lags the national average. If we do not get more people to respond there will be a price to pay for Louisiana. 2020census.gov to fill it out or can call 844-330-2020 to complete your Census.
Now that you won in court do you intend to crackdown, not he BBQ restaurant in Denham Springs? Yes. We will share that information with you when it is appropriate. When will that be? When it is appropriate. Do you think there will be leftover funding from the CARES Act or Business Grant Program in a time period that could keep the unemployment trust fund solvent? I do not see in the portion of the CARES Act that we dedicated to local government. There is a certain amount, of the 1.8 billion we received it was my recommendation that 45% of the 1.8 billion be reserved for local government. The house went more or less with that, but then did fund $300 million for the Main Street program, and then a smaller allocation for Front Line Workers. We believe that will be completely exhausted and I do not know if money will be left in the Mainstreet Program. I haven't received a report yet and I think it would premature to guess. They will not begin to issue checks until Aug 15, and I do not know how many applications they received, nor how many qualify. We will know by the end of the month, and it could potentially be there at the end of the month. But even if it is there that money would not tie us over for very long. So the assistance we need in Phase 4 of the Coronavirus Relief that is currently being negotiated is critically important for us. We are communicating this with our Congressional Delegation and there have been a number of conversations with the Speaker discussing multiple ways we could replenish that trust fund. On August the 3rd we put $12 million dollars in the trust fund from taxes fro the quarter. It is just not enough to meet the demand with the claims we have. Other states have banned smoking in casinos because they are concerned people are taking their masks on and off, has that been discussed here? I believe that was first discussed in Louisiana as far as I know right now when you just brought it up. My first impression is that makes some sense, but I hate to think out loud because sometimes you get in trouble. I think New Orleans and East Baton Rouge may be the only places where smoking is banned in casinos. That is something I will give some consideration to, but I am not making an announcement today. You've been hesitant to discuss football, have you had a discussion with their administration? I have. I have had discussions with their athletic director and most people love LSU football but we have football programs across the state. I have had an opportunity to discuss with Scott Woodward, the LSU Athletic Director, and they are planning for multiple contingencies with what they will be able to do safely in regards to the number of people they can put in the stands for a football game. They do not know what that will look like yet, and I do not know what that will look like yet. Obviously you cannot wait to make that discussion until game day, we will meet with other schools to determine how far in advance they need to know. They are looking at ways to get people in and out of the stadium in and out of restrooms, receive concessions, without having people grouping together. Will need to see where we are in terms of the data to inform what we can safely do here in Louisiana when football resumes. The good news is we have some additional time because they backed up the return of the season. A number of local bars are applying for temporarily conditional restaurant licenses so they can continue to operate and keep their doors open and a reduced capacity. Can you explain from a public health standpoint why a bar with a newly acquired temporary conditional restaurant license is safer than a bar that does not Because they have to operate as a restaurant. All the rules that apply to restaurants today will apply to them in terms of the 50% occupancy limit, the need to social distance people who are not in the same household, more than 1/2 of the income must be derived from food sales and not alcohol sales. So they would function like a restaurant which would make them safer. Another indication of the efforts we are making is to allow as many of these bar owners as much flexibility as possible so we are not just leaving them the option of pick up or drive-thru sales. Or allowing them to have 2 video poker machines open if they had inside, but it also allows them to function as a restaurant if they are able to do that. They are receiving these permits very quickly so they can get into operation and realize some income as soon as possible. It will be safer because all of their patrons will have to be seated, to distance, and so forth... its something we are doing in an effort to allow as many of these establishments to remain open as possible, but to do so in a safe manner. Is there a recommendation/protocol about how many cases college and university campuses can have without having to reduce people from campus? They are working hard with the Department of Public Health and the CDC to work with education leaders both K-12 and higher education, to determine what to do when there is a case and if there are multiple cases and so forth. We can all assume there will be cases. You cannot have the cases we have across Louisiana, resume school, and not have some of these cases show up in your universities or K-12 schools. It really depends on how many cases, if they are in the same classroom, same dormitory, etc. All of these things are being looked at. I can tell you just recently our higher education community completed tabletop exercises, and a result of lessons learned there they have now gone back and revised their plans and will continue to do that as they learn from one another, and as guidance from the CDC changes. Will you report data based on outbreaks/cases on educational campuses? I don't know. I am not sure what means we have to capture that information, but certainly, what we have we will share. We are not going to hide it from anyone. Before I say yes I want to make sure we can capture that through the means we have in place to update you every day, or if additional things need to go into place. I do not know if it will be a situation where I ask you to direct those questions to the particular educational systems and universities while we report the universal numbers. We will get back to you on that. Is there a point you will use your authority as governor to limit on-campus instruction I do not intend to have to do that because we know K-12 are doing everything they can to deliver an education that goes along with CDC guidelines. So it is not something I believe I will have to do. Higher educational students, especially vulnerable, will do online or hybrid education. So with everything, they plan to do and oversee.... what they are doing came up they from the Department of Health in consolation with the CDC guidelines. So I do not believe it will be necessary for me to step in. Shreveport reports its third death of MIS-C? The medical community trying to determine if that is just what COVID looks like in certain kids, or whether it is a separate medical condition that is tangental to COVID. We've had a number of deaths, but not like the 4,000 from COVID from around the state. So we are obviously concerned about that. It is further evidence that children are not immune to this disease. They are much less likely to have a serious illness, but it does still happens. We see sometimes a young person will get COVID-19 and have a bad result even though there is no identifiable co-morbid condition. It is not the rule, it is very much the exception, but it is evidence that children are not immune. This is why we must make certain the kids are as safe as possible which is one of the reasons why the CDC guidelines are important --- that kids socially distance, have masks, do no co-mingle, they stick to their cohort. That this starts form the moment they get on the bus to the moment they get home. It is critically important we do this if we are going to get children safely back in the classroom.
This public health emergency will be with us for some time. Unfortunately, there is a new normal and the mask is part of that. Socially distancing is part of that. Washing your hands is part of that. Staying at home when sick is part of that. I am asking everyone to do their part.
Understand the progress we have started to see over the past 8-10 days is positive, but we can lose it. If we do what we did after Memorial Day we will lose it. But, if more people adhere to the mitigation measures we will accelerate improvements and they will be long-lasting. We can get to a transmission rate of <1 so the disease is on the way out if we just all engage in the measures. We can do it without having to be more restrictive.
We have a long way to go but I am optimistic we will get there. We flattened the curve once before and we can do it again.
We just need to double down on these proven effective mitigation measures and restrictions and if we can just all o that we will be in a much better place. We will have fewer people getting this disease. Fewer people going to the hospital, and we will have fewer people dying. And that's the quintessential way to be a good neighbor 😏 (mod note: he actually smirked) to just do something that is modest request of you that hardly constituents a burden at all if it means fewer people get sick and fewer people die.
Welcome to Lost in the Sauce, keeping you caught up on political and legal news that often gets buried in distractions and theater… or a global health crisis. Figuring out how to divide the COVID-19 content from the “regular” news has been difficult because the pandemic is influencing all aspects of life. Some of the stories below involve the virus, but I chose to include them when it fits into one of the pre-established categories (like congress or immigration). The coronavirus-central post will be made again this Thursday-Friday; the sign up form now has an option to choose to receive an email when the coronavirus-focused roundup is posted. House-keeping:
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Let’s dig in!
Congress passes stimulus
Last week started out with a Republican-crafted stimulus bill that was twice-blocked by Senate Democrats, who objected to the lax conditions of aid to corporations, too little funding for hospitals, and a $500 billion “slush fund” for big companies to be doled out by Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin with no oversight. Conservative-Democrat Joe Manchin (WV) even criticized the GOP bill:
“It fails our first responders, nurses, private physicians and all healthcare professionals. ... It fails our workers. It fails our small businesses… Instead, it is focused on providing billions of dollars to Wall Street and misses the mark on helping the West Virginians that have lost their jobs through no fault of their own.”
Through negotiations, Democrats shifted the bill in a more-worker friendly direction. The version that passed includes the following Democrat-added provisions: expanded unemployment benefits, $100 billion for hospitals, $150 billion for state and local governments, direct payments to Americans without a phase-in (ensuring low-income workers get the full amount), a ban on Trump and his children from receiving aid, and oversight on the “slush fund” (see next section for more info). Senate Democrats also managed to remove a provision that would have excluded nonprofits that receive Medicaid funding from the small-business grants.
Further reading: After Senate Democrats blocked the Republican-crafted bill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi led the House Democrats in releasing their own version, a best-case scenario of their dream coronavirus stimulus bill. It is interesting to contrast what the Democrats prioritized to what the Republicans focused on: “How the House Democrats' stimulus plan compares to the Senate's”
Echoing sentiments expressed during debate on the previous coronavirus bill (the second, for those keeping track), Republican senators derided the $600 a week increase in unemployment payments as “incentivizing” workers to quit their jobs. Sens. Ben Sasse (Neb.), Rick Scott (Fla.), Tim Scott (S.C.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.) delayed passage of the bill in order to force a vote on an amendment removing the extra unemployment funding. "This bill pays you more not to work than if you were working," Graham said. Fortunately for American workers, the amendment failed and the improved bill passed the Senate and the House.
Note: In 2009 only three Republicans helped Obama pass his stimulus bill in his first month in office.
The giveaways in the bill
While Senate Democrats were able to add worker-friendly provisions, the bill still required bipartisan support to pass the chamber and some corporate giveaways remained in the final version.
NYT: “Senate Republicans inserted an easy-to-overlook provision on page 203 of the 880-page bill that would permit wealthy investors to use losses generated by real estate to minimize their taxes on profits from things like investments in the stock market. The estimated cost of the change over 10 years is $170 billion.”
NYT: “...if a company owns multiple hotels, even if the overall hotel or restaurant chain has more than 500 employees — the limit to qualify for treatment as a small business — it will still be able to take advantage of the small-business benefits offered in the rescue package. ...The provision could benefit the Trump Organization, which operates a relatively small chain, with six hotels in the United States in cities including New York, Washington and Chicago.”
“A provision for the FDA to approve ‘innovative’ sunscreens—which would benefit L’Oreal, which has operations in Kentucky—appeared in the bill, which was steered in the Senate by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.”
“The $25 billion allocated in loans and loan guarantees for the airlines will also benefit eligible businesses "approved to perform inspection, repair, replace, or overhaul services, and ticket agents.” The last two words — ‘ticket agents’ — mean that travel agents who book flights will also be able to apply for a piece of the $25 billion.”
“The credit reporting industry got a win by defeating a total ban on negative credit reports during the crisis. Instead, a watered down version made it into the final bill: Consumers wouldn't get a negative credit report if they have an agreement with a lender to delay payments or make partial payments.”
Trump’s signing statement
While signing the latest coronavirus relief bill, the president also issued a signing statement undercutting the congressional oversight provision creating an inspector general to track how the administration distributes the $500 billion “slush fund” money. The newly-created inspector general is legally required to audit loans and investments made through the fund and report to Congress his/her findings, including any refusal by the executive office to cooperate. In his signing statement, Trump wrote that his understanding of constitutional powers allows him to gag the special IG:
"I do not understand, and my Administration will not treat, this provision as permitting the [inspector general] to issue reports to the Congress without the presidential supervision required" by Article II of the Constitution.
The signing statement further suggests that Trump does not have to comply with a provision requiring that agencies consult with Congress before it spends or reallocates certain funds: "These provisions are impermissible forms of congressional aggrandizement with respect to the execution of the laws," the statement reads. While some have said that Congress fell short in this instance, one Democratic Senate aide told Politico that Congress built in multiple layers of oversight, including “a review of other inspectors general and a congressional review committee charged with overseeing Treasury and the Federal Reserve's efforts to implement the law.” Legal experts have pointed out that a signing statement is “without legal effect.” But that ignores the fact that oversight is not equal to enforcement. The problem, in my opinion, isn’t that Congress won’t be notified of any abuses of power by Trump. The problem is that congressional Republicans and the judiciary have largely failed to hold him accountable and enforce our laws even after learning of his abuses.
Concerns about the IG
Another potential weakness in the oversight structure is the inspector general position itself. The special inspector general for pandemic recovery, known by the acronym S.I.G.P.R., is nominated by the president and confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate. As we’ve seen from Trump’s previous nominees, particularly judicial, many unqualified individuals have been confirmed. The Democrats will not have the power to stop the president and Mitch McConnell from jamming through a loyalist to fill the SIGPR role.
Former inspector general at the Justice Department Michael Bromwich: “The signing statement threatens to undermine the authority and independence of this new IG. The Senate should extract a commitment from the nominee that Congress will be promptly notified of any Presidential/Administration interference or obstruction.”
You may recall that Trump has already proven that he’s willing to interfere with the legally-mandated work of an inspector general. When the Ukraine whistleblower filed a complaint last year, the IG of the Intelligence Community, Michael Atkinson, investigated and determined the complaint to be “urgent” and “credible.” Atkinson wrote a report and gave it to Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire to hand over to Congress. However, the White House and DOJ interfered and instructed Maguire not to transmit the report to the Senate and House Intelligence Committees. Chairman Adam Schiff had to subpoena Maguire to turn over the report and testify before his committee. Further, there are already five IG vacancies in agencies that have a critical role in responding to the pandemic. The Treasury itself has not had a permanent, Senate-confirmed IG for over eight months now, and Trump hasn’t nominated a replacement. The Treasury Dept. has taken a lead role in the coronavirus response, with Secretary Mnuchin handling most of the negotiating with Congress on Trump’s behalf. The fact that the lead agency doesn’t have IG oversight should be troublesome in itself; replicating the situation with a special IG doesn’t seem to be a promising solution.
The other four coronavirus-related agencies without a permanent IG: Department of Health and Human Services’ IG has been vacant for nine months, Department of Defense’s IG has been vacant for four years, Department of Education’s IG has been vacant for one year, and Office of Personnel Management’s IG has been vacant for four years. Overall, there are twelve IG vacancies in the 37) presidentially-appointed offices.
UPDATE: The nation's inspectors general have appointed Glenn Fine, the Pentagon's acting IG, to lead the committee of IGs overseeing the coronavirus relief effort.
This is one of several oversight mechanisms built into the new law. They include: A committee of IGs (now led by Fine), a new special IG (to be nominated by Trump), a congressional review panel (to be appointed by House/Senate leaders)
Included in the stimulus bill is a $1200 one-time direct payment for all Americans who made less than $75,000 in 2019 (less than $150,000 if couples filed jointly). More details can be found here. I have read that the Treasury will use 2018 information for those who have not filed yet this year, but I am not 100% sure that’ll happen. Mnuchin has said that Americans can expect to receive the money within three weeks, but many experts expect that timetable to be pushed into late April. Additionally, that only applies to Americans who included direct deposit information on their 2019 tax returns. Those who did not include their bank’s information will have to be sent a physical check in the mail… which could take anywhere from two to four months. Other options are being discussed, including partnering the Treasury Dept. with MasterCard and Visa to deliver prepaid debit cards. Venmo and Paypal are reportedly lobbying the government to be considered as a disbursement option. Future payments? House Speaker Pelosi is already planning another wave of direct payments to Americans, saying that the $1,200 is not enough to mitigate the economic effects of the pandemic: “I don’t think we’ve seen the end of direct payments.” Republicans, meanwhile, are taking a ‘wait and see’ approach, using the next couple of weeks to measure the impact of the $2 trillion bill passed last week.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy: “What concerns me is when I listen to Nancy Pelosi talk about a fourth package now, it’s because she did not get out of things that she really wanted...I’m not sure you need a fourth package...Let’s let this work ... We have now given the resources to make and solve this problem. We don’t need to be crafting another bill right now.” For the fourth legislative package, Democrats have said they would like to see increased food stamp benefits; increased coverage for coronavirus testing, visits to the doctor and treatment; more money for state and local governments, including Washington, D.C.; expanded family and medical leave; pension fixes; and stronger workplace protections.
Trump’s signature Normally, a civil servant signs federal checks, like the direct payments Americans are set to receive. According to a Wall Street Journal report, Trump has told people that he wants his signature to appear on the stimulus checks.
War on the poor continues
Amid the coronavirus crisis, Trump has defended his continued support of a Republican-led lawsuit to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, which would result in 20 million Americans losing health insurance if successful. The Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments in the case this fall. Contrasting with his position that the ACA is illegal, Trump is considering reopening enrollment on HealthCare.gov, allowing millions of uninsured individuals to get coverage before potentially incurring charges and fees related to COVID-19. Joe Biden called on Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who is leading the charge against the ACA, and President Trump to drop the lawsuit:
“At a time of national emergency, which is laying bare the existing vulnerabilities in our public health infrastructure, it is unconscionable that you are continuing to pursue a lawsuit designed to strip millions of Americans of their health insurance and protections under the Affordable Care Act (ACA), including the ban on insurers denying coverage or raising premiums due to pre-existing conditions.”
The Trump administration is also pushing forward with its plan to kick 700,000 people off federal food stamp assistance, known as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). The USDA announced two weeks ago that the department will appeal Judge Beryl Howell’s recent decision that the USDA’s work mandate rule is “arbitrary and capricious." Additionally: The Social Security Administration has no plans to slow down a rule change set for June that will limit disability benefits, the Department of Health and Human Services still intends to reduce automatic enrollment in health coverage, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development will continue the process to enact a rule that would make it harder for renters to sue landlords for racial discrimination.
Lawmakers’ stock transactions
The Justice Department and Securities and Exchange Commission are beginning to investigate stock transactions made ahead of the economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic. CNN reports that the inquiry has already reached out to Senator Richard Burr for information. “Under insider trading laws, prosecutors would need to prove the lawmakers traded based on material non-public information they received in violation of a duty to keep it confidential,” a task that won’t be easy. Sen. Burr is facing another consequence of his trades: Alan Jacobson, a shareholder in Wyndham Hotels and Resorts, sued Burr for allegedly using private information to instruct a mass liquidation of his assets. Among the shares he sold were an up to $150,000 stake in Wyndham, whose stock suffered a market-value cut of more than two-thirds since mid-February.
Using the pandemic as cover, the Trump administration has begun to more aggressively roll back regulations meant to protect the environment. These are examples of what Naomi Klein dubbed “the shock doctrine”: the phenomenon wherein polluters and their government allies push through unpopular policy changes under the smokescreen of a public emergency. On Thursday, the EPA announced (non-paywalled) an expansive relaxation of environmental laws and fines, exempting companies from consequences for pollution. Under the new rules, there are basically no rules. Companies are asked to “act responsibly” but are not required to report when their facilities discharge pollution into the air or water. Just five days before abandoning any pollution oversight, the oil industry’s largest trade group implored the administration for assistance, stating that social distancing measures caused a steep drop in demand for gasoline.
Monday morning update: In an interview with Fox News this morning, Trump said he was going to call Putin after the interview to discuss the Saudi-Russia oil fight. A consequence of this "battle" has been plummeting prices in the U.S. making it difficult for domestic companies (like shale extraction) to turn a profit. It's striking that the day after Dr. Fauci told Americans we can expect 100,000 to 200,000 deaths from COVID-19 (if we keep social distancing measures in place), Trump's first action is to talk to Fox News and his second action is to intervene in an international tiff on behalf of the oil and gas industry.
Gina McCarthy, who led the E.P.A. under the Obama administration, called the rollback “an open license to pollute.” Cynthia Giles, who headed the EPA enforcement division during the Obama administration, said “it is so far beyond any reasonable response I am just stunned.” The EPA is also moving forward with a widely-opposed rule to limit the types of scientific studies used when crafting new regulations or revising current ones. Hidden behind claims of increased transparency, the rule would require disclosure of all raw data used in scientific studies. This would disqualify many fields of research that rely on personal health information from individuals that must be kept confidential. For example, studies that show air pollution causes premature deaths or a certain pesticide is linked to birth defects would be rejected under the proposed rule change. Officials and scientists are calling upon the EPA to extend the time for comment on the regulatory changes, arguing that the public is unable to express their opinion while dealing with the pandemic.
“These rollbacks need and deserve the input of our public health community, but right now, they are rightfully focused on responding to the coronavirus,” said Representative Frank Pallone of New Jersey, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Other controversial decisions being made:
A former EPA official who worked on controversial policies returned as Administrator Andrew Wheeler’s chief of staff. Mandy Gunasekara helped write regulations to ease pollution controls for coal-fired power plants and vehicle emissions in her previous role as chief of the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation. In a recent interview, Gunasekara, who played a role in the decision to exit the Paris Climate Accord, pushed back on the more dire predictions of climate change, saying, “I don't think it is catastrophic.”
NYT: The plastic bag industry, battered by a wave of bans nationwide, is using the coronavirus crisis to try to block laws prohibiting single-use plastic. “We simply don’t want millions of Americans bringing germ-filled reusable bags into retail establishments putting the public and workers at risk,” an industry campaign that goes by the name Bag the Ban warned on Tuesday. (Also see The Guardian)
Kentucky, South Dakota, and West Virginia passed laws putting new criminal penalties on protests against fossil fuel infrastructure in just the past two weeks.
The Hill: The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said Friday that it will extend the amount of time that winter gasoline can be sold this year as producers have been facing lower demand due to the coronavirus. It will allow companies to sell the winter-grade gasoline through May 20, whereas companies would have previously been required to stop selling it by May 1 to protect air quality. “In responding to an international health crisis, the last thing the EPA should do is take steps that will worsen air quality and undermine the public’s health,” biofuels expert David DeGennaro said.
NYT: At the Interior Department, employees at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have been under strict orders to complete the rule eliminating some protections for migratory birds within 30 days, according to two people with direct knowledge of the orders. The 45-day comment period on that rule ended on March 19.
WaPo: The Interior Department has received over 230 nominations for oil and gas leases covering more than 150,000 acres across southern Utah, a push that would bring drilling as close as a half-mile from some of the nation’s most famous protected sites, including Arches and Canyonlands National Parks… if all the fossil fuels buried in those sites was extracted and burned, it would translate into between 1 billion and 5.95 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide being released into the air. That upward measure is equal to half the annual carbon output of China
Press freedom case Southern District of New York District Judge Lorna Schofield ruled that a literary advocacy group’s lawsuit against Trump for allegedly violating the First Amendment can move forward. The group, PEN America, is pursuing claims that Trump “has used government power to retaliate against media coverage and reporters he dislikes.” Schofield determined that PEN’s allegation that Trump made threats to chill free speech was valid, providing as an example the White House’s revocation of CNN correspondent Jim Acosta’s press press corps credentials:
”The threats are lent credence by the fact that Defendant has acted on them before, by revoking Mr. Acosta’s credentials and barring reporters from particular press conferences. The Press Secretary indeed e-mailed the entire press corps to inform them of new rules of conduct and to warn of further consequences, citing the incident involving Mr. Acosta… These facts plausibly allege that a motivation for defendant’s actions is controlling and punishing speech he dislikes.”
Twitter case The president suffered another First Amendment defeat last week when the full 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals declined to review a previous ruling that prevents Trump from blocking users on the Twitter account he uses to communicate with the public. Judge Barrington D. Parker, a Nixon-appointee, wrote: “Excluding people from an otherwise public forum such as this by blocking those who express views critical of a public official is, we concluded, unconstitutional.” Trump-appointees Michael Parker and Richard Sullivan authored a dissent, arguing the free speech “does not include a right to post on other people’s personal social media accounts, even if those other people happen to be public officials.” Park warned that the ruling will allow the social media pages of public officials to be “overrun with harassment, trolling, and hate speech, which officials will be powerless to filter.” Florida’s felon voting U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ripped into Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s administration for failing to come up with a process to determine which felons are genuinely unable to pay court-ordered fees and fines, which are otherwise required to be paid before having their voting rights restored. “If the state is not going to fix it, I will,” Hinkle warned. He had given the state five months to come up with an administrative process for felons to prove they’re unable to pay financial obligations, but Florida officials did not do so. The case is set to be heard on April 28 (notwithstanding any coronavirus-related delays).
ICE, Jails, and COVID-19
ICE One of the most overlooked populations with an increased risk of death from coronavirus are those in detention facilities, which keep people in close quarters with little sanitation or protective measures (including for staff). Last week, U.S. District Judge Dolly Gee ordered the federal government to “make continuous efforts” to release migrant children from detention centers across the country. Numerous advocacy groups asked for the release after reports that four children being held in New York had tested positive for the virus:
“The threat of irreparable injury to their health and safety is palpable,” the plaintiffs’ lawyers said in their petition… both of the agencies operating migrant children detention facilities must by April 6 provide an accounting of their efforts to release those in custody… “Her order will undoubtedly speed up releases,” said Peter Schey, co-counsel for the plaintiffs in the court case.
On Tuesday, 13 immigrants held at ICE facilities in California filed a lawsuit demanding to be released because their health conditions make them particularly vulnerable to dying if infected by the coronavirus. An ACLU statement says the detainees are “confined in crowded and unsanitary conditions where social distancing is not possible.” The 13 individuals are all over the age of 50 and/or suffering from serious underlying medical issues like high blood pressure.
“From all the evidence we have seen, ICE is failing to fulfill its constitutional obligation to protect the health and safety of individuals in its custody. ICE should exercise its existing discretion to release people with serious medical conditions from detention for humanitarian reasons,” said William Freeman, senior counsel at the ACLU of Northern California.
Meanwhile, ICE is under fire for continuing to shuttle detainees across the country, with one even being forced to take nine different flights bouncing from Louisiana to Texas to New Jersey less than two weeks ago. That man is Dr. Sirous Asgari, a materials science and engineering professor from Iran, who was acquitted last year on federal charges of stealing trade secrets. The government lost its case against him, yet ICE has had him in indefinite detention since November.
Asgari, 59, told the Guardian that his Ice holding facility in Alexandria, Louisiana, had no basic cleaning practices in place and continued to bring in new detainees from across the country with no strategy to minimize the threat of Covid-19...Detainees have no hand sanitizer, and the facility is not regularly cleaning bathrooms or sleeping areas…Detainees lack access to masks… Detainees struggle to stay clean, and the facility has an awful stench.
Jails State jails are making a better effort to release detained individuals, as both New York and New Jersey ordered a thousand people in each state be let out of jail. The order applied only to low-level offenders sentenced to less than a year in jail and those held on technical probation violations. In Los Angeles County, officials released over 1,700 people from its jails. A judge in Alabama took similar steps last week, ordering roughly 500 people jailed for minor offenses to be released to lessen crowding in facilities. Unlike in New York and New Jersey, however, local officials reacted in an uproar, led in part by the state executive committee for the Alabama Republican Party and Assistant District Attorney C.J. Robinson. Using angry Facebook messages as the barometer of the community’s feelings, Robinson worked “frantically” to block inmates from being released.
Reuters: As of Saturday, at least 132 inmates and 104 staff at jails across New York City had tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus… Since March 22, jails have reported 226 inmates and 131 staff with confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to a Reuters survey of cities and counties that run America’s 20 largest jails. The numbers are almost certainly an undercount given the fast spread of the virus.
Tribe opposed by Trump loses land
On Wednesday, The Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs announced the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s reservation would be "disestablished" and its land trust status removed. Tribal Chairman Cedric Cromwell called the move "cruel" and "unnecessary,” particularly coming in the midst of a pandemic crisis. Rep. Bill Keating (D-Mass.), who last year introduced legislation to protect the tribe's reservation as trust land in Massachusetts, said the order “is one of the most cruel and nonsensical acts I have seen since coming to Congress.” The administration’s decision is especially suspicious as just last year Trump attacked the tribe’s plan to build a casino on its land, tweeting that allowing the construction would be “unfair” and treat Native Americans unequally. As a former casino owner, Trump has spent decades attacking Native American casinos as unfair competition. At a 1993 congressional hearing Trump said that tribal owners “don’t look like Indians to me” and claimed: “I might have more Indian blood than a lot of the so-called Indians that are trying to open up the reservations” to gambling. More than his past history, however, Trump has current interests at play in the Mashpee Wampanoag’s planned casino: it would have competed for business with nearby Rhode Island casinos owned by Twin River Worldwide Holdings, whose president, George Papanier, was a finance executive at the Trump Plaza casino hotel in Atlantic City.
In the Mashpee case, Twin River, the operator of the two Rhode Island casinos, has hired Matthew Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union and a vocal Trump supporter, to lobby for it on the land issue. Schlapp’s wife, Mercedes, is director of strategic communications at the White House.
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