RoboCop, Jimmy Carter, Amtrak: News from around our 50 states

From USA TODAY Network and wire reports, USA TODAY
·51 min read

Alabama

Homewood: State regulators have suspended the alcohol license of a Birmingham-area bar over alleged violations of the state’s pandemic health order in what an official described as the first such case under COVID-19 rules. Regulators accused Grocery Brewpub in Homewood of violating rules about face mask requirements, occupancy limits and social distancing, Alabama ABC spokesman Dean Argo told WBMA-TV. The emergency suspension issued Tuesday was Alabama’s first license suspension linked to pandemic health rules, he said. Photos shared recently on social media showed people packed into the nightspot with few face masks visible. Bar owner Rayford Cook told the station the business was cited for violating Alabama’s mask ordinance, which requires facial coverings in public. “I look forward to our upcoming hearing regarding this matter and addressing it so we can provide a safe environment for patrons to enjoy in the future,” Cook said in a statement. A hearing is expected in April, but the business cannot serve alcohol until then. An order that has been in place since July requires face masks in public when within 6 feet of someone from another household.

Alaska

Anchorage: The city’s health department has arranged mobile clinics to provide COVID-19 vaccinations specifically targeting members of Alaska’s community of Pacific Islanders. The clinics Tuesday and Thursday were the first targeting a specific community since the pandemic began, the Anchorage Daily News reports. The focused clinic strategy was used by the department during past illness outbreaks. There were about 160 appointments available for the two clinics, officials said. “In order to make sure some of these other groups get access, we basically created some private clinics,” said Christy Lawton, Anchorage’s public health division manager. “We’ll still serve people who are eligible, but we’re not getting the message out the same way.” The clinics were advertised via word of mouth among Pacific Islanders rather than the usual appointment sites accessible to the public, officials said. “The minute any appointments go on those, they go like hotcakes. People with time to sit at a computer and refresh to get them,” Lawton said. The targeted clinics were possible because Anchorage health officials had discretion in the use of monthly vaccine supplies from the state, allowing the city to do “pocket allocations.”

Arizona

Phoenix: With COVID-19 cases dipping and teachers getting vaccinated, some school districts are looking to return to in-person learning as early as next month. The Osborn School District in Phoenix, which has been doing virtual learning full time since the start of the school year, will welcome students back into classrooms March 30. A survey conducted by the district found 90% of staff have already been vaccinated. Ylenia Aguilar, president of the district’s governing board, said officials expect that number to be closer to 95% in March. She knows the district has been very lucky. “We’ve been able to work and partner up and had access to multiple vaccination opportunities, which we know is not the case for other school districts in other areas, specifically rural areas,” Aguilar said. “We are ready to open.” The state Department of Education’s top official promised to help districts across the state safely transition back to in-person learning. But that would likely not look the same as before. The state wants to make sure mitigation measures such as plexiglass between desks and up-to-date ventilation systems are in place, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman said.

Arkansas

Little Rock: The number of people hospitalized because of the coronavirus dropped Wednesday to its lowest point since the fall as the state added 803 new virus cases. The Department of Health said the state’s COVID-19 hospitalizations dropped by 49 to 496, the fewest since Oct. 3. The state’s coronavirus cases now total 317,396 since the pandemic began. The state’s COVID-19 deaths increased by 10 to 5,387. Over the past two weeks, the rolling average number of daily new cases in Arkansas has decreased by nearly 72%, according to figures compiled by Johns Hopkins University researchers. Arkansas received 22,500 more doses of the vaccine since Tuesday. The department said 553,004 of the 887,090 vaccine doses allocated to the state so far had been given. Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Tuesday announced the state was lowering the eligibility age for the vaccine from 70 to 65. “As anticipated, we are receiving additional doses of the COVID-19 vaccine,” he said in a statement released by his office. “By expanding the eligibility of those who can get the vaccine to 65 and older, we will continue to administer these shots as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

California

Los Angeles: Los Angeles County on Wednesday reported another 806 deaths from COVID-19 during the winter surge, pushing California’s toll above 50,000, or about one-tenth of the U.S. total from the pandemic. The county, which has a quarter of the state’s 40 million residents, said the deaths mainly occurred between Dec. 3 and Feb. 3. The Department of Public Health identified them after going through death records that were backlogged by the sheer volume of the surge’s toll. “It is heartbreaking to report on this large number of additional deaths associated with COVID-19 and a devastating reminder of the terrible toll the winter surge has taken on so many families across the county,” Barbara Ferrer, Los Angeles County’s health director, said in a statement. Johns Hopkins University put California’s overall COVID-19 death toll at 50,890. The grim figure comes days after the U.S. recorded a half-million deaths. While the nation’s most populous state has the highest number of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S., it is ranked 25th in the number of cases per capita because of its large population. It took 10 months for the state to hit 25,000 deaths on New Year’s Eve and less than two months for that number to double.

Colorado

Denver: State officials have said additional front-line workers and people with multiple chronic health conditions could become eligible for COVID-19 vaccines starting late next week. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment confirmed the state is expecting to move into the next phase of its vaccination plan on or around March 5 but did not provide details on when everyone in the phase would be eligible, The Denver Post reports. The new phase will encompass front-line workers across multiple industries, including the U.S. Postal Service, grocery stores, public transportation, faith communities and journalists. It would also expand to people with two or more high-risk health conditions, including cancer, diabetes, Down syndrome, obesity and pregnancy. People with only one high-risk health condition would be eligible under an upcoming vaccination phase expected in spring, along with people between 60 and 64. Democratic Gov. Jared Polis said the new phase will start when about half of eligible people in the previous phase have received the vaccine. The state is currently offering doses to first responders, residents 65 and older, residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, and people in health care or education.

Connecticut

Hartford: Thousands of new residents have come to the state during the pandemic as workers in New York, Boston and elsewhere look to relocate as they work from home, economic development officials said. More than 16,500 new residents moved into the state in 2020. That compares to a loss of 7,520 residents from Connecticut in 2019, the state Department of Economic and Community Development announced. “People are rediscovering the Connecticut lifestyle a little bit and knowing what it means to have a little bit of extra space, maybe a little bit of a backyard,” Gov. Ned Lamont said. “If you think this may not be the last time we ever have to quarantine, Connecticut’s not a bad place to be.” Carol Christiansen, the president of the Connecticut Association of Realtors, said home prices have risen by about 20% over the past year, with fewer houses on the market than people looking to buy. The median sale price for a single-family home in the state in 2020 was an all-time high of $300,000, a 15.4% increase from 2019, according to a report this month from The Warren Group, which tracks real estate data across the country. Glendowlyn Thames, the deputy commissioner of the DECD, said the state also saw a 9% increase in new business startups last year.

Delaware

Newark: Two weeks into the spring semester, the University of Delaware is facing a spike in coronavirus cases. The uptick has caused the university to issue new restrictions on dining and building occupancy. As of Wednesday, the university reported 154 cases among students and faculty this week. UD has increased its number of students and faculty on campus compared to the fall semester. In-person course offerings have nearly doubled from 9% of undergraduate classes to 17%. This week’s daily COVID-19 health screenings put UD’s daily on-campus population just shy of 6,000, about double the number of people who were typically present in the fall. Contact tracing connected the spread to the increased number of students in dining halls, said Andrea Boyle Tippett, spokesperson for the university. “With the start of the spring semester, many students understandably want to socialize and connect with friends,” Dennis Assanis, university president, said in a letter to students and faculty. “Unfortunately, such increased levels of social activity and contact promote transmission of the virus.” To slow the spread, campus dining hall meals will be grab-and-go only. Students may not gather to share meals indoors on campus, including in residence hall common spaces.

District of Columbia

Washington: Frustration is mounting among many residents eager to get vaccinated after D.C.’s online appointment system had a dismal start on the first day eligibility was expanded to a new group, WUSA-TV reports. The city initially said in a tweet that a high volume of traffic could cause delays. But it also became evident from the flurry of residents commenting on social media that the vaccine portal somehow didn’t update to accept eligible residents under the new phase. Residents had to be 65 or older, have a qualifying medical condition or be part of an eligible workforce. The city listed 20 eligible conditions, including cancer, HIV, asthma, hypertension, pregnancy and obesity. Sianna Boschetti said she kept refreshing the website and filled out the questionnaire, only to receive a message at the end that she wasn’t qualified for the vaccine. “I was very bummed, and I was very surprised,” Boschetti said. “After all of the buildup to this, they made this little mistake – they forgot to update the website or didn’t prepare for the volume of people.” Another resident said he tried calling the health department but couldn’t get through. DC Health acknowledged the problems and said it was working with Microsoft to understand why heavy traffic blocked some eligible individuals from getting through.

Florida

Fort Lauderdale: The state will open vaccine sites in six underserved minority communities, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Thursday, responding to criticism that such neighborhoods had been previously skipped. DeSantis also said he expects Florida will be able to expand eligibility in March and is optimistic that by sometime in April, inoculations will be widely available as vaccine supply increases. “We are going to lower the age as soon as the seniors are taken care of,” DeSantis said during a news conference at Edward Waters College, a historically black school in Jacksonville. It will have a vaccination site along with Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Broward College, and community centers in Miami-Dade and Osceola counties. DeSantis said the sites will be modeled after one opened recently in the Palm Beach County town of Pahokee. The governor received criticism earlier this month after he announced that the Publix supermarket chain would be that county’s sole distributor of the vaccine. That left the predominately black farming communities of Pahokee, Belle Glade and South Bay near Lake Okeechobee isolated, as they are at least 25 miles from the nearest Publix. Those areas “don’t have the retail pharmacy, they don’t have the health care infrastructure, so we brought it,” DeSantis said.

Georgia

Plains: Now that former President Jimmy Carter and his wife are vaccinated against COVID-19, they have returned to one of their favorite things: church. Maranatha Baptist Church announced on its Facebook page Wednesday that Carter, 96, and Rosalynn Carter, 93, were again attending worship in person. The couple has been in the sanctuary the past two Sundays, Pastor Tony Lowden said in a video. Jimmy Carter hasn’t resumed teaching his Sunday school class, which once drew thousands of visitors annually. But video from last Sunday’s service showed both of the Carters sitting in their customary spots on the front pew and wearing face masks. The former president waved as members applauded their presence. “They’ve both had their shots,” Lowden said from the pulpit. In a reminder to keep a safe distance from the couple, Lowden said if someone gets tackled by him, another man or Secret Service agents, “it’s because we’re still practicing social distancing.” With the Carters once again in church, Maranatha Baptist posted rules that also include mandatory face masks and temperature checks, limited building capacity, reservations, and no photographs. Before the pandemic, visitors usually gathered around the couple for pictures at the end of worship.

Hawaii

Wailuku: Some Maui businesses face tough calls about who should be exempt from universal mask rules as the county pushes for greater compliance. Privacy laws prevent businesses from asking customers for proof of underlying health issues that exempt them from wearing masks in public, The Maui News reports. Business operators worry some shoppers may be abusing exemption rules by claiming to have medical conditions only to enter without masks. Requiring customers with medical or disability exemptions to continue wearing face shields complies with Maui County protocols and the state’s emergency proclamation regarding the virus, county spokesperson Brian Perry said. Businesses also have the authority to refuse entry or service, unless an exception such as a medical condition applies, Perry said. “The proclamation also addresses the use of face shields as a substitute for face masks, but only if there’s an applicable exception to the face covering requirement,” Perry said. The proclamation remains unclear about allowing exempt customers without face coverings to enter businesses, even with health screenings. Businesses who violate the mask mandate may be subject to enforcement, fines or mandatory closure, Perry said.

Idaho

Boise: Two lawmakers have dropped their lawsuit against the Republican-led Legislature and leadership that alleged lax coronavirus protocols at the Statehouse. Democratic state Reps. Sue Chew of Boise and Muffy Davis of Sun Valley notified the federal court Wednesday that they were dismissing the lawsuit. The court filing didn’t reveal why they dropped the case. Both lawmakers have health conditions that put them at higher risk of severe complications from COVID-19: Chew is diabetic and has hypertension, and Davis is a paraplegic with reduced lung function. There have been documented cases of the virus among Capitol staffers and lawmakers, but legislative leaders in conservative Idaho have declined to require masks, and lawmakers aren’t allowed to attend and vote on legislation remotely. A separate lawsuit brought by several disability rights organizations against the Legislature, House Speaker Scott Bedke and Senate Pro Tempore Chuck Winder over a lack of coronavirus restrictions is still moving forward in federal court. That case contends officials have failed to make reasonable accommodations to ensure that people with conditions that put them at greater risk from COVID-19 can still participate in the legislative process.

Illinois

Springfield: The state expanded its COVID-19 vaccination eligibility Thursday to include people younger than 65 with conditions that would put them at higher risk of COVID-19 and those with disabilities. The move came one day after the state set a new record for COVID-19 vaccinations. Joining the group of residents within Phase 1B of Illinois’ vaccination plan are those with conditions such as obesity, diabetes, pulmonary disease, smoking, heart conditions, chronic kidney disease, cancer, solid organ transplants, sickle cell disease and those who are pregnant. People with disabilities under the age of 65 are also included and are specified by the Illinois Department of Public Health as “physical disability, developmental disability, visual disability, hearing disability, or mental disability.” In a statement, Gov. J.B. Pritzker said he was excited to expand the categories, coming as supply is likely to rise due to the eventual approval of Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot vaccine. The state administered 130,021 vaccinations Wednesday, setting a record for overall doses given in a day. The state also set records for first and second does of the vaccines. The new record helped push the seven-day average to 66,274 doses.

Indiana

Indianapolis: A day after the state expanded vaccine to all Hoosiers 60 and older, health officials doubled down on eligibility restrictions and announced new guidelines for clinics administering shots. Without enough vaccine for all Hoosiers, state health commissioner Dr. Kristina Box said Wednesday that officials are stressing adherence to a vaccine rollout plan that bases shot eligibility on age, rather than moving up teachers and other essential workers as other states have done. Several clinics that have “ignored” those guidelines will not receive any more first-dose vaccines, Box said. She said state health officials are reaching out to other clinics that have deviated from the eligibility guidelines “to find out why and to reeducate them about the importance of following the state’s priority list” when scheduling appointments and adding names to waitlists. “We are not trying to be the vaccine police; that is the last thing we want to be,” Box said. The state health department’s chief medical officer, Dr. Lindsay Weaver, said clinics have also been instructed to stop administering first doses to people who live in other states to ensure “that every dose received in Indiana goes to Hoosiers.” About 19,000 health care workers and first responders who work in Indiana but live in other states were inoculated, Weaver said.

Iowa

Des Moines: Gov. Kim Reynolds said Thursday that essential workers and some individuals with disabilities likely will become eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccinations in early March. According to projections she shared at a news conference, 70% of people within those populations are expected to receive at least one dose of the vaccine by the start of April. When the state reaches that 70% milestone within a population group, Reynolds said, it will begin vaccinating the next group of Iowans. Reynolds said that by next week, the state is projecting 70% of “tier one” populations – which include first responders, public school teachers and staff, and other child care staff – will have received at least one dose. She said 70% of Iowans 65 and older are expected to receive the first dose of the vaccine by mid-March. That allows the state to begin opening up vaccinations to other populations, including essential workers in food processing, agricultural production, distribution and manufacturing. People with disabilities living in home settings who are dependent on care staff will also become eligible, along with their care staff. A new website – www.vaccinate.iowa.gov – will be available Friday to help Iowans find access to the vaccine, Reynolds said. It will include a vaccine locator and answers to frequently asked questions.

Kansas

Topeka: Lawmakers moved ahead Wednesday with a measure designed to help courts and prosecutors deal with a backlog of criminal cases caused by the coronavirus pandemic and a proposal to limit state and local officials’ power in setting restrictions in future pandemics. The House gave first-round approval to a bill that would suspend until May 2024 a Kansas law that sets deadlines for criminal trials to protect defendants’ constitutional right to a speedy resolution of their cases. Those deadlines have been suspended during the pandemic, but prosecutors fear that once Kansas ends its state of emergency for COVID-19, they won’t be able to get all the cases to court in time to avoid having them dismissed. Wednesday’s debate showed that some lawmakers are nervous about a three-year suspension. “Delaying it to 2024 is just asking for people drag their feet,” said Rep. Barbara Wasinger, R-Hays. “I say we do one year at a time.” Kansas’ speedy trial law generally requires defendants to be brought to trial within six months of entering a plea, or the case against them is dismissed. But courts have postponed trials throughout the pandemic, and House Judiciary Committee Chair Fred Patton, R-Topeka, said there’s now a backlog of about 5,000 cases.

Kentucky

Frankfort: The Democratic governor on Wednesday urged state lawmakers to move past an impeachment effort that targeted him for his actions to combat the spread of COVID-19, saying it’s time to renew respect for “the role of government and how it works.” Gov. Andy Beshear said a legislative panel made the “right choice” Tuesday night when it recommended that no action be taken on a remaining petition calling for his removal from office. From the outset, the governor denounced that petition and others as meritless. “Now I hope that in Frankfort we can all be adults in the room and move forward and leave it behind,” Beshear told reporters Wednesday. The panel’s recommendation that no further action be taken on petitions against Beshear and Attorney General Daniel Cameron will be submitted to the Republican-dominated House. The petitions took aim at Beshear for his coronavirus-related restrictions and Cameron for his handling of the Breonna Taylor death investigation. Beshear has said his virus-related orders have saved lives, and he portrayed the petitioners seeking his ouster as anti-government extremists. Kentucky’s Supreme Court ruled last year that the governor had the authority to put restrictions on businesses and individuals to try to contain the coronavirus.

Louisiana

Shreveport: The Food Bank of Northwest Louisiana is a part of a fight against hunger that’s only gotten more difficult with the COVID-19 pandemic. The food bank collects, sorts and stores food before distributing it to its more than 150 nonprofit partner agencies, which include organizations, shelters and churches. Between March and December 2020, more than 14,234,668 pounds of food were distributed to residents in need across Caddo, Bossier, Webster, Claiborne, Bienville, Red River and DeSoto parishes. It was a 42% increase from the year before, which officials credited to the hardships of the pandemic. “Since COVID, so many people have lost jobs that we saw a huge uptick in the need for food and service. Most of our growth has come because of the pandemic,” said Martha Marak, executive director of the Food Bank of Northwest Louisiana. Feeding America projects that 1 in 6 people could experience food insecurity because of the pandemic, and people of color are even more likely to face hunger. The higher demand on food banks was noticed by a collective of donors who then collaborated to help carry the load.

Maine

Portland: The director of the Maine Center for Disease Control said the incoming supply of vaccine is stable and growing, and the number of COVID-19 deaths in the state topped 700 on Thursday. The Maine Department of Health and Human Services expects to receive an 8.4% increase in COVID-19 vaccine doses for a total of 30,080 next week, officials said. On top of that, 8,980 doses are being shipped from the federal government directly to pharmacies across the state. And additional doses of a new vaccine, from Johnson & Johnson, could come next week if it receives emergency approval, Dr. Nirav Shah, Maine CDC director, told reporters. “For the first time, we have stability in what our projections look like not just for the next few days but the next few weeks,” he said. Shah spoke on the same day the Maine CDC reported an additional 24 deaths, a day after 17 deaths were reported. Those deaths, 41 over two days, brought the total number of deaths to 701. The two-day figures reflect some of the highest death tolls in weeks and stand in contrast to an overall downward trend in deaths and hospitalizations since the start of the year. “We’re not out of it,” Shah said. Even though there are many positive trends, people need to remain vigilant, he said.

Maryland

Newark: Worcester County Public Schools will transition all hybrid students to in-person learning beginning March 8. “Our staff has worked extremely hard both at the central office level and school level to make this possible,” Superintendent Lou Taylor said. “I want to assure you that we are going to do this as safely as possible, meaning safety will be our No. 1 priority.” Worcester County has been in Stage 3 of its return plan, which had many students in an A-Week/B-Week rotation. The district started to return students from virtual learning in January. Taylor said students will still need to wear masks, social distance and remain at home if ill. He said the biggest issue for WCPS will be bus transportation. Social distancing will not be possible on many buses, according to Taylor, who urged students to use other methods of transportation to the school building. “We will have kids sitting with others who do not necessarily live in the same household,” he said. “But I assure you our bus drivers and transportation personnel will make sure that those buses are clean, disinfected, and all students and adults will be wearing masks every time we enter those school buses.”

Massachusetts

Worcester: Nurses at St. Vincent Hospital have given notice that they plan to strike early next month unless management agrees to boost staffing to better protect patients during the coronavirus pandemic and after it ends, according to the nurses’ union. About 800 nurses at the Worcester facility plan to start the strike at 6 a.m. March 8, according to a statement Tuesday night from the Massachusetts Nurses Association. The nurses are in contract negotiations with Dallas-based Tenet Healthcare, which owns the hospital. Tenet and St. Vincent management “refuse to heed nurses’ call to increase staffing levels to better protect their patients during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and beyond,” the union said in a statement. “We really feel that staffing is the most important issue, and we’ve heard nothing about it from (management) except that staffing is fine. We work at the bedside. It’s not fine,” said Dominique Muldoon, a St. Vincent nurse who has been at the forefront of negotiations. St. Vincent maintains that staffing levels are appropriate and called its most recent contract proposal Jan. 28 its “last, best, and final” offer. The latest contract proposal also includes wage increases between 5% and 22% by the end of 2022 and enhanced benefits for part-time nurses.

Michigan

Nadine Chronopoulos, left, works on grinding and sanding an 11-foot-tall likeness of RoboCop at a warehouse on Detroit's east side Wednesday while finishing the statue before patina is applied, as Jay Jurma walks around the statue.
Nadine Chronopoulos, left, works on grinding and sanding an 11-foot-tall likeness of RoboCop at a warehouse on Detroit's east side Wednesday while finishing the statue before patina is applied, as Jay Jurma walks around the statue.

Detroit: One of the pandemic’s latest casualties: a statue of RoboCop. A year ago, the plan for the eagerly awaited RoboCop statue outside the Michigan Science Center seemed clear. Now the final destination for the monument to pop culture is up in the air again. The Michigan Science Center will no longer be the permanent home for the grassroots-driven work of art, as first reported by the Metro Times. In a statement, the museum expressed gratitude for being part of the RoboCop statue’s journey since 2018, when it was announced that the 11-foot-tall bronze sculpture would be installed on its grounds. The statement said that “given the pandemic’s unprecedented pressures, MiSci’s resources must now be entirely focused on our core mission of serving Michigan’s students and families.” The effort began in 2011 with an offbeat idea that launched a successful crowdfunding campaign led by a community arts group, Imagination Station. Brandon Walley, a Detroit filmmaker and key part of Imagination Station’s quest to make the RoboCop dream a reality, said the statue is essentially done. “It’s all assembled and put together,” he said, with application of the final patina underway. “He will need a home, and we’re exploring possibilities. ... We’re still going through a pandemic, so we’re just happy to have it completed.”

Minnesota

Minneapolis: Public health officials are asking families to get tested for the coronavirus every two weeks from now until the end of the school year. A state Department of Health campaign announced Wednesday is reaching out to families, health professionals, schools and youth organizations to help encourage regular testing. “Over the past few months, the number of students attending in-person classes has significantly increased, with thousands more expected to return to the classroom in coming weeks,” Health Department Assistant Commissioner Dan Huff said, adding that many people will be resuming sports and other activities. “To protect this progress, we need to use all the tools at our disposal.” Of Minnesota’s 480,845 confirmed COVID-19 cases, 80,417 have been in those under the age of 20, or about 17% of all cases. The state is also beefing up vaccination plans for older residents. At least 70% of Minnesotans age 65 and older will get at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine before the state moves on to the next phase, according to Gov. Tim Walz. He said Thursday that the next tier will expand eligibility based on underlying health conditions and workplace exposure risk. Based on current projections, people in the next phase will begin getting inoculated in April, Walz said.

Mississippi

Jackson: The state health department reported 920 new coronavirus cases and eight COVID-19-related deaths Thursday. Since the virus hit the state in March, a total of 292,811 cases and 6,613 coronavirus-related deaths have been reported. There are currently 81 outbreaks at Mississippi nursing homes. Long-term care facilities have recorded 10,378 cases of the coronavirus and 1,945 related deaths as of Thursday. Residents between the ages of 25 and 39 represent the largest portion of the infected population across the state, with 64,245 cases reported as of Tuesday, the latest figure available. Among patients under 18, children between ages of 11 and 17 have the highest infection rate, with 22,334 cases identified. The 65-and-older age group has the highest total number of deaths with 5,066 reported. According to health department data, 358,246 people have begun the vaccination process in Mississippi as of Wednesday. About 167,077 people have been fully immunized against COVID-19 since the shots began in December.

Missouri

Columbia: The four-campus University of Missouri system won’t require incoming students to take admission exams again this fall because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The MU Faculty Council voted to extend the pilot test-optional admissions policy for an additional year, the Columbia Daily Tribune reports. Because it’s a pilot program and temporary, it doesn’t require further approval by the UM System Board of Curators, spokesman Christian Basi wrote in an email. “We know there are still a lot of students who won’t have the opportunity to test,” said Kim Humphrey, MU vice provost for enrollment management. Under the pilot program, all first-time students who apply for fall 2021 will be allowed to have their applications reviewed with or without test scores. “It is essential that the UM System adopt a test-optional admission policy for the class of 2021 to provide access to prospective students who may not have access to take standardized tests due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the proposal said. “Each campus will establish a minimum GPA requirement that allows us to be competitive while also maintaining institutional standards.”

Montana

Great Falls: U.S. Sen. Jon Tester announced he has introduced legislation to restore long-distance passenger rail service to Montana’s Hi-Line and to reinstate employees who lost their jobs after Amtrak announced deep service cuts last May, after April ridership crashed to less than 5% of what had been a year earlier in the wake of the pandemic. Beginning Oct. 19, passenger rail service on Amtrak’s 15 long-distance routes was slashed. That included the Empire Builder, the only route serving Montana. Rail service along the Empire Builder, which makes 12 stops across Montana’s Hi-Line, has now been cut from seven days a week to just three. Tester said the service cuts have been harmful to rural communities that rely on regular passenger rail service to access critical health care at large urban hospitals and for whom it provides a large economic boost in tourism. Tester’s bill proposes an additional $166 million in federal funding for Amtrak specifically targeted at restoring a seven-day schedule of long-distance rail service and recalling Amtrak employees who were furloughed because of the service cuts. 2020 was a disastrous year for national passenger railroad, which only a year before had been on the cusp of showing a profit for the first time in its nearly 50-year history.

Nebraska

Lincoln: The state’s Department of Health and Human Services and partners are working with various organizations to reach out to minority communities to discuss the safety and effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccine as well as listen to concerns and feedback Nebraskans. Two online town halls Thursday were hosted by Bluestem Health, a Lincoln-based health center, and the New Era Baptist State Convention, an organization of historically African American Baptist Churches in Nebraska.

Nevada

Las Vegas: All Las Vegas-area middle and high school students can return to classrooms for hybrid in-person instruction in phases rolled out after the youngest pupils go back to campuses next week, school administrators said Wednesday. Clark County School Superintendent Jesus Jara said sixth and ninth graders and high school seniors can return to class beginning March 22, and grades seven, eight, 10 and 11 can return April 6. They will have two-day-a-week classroom schedules. Pre-kindergarten through grade five will return at that time to five days a week. Jara and school board President Linda Cavazos made the announcement – accompanied by school trustees and representatives of the district’s employee unions – just days before the nation’s fifth-largest school district begins hybrid schedules for pre-K to third grade students. Cavazos said officials were balancing the effects of the pandemic including “physical safety from COVID-19 and mental and emotional safety from the accompanying stress and anxiety.” The hybrid model has half the class attend on Mondays and Tuesdays. Classrooms are sanitized on Wednesdays. The other half of the class attends Thursdays and Fridays. On days pupils are not in class, they are scheduled for online instruction.

New Hampshire

Concord: A new program will help eligible residents who can’t pay their rent and utilities because of the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Chris Sununu said Thursday. The federally funded New Hampshire Emergency Rental Assistance Program will be administered by the New Hampshire Housing Authority, in coordination with the Governor’s Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery. To be eligible for assistance, at least one person in the household must qualify for unemployment benefits, have had their income reduced, have encountered significant costs, or have experienced other financial hardship due to COVID-19. The household must also be at risk for homelessness and meet certain income requirements. Landlords may apply for assistance on behalf of their tenant, with the tenant’s permission. Assistance is available retroactive to April 1, 2020, through the date of application. Households may receive help for a total of 12 months. Details about the program are available at www.NHHFA.org/emergency-rental-assistance. Application information will be available by March 15.

New Jersey

Trenton: Family and friends of many nursing home residents will be able to visit their loved ones indoors – some for the first time in nearly a year – state officials announced Wednesday. But visits will be limited for now only to nursing homes in seven counties that have seen COVID-19 activity drop significantly in the past two weeks to “moderate” status based on a health department’s risk assessment. Those counties are Somerset, Hunterdon, Mercer, Camden, Burlington, Gloucester and Salem. “This is good news,” Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said at a briefing. “We are seeing the outbreaks in our long-term care facilities decrease.” Nursing homes closed their doors to visitors in mid-March under state orders to try to stem the spread. COVID-19 still devastated New Jersey’s nursing homes, killing 7,813 residents and 143 employees – about 40% of the state’s death toll. Outdoor visits were allowed in June after key metrics such as hospitalizations and deaths from the pandemic’s first wave dropped. Indoor visits were allowed in late summer at some facilities that met certain benchmarks. But that gradually stopped as the second wave of COVID-19 began to rise in the fall, said Laurie Facciarossa Brewer, New Jersey’s long-term care ombudsman.

New Mexico

Santa Fe: The Democrat-led state House of Representatives voted Wednesday to increase state spending on public education, health care and relief to businesses in efforts to chart a financial path out of the pandemic. The House endorsed a $7.39 billion general fund spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1 on a 60-10 vote, with many leading Republican legislators opposed. Spending on public education would increase by 5.5% to nearly $3.4 billion annually. Many lawmakers in the Democrat-dominated Legislature also want to shore up state spending on Medicaid amid a surge in enrollment in the federally subsidized health care program for the needy. “A pandemic as well as economic volatility is a challenge,” said Rep. Patty Lundstrom, D-Gallup, chairwoman of the lead House budget committee. “We are versatile enough to recognize immediate needs.” The budget proposal is linked to a package of pandemic-related economic relief that would provide $200 million in grants to businesses for rent and mortgage obligations and provide a $600 tax rebate to low-wage workers. The spending plan would provide four months of state taxation relief for restaurants and pay off $325 million in debt racked up by the state unemployment trust fund.

New York

New York: Tens of thousands of middle school students returned to their school buildings Thursday for the first time since city schools were closed in November amid a surge in coronavirus infections. Classroom doors opened for the 62,000 students in grades six through eight whose parents chose a mix of in-person and remote learning for their children. There are about 196,000 students in those grades in the city’s public schools. Mayor Bill de Blasio greeted children returning to school in the Bronx and said later that “it was wonderful to see the energy and the hope and the understanding that this is part of how we move forward.” He said a teacher told him: “I want to be here. It feels right.” Students receiving in-person instruction in the city are required to wear face coverings at all times, maintain distance from others and submit to random coronavirus testing. De Blasio said the city has performed 500,000 tests for the virus on students and staff members since the school year started. The mayor said more than 30,000 city educators have been vaccinated against the virus so far. United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew, whose union represents more than 120,000 teachers, guidance counselors and other school staff members, said that’s not enough.

North Carolina

Raleigh: With cases and other key metrics trending downward, Gov. Roy Cooper on Wednesday announced the state will ease gathering and occupancy restrictions and end its 10 p.m. statewide curfew starting Friday. For the first time since early in the coronavirus pandemic, the Democratic governor is allowing bars and taverns to offer indoor service. His new executive order also increases alcohol sale cutoff times by two hours from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. and lets those businesses operate at 30% capacity up to 250 people. If they follow state health guidelines such as mask-wearing and physical distancing, nightclubs, conference spaces, indoor amusement parks, movie theaters, and sports and entertainment venues may also operate with the same capacity. “Easing these restrictions will only work if we continue protecting ourselves and others from this deadly pandemic,” Cooper said at a news conference. Larger sports venues able to seat more than 5,000 people can host up to 15% of their fans, provided they adhere to additional safety restrictions. Restaurants, breweries, wineries, gyms, bowling alleys, swimming pools, museums, outdoor amusement park areas, hair salons and retailers are given a 50% capacity limit.

North Dakota

Bismarck: As COVID-19 numbers continue to dwindle, Gov. Doug Burgum has signed an executive order terminating several prior executive orders issued during the pandemic that he said have fulfilled their stated objectives and are no longer necessary. The terminated orders pertained to temporary emergency licensing requirements for health care facilities and workers; workers’ compensation eligibility for first responders, health care workers, funeral home directors and employees, as well as individuals providing care to those with intellectual or development disabilities; the transfer of surplus state property needed for COVID-19 response; the reopening of certain businesses; work registration requirements for those seeking unemployment benefits; and public hearings conducted by the Department of Environmental Quality. Burgum also terminated a prior executive order last week that had allowed for Public Service Commission permit hearings and Department of Trust Lands public land leasing auctions to be conducted by remote means.

Ohio

Columbus: The ability of the governor to issue public health orders during a pandemic would be restricted under a bill in the state House that is the GOP’s latest effort to rein in the executive branch’s authority. A House committee reviewed a GOP-backed bill Wednesday that looks to create legislative oversight of emergency orders made by fellow Republican Gov. Mike DeWine and the Ohio Department of Health. The effort is similar to a bill that passed in the Senate last week that would limit public health emergency orders to 90 days and give the General Assembly the power to rescind those orders by resolution after 30 days. It’s the latest in a series of yearlong efforts by GOP lawmakers to curtail DeWine’s pandemic response, including his issuing of a statewide mask mandate, the now-expired curfew and a strict lockdown in the spring. Proponents of both the House and Senate bills believe DeWine and the state health department have issued orders during the past 11 months of the pandemic that have remained enacted for longer than necessary and thus unduly damaged small businesses and the economy. Opponents of the effort, which include several medical institutions, have called it unconstitutional and warned it would decentralize the state’s response during an emergency and cost lives in the process.

Oklahoma

Oklahoma City: The state health department will pay nearly half a million dollars to Microsoft for the company’s work to build Oklahoma’s COVID-19 vaccine scheduling website. Documents from the department show the company billed $472,302 for creation of the website, and additional costs are likely. Many of the vaccine appointments made in the state have been booked through the state’s scheduling portal, vaccinate.oklahoma.gov. But some seniors have struggled to navigate the website. Many Oklahomans have expressed frustration about the lack of available appointments on the website – a result of limited vaccine supply. Microsoft is constantly working with the state health department to adjust and improve the site, said Dr. David Rhew, the company’s chief medical officer. Microsoft is doing similar work in cities, states and countries around the globe, Rhew said. There’s not a one-size-fits-all model, but there are common needs across the spectrum, he said. Most entities wanted to be able to register individuals into a system they could also use to schedule appointments. Oklahoma officials also wanted to tie the scheduling element in with vaccine tracking and allowing health care entities and other providers to report to the state’s immunization registry, Rhew said.

Oregon

Portland: Federal pandemic stimulus payments last year will generate $112 million in additional Oregon taxes because of a quirk in state tax law and mean many people are on the hook for a higher tax bill. The Oregonian/OregonLive reports the taxes will affect 877,000 taxpayers, about half of all those who received federal stimulus payments in 2020 and early in 2021. They would owe an average of about $130 apiece from just the first stimulus payments last spring; many lower-income workers would owe $100 or more. Lawmakers from both parties say that’s unfair, and the Legislature is examining a fix that would wipe out the higher tax bill. But with the April tax filing date approaching, it’s not clear there’s consensus to make a change. The stimulus payments were structured as a tax rebate, which means they aren’t subject to federal or state income taxes. But Oregon is one of six states that allow taxpayers to deduct a portion of their federal tax payments from their state income taxes. Most years, the deduction functions as a state tax break. But when the federal government is giving out stimulus payments, it reduces the size of that break. A lower federal tax bill means there’s less to deduct from a filer’s state taxes.

Pennsylvania

Harrisburg: The chairs of the state Senate Education Committee on Wednesday asked the Biden administration to waive this year’s requirement for school standardized testing because of the pandemic. Sens. Lindsey Williams, D-Allegheny, and Scott Martin, R-Lancaster, wrote in a letter that they understood the need to find out how much learning and what kind of learning children missed during the pandemic. But students also need “some sense of stability before we thrust additional stress on them in the name of determining what schools ‘deserve’ more funding,” they wrote to President Joe Biden and Acting Education Secretary Miguel Cardona. Gov. Tom Wolf’s Department of Education is considering allowing districts to administer the Pennsylvania System of School Assessments and Keystone Exams over the summer or in September, when schools are expected to be back to educating children in classrooms, rather than remotely. On Monday, the U.S. Education Department said it will not allow states to forgo federally required standardized testing in schools this year but will give them flexibility to delay testing or hold it online. The Biden administration said states also can apply to be exempted from certain accountability measures tied to the results.

Rhode Island

Providence: The state is doing a better job of getting vaccines into the arms of more people and at a much faster rate than before, Lt. Gov. Daniel McKee said Thursday. McKee, who will take over as governor if Gov. Gina Raimondo is confirmed as President Joe Biden’s commerce secretary, had been critical of the state’s vaccine rollout efforts under Raimondo. Both are Democrats. The state isn’t sitting on supplies as long, and two state-run mass vaccination sites in Providence and Cranston have increased capacity, he said at a news conference just days before the one-year anniversary of the detection of the state’s first presumptive case. “Getting more shots into arms right now will get kids back to school, get people back to work and get us back to normal,” McKee said. Rhode Island has been administering about 6,600 shots per day for the past week, state Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said. The goal is to build the state’s capacity to administer vaccines as fast as possible once supply increases, McKee said. To that end, the state is planning two more mass vaccination clinics at the former Benny’s store in Middletown and at the old Sears location in Woonsocket soon.

South Carolina

Columbia: A bill that would prevent lawsuits against businesses and other groups by people who contract COVID-19 as long as federal and state health guidelines were being followed passed the state Senate on Thursday. The bill, which was one of the top priorities of business leaders this session, passed 40-3 and now goes to the House. The bill does nothing to protect people who don’t follow the rules and put customers or employees in danger, said Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey, one of the sponsors. Opponents of the bill said existing laws could handle the problem and pointed out that there is just one lawsuit pending in state court in which someone blames a business for their illness. The South Carolina Chamber of Commerce said its members wanted this bill to provide some certainty as they reopen and struggle with challenges from the pandemic. “It will go a long way toward ensuring they can remain operational, keep South Carolinians employed, and make it through these challenging times,” interim Chamber CEO Swati Patel said in a statement.

South Dakota

Sioux Falls: The South Dakota Department of Health reported eight additional COVID-19 deaths Thursday, bringing the total number of related deaths in the state since the pandemic began to 1,873. The new deaths included three people 80 or older, as well as three 70-79 and two 60-69. The state also reported 156 new coronavirus infections. Active cases increased to 1,948. Of the 100 COVID-19 patients occupying a hospital bed in South Dakota, 20 were receiving intensive care, and 12 were on ventilators. The number of vaccine doses administered through the Department of Health increased to 197,050, to a total of 130,148 people. That number does not include doses administered from federal entities.

Tennessee

The outdoor patio at Dino's in Nashville, Tenn., Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. The East Nashville bar has laid down strict rules to help battle COVID-19.
The outdoor patio at Dino's in Nashville, Tenn., Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021. The East Nashville bar has laid down strict rules to help battle COVID-19.

Nashville: The state Department of Health announced it will soon lift its state-specific visitation restrictions for long-term care facilities. Nursing homes and other facilities should use the federal guidance provided by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services starting Sunday, health officials said in a news release Wednesday. The agency said all of Tennessee’s nursing homes and skilled nursing home facilities have finished giving both doses of COVID-19 vaccinations, and the state’s assisted care living facilities and residential homes for the aged are expected to be fully immunized by the end of the week. Meanwhile, Nashville Mayor John Cooper cited the drop in cases Thursday as he moved to ease restrictions starting Monday, with social distancing and mask-wearing requirements remaining in place. Bars and restaurants serving alcohol can stay open until 1 a.m., with up to 125 people per floor and an increase in bar counter seating, he said. City-approved events can increase from 500 to 1,000 people, with weddings increasing from 75 people to 125 people maximum, Cooper said. Event venues can stay open until 1 a.m. The outdoor gathering size limit will increase from eight to 25 people. Museums, zoos and other attractions can increase capacity to a level that just maintains social distancing, Cooper said.

Texas

Austin: Gov. Greg Abbott announced the launch of a statewide program to vaccinate homebound seniors Thursday, saying he expects vaccine shipments to ramp up in the coming weeks, which will allow Texas to move on to new tiers of vaccine recipients “sometime in March.” Texas currently allows COVID-19 vaccinations for health care workers and other first responders, those 65 and older, and residents 16 and older with underlying health conditions. It’s not clear who will be next in line. “The good news is there’s going to be a record amount of vaccines available across Texas this week, with increasing numbers going forward,” Abbott said, speaking from a fire station in Corpus Christi. He also said the increase in vaccinations could lead to the end of coronavirus restrictions, including the statewide mask order. Most Texas businesses, including restaurants, must keep their occupancy rates at 75%. In any hospital region where COVID-19 patients make up more than 15% of available beds, businesses must reduce to 50%, bars must close, and elective procedures must halt. “We’re working right now on evaluating when we’re gonna be able to remove all statewide orders, and we will be making announcements about that pretty soon,” Abbott said.

Utah

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox is feeling confident his mask will be a relic by July.
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox is feeling confident his mask will be a relic by July.

Salt Lake City: Gov. Spencer Cox doubled down Thursday on his prediction that there will be gatherings without masks by the Fourth of July, contrary to predictions from the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci. Cox told reporters he’s feeling optimistic about the nation’s vaccine rollout and expects mass gatherings could be held without masks this summer. His comments contradict predictions from Fauci who said earlier this week that Americans may still be wearing masks outside their homes in 2022. “I’m not gonna be wearing this on the Fourth of July, and I’m gonna be in a parade somewhere,” Cox said, holding a mask. “But if I’m wrong, then I’ll come here, and I’ll admit that I’m wrong and that we’re gonna do something different.” Cox announced Thursday that residents 16 and older with certain health conditions can make appointments to be vaccinated immediately. The group was initially expected to be able to get shots starting March 1. Utah experienced a dip in vaccine distribution last week because a shipment of 36,000 Moderna doses was delayed by recent storms. Cox said the state is “rapidly working to make up the decrease.” It has been approved to get 20,000 doses of the new single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine by early next weekpending federal approval, Cox said.

Vermont

Montpelier: Residents 65 and older can now make appointments to get their COVID-19 vaccinations at Walgreens pharmacies, the state Department of Health said Thursday. Walgreens received an unexpected 4,300 first doses of the vaccine for Vermonters through the Federal Retail Pharmacy Program, the state said. People can sign up online or call Walgreens. The Health Department announced earlier this week that Vermonters ages 65 and over will be able to begin making vaccination appointments March 1. The Walgreens appointments come in addition to the appointments that newly eligible residents can begin to make Monday. Meanwhile, firefighters in Rutland won’t be required to be vaccinated, town officials decided. The town board of health voted earlier this month not to require the shots, although those who wish to participate in fire department activities must follow safety protocols as outlined by the fire chief. Selectman John Paul Faignant, who is also the town health officer, told the Rutland Herald the majority of the department’s members have been vaccinated. “I know the ones that haven’t. They all have pretty good reasons,” he said. Those who opt not to get the vaccine must follow extra safety measures, such as temperature checks and signing in when they go to the station, he said.

Virginia

Richmond: The state Senate gave final approval Thursday to legislation that would require schools to provide full-time, in-person instruction as the coronavirus pandemic drags on. The chamber voted 36-3, sending the measure sponsored by GOP Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant to Gov. Ralph Northam. If signed as is, it would take effect July 1. Dunnavant said that effective date was the bill’s only flaw. She said she hoped Northam would consider amending the measure so that it would take effect immediately, given substantial bipartisan support it won in both chambers. The House passed it a day earlier on a vote of 88-9. “Our children needed to be in school last fall. We have spent an enormous amount of time discussing the science and the evidence that support that,” said Dunnavant, who is an OB-GYN. The bill would allow limited exceptions. If a school has high levels of coronavirus transmission, it could temporarily revert to virtual learning. The measure also includes a new definition of what counts as in-person learning. Setups that some districts have turned to involving a nonteacher monitor proctoring online learning in a classroom would not meet the standard.

Washington

Seattle: A judge has rejected a landlord group’s challenge to several Seattle laws meant to protect renters from eviction once the coronavirus pandemic moratorium expires. King County Superior Court Judge Johanna Bender on Wednesday found the laws, including Seattle’s ban on winter evictions, largely constitutional, The Seattle Times reports. The Rental Housing Association of Washington sued in an effort to block the laws, arguing the regulations would gut their rights under state law. Bender did strike one part of a law requiring landlords to allow payment plans for rent accrued during the pandemic. The city banned late fees, interest and other charges because of late payment during the pandemic. Bender struck down the reference to interest payments, citing a state law allowing landlords to collect interest on unpaid rent. The remainder of the ordinance, including the prohibition on charging late fees, can remain in place, she ruled. The Rental Housing Association’s lawsuit did not challenge Seattle’s ongoing moratorium on evictions during the pandemic but instead sought to nullify three laws that would affect eviction proceedings after the moratorium ends.

West Virginia

Charleston: Following the state Board of Education’s announcement Tuesday that students up through eighth grade should return to school full time next week, Mineral County Superintendent Troy Ravenscroft said he has applied for a waiver to allow the county’s students to attend four days a week for now. If that waiver is not granted, however, all Mineral County students will return to school full time beginning Monday. The state board’s vote Tuesday was designed to eliminate blended schedules in which students have alternated between classroom and online learning and to bring students back to full time learning by March 3. Those families that have chosen to keep their children in all virtual learning since the pandemic started will not be affected. Included in the board’s ruling is the stipulation that counties can apply for a waiver to conduct in-person learning four days per week and virtual instruction on the fifth day. As for high school students, the state board said they, too, are to return to five days a week unless a county’s coronavirus infection rate is high. The rationale for that is that “older students may transmit the virus at rates similar to adults,” according to the WVDE.

Wisconsin

State Sen. Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, during a COVID-19-related hearing by the Committee on Senate Organization on Jan. 11 at the Capitol in Madison, Wis.
State Sen. Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield, during a COVID-19-related hearing by the Committee on Senate Organization on Jan. 11 at the Capitol in Madison, Wis.

Madison: A year into the coronavirus pandemic, state lawmakers are still debating face masks. Republicans who control the Legislature are pushing their colleagues to debate and vote on legislation in person but won’t require everyone to wear masks – an environment Democrats are warning could put those who visit and work in the Capitol at risk. The inconsistent mask-wearing is emerging as a flashpoint between Democratic lawmakers who want all members to wear face coverings at all times until everyone is vaccinated and some Republicans who refuse to wear them. The tension spiked last week on the Senate chamber floor when Republican leaders of the Senate refused to allow Democratic members to participate virtually and did not require the body to wear masks while sitting and bellowing together in one space. Over the last two floor sessions in the Senate, about 10 Republicans did not wear masks – about 30% of the chamber. Both Senate leaders and the chairman of the health committee were among them. At one point, Democratic Sen. Chris Larson pointed out the Senate has a rule for male members to wear jackets but not face masks after Senate President Chris Kapenga asked him to change his attire.

Wyoming

Casper: An official with the University of Wyoming said in a statement that an investigation into racist interruptions during a virtual Black history event last week has revealed one suspect was using an internet provider in Maryland. Administrators are now looking into more secure options for Zoom and other virtual events. University spokesperson Chad Baldwin said the other four suspects used virtual private networks, which made them appear to be calling from outside the United States, the Casper Star-Tribune reports. The university’s Black Studies Center was hosting a panel discussion Feb. 15 when panelists and attendees were interrupted by pornographic images and videos on the screen and a voice shouting racist slurs and phrases. “This has happened at dozens of other universities in recent months,” Baldwin said. “Our security analysts for our IT department feel strongly this was a coordinated effort by people from elsewhere. And that they’re doing this all across the country.” The university police and IT department are working with the FBI to investigate the incident, according to the statement.

From USA TODAY Network and wire reports

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: RoboCop, Jimmy Carter: News from around our 50 states