Looming deadline could push states to misspend CARES Act money

States and localities are scrambling to pour $150 billion in federal CARES Act dollars into the COVID-19-ravaged economy before the end-of-year deadline, raising concerns that the money may not go to the recipients most in need. If states don’t allocate the money by Dec. 30, they must return it to the U.S. Treasury. That means businesses from ski resorts to football stadiums, restaurants to laundries — as well as people behind on their rent and utility payments — are being urged in public service announcements and public statements to apply for the money. Critics and some state officials say t...

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Trump takes a final shot at Obamacare exchanges

On his way out of the White House, President Donald Trump is taking one last swipe at the Affordable Care Act, proposing to allow states to opt out of the Obamacare exchanges where millions of Americans enroll in health insurance plans. If states choose this potential new option, residents would no longer have access to a one-stop shop for health insurance. Instead, they would have to find their way to private insurance brokers or individual carriers. They also wouldn’t have access to impartial advisers, so-called navigators, to assist them in making their choices. The rule, proposed on Thanks...

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How election disinformation fears came true for state officials

The disinformation scenario that local election officials feared months ago has come true: President Donald Trump’s false claims of voter fraud have been picked up by many state and local Republican officials across the country, and polls now show that more than two-thirds of GOP voters believe the 2020 election was neither free nor fair.Ten state attorneys general signed an amicus brief two weeks ago supporting the president’s unsuccessful bid to block an extension for mail-in ballots in Pennsylvania. And state lawmakers from South Carolina wrote a letter in support of court challenges that h...

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The pendulum was swinging toward reopening schools -- then came the COVID-19 surge

Since the summer, the simmering state and local debate over reopening K-12 public schools has reflected the nation’s deep partisan divide on the coronavirus, with Republicans favoring openings and Democrats more likely to support a cautious approach.But new scientific evidence showing that in-person learning has resulted in relatively few outbreaks of COVID-19 — combined with growing concerns about learning and social development setbacks for kids — may be closing that chasm.For now, the national COVID-19 surge that is overwhelming hospitals in some states has stalled any further movement towa...

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States expanded voting access for the pandemic -- and those changes might stick

LANCASTER, Pa. — With one envelope slicer, three ballot scanners and around 175 people, it took election officials roughly 37 consecutive hours to process 91,000 mail-in ballots in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.“It’s taking a little longer to scan than we had hoped,” said Randall Wenger, chief clerk of the county’s Board of Elections, speaking over the click-click-click of the envelope slicer around noon Wednesday, “but we’re getting it done.”As many other states wrapped up counting record numbers of mail-in ballots, the tabulating in many counties in the Keystone State continued for days aft...

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Rise in use of ballot drop boxes sparks partisan battles

In the presidential election four years ago, there were fewer free-standing ballot drop boxes, and they were uncontroversial. This year, as officials in many states expand use of the boxes amid a pandemic, they have become another flashpoint in the controversy over voting access.Supporters of the expanded use of drop boxes say they make voting easier for people who are afraid to vote in person and fear their absentee ballots won’t be tallied if they send them through the mail. Opponents say they are worried about ballot security, despite little evidence that drop boxes are any less secure than...

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How far-right groups emboldened by Trump are challenging cities and states

PORTLAND, Ore. — When wildfires threatened rural Oregon communities last month, another unwelcome phenomenon accompanied them: armed vigilantes blocking entry to outsiders, based on false rumors that protesters had not only started the fires, but also were there to loot the evacuated homes.Throughout the West and beyond, in a summer marked by protests seeking racial justice, armed vigilantes also have shown up at Black Lives Matter events in small towns and big cities alike. Their presence in some places has the tacit support of law enforcement or even local elected officials.Now, experts who ...

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California may need more fire to fix its wildfire problem

WASHINGTON — California is supposed to burn.Before settlers populated the region in the 1800s, about 5 to 12% of the land that now makes up the Golden State caught fire each year — more than has burned so far in 2020, the most destructive year in modern history. Some of the historic fires were caused by lightning and others were set by Native Americans as a land-management tool, but they mostly burned with low intensity and touched much of the state with great regularity.But after more than a century of aggressive fire suppression, California’s vegetation has grown much denser than the fire-ad...

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Trump administration's census plan might leave out some legal residents

WASHINGTON — A Trump administration plan to use the census to exclude from congressional representation immigrants who are living here illegally might inadvertently exclude many U.S. citizens living under the radar in states such as Alaska, New Mexico and West Virginia.Last week, a federal appeals court in New York blocked the administration’s strategy, ruling that “the President does not have the authority to exclude illegal aliens” from congressional representation since the Constitution calls for “total population” as the basis for apportioning seats. But the ruling allowed federal work on ...

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Struggling farmers work with overwhelmed food banks to stay afloat

As the pandemic shut down restaurants this spring, California farmers and ranchers saw their markets drop by half, leaving many with fields full of crops but no buyers. And as millions of people lost their jobs, the state’s food banks needed to triple their food supply.Fortunately for California, the state had a long-standing initiative tailor-made to help with these twin crises. The Farm to Family program, run by the California Association of Food Banks and the state’s Department of Food and Agriculture, pays farmers to send surplus produce to food banks.“All the farmers in California that we...

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Virtual learning means unequal learning

WASHINGTON — Karen Reyes, who teaches deaf and hard-of-hearing children in Austin, Texas, worries about her first-grade pupils who will be learning online this fall. She’s concerned that virtual learning is harder for younger, special needs children, especially those who may not have as much support at home as students in more affluent communities.“It has brought out a lot of the inequities in our district, especially in special education,” Reyes said of the distance learning program.In her school, 93% of the students are considered economically disadvantaged, according to a city estimate.“Eit...

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Election experts warn of November disaster

After a presidential primary season plagued by long lines, confusion over mail-in voting and malfunctioning equipment, election experts are increasingly concerned about the resiliency of American democracy in the face of a global pandemic.

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This disaster season, 'everything is complicated by COVID-19'

If a hurricane bears down on Florida this summer, residents likely won’t be told to evacuate to the safety of a high school gymnasium or large civic building. Instead, they may be asked to download an app that assigns them to an open hotel room — a shelter from both the storm and the threat of a COVID-19 outbreak.State officials have mapped out all of Florida’s 5,000 hotels, along with the wind rating of each facility and whether it has a generator on hand. So far, they’ve persuaded 200 hotels to sign up to serve as shelters; they’re aiming to reach 1,000.Meanwhile, the state plans to work wit...

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Jury trials begin again, carefully, as communities reopen

PORTLAND, Ore. — On a drizzly spring day in mid-May, potential grand jurors lined up 6 feet apart outside the Multnomah County Courthouse.Raincoats and umbrellas dripping, they filed one by one into the courthouse and through a metal detector, all the while maintaining appropriate social distance from court employees. Most visitors wore masks, which the court encouraged and made available for free but did not require. Nearly all court employees wore face coverings.Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, had issued a stay-at-home order to slow the spread of COVID-19 nearly two months before, and it...

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Did that drone just tell us to stay 6 feet apart?

WASHINGTON — The plan for a pandemic drone didn’t last long in Westport, Conn.Within days in late April, the police department of the coastal town outside New York City reversed course on using drone-mounted cameras to scan crowds for fevers and coughs.The department had said it would use the technology at beaches, train stations, recreation areas and shopping centers. Biometric readings would help the department understand population patterns and respond to potential health threats.Feedback from some of the town’s 28,000 residents was quick and laden with concern, Lt. Anthony Prezioso said, s...

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