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Unlike elsewhere, New Hampshire refunds COVID business fines

CONCORD — Three Republican governors opposed efforts this year to absolve businesses for violating public health orders during the coronavirus pandemic. But only in the “Live Free or Die” state have the scofflaws been set free of the fines.

In March, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu was blunt when lawmakers were considering legislation requiring the state to refund fines imposed on businesses for violating coronavirus safety rules.

“We can’t claim to support law and order, then incentivize law-breaking and reward those who do not follow the rules,” he said. “Rewarding the small handful who recklessly thwarted public health and safety after outreach and educational attempts is a complete disservice to the thousands of small businesses who worked tirelessly to keep their employees and customers safe while enabling our economy to stay open for business.”

But the provision later was folded into the state budget, and — lacking Ohio’s line item veto authority — Sununu signed it on June 25.

“While the Governor strongly opposed this provision as a standalone item out of fairness to the countless small businesses that followed the rules and helped the state recover from COVID, the Governor worked to find compromise and was not going to veto a $13B state budget over any one provision and risk shutting down state government,” his spokesperson, Ben Vihstadt, said.

The New Hampshire attorney general had issued fines totaling $10,000 to eight businesses, but three hadn’t paid and instead appealed the citations. Those cases were dropped in June because the state of emergency was ending, the violated rules were no longer in effect and the appeals were using up the office’s scarce resources, said Associate Attorney General Anne Edwards.

She said her office will send checks to the other five businesses “in order to be equitable,” but also will include letters reminding them that they violated duly authorized regulations and must comply with any future laws and rules.

“We stand by the legal actions that were taken in accordance with those documents,” said Edwards, who said the budget provision “raises serious separation of powers concerns.”

“When the state takes an action for a violation of the law, no matter what that action is, the Legislature doesn’t have the authority to retroactively try to change those actions taken by the state.”

David Culhane, owner of the White Mountain Tavern in Lincoln, said he deeply regrets agreeing to pay $600 of the $1,000 fine he received after investigators said he was spotted without a mask, customers were mingling and seated shoulder-to-shoulder at the bar and musical performers were too close together.

“I wish I fought harder because I think it was unconstitutional,” he said.

While he’s glad the fines will be refunded, he thinks Sununu owes him and other businesses a public apology.

“Our reputations were all harmed because of it,” he said. “It had a huge detrimental effect on us.”

Culhane, who plans to run for governor as a Libertarian and is considering filing a lawsuit, also hopes other businesses will continue to push back against regulations they disagree with.

“I personally encourage anyone who feels as though the state is acting in an unconstitutional manner to fight to the furthest extent to defend their rights.”

The largest fines — $2,000 — were levied against Fat Katz Food and Drink in Hudson for holding an indoor karaoke event after which nearly 20 people tested positive for the virus.

And the Loudon Village Country Store was fined after being warned more than 10 times that workers must wear masks. Owners did not respond to request for comment but earlier had posted a sign at the store that read: “Please refer to the Constitution of the United States! We know how to wash our hands, clean surfaces and NOT cough or sneeze on people. If you can do that and stay six feet away like someone tooted, please come in!!”

Meanwhile, 15 miles away at the Hopkinton Village Store, owner Allison Castelot questioned the decision to return money to businesses that flouted the rules.

“If you’re just gonna return the money, there was really no purpose in doing those fines anyway. It seems like a weird strategy,” she said.

Castelot said she began asking customers to wear masks even before the state’s mandate took effect and is still requiring staff to wear masks even though the mandates for both workers and the public have been lifted.

“We’re pretty regulated. Our kitchen gets inspected, our lottery machines are regulated. Under no circumstances do I think any of those rules would or should be reversed,” she said. “So, why would you pick and choose what rule to reverse just because some people don’t like it?”

Despite Canadian easing, US extends land border restrictions

The United States Government on Wednesday extended the closure of the land borders with Canada and Mexico to non-essential travelers until at least Aug. 21.

The announcement by the Department of Homeland Security came two days after the Canadian government announced it would begin letting fully vaccinated U.S. citizens into Canada on Aug. 9, and those from the rest of the world on Sept. 7.

It’s unclear how, or if, the U.S. decision will affect the Canadian decision.

People in both the U.S. and Canada have been pushing for the reopening of the border to resume the flow of visitors and tourist dollars between the two countries.

The U.S. announcement notes that increasing vaccination levels in the United States and Canada have increased and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lowered the COVID-19 risk level in the two countries from “very high” to “high.”’

“Given the outbreak and continued transmission and spread of COVID-19 within the United States and globally, the Secretary (of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas) has determined that the risk of continued transmission and spread of the virus associated with COVID-19 between the United States and Canada poses an ongoing ‘specific threat to human life or national interests,’” the announcement said.

The decision drew immediate criticism from politicians from U.S border states.

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, on Wednesday called the U.S. decision to extend the border closure “absurd.”

“It harms our small businesses and families, and does not follow the science,” he said in a statement. “Canada has announced they will open their borders to fully vaccinated Americans, and it’s time the United States follows suit.”

The Maine congressional delegation — two Democratic members of Congress and a Republican and independent senator — sent Mayorkas a letter urging him to allow fully vaccinated Canadians into the U.S.

“This continued border closure has a negative impact on our local economies and families, which is why we urge you to develop an immediate plan to allow vaccinated Canadians to resume travel to United States,” the four said in the letter.

North Dakota Republican Gov. Doug Burgum said Wednesday the border restrictions “have now crossed the line from precautionary to preposterous.”

“Keeping the border closed to travelers won’t substantially drive vaccination rates up, but it will continue to hold the economy down and hurt communities that depend on cross-border activity, including North Dakota’s retail and tourism industries,” Burgum said in a statement.

At the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, both the U.S. and Canadian governments restricted non-essential travel by land between the two countries on the more than 5,500-mile (8,800-kilometer) border, although Canadians have been able to fly into the United States with a negative COVID-19 test. Until the Canadian decision on Monday, the two governments extended the closure every month.

Homeland Security posted a separate announcement Monday restricting entry on the Mexican border. On the southern border U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents have been going back and forth with ease.

Cross-border trade between the United States and Canada has not been affected by the closure.

The U.S. Travel Association estimates that each month the border is closed costs $1.5 billion. Canadian officials say Canada had about 22 million foreign visitors in 2019 — about 15 million of them from the United States.

Infrastructure bill fails first vote; Senate to try again

WASHINGTON — Senate Republicans rejected an effort Wednesday to begin debate on the big infrastructure deal that a bipartisan group of senators brokered with President Joe Biden. But supporters in both parties remained hopeful of a better chance soon.

Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York had scheduled the procedural vote that he described as a step to ”get the ball rolling” as talks progress. But Republicans mounted a filibuster, saying the bipartisan group needed more time to wrap up the deal and review the details. They sought a delay until Monday.

“We have made significant progress and are close to a final agreement,” the informal group of 22 senators, Republicans and Democrats, said in a joint statement after the vote.

They said they were working to “get this critical legislation right” and were optimistic they could finish up “in the coming days.”

The nearly $1 trillion measure over five years includes about $579 billion in new spending on roads, broadband and other public works projects — a first phase of Biden’s infrastructure agenda, to be followed by a much broader $3.5 trillion second measure from Democrats next month.

The party-line vote was 51-49 against proceeding, far short of the 60 “yes” votes needed to get past the Republicans’ block. The Democratic leader switched his vote to “no” at the end, a procedural step that would allow him to move to reconsider.

Six months after Biden took office, his signature “Build Back Better” campaign promise is at a key moment that will test the presidency and his hopes for a new era of bipartisan cooperation in Washington.

Biden, who headed to Ohio later Wednesday to promote his economic policies, is calling his infrastructure agenda a “blue-collar blueprint for building an American economy back.” He has said that Americans are overwhelmingly in support of his plan.

However, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has said big spending is “the last thing American families need.”

White House aides and the bipartisan group of senators have huddled privately every day since Sunday trying to wrap up the deal, which would be a first phase of an eventual $4 trillion-plus package of domestic outlays — not just for roads and bridges, but foundations of everyday life including child care, family tax breaks, education and an expansion of Medicare for seniors.

The next steps are uncertain, but the bipartisan group insists it is close to a deal and expects to finish soon. The senators were joined for a private lunch ahead of the vote by the two leaders of the House’s Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group generally supportive of the effort.

Senators from the Republican side asked to delay the vote, and 11 Republicans signed on to a letter to Schumer saying they would support moving forward with a yes vote on Monday, if certain details about the package are ready.

Schumer said senators are in the fourth week of negotiations after reaching agreement on a broad framework for infrastructure spending with the White House. He said Wednesday’s vote was not meant to be a deadline for having every detail worked out.

“My colleagues are well aware that we often agree to move forward with debates on issues before we have the text in hand,” Schumer said. “We’ve done it twice this year already.”

McConnell called the vote a “stunt” that would fail, but emphasized senators were “still negotiating in good faith across the aisle.”

“Around here, we typically write the bills before we vote on them,” he said.

A core group of Republicans are interested in pursuing a more modest package of traditional highway and public works projects, about $600 billion in new funds, and say they just need more time to negotiate with their Democratic colleagues and the White House.

Republican Sen. Todd Young of Indiana was among the Republicans who signed the letter seeking the delay and said he was “cautiously optimistic” they can reach a bipartisan deal.

Senators from the bipartisan group emerged upbeat Tuesday from another late-night negotiating session with Biden aides at the Capitol, saying a deal was within reach and a failed vote Wednesday would not be the end of the road.

In fact, Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy of Louisiana said the test vote Wednesday could be useful in helping to “advance and expedite” the process.

“We are so close,” said Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana.

Biden has been in touch with both Democrats and Republicans for several days, and his outreach will continue “until he has both pieces of legislation on his desk to sign them into law,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday.

While Biden proposes paying for his proposals with a tax hike on corporations and wealthy Americans who earn more than $400,000 a year, the bipartisan group has been working almost around the clock to figure out a compromise way to pay for its package, having dashed ideas for boosting the gas tax drivers pay at the pump or strengthening the Internal Revenue Service to go after tax scofflaws.

Instead, senators in the bipartisan group are considering rolling back a Trump-era rule on pharmaceutical rebates that could bring in some $170 billion to be used for infrastructure. They are also still haggling over public transit funds.

Ten Republicans would have been needed in the evenly split Senate to join all 50 Democrats in reaching the 60-vote threshold required to advance the bill past a filibuster to formal consideration. Schumer can set another vote to proceed to the bill later.

Many Republicans are wary of moving ahead with the first, relatively slim package, fearing it will pave the way for the broader $3.5 trillion effort Democrats are preparing to pass on their own under special budget rules that only require 51 votes. Vice President Kamala Harris can break a tie.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has been working to keep restless liberal Democrats in her chamber in line, as rank-and-file lawmakers grow impatient with the sluggish Senate pace.

“Time’s a-wasting, I want to get this work done,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., the chairwoman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told reporters Tuesday.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., the chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, dismissed the Senate’s bipartisan effort as inadequate. He wants more robust spending on the transportation elements and said, “We want an opportunity to actually negotiate.”

Democrats hope to show progress on that bill before lawmakers leave Washington for their recess in August.

Unvaccinated staff eyed in rising nursing home cases, deaths

WASHINGTON — Lagging vaccination rates among nursing home staff are being linked to a national increase in COVID-19 infections and deaths at senior facilities, and are at the center of a federal investigation in a hard-hit Colorado location where disease detectives found many workers were not inoculated.

The investigation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of facilities in the Grand Junction, Colorado, area raises concerns among public health doctors that successes in protecting vulnerable elders with vaccines could be in peril as the more aggressive delta variant spreads across the country.

Nationally about 59% of nursing home staff have gotten their shots, about the same as the overall percentage of fully vaccinated adults — but significantly lower than the roughly 80% of residents who are vaccinated, according to Medicare. And some states have much lower vaccination rates of around 40%.

Some policy experts are urging the government to close the gap by requiring nursing home staffers get shots, a mandate the Biden administration has been reluctant to issue. Nursing home operators fear such a move could backfire, prompting many staffers with vaccine qualms to simply quit their jobs.

To be sure, the vast majority of fully vaccinated people who become infected with the delta variant suffer only mild symptoms.

But “older adults may not respond fully to the vaccine and there’s enormous risk of someone coming in with the virus,” said Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, vice dean for public health practice at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

“Vaccinating workers in nursing homes is a national emergency because the delta variant is a threat even to those already vaccinated,” he said.

The CDC conducted its investigation of delta variant outbreaks in elder care facilities in Mesa County, Colorado, in May and June. The area is a coronavirus hot spot. The agency said it is assisting states and counties throughout the nation as part of the White House’s COVID-19 “surge teams.”

Nationally, data collected by CDC show that deaths and confirmed infections among nursing home staff have decreased significantly since vaccinations began in January. But the number of deaths reported among staff have begun creeping up again, fueling new concerns.

At one memory care facility in the Grand Junction area, 16 fully vaccinated residents were infected and four died, according to a CDC slide provided to The Associated Press. The residents who died were described as being in hospice care, with a median age of 93, indicating they were particularly frail.

The CDC has not released the findings of its investigation publicly, but said it plans to publish the results in an upcoming Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. The slide was shared with the AP by a person involved in internal deliberations, who requested anonymity because they did not have permission to release the data.

Of the 16 fully vaccinated residents infected at the memory care facility, CDC found that 13 developed symptoms, described as mild in most cases.

The CDC investigated several nursing homes in Mesa County that were experiencing new outbreaks. At one location — described as “Facility A” — 42% of the staff were still not fully vaccinated, contrasting with only about 8% of residents who had failed to complete their shots.

The CDC found a COVID-19 infection rate of 30% among vaccinated residents and staff at the facility, with residents accounting for the vast majority of cases.

Throughout the pandemic, people in long-term care facilities have carried a disproportionate burden of suffering and death, not to mention increased isolation due to lockdowns. It’s estimated that nursing home residents represent about 1% of the U.S. population, but they account for about 22% of COVID-19 deaths — more than 133,400 people whose lives have been lost.

Experts generally agree that staff are one of the main triggers of nursing home outbreaks, because workers may unwittingly bring the virus in from the surrounding community before developing symptoms.

With the arrival of vaccines and an aggressive effort to get residents immunized, cases and deaths plummeted and nursing homes emerged from lockdown. But COVID-19 has not been wiped out. As of the week ending July 4, there were 410 residents sickened nationwide and 146 who died.

Colorado is not alone in seeing nursing home outbreaks as large shares of staff remain unvaccinated.

In Indiana, seven residents died from COVID-19 at a facility where less than half the staff — 44% — was fully vaccinated, said Howard County health officer Dr. Emily Backer. Eleven additional residents tested positive in the outbreak that officials believe started in mid-June.

One of the people who died was fully vaccinated, and five fully vaccinated residents were among those who tested positive, Backer added. She would not name the facility.

Backer acknowledged that the facility’s 44% staff vaccination rate was “lower than we’d like.”

“But at this point,” she added, “they can’t force them.”

Backer said she’s troubled by continued resistance to vaccination, fueled by exaggerated claims about side effects. Some experts fear that hard-won progress in putting down nursing home outbreaks could be lost, at least in some communities.

Laura Gelezunas has firsthand experience with a breakthrough case in a nursing home.

After numerous calls and emails to her mother’s Missouri nursing home and the company’s headquarters in Tennessee, Gelezunas finally got confirmation that her mom’s congestion, headache and sore throat were symptoms of COVID-19.

However, Gelezunas said the facility wasn’t transparent about how her vaccinated mother, Joann, got sick. While the home has pointed to outside visitors, Gelezunas said her mother’s only visitors have been her brother and his wife, who are both vaccinated. Gelezunas believes it was an unvaccinated staff member, but the home has yet to give her answers.

Gelezunas asked that her mother interact with only vaccinated workers, but the directors said they couldn’t make promises because of privacy reasons and their inability to mandate inoculations for workers.

“My mom is bedridden. I got people taking intimate care of her and you’re telling me you can’t tell me that at $7,500 a month that my mom can’t have someone that’s vaccinated take care of her,” said Gelezunas, who lives in Mexico.

Joann told her daughter that between 12 and 15 residents were infected with the virus recently, which she found out from one of her aides.

When it comes to requiring vaccinations, one obstacle is that COVID-19 vaccines aren’t yet fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and are being administered under emergency authorization.

“What we need to do is get past the emergency use basis, to have (vaccination) be a standard of care,” said Terry Fulmer, president of the John A. Hartford Foundation, a nonprofit working to improve care for older adults.

Highlighting the potential vulnerability, government numbers show a wide disparity among states in nursing home vaccinations. Vermont has fully vaccinated 95% of its nursing home residents, but in Nevada the figure is 61%. Hawaii is the leader for staff vaccinations, with 84% completely vaccinated. But in Louisiana, it’s half that, 42%.

Harvard health care policy professor David Grabowski said he believes trust is the core question for many nursing home staffers who remain unvaccinated. Low-wage workers may not have much confidence in vaccine messaging from management at their facilities.

“I think some of this mirrors what we see in the overall population, but among health care workers it is really disconcerting,” Grabowski said.

Indiana county health official Backer blames swirling misinformation.

“There’s a lot of really bad information out there that’s completely untrue,” she said. “It’s really sad because I think we have the power to end this with vaccination. Nobody else needs to die from this.”