U.S. warns domestic extremists could exploit easing COVID-19 restrictions

By Mark Hosenball

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. Department of Homeland Security warned on Friday that domestic extremists could take advantage of easing COVID-19 restrictions to launch attacks on a broader range of targets.

In a new national terrorism advisory bulletin, DHS said the United States in 2021 is “facing threats that have evolved significantly and become increasingly complex and volatile,” including threats posed by domestic terrorists, by individuals and by “groups engaged in grievance-based violence”.

DHS said social media and online forums “are increasingly exploited by these actors to influence and spread violent extremist narratives and activity.”

The DHS bulletin said that in 2020 and this year, government facilities have regularly been targeted by domestic extremists, and that “opportunistic violent criminals” are likely to try to use public protests “linked to racial justice grievances and police use of force concerns” as a motive for “targeting protestors perceived to be ideological opponents.”

The bulletin said racially motivated extremists have used social media and online platforms to advocate “a race war” and have suggested that civil disorder “provides opportunities to engage in violence in furtherance of ideological objectives.”

Driven by “perceived grievances, false narratives, and conspiracy theories”, ideologically motivated extremists share information online with the intent to incite violence, DHS said, using websites which cater to extremists to call for “violence against elected officials, political representatives, government facilities, law enforcement, religious or commercial facilities, and perceived ideologically-opposed individuals.”

DHS also warned that foreign militant groups, such as Islamic State and al Qaeda, are circulating messages “intended to inspire” U.S.-based extremists and that such groups and their followers “remain a threat to the Homeland.”

The bulletin said foreign nations, including Russia, China and Iran, had increased efforts to sow discord among Americans by promoting conspiracy theories about the origins of COVID-19, questioning the effectiveness of vaccines, and even amplifying messages calling for violence against Asian Americans.

(Reporting by Mark Hosenball; Editing by Scott Malone and Daniel Wallis)

Minnesota, Virginia join U.S. states easing COVID-19 restrictions

By Barbara Goldberg

(Reuters) – The governors of two more U.S. states said on Thursday they were lifting most restrictions that were put in place to combat the spread of the coronavirus after sharp drops in infection rates and deaths.

Both Minnesota Governor Tim Walz and Virginia Governor Ralph Northam unveiled plans for easing or even completely erasing limits, saying all changes were hinged on vaccination numbers going up, which has helped to diminish COVID-19 case numbers.

Northam said Virginia would lift all restrictions on June 15, except for a mask mandate.

“If our COVID case numbers keep trending down and our vaccination numbers keep going up, we plan to lift our mitigation measures, capacity restrictions and social distancing requirements,” Northam told a news conference.

Walz unveiled a timeline to end all COVID-19 restrictions, saying limits on seating at entertainment venues, including outdoor stadiums, could be gone by Memorial Day weekend at the end of this month.

All limits will end by July 1, or sooner if 70% of Minnesota residents older than 16 get vaccinated, Walz said.

The increased freedoms in Minnesota and Virginia were disclosed just days after New York, New Jersey and Connecticut revealed on Monday that the tri-state area on May 19 would start lifting most coronavirus capacity restrictions on businesses, including retail stores, food services and gyms.

In sharing the good news, all of the governors stressed that a spike in COVID-19 cases could upend those plans. Infections have been declining in the United States as more people get vaccinated.

With 47,166 daily new infections reported on average, the United States is now 19% below a Jan 7 peak, according to data compiled by Reuters.

“Vaccines are working. They’re helping reduce the spread of this disease,” Northam said. “Fewer people e getting sick, fewer people are going into the hospital.”

Virginia’s face mask mandate was part of a state of emergency declared during the pandemic. It is due to expire on June 30, although Northam could extend it if there is a COVID-19 surge, officials said.

(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg in New York; Editing by Bill Berkrot)