Florida governor to order schools to allow parents to decide on masks

By Rich McKay

(Reuters) – Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said on Friday he planned to issue an executive order giving parents the right to decide whether their children will wear a mask at school, a move that would thwart mandates put in place in two of the state’s counties.

School districts in Broward and Gadsden counties said recently students would have to cover their faces when classes start next month, setting up a clash with the governor, who has taken a hard line stance against vaccine and mask requirements.

“In Florida, there will be no lockdowns, there will be no school closures, there will be no restrictions and no mandates in the state of Florida,” the Republican governor said on Friday during a speech in Cape Coral announcing the executive order.

The mandates in Broward and Gadsden countries follow the recommendation from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that all students, teachers and staff wear masks regardless of whether they have been vaccinated.

DeSantis did not say when he would sign the order, and the governor’s office did not immediately respond to inquiries.

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta and additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; editing by Diane Craft and Steve Orlofsky)

Factbox: Healthcare, financial services, agriculture targeted in Biden order

(Reuters) – In an executive order on Friday, U.S. President Joe Biden aims to remove barriers to competition in such industries as healthcare, financial services and agriculture while boosting wages and lowering prices, the White House said.

The order:

* Encourages the leading antitrust agencies to focus enforcement efforts on problems in key markets and coordinates other agencies’ ongoing response to corporate consolidation.

* Calls on the leading antitrust agencies, the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC), to enforce the antitrust laws vigorously and recognizes that the law allows them to challenge bad mergers that past administrations did not previously challenge.

* Announces a policy that enforcement should focus in particular on labor markets, agricultural markets, healthcare markets (which includes prescription drugs, hospital consolidation and insurance), and the tech sector.

* Establishes a White House Competition Council, led by the Director of the National Economic Council, to monitor progress on finalizing the initiatives in the order and to coordinate the federal government’s response to the rising power of large corporations in the economy.

LABOR MARKETS

* Encourages the FTC to ban or limit non-compete agreements.

* Encourages the FTC to ban unnecessary occupational licensing restrictions that impede economic mobility.

* Encourages the FTC and DOJ to strengthen antitrust guidance to prevent employers from collaborating to suppress wages or reduce benefits by sharing wage and benefit information with one another.

HEALTHCARE

* Directs the Food and Drug Administration to work with states and tribes to safely import prescription drugs from Canada, pursuant to the Medicare Modernization Act of 2003.

* Directs the Health and Human Services Administration (HHS) to increase support for generic and biosimilar drugs, which provide low-cost options for patients.

* Directs HHS to issue a comprehensive plan within 45 days to combat high prescription drug prices and price gouging.

* Encourages the FTC to ban “pay for delay” and similar agreements by rule.

Hearing Aids

* Directs HHS to consider issuing proposed rules within 120 days for allowing hearing aids to be sold over the counter.

Hospitals

* Underscores that hospital mergers can be harmful to patients and encourages the Justice Department and FTC to review and revise their merger guidelines to ensure patients are not harmed by such mergers.

* Directs HHS to support existing hospital price transparency rules and to finish implementing bipartisan federal legislation to address surprise hospital billing.

Health Insurance

* Directs HHS to standardize plan options in the National Health Insurance Marketplace so people can comparison shop more easily.

TRANSPORTATION

Airlines

* Directs the Department of Transportation (DOT) to consider issuing clear rules requiring the refund of fees when baggage is delayed or when service isn’t actually provided, such as when a plane’s WiFi or in-flight entertainment system is broken.

* Directs the DOT to consider issuing rules that require baggage, change and cancellation fees to be clearly disclosed to the customer.

Rail

* Encourages the Surface Transportation Board to require railroad track owners to provide rights of way to passenger rail and to strengthen their obligations to treat other freight companies fairly.

Shipping

* Encourages the Federal Maritime Commission to ensure vigorous enforcement against shippers charging American exporters exorbitant charges.

AGRICULTURE

* Directs U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to consider issuing new rules under the Packers and Stockyards Act making it easier for farmers to bring and win claims, stopping chicken processors from exploiting and underpaying chicken farmers, and adopting anti-retaliation protections for farmers who speak out about bad practices.

* Directs USDA to consider issuing new rules defining when meat can bear “Product of USA” labels, so that consumers have accurate, transparent labels that enable them to choose products made in the United States.

* Directs USDA to develop a plan to increase opportunities for farmers to access markets and receive a fair return, including supporting alternative food distribution systems like farmers’ markets and developing standards and labels so that consumers can choose to buy products that treat farmers fairly.

* Encourages the FTC to limit powerful equipment manufacturers from restricting others’ ability to use independent repair shops or do DIY repairs, such as when tractor companies block farmers from repairing their own tractors.

INTERNET SERVICE

* Encourages the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to prevent ISPs from making deals with landlords that limit tenants’ choices.

* Encourages the FCC to revive the “Broadband Nutrition Label” and require providers to report prices and subscription rates to the FCC.

* Encourages the FCC to limit excessive early termination fees.

* Encourages the FCC to restore Net Neutrality rules undone by the prior administration.

TECHNOLOGY

* Announces an administration policy of greater scrutiny of mergers, especially by dominant internet platforms, with particular attention to the acquisition of nascent competitors, serial mergers, the accumulation of data, competition by “free” products, and the effect on user privacy.

* Encourages the FTC to establish rules on surveillance and the accumulation of data.

* Encourages the FTC to establish rules barring unfair methods of competition on internet marketplaces.

* Encourages the FTC to issue rules against anticompetitive restrictions on using independent repair shops or doing DIY repairs of one’s own devices and equipment.

BANKING AND CONSUMER FINANCE

* Encourages DOJ and the agencies responsible for banking (the Federal Reserve, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency) to update guidelines on banking mergers to provide more robust scrutiny of mergers.

* Encourages the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) to issue rules allowing customers to download their banking data and take it with them.

(Editing by Howard Goller)

Trump bans U.S. investments in companies linked to Chinese military

By Humeyra Pamuk, Alexandra Alper and Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration on Thursday unveiled an executive order prohibiting U.S. investments in Chinese companies that Washington says are owned or controlled by the Chinese military, ramping up pressure on Beijing after the U.S. election.

The order, which was first reported by Reuters, could impact some of China’s biggest companies, including China Telecom Corp Ltd, China Mobile Ltd and surveillance equipment maker Hikvision.

The move is designed to deter U.S. investment firms, pension funds and others from buying shares of 31 Chinese companies that were designated by the Defense Department as backed by the Chinese military earlier this year.

Starting Jan. 11, the order will prohibit purchases by U.S. investors of the securities of those companies. Transactions made to divest ownership in the companies will be permitted until Nov. 11, 2021.

“China is increasingly exploiting United States capital to resource and to enable the development and modernization of its military, intelligence, and other security apparatuses,” said the order released by the White House.

The Chinese embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In a stock exchange filing, China Telecom said it estimated the executive order might impact the price of its shares, which closed down 7.8% in Hong Kong on Friday, and American depository shares, adding that it would “closely monitor” developments.

Another telecom operator, China Unicom Hong Kong Ltd, said companies affected by the order would include its parent, China United Network Communications Group Co Ltd.

China Unicom also said in its filing, it expected an impact on its shares, which fell 6.7% on Friday, and American depository shares, adding it was “considering appropriate steps to protect its and its investors’ lawful rights”.

White House trade adviser Peter Navarro estimated that at least half a trillion dollars in market capitalization was represented by the Chinese companies and their subsidiaries.

“This is a sweeping order designed to choke off American capital to China’s militarization,” he told reporters on a call.

The move is the first major policy initiative by President Donald Trump since losing the Nov. 3 election to Democratic rival Joe Biden and indicates that he is seeking to take advantage of the waning months of his administration to crack down on China, even as he has appeared laser-focused on challenging the election result.

Biden has won enough battleground states to surpass the 270 electoral votes needed in the state-by-state Electoral College that determines the next president, but Republican Trump has so far refused to concede, citing unsubstantiated claims of voting fraud.

Thursday’s action is likely to further weigh on already fraught ties between the world’s top two economies, which are at loggerheads over China’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and its move to impose security legislation on Hong Kong.

Biden has not laid out a detailed China strategy but all the indications are that he will continue a tough approach to Beijing, with whom Trump has become increasingly confrontational in his last year in office.

WALL STREET INTERESTS

The order echoes a bill filed by Republican senator Marco Rubio last month that sought to block access to U.S. capital markets for Chinese companies that have been blacklisted by Washington, including those added to the Defense Department list.

“Today’s action by the Trump administration is a welcome start to protecting our markets and investors,” said Rubio, a top congressional China hawk. “We can never put the interests of the Chinese Communist Party and Wall Street above American workers and mom and pop investors.”

His comments were echoed by Republican Congressman Jim Banks, who described the order as “one of the wisest and most significant foreign policy decisions President Trump has made since he entered office”.

Rubio’s bill and the order are part of a growing effort by Congress and the administration to thwart Chinese companies that have the backing of U.S. investors but do not comply with U.S. rules faced by American rivals. It also shows a new willingness to antagonize Wall Street in the rivalry with Beijing.

In August, U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and Treasury officials urged Trump to delist Chinese companies that trade on U.S. exchanges and fail to meet its auditing requirements by January 2022.

Thursday’s move received a cool reception on Wall Street, where shares were already pulling back from recent gains. The iShares China Large-Cap ETF extended falls.

“The market is probably worried that President Trump is going to increase tensions with China and Iran in his last two months as president,” said Chris Zaccarelli, Chief Investment Officer of the Independent Advisor Alliance.

Still, it was unclear how investors would react. The order bans transactions, which it defined as “purchases,” so investors would technically be able to hold onto current investments.

While the document does not spell out specific penalties for violations, it gives the Treasury Department the ability to invoke “all powers” granted by the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, which authorizes the use of tough sanctions.

Questions also remain about whether Biden, who is set to take office just nine days after the order goes into effect, would enforce it or simply revoke it. His campaign declined to comment.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk, Alexandra Alper and Idrees Ali; Additional reporting by Alden Bentley, Meg Shen and Tom Daly; Editing by Chris Sanders, Edward Tobin, Rosalba O’Brien and Barbara Lewis)

Explainer: Trump wants to bypass U.S. coronavirus aid talks with executive order. Can he?

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – With congressional Democrats and White House negotiators so far unable to agree on a deal to salve the heavy economic toll of the coronavirus pandemic, President Donald Trump has threatened to bypass Congress with an executive order.

Some of his proposals exceed his legal authority and would face immediate legal challenges, though in at least one case House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the nation’s top Democrat, told him to just go ahead.

WHAT DOES TRUMP WANT TO DO?

Trump said on Twitter he is considering executive orders to continue expanded unemployment benefits, reinstate a moratorium on evictions, cut payroll taxes and continue a suspension of student loan repayments amid a health crisis that has killed nearly 160,000 Americans.

He and administration officials negotiating with Congress have not provided specifics.

CAN HE DO IT?

The Constitution puts control of federal spending in the hands of Congress, not the president, so Trump does not have the legal authority to issue executive orders determining how money should be spent on coronavirus.

Democrats said executive orders would prompt a court fight, but legal action could take months.

Trump has sidestepped Congress on spending before. In 2019, he declared a national emergency at the border with Mexico to shift billions of dollars from the Pentagon budget to help pay for a promised wall that was the cornerstone of his 2016 election campaign.

Congress passed legislation to stop him, but there were too few votes in the Republican-controlled Senate to override his veto.

“There has to be a political will to do that and there has to be a priority given by members of Congress to assert their institutional interests,” said Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University in Virginia. “And that just isn’t there right now.”

WOULD DEMOCRATS OR REPUBLICANS OBJECT?

The $600 per week enhanced unemployment benefit in the massive “Cares Act” passed in March has been a major sticking point in negotiations. Democrats want to continue the federal payment, which expired on July 24, to the tens of millions who have lost their jobs in the crisis and have rejected a short-term extension. Trump’s fellow Republicans have argued that is too high a payment, contending it is a disincentive to work.

The moratorium on evictions was less contentious, and could be covered by reprogramming money that Congress has already approved for housing that has not been spent. Pelosi on Thursday said an order extending the moratorium “would be a good thing.”

Congressional Republicans and Democrats alike reject cutting the payroll tax, which is collected from both employers and employees to fund Social Security and Medicare. A cut would disproportionately benefit Americans with high salaries, and threaten funding for the popular programs for retirees. It also only benefits people still getting paychecks, not those who have lost their jobs.

The parties are closer together on student loans. Democrats included a 12-month extension of the student loan payment suspension in a relief bill the House passed in May. Republican senators did not include student loan relief in the proposal they unveiled in July. However, there is a Republican plan in Congress to extend the suspension for three months.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Scott Malone and Nick Zieminski)

Minnesota governor mandates use of face coverings in businesses and indoor public settings

(Reuters) – Minnesota Governor Tim Walz signed an executive order on Wednesday requiring the use of face coverings in indoor businesses and indoor public settings in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

“By combating the spread of COVID-19, masking will help protect our neighbors, keep our businesses open, and get us on track to return to the activities we love,” the Democratic governor said in a statement.

The executive order will take effect on Saturday and excludes individuals with certain conditions as well as children who are 5 years old and under.

The new order covers all indoor spaces and businesses, even when people are waiting outside to enter such places, and also applies to workers in outdoor settings where social distancing is not possible.

Individuals riding on public transportation and using ride-sharing vehicles should also wear a face covering.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani; Editing by Chris Reese and Peter Cooney)

Trump says he will sign police reform executive order on Tuesday

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Monday he will sign an executive order on police reform and hold a news conference on Tuesday, after several weeks of nationwide protests sparked by the death of African-American George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis.

In comments to reporters, Trump also said the shooting by police of a black man in Atlanta was a terrible situation and very disturbing.

An Atlanta police officer was fired and the police chief resigned after the killing of Rayshard Brooks on Friday night.

No details on Trump’s executive order on police reform have been released. Democrats and Republicans in Congress are working on separate proposals on the issue.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason; writing by Eric Beech; editing by Chris Reese and Jonathan Oatis)

Trump to sign executive order on social media on Thursday: White House

By Jeff Mason and Nandita Bose

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump will sign an executive order on social media companies on Thursday, White House officials said after Trump threatened to shut down websites he accused of stifling conservative voices.

The officials gave no further details. It was unclear how Trump could follow through on the threat of shutting down privately-owned companies including Twitter Inc.

The dispute erupted after Twitter on Tuesday for the first time-tagged Trump’s tweets about unsubstantiated claims of fraud in mail-in voting with a warning prompting readers to fact check the posts.

Separately, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington on Wednesday upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit by a conservative group and right-wing YouTube personality against Google, Facebook, Twitter and Apple accusing them of conspiring to suppress conservative political views.

In an interview with Fox News Channel on Wednesday, Facebook’s chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, said censoring a platform would not be the “right reflex” for a government worried about censorship. Fox played a clip of the interview and said it would be aired in full on Thursday.

Facebook left Trump’s post on mail-in ballots on Tuesday untouched.

The American Civil Liberties Union said the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution limits any action Trump could take.

Facebook and Alphabet’s Google declined to comment. Apple did not respond to a request for comment.

“Republicans feel that Social Media Platforms totally silence conservatives voices. We will strongly regulate, or close them down before we can ever allow this to happen,” Trump said in a pair of additional posts on Twitter on Wednesday.

The president, a heavy user of Twitter with more than 80 million followers, added: “Clean up your act, NOW!!!!”

Republican Trump has an eye on the November election.

“Big Tech is doing everything in their very considerable power to CENSOR in advance of the 2020 Election,” Trump tweeted on Wednesday. “If that happens, we no longer have our freedom.”

STRONGEST THREAT YET

Trump’s threat is his strongest yet within a broader conservative backlash against Big Tech. Shares of both Twitter and Facebook fell on Wednesday.

Last year the White House circulated drafts of a proposed executive order about anti-conservative bias which never gained traction.

The Internet Association, which includes Twitter and Facebook among its members, said online platforms do not have a political bias and they offer “more people a chance to be heard than at any point in history.”

Late on Wednesday, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey said Trump’s tweets about California’s vote-by-mail plans “may mislead people into thinking they don’t need to register to get a ballot.”

Separately, Twitter said Trump’s tweets were labeled as part of efforts to enforce the company’s “civic integrity policy.”

The policy document on Twitter’s website says people may not use its services for manipulating or interfering in elections or other civic processes.

In recent years Twitter has tightened its policies amid criticism that its hands-off approach allowed fake accounts and misinformation to thrive.

Tech companies have been accused of anti-competitive practices and violating user privacy. Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon.com face antitrust probes by federal and state authorities and a U.S. congressional panel.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers, along with the U.S. Justice Department, have been considering changes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a federal law largely exempting online platforms from legal liability for the material their users post. Such changes could expose tech companies to more lawsuits.

Republican Senator Josh Hawley, a frequent critic of Big Tech companies, sent a letter to Dorsey asking why Twitter should continue to receive legal immunity after “choosing to editorialize on President Trump’s tweets.”

(Reporting by Jeff Mason and Nandita Bose; Additional reporting by Susan Heavey and Doina Chiacu in Washington, Katie Paul in San Francisco, Supantha Mukherjee and Shubham Kalia in Bangalore; Elizabeth Culliford in Birmingham, England, and David Shepardson in Washington; Editing by Howard Goller, Grant McCool and Himani Sarkar)

Trump says he will suspend all immigration into U.S. over coronavirus

By Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump said on Monday he will suspend all immigration into the United States temporarily through an executive order in response to the coronavirus outbreak and to protect American jobs.

The move, which the Republican president announced on Twitter, effectively achieves a long-term Trump policy goal to curb immigration, making use of the health and economic crisis that has swept the country as a result of the pandemic to do so.

The decision drew swift condemnation from some Democrats, who accused the president of creating a distraction from what they view as a slow and faulty response to the coronavirus.

Trump said he was taking the action to protect the U.S. workforce. Millions of Americans are suffering unemployment after companies shed employees amid nationwide lockdowns to stop the contagion.

“In light of the attack from the Invisible Enemy, as well as the need to protect the jobs of our GREAT American Citizens, I will be signing an Executive Order to temporarily suspend immigration into the United States,” Trump said in a tweet.

The White House declined to offer further details about the reasoning behind the decision, its timing, or its legal basis.

“As our country battles the pandemic, as workers put their lives on the line, the President attacks immigrants & blames others for his own failures”, former Democratic presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar said in a tweet.

Immigration is largely halted into the United States anyway thanks to border restrictions and flight bans put in place as the virus spread across the globe.

But the issue remains an effective rallying cry for Trump’s supporters.

Trump won the White House in 2016 in part on a promise to curb immigration by building a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico. He and his advisers have spent the first three years of his tenure cracking down on both legal and illegal entries into the country. Crowds regularly chant “Build the Wall!” at Trump’s political rallies, which are now idled because of the virus.

Trump has lamented the economic fallout of the outbreak; his stewardship of the U.S. economy was set to be his key argument for re-election in November.

The U.S. death toll from the virus topped 42,000 on Monday, according to a Reuters tally.

The U.S. economy has come to a near standstill because of the pandemic; more than 22 million people applied for unemployment benefits in the last month.

“You cut off immigration, you crater our nation’s already weakened economy,” former Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro said in a tweet. “What a dumb move.”

The United States has the world’s largest number of confirmed coronavirus cases, with more than 780,000 infections, up 27,000 on Monday.

But the president has made a point of saying the peak had passed and has been encouraging U.S. states to reopen their economies.

“It makes sense to protect opportunities for our workforce while this pandemic plays out,” said Thomas Homan, Trump’s former acting director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “It’s really not about immigration. It’s about the pandemic and keeping our country safer while protecting opportunities for unemployed Americans.”

The United States in mid-March suspended all routine visa services, both immigrant and non-immigrant, in most countries worldwide due to the coronavirus outbreak in a move that has potentially impacted hundreds of thousands of people.

U.S. missions have continued to provide emergency visa services as resources allowed and a senior State Department official in late March said U.S. was ready work with people who were already identified as being eligible for various types of visas, including one for medical professionals.

The administration recently announced an easing of rules to allow in more agricultural workers on temporary H2A visas to help farmers with their crops.

(Additional reporting by Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru, Humeyra Pamuk in Washington, and Mica Rosenberg; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)

Michigan residents sue Governor Whitmer over coronavirus pandemic orders

(Reuters) – Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer faces at least two federal lawsuits challenging her April 9 executive order to combat the coronavirus outbreak, including requirements that residents stay at home and most businesses close.

In complaints filed on Tuesday and Wednesday, several Michigan residents and one business accused the Democratic governor of violating their constitutional rights by imposing her “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order.

The plaintiffs in Wednesday’s lawsuit “reasonably fear that the draconian encroachments on their freedom set forth in this complaint will, unfortunately, become the ‘new norm,'” according to their complaint.

Whitmer’s office did not immediately respond on Thursday to requests for comment.

The governor’s order provides that residents cannot leave their homes except for essential services such as food or medical supplies, or engage in outdoor physical activity. It also bans travel to second homes and vacation properties.

Businesses, meanwhile, cannot require workers to leave their homes unless they are necessary for basic operations or to “sustain or protect life,” like grocery store and healthcare workers, and law enforcement. The order lasts through April.

Both lawsuits say Whitmer’s order deprives residents of their constitutional right to associate with other people under the First Amendment and their right to due process.

One lawsuit says the order amounts to an unconstitutional taking, while the other says the closing of gun shops violates the Second Amendment right to bear arms.

Whitmer is among several state governors, including both Democrats and Republicans, who have in some public opinion polls received high marks for their responses to the pandemic.

The plaintiffs in Tuesday’s lawsuit filed in Detroit include four Michigan residents. One owns a landscaping business, and another said he is forbidden to see his girlfriend of 14 years because they live in different homes.

Two lawyers and the owner of a different landscaping business are plaintiffs in Wednesday’s lawsuit, which is being handled in Grand Rapids.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Russian space agency says Trump paving way to seize other planets

MOSCOW (Reuters) – The Russian space agency, Roscosmos, accused Donald Trump on Tuesday of creating a basis to take over other planets by signing an executive order outlining U.S. policy on commercial mining in space.

The executive order, which Roscosmos said damaged the scope for international cooperation in space, was signed on Monday.

It said the United States would seek to negotiate “joint statements and bilateral and multilateral arrangements with foreign states regarding safe and sustainable operations for the public and private recovery and use of space resources”.

It said U.S. citizens should have the right to engage in such activity and that “outer space is a legally and physically unique domain of human activity, and the United States does not view it as a global commons”.

Roscosmos said the order put the United States at odds with the notion of space belonging to all humanity.

“Attempts to expropriate outer space and aggressive plans to actually seize territories of other planets hardly set the countries (on course for) fruitful cooperation,” its statement said.

Relations between Russia and the United States are at post-Cold War lows, but cooperation on space has continued despite an array of differences over everything from Ukraine to accusations of election meddling.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that “any kind of attempt to privatise space in one form or another – and I find it difficult to say now whether this can be seen as an attempt to privatise space – would be unacceptable”.

(Reporting by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Kevin Liffey)