Iowa joins U.S. states forbidding COVID-19 mask mandates in schools

(Reuters) – Iowa joined a handful of other U.S. states on Thursday in passing a law that forbids cities, counties and local school districts from requiring people to wear face masks that protect against the spread of the coronavirus.

Governor Kim Reynolds, a Republican, signed the measure into law just hours after it was approved by the state legislature. Texas and Florida, which also have Republican governors, have passed similar measures.

“The state of Iowa is putting parents back in control of their child’s education and taking greater steps to protect the rights of all Iowans to make their own healthcare decisions,” Reynolds said in a statement.

A week ago, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said people vaccinated against COVID-19 no longer need to wear a mask in most settings because the chance of them catching or transmitting the airborne coronavirus is so low. But it still advised face coverings be worn in schools, medical settings and public transit.

The decision by Texas, Florida and Iowa to ignore some of the guidance comes after a year in which many conservative political leaders have cast mask mandates as an erosion of individual liberty rather than a public health issue.

Some Democrat-led states, such as New York and Connecticut, have adopted the CDC advice and said vaccinated people are no longer bound by mask mandates, though unvaccinated people must still wear them if they cannot distance themselves from others. Those states also have not stopped individual businesses from requiring visitors to wear masks.

In his Tuesday executive order, Texas Governor Greg Abbott said schools must scrap any mask requirements by June 4. However, public hospitals and state jails may still impose mask requirements, the order said.

On Wednesday, the Utah legislature passed a bill forbidding public schools and state universities from requiring masks, which now heads to the governor to be signed into law.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely and Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

Pipeline outage causes U.S. gasoline supply crunch, panic buying

By Laura Sanicola and Devika Krishna Kumar

(Reuters) -Gas stations from Florida to Virginia began running dry and prices at the pump rose on Tuesday, as the shutdown of the biggest U.S. fuel pipeline by hackers extended into a fifth day and sparked panic buying by motorists.

The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden projected that the Colonial Pipeline, source of nearly half the fuel supply on the U.S. East Coast, would restart in a few days and urged drivers not to top up their tanks.

“We are asking people not to hoard,” U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm told reporters at the White House. “Things will be back to normal soon.”

Colonial was shut on Friday after hackers launched a ransomware attack – effectively locking up its computer systems and demanding payment to release them – and the company has said it is hoping to “substantially” restart by the end of this week.

But the outage, which has underscored the vulnerability of vital U.S. infrastructure to cyberattacks, has already started to hurt.

About 7.5% of gas stations in Virginia and 5% in North Carolina had no fuel on Tuesday as demand jumped 20%, tracking firm GasBuddy said. Unleaded gas prices, meanwhile, neared an average $2.99 a gallon, its highest price since November 2014, the American Automobile Association said.

In an effort to ease the strain on consumers, Georgia suspended sales tax on gas until Saturday, and North Carolina declared an emergency. The U.S. federal government, meanwhile, has loosened rules to make it easier for suppliers to refill storage, including lifting seasonal anti-smog requirements for gasoline and allowing fuel truckers to work longer hours.

Granholm said there is not a shortage but a gasoline supply “crunch” in North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia and Southern Virginia, regions that typically rely on Colonial for fuel.

Driver Caroline Richardson said she was paying 15 cents more per gallon than a week ago as she refueled at a gas station in Sumter, South Carolina. “I know some friends who decided not to go out of town this weekend to save gas,” she said.

DARKSIDE HACK

The strike on Colonial “is potentially the most substantial and damaging attack on U.S. critical infrastructure ever,” Ohio Senator Rob Portman told a Senate hearing on cybersecurity threats on Tuesday.

The FBI has accused a shadowy criminal gang called DarkSide of the ransomware attack. DarkSide is believed to be based in Russia or Eastern Europe and avoids targeting computers that use languages from former Soviet republics, cyber experts say.

Russia’s embassy in the United States rejected speculation that Moscow was behind the attack. President Joe Biden a day earlier said there was no evidence so far that Russia was responsible.

A statement issued in DarkSide’s name on Monday said: “Our goal is to make money, and not creating problems for society.”

It is unknown how much money the hackers are seeking, and Colonial has not commented on whether it would pay.

“Cyber attacks on our nation’s infrastructure are growing more sophisticated, frequent and aggressive,” Brandon Wales, acting director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), said on Tuesday at a Senate hearing on the SolarWinds hack that hit companies and government agencies.

GOVERNMENT STEPS IN

The Environmental Protection Agency issued a waiver on Tuesday that allows distributors to continue supplying winter fuel blends through May 18 in three Mid-Atlantic states to help ease supplies.

North Carolina and the U.S. Department of Transportation, meanwhile, relaxed fuel-driver rules, allowing truckers hauling gasoline to work longer hours. North Carolina and Virginia have both declared a state of emergency.

The U.S. has also started the work needed to enable temporary waivers of Jones Act vessels in response to the cyber attack – something that would allow foreign flagged fuel carriers to move from one U.S. port to another, the Transportation Department said.

There are growing concerns that the pipeline outage could lead to further price spikes ahead of the Memorial Day weekend at the end of this month. The weekend is the traditional start of the busy summer driving season.

Gulf Coast refiners that rely on Colonial’s pipeline to move their products have cut processing. Total SE trimmed gasoline production at its Port Arthur, Texas, refinery and Citgo Petroleum pared back at its Lake Charles, Louisiana, plant, sources told Reuters.

Marathon Petroleum is “making adjustments” to its operations due to the pipeline shutdown, a spokesman said without providing details.

While the pipeline outage is having big short-term consequences in some regions, some experts believe the longer term impact will be small.

“Markets will go crazy, but two weeks later no one knows it happened,” said Chuck Watson, director of research at ENKI, which studies the economic effects of natural and other disasters.

(Reporting by Laura Sanicola, Stephanie Kelly and Devika Krishna Kumar; Additional reporting by Nandita Bose; Editing by Paul Simao, Cynthia Osterman and Grant McCool)

Florida limits absentee voting with new Republican-backed law

By Julia Harte

(Reuters) -Florida Governor Ron DeSantis on Thursday signed a law curtailing access to absentee ballots and adding new hurdles to the process of submitting them, the latest Republican-backed voting restrictions to become law in a U.S. election battleground state.

The new law restricts the use of absentee ballot drop boxes to the early voting period, adds new identification requirements for requesting such ballots and requires voters to re-apply for absentee ballots in each new general election cycle. Previously, Florida voters only had to register for an absentee ballot once every two election cycles.

The law also gives partisan election observers more power to raise objections and requires people offering voters assistance to stay at least 150 feet (45 meters) away from polling places, an increase from the previous 100-foot (30-meter) radius.

Republican legislators in numerous states have pursued measures to restrict voting rights in the aftermath of former President Donald Trump’s claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him through widespread voting fraud.

Minutes after DeSantis signed the law, the League of Women Voters of Florida and two other civil rights groups sued Florida’s 67 counties to try to block the new restrictions. They are represented by Marc Elias, a Democratic lawyer who also sued Georgia over voting limits the state passed in March.

Republican lawmakers, in pursuing the new measures, have cited the claims made by Trump, a Florida absentee voter himself, after his decisive loss to Democrat Joe Biden.

Judges rejected such claims in more than 60 lawsuits that failed to overturn the election result. Lawmakers in Republican-controlled states including Georgia, Texas and Arizona nevertheless proposed legislation that they said was necessary to curb voter fraud, which is relatively rare in the United States.

DeSantis acknowledged in a February press release that Florida had “held the smoothest, most successful election of any state in the country” in November, but said new limits on absentee ballots were needed to safeguard election integrity.

DeSantis, who signed the law in an appearance on the Fox News Channel show “FOX & Friends,” said, “Me signing this bill here says, ‘Florida, your vote counts, your vote is going to be cast with integrity and transparency.'”

Mail-in ballots or absentee ballots were used by Democratic voters in greater numbers than Republicans in the 2020 election as many people avoided in-person voting during the coronavirus pandemic.

Florida Republicans used mail-in voting slightly more than Democrats in the 2014, 2016 and 2018 general elections. But in November, Democrats submitted 2.2 million mail-in ballots compared to 1.5 million from Republican voters, state records show.

“Florida’s Republican legislative leaders seem determined to weaken the system that voters have relied on, without significant problems, for the better part of a generation,” Sylvia Albert, voting and elections director for good-government watchdog Common Cause, said in a statement on April 28 after Florida’s House passed the bill.

In March, Georgia’s Republican governor signed a law that tightened absentee ballot identification requirements, restricted ballot drop box use and allowed a Republican-controlled state agency to take over local voting operations.

Democrats and voting rights advocates sued Georgia over the measure, saying it was aimed at disenfranchising Black voters, whose heavy turnout helped propel Biden to the presidency and delivered Democrats two U.S. Senate victories in Georgia in January that gave them control of the chamber. Top U.S. companies also decried Georgia’s law, and Major League Baseball moved its All-Star game out of the state in protest.

(Reporting by Julia Harte in WashingtonEditing by Colleen Jenkins and Bernadette Baum)

Florida sues Biden administration in bid to restart cruise industry

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The state of Florida sued President Joe Biden’s administration in federal court on Thursday seeking to block the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s decision to prevent the U.S. cruise industry from immediately resuming operations paused for a year because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The suit, filed by Republican Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody in Tampa, asked the court to issue an injunction barring enforcement of the CDC’s order and to quickly lift a “nationwide lockdown” on the industry in place since March 2020. Early in the pandemic, there were dangerous outbreaks of COVID-19 on numerous cruise ships.

Florida, an important center for the U.S. cruise ship industry, said its ports have suffered a decline in operating revenue of almost $300 million since the pandemic started.

“We must allow our cruise liners and their employees to get back to work and safely set sail again,” Republican Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said.

On Friday, the CDC issued new guidance to the cruise industry, a necessary step before passenger voyages can resume, but did not set a date for resuming cruises. Florida said in its lawsuit that “it now appears the CDC will continue that lockdown until November 2021, even though vaccines are now available to all adults who want them.”

“The CDC guidance is based on data and health and medical guidelines,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters when asked about the litigation.

The CDC declined to comment on the suit.

Florida said in the lawsuit that if a judge does not block the CDC’s order the state “will lose hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions. And, more importantly, the approximately 159,000 hard-working Floridians whose livelihoods depend on the cruise industry could lose everything.”

The Cruise Lines International Association, which represents Carnival Corp, Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean Cruises, said on Monday the CDC guidance means there is “no reasonable timeline” for resuming cruises.

“With no discernable path forward or timeframe for resumption in the U.S., more sailings originating in the Caribbean and elsewhere are likely to be announced, effectively shutting American ports, closing thousands of American small businesses, and pushing an entire industry offshore,” the industry group said.

Norwegian on Monday proposed resuming cruises by July for cruises in which passengers and crew members are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

Alaska’s two U.S. senators said in a joint statement on Saturday that after speaking with the CDC “we could see cruise ships in U.S. waters as early as mid-summer.”

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Will Dunham)

Georgia wins 8-year water fight with downstream neighbor Florida

By Rich McKay and Sebastien Malo

ATLANTA (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday sided with Georgia in ending its eight-year battle with Florida over water that runs through Atlanta’s thirsty metro region and downstream past cotton and peanut fields to Apalachicola Bay and its depleted oyster fisheries.

The high court tossed out claims by Florida that Georgia is using too much water from the Chattahoochee River, a tributary of the Apalachicola River basin downstream, driving up salinity levels in the estuary it feeds and causing the once-rich oyster population there to collapse.

In the eyes of Michael Dasher, a fourth-generation Florida oysterman counting on a different outcome in legal bids to wrestle back more freshwater supplies for his vanishing way of life, it’s over.

“We thought the court would finally do what’s right and help us out, send more water,” said Dasher, 54. “We know Atlanta and them all in Georgia need it too, but they’ve about run the river dry. This is pretty much the end for us.”

In a unanimous 9-0 decision, the court ruled that Florida did not prove that its proposed water diversion caps on Georgia were warranted, given the balance between the needs of Georgia’s population and agricultural needs versus the needs of Florida. Nor did the court accept that water depletion was the cause of the Florida’s declining oyster beds.

Georgia has argued over-harvesting by its southern neighbor in recent years and a 2012 drought were to blame for the oyster crash.

Florida had also neglected to “reshell” its oyster bars, a management practice that gives young oysters greater habitat, the justices wrote.

A spokesman for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection was not immediately available to comment, but the agency has said that it had hoped the court would restore the historic flows of the Apalachicola River.

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp touted the court win as a “resounding victory for Georgia and a vindication of years-long effort by multiple governors and attorneys general here in the Peach State to protect our citizens’ water rights.”

According to federal precedent dating back 100 years, both states have a claim to a share of the water in question, but it’s “not a 50-50 split,” Santa Fe attorney and water rights expert John Draper, previously told Reuters.

Thursday’s ruling was not unexpected, given that a state water rights expert named “special master” in the case by the high court, had recommended that the justices side with Georgia.

Georgia officials and farmers say they are already conserving more water than ever. The Atlanta Regional Commission said the nine-county greater metropolitan area around the state capital now uses 10% less water than it did 20 years ago, even though the population has climbed by 1.2 million.

Katie Byrd, a spokeswoman with the office of Georgia’s attorney general, said the ruling “affirmed what we have long known to be true: Georgia’s water use has been fair and reasonable.”

(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta and Sebastien Malo in New York; Editing by Steve Gorman and Grant McCool)

New York lowers coronavirus vaccine eligibility age to 50

NEW YORK (Reuters) -New York will join a handful of U.S. states that have lowered their eligibility age for coronavirus vaccines to 50, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced on Monday.

The state, the country’s fourth most populous, had restricted eligibility to residents who are at least 60 years old, have pre-existing health conditions or are essential workers, especially those who come in contact with the public.

“We are dropping the age and vaccinating more people,” Cuomo said at a church in Mount Vernon, New York, where he launched a campaign to encourage houses of worship to make themselves available as vaccination sites.

With the change, which takes effect on Tuesday, New York joins Florida, the third largest state, which lowered its eligibility age on Monday, and a handful of other states that have made vaccines available to healthy people who are 50 years old or younger.

In Arizona, Governor Doug Ducey lowered the eligibility age to 16 at state-run vaccination sites in three populous southern counties, effective Wednesday. Three other counties already have eligibility at 16, but most are at 55.

Alaska has the lowest statewide eligibility age at 16. Its vaccination rate is among the highest in the country, with 31.5% of its residents having received at least one dose, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

New York has administered at least one dose to 26.1% of its residents and Florida has administered it to 23.8%, according to the CDC, which updated its data on Sunday.

Nationwide, the CDC said 24.9% of U.S. residents have received at least one dose of a vaccine, and 13.5% are fully vaccinated.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely in New York; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Florida consumers ‘flabbergasted’ as property insurers push for double-digit rate hikes

By Suzanne Barlyn

(Reuters) – Florida property insurers are jacking up rates by double-digit percentages, blaming the hikes on lingering damage from past hurricanes, a wave of litigation, and a law that encourages lawyers to sue by allowing courts to award them big fees.

The rate increases in Florida, the third-largest property insurance market among U.S. states, are the highest in memory, according to some insurance agents and residents. One danger, they say, is that the new rates could make owning a home in Florida unaffordable.

“I was flabbergasted,” said Karlos Horn, a 35-year-old law student who owns a four-bedroom, single-family home in Hendry County, Florida. He said his premium doubled to $200 per month last August.

That is equivalent to half of his $400 mortgage payment and the largest increase in his five years as an owner.

Florida’s property insurance market, which collected $56.6 billion in premiums during 2019, is unique and covers complex risks including devastating hurricanes and the impact of climate change. Many insurers left the state after suffering big losses from hurricanes Katrina and Wilma in 2005, leaving about 60 small and mid-sized firms underwriting property policies there today.

Although there were no major weather events last year, some insurers are still grappling with claims from Hurricane Irma in 2017, said Logan McFaddin, an American Property Casualty Insurance Association executive who specializes in Florida.

They are also facing what McFaddin described as “out of control” litigation in Florida, partly because of a law that can require insurers to pay attorneys “excessive fees” in those cases. The practice has spurred a cottage industry of contractors and lawyers who sue insurers to replace a whole roof when only a few tiles are damaged, insurers say.

Other less dramatic problems, such as leaky pipes, happen at an “abnormally high” frequency in Florida, often causing severe damage, including mold, consistently gnawing at profits, said Charles Williamson, chief executive officer of Vault, a Florida-based insurance exchange for wealthy individuals.

Insurers are also passing along to consumers the cost of hefty rate hikes for their own coverage, known as reinsurance, which kicks in after insurers pay a set amount of claims.

INSURER OF LAST RESORT

Florida’s domestic property insurers reported a more than $1 billion underwriting loss for the first three quarters of 2020 and almost $500 million in negative net income, according to the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation.

“Insurance carriers understand that their role in our marketplace is to pay claims,” Florida Insurance Commissioner David Altmaier told Reuters. “The challenge is when those claims are so much more expensive than they expect, it creates uncertainty, it creates turmoil – and that has to be addressed.”

Florida insurers requested 105 rate increases during the first ten months of 2020, Altmaier said. More than half of the increases that regulators approved were greater than 10%.

Last month, Altmaier testified before Florida lawmakers, including his views on roofing litigation. “We need to really spend some time on this … coming up with ways that we might be able to mitigate this kind of activity,” he said.

Lee Gorodetsky, an insurance agent in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, said he cannot recall such steep rate hikes during his 34-year career. “The last two years have been the worst we’ve seen,” he said.

As prices rise, more consumers are turning to Citizens Property Insurance Corp, Florida’s insurer of last resort, which takes on high-risk customers who cannot obtain other insurance or must pay extremely high rates.

Citizens issued 545,000 policies as of Feb. 5, a 23% increase from a year ago, and it expects the number to grow to about 700,000 by year-end, a spokesman said. The growth signals an unhealthy broader market by showing that typical coverage is not as widely available, industry experts said.

Insurers are hoping Florida’s state government will approve proposed legislation that would curb the elevated litigation costs they have seen in recent years. The bill, if passed, would add to other reforms enacted in 2019.

Measures would include limiting the fees insurers must pay lawyers in claims disputes, shortening time frames for filing claims and capping payouts for roof replacements.

However, the bill might also harm homeowners’ ability to pursue legitimate claims, lawyers said. That would unfairly favor insurers, one lawyer said.

“It’s a great business model that insurers can collect premiums and not get sued when they don’t pay somebody right away everything that’s owed,” said Tampa lawyer Chip Merlin, who represents policyholders. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that that’s good for the insurance industry.”

(Reporting by Suzanne Barlyn in Washington Crossing, Pa.; Editing by Lauren Tara LaCapra and Matthew Lewis)

Two FBI agents killed, three wounded in early morning raid in Florida

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Two FBI agents were killed early on Tuesday and three others were wounded while trying to serve a search warrant at a Florida home, an encounter that turned into one of the federal law enforcement agency’s bloodiest in decades.

As a team of law enforcement officers tried to execute the court-ordered warrant involving violent crimes against children at the home in Sunrise, Florida, shots were fired at 6 a.m. EST (1100 GMT), the FBI said in a statement.

The search warrant sought evidence in connection with suspected possession of child pornography, the FBI Agents Association added in a statement.

Two of the wounded agents were in stable condition at a hospital, while the third did not require hospitalization, the FBI said. The subject of the warrant, who was not identified, also died, it said.

The man being investigated had apparently barricaded himself inside an apartment complex and was found dead, the New York Times reported, citing unidentified officials. It was unclear how he died, the newspaper said.

The scene on Tuesday morning near the home in Sunrise, just west of Fort Lauderdale and about 30 miles (48 km) north of Miami, was swarming with emergency and law enforcement vehicles from the FBI and police in Sunrise and surrounding jurisdictions.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that President Joe Biden had been briefed on the incident and would likely address it later on Tuesday.

FBI Director Christopher Wray identified the dead agents as Daniel Alfin and Laura Schwartzenberger and hailed them as heroes.

“Special Agent Alfin and Special Agent Schwartzenberger exemplified heroism today in defense of their country,” Wray said in a statement. “The FBI will always honor their ultimate sacrifice and will be forever grateful for their bravery.”

The shooting deaths, which remain under investigation, were among the bloodiest episodes for the FBI.

In 1994, two agents were shot dead along with a police detective at the Washington, D.C., police headquarters when a homicide suspect opened fire on them with an assault weapon, also wounding a third agent, according to the FBI’s website.

Another deadly encounter occurred in 1986, also in Florida, when two agents were killed and five others were wounded in a Miami shootout with two bank robbery suspects, the FBI said.

The last fatal shooting of an FBI agent on duty was on Nov. 19, 2008, which also unfolded during the execution of a warrant, the FBI said. Agent Samuel Hicks was shot and killed as he sought to execute a federal arrest warrant associated with a drug trafficking organization in Pittsburgh, it said.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch, Mark Hosenball and Doina Chiacu in Washington and Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Franklin Paul, Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

New York, Florida tell hospitals to speed COVID-19 vaccinations or lose supply

By Carl O’Donnell and Jonathan Allen

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The governors of New York and Florida sought to accelerate the slower-than-expected rollout of coronavirus vaccines by warning hospitals on Monday that they would reduce future allocations to those that fail to dispense shots quickly enough.

In New York, hospitals must administer vaccines within a week of receiving them or face a fine and loss of future supplies, Governor Andrew Cuomo said.

“I don’t want the vaccine in a fridge or a freezer, I want it in somebody’s arm,” the governor said. “If you’re not performing this function, it does raise questions about the operating efficiency of the hospital.”

The U.S. federal government has distributed more than 15 million vaccine doses to states and territories around the country, but only around 4.5 million have been administered so far, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released on Monday.

The U.S. government has fallen far short of its target of vaccinating 20 million people by the end of 2020. Officials said they expect the rollout will pick up significantly this month.

Surgeon General Jerome Adams told CBS News that there are 15 million to 20 million doses of vaccine available.

“We should be hopeful about that while acknowledging we have got to do better and we are going to keep doing better,” Adams said. “And I promise you, you will see in these next two weeks numbers increase substantially.”

The United States had reported a total of 20.5 million COVID-19 cases and 351,480 deaths as of midnight on Sunday. On a seven-day rolling average, it is reporting 210,190 cases and 2,636 coronavirus deaths per day.

In Florida, where officials have put senior citizens ahead of many essential workers for getting the vaccine, Governor Ron DeSantis announced a policy under which the state would allocate doses to hospitals that dispense them most quickly,

“Hospitals that do not do a good job of getting the vaccine out will have their allocations transferred to hospitals that are doing a good job at getting the vaccine out,” DeSantis said at a briefing.

“We do not want vaccine to just be idle at some hospital system,” he added, though he did not say they would face fines.

Florida will also deploy an additional 1,000 nurses to administer vaccines and will keep state-run vaccination sites open seven days a week, he said.

New York has dispensed about 175,000 doses of the 896,000 it has received since mid-December, according to CDC data. Florida has dispensed 265,000 of the 1.14 million doses it received.

In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio said obstacles were slowing his goal to have 1 million residents receive a first of two vaccine doses by the end of January. A little over 110,000 residents have received their first dose so far, according to city data.

De Blasio urged the state to broaden early eligible groups beyond healthcare workers and nursing home residents to include essential workers such as teachers, police officers, fire fighters, grocery store personnel and people who are more than 75 years old.

New York City currently has 125 vaccination sites and plans to double that by the end of the month, the mayor said.

“This has got to be a seven-day-a-week, 24-hour reality going forward,” de Blasio said.

Monday also marked the first day when some Americans were due to receive their second vaccine shot, three weeks after getting the first dose. Among them was Maritza Beniquez, a healthcare worker in Newark, New Jersey.

“I now have body armor,” she said after receiving the dose in a video posted on Facebook by New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, who was part of a small gathering that witnessed the event.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen, Carl O’Donnell, Rebecca Spaulding and Peter Szekely in New York; Additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg, Anurag Maan, Doina Chiacu and Susan Heavey; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

U.S. Justice Department faults Acosta for ‘poor judgment’ over Epstein deal

By Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – An internal Justice Department investigation has concluded that then-U.S. Attorney Alex Acosta exercised “poor judgment” by allowing financier Jeffrey Epstein to enter a non-prosecution agreement over alleged sex crimes, but cleared him and other prosecutors of any professional misconduct in their handling of the case.

In a statement released on Thursday, the Justice Department said that when Acosta let Epstein enter the non-prosecution agreement in 2008 that spared him from federal sex trafficking charges, he “failed to make certain that the state of Florida intended to and would notify victims identified through the federal investigation about the state plea hearing.”

The department added that while no federal prosecutors engaged in wrongdoing, Epstein’s victims “were not treated with the forthrightness and sensitivity” they deserved.

The controversial 2008 agreement with Epstein has come under intense scrutiny in recent years following an investigation by the Miami Herald. Under the terms of the deal, Epstein pleaded guilty to lesser state charges and served a brief stint in jail where he was granted daily work release.

At the time, Alex Acosta was serving as the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida.

Last year, federal prosecutors in New York were able to resuscitate the case and charged Epstein with sex trafficking of minors.

Acosta, who was serving as labor secretary then under President Donald Trump, initially tried to defend his role in the previous Epstein investigation. But he resigned amid growing pressure a few days later.

Epstein was found dead in his jail cell in New York of an apparent suicide about a month later.

His longtime friend Ghislaine Maxwell was arrested earlier this year and has pleaded not guilty to charges that she lured underage girls so that Epstein could sexually abuse them.

The findings by the Justice Department’s Office of Professional Responsibility were announced earlier on Thursday by Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska, who blasted the agency for not taking a more forceful stance.

“Letting a well-connected billionaire get away with child rape and international sex trafficking isn’t ‘poor judgment’ – it is a disgusting failure,” Sasse, who had requested the internal Justice Department probe, said in a statement.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)