New York and Virginia take steps to legalize marijuana

(Reuters) -New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill on Wednesday to legalize adult use of marijuana, making it the 15th U.S. state to allow recreational use of the drug, while Virginia moved to legalize possession of small amounts by July.

Cuomo said the bill, which was approved by the state Assembly late on Tuesday night, would also wipe the slate clean for many people previously charged with marijuana crimes.

“The bill creates automatic expungement of previous marijuana convictions that would now be legal,” Cuomo wrote on Twitter, announcing that he had just signed the legislation. “This is a historic day.”

Earlier on Wednesday, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam proposed moving up the legalization of simple possession of marijuana to July rather than wait until 2024.

Northam said racial disparities in prosecution of marijuana-related crimes prompted him to accelerate the timetable. He cited a report by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission which found that Black residents were more than three times as likely to be arrested for possessing small amounts of the drug.

“Our Commonwealth is committed to legalizing marijuana in an equitable way,” Northam said in a statement.

NORML, a pro-marijuana group, earlier welcomed the news from New York state, saying that tens of thousands of New Yorkers were arrested every year over petty marijuana offenses, and that most were young, poor, and people of color.

“The legalization of marijuana is a racial and criminal justice imperative, and today’s vote is a critical step towards a fairer and more just system,” New York Attorney General Letitia James said in a statement.

New York state’s official website recently projected that tax collection from the adult-use cannabis program would reach $350 million annually and also create 30,000 to 60,000 new jobs across the state.

(Reporting by Maria Ponnezhath in Bengaluru and Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut; Editing by Gerry Doyle, Michael Perry and Bernadette Baum)

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)

Cuomo orders New York City restaurants to suspend indoor dining, effective Monday

(Reuters) – Indoor dining in New York City will come to a halt on Monday, Governor Andrew Cuomo said, as COVID-19 hospitalizations fail to stabilize and the infection rate rises.

The governor acknowledged indoor dining is not at the top of a list of settings driving the rise in new cases led by household gatherings, but said rising hospitalizations and New York City’s high density were worrying factors.

“You put the CDC caution on indoor dining together with the rate of transmission and the density and the crowding, that is a bad situation,” Cuomo told a news briefing on Friday.

Separately, Cuomo announced that a state review panel unanimously approved the recommendation by an FDA advisory panel to approve Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, and said an additional 346,000 doses of a vaccine manufactured by Moderna are expected in New York the week of Dec. 21. A first shipment of 170,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine could arrive in the state as soon as this weekend, Cuomo said.

(Reporting by Peter Szekely and Maria Caspani, Editing by Franklin Paul)

California bans private gatherings, New York expands hospitals to battle coronavirus surge

By Dan Whitcomb and Maria Caspani

LOS ANGELES/NEW YORK (Reuters) -California compelled much of the state to close shop and stay home on Monday and New York ordered hospitals to increase bed capacity by 25 percent, as the United States braced for yet another coronavirus surge during the upcoming holidays.

California Governor Gavin Newsom’s order came into effect one day after the state set a record with more than 30,000 new COVID-19 cases, triggered in areas of Southern California where fewer than 15% of intensive care hospital beds remain available.

In addition, five counties in Northern California surrounding the San Francisco Bay Area have voluntarily imposed the restrictions even before reaching the intensive care unit threshold. Combined, the areas cover about three-quarters of the state’s nearly 40 million people.

Dr. Celine Gounder said California had little choice. “Given how out of control the virus is at this point, we are having to dial up some of those restrictions again,” Gounder told CBS News. “Ideally, we should be more proactive than this.”

In reporting more than 30,000 new cases on Sunday, the state exceeded its previous high of 21,986 set on Dec. 4, and notched a record high for hospitalized COVID-19 patients as well.

Nationwide, COVID-19 infections in United States are at their peak with an average of 193,863 new cases reported each day over the past week, according to a Reuters tally of official data.

There have been 14.7 million confirmed infections and 282,253 coronavirus-related deaths reported in the country since the pandemic began, the most in the world.

California has been under a stay-at-home order for all but essential services since March. The new order, which will last at least three weeks, bans private gatherings of any size, shuts all but critical infrastructure and retail operations, and requires everyone to wear a mask and maintain physical distancing.

But the sheriffs of Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties have said they will refuse to enforce the order.

Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco said in a videotaped message that his office “will not be blackmailed” into enforcing the governor’s orders, and Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes said in a statement his deputies would not respond to calls to enforce violations of the mask mandate, stay-at-home orders or the ban on social gatherings.

FAUCI SEES ‘BAD TIME’ AHEAD

To avoid a critical shortage of hospital beds, New York state health officials will order hospitals to increase their capacity by 25% and ask retired doctors and nurses to come back to work, Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Monday.

If the hospitalization rate fails to stabilize over the next five days, indoor dining in New York City will be halted, Cuomo said.

Dr. Anthony Fauci warned the nationwide surge could get worse after the year-end holiday season.

After millions ignored expert advice and traveled for the Thanksgiving holiday in November, Fauci anticipated Americans would once again behave recklessly during Christmas and New Year’s Eve festivities.

Spikes in the death toll typically appear about three weeks after surges in infections and hospitalizations.

“Mid-January is probably going to be a bad time,” said Fauci, appearing with Cuomo in his video news conference.

Anticipating U.S. Food and Drug Administration emergency authorization of the first vaccine within the coming days, the White House will host a vaccine distribution summit on Tuesday with governors, retail pharmacy chains and shipping companies, Health Secretary Alex Azar told Fox News.

The aim of the meeting was “to be very transparent and show the world how comprehensively we have planned out every aspect of this distribution,” Azar said.

(Reporting by Dan Whitcomb, Maria Caspani, Doina Chiacu, Lisa Lambert, Peter Szekely and Daniel Trotta; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Jonathan Oatis and Bill Berkrot)

New York governor expects coronavirus rates to continue rising into winter

By Jonathan Allen

NEW YORK (Reuters) – New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Monday he expected the rate of positive tests for the novel coronavirus to continue rising in the state into winter.

Both the state and New York City have seen positive test rates creep above 2% again in recent days in what Cuomo called a “new phase” of the coronavirus’s spread.

“The numbers are undeniable,” he told reporters on a conference call. “The best you can do is manage the increase.” He said cases may continue to rise until a vaccine became widely available.

Earlier on Monday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio warned that the city may soon enter a second wave of infections after grappling with what at the time was the world’s worst outbreak of COVID-19 earlier this year.

He said New Yorkers might see restrictions reintroduced, saying he now thought indoor dining at restaurants, even at restricted capacity, should be reconsidered, though he said that decision ultimately rested with Cuomo.

Stricter rules in nearby New Jersey were announced by Governor Phil Murphy on Monday in response to a rise in COVID-19 cases in the Garden State, and outbreaks among bartenders at several establishments.

New rules ban service while sitting at the bar and end indoor dining – still limited to 25 percent capacity – at 10 p.m., although outdoor dining is permitted to continue.

“As the night wears on people let their hair down and folks are just not social distancing as they should,” Murphy told a press conference.

He also announced the shutdown of interstate indoor youth sports events, up to and including high school age athletes, after seeing transmission increases among young team members, particularly those playing indoor hockey.

Across the Hudson River, New York City officials said they are worried about a new uptick in cases on Staten Island, one of the city’s five boroughs, and said they would spend Tuesday encouraging island residents to get a free test.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama/Mark Heinrich)

Cuomo says New York to review any COVID-19 vaccine authorized by federal government

By Maria Caspani

(Reuters) – New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on Thursday said the state will carry out its own review of coronavirus vaccines authorized or approved by the federal government due to concerns of politicization of the approval process.

Cuomo, a Democrat who has repeatedly criticized President Donald Trump and his administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, told reporters at a briefing he was going to form a review committee to advise the state on the safety of a vaccine.

“Frankly, I’m not going to trust the federal government’s opinion,” Cuomo said. “New York State will have its own review when the federal government is finished with their review and says it’s safe.”

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration declined to comment on governor’s remarks. On Wednesday, FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn told a U.S. Senate committee that the agency would only approve a vaccine that was safe and effective.

Recent statements by Trump and his secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) on authorization of COVID-19 vaccines currently in late stages of testing have caused concern among health experts that FDA decisions can remain independent of politics.

“The way the federal government has handled the vaccine, there are now serious questions about whether or not the vaccine has become politicized,” Cuomo said.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and U.S. Department of Defense and HHS officials will allocate authorized vaccines to the states, which are then expected to handle most distribution, the agencies have said.

Cuomo said a committee of state experts will devise a distribution and implementation plan for approved vaccines that would also determine who gets vaccinated first.

While all U.S. states are expected to come up with vaccine distribution plans, conducting an independent safety review would be a most unusual move.

Trump has repeatedly said a vaccine for COVID-19 could be ready for distribution ahead of the Nov. 3 presidential election.

On Wednesday, Trump said he may not approve any new, more stringent FDA standards for an emergency authorization of a COVID-19 vaccine, saying such a proposal would appear political.

The Washington Post reported on Tuesday that the FDA would issue the guidance to boost transparency and public trust over fears it was being pressured to rush out a vaccine.

“We’re looking at that and that has to be approved by the White House. We may or may not approve it,” Trump told a White House news conference, when asked about the report.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani, Additional reporting by Caroline Humer; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

New York pushes ahead with more reopenings as COVID-19 cases rise in U.S. Midwest

By Maria Caspani and Barbara Goldberg

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Governor Andrew Cuomo on Thursday announced more reopenings in New York state as new coronavirus infections remained low in what was once the U.S. hot spot of the pandemic.

Next Wednesday, New York City malls will be allowed to reopen at 50% capacity and casinos statewide can reopen at 25% capacity, Cuomo said.

“Thanks to the hard work of New Yorkers, we are at a point in our fight against this virus where we can safely reopen malls in New York City as long as they adhere to strict health and safety protocols,” Cuomo said. “Masks, enhanced air ventilation systems, and social distancing will be mandatory.”

The governor also waded into the hotly debated issue of indoor dining in New York City, saying during a conference call with reporters that the final decision rested with the state.

New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson came out on Wednesday in favor of allowing indoor dining in the city, which is home to a thriving restaurant industry that was battered by the pandemic.

“It’s time to allow indoor dining in New York City with reduced capacity and clear guidance to ensure social distancing and safety,” Johnson said in a statement.

Cuomo said he would like to see restaurants reopen for indoor dining in the city but that compliance and enforcement remained a major hurdle in doing so.

“We open restaurants, that’s going to complicate by the hundreds if not thousands the number of establishments that need to be monitored,” he said.

Indoor dining is allowed in New York state with the exception of New York City, where more than 300 restaurateurs recently filed a class-action lawsuit seeking $2 billion in damages, according to media reports.

On Wednesday, gyms in New York City opened for the first time in months. They must operate at 33% capacity, with floors rearranged so patrons can exercise more than 6 feet (1.8 m) apart.

SHIFTING TRENDS

New York has seen by far the most deaths from COVID-19 of any U.S. state, more than 32,000, but its rate of new infections has dropped to among the lowest in the country.

Nationally, new cases of coronavirus have fallen for six weeks in a row, but infections are surging in the Midwest. Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota are reporting the highest percentage of positive test results in the country – over 20% in each state.

Iowa, with a population of more than 3.1 million people, saw over 8,300 new cases last week, up 116%. That compared with about 4,400 new cases in New York state, which has more than 19.4 million residents, according to a Reuters analysis.

Cases also rose 27% last week in Minnesota and 34% in Indiana.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has told state officials to prepare to distribute a potential coronavirus vaccine as early as October, according to documents made public by the agency on Wednesday.

The vaccines would be given first to healthcare workers, national security personnel and nursing homes, the agency said in the documents.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani and Peter Szekely in New York and Barbara Goldberg in Maplewood, New Jersey; Additional reporting by Lisa Shumaker; Editing by Peter Cooney)

New York’s Cuomo announces new restrictions on bars and restaurants after compliance issues

(Reuters) – Bars and restaurants in New York City that receive three “strikes” for failing to enforce social distancing will be forced to close, Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Thursday.

In addition, bars and restaurants across the state will be allowed to serve alcohol only to patrons also ordering food, and walk-up bar service will not be allowed.

The governor announced the restrictions after numerous reports of compliance issues.

“There is significant evidence of failure to comply,” Cuomo said during a conference call with reporters. “It’s wrong, it’s dangerous, it’s selfish, it’s unacceptable. It’s also illegal.” Separately, an announcement on whether New York City would enter Phase 4 of reopening will be made at 4 p.m. EST on Friday, Cuomo said.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani, Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)