Georgia governor urges people to wear masks but opposes a mandate

(Reuters) – Georgia Governor Brian Kemp on Friday urged all people in his state to wear masks for four weeks to halt the spread of the coronavirus but refused to back down on his position banning state and local authorities from mandating the wearing of masks.

With the state experiencing a spike in COVID-19 infections, Kemp issued an executive order on Wednesday suspending local regulations requiring masks, then sued the city of Atlanta on Thursday to stop it from enforcing its mask mandate.

“While we all agree that wearing a mask is effective, I’m confident that Georgians don’t need a mandate to do the right thing. I know that Georgians can rise to this challenge and they will,” Kemp told a news conference.

The state’s lawsuit alleges Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms lacked the authority to require masks and contended she must follow Kemp’s executive orders.

“Mayor Bottoms’ mask mandate cannot be enforced, but her decision to shutter businesses and undermine economic growth is devastating,” Kemp said. “Atlanta businesses are hurt, violent crime is up and families are rightfully worried.”

The Georgia conflict played out amid a wider cultural divide in the United States, in which public health experts have pleaded with politicians and the public to cover their faces to help stop the spread of infections, while President Donald Trump and his supporters have been calling for a return to normal economic activity and have played down the urgency for masks.

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta and Peter Szekely; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Howard Goller)

Hundreds protest in Michigan seeking end to governor’s emergency powers

By Michael Martina and Seth Herald

DETROIT/LANSING, Mich. (Reuters) – Hundreds of protesters, some armed, gathered at Michigan’s state Capitol in Lansing on Thursday objecting to Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s request to extend emergency powers to combat COVID-19, an appeal Republican lawmakers ignored.

The protest appeared to be the largest in the state since April 15, when supporters of President Donald Trump organized thousands of people for “Operation Gridlock,” jamming the streets of Lansing with their cars to call out what they said was the overreach of Whitmer’s strict stay-at-home order.

The slow reopening of state economies around the country has taken on political overtones, as Republican politicians and individuals affiliated with Trump’s re-election promoted such protests in electoral swing states, such as Michigan.

Many people at Thursday’s “American Patriot Rally”, including militia group members carrying firearms and people with pro-Trump signs, appeared to be ignoring state social-distancing guidelines as they clustered together within 6 feet of each other.

“Governor Whitmer, and our state legislature, it’s over with. Open this state,” Mike Detmer, a Republican U.S. congressional candidate running for the state’s 8th District spot held by Democrat Elissa Slotkin, told the crowd. “Let’s get businesses back open again. Let’s make sure there are jobs to go back to.”

Police allowed more than a hundred protesters to peacefully enter the Capitol building around 1 p.m., where they crammed shoulder-to-shoulder and sought access to legislative chambers, some carrying long guns, few wearing face masks.

People had their temperature taken by police as they entered. Inside, they sang the national anthem and chanted: “Let us work.”

Other speakers at the event, which had different organizers than the mid-April protest, questioned the deadliness of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus.

They also said Whitmer’s stay-at-home order violated constitutional rights, and urged people to open their businesses on May 1 in disregard of her order.

‘FREEDOM OF SPEECH’

State authorities have warned that protesters could be ticketed for violating social-distancing rules. The mayor of Lansing, Andy Schor, said in a statement on Wednesday that he was “disappointed” protesters would put themselves and others at risk, but recognized that Whitmer’s order still allowed people to “exercise their First Amendment right to freedom of speech.”

State legislative approval of Whitmer’s state of emergency declaration, which gives her special executive powers, is set to expire after Thursday.

She had asked for a 28-day extension, though Republican lawmakers in control of the statehouse instead voted on bills to replace the state of emergency and her executive orders with “a normal democratic process,” according to a statement from Republican House Speaker Lee Chatfield.

Whitmer is likely to veto moves to limit her authority, and state Democrats denounced the Republican efforts as political theater.

Whitmer contends that her emergency powers will remain in place regardless under other state laws. The stay-at-home order is set to continue through May 15, though she has said she could loosen restrictions as health experts determine new cases of COVID-19 are being successfully controlled.

Whitmer has acknowledged that her order was the strictest in the country, but she defended it as necessary as Michigan became one of the states hardest hit by the virus, having already claimed 3,789 lives there.

Protesters, many from more rural, Trump-leaning parts of Michigan, have argued it has crippled the economy statewide even as the majority of deaths from the virus are centered on the southeastern Detroit metro area.

Many states, including Georgia, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Ohio, have already moved to restart parts of their economies following weeks of mandatory lockdowns that have thrown nearly one in six American workers out of their jobs.

(Reporting by Michael Martina in Detroit and Seth Herald in Lansing, Mich.; Editing by Matthew Lewis and Jonathan Oatis)

Hundreds protest in Michigan as governor seeks to extend emergency powers

By Michael Martina and Seth Herald

DETROIT/LANSING, Mich. (Reuters) – Hundreds of protesters gathered at Michigan’s state Capitol in Lansing on Thursday to protest Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s request to extend the state of emergency to combat COVID-19, an appeal Republican lawmakers there have opposed.

The protest appeared to be the largest in the state since April 15, when supporters and allies of President Donald Trump organized thousands of people for “Operation Gridlock,” jamming the streets of Lansing with their cars to call out what they said was the overreach of Whitmer’s strict stay-at-home order.

That was one of the country’s first major anti-lockdown rallies, and helped sparked a wave of similar events nationwide.

The slow reopening of state economies around the country has taken on political overtones, as Republican politicians and individuals affiliated with Trump’s re-election promoted protests in electoral battleground states, such as Michigan.

Many people at Thursday’s protest, including militia group members carrying firearms and people with pro-Trump signs, appeared to be ignoring state social-distancing guidelines as they clustered together within 6 feet of each other. Few people wore masks.

“Governor Whitmer, and our state legislature, it’s over with. Open this state,” Mike Detmer, a Republican U.S. congressional candidate running for the state’s 8th district spot held by Democrat Elissa Slotkin, told the crowd. “Let’s get businesses back open again. Let’s make sure there are jobs to go back to.”

Other speakers at the “American Patriot Rally,” which had different organizers than the mid-April protest, questioned the deadliness of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus. They also said Whitmer’s stay-at-home order violated constitutional rights, and urged people to open their businesses on May 1 in disregard of her order.

As the event began around 9 a.m. under steady rainfall, some protesters chanted “USA” and “lock her up,” referring to Whitmer, a Democrat, but alluding to a refrain often chanted at 2016 Trump rallies directed at Hillary Clinton.

‘FREEDOM OF SPEECH’

State authorities have warned that protesters could be ticketed for violating social-distancing rules. The mayor of Lansing, Andy Schor, said in a statement on Wednesday that he was “disappointed” protesters would put themselves and others at risk, but recognized that Whitmer’s order still allowed people to “exercise their First Amendment right to freedom of speech.”

Whitmer has acknowledged that her order was the strictest in the country. Protesters, many from more rural, Trump-leaning parts of Michigan, have argued it has crippled the economy statewide even as the majority of deaths from the virus are centered on the southeastern Detroit metro area.

Many states, including Georgia, Oklahoma, Alaska, South Carolina and Ohio, have already moved to restart parts of their economies following weeks of mandatory lockdowns that have thrown nearly one in six American workers out of their jobs.

Organizers of the mid-April protest in Michigan took credit when Whitmer later in April rolled back some of the most controversial elements of her order, such as bans on people traveling to their other properties.

State legislative approval of Whitmer’s state of emergency declaration, which gives her special executive powers, is set to expire after Thursday.

She has asked for a 28-day extension, though Republican lawmakers in control of the statehouse who want to see a faster economic opening have signaled they could reject her request.

Regardless, Whitmer’s stay-at-home order is set to continue through May 15, though she has said she could loosen restrictions as health experts determine new cases of COVID-19 are being successfully controlled.

On Wednesday, she said the construction industry could get back to work starting May 7.

Public health authorities warn that increasing human interactions now without appropriate safety measures may spark a fresh surge of infections.

(Reporting by Michael Martina in Detroit and Seth Herald in Lansing, Mich.; Editing by Matthew Lewis)

Puerto Rico governor resigns, protesters warn successor: ‘We don’t want you either’

Demonstrators celebrate after the resignation of Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello in San Juan, Puerto Rico, July 24, 2019. REUTERS/Gabriella N. Baez

By Nick Brown

SAN JUAN (Reuters) – People danced in the streets of San Juan’s old city on Thursday, after Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello bowed to protesters’ demands and said he would quit over profane chat messages and a corruption scandal that have sparked massive demonstrations.

The continuing celebrations were tempered by the fact that protesters weren’t enthused over Secretary of Justice Wanda Vazquez being next in line to succeed Rossello based on current cabinet vacancies.

One protester waved a sign reading “Wanda, we don’t want you either” and another shouted, “Wanda, you’re next!”

Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello speaks as he announces his resignation in San Juan, Puerto Rico, early July 25, 2019. La Forteleza de Puerto Rico/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY.

Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello speaks as he announces his resignation in San Juan, Puerto Rico, early July 25, 2019. La Forteleza de Puerto Rico/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS – THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY.

After 12 days of sometimes violent demonstrations, first-term governor Rossello said he would step down on Aug. 2, having failed to soothe critics by vowing not to seek re-election and giving up the leadership of his political party.

“To continue in this position would make it difficult for the success that I have achieved to endure,” Rossello said in an overnight address, listing accomplishments in office that ranged from creating new industries to promoting equal pay for women.

Rossello’s term as governor has seen the island hit with back-to-back 2017 hurricanes that killed some 3,000 people and wreaked widespread destruction, just months after the U.S. territory filed for bankruptcy to restructure $120 billion of debt and pension obligations.

Thousands of protesters in San Juan’s historic Old City erupted in joy when news broke that Rossello was stepping down.

“Man it’s amazing, man, it’s wonderful, man I’m so happy,” said 19-year-old Leonardo Elias Natal. “I’m so proud of my country.”

Others, including Natal’s girlfriend, were more measured.

“I’m really, really, really, really happy, but I know we need to stay right here, screaming,” said Julie Rivera, 21, who was already planning to return after dawn for another protest against the woman Rossello has tapped to succeed him.

Vazquez, a 59-year-old former district attorney, was too close to Rossello, Rivera said.

Vazquez rejected charges of improper past business ties leveled in Puerto Rican media.

“During our career in public service, we’ve shown that we’ve worked in a righteous and honest manner to benefit the public,” Vazquez told Puerto Rican media.

After celebrating late into the night, hundreds of protesters joined a morning rally in the city’s financial district to mark the governor’s resignation and make clear their opposition to Vazquez.

U.S. Representative Jenniffer Gonzalez, the island’s nonvoting delegate to Congress, said she welcomed Vazquez’s elevation.

“I turn to all my fellow Puerto Ricans to ask them for peace and tranquility,” said Gonzalez, a Republican and member of Rossello’s party. “The new governor, Wanda Vazquez, has all my support, experience and resources.”

‘PEOPLE … ARE AT STAKE’

Multiple Democratic members of U.S. congress urged their colleagues not to use the political turmoil as a reason to limit federal funding for the disaster-rocked island or to block a plan to increase federal Medicare funding for the island by $12 billion over four years..

“The people of Puerto Rico are at stake here, not any particular individual that happens to be in the governor’s seat right now,” U.S. Representative, Raúl Grijalva the Democratic chairman of the National Resources Committee, said in a video posted online.

Weary of crisis and a decade-long recession, Puerto Ricans were angered when U.S. authorities on July 10 accused two former Rossello administration officials of pocketing federal money through government contracts.

The final straw for many on the island came July 13 when Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism published 889 pages of chat messages between Rossello and 11 close allies.

In messages between November 2018 and January 2019, the group made profane and sometimes violent statements about female political opponents, gay singer Ricky Martin and ordinary Puerto Ricans.

The chats tapped into simmering resentment toward the island’s political elites, drawing an estimated 500,000 people onto a San Juan highway on Monday to demand that Rossello quit as governor of the island’s 3.2 million people.

Rossello also faced the twin threats of an investigation by the island’s Department of Justice and political impeachment by its legislature.

Not all Puerto Ricans were delighted at Rossello’s fall.

While Ricky Shub, 33, agreed that the former scientist in his first elected office should step down, he said Rossello had become a lightning rod for decades of pent-up anger.

“He’s taking the fall for a bunch of past governors that put us in this position,” said Shub, watching the celebrations in the old city from his friend’s roof deck. “Everyone here is right to do what they’re doing, but they should have done it 20 years ago.”

(Reporting by Nick Brown in San Juan, additional reporting by Luis Valentin Ortiz and Marco Bello in San Juan and Karen Pierog in Chicago, writing by Scott Malone and Andrew Hay; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

Florida governor declares emergency before white nationalist’s speech

FILE PHOTO: Richard Spencer, a leader and spokesperson for the so-called alt-right movement, speaks to the media at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland, U.S., February 23, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

(Reuters) – Florida Governor Rick Scott declared a state of emergency on Monday ahead of a speech by a white nationalist leader later this week at the University of Florida, in order to free up resources to prepare for possible violence.

Rallies by neo-Nazis and white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August led to violent street clashes with counter-protesters. After the melee, as counter-protesters were dispersing, a 20-year-old man who is said by law enforcement to have harbored Nazi sympathies smashed his car into the crowd, killing a 32-year-old woman.

“This executive order is an additional step to ensure that the University of Florida and the entire community is prepared so everyone can stay safe,” Scott said in a statement.

Scott said in the order there was a need to implement a coordinated security plan among local and state agencies before the speech by Richard Spencer on Thursday in Gainesville.

Spencer heads a white nationalist group

University of Florida officials were not immediately available for comment. Local media reports said the school was threatened with a lawsuit if it tried to block Spencer.

The Orlando Sentinel newspaper quoted Spencer as saying the emergency declaration was “flattering” but “most likely overkill.”

In a video message this week, University of Florida President Kent Fuchs told students to stay away, deny Spencer attention and ignore his “message of hate.”

“The values of our universities are not shared by Mr. Spencer. Our campuses are places where people from all races, origins and religions are welcome and treated with love,” he said, adding he was required by law to allow him speak.

“We refuse to be defined by this event. We will overcome this external threat to our campus and our values,” Fuchs said.

(Reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Boko Haram militants kill at least 30 fishermen in northeast Nigeria: governor

Nigeria to release $1 billion from excess oil account to fight Boko Haram

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (Reuters) – Boko Haram militants killed at least 30 fishermen in raids on communities around Lake Chad in northeastern Nigeria, the governor of Borno state, residents and military sources said on Tuesday.

The raids are part of renewed attacks by the militant Islamist group which, prior to the latest attacks, have led to at least 113 people being killed by insurgents since June 1.

Last month members of an oil prospecting team were kidnapped in the restive Lake Chad Basin region, prompting a rescue bid that left at least 37 dead including members of the team.

It was carried out by a Boko Haram faction allied to Islamic State which has been active around Lake Chad.

Kashim Shettima, governor of Borno state which is at the epicenter of the insurgency, told journalists that Boko Haram militants had attacked and killed over 30 people in different villages in the latest attacks.

Residents and military sources said the militants ambushed fishermen in a series of raids between Saturday and Monday at villages near the northeast Nigerian border town of Baga.

Baga is at Nigeria’s border with Chad, Niger and Cameroon and in 2015 was the site of fierce fighting between the insurgents and Nigerian troops.

The Boko Haram insurgency, aimed at creating an Islamic state in northeast Nigeria, has killed 20,000 people and forced some 2.7 million to flee their homes in the last eight years.

(Reporting by Lanre Ola, Ahmed Kingimi, Kolowale Adewale and Ardo Abdullahi in Bauchi; Writing by Alexis Akwagyiram; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Trump to nominate Kansas Governor Brownback as religious freedom ambassador

Trump picks Brownback for Religious Freedome Ambassador

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump intends to nominate Republican Kansas Governor Sam Brownback as ambassador at large for international religious freedom, the White House said on Wednesday.

Brownback, who previously served in both the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, would assume the position created in the State Department by the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, of which he was one of the key sponsors.

In 2015, Brownback issued an executive order protecting the religious freedom of clergy and organizations that opposed same-sex marriage as Kansas began to comply with the landmark ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court legalizing gay marriage.

“We … recognize that religious liberty is at the heart of who we are as Kansans and Americans, and should be protected,” Brownback, governor since 2011, said at the time of the order. He was re-elected in 2014 and is not eligible to serve a third consecutive term.

(Reporting by Washington Newsroom; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Governor orders evacuation of Dakota pipeline protest camp

police vehicles sit on outskirts of protest camp in North Dakota

(Reuters) – The governor of North Dakota ordered protesters on Wednesday to evacuate a demonstration camp near the site of the Dakota Access Pipeline in the latest move to clear the area that has served as a base for opposition to the multibillion dollar project.

Republican Doug Burgum ordered demonstrators to leave the camp located on land owned by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers by Feb. 22, citing safety concerns that have arisen due to accelerated snowmelt and rising water levels of the nearby Cannonball River.

Burgum also said in his executive order that the camp poses an environmental danger to the surrounding area. His order reaffirms a Feb. 22 deadline set by the Army Corps for the demonstrators to clean up and leave.

Environmentalists and Native Americans who have opposed the pipeline, saying it threatens water resources and sacred sites, have faced a series of set-backs since President Donald Trump took office in January.

A federal judge on Monday denied a request by Native American tribes seeking to halt construction of the final link of the $3.8 billion pipeline after the Corps of Engineers granted a final easement to Energy Transfer Partners LP last week.

(Reporting by Timothy Mclaughlin in CHICAGO and Brendan O’Brien in MILWAUKEE; Editing by Tom Hogue)

New York governor calls for amending state constitution for abortion rights

Andrew Cuomo Governor of New York discusses abortion rights

By David Ingram

NEW YORK (Reuters) – New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Monday he would seek to ensure that women have access to late-term abortions in the state even if conservatives on the U.S. Supreme Court remove federal legal guarantees in place since the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling.

Cuomo, a Democrat who is considered a potential candidate for his party’s 2020 presidential nomination, proposed an amendment to the New York Constitution that he said would preserve the status quo regardless of future Supreme Court rulings.

President Donald Trump, the Republican who took office on Jan. 20, plans to announce a nominee to the Supreme Court on Tuesday. That person, if confirmed, is expected to restore the court’s conservative majority after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in 2016.

The high court ruled four decades ago that the U.S. Constitution protects the right of a woman to have an abortion until the point of viability.

The court defined that as when the fetus “has the capability of meaningful life outside the mother’s womb,” generally at about 24 weeks into pregnancy.

The court also recognized a right to abortion after viability if necessary to protect the woman’s life or health.

If the Supreme Court were to overrule Roe v. Wade, as abortion opponents have long hoped, the procedure would remain legal only where state laws allow it.

In New York, a state law that dates to 1970 legalized abortion up to 24 weeks of pregnancy, and afterward only if the woman’s life is at stake, with no exception for health. The law is not enforced but could be if Roe v. Wade were overruled, abortion advocates say.

The state’s law was “revolutionary back in the day because it legalized abortion before Roe v. Wade, but is now unchanged,” Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said in an interview this month. “The state law is not as protective as Roe,” she said.

Dennis Poust, a spokesman for the New York State Catholic Conference, which opposes abortion, predicted that Cuomo’s proposal would fail.

“How many abortions are enough?” he said in a statement, noting New York’s high rate of abortions. “No one can credibly claim that access to abortion is under any threat in New York.”

There were 29.6 abortions per 1,000 women in New York in 2014, compared to 14.6 abortions per 1,000 women nationally, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit group that supports abortion rights.

Cuomo told a Planned Parenthood rally in Albany, New York, on Monday that women’s rights were under attack in Washington.

“As they threaten this nation with a possible Supreme Court nominee who will reverse Roe v. Wade,” Cuomo said, according to a transcript provided by his office. “We’re going to protect Roe v. Wade in the State of New York.”

New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman issued a legal opinion in September making clear that federal court rulings supersede the state’s 1970 law.

For a constitutional amendment to succeed in New York, majorities in the legislature must approve it twice, in successive terms, and voters must approve it.

Republicans control the New York Senate, although it is possible some Republicans might support such an amendment if pressured by constituents who favor abortion rights, said Costas Panagopoulos, a political scientist at New York’s Fordham University.

Opposition to Trump may galvanize liberals into being aggressive, Panagopoulos said.

“People are scared, and that might compel them to action in a way that different circumstances might have them sitting on the sidelines,” he said.

For years, states have planned for a day when the Supreme Court might overrule Roe v. Wade. Some 19 states have laws that could restrict abortion in that event, while seven have laws that would still guarantee the right to an abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

(Reporting by David Ingram; Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Frank McGurty and David Gregorio)

Michigan governor expects no charges over Flint crisis

Michigan Republican Governor Rick Snyder in Lansing, Michigan, U.S.,

(Reuters) – Michigan Governor Rick Snyder said he had “no reason to be concerned” he would be charged in connection with the Flint drinking water crisis that exposed city residents to high levels of lead, the Detroit Free Press reported on Thursday.

Snyder made the comments to the newspaper on Wednesday, the day after two Flint emergency managers appointed by the governor were indicted on felony charges of conspiring to violate safety rules.

“I have no reason to be concerned,” Snyder was quoted as saying, while acknowledging he could not speak on behalf of state Attorney General Bill Schuette. Both Snyder and Schuette are Republicans.

Snyder told the paper much of the $3.5 million in taxes he is using for his criminal defense was being spent to find and prepare records requested by Schuette and the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which is also investigating the water scandal.

Schuette has filed 43 criminal charges against 13 current and former state and local officials, including the emergency managers this week.

Snyder’s office did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the interview.

Flint has been at the center of a public health crisis since last year, when tests found high amounts of lead in blood samples taken from children in the poor, predominantly black city of about 100,000 residents.

Critics have called for charges to be brought against the governor, who has been in office since 2011, as well as other high-ranking state officials. Snyder has said he believes he did nothing criminally wrong.

Asked at a news conference on Tuesday whether the investigation would lead to charges against senior state officials, Schuette said no one was excluded from the probe.

Flint’s water contamination was linked to a switch of its source to the Flint River from Lake Huron in April 2014, a change made in an attempt to cut costs, while the city was under state-run emergency management.

(Reporting by Laila Kearney; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Lisa Von Ahn)