Biden puts focus on climate change, domestic priorities on flood damage trip

By Nandita Bose

HILLSBOROUGH TOWNSHIP, N.J. (Reuters) – President Joe Biden visited flood-damaged New Jersey on Tuesday to survey the upheaval caused by Hurricane Ida, putting a focus on climate change and domestic priorities after weeks of public attention on the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Biden promised federal aid and urged national unity during a trip to storm-hit Louisiana on Friday after Ida devastated parts of the U.S. Gulf Coast and unleashed even deadlier flooding in the Northeast.

On Tuesday, he will be briefed by local leaders in Hillsborough Township, New Jersey, and tour a neighborhood in Manville that was hit hard by the storm.

Later, he will visit a neighborhood in New York City’s Queens borough and deliver remarks there.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Biden would emphasize that one out of three Americans lives in counties that have been impacted by severe weather events in recent months.

“The average costs of extreme weather are getting bigger, and no one is immune from climate change,” Psaki said, referencing what Biden would address in his remarks.

The president’s flood damage trips revive a familiar role of consoler-in-chief, a shift from the time he has spent staunchly defending his decision to pull U.S. troops from Afghanistan and the deadly aftermath that ensued.

Although the Afghanistan issue is not behind him – the United States is still working to get Americans left in the country out, and resettling tens of thousands of evacuees – Biden is expected to focus in the coming days on a fight to protect women’s reproductive rights in the wake of a new Texas anti-abortion law, the end of extended unemployment benefits for many Americans, and new measures to fight COVID-19.

On Saturday, the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, he will visit the three sites where hijacked U.S. domestic planes crashed, and next week, he plans to visit California to boost Democrat Governor Gavin Newsom’s effort to stay in office amid a recall election.

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said on Tuesday it would take “months more likely than weeks” to complete cleanup, repairs and rebuilding after his state was ravaged by flooding and a tornado from the remnants of Storm Ida. He told CNN that Biden, who has issued disaster declarations for six of the state’s counties, had been “pitch perfect” in his response to the storm’s destruction.

Dozens of people have died from the hurricane’s destruction and some states are still grappling with widespread power outages and water-filled homes.

Speaking briefly to reporters on Monday evening after a trip to his home state of Delaware, Biden declared that Tuesday would be a “big day.” The president has used the storm to highlight the need for infrastructure spending in a bill he is working to get through Congress.

(Reporting by Nandita Bose and Jeff Mason; additional reporting by Peter Szekely; Writing by Jeff Mason; Editing by Heather Timmons, Dan Grebler and Bernadette Baum)

‘Historic’ New York-area flooding in Ida’s wake leaves at least 14 dead

By Barbara Goldberg and Maria Caspani

NEW YORK (Reuters) -Flooding killed at least 14 people, swept away cars, submerged subway lines and temporarily grounded flights in New York and New Jersey as the remnants of Hurricane Ida brought torrential rains to the area.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio told a Thursday news conference there were nine confirmed fatalities in New York caused by what he had described as a “historic weather event.”

Countless rescues were made overnight of motorists and subway riders who became stranded in the flood waters, de Blasio said. “So many lives were saved because of the fast, courageous, response of our first responders,” he said.

Images posted on social media overnight showed water gushing over subway platforms and people wading through knee-deep water in their buildings.

Streets turned to rivers as flooding swept away cars in videos captured by stunned residents.

Four residents of Elizabeth, a city in New Jersey, perished in flooding at Oakwood Plaza, a public housing complex that was “flooded out with eight feet of water,” city spokesperson Kelly Martins told Reuters.

“Sadly, more than a few folks have passed as a result of this,” New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said without elaborating on the death toll at a briefing in Mullica Hill in the southern part of the state where a tornado had ripped apart several homes.

The hit to the Middle Atlantic region came three days after Ida, one of the most powerful hurricanes to strike the U.S. Gulf Coast, devastated southern Louisiana. Reconnaissance flights revealed entire communities destroyed by wind and floods.

Ida’s remnants brought six to eight inches (15 to 20 cm) of rain to a swath of the Northeast from Philadelphia to Connecticut and set an hourly record of 3.15 inches for Manhattan, breaking the previous one that was set less than two weeks ago, the National Weather Service said.

The 7.13 inches of rain that fell in New York City on Wednesday was the city’s fifth highest daily amount, it said.

The number of disasters, such as floods and heat waves, driven by climate change has increased fivefold over the past 50 years, according to a report released earlier this week by The World Meteorological Organization, a U.N. agency.

One person died in Passaic, New Jersey, due to the flooding and the search continued for others, the city’s mayor, Hector Lora, said in a video posted to Facebook on Thursday.

“We are presently still making efforts to identify and try to locate other individuals that have not been accounted for,” Lora said.

NBC New York reported at least 23 fatalities, including a toddler and said that most “if not all” deaths were flood-related.

The governors of New York and New Jersey, who had declared emergencies in their states on Wednesday, urged residents to stay home as crews worked to clear roadways and restore service to New York City subways and commuter rail lines serving millions of residents.

“Right now my street looks more like a lake,” said Lucinda Mercer, 64, as she peered out her apartment window in Hoboken, New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from New York.

Mercer, who works as a crisis line fundraiser, said flood waters were lapping halfway up the hub caps of parked cars.

Subway service in New York City remained “extremely limited” while there was no service at all on commuter rail lines to the city’s northern suburbs on Thursday morning, the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) said. Janno Lieber, the MTA’s acting chair and CEO, told local media it was going to take until later in the day to restore full service.

The Long Island Railroad, which is also run by the MTA, said early on Thursday that services on most of its branches had been restored but commuters should expect systemwide delays of up to 30 minutes.

‘HUMBLED BY MOTHER NATURE’

Michael Wildes, mayor of Englewood, a city in New Jersey located just across the Hudson River from Manhattan, said the city’s central business district was under water and some residents had to be evacuated to the library overnight.

“We are being humbled by mother nature in this last year and a half,” Wildes told Reuters by phone.

He said there were no known deaths in Englewood, although police, fire and other emergency responders had extracted several people trapped in their cars.

Mark Haley of Summit, New Jersey, said getting back home after a 15-minute drive to a bowling alley to celebrate his daughter’s sixth birthday on Wednesday night became a six-hour slog through flood waters that often left him trapped.

“When we got out, it was a war zone,” said Haley, 50, a fitness trainer, who got home to find almost two feet (0.6 m) of water in his basement.

All New Jersey Transit rail services apart from the Atlantic City Rail Line were suspended, the service said on its website.

Amtrak said on Thursday morning that it canceled all passenger rail service between Philadelphia and Boston.

New Jersey’s Newark Liberty Airport warned about flight disruptions and said about 370 flights were canceled as of Thursday morning.

More than 200,000 electricity customers were without power early on Thursday in five northeastern states that got most of the rains overnight, mostly in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, according to PowerOutage.US, which gathers data from utility companies. There were also outages in New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts, it said.

(Reporting by Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru, Maria Caspani and Peter Szekely in New York, Barbara Goldberg in Maplewood, New Jersey, and Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu and Susan Heavey in Washington, Ann Maria Shibu and Akriti Sharma in Bengaluru and Sarah Morland in Gdansk; Editing by Christopher Cushing, Shri Navaratnam, Hugh Lawson, Frances Kerry and Steve Orlofsky)

New York becomes first U.S. city to mandate COVID vaccines to enter restaurants, gyms

By Maria Caspani

NEW YORK (Reuters) -New York City will become the first major U.S. city to require proof of COVID-19 vaccination for customers and staff at restaurants, gyms and other indoor businesses as the country enters a new phase of battling the highly contagious Delta variant.

Unlike the surges last year and in January, highly effective vaccines are now widely available against the virus that has killed over 600,000 people in the United States, lessening the need to close businesses and for people to stay home.

The federal government and several states have already required public employees to get vaccinated as have some hospitals and universities. Meatpacker Tyson Foods on Tuesday became one of the largest private employers to require all workers be immunized.

New York City’s policy requires proof of at least one dose and will be enforced starting Sept. 13. Like past policies over masks and stay-at-home orders, the plan will likely meet resistance. In France, the requirement of a nationwide health passport proving vaccination has resulted in police using tear gas to disperse protesters.

“It is time for people to see vaccination as literally necessary to living a good and full and healthy life,” de Blasio told a news conference.

About 60% of all New Yorkers have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to city data. But certain areas, largely poor communities and communities of color, have lower vaccination rates.

HOT SPOTS

The city’s announcement comes as cases surge nationwide with Florida and Louisiana emerging as major virus hot spots where hospitals are once again straining with the influx of COVID patients.

Florida and Louisiana are both reporting record numbers of hospitalized COVID patients, as one doctor warned of the “darkest days” yet.

More than 11,300 patients were hospitalized in Florida as of Tuesday, with COVID patients filling 22% of the state’s hospital beds, according to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In highly vaccinated Vermont, 0.4% of its hospital beds are occupied by coronavirus patients.

Louisiana was also dealing with one of the worst outbreaks in the nation, prompting Governor John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, to order residents to wear masks again indoors.

COVID-19 hospitalizations in Los Angeles County have nearly quadrupled in the last four weeks to 1,096 on Monday, the department of public health said. The percentage of tests coming back positive for the virus also climbed to 6.2%, up from 1.3% a month ago, according to department data.

To fight the spread in California, political leaders in eight San Francisco Bay Area counties reinstated mandatory indoor mask orders in public places as of midnight Tuesday morning. Governor Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, late last month mandated all state employees to get vaccinated starting Aug. 2 or undergo COVID-19 testing at least once a week.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican, has taken the opposite stance. He issued an executive order last week barring schools from requiring face coverings, saying parents should make that decision for their children.

The Sunshine State claimed another grim record with the highest number of pediatric COVID-19 hospitalizations — 138 as of Tuesday, more than those recorded in Texas despite the much larger population of the latter.

DeSantis doubled down during a press conference on Tuesday, defending the state’s approach.

“We’re not shutting down. We’re going to have schools open. We’re protecting every Floridian’s job in this state. We’re protecting people’s small businesses.”

In Arkansas, another state were hospitalizations for COVID-19 have spiked, Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson said he will ask state legislators on Wednesday to provide an exception to a law that prohibits state and local government, including school boards, from mandating people to wear masks.

The private sector, including many large U.S. companies, have also taken some steps in response to the Delta variant threat.

Detroit’s Big Three automakers and the United Auto Workers (UAW) union said on Tuesday they will reinstate requirements to wear masks at all U.S. plants, offices and warehouses beginning on Wednesday but are not requiring workers to be vaccinated.

Big Tech companies like Alphabet’s Google and Facebook have said all U.S. employees must get vaccinated to step into offices.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani and Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Frank McGurty and Lisa Shumaker)

New York City, California mandate COVID-19 vaccines for government workers

By Gabriella Borter and Maria Caspani

NEW YORK (Reuters) – California and New York City will require government workers to get vaccinated against COVID-19 or be regularly tested for the virus, officials said on Monday, signaling a new level of urgency in their effort to stem a wave of infections caused by the Delta variant.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Monday that the city would require its more than 300,000 employees to get vaccinated by Sept. 13 or else get tested weekly. His announcement came a week after the city passed a vaccine mandate for all healthcare workers at city-run hospitals and clinics.

A few hours later, California Governor Gavin Newsom said that all state employees, some 246,000 people, would be required to get vaccinated starting in August or else be subjected to COVID-19 testing on a minimum weekly basis.

“We’re at a point now in this pandemic where an individual’s choice to not get vaccinated is impacting the rest of us,” Newsom told a press conference on Monday.

Federal and local officials have been warning about a rise in COVID-19 cases with increasing urgency in recent weeks. Across the country, many have aggressively emphasized the importance of getting vaccinated – including some Republican leaders who previously refrained from openly endorsing the vaccines.

On Monday, the Department of Veterans Affairs became the first federal agency to require its employees to get vaccinated.

The mandates this week mark the boldest efforts yet by government agencies to curb the country’s outbreak caused by the highly transmissible Delta variant of COVID-19, which was first found in India earlier this year.

The Delta variant has quickly caused case numbers to spike after the United States enjoyed a drop-off in cases and hospitalizations when vaccines became widely available in the spring.

The Delta variant has also delayed any consideration by the United States to lift existing travel restrictions in the near future, a White House official told Reuters.

At this point, the sharpest increases in COVID-19 cases are in places with lower vaccination rates. Florida, Texas and Missouri account for 40% of all new cases nationwide, with around one in five of all new U.S. cases occurring in Florida, White House adviser Jeffrey Zients said last week.

Just under 50% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The number of vaccine doses administered daily peaked at 4.63 million on April 10, according to CDC data, and it has stagnated and declined since.

On Sunday, the CDC reported an uptick in the number of vaccine doses administered in a day – 778,996, the most given in a 24-hour period since the United States reported giving 1.16 million doses on July 3.

MANDATE RESISTANCE

COVID-19 vaccine and testing mandates remain a point of contention and have already sparked legal opposition in the case of public universities. Opponents see them as a violation of individual rights.

But officials have justified them because the vaccines have proven to be safe and dramatically reduce people’s risk of hospitalization and death from the virus.

Some 57 medical associations on Monday published a statement calling for all healthcare and long-term care employers in the United States to require their employees to get vaccinated, calling it “the logical fulfillment of the ethical commitment of all healthcare workers to put patients as well as residents of long-term care facilities first.”

New York City’s largest public employee union, DC 37, took legal issue with the city’s mandate on Monday.

“If City Hall intends to test our members weekly, they must first meet us at the table to bargain. While we encourage everyone to get vaccinated and support measures to ensure our members’ health and wellbeing, weekly testing is clearly subject to mandatory bargaining,” Executive Director Henry Garrido said in a statement.

De Blasio cited the Delta variant as the city’s reason for moving beyond promoting voluntary vaccination.

“It was one thing to start with a heavy voluntary focus in the beginning and then incentive focus, but it’s quite clear the Delta variant has changed the game,” he said.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter, Maria Caspani, Jan Wolfe and David Shepardson; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

As NYC faces steep recovery, voters head to polls in mayoral election

By Joseph Ax

(Reuters) – Voters in New York City head to the polls on Tuesday to select Democratic and Republican nominees for mayor, following a campaign dominated by debate over public safety as the city recovers from the pandemic and confronts a surge in shootings.

The winner of the crowded Democratic contest, who may not be known until mid-July, will be a heavy favorite to succeed term-limited Mayor Bill de Blasio in November’s general election. Democratic registered voters outnumber Republican voters by more than a six-to-one ratio, state data shows.

The next mayor will be confronted with deep challenges including wealth inequality, police accountability, a lack of affordable housing and a struggling tourism industry in the country’s most populous city of about 8.2 million residents.

The leading Democratic contenders include Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, former presidential candidate and entrepreneur Andrew Yang, former sanitation chief Kathryn Garcia, civil rights lawyer and former MSNBC analyst Maya Wiley and City Comptroller Scott Stringer.

The election will be the first mayoral primary to use ranked-choice voting, in which voters rank up to five candidates in order of preference, adding a layer of uncertainty to the race.

Voters also will choose from eight Democratic candidates seeking to replace Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., who is retiring. The nominee, who will be all but guaranteed to win November’s general election, would inherit Vance’s criminal probe into former President Donald Trump’s business empire.

Adams, a former police captain who put policing and crime at the center of his campaign, has led most recent polls, after months in which Yang appeared to be the front-runner. Garcia, who has run a technocratic campaign focused on her long experience in government, has risen in polls after securing the New York Times editorial board’s endorsement.

All three are considered more moderate and have called for increased police resources to combat rising crime.

Wiley, a liberal, has highlighted the protests against police violence last summer and proposed cutting $1 billion from the nearly $6 billion NYPD budget, redirecting the funding instead to other services, such as mental health counseling.

She has emerged as the preferred candidate for progressive groups, after Stringer lost numerous endorsements in the wake of two sexual misconduct allegations. He has denied any wrongdoing.

Almost all of the top candidates would make history: Adams as the city’s second Black mayor, Yang as the first Asian-American mayor, Garcia as the first female mayor and Wiley as the first Black female mayor.

DELAYED RESULTS

Polls close at 9 p.m. ET. Preliminary results showing voters’ first-choice votes are expected sometime after that, but barring a surprise outcome in which one candidates exceeds 50% of first-choice votes, the final results will likely take weeks.

The Board of Elections intends to announce the first round of results from its tabulation of in-person votes on June 29 and plans to release a second round that includes some absentee ballots a week later. Final results are expected the week of July 12, after the deadline for voters to fix, or “cure,” deficient ballots has passed.

The use of ranked-choice voting, which incentivizes candidates to ask their rivals’ supporters to rank them highly as well, prompted an unusual sight over the race’s final weekend: Yang and Garcia campaigned together on Saturday and Sunday in an apparent effort to blunt Adams’ rising momentum.

Yang encouraged his supporters to rank Garcia as their second choice; Garcia stopped short of doing so but offered praise for Yang’s campaign.

Adams’ campaign suggested the joint appearances were aimed at preventing “a person of color” from winning the race.

“I would tell Eric Adams that I’ve been Asian my entire life,” Yang responded when asked about the claim at a news conference. Adams later clarified that he was referring to Black and Latino candidates.

Wiley issued a statement criticizing Adams, though not by name, for his allegation, saying Yang and Garcia’s decision “is not racist.”

De Blasio, whose approval ratings have dropped in his second term, declined on Monday to say how he would rank the mayoral candidates on his ballot.

Noting it could take weeks for a clear winner to emerge, de Blasio said, “We’re going to have to exercise a little patience here, something we’re not particularly good at as New Yorkers.”

In the Republican election, Curtis Sliwa, the founder of the patrol group Guardian Angels, is running against Fernando Mateo, a businessman who created the “Toys for Guns” program in the 1990s.

(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Additional reporting by Peter Szekely; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Aurora Ellis)

Together again: Elderly New Yorkers rejoice as senior centers reopen

By Maria Caspani

NEW YORK (Reuters) – After more than a year of pandemic-forced separation, 85-year old Justo Fleitas was back at the pool table at his neighborhood’s senior center, finally reunited with a small group of friends and his cue stick.

“It’s beautiful, no words to say how I feel,” said Fleitas, an avid pool player and a regular at the Star Senior Center in Manhattan.

On Monday this week, senior centers in New York City welcomed back the city’s elderly for indoor activities after being closed for more than a year.

Fleitas, who left Cuba for the United States in his 20’s, worked as a barber until he retired more than 20 years ago. After being confined at home with his wife during the coronavirus pandemic that ravaged New York, he said he has been eagerly waiting for the center to reopen.

He was far from alone in that pent up anticipation.

“Before we opened, seniors were already calling, asking for us to reopen,” said Maggie Hernandez, a program coordinator at Star Senior Center. “They were preparing themselves for weeks for this to happen.”

Centers such as the one in the Washington Heights neighborhood of Upper Manhattan are a lifeline for many senior citizens who rely on them for food, companionship and recreation.

When the pandemic shut them down last spring, along with most other activities, some older New Yorkers, at particularly high risk for severe COVID-19, were forced to hunker down at home, often alone.

Staff at Star Senior Center made some 35,000 wellness calls to its seniors who reported suffering from isolation, anxiety and depression, Hernandez said.

‘MISSED HERE SO MUCH’

On the first day of reopening, the center was bustling at lunch hour. Gaggles of seniors gathered around the large tables spread out around the room, filling the place with animated conversations for the first time in more than a year.

Helen Anderson started frequenting the Star Senior Center a few years ago, attracted by its diversity. When the pandemic hit, Anderson said she “tried to survive” by speaking on the phone with the center’s staff.

“Oh my goodness, I missed here so much,” said Anderson, 72, as she tucked a face covering under her glasses to keep it from sliding down.

Anderson, who lives alone, said she started seeing her daughter in person during the Christmas holidays late last year, although she did not allow her inside the apartment for fear of getting sick.

The retired nurse said she religiously watched New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s daily news conferences hoping for an announcement about the reopening of senior centers.

On June 1, de Blasio said senior centers could resume outdoor activities and indoor gatherings would resume on June 14.

“Seniors bore the brunt of the COVID crisis, they were the most vulnerable,” the mayor said at the time of the announcement.

New Yorkers 75 and older were hospitalized for COVID-19 at rates four times higher than the rest of the population and died at seven times the rate of the rest of the residents, city health data shows https://www1.nyc.gov/site/doh/covid/covid-19-data-totals.page#summary.

About 128 of the 250 senior centers in the Department for the Aging’s (DFTA) network were reopening as of late Tuesday, according to a spokesperson for the department.

Some centers were still wrestling with the logistics of how to safely resume operations as they are open to both vaccinated and unvaccinated seniors.

“Senior centers are notoriously small places,” said Abbie LeWarn, the assistant director of the Queens Center for Gay Seniors.

Prior to the pandemic, up to 70 seniors would frequent that center daily, said LeWarn. But having a tight space with few windows was one of the hurdles to a safe reopening, despite seniors’ excitement.

On Tuesday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo lifted most remaining COVID-19 restrictions. But safety measures like face coverings and social distancing will remain in place at senior centers, at least for now, DFTA said, citing unchanged guidance from the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Despite the rain, more than 40 members showed up to Star on Monday. About 150 seniors would frequent the center on a typical day before the pandemic, Hernandez said.

A small but determined group of elderly women stretched with the aid of chairs and moved to the beat of blaring Latin music, taking their cue from an instructor who shouted words of encouragement into a microphone.

“We’re all so thrilled to be back,” Hernandez said.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani, Editing by Bill Berkrot)

New York City to hold ticker-tape parade for essential COVID-19 workers

(Reuters) – New York City will hold a ticker-tape parade next month for essential workers to honor their heroism on the front lines in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Monday.

The parade will be held along the Canyon of Heroes in Lower Manhattan on Wednesday, July 7. For generations, ticker-tape parades in the largest U.S. city have been typically reserved for championship sports clubs, astronauts and war veterans.

“We are going to hold a parade to honor them, to thank them and to celebrate them,” de Blasio said in a video statement released by his office. “This one will have a special spirit to it, a special heart and soul because it’s about celebrating everyday New Yorkers who did something so heroic.”

In addition to health care workers, the parade will honor police officers, teachers and transportation workers, who went to their jobs each day during the pandemic despite the risks.

More than 33,000 people lost their lives to COVID-19 in New York City, once an epicenter of the outbreak, as hospitals were besieged and streets virtually devoid of human activity.

“It has literally been the greatest crisis in the history of New York City. We were knocked down, but got back up,” de Blasio said.

In announcing the parade, de Blasio also urged New Yorkers to get a COVID-19 vaccine, with the city’s rate of fully vaccinated residents standing at 47% as of Monday, according to the city’s health department.

New York City, with 8.3 million people, reported a 0.59% seven-day average positivity rate and only 50 new hospitalizations on Monday. Most indoor capacity restrictions throughout the city were lifted in May, though masking requirements remain in place.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; Editing by Dan Grebler)

Next stop, Scranton? Biden’s infrastructure plan could make it happen

By Soren Larson

SCRANTON, Pa. (Reuters) – At first glance, the path in northern New Jersey looks like just another trail in the woods. But train buffs know better; the Lackawanna Cutoff is key to a proposed restoration of rail service between New York City and Scranton, Pennsylvania – President Joe Biden’s hometown.

Biden’s massive infrastructure proposal contains $80 billion in new spending on high-speed rail projects, including up to 39 new Amtrak passenger routes and connections to up to 166 cities by 2035.

One proposed route would be from New York to Scranton, the northeastern Pennsylvania city where Biden was born and where he lived until he was 10.

That’s where the Lackawanna Cutoff comes in. Built between 1909 and 1911 by the Delaware, Lackawanna & Western Railroad, it provided a fast way for trains to travel from New York to Scranton and on to Buffalo, New York. For some years, travelers could continue westward to Chicago.

“It was considered to be an engineering triumph when it was built,” said Chuck Walsh, who has been walking the trail for over 35 years.

Walsh, president of the North Jersey Rail Commuter organization, has spent years trying to restore passenger rail service to the abandoned line.

Miles of large earthen mounds, called “fills,” and huge concrete structures like the Paulinskill Viaduct in Columbia, New Jersey, attest to the monumental investment and effort it took to build it.

But in the late 1950s and 1960s, as the United States increasingly turned to cars for transportation, rail service declined. Many railroads went out of business and rail lines were abandoned. The same fate befell the cutoff.

Passenger train service on the line ended in 1970, and freight traffic lasted a few years longer. By 1979, the entire 28-1/2-mile (46-km) length of the cutoff had been taken out of service, and the rails were soon pulled up.

The campaign to restore passenger rail has made some progress. In 2001, the state of New Jersey purchased the cutoff from private developers. Ten years later, New Jersey Transit began work on the cutoff’s eastern end, laying down sections of track over seven miles (11 km). Recently, however, progress has stalled.

Enter Biden.

Long an advocate of Amtrak and passenger rail, the Democratic president in March announced a big expansion plan for Amtrak as part of his infrastructure proposal.

In Scranton, the announcement got a warm welcome.

“We knew what we lost,” Larry Malski, who took the last passenger train from Scranton to New York in 1970, said recently. Malski is president of the Pennsylvania Northeast Regional Railroad Authority, which runs the Pennsylvania section of the track that the Scranton Amtrak corridor would run on. The authority also runs lines used by freight providers in the area.

“Scranton was built on coal, railroads, the steel,” Malski said. “And the railroads, unfortunately, almost disappeared. We saved what we could and we saved a lot of what was here, thank God, because now it’s vibrant and our freight industry is booming. But we need to bring back the passenger train.”

The prospects of bringing Amtrak service to Scranton and other U.S. corridor cities now depend on negotiations between the Biden administration and congressional Republicans over how much money to spend on infrastructure and how to pay for it.

On Tuesday, Biden broke off talks with a key Republican, instead reaching out to a bipartisan group, after the one-on-one negotiations with Senator Shelley Capito of West Virginia were described as hitting a “brick wall.”

Lawmakers said on Wednesday that the bipartisan group was discussing whether to revitalize infrastructure without raising taxes, as Biden has proposed.

Paul Lewis, a vice president at the nonprofit ENO Center for Transportation in Washington, said bringing rail service to Scranton and elsewhere will depend on local support as well as the negotiations in Washington.

In Scranton, the business community supports the project, according to Greater Scranton Chamber of Commerce President Bob Durkin.

“We think if that happens, that’s going to be a tremendous benefit” to the community, its businesses and people, Durkin said. “And we think it’ll work.”

Rail authority head Malski said a lot of work has already been done to prepare for the service, including New Jersey Transit’s starting to lay rails and the construction in Scranton of a new terminal to provide bus and other transportation connections on the site where the new passenger rail terminal would be built.

With an emphasis on car and plane transportation, investment in rail has been a difficult sell in the United States over the past few decades. But Malski said real investment in passenger rail in the United States, like that in Europe, Japan and, more recently, China, is “long overdue.”

“We need to regain our prominence as a rail passenger nation,” said Malski.

(Reporting by Soren Larson; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

New York City plans Central Park concert to mark pandemic comeback

By Maria Caspani

NEW YORK (Reuters) – New York will host a concert in Central Park featuring an undisclosed line-up of major musical artists in August to mark the city’s comeback from the coronavirus pandemic, Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Monday.

The live music event is part of a week-long citywide celebration of the city – once the U.S. epicenter of the pandemic – as vaccination rates rise and the virus abates.

“This is going to be an amazing, memorable once-in-a-lifetime week in New York City,” the mayor told a news conference.

De Blasio did not announce a line-up or a date for the concert, although the New York Times reported it is tentatively set for Aug. 21 in Central Park’s Great Lawn.

Clive Davis, a legendary music industry figure, will pull together the huge event that will feature an “all-star” roster of artists, according to de Blasio.

The Times reported that the concert will have vaccinated and unvaccinated sections, with about 70% of tickets going to vaccinated individuals.

Encouraged by the warm weather, the city’s streets, restaurants and parks are once again teeming with activity, a sight unseen during the long months when COVID-19 wreaked havoc on the metropolis.

On Monday, de Blasio said, New York City clocked the lowest positivity rate since the pandemic began at 0.71%. Nearly 4.5 million people have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine as officials offer prizes and other incentives to push those still reluctant to get the shots.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said at a separate news conference on Monday that the state would lift most remaining COVID-19 restrictions when 70% of residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine, 1.4% away from the current rate.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani, Editing by Angus MacSwan)

New York City to deploy more patrols in Times Square after shooting

By Barbara Goldberg

NEW YORK (Reuters) – More New York police officers will patrol Times Square after a shooting last weekend that injured three people, including a child, the mayor said on Monday as he sought to reassure visitors that the city is safe as it reopens after the yearlong coronavirus pandemic.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said the New York Police Department would add an unspecified number of officers from the Critical Response Command, one of the force’s first lines of defense against a terrorist attack, to patrols in Times Square, a popular tourist attraction.

“We’re putting additional NYPD resources in the Times Square area to add an extra measure of protection,” de Blasio said. “It will be use of our CRC officers in Times Square. You’ll see additional presence.”

Police on Monday were still searching for a man they identified as a “person of interest” in the shooting that wounded innocent bystanders just before 5 p.m. Friday local time. The attack stemmed from a domestic dispute, authorities said.

Among those wounded was a child from Brooklyn whose family brought her to Times Square to buy toys, said Police Commissioner Dermot Shea. She and the two other victims – a 23-year-old female tourist from Rhode Island and a 43-year-old woman from New Jersey – were not related to one another or to the shooting itself, Shea said.

The 4-year-old and 23-year-old were shot in the leg and the 43-year-old was shot in the foot, Shea said.

Times Square, which had a reputation for seediness in the 1970s and 80s, has more recently burnished its image and drawn tourists to “the Crossroads of the World,” as a result of soaring property values and gentrification.

After COVID-19 forced a year-long shutdown of New York, once the U.S. epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, de Blasio has vowed to “fully reopen” the city by July 1.

The shooting, he said, will not affect tourism.

“In the end, people want to come to this city. It is an overwhelmingly safe city. When you look at New York compared to cities around the country, around the world, this is a very safe place.”

Tourism in New York is already picking up faster than anticipated, de Blasio said.

“People are starting to come here much earlier than I thought they would. I thought it would go into the summer before we would see that kind of comeback. It’s happening now,” the mayor said.

(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)