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)

U.S. Supreme Court weighs taking up major gun rights case

By Andrew Chung

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Friday discussed taking up a major new gun rights case involving a National Rifle Association-backed challenge to a New York state law that restricts the ability of residents to carry concealed handguns in public.

It was among the cases on the agenda at the private weekly conference of the justices. There is heightened concern about gun violence in the United States following a pair of mass shootings in a span of a week, one in Georgia and the other in Colorado, that killed a total of 18 people.

Two gun owners and the New York affiliate of the NRA, an influential gun rights group closely aligned with Republicans, are asking the justices to hear an appeal of a lower court ruling throwing out their challenge to a policy that requires a state resident to show “proper cause” to obtain a permit to carry a concealed handgun outside the home.

Lower courts rejected the argument made by plaintiffs that the restrictions violated the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.

The Supreme Court is not expected to announce whether it will take action on the appeal until Monday at the earliest.

If the justices do eventually take up the case and hear oral arguments, they would once again step into a swirling debate over gun rights in a nation that has a gun fatality rate consistently higher than other rich countries.

Democratic President Joe Biden on Tuesday urged the Senate to approve two bills passed by the Democratic-led House of Representatives on March 11 that would broaden background checks on gun buyers. Biden also called for a national ban on assault-style weapons, while the White House said he is considering executive actions to address gun violence that would not require the approval of Congress.

Numerous mass shootings in the United States have failed to spur the U.S. Congress to pass gun control legislation sought by Democrats, thanks in large part to opposition from congressional Republicans and the NRA.

The Supreme Court’s 6-3 conservative majority is seen as holding an expansive view of Second Amendment rights.

The New York case, if accepted, could lead to the most consequential ruling on the scope of the Second Amendment in more than a decade. The court in a landmark 2008 ruling recognized for the first time an individual’s right to keep guns at home for self-defense, and in 2010 applied that right to the states.

The plaintiffs in the New York case are asking for that right to be extended beyond the home. A ruling against New York could force lower courts to cast a skeptical eye on new or existing gun control laws.

Under New York’s law on carrying concealed handguns, a resident may obtain licenses that are restricted to hunting and target practice, or if they hold certain jobs such as a bank messenger or correctional officer. But to carry a concealed handgun without restriction, an applicant must convince a firearms licensing officer of an actual – rather than merely speculative – need for self-defense.

(Reporting by Andrew Chung; Editing by Will Dunham)

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)

Court rules against anti-abortion protesters in New York

By Jonathan Stempel

NEW YORK (Reuters) – A divided federal appeals court on Wednesday ruled against anti-abortion protesters who have tried to discourage women from entering a reproductive health clinic in the New York City borough of Queens.

Ruling in favor of the New York attorney general’s office, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected claims by the 13 protesters that a federal law and a similar state law protecting abortion providers and patients from attacks and threats of force violated their constitutional free speech rights.

In a 116-page decision, Circuit Judge Rosemary Pooler said the federal law was designed to be broad, “given the health risks women needing reproductive care face because of the increased stress, anxiety, and agitation” from misconduct by protesters.

The 2-1 majority also said New York faced irreparable harm absent an injunction against the Saturday morning protests at the Choices Women’s Medical Center in Jamaica because the protests, which began in 2012, could recur.

Chief Judge Debra Ann Livingston dissented, accusing the majority of effectively creating “‘buffer zone’ equivalents, thereby threatening the ongoing suppression of legitimate First Amendment activity.”

The appeals court returned the case to U.S. District Judge Carol Bagley Amon in Brooklyn, who in July 2018 rejected the state’s request for an injunction against the protests.

Neither the protesters’ lawyers nor the office of state Attorney General Letitia James had an immediate comment.

Wednesday’s decision comes as many states and anti-abortion activists push to curb abortion access, hoping a conservative Supreme Court majority will weaken or overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision establishing abortion as a constitutional right.

The lawsuit had been brought in 2017 by Eric Schneiderman, then New York’s attorney general.

He said protesters crowded women trying to enter the Choices clinic, made death threats to people trying to escort them, and blocked their path with posters purportedly of aborted fetuses.

Amon had found no proof that the protesters intended to “harass, annoy, or alarm” patients and their escorts.

The case is New York v Griepp et al, 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Nos. 18-2454, 18-2623, 18-2627 and 18-2630.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by David Gregorio)

U.S. urban office market, stung by pandemic, hopes tech firms drive comeback

By Herbert Lash

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The growing footprint in New York of major tech companies like Amazon.com Inc, Facebook Inc and Alphabet Inc’s Google has given property owners and brokers hope that once the coronavirus has been conquered demand for office space will quickly return to pre-pandemic levels.

But the popularity of working from home and the exodus of people from expensive coastal cities will likely weigh on demand and change workspace requirements, leaving office buildings that do not adjust less valuable.

Big Tech’s expanding real estate clout already hides declining values for lower-quality properties.

Prices for premier workspace in U.S. gateway cities have held or even risen during the pandemic in a flight to quality. But leasing volumes and number of buildings sold have plummeted, with valuations at the lower end falling, data shows.

The pandemic has left a massive question mark hanging over the office sector, said Joe Gorin, head of U.S. real estate management and value-added investing at Barings in New York.

“I know how people are going to use the hotel coming out of the pandemic. How are people going to use office buildings?” he asked. “There’s going to be some pain because we’re going to have to go through a restructuring of how people use space.”

Companies need to make the office more compelling and allow busy work to be done at home, which means workspace demand might not grow, Gorin said. Buildings that cannot provide a great environment will become obsolete.

“If you can own or create the right stuff, it’s going to be valuable,” he said. “Office can become more important and shrink as much as it can expand.”

Limited data suggests buildings classified below the top Class A industry designation already have suffered a drop in value during the pandemic and could be poised for a further slide if a decline in demand persists.

The amount of available office space has soared as tech companies have dumped excessive workspace, a sign of uncertainty among management about a company’s future workspace needs.

Institutional investors have put transaction decisions on hold, with the sale of buildings in Manhattan valued at more than $100 million falling more than half to just 32 last year, research by brokerage Newmark Group Inc shows, using Real Capital Analytics data.

Leasing activity has picked up after the New Year but is still far below pre-pandemic levels.

The office sector is the hardest in commercial real estate to assess because leases generally are long-term commitments, said Sam Isaacson, president of Walker & Dunlop Investment Partners in Denver.

“Eventually the cash flow streams have to match up with the asset value appreciation and when that doesn’t occur, that’s when we’re going to see some real pain,” Isaacson said.

WAITING TO MEET THE BOSS

The number of virtual tours brokers conducted with clients fell 61% in December from a year earlier in seven U.S. gateway cities, according to data from View The Space Inc. Tours declined 74% in New York, the biggest drop outside of an 80% plunge in Seattle, the property technology firm said.

A reversal of Seattle’s early recovery from the pandemic may suggest a significant embrace of more remote work in the city over the long-term, VTS said in the report.

“Our data is pointing to the fact tech companies are still really comfortable working from home and they’re probably going to be the last ones to return to the office,” said Ryan Masiello, co-founder and chief strategy officer at VTS.

Of the 115 people VTS has hired since March, Masiello has met none of them because they are all working remotely, he said.

Tech companies led other industries for the second straight year in Manhattan leasing activity, brokerage CBRE Group Inc said in January. A decline in the technology sector’s real estate footprint would be significant for a property market looking to ride the growing digital economy.

Brokers point to Amazon’s $978 million purchase of the Lord & Taylor building on Fifth Avenue last year and Facebook’s leasing of the Farley Building across from Madison Square Garden, as prime examples for Manhattan’s real estate prospects.

The Amazon deal was valued at $1,466 a square foot, more than 10% above last year’s top-quartile average price, while Google’s billion-dollar deals in Chelsea and Hudson Square have redefined swaths of the city’s Far West Side.

Scott Rechler, chief executive and chairman of closely held RXR Realty, one of the largest office building owners in New York, sees a growing disparity between high- and lower-quality properties.

Companies need to re-imagine the workspace and how they engage with employees who expect properties to be well-located, energetic and have health and wellness centers, he said.

“For buildings that can’t do that – they’re not in the right location, they’re older, they’re obsolete – it could be a meaningful free-fall in value,” Rechler said.

(Reporting by Herbert Lash in New York; Editing by Alden Bentley and Matthew Lewis)

New York AG sues NYC police for excessive force against protesters

(Reuters) – New York’s state attorney general on Thursday sued New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio and the city’s police commissioner over allegations the police used excessive force against racial justice protesters after the killing of George Floyd in May.

The federal lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Manhattan alleges the police repeatedly and without justification used batons and other physical force against protesters, many of whom were never charged with a crime, causing broken bones and concussions among other injuries.

The lawsuit said the police violated protesters’ rights, and is seeking a court order to mandate policies, training and monitoring to assure an end to practices it characterized as unlawful.

In addition to excessive force, state Attorney General Letitia James alleged police detained hundreds of protesters, medics and observers without probable cause. She also accused the police of controlling crowds through “kettling,” or corralling them without giving them a chance to depart, and making mass arrests.

De Blasio said in a statement he supported major discipline reforms but opposed the lawsuit.

“A court process and the added bureaucracy of a federal monitor will not speed up this work,” he said.

The Black Lives Matter protests in May and June became an international movement prompted in part by anger over Floyd, a Black man killed by a white Minneapolis policeman, and Breonna Taylor, a Black woman slain in her Louisville, Kentucky, home by white policemen during a botched raid.

In late May, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo expressed alarm over “disturbing violent clashes” between New York Police Department officers and protesters, and appointed James to investigate and produce a report.

At two days of virtual hearings in June, protesters described being beaten and pepper-sprayed by officers during marches that followed Floyd’s death.

At the time, de Blasio and Police Commissioner Dermot Shea defended the NYPD’s response to protesters as mostly proportionate, saying misconduct was limited to isolated cases that were being investigated.

Both have pointed to several nights of looting that marked some of the earlier protests, widespread property damage and instances of protesters hurling projectiles at police officers, injuring them.

In her preliminary report in July, James recommended that the mayor give up sole control over the police commissioner’s hiring.

In December, a separate report by the New York City Department of Investigation found the NYPD used excessive force and blamed the response on the failure of most officers to receive “relevant training” in policing such protests.

(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Chizu Nomiyama)

Cuomo outlines plans to fix New York finances weakened by COVID-19

By Barbara Goldberg

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Governor Andrew Cuomo on Monday promised a kaleidoscopic mix of “New York tough” plans to jumpstart the state’s finances amid COVID-19, create jobs, and ensure racial, social and economic justice for underserved communities.

In his State of the State address, Cuomo gave the outlines of his plan, which he said he would detail further in coming days. They are set to include more on Cuomo’s previously flagged proposals to employ online sports betting and recreational marijuana to help close a $15 billion budget deficit.

Cuomo also talked about beating COVID-19 and vaccinating at least 70% of the 20 million New Yorkers.

“We will win the COVID war and we will learn from it. We are New York tough,” Cuomo said.

Reeling off a series of proposals aimed in part at jobs creation, Cuomo described a ‘Medical Supplies Act’ to ensure the sort of vital public health materials like face masks and gowns that were in short supply last spring when New York was the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic. New York, which last year scrounged and scrambled for supplies largely made in China, would purchase first from its own manufactured supply, Cuomo said.

Improved transportation was also in the pipeline, he said.

“We will commence the most aggressive construction and transportation development program in the United States of America. New air, road and rail systems, upstate and downstate, more affordable housing and more economic development to create jobs, jobs and more jobs,” Cuomo said.

Cuomo said he would seek to eliminate racial and social inequities through such plans as affordable broadband connections, eliminating healthcare premiums, and converting unused commercial space into inexpensive housing.

Cuomo also vowed to expand voter access, an issue at the center of a national debate over the future of democracy in the United States. The Democratic governor’s proposals include adding time for early voting, broadening availability of absentee ballots, and speeding up vote counting.

Cuomo praised New Yorkers for supporting one another through the COVID-19 pandemic, citing their unity in a nation that has been deeply divided by politics during Trump’s term.

“Over the last year when forces were trying to convince this country that the strongest four-letter word is ‘hate,’ New Yorkers showed that the strongest four-letter word is ‘love’ and that love wins every time,” Cuomo said.

(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg; editing by Jonathan Oatis and Rosalba O’Brien)

‘We’re going to run out’: New York urges U.S. to increase vaccine supply

By Maria Caspani and Jonathan Allen

NEW YORK (Reuters) – New York officials said on Monday that they feared efforts to accelerate the vaccination of people against the novel coronavirus will be hampered by an insufficient supply of doses from the U.S. government.

In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio has said he wants to vaccinate 1 million residents, about an eighth of the population, by the end of January.

So far, about 194,000 people in the city have received at least the first of two doses of a vaccine. The city has another 230,000 doses on hand, and is expecting to receive another 100,000 this week, officials said on Monday.

“We’re going to run out of doses in the next few weeks if we don’t get more of a supply coming in,” de Blasio told reporters.

Second shots of the two vaccines authorized so far are supposed to be given three or four weeks after the first.

The slow rollout of vaccinations has yet to make a dent in the health crisis as the pandemic continues to surge across the United States, claiming on average about 3,200 lives each day over the last week. COVID-19 has killed more than 374,000 people in the United States since the pandemic began.

Still, some public health experts have noted that no U.S. state, including New York, has so far come close to using up its federal allotments of vaccines, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This is due in part to the slow expansion of a patchwork system of vaccination centers and, in some instances, rigid rules that sharply limit who can receive a vaccine.

States in recent days have been adding vaccination capacity with the ad hoc conversion of sports venues, convention halls and empty schools into vaccine centers.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo relented last week on his demand that all healthcare workers be offered a vaccine before members of other vulnerable groups become eligible, which led to hundreds of doses being wasted as half-finished vials were discarded at the end of each day.

He has since said that certain groups of other essential workers and people over age 75 as of Monday can make appointments to receive a shot. In contrast, Texas and Florida have been vaccinating people over age 65 since late December, although reports from those states have indicated that demand has far outstripped available vaccination appointments.

There are now over 4 million people in New York state eligible to receive the vaccine out of a population of about 19 million, Cuomo said on Monday at his annual State of the State Address, but only about 1 million doses on hand.

“We only receive 300,000 doses per week from the federal government,” he said. “At this rate, it will take us 14 weeks, just to receive enough dosages for those currently eligible.”

(Reporting by Maria Caspani and Jonathan Allen in New York; Additional reporting by Anurag Maan; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

New York finds first case of more contagious, ‘UK’ strain of coronavirus

(Reuters) – New York Governor Andrew Cuomo says his state has found its first case of the more contagious, “UK” strain of the coronavirus, raising concerns about threats to hospital capacity should it spread rapidly in the state.

Cuomo says on Monday that a man in his 60’s living in a town north of Albany has the new strain. The man, who is recovering, had not traveled recently, suggesting community spread is taking place. New York has carried out 5,000 tests for the new strain – and so far has only found the one case. Cuomo says it could be a “game changer” if the new strain increases hospitalizations and forces regions to close down.

(Reporting by Brad Brooks, Editing by Franklin Paul)

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)