Philadelphia officials signal plan to reject election audit request

(Reuters) – Philadelphia officials are planning to reject a Republican lawmaker’s request for access to the city’s voting machines as part of a “forensic investigation” into the 2020 election, according to a draft letter disclosed ahead of debate on the issue on Friday.

In the letter, Philadelphia’s elections chief, Lisa Deeley, said the city’s 2020 election and 2021 primary were “secure, fair, and free from interference” and that handing over equipment would lead to decertification of its voting machines, costing taxpayers $35 million.

“The board cannot agree to the undertaking of your proposed review of the county’s election equipment,” Deeley wrote for the three-person board of commissioners, composed of two Democrats and one Republican, ahead of Friday’s vote on the matter.

The stance could lead to a legal battle between Pennsylvania’s largest city and state Senator Doug Mastriano, who launched his “forensic” probe this month targeting three counties with a deadline of July 31 to respond.

Mastriano, a leading promoter of Donald Trump’s claims that he defeated President Joe Biden in November, has argued that deeper inspection of voting equipment was needed, despite completed audits that showed no evidence of widespread fraud.

Mastriano has said he would issue subpoenas to the three counties so far targeted in his investigation: Philadelphia, York and Tioga. York and Tioga have already indicated they could not comply after the state election agency warned doing so would lead to decertification of their equipment.

(Reporting by Nathan Layne in Wilton, Conn.; Editing by Matthew Lewis)

Smoke from U.S. West wildfires leaves Easterners gasping

By Peter Szekely

(Reuters) – Dozens of wildfires in the western United States and Canada, led by a massive blaze in Oregon, are sending smoke eastward, worsening air quality and causing colorful sunsets in some places.

More than 80 large wildfires in 13 western states charred nearly 1.3 million acres (526,090 hectares), an area larger than the state of Delaware, by Tuesday, according to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) in Boise, Idaho.

But due to the jet stream and other cross-continental air currents, the regional disasters were being felt nationally.

Wildfire smoke prompted an advisory from New York health and environmental authorities on Tuesday for fine particulate matter as the region’s Air Quality Index hit 118, which is unhealthy for sensitive groups such as people with breathing problems.

AQI readings well above 100 were also recorded in other Northeast cities, including Boston, Hartford and Philadelphia.

In Cleveland and Detroit, AQI topped 125, which NIFC meteorologist Nick Nauslar said was likely caused by smoke from Canadian wildfires in southeast Manitoba and southwest Ontario.

“Sunsets look prettier, redder, more colorful” said National Weather Service meteorologist Bob Orevec of the Weather Prediction Center in College Park, Maryland.

While some smoke diffuses into the upper atmosphere after traveling thousands of miles, it still can lower air quality, Nauslar said.

Unhealthy AQI readings were recorded on Monday in parts of Idaho and Montana, which, along with Washington state, are in the wind-driven path of smoke from southern Oregon’s Bootleg fire, according to air resource adviser Margaret Key.

“Wildfire smoke exposure also increases susceptibility to respiratory infections including COVID, increases severity of such infections, and makes recovery more difficult,” Key said by email.

The Bootleg fire, already the country’s largest wildfire, grew by 24,200 acres overnight to nearly 388,600 acres (157,260 hectares), about half the size of Rhode Island. Some 2,200 personnel managed to contain 30% of it, officials said.

As of Tuesday, the fire had destroyed 67 homes and was threatening 3,400 more. An estimated 2,100 people were under evacuation orders or on standby alert to be ready to flee at a moment’s notice.

Rising smoke from the fire raging in and around the Fremont-Winema National Forest about 250 miles (400 km) south of Portland has already produced at least two pyrocumulonimbus clouds, an unusual phenomenon often called fire clouds, the NIFC’s Nauslar said.

“It can start to produce its own lightning, and essentially become a fire generated thunderstorm,” he said by phone. “This can cause rapid and erratic fire spread.”

(Reporting by Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

U.S. educators wrangle over school re-opening

By Brendan O’Brien and Barbara Goldberg

(Reuters) – Educators in major cities including Chicago and Philadelphia on Monday called for strong COVID-19 safety protocols in their classrooms as those and other districts pushed to re-open schools that have been closed for nearly a year.

Across the nation, school reopenings have become a red-hot topic. District officials, teachers, parents and health professionals have been debating when and how to safely re-open schools for millions of students who have been taking classes remotely for 11 months since the pandemic closed schools last spring.

In Chicago, the powerful Chicago Teachers Union was considering the school district’s proposed COVID-19 safety plan that would allow schools to begin re-opening this week. In Philadelphia, educators won an agreement to allow a mediator to decide when in-person learning could safely resume.

If approved, the agreement with Chicago Public Schools, the third largest U.S. district, would avert a threatened lock out by the district, or strike by teachers who demanded stronger safety protocols to prevent the spread of the virus in classrooms.

A deal would allow for some 67,000 students to gradually return into school buildings over the next month, starting with pre-kindergarten and special education pupils later this week.

The union’s leadership is expected to decide on Monday night whether to send its 28,000 rank and file members the district’s safety plan to for a vote on Tuesday.

In Philadelphia, the teachers union succeeded late on Sunday in reversing a district order to return some 2,000 pre-kindergarten through second grade teachers to their classrooms on Monday to prepare for students coming back on Feb. 22.

“There is a lot of uncertainty about the process of re-opening,” said Pennsylvania State Senator Nikil Saval on a Twitter video as he protested with Philadelphia teachers outside his child’s school. “We want an eventual return to schools but only when it is safe … for teachers and students.”

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers on Twitter cheered the city’s concession to allow an independent arbitrator to decide when the district can safely resume in-person teaching.

“The mediation process is still ongoing,” the union said on Twitter.

U.S. President Joe Biden on Sunday addressed the issue on Sunday, describing school closures and their negative impact on families as a national emergency.

During a Super Bowl interview on CBS, Biden said it was time for schools to reopen if they can do it safely, with fewer people in classrooms and proper ventilation.

“I think about the price so many of my grandkids and … kids are going to pay for not having had the chance to finish whatever it was,” he said. “They are going for a lot, these kids.”

Leading health organizations, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have said there is little evidence that schools contribute to the spread of the virus, which has killed more than 460,000 people in the United States since the pandemic began.

In Michigan, more than 350 physicians and psychologists signed a letter to Ann Arbor Schools officials urging the resumption of in-person classes by March 1. They warned of the “harmful impact of delayed school reopening on our community.”

Dr. Kim Monroe, a pediatrician who helped organize the Michigan effort, told radio station WEMU, “We are seeing so much mental illness in children due to the virtual schooling.”

A gradual re-opening unfolded in Atlanta when third through fifth grade students went back to school on Monday after prekindergarten through second grade returned to schools on Jan. 25.

In New York City, in-person classes in the nation’s largest school system will resume for middle school students on Feb. 25. About half of the public school system’s 471 middle schools will offer five-day-a-week classroom learning with the remainder working toward that goal, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said at a press briefing.

“If we’re in an environment where the city is overwhelmingly vaccinated, we’re able to bring school back as it was. Same physical proportions. Same number of kids in classrooms,” De Blasio said, adding he hopes to have all schools back to full-time in-person learning in the fall.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago and Barbara Goldberg in Maplewood, New Jersey; Editing by David Gregorio)

‘Dial back’ or ’emergency brake?’ New lockdowns and the U.S. economy

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – The surge in new COVID-19 infections is driving a fresh wave of restrictions in cities and counties across the United States.

California’s “emergency brake,” Oregon’s “freeze,” Philadelphia’s “safer at home” and Minnesota’s “dial back” are among a new patchwork of rules adopted by states, cities and counties that are much less strict and far more narrow than measures imposed to stop the spread of the virus in the spring.

The overall economic bite will be smaller, too, compared to the downdraft that started earlier this year and which led to roughly 22 million people losing their jobs, a collapse in retail spending and a recession.

“I don’t see where you get a 30% hit to GDP,” said Tim Duy, an economics professor at the University of Oregon. “There’s not as much to take off the table … I’m having a hard time seeing where you are going to derail the recovery.”

Businesses that were fully shut in March, like medical offices, shops, factories, and even hair salons, will remain open in many areas this time around.

That’s in part because many Americans have changed their behavior, businesses from manufacturers to retail stores have added routine temperature checks, and face masks are more common and in many states mandated. Meanwhile, consumers have embraced online shopping and curbside delivery to keep spending.

High-frequency data backs that up: even after the latest explosion in case numbers, economic activity has not collapsed.

SURGICAL STRIKE

Many of the latest restrictions target activities where science shows the spread of the virus is the most pernicious – indoor pursuits, in close quarters, for extended periods of time, or with heavy or unmasked breathing.

That means they will hurt some already hard-hit sectors of the economy, including hospitality and entertainment. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday issued a strong recommendation against travel over the Thanksgiving holiday this month, though it did not ban it outright.

Many of the more than two dozen states that have issued new restrictions this week have closed or restricted indoor dining and gyms. California, the biggest state by economic output, is among that group.

At the same time, businesses shut during California’s lockdowns in the spring, including shopping malls, body waxing venues, and barber shops, can continue to operate, albeit with some limits to contain the spread of the virus.

Philadelphia’s ban on indoor dining goes into effect on Friday.

Stock Fishtown and Stock Rittenhouse, which are owned by Philadelphia-based restaurateur Tyler Akin, will shift to carry-out and delivery mode. On Monday new rules in Delaware will force him to reduce capacity at his Le Cavalier restaurant in Wilmington to 30%, down from the current 50%. Though better than being entirely closed down, as was the case in March, Akin may need to adjust staffing to fit revenue.

“We have some really hard conversations ahead of us,” he said.

Efforts to adapt business to the realities of the pandemic may allow some restaurants and bars to weather the worst effects of the restrictions. In Oakland, California, as in many cities around the country, restaurants and bars have built platforms decked out with tables, chairs and propane heaters to make customers more comfortable outside in chillier weather.

It’s “a way to keep our businesses afloat,” said Ari Takata-Vasquez, who leads a small-business alliance in Oakland that has raised money to build the outdoor dining areas for cash-strapped eateries.

She’s working on, or completed, five of them – and has 30 eateries and gyms on the waiting list.

In Minnesota, movie theaters and yoga studios will shut at midnight on Friday, along with indoor and outdoor service at eateries, pubs and gyms. Minnesota Governor Tim Walz, like many of his counterparts across the country, is also telling families not to have household gatherings, and he acknowledged the new rules will be felt especially hard by small businesses.

“By closing your doors and putting your financial well-being at risk, you are protecting the lives of your neighbors,” he said this week.

LIGHTER LOCKDOWNS, LESS RELIEF

Many of the newly implemented restrictions are expected, at least for now, to last two to four weeks. But even though lockdowns will be more moderate – and in many places are simply sector-specific curfews rather than sweeping closures – business owners and employees, especially in the restaurant industry, are worried their own financial pain will be sharper.

That’s because Congress has shown little sign of delivering another round of fiscal relief, let alone the massive pandemic packages totaling some $3 trillion passed earlier this year.

The last of the extra government aid for the unemployed is due to run out at the end of this year. A bill with bipartisan support to rescue the restaurant industry is caught in limbo in Congress, as the outgoing Trump administration focuses on challenging the results of the Nov. 3 presidential election.

While households overall still have excess savings, built in part from prior government aid, for many families that money is likely to run out before a vaccine comes into widespread use.

(Reporting by Ann Saphir and Jonnelle Marte and Howard Schneider; Editing by Paul Simao)

Philadelphia police probe alleged plot to attack vote counting venue

By Kanishka Singh

(Reuters) – Philadelphia police said on Friday they were investigating an alleged plot to attack the city’s Pennsylvania Convention Center, where votes from the hotly contested U.S. presidential election were being counted.

Local police received a tip about a Hummer truck with people armed with firearms driving toward the vote counting venue late on Thursday, a Philadelphia Police spokesman said in an emailed statement.

Police arrested two men and seized their firearms as well as the Hummer truck about which they had received the tip, the spokesman said, adding the probe was being conducted by the police and the FBI.

“The males acknowledged that the silver Hummer was their vehicle, and an additional firearm was recovered from the inside the Hummer,” the spokesman added.

No injuries were reported and no further details about the alleged plot were disclosed.

Video footage broadcast by Action News, an ABC affiliate, showed a number of police officials at the scene late in the night.

On Thursday, supporters of both Republican President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden held rallies in Philadelphia as election staffers slowly counted thousands of mail-in ballots that could decide Pennsylvania’s crucial 20 Electoral College votes.

A state appellate court ruled on Thursday that more Republican observers could enter the building in Philadelphia where poll workers were counting ballots.

The U.S. Postal Service said about 1,700 ballots had been identified in Pennsylvania at processing facilities during two sweeps late on Thursday and were being delivered to election officials.

Trump has said repeatedly without evidence that mail-in votes are prone to fraud, although election experts say that is rare in U.S. elections.

A federal judge in Philadelphia denied an emergency request from Trump’s campaign to stop ballot counting in Philadelphia so long as Republican observers were not present. The campaign had sued Philadelphia County’s Board of Elections on Thursday to seek an emergency injunction.

(Reporting by Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Jonathan Oatis)

In cities across U.S., dueling protests sprout up as vote-counting drags on

By Nathan Layne, Maria Caspani and Katanga Johnson

HARRISBURG, Pa. (Reuters) – A second day of sometimes dueling demonstrations over the integrity of the U.S. presidential election started early on Thursday in Philadelphia and other cities as ballot counting dragged on in a handful of states that would decide the outcome.

Some groups, mainly Democrats, rallied around the slogan to “count every vote,” believing a complete tally would show former Vice President Joe Biden had beaten Republican President Donald Trump.

Ardent Trump supporters countered with cries to “protect the vote” in support of his campaign’s efforts to have some categories of ballots, including some votes submitted by mail, discarded.

Both factions appeared outside a vote-counting center in Philadelphia on Thursday morning. A group of Trump supporters holding Trump-Pence flags and signs saying “vote stops on Election Day” gathered across the street from Biden supporters who danced to music behind a barricade. Similar rallies were planned later in the day in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s capital.

Scott Presler, a pro-Trump activist, said he organized the “Stop the Steal” rally in Harrisburg to ensure that only legal ballots are counted.

“I want to bring national attention for people to take action, for them to call their state legislators,” Presler said in a phone interview while en route to Harrisburg. “I want them to demonstrate and show up in force, that we are not going to allow this election to be stolen by any fraudulent ballots.”

In Washington, a procession of cars and bicycles, sponsored by activists from a group called Shutdown DC, paraded slowly through the streets of the capital to protest “an attack on the democratic process” by Trump and his “enablers,” according to its website.

Most demonstrations in cities around the country have been peaceful and small — sometimes amounting only to a few dozen people with signs standing in a city center — as Biden’s path to victory looks a bit more assured than Trump’s, even though either outcome remains possible.

On Wednesday, a few demonstrations led to clashes with police. The demonstrations were triggered in part by Trump’s comments following Tuesday’s Election Day in which he demanded that vote counting stop and made unsubstantiated, conspiratorial claims about voter fraud.

Police in New York City, Denver, Minneapolis and Portland, Oregon, all reported they had arrested some protesters, often on charges of blocking traffic or similar misdemeanors.

On the second floor of Atlanta’s State Farm Arena, county election officials sat at six tables steadily processing a few thousand remaining mail-in ballots on Thursday morning, some pausing only to order coffee.

Some Republican and Democratic ballot-counting watchers took notes as officials sorted each batch of 400 ballots one by one, ensuring signatures matched between envelopes and ballots.

Hoping to avoid Election Day crowds during the coronavirus pandemic, more than 100 million Americans submitted ballots during early voting this year, a record-breaking number.

The counting in Atlanta was far calmer than in Phoenix where a crowd of Trump supporters, some armed with rifles and handguns, gathered outside a counting center on Wednesday after unsubstantiated rumors that Trump votes were deliberately not being counted.

(Reporting by Nathan Layne in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Maria Caspani in New York; Katanga Johnson in Atlanta; Additional reporting by Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru and Michael Martina in Detroit; Writing by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Peter Graff and Jonathan Oatis)

Judge reviews ballot counting in suburban Philadelphia county

(Reuters) – A federal judge in Pennsylvania on Wednesday weighed arguments by Republicans seeking to stop a suburban Philadelphia county from counting mail-in and absentee ballots that voters had been permitted to correct.

U.S. District Judge Timothy Savage in Philadelphia appeared skeptical of arguments by the plaintiffs’ lawyer, which lawyers for Montgomery County election officials and the Democratic National Committee said could disenfranchise voters.

A decision could have implications for the national presidential race between Republican incumbent Donald Trump and Democratic rival Joe Biden.

Results in several states are unclear, and Pennsylvania is a battleground as mail-in ballots are tabulated. Trump appeared at the White House early Wednesday to falsely claim victory in the presidential race and make unsubstantiated allegations of electoral fraud.

The Pennsylvania lawsuit had been filed by Kathy Barnette, a conservative political commentator projected to lose her race for a House seat in the state’s 4th Congressional district, and Clay Breece, chairman of the Republican Committee in Berks County.

They accused Montgomery County election officials of having illegally “pre-canvassed” ballots for mistakes and allowing voters to correct them, and sought a temporary restraining order blocking them from being counted.

Thomas Breth, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, likened the case to the 2000 election, when the Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore settled a dispute over vote-counting in Florida, enabling Republican George W. Bush to capture the White House.

“It pains people to mention Bush Gore, but that’s the analysis that applies,” Breth said.

“It is creating the same situation that Florida created in 2000,” with “all of these different counties treating ballots in non-uniform manners,” he added. “There’s a solid argument that you’re voting twice.”

Savage, however, questioned Breth on the fairness of blocking voters from correcting mistakes on their ballots.

“So what happens to my vote?” the judge asked.

Breth said it could be “potentially disqualified.”

“But I was never given the opportunity” to fix it, Savage responded. “I am losing my vote.”

Election officials countered that there was no equal protection violation, and accused the plaintiffs of filing a last-minute lawsuit to undermine voters’ right to vote.

“No one is changing their ballot. No one is voting twice,” said Michele Hangley, a lawyer for the election officials.

She added that voters like the plaintiffs “don’t have a free-floating right to police other people’s votes.”

County officials estimated that only 49 votes were at issue in the lawsuit, while the plaintiffs estimated 1,200.

Savage was appointed to the bench by Bush in 2002.

As of 10:30 a.m. EST (1530 GMT), Barnette trailed Democratic incumbent Madeleine Dean in their House race by 15 percentage points with 84% of the vote counted, The New York Times said, citing data from the National Election Pool/Edison Research.

Dean was ahead by 16 percentage points in Montgomery County, portions of which comprises most of the district.

The case is Barnette et al v Lawrence et al, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Pennsylvania, No. 20-05477.

(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York and Tom Hals in Wilmington,; Editing by Alistair Bell)

New York police arrest 30 amid protests after deadly Philadelphia shooting

By Kanishka Singh

(Reuters) – New York police arrested about 30 people as hundreds of protesters took to the streets in Brooklyn late on Tuesday following a deadly police shooting in Philadelphia of a Black man armed with a knife.

“Approximately 30 people have been arrested,” a New York Police Department spokesman told Reuters by phone, without detailing the reason for the arrests.

He added that one NYPD officer suffered “non-life threatening” injuries during the late night protests. Police also said that their vehicles were damaged and some trash cans were set on fire in the demonstrations.

NBC News reported that a car attempted to drive through a group of police officials in Brooklyn.

The development in New York City came after the deadly Philadelphia police shooting on Monday of Walter Wallace, 27, who was described by relatives as suffering from a mental breakdown as he was confronted by law enforcement.

It follows months of anti-racism protests that have spread across the United States since the death in May of George Floyd, an African-American who died after a Minneapolis police official knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

The protests, which have sometimes turned violent, have aimed at achieving racial equality and opposing police brutality.

Philadelphia became the latest flash point in the United States on issues of race and police use of force, as Tuesday’s rallies began peacefully but grew confrontational as darkness fell, just as on the previous day.

A bystander’s video of the shooting of Wallace was posted on social media on Monday and showed him approaching two police officers who had drawn their guns and warned him to put down his knife. The officers were backing up before the camera cut briefly away as gunfire erupted and Wallace collapsed.

(Reporting by Kanishka Singh, Editing by William Maclean)

As federal deployment looms, Chicago mayor calls for end of violence

By Nathan Layne

(Reuters) – Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Wednesday called on witnesses to come forward with information about an overnight gunfight at a funeral, a day after she said she would welcome help from the FBI and other federal agencies, but not a “Portland-style deployment” of “unnamed agents” to her city’s streets.

Lightfoot spoke a day after gang members opened fire at a funeral on Chicago’s South Side and attendees fired back, injuring 15 people. Two of those shot are in critical condition, while the other 13 are expected to recover.

The mayor, a Democrat, also detailed a separate shooting on Tuesday of a 3-year old girl by two men who fired into the car she was in with her parents. The girl was shot in the head but is in stable condition, police superintendent David Brown told the same news conference.

The violent flare-up could provide fodder to President Donald Trump and his Republican allies, who have sought to promote a law-and-order message ahead of the Nov. 3 presidential election. Critics say the administration is seeking to divert attention away from its widely criticized response to the coronavirus pandemic, one of the reasons he is trailing Democratic challenger Joe Biden in opinion polls.

Trump threatened earlier this week to send FBI and other federal agents to Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Detroit, Baltimore and Oakland, California, to help local authorities crack down on a surge in violence in recent weeks. Earlier this month, U.S. Attorney General Bill Barr announced a program known as Operation Legend to provide federal help to law enforcement officials in Kansas City, Missouri, where murders have spiked.

The launch of that program has coincided with the deployment of agents drawn from other federal agencies to Portland, Oregon, to protect a courthouse from weeks of protests over racial justice. In that action, unidentified federal agents have been accused of pulling protesters into unmarked vans, a possible violation of their civil rights.

Trump was scheduled to deliver remarks about Operation Legend later on Wednesday.

On Tuesday, Lightfoot said she would take Trump to court if he sent unidentified federal agents to her city.

“The Trump administration is not going to foolishly deploy unnamed agents to the streets of Chicago,” she said as she outlined plans for an influx of identified agents from the FBI and other agencies to combat crime. “We have information that allows us to say, at least at this point, that we don’t see a Portland-style deployment coming to Chicago.”

Chicago has seen an explosion in violence this summer. There were 116 murders over the 28 days through July 19, an increase of nearly 200 percent, police department data shows.

Police superintendent Brown blamed turf battles among the roughly 117,000 gang members in the city of 2.7 million people, where one shooting begets another in an endless cycle of revenge.

“This same cycle repeats itself over and over and over again. This cycle is fueled by street gangs, guns and drugs,” he said. “Too many people in Chicago have been touched by gun violence.”

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Wednesday that he told Trump that his state was able and prepared to handle a spike in crime in New York City, noting that he had not declared a public safety emergency.

“And since the state hasn’t made a declaration, I don’t see why there’s any reason why the federal government should take action,” Cuomo said in a call with reporters, adding that Trump agreed with his assessment.

(Reporting by Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut and Maria Caspani in New York; editing by Jonathan Oatis)