Virginia law denies benefit to some healthcare workers who refuse COVID-19 vaccine

By Tom Hals

(Reuters) – Virginia has passed a law making it easier for some healthcare workers who become ill with COVID-19 to collect medical expenses or lost wages.

But there’s a catch: the law excludes healthcare workers who are offered a vaccine at work and refuse it.

The bill, retroactive to March 12, 2020, was signed into law by Governor Ralph Northam late on Wednesday, according to an aide to Chris Hurst, a member of the state House of Delegates who drafted the legislation.

The new law presumes that death or disability from COVID-19 for healthcare workers who have had contact with a known COVID positive patient is an occupational hazard, allowing them to collect workers compensation insurance benefits.

The bill allows potentially hundreds of workers to claim benefits they were previously denied because of the difficulty of proving where a worker was infected with COVID-19.

If, however, the employer offered a vaccine and a worker refused, the presumption does not apply. The bill contains an exception for people with a medical condition that puts them at risk from a vaccine.

Nearly one-third of Americans have received at least one shot to date.

Similar bills have been introduced in Illinois, Indiana and Maryland as states test ways to encourage vaccines without triggering a backlash over government mandates.

“It’s this cowardly way of trying to sort of implement a mandate through the backdoor that you know you probably couldn’t get away with through the body politic explicitly,” said Mike Duff, a professor at University of Wyoming College of Law.

Critics worry about tying a benefit to vaccines that have been approved only on an emergency basis.

Dr. Liz Mumper, a Virginia pediatrician, said: “Whenever there is risk to an individual, there must be choice.”

In the United States, the workers compensation system largely protects employers from lawsuits, while allowing workers to collect benefits for injuries without having to prove fault or negligence. The system was designed for factory accidents, not airborne illnesses.

Only 1% of healthcare workers in Virginia have been awarded COVID-19 workers compensation benefits, according to the Virginia Nurses Association.

Some legal experts and proponents of the Virginia bill say it is lawful for states to offer incentives to take the vaccine and that doing so will make the workplace safer.

“If you choose not to get the vaccine, you have to adopt some amount of personal risk,” Hurst said in an interview.

Attorneys who specialize in workers compensation said the vaccine requirement was similar to safety protocols such as hard hats, which must be followed for an injured worker to claim benefits.

(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware; Editing by Noeleen Walder, Lisa Shumaker and Howard Goller)

Virginia’s high court approves removal of Confederate statues

(Reuters) – Virginia’s highest court on Thursday ruled the city of Charlottesville can remove two Confederate statues, including one of General Robert E. Lee that was the focus of a deadly white nationalist rally in 2017.

In overturning a state Circuit Court decision, the state Supreme Court rejected a lawsuit filed by citizens trying to stop the removal from city parks of the Lee statue and one honoring General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson.

The city’s planned removal of the Lee statue in 2017 prompted a rally by white supremacists and neo-Nazis that turned deadly when a car driven into a crowd killed a counter-protester, 32-year-old Heather Heyer.

Weeks later the Charlottesville city council unanimously ordered the Jackson statue to be removed from another park in the downtown historic district.

Nearly four years later, the high court handed down its decision as the nation focused on the Minneapolis criminal trial of a former white police officer charged with murdering George Floyd, a Black man.

Since Floyd died in police custody last year, protests against racism have gained momentum, including calls to remove statues honoring leaders of the pro-slavery Confederate side in the American Civil War.

The Jackson Statue was erected in Jackson Park in 1921 and the Lee Statue was erected in Lee Park in 1924, both on land donated by citizens.

In a 17-page ruling, the high court rejected arguments that removal of the statues would violate a law enacted by Virginia’s General Assembly in 1997.

The high court said the law “did not provide the authority for the City to erect the Statues, and it does not prohibit the City from disturbing or interfering with them.”

Among the plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed against the city were the Virginia Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc., and The Monument Fund, Inc.

(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg in New York; Editing by David Gregorio)

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)

Virginia lawmakers vote to abolish death penalty

By Brendan O’Brien and Jonathan Allen

(Reuters) – Lawmakers in Virginia voted on Friday to make it the first Southern U.S. state to abolish the death penalty, a significant sign of waning support for capital punishment across the country as the practice is weighed at the federal level.

The state’s Democratic-led House of Delegates voted 57-41 on a measure to end the practice. The Senate passed the measure earlier this week, and Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, said he will sign the repeal into law.

Virginia has conducted 1,390 executions since 1608, the most in the United States and 68 more than Texas, the state with the second most executions. Virginia last carried out an execution in 2017.

Two men remain on Virginia’s death row, including Thomas Porter, who was convicted of killing a police officer in 2005.

Public support for capital punishment has declined in the United States. According to Gallup, support has dropped from 80% in the 1990 to 55% in 2020.

It is also being weighed at the national level.

Former President Donald Trump, a Republican, resumed the execution of prisoners on federal death row last summer after a 17-year hiatus, killing 13 people convicted of murder. That followed six decades which saw a total of three federal executions. Last year was the first time the U.S. government executed more people than all 50 state governments combined.

Democrat Joe Biden took office last month as the first U.S. president to commit to seeking to abolish the federal death penalty. Lawmakers in Congress are asking him to support bills that would repeal the death penalty.

Most countries have abolished capital punishment, and the United Nations has long called for a moratorium on executions and urged its abolition worldwide.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Chicago and Jonathan Allen in New York; Editing by Leslie Adler and David Gregorio)

U.S. court allows Equitrans to keep building Mountain Valley natgas pipe

By Scott DiSavino

(Reuters) – The U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a motion to stay a permit for the $5.8-$6.0 billion Mountain Valley natural gas pipeline from West Virginia to Virginia.

Analysts said that court decision on Wednesday – not to stay the pipeline’s Biological Opinion – increases the odds Equitrans Midstream Corp can put the long-delayed project into service in the second half of 2021.

The Biological Opinion from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service allows construction in areas inhabited by endangered and threatened species.

Mountain Valley is one of several oil and gas pipelines delayed by regulatory and legal fights with environmental and local groups that found problems with permits issued by the Trump administration.

When Equitrans started construction in February 2018, it estimated Mountain Valley would cost about $3.5 billion and be completed by the end of 2018.

The 303-mile (487.6 km) pipeline was designed to deliver 2 billion cubic feet per day of gas from the Marcellus and Utica shale in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia to consumers in the Mid Atlantic and Southeast. One billion cubic feet is enough to supply about 5 million U.S. homes for a day

Analysts said denial of the stay allows Equitrans to continue construction in areas other than the 25-mile (40-km)exclusion zone surrounding the Jefferson National Forest while the court considers the merits of appeals against the Biological Opinion.

Analysts at Height Capital Markets said the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission may decide soon to reduce that exclusion zone to 7.7 miles.

Height Capital Markets also said Mountain Valley must begin applying for an individual stream crossing permit in case it loses an ongoing lawsuit against its Nationwide Permit or President-elect Joe Biden’s administration remands the permit, both of which seem probable.

The Nationwide Permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers allows the project to cross waterbodies.

“We continue to have high conviction that the project will be completed, though the Biden administration could delay the ultimate in-service date to 2022,” Height Capital Markets said.

Mountain Valley is owned by units of Equitrans, NextEra Energy Inc, Consolidated Edison Inc, AltaGas Ltd and RGC Resources.

(Reporting By Scott DiSavino; Editing by Marguerita Choy)

Mountain Valley says natural gas pipeline timing depends on litigation, U.S. approvals

(Reuters) – Equitrans Midstream Corp said on Monday it will evaluate the cost and timing of the completion of the Mountain Valley natural gas pipeline based on ongoing litigation and upcoming federal approvals.

The U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) gave Mountain Valley permission late Friday to resume some construction on its $5.4 billion-$5.7 billion pipeline, which runs from Virginia to West Virginia.

“As the litigation process progresses and as we receive additional information from FERC regarding potentially releasing the remainder of the route for construction, (Mountain Valley) will continue to evaluate its current construction plans, budget, and schedule,” Equitrans said.

Mountain Valley is one of several U.S. oil and gas pipelines delayed by regulatory and legal fights with environmental and local groups that found problems with federal permits issued by the Trump administration.

FERC suspended work on Mountain Valley a year ago due to litigation over the project’s Biological Opinion from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), which allows construction in areas inhabited by endangered and threatened species.

The FWS issued a new Biological Opinion in early September. Environmental and other groups continue to challenge the latest FWS approval and other federal permits in court.

Analysts at Height Capital Markets said they expect the project to enter service in mid 2021 but noted timing could slip to the third quarter of 2021 if legal challenges prevent some stream crossings.

“We acknowledge the legal challenge that is currently before Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals and have agreed to temporarily delay stream and waterbody activities out of respect for that process,” Equitrans said.

Equitrans has said it expects the pipeline, which is about 92% complete, to enter service in early 2021.

In February 2018, when Equitrans started construction, it estimated Mountain Valley would cost about $3.5 billion and be completed by the end of 2018.

(Reporting by Scott DiSavino; Editing by Alexander Smith and Steve Orlofsky)

New U.S. COVID-19 cases rise 17% in past week, deaths up 5%

(Reuters) – The weekly number of new COVID-19 cases in the United States rose last week for the first time after falling for eight straight weeks, an increase that health experts attributed to schools reopening and parties over the Labor Day holiday.

New cases rose 17% to about 287,000 for the week ended Sept. 20, while deaths rose 5.5% to about 5,400 people after falling for the previous four weeks, according to a Reuters analysis of state and county reports.

Thirteen states have seen weekly infections rise for at least two weeks, up from nine states the previous week, according to the Reuters tally. In Arizona, new cases doubled last week.

On average, more than 776 people a day died from COVID-19 last week, with deaths rising in Arkansas, Kansas and Virginia.

After weeks of declining test rates, an average of 812,000 people a day were tested last week. The country set a record of testing over 1 million people on Saturday.

Nationally, the share of all tests that came back positive for COVID-19 fell for a seventh week to 5.0%, well below a recent peak of nearly 9% in mid-July, according to data from The COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer-run effort to track the outbreak.

However, 26 of the 50 states still have positive test rates above the 5% level that the World Health Organization considers concerning. The highest positive test rates are in the Midwest at over 16% in Idaho, Wisconsin, Iowa and South Dakota.

(Writing by Lisa Shumaker; Graphic by Chris Canipe; Editing by Tiffany Wu)

U.S. postal chaos prompts Democrats to reassess mail-ballot plan

By Jarrett Renshaw and Andy Sullivan

(Reuters) – Turmoil at the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) is causing some Democrats and local election officials to rethink their vote-by-mail strategies for November’s presidential election, shifting emphasis to drop boxes and early voting that bypass the post office.

The 2020 contest promises to be the nation’s largest test of voting by mail. But U.S. President Donald Trump’s relentless, unsubstantiated attacks on mail balloting, along with cost-cutting that has delayed mail service nationwide, have sown worry and confusion among many voters.

Democratic officials who just weeks ago were touting their dominance in mail balloting during a recent rash of primaries are now cautioning supporters of presidential challenger Joe Biden to be wary. Operatives in battleground states, including Pennsylvania, are particularly concerned about ballots arriving too late to count for the Nov. 3 election.

“We are considering telling voters that if they haven’t mailed out their complete ballot by Oct. 15, don’t bother. Instead, vote in person or drop off the ballot” at an elections office, said Joe Foster, the chairman of the Democratic Party in Montgomery County, the most populous of Philadelphia’s suburban counties. “We want to make sure every vote counts.”

Other local Democratic leaders, from states like Florida and North Carolina, told Reuters they also are weighing urging voters to submit mail ballots weeks ahead of the election or else vote in person.

On Tuesday, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy announced he was suspending cost-cutting measures he had put in place in recent weeks that had led to widespread service disruptions. Those changes included limits on employee overtime, orders for trucks to depart on schedule even if there was mail still to be loaded, and the removal of some mail sorting machines.

“The Postal Service is ready today to handle whatever volume of election mail it receives this fall,” DeJoy said in a statement. He also promised to deploy “standby resources” beginning Oct. 1 to satisfy any unforeseen demand.

But some Democrats said the damage is already done. Many don’t trust DeJoy – who was a major Trump campaign donor before becoming postal chief – to restore service at the independent government agency amid a presidential race that polls say Biden is leading.

“Return the mailboxes you removed,” Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island said on Twitter. “Return the sorting machines you took out. Restore the regular hours of post offices you cut short. Return postal vehicles you took. The list goes on.”

A USPS spokesman declined to comment. DeJoy is expected to provide more detail on his plans in testimony before the Senate on Friday and the House of Representatives on Monday.

White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said Tuesday that Trump never told the Postal Service to change its operations.

Democrats asked for $25 billion to shore up the balance sheet of the USPS in a massive virus aid package that passed the House of Representatives in May. Republicans have balked at that figure, and Trump last week said he opposed that funding because it might be used to encourage mail voting. But administration officials in recent days have said they are open to additional funding as public outrage over the USPS drama has grown.

Local Democratic officials, operatives and campaign workers said they are not waiting for a Washington solution.

In the competitive state of Michigan, Democratic voter outreach volunteer Karen McJimpson, 64, is phoning voters to encourage them to hand-deliver their absentee ballots directly to specified drop boxes or elections offices in light of concerns about mail delivery. She said Tuesday’s news about restored service gave her no comfort.“I don’t trust it,” said McJimpson, who volunteers with a nonprofit called Michigan United. “There has been too much noise around this, and someone is clearly pulling the strings. We are going to proceed as planned: drop the ballots off.”

Upheaval at the USPS has reshuffled some Democrats’ plans for other types of election mail as well.

Brad Crone, a Democratic strategist in North Carolina, plans to send up to two million mailers between now and Election Day supporting various state and congressional candidates. The campaign flyers are mailed directly from his printer, who last week sent him a notice: If Crone wants to mail anything beyond Oct. 19, he must sign a waiver acknowledging that it might not get there before Election Day.

Crone said he will now stop his mailings by Oct. 4, three weeks earlier than he had originally planned.

“It’s alarming,” Crone said. “Americans are witnessing major system breakdowns, whether it’s the postal system, COVID testing or their local schools. The average voter is seeing this and is just floored.”

DROP BOX BATTLE

Mail voting has grown steadily since the turn of the century. In the 2016 presidential election, mail ballots accounted for 23.6% of all ballots cast, up from 19.2% in 2008, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.

Interest has exploded this year as voters have sought to avoid crowded polling places due to the coronavirus pandemic. Mail ballots accounted for 80% of all votes cast in 16 state primaries this year, including Wisconsin, Nevada and Pennsylvania, according to an estimate by Charles Stewart III, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Some states, such as New York, have struggled to handle the crush.

The surge has sparked a slew of litigation. Republicans in Texas, for example, fended off a recent Democratic effort to make it easier for its citizens to vote by mail in the pandemic. The vast majority of Texans will be required to vote in person in November.

Democrats have prevailed elsewhere. In South Carolina, officials have agreed to provide prepaid postage for absentee ballots, easing a barrier for those who otherwise would have to provide their own stamps. In Minnesota, the state agreed to suspend a requirement that absentee voters get a witness to sign their ballots and to count ballots that are postmarked by Election Day.

The Democratic Party currently has ongoing litigation on mail voting in 14 states, according to Marc Elias, the lawyer overseeing the effort.

Trump has spent the last few weeks making unsupported allegations that mail voting is vulnerable to tampering and would result in Democrats stealing the election. He has sought to distinguish between states that provide mail ballots only to voters who request them – including Florida, where Trump himself votes absentee – and those that are moving to conduct their elections entirely by mail, which he claims could lead to widespread cheating.

Election experts say mail voting is as secure as any other method.

Trump’s attacks have forced state and local Republicans to engage in some damage control. Many of their most reliable supporters, particularly elderly voters, have long used mail balloting. Some Republicans fear the president’s broadsides will depress turnout.

A Wall Street Journal/NBC poll released on Monday found that nearly half of Biden supporters plan to vote by mail in November, while just 11% of Trump supporters plan to do so.

The latest front in the voting battle is the dedicated election drop box, a sealed, sturdily built receptacle that has been a popular option for voters who prefer mail ballots but don’t want to return them via the USPS. Election officials collect those ballots and take them to polling locations for counting.

Election officials in South Carolina, Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania and elsewhere are seeking to expand drop-off locations or ease requirements such as those mandating that voters show identification to use them.

Those changes have met resistance from Republicans over concerns about fraud. On Monday, Trump turned his fire on drop boxes.

“Some states use ‘drop boxes’ for the collection of Universal Mail-In Ballots. So who is going to ‘collect’ the Ballots, and what might be done to them prior to tabulation?” he wrote on Twitter. “A Rigged Election? So bad for our Country.”

Rob Daniel, chairman of the Charleston County Democratic Party in South Carolina, said there is just one election drop box in the county of roughly 400,0000 people. He said some voters must drive 45 minutes to reach it because of the county’s odd shape.

Daniel said the county board of elections is seeking permission from the state to add more boxes, but that is no certainty. As a backup, the party is urging voters to request their mail ballots early and return them via the USPS as soon as possible.

“Even Trump can’t screw up the Postal Service so much that it can’t deliver mail across town in 30 days,” Daniel said.

Still, Democrats see a bigger worry: Trump has already raised the possibility that he might not accept the results of an election whose outcome could take days to decide because of the quantity of mail ballots that will need to be counted.

“That is absolutely our biggest threat,” Michigan’s Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist said.

(Reporting By Jarrett Renshaw in Pennsylvania and Andy Sullivan in Washington; Additional reporting by Michael Martina in Detroit and David Shepardson in Washington; Editing by Marla Dickerson)

Ten more states added to New York quarantine order: Cuomo

(Reuters) – Governor Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday ordered those arriving in New York from an additional 10 states to quarantine for 14 days to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus as cases flare up across the country.

Alaska, Delaware, Indiana, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Nebraska, Virginia, Washington were added to the travel order which was first issued in June. Minnesota was removed.

Travelers arriving in New York from a total of 31 U.S. states are now required to quarantine upon arrival in New York, according to the travel advisory.

(Reporting by Maria Caspani, Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

Where U.S. coronavirus cases are on the rise

By Chris Canipe and Lisa Shumaker

(Reuters) – Several southern U.S. states reported sharp increases in COVID-19 infections, with Alabama, South Carolina and Virginia all seeing new cases rise 35% or more in the week ended May 31 compared with the prior week, according to a Reuters analysis.

South Carolina health officials said they expected more increases in the future due to a lack of social distancing and mask-wearing at protests triggered by the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minnesota.

“If people don’t follow current recommendations for social distancing and avoiding crowds of any kind, we can anticipate seeing increased numbers,” the South Carolina health department said in a statement to Reuters.

Graphic: Tracking the novel coronavirus in the U.S.

South Carolina said the recent rise in its new cases, which have been going up for three weeks, was in part due to the completion of testing in the state’s 194 nursing homes.

Alabama’s health department attributed the state’s steady increase in cases since early May to community transmission, clusters of outbreaks, and more testing.

Virginia officials were not immediately available for comment.

Nationally, new COVID-19 cases fell for a fifth straight week, down 4.7% last week compared with a 0.8% drop the prior week, according to the Reuters analysis of data from The COVID Tracking Project, a volunteer-run effort to track the outbreak.

As all 50 states have partially reopened, cases are rising in 17 states compared with 20 in the prior week. (For an interactive graphic, click here)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended states wait for their daily number of new COVID-19 cases to fall for 14 days before easing social distancing restrictions.

Thirteen states have met the criteria for the week ended May 31, compared with 14 states and the District of Columbia the prior week, the analysis showed. Pennsylvania and New York lead with seven straight weeks of declines, and new cases are also falling in New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

(Graphic: World-focused tracker with country-by-country interactive, )

(Reporting by Chris Canipe in Kansas City, Missouri, and Lisa Shumaker in Chicago; Editing by Tiffany Wu)