Culture war on education rages in Virginia governor’s race

By James Oliphant, Gabriella Borter and Joseph Ax

McLEAN, Virginia (Reuters) -Suparna Dutta, an Indian immigrant, is incensed that new admissions standards aimed at boosting Black and Latino enrollment at her son’s Alexandria, Virginia high school have resulted in fewer Asian Americans being admitted.

Across town, Marie Murphy, a white mother of an 8th grader, is alarmed by anti-racism discussions at her son’s school, which she believes force white children to feel bad about their race.

In the upcoming election for Virginia governor in November, both women say they will vote for Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin, betting he will fight what they claim is a dangerous leftward drift in the state’s public education system. Classroom instruction about race has emerged as a flashpoint in the contest – and a potential harbinger of what’s in store for 2022 nationwide elections to decide control of Congress.

“I don’t want my child to be taught that race is an issue,” Murphy said.

Women are central to the Republican Party’s national strategy to win in the suburbs, where it has lost considerable ground to Democrats in recent years. Gearing up for 2022, Republicans have been test-driving a variety of messages. Pro-gun, anti-abortion, anti-transgender planks aren’t big draws for suburban voters. Neither is Republican criticism of COVID-19 restrictions and vaccines.

But public schools are a huge deal for suburban parents, many of whom moved to quality school districts to give their kids a leg up. Hoping to persuade these voters, Republicans across the country have mounted a campaign against so-called critical race theory or CRT, an academic construct that emerged in the 1970s to examine how U.S. law and institutions have perpetuated racial inequality.

Some Republican politicians and conservative groups have seized on the term to attack all manner of speech and academic policy related to race, denouncing concepts such as “social justice” and “white privilege” as a Democratic-led effort to indoctrinate children into turning against their country. One Alabama lawmaker claimed falsely that CRT called for white men to be sent to re-education camps.

In recent months, states such as Oklahoma and Texas have passed laws to restrict what can be taught in public schools about America’s troubled legacy of race relations.

School districts in Virginia and elsewhere insist they are not teaching CRT. They say critics are misconstruing their efforts to teach America’s history of slavery and civil rights, celebrate diversity, train teachers and promote better outcomes for students of color. Still, angry parents have packed school board meetings here and nationwide to demand that CRT be scrubbed from the curriculum.

For now, it remains unclear whether Republicans’ strategy will succeed in clawing back suburban and independent voters or will simply appeal to the party’s conservative base.

But in Virginia, Youngkin is betting the controversy will propel his candidacy. The former private equity executive recently announced his education plan in suburban Loudoun County, whose school system has been roiled https://www.reuters.com/world/us/partisan-war-over-teaching-history-racism-stokes-tensions-us-schools-2021-06-23 by some of the country’s most virulent anti-CRT protests. He has pledged to replace the state Board of Education and has accused Democrats of lowering the state’s academic standards.

“We have to press forward with having a curriculum that teaches our children how to think, not what to think. We will not allow critical race theory in our schools,” Youngkin said at a campaign event for women supporters last week in McLean, a wealthy Virginia suburb. Attendees erupted in applause.

Once a reliably Republican state, Virginia has slid firmly into the Democratic column, led by suburban voters. Democrat Joe Biden thumped incumbent Republican Donald Trump here by a 10-point margin in November.

Virginia’s gubernatorial race, coming a year after the presidential election, historically has served as a barometer of the public’s mood. It also provides a preview of arguments Democrats and Republicans are likely to make in next year’s midterm elections.

With the U.S. economy recovering, Republican candidates may resort to fighting a culture war, said Bob Holsworth, a longtime Virginia political analyst. He said education issues could resonate with suburban and Asian voters who left the party under Trump over his flame-throwing style of politics.

“If the Democrats have an Achilles’ heel, it might be that,” Holsworth said.

Youngkin’s Democratic opponent, former governor Terry McAuliffe, said Youngkin is emulating Trump with a campaign aimed at spreading disinformation and stoking grievance.

“What he’s doing is dividing us,” McAuliffe told Reuters.

McAuliffe has released an education plan that includes raising teacher pay and eliminating racial disparities in achievement, among other things.

Youngkin’s spokesperson, Macauley Porter, said McAuliffe “mocks parents’ concerns instead of offering them solutions.”

McAuliffe, who held the office from 2014 to 2018 and is running for a second term, is favored by analysts to win the election. But a poll conducted by the Trafalgar Group this month gave him just a 2-point lead, suggesting a close race.

Underscoring the importance of the race to Democrats, Biden is scheduled to campaign with McAuliffe on Friday – more than three months before Election Day.

‘DEHUMANIZING’

Last week, some of the women who attended Youngkin’s campaign event in McLean singled out education as their most important issue.

Claudia Stine, an immigrant from El Salvador whose children attended local public schools in Fairfax County, said CRT is “dehumanizing” because she says it “defines people by their skin color and teaches kids to resent and disrespect each other for it.”

While school systems across Virginia have denied criticisms that they teach CRT, state leaders have pushed to promote racial equity in public education. In February, the Democratic-led general assembly passed a law requiring “cultural competency” to be part of teacher evaluations.

Some parents approve. Theresa Kennedy, a mother of two sons in Richmond who works in finance and supports McAuliffe, believes schools should teach more about systemic racism in America.

“It’s hard to see your kids wrestle with stuff, but that’s also how they become full adults,” Kennedy said.

The issue has spilled out of the governor’s race to other contests as part of what Republican officials say is their overall strategy for the congressional midterms.

“House Democrats who embrace Critical Race Theory are doing so at their own peril and will have to answer for it in 2022,” said Samantha Bullock, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, the arm of the party that oversees U.S. House of Representatives races. Last week, Republican Taylor Keeney jumped into the race against Democratic U.S. Representative Abigail Spanberger, who represents a Virginia district outside of Richmond, considered to be a major battleground in next year’s elections.

One of Keeney’s battle cries: Schools should be “for education, not indoctrination.”

ASIAN-AMERICAN VOTE

Some are dubious the CRT flap will help Republicans conquer the suburbs because the controversy so far has resonated mostly with the party’s most fervent supporters. Whit Ayres, a veteran Republican strategist in Virginia, predicts its biggest achievement may be to fire up the base in a typically low-turnout, off-year election.

But for Virginians like Dutta, race in the classroom is the single issue now guiding their votes.

Dutta said she built a career in technology after arriving in the United States in 1993 to attend college with just a few hundred dollars in her pocket, and has largely avoided politics. That changed after her son’s top-ranked school, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, last year eliminated standardized admission tests and adopted a “holistic review” process that considers socioeconomic factors as well as grade point average.

The incoming class, announced in May, saw the proportion of Asian-American students drop to 54% from 73% with corresponding increases in the numbers of Black, Hispanic and white students.

Dutta argues the changes have lowered academic standards and amount to targeted discrimination against Asians. The Fairfax County school system refutes that, saying admission remains race-blind and that there has been no impact on the school’s academic standing.

Dutta now chairs an education support group for Youngkin, tasked with seeking out like-minded parents. “Asians typically vote for Democrats, but it won’t be that way this year,” she said.

Fairfax County alone is home to more than 200,000 Asian Americans, the most of any county in Virginia. Asian Americans make up around 8% of the electorate statewide.

Nationwide, Asian-American and Pacific Islander voters supported Biden over Trump by at least a 2-to-1 margin, pre-election surveys and exit polls showed.

Christine Chen, executive director of the nonprofit Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote, said studies by her organization have shown that a majority of Asian Americans support affirmative-action policies to help disadvantaged minorities.

And after a wave of anti-Asian violence over the past year, Chen said they also likely recognize the value of incorporating diverse viewpoints into education, including the Asian-American experience — exactly the type of efforts that some Republicans have decried as CRT.

(Reporting by James Oliphant in Arlington, Virginia; Gabriella Borter in McLean, Virginia; and Joseph Ax in Princeton, New Jersey. Editing by Soyoung Kim, Colleen Jenkins and Marla Dickerson)

Pipeline outage causes U.S. gasoline supply crunch, panic buying

By Laura Sanicola and Devika Krishna Kumar

(Reuters) -Gas stations from Florida to Virginia began running dry and prices at the pump rose on Tuesday, as the shutdown of the biggest U.S. fuel pipeline by hackers extended into a fifth day and sparked panic buying by motorists.

The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden projected that the Colonial Pipeline, source of nearly half the fuel supply on the U.S. East Coast, would restart in a few days and urged drivers not to top up their tanks.

“We are asking people not to hoard,” U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm told reporters at the White House. “Things will be back to normal soon.”

Colonial was shut on Friday after hackers launched a ransomware attack – effectively locking up its computer systems and demanding payment to release them – and the company has said it is hoping to “substantially” restart by the end of this week.

But the outage, which has underscored the vulnerability of vital U.S. infrastructure to cyberattacks, has already started to hurt.

About 7.5% of gas stations in Virginia and 5% in North Carolina had no fuel on Tuesday as demand jumped 20%, tracking firm GasBuddy said. Unleaded gas prices, meanwhile, neared an average $2.99 a gallon, its highest price since November 2014, the American Automobile Association said.

In an effort to ease the strain on consumers, Georgia suspended sales tax on gas until Saturday, and North Carolina declared an emergency. The U.S. federal government, meanwhile, has loosened rules to make it easier for suppliers to refill storage, including lifting seasonal anti-smog requirements for gasoline and allowing fuel truckers to work longer hours.

Granholm said there is not a shortage but a gasoline supply “crunch” in North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia and Southern Virginia, regions that typically rely on Colonial for fuel.

Driver Caroline Richardson said she was paying 15 cents more per gallon than a week ago as she refueled at a gas station in Sumter, South Carolina. “I know some friends who decided not to go out of town this weekend to save gas,” she said.

DARKSIDE HACK

The strike on Colonial “is potentially the most substantial and damaging attack on U.S. critical infrastructure ever,” Ohio Senator Rob Portman told a Senate hearing on cybersecurity threats on Tuesday.

The FBI has accused a shadowy criminal gang called DarkSide of the ransomware attack. DarkSide is believed to be based in Russia or Eastern Europe and avoids targeting computers that use languages from former Soviet republics, cyber experts say.

Russia’s embassy in the United States rejected speculation that Moscow was behind the attack. President Joe Biden a day earlier said there was no evidence so far that Russia was responsible.

A statement issued in DarkSide’s name on Monday said: “Our goal is to make money, and not creating problems for society.”

It is unknown how much money the hackers are seeking, and Colonial has not commented on whether it would pay.

“Cyber attacks on our nation’s infrastructure are growing more sophisticated, frequent and aggressive,” Brandon Wales, acting director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), said on Tuesday at a Senate hearing on the SolarWinds hack that hit companies and government agencies.

GOVERNMENT STEPS IN

The Environmental Protection Agency issued a waiver on Tuesday that allows distributors to continue supplying winter fuel blends through May 18 in three Mid-Atlantic states to help ease supplies.

North Carolina and the U.S. Department of Transportation, meanwhile, relaxed fuel-driver rules, allowing truckers hauling gasoline to work longer hours. North Carolina and Virginia have both declared a state of emergency.

The U.S. has also started the work needed to enable temporary waivers of Jones Act vessels in response to the cyber attack – something that would allow foreign flagged fuel carriers to move from one U.S. port to another, the Transportation Department said.

There are growing concerns that the pipeline outage could lead to further price spikes ahead of the Memorial Day weekend at the end of this month. The weekend is the traditional start of the busy summer driving season.

Gulf Coast refiners that rely on Colonial’s pipeline to move their products have cut processing. Total SE trimmed gasoline production at its Port Arthur, Texas, refinery and Citgo Petroleum pared back at its Lake Charles, Louisiana, plant, sources told Reuters.

Marathon Petroleum is “making adjustments” to its operations due to the pipeline shutdown, a spokesman said without providing details.

While the pipeline outage is having big short-term consequences in some regions, some experts believe the longer term impact will be small.

“Markets will go crazy, but two weeks later no one knows it happened,” said Chuck Watson, director of research at ENKI, which studies the economic effects of natural and other disasters.

(Reporting by Laura Sanicola, Stephanie Kelly and Devika Krishna Kumar; Additional reporting by Nandita Bose; Editing by Paul Simao, Cynthia Osterman and Grant McCool)

Minnesota, Virginia join U.S. states easing COVID-19 restrictions

By Barbara Goldberg

(Reuters) – The governors of two more U.S. states said on Thursday they were lifting most restrictions that were put in place to combat the spread of the coronavirus after sharp drops in infection rates and deaths.

Both Minnesota Governor Tim Walz and Virginia Governor Ralph Northam unveiled plans for easing or even completely erasing limits, saying all changes were hinged on vaccination numbers going up, which has helped to diminish COVID-19 case numbers.

Northam said Virginia would lift all restrictions on June 15, except for a mask mandate.

“If our COVID case numbers keep trending down and our vaccination numbers keep going up, we plan to lift our mitigation measures, capacity restrictions and social distancing requirements,” Northam told a news conference.

Walz unveiled a timeline to end all COVID-19 restrictions, saying limits on seating at entertainment venues, including outdoor stadiums, could be gone by Memorial Day weekend at the end of this month.

All limits will end by July 1, or sooner if 70% of Minnesota residents older than 16 get vaccinated, Walz said.

The increased freedoms in Minnesota and Virginia were disclosed just days after New York, New Jersey and Connecticut revealed on Monday that the tri-state area on May 19 would start lifting most coronavirus capacity restrictions on businesses, including retail stores, food services and gyms.

In sharing the good news, all of the governors stressed that a spike in COVID-19 cases could upend those plans. Infections have been declining in the United States as more people get vaccinated.

With 47,166 daily new infections reported on average, the United States is now 19% below a Jan 7 peak, according to data compiled by Reuters.

“Vaccines are working. They’re helping reduce the spread of this disease,” Northam said. “Fewer people e getting sick, fewer people are going into the hospital.”

Virginia’s face mask mandate was part of a state of emergency declared during the pandemic. It is due to expire on June 30, although Northam could extend it if there is a COVID-19 surge, officials said.

(Reporting by Barbara Goldberg in New York; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

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)