Trump proposes payroll tax cut through the end of the year

72 0 11 Mar 2020

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump told lawmakers he wants a payroll tax cut that would last at least through the election to give consumer spending a jolt as the coronavirus threatens to cripple economic growth.

The president told Republicans at a closed-door lunch Tuesday that he wants the payroll tax rate to drop to zero through the end of the year, according to a White House and a Senate official.

Another White House official added that different timelines were discussed. Trump is currently backing only those that would stretch through at least November or December, with some talk of expanding the cuts beyond 2020. The official argued that anything shorter would be bad politically and make less economic sense, with the impact of the coronavirus likely to stretch through the summer.

Trump has made the growing economy, record stock market numbers and low unemployment a keystone of his re-election pitch, sometimes telling crowds that they have no choice but to vote for him or else their retirement savings will be at risk. Under the president’s timeline, he would ensure that the tax is zeroed out throughout his re-election campaign.

Trump also repeated to senators his comments from Monday expressing a desire for federal assistance to provide paid sick leave, loans for small businesses and tax relief for specific industries, according to White House aides and senators who attended the lunch.

Help for the oil industry was also discussed, senators said. The White House is considering federal assistance for the shale oil industry, which has been hit hard by the oil price collapse this week, a White House official said. But the official cautioned that the situation is still fluid and that any aid would not be on the level of an industry bailout.

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Payroll taxes, which are distinct from income taxes, are paid by both employers and employees, with workers paying 6.2 percent of their salaries up to $137,000 to fund Social Security and employers matching that amount. The cut applies only to those who get paychecks, so it would provide little relief to people who are laid off as a result of an economic downturn.

“They are talking about specific industries that would be hurt the worst and to try and get first of all this payroll tax deduction,” said Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., who, like the president, is up for re-election this year. “So I think that’s at the top of my list as having immediate impact. My view is whatever you do, you want to roll it through the end of the year.”

But Perdue admitted that the stimulus tool would not help everyone.

“If you’re not getting paid, that doesn’t help,” said Perdue, a member of the Banking and Budget committees.

The tax cuts and other forms of major economic stimulus would have to be approved by Congress to go into effect, so they would require support from Democrats. Trump’s allies in Congress have publicly been told to put politics aside and work with Democrats to pass an economic assistance package.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., met Tuesday with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to discuss the outlines of a stimulus package. Asked whether any measure could pass this week before recess, Pelosi said that she “will see” and that Democrats are readying their own package.

Eamon Javers, CNBC contributed.

Researchers at Penn State discover a new type of pulsating star

54 0 11 Mar 2020

Researchers have uncovered a new type of pulsating star that’s taken on a teardrop shape as it becomes affected by a nearby star’s gravitational pull, according to Pennsylvania State University.

Its traditionally been thought that pulses on stars occur on all sides, but the newly discovered star exhibited an unusual single-sided pulsation. Researchers believe its caused by the gravitational pull of its close companion star distorting the oscillations, Penn State said in a release Monday.

“Since the 1980s, we’ve believed that systems like this could exist, but it is only now that we have finally found one,” said Don Kurtz, professor at the University of Central Lancashire in the United Kingdom and a co-author of the findings.

The university’s team of astronomers, who published their findings in Nature Astronomy, were tipped off by “citizen” astronomers.

“Stars that pulsate have been known in astronomy for a long time,” said Zhao Guo, a researcher at Penn State and an author of the paper. “The rhythmic pulsations of the stellar surface occur in young and in old stars, can have long or short periods, a wide range of strengths, and different causes. There is however one thing that, until now, all of these stars had in common: The oscillations were always visible on all sides of the star.”

Trump tweets about Obama, coronavirus and Ebola reveal hypocrisy of his crisis response

115 0 10 Mar 2020

The spread around the globe of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, has exposed a vulnerability in President Donald Trump’s White House that he is fundamentally ill-equipped to manage. Unlike previous obstacles, this isn’t something Trump can bully his way out of. He can’t neutralize it with a nickname or intimidate it with a slogan at a rally. This isn’t the Mueller probe or the impeachment inquiry that the president can dismiss as a “hoax” or a “witch hunt” — although he has already tried. For one of the first times in his presidency, Trump is confronted by an adversary that won’t be defeated by his repertoire of slights, jabs and lies.

For one of the first times in his presidency, Trump is confronted by an adversary that won’t be defeated by his repertoire of slights, jabs and lies.

In recent days, the president has dismissed criticism of his comments on the virus as a “hoax” and a political conspiracy concocted by Democrats. He has attacked the “Fake News” media, accusing them of putting out “disinformation,” when all that they’ve done is report verbatim and in context what the president has said. Even Trump’s own officials are reportedly getting frustrated with him.

After New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo told MSNBC this weekend that he was “battling” the federal government’s “mixed messages” about coronavirus, Trump tweeted back that “there are no mixed messages, only political weaponization.”

The irony, of course, is Trump is (mostly falsely) accusing Democrats and the media of the very behavior he enthusiastically embraced during the Ebola crisis. Indeed, the germaphobic Trump’s obsession with Ebola — and President Barack Obama’s response to it — feels like the textbook definition of politicizing a crisis. And it’s all documented.

In the summer and fall of 2014, Trump posted close to 100 tweets criticizing and, for lack of a better word, weaponizing, the Obama administration’s response to the Ebola crisis. Trump’s tweets included the observation “I know for sure that our leaders are incompetent.” He called Obama “stupid” and suggested that he “personally embrace all people in the US who contract Ebola!” He also callously tweeted that an American medical worker who had contracted Ebola while abroad shouldn’t be allowed back home, arguing that the person should instead “suffer the consequences!”

It’s a familiar, if not predictable, pattern.

Trump was quick to criticize the appointment of Obama’s Ebola czar, Ron Klain, tweeting that he had “zero experience in the medical area and zero experience in infectious disease control. A TOTAL JOKE!” And yet, Trump saw fit to tap Vice President Mike Pence to lead the federal government’s coronavirus response. Pence, of course, has no experience in medicine or infectious disease control. In fact, his one brush with public health crises was a complete disaster. As governor of Indiana, Pence ignored signs of an HIV outbreak in Austin, Indiana. According to the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Pence’s inaction led to the city’s getting a higher incidence of HIV “than any country in sub-Saharan Africa.”

Trump also criticized Obama for playing golf during Ebola, and yet pictures surfaced over the weekend of Trump playing golf with baseball players at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida. During the 2014 crisis, those who were exposed to the virus and went on to participate in everyday activities like taking the subway or bowling were “SELFISH,” according to the then-reality TV star.

However, Trump suggested that Americans with mild coronavirus cases should still go to work while they recover. (The CDC recommends that people who are mildly ill “isolate at home during their illness. You should restrict activities outside your home, except for getting medical care. Do not go to work, school, or public areas. Avoid using public transportation, ride-sharing, or taxis.”)

Trump has said in the past that he has a “natural instinct for science” — whether talking about climate change or a potentially deadly epidemic, this “instinct” seems to supersede the observations of public health experts. This instinct is also what enables him to say with such unyielding certainty that coronavirus death rate figures are “false,” a “hunch” he shared with Fox News host Sean Hannity.

Once again, the president’s baseless musings and the facts are on a collision course. The question people, especially Trump’s devout supporters, need to ask themselves is how willing they are to rely on the president’s gut for their welfare.

In a public health crisis, information must be communicated efficiently and directly. There is no place for partisan game playing. Trump’s Ebola obsession suggests he didn’t understand that truth in 2014 — and his actions and hypocritical rhetoric thus far suggest he still hasn’t learned this lesson.


March 10 primaries live updates: Democratic presidential candidates face off in 6 states

57 0 10 Mar 2020

NBC News Exit Poll: In Missouri, fewer under 45 and black voters compared to 2016

There have been some shifts in the demographic profile of Missouri’s primary voters since that 2016, when a razor thin margin of just over 1,000 votes separated Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in the state.

Compared to four years ago, today’s Missouri Democratic electorate has fewer voters younger than 45, fewer black voters, and fewer self-described liberals, according to the NBC News Exit Poll results. It also has slightly fewer first time primary voters than in 2016.

Amid coronavirus outbreak, Trump still doesn’t have any rallies planned

Vice President Mike Pence was asked at the White House coronavirus briefing on Tuesday whether the campaign will continue to have rallies amid coronavirus concerns. He told reporters: “I think that’ll be a decision that’s made literally on a day-to-day basis” and “I’m very confident that the campaign will take the very best information and make the very best decision going forward.”

The situation is clearly very fluid, given that the Trump campaign said they “expected” to reveal on Tuesday where the next rally would be but that was before the Biden and Sanders campaigns canceled their respective events in Ohio tonight. Of course, the day is not over so this Trump campaign announcement could still come but wanted everyone to have the proper context going into any such development.

See below for more on the events the campaign has “postponed” in recent days citing “scheduling conflicts,” despite a claim they are “proceeding normally” (a “Women for Trump” bus tour through MI, WI, PA this week and a rare FLOTUS fundraiser in Beverly Hills on March 18). No information yet on future dates for either of these.

NBC News Exit Poll: In primaries so far, Democratic anger toward Trump highest in Washington

Over the course of the primary season, about 2 in 3 Democratic primary voters have said they feel angry about Donald Trump’s administration, while 1 in 4 are dissatisfied, and only 8 percent report having positive views of the current president, according to results from the NBC News Exit Poll.

In states voting today, feelings of anger range from 83 percent of primary voters in Washington to 49 percent in Mississippi, early results from the NBC News Exit Poll found. Missouri and Michigan are on par with the primary average to date.

Prior to today’s contests, the highest level of anger toward Trump was 79 percent in New Hampshire’s primary. 

Democrats in Southern states have tended to express lower levels of anger about the current administration. The level in Mississippi’s electorate is just slightly above the low of 47 percent registered in South Carolina’s primary.



Michigan not expected to report primary results until Wednesday afternoon

A spokesperson for Michigan’s office of the secretary of state — which runs the state’s elections — said on a conference call Tuesday night that they don’t expect to have full reporting of the results from the state’s Democratic primary until the early afternoon of Wednesday, due to a wide disparity in how fast precincts are able to count votes.

Earlier Tuesday, Michigan’s office of the secretary of state said that it was expecting delays in the reporting of results of its primary Tuesday night due to the huge backlog of absentee votes.

Since Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson took office in 2019, Michigan has expanded voting options for citizens, including giving all voters the option to vote by mail and later voter registration.

That, however, has led to the state sending off nearly 1 million absentee ballots for the 2020 primary, with more than 800,000 of them already returned. That number includes the 36,574 ballots that were already spoiled — a unique rule in Michigan that allows residents who have already cast an absentee to change their vote

But under Michigan law, absentee ballots can’t even be opened until Election Day morning, leading to fears of long delays before precincts can produce a final count.

“Current state law hasn’t really caught up,” Jake Rollow, a spokesperson for Benson’s office, told NBC News.

NBC News Exit Poll: Most Mississippi Democrats support ‘Medicare for All’

Sizable shares of Mississippi Democratic primary voters support “Medicare for All,” according to early results from the NBC News Exit Poll.

Fully 6 in 10 say they support replacing all private health insurance with a single government plan for everyone. About half as many, 32 percent, say they oppose the plan.

Though most Democratic voters who have cast ballots in the 2020 primary race so far have favored “Medicare for All,” there is some variation in support state to state.

Compared with other Southern states that held contests prior to March 10, larger majorities of Mississippi Democratic primary voters support this policy. 

Smaller majorities of Democrats in Tennessee, Virginia and Alabama say they favor “Medicare for All.”

NBC News Exit Poll: Most Missouri voters feel their finances are holding steady

Just over 6 in 10 Missouri primary voters say their family’s financial situation is holding steady, according to early results from the NBC News Exit Poll. Another 24 percent are getting ahead and 11 percent feel they are falling behind. 

There are no differences in these results among supporters of the two remaining Democratic candidates.

Despite this relative stability, half of Democratic primary voters in Missouri say the country’s economic system needs a complete overhaul, while 41 percent say it only needs minor changes and 8 percent say it works well enough as is. 

Voters earning less than $50,000 a year (58 percent) are more likely than those who are in a higher income bracket (43 percent) to say the system needs an overhaul. Missouri’s 3.4 percent unemployment rate is just under the national average of 3.6 percent. 

Sanders, Biden cancel rallies because of coronavirus fears

Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden canceled campaign rallies planned for Tuesday night in Cleveland due to concerns about the coronavirus, a first on the 2020 presidential campaign trail as concerns about the outbreak mount.

“Out of concern for public health and safety, we are canceling tonight’s rally in Cleveland,” Sanders’ campaign communications director Mike Casca said in a statement. “We are heeding the public warnings from Ohio state officials, who have communicated concern about holding large, indoor events during the coronavirus outbreak.”

Casca added that the Vermont senator “would like to express his regret to the thousands of Ohioans who had planned to attend the event tonight” and said, “all future Bernie 2020 events will be evaluated on a case by case basis.”

Hand sanitizers, elbow bumps in lieu of handshakes, and shorter rope lines have already quickly become the new reality of campaigning in the time of the coronavirus.

A debate scheduled for Sunday in Phoenix between Sanders and Biden is currently scheduled to proceed, but the Democratic National Committee and CNN, which is hosting the debate, have said they are in contact with local officials and will follow their guidance.

NBC News Exit Poll: Compared to 2016, Mississippi Democratic primary electorate looks whiter, older

According to early results from the NBC News Exit Poll, the Mississippi Democratic primary electorate skews slightly older and whiter than it did in 2016.

In today’s primary race, white voters make up roughly 3 in 10 of those casting ballots in the Mississippi contest. This compares with just a quarter who were white in the Clinton versus Sanders matchup four years ago. In 2016, Sanders did slightly better among white voters than he did among blacks.

Today’s primary electorate also looks considerably older than it did four years ago: In 2016, 4 in 10 were younger than 45 years of age, while a majority were older 45. Today, early exit poll results show that young voters make up just a quarter of the electorate. 

Sanders will also look to shore up support among the state’s ideologically liberal voters. In the Super Tuesday contests, Sanders held his own among the South’s very liberal voters, faring much better among this group than moderate and conservative-leaning Democrats.

The ideological complexion of today’s electorate looks fairly similar to 2016: similar shares call themselves very liberal on political matters, but a slightly higher share call themselves moderate or conservative compared with four years ago.

ANALYSIS: Biden’s tough talk a new tack for Democrats

President Donald Trump turned insulting big-name rivals and celebrities into a form of modern political art. His top Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, has refined it into a post-modern name-calling style exhibited in limited fashion to voters who confront him with cheap shots.

“Don’t be such a horse’s ass,” Biden scolded a worker at an auto plant in Detroit on Tuesday as Michigan voters went to the polls.

The worker had falsely asserted that Biden wants to “end our Second Amendment right” to own guns. Biden, the author of a decadelong 1994 ban on certain semi-automatic weapons, has proposed new gun control measures but not a repeal of the Second Amendment — which as president he would have no formal role in adopting.

But the heated exchange, in which Biden threatened to slap the man and said he was “full of s—,” was just the latest example of a tough-talk tactic the former vice president has deployed repeatedly to push back on critics on the campaign trail. While allies of Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders say the aggressive approach will backfire politically, many Democrats and some anti-Trump Republicans like the unusually muscular response.

Read the full analysis here.

NBC News Exit Poll: Primary voters prioritize beating Trump but levels differ by preferred candidate

Democratic primary voters continue to say nominating a candidate who can beat Donald Trump was a more important factor in their votes than supporting someone who agrees with them on major issues, according to the NBC News Exit Poll.

Across Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri and Washington, 61 percent said they prioritized beating Trump and 36 percent said they prioritized issues, the NBC News Exit Poll found. This is nearly identical to exit poll results from prior contests, which showed 63 percent prioritized defeating Trump while 34 percent preferred issue alignment. 

Among supporters of Biden in today’s primaries, 71 percent prioritized defeating Trump, which is identical to the views of his supporters in earlier contests. Among Bernie Sanders voters, only 46 percent prioritized beating Trump, which is down slightly from prior contests.

The number of Democratic primary voters today who prioritized beating the incumbent ranged from 69 percent in Washington, to 59 percent in Missouri, 57 percent in Michigan and 53 percent in Mississippi.

Sanders, Biden cancel rallies because of coronavirus fears

59 0 10 Mar 2020

Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden canceled campaign rallies planned for Tuesday night in Cleveland due to concerns about the coronavirus, a first on the 2020 presidential campaign trail as concerns about the outbreak mount.

“Out of concern for public health and safety, we are canceling tonight’s rally in Cleveland,” Sanders’ campaign communications director Mike Casca said in a statement. “We are heeding the public warnings from Ohio state officials, who have communicated concern about holding large, indoor events during the coronavirus outbreak.”

Casca added that the Vermont senator “would like to express his regret to the thousands of Ohioans who had planned to attend the event tonight” and said, “all future Bernie 2020 events will be evaluated on a case by case basis.”

Hand sanitizers, elbow bumps in lieu of handshakes, and shorter rope lines have already quickly become the new reality of campaigning in the time of the coronavirus.

A debate scheduled for Sunday in Phoenix between Sanders and Biden is currently scheduled to proceed, but the Democratic National Committee and CNN, which is hosting the debate, have said they are in contact with local officials and will follow their guidance.

“We are in touch with local officials and will follow their guidance. There are no plans to cancel the debate,” DNC spokesperson Xochitl Hinojosa says.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is advising people at heightened risk for the disease, including older Americans, to “avoid crowds.”

Biden was shaking hands with union workers at an event Tuesday morning, but was also seen doing some fist bumps and applying hand sanitizer before eating.

“If they conclude that there shouldn’t be big indoor rallies, then we’ll stop big indoor rallies,” Biden told NBC News on Monday of health officials. “We’re going to do whatever they say.”

March 10 primaries: 5 things to watch in Michigan, Mississippi and more

63 0 10 Mar 2020

WASHINGTON — Super Tuesday resurrected Joe Biden’s campaign and powered him into a delegate lead. Super Tuesday II must revive Bernie Sanders or the nomination could slip away from him again.

A new CNN poll shows Biden leading Sanders by a margin of 52 percent to 36 percent in a two-person race. The biggest dividing line is age — voters under 45 said they prefer Sanders by nearly 2-to-1, while voters 45 or older picked Biden by more than 4-to-1.

That generational gap looms over another big day of voting Tuesday, with Democratic voters in Michigan, Idaho, Mississippi, Missouri, North Dakota and Washington set to deliver their verdict on who should be the party’s nominee to take on President Donald Trump. It’s also the last day for Democrats living abroad to participate in the primary.

Here are five things to watch on Super Tuesday II.

1. Will Sanders see a turnout revolution?

Sanders has said his path to the presidency involves young and irregular voters turning out in big numbers to outnumber establishment-friendly Democrats. So far, the opposite has happened. There hasn’t been a progressive revolution for change; there has been a suburban revolution for normalcy.

Consider the results from Virginia last week. Compared to 2016, the Democratic primary turnout surged in upscale suburban areas like Loudoun County from 36,149 to 71,632, and in Fairfax County from 139,818 to 244,664. Biden lapped Sanders in both counties.

Meanwhile, voters younger than 30, who overwhelmingly voted for the Vermont senator, shrunk as a share of the Virginia primary electorate from 16 percent in 2016 to 13 percent in 2020.

Sanders desperately needs that trend to change.

2. Michigan, Michigan, Michigan

In 2016, Michigan delivered Sanders a stunning come-from-behind victory that revived his campaign and gave him staying power in his battle with Hillary Clinton. If he is to mount a comeback this year, it would have to begin in Michigan.

It’s the most delegate-rich contest on the map Tuesday. And as a key battleground state, Sanders must show strength to close Biden’s perceived “electability” advantage nationwide, which soared to 40 points in the new CNN poll. That’s not sustainable if he wants to win over a base that is desperate to defeat President Donald Trump.

A Detroit Free Press poll showed the former vice president leading Sanders by 24 points, while a Monmouth survey had him ahead by 15 points. Sanders beat the polls last cycle, and he has placed a big bet on the state this time, with a packed campaign schedule over the weekend and a focus on trade in the industrial Midwestern hub.

“I still have PTSD from 2016. We certainly thought we were going to win Michigan by 10 points and we lost by a point and a half,” former Clinton campaign aide Adrienne Elrod said on MSNBC. “So you never know what’s going to happen in a state like Michigan.”

3. Margins matter more than victories

The contest is no longer about winning states, but rather about delegate math. Delegates are awarded proportionally based on margins, so big victories matter more than narrow ones. Sanders needs to notch big victories to cut into Biden’s delegate lead.

Apart from Michigan, Sanders handily won North Dakota, Idaho and Washington state in 2016. He lost Missouri by a wafer-thin margin. In theory, Sanders could narrowly win those five states and still fall behind in delegates if he gets walloped again in Mississippi.

In 2016, 7 in 10 Mississippi primary voters were black, and Biden showed his dominance among African American Southerners last week. He paid a visit to Mississippi over the weekend to rally voters after Sanders canceled a planned speech there Friday to spend more time in Michigan.

4. Where will Warren supporters go?

Super Tuesday results indicated Biden was the main beneficiary of former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s supporters after they dropped out and endorsed him. Since then, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has also dropped out, but she has not endorsed either Biden or Sanders — and it’s unclear where her voters will go.

Biden has a chance to win older and college-educated white women in her base, while Sanders may add to his base of young liberals who were torn between the two progressives who aligned on policy.

A Morning Consult poll taken last week found that among Warren supporters, 43 percent prefer Sanders as their second choice while 36 percent choose Biden.

5. Will caucus-to-primary switches hurt Sanders?

Sanders has proven stronger in caucuses — which tend to be low-turnout affairs that draw the most enthusiastic voters — than primaries. It boosted him to a big victory in the Nevada caucuses. But he lost Minnesota, which switched to a primary system after caucuses in 2016 that Sanders won handily.

Washington and Idaho have also switched from caucuses to primaries. Can Sanders carry those states? Having fallen behind in delegates, he can ill-afford to lose places he won last time.

Coronavirus is closing more schools. What happens to students who depend on school lunches?

48 0 10 Mar 2020

Over the next two weeks, 23,000 students in the Northshore School District in suburban Seattle are learning from home in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak gripping Washington state and rippling across the country.

But with students’ daily routines thrown for a loop, another immediate challenge has surfaced for school officials: How do you make sure every child has access to lunch?

“Students can’t learn properly if they’re not fed,” Juliana Fisher, the district’s food services and nutrition director, said. “There are some students whose food at school is the one or two meals they’re getting that day. This situation is really highlighting how critical school meals are.”

More than 3,000 students in the Northshore district qualify for free or reduced-price meals because of their families’ incomes, among the more than 20 million students nationwide who benefit from federal assistance programs, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Fisher said there was a slight bump in enrollment in her district last year during the federal government shutdown.

Now, with school closings spread across the country, officials are having to find creative ways to ensure students are getting access to the food they need, especially in low-income or less affluent districts.

“Everybody is really concerned about the situation,” said Crystal FitzSimons, the director of school and out-of-school time programs at the Food Research & Action Center, a nonprofit focused on eliminating poverty-related hunger. “This is unique in that it’s unclear how long schools are going to be closed for.”

The Northshore district said it is closing schools for 14 days — the maximum incubation period for symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, to appear after exposure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. District officials made the decision to temporarily close out as a precaution to possible exposure, an increase in student absences and concerns for the well-being of older teachers and staff.

Full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

Elsewhere in the Seattle region, some schools are holding online classes for students through April. In California, schools have been closing for deep cleanings as a precaution, and in the Bay Area, some are closing indefinitely because of potential or direct coronavirus exposure. In suburban Philadelphia, one school is closing for a week after a student’s family member tested positive for COVID-19. And in the New York and New Jersey area, several schools are closing for at least a day and up to a week because of the outbreak and potential exposure.

“Needy students live in all communities,” said Diane Pratt-Heavner, a spokeswoman for the School Nutrition Association, which represents more than 55,000 school nutrition professionals. She added that there remain “many unknowns and complex considerations that vary from one community to the next.”

To help make it easier for states to operate their school meals programs during the coronavirus outbreak, the USDA is accepting waiver requests — so far approved for Washington state and California — that will allow students to get their meals from a designated site, such as their local school or another off-campus location, then take it home.

Normally, students who participate in free or reduced-price meals can’t take their meals to go, but concerns over coronavirus spread in confined spaces have led officials to reevaluate. The waivers run through June 30.

“This is a first step that gives schools in many low-income communities the option to continue some form of meal service during coronavirus school closures,” Pratt-Heavner said. But, she added, the waiver only applies to places that run school meals programs over the summer, where at least 50 percent of children must also qualify for free or subsidized meals during the school year.

The USDA doesn’t have the authority to install a blanket nationwide waiver, so each state must apply on its own.

The agency reimburses schools and other participating sponsors, such as nonprofits and faith-based organizations, for each meal given to qualifying students. But USDA officials have acknowledged that the stringent requirements for participation in the program can leave little room to be flexible.

The latest waiver for Washington state and California will “help ensure that our children get wholesome meals, safeguarding their health during times of need,” Brandon Lipps, the deputy undersecretary for the USDA’s Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, said in a statement.

FitzSimons said it would be helpful for the USDA to go further, like in times of natural disasters or emergencies that also force school closings. One possibility, she said, is allowing schools that know they’re going to be closed for a certain number of days to allow students to stock up on enough meals at once so they don’t have to worry about venturing out.

Cafeteria workers for the Northshore School District in Washington state prepare meals for students who must stay home on March 9, 2020.Northshore School District

Claire Lane, the director of the Anti-Hunger and Nutrition Coalition, a Washington state nonprofit, said her state has another request to the USDA that, if approved, would waive the lower income eligibility requirements so that more students have the opportunity to be fed and perishable food doesn’t go to waste. About 1.1 million children in the state receive free or reduced-price lunches.

Lane said another option would be to allow school districts that decide to close to distribute their food to local food banks so that all families can have access to meals. Such a move, however, generally requires a presidential declaration.

At the Northshore district, all students — no matter their eligibility — are being offered lunches thanks to the help of community groups, Fisher said. It’s unclear how many students will take advantage of the meals, but bus drivers are also helping deliver meals for students. The school district learned the importance of being prepared, particularly after last winter’s snowstorms closed schools.

“With so much going on, this isn’t a time when kids should have to worry about where their next meal is coming from,” Fisher added.

Nursing homes coronavirus lockdown keeps wife from her husband of 58 years

51 0 10 Mar 2020

Twice a day, Bonnie Polin, 78, drives a few miles to visit her husband at his nursing home in Portland, Oregon. She sits with him while he eats breakfast and tells him stories that she knows he probably won’t remember.

“I fell in love with him because he was so damned smart, and now he’s in the end stages of Parkinson’s disease,” Polin said of her husband, Gerald, 83, a retired psychiatrist. “But he’s still as handsome as ever.”

Polin paused early one morning last week when she arrived for a visit and noticed a new sign posted at the entrance. In response to the worsening coronavirus outbreak, officials at the Avamere Crestview of Portland, an adult care facility, like untold numbers of other nursing homes across the country in recent days, had decided to ban visitors.

Polin read the sign twice. Then she darted past it and went looking for her husband. In the nearly 58 years since they got married, the pair had rarely spent a day apart. When Polin found him, asleep in his wheelchair, she grabbed his hand.

She knew she wouldn’t have long.

“Sweetie, I’m not going to be able to come see you for a while,” she recalled telling him.

She explained that there was a serious new virus spreading in Oregon and across the country, and that elderly people were at higher risk — though she doubts he understood any of that. A minute later, a nursing home staff member arrived and told Polin she needed to leave.

She kissed her husband and told him goodbye; he didn’t reply.

“I don’t know when I’ll see you again,” she told him, before heading for the exit.

Bonnie Polin usually visits her husband, Gerald, at his nursing home, twice every day.Leah Nash / for NBC News

For Polin and thousands of others with relatives in nursing homes, the coronavirus outbreak has ushered in a painful new normal. After a nursing home outside Seattle became the U.S. epicenter of a deadly outbreak that has killed at least 18 residents, senior living facilities around the nation have begun banning visitors, in the hopes of preventing similar tragedies.

For more on this story, watch NBC’s “Nightly News with Lester Holt” tonight at 6:30 p.m. ET/5:30 p.m. CT.

Many nursing homes have been restricting visits from people with flu-like symptoms and those who have recently traveled abroad. But in recent days, as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the U.S. has grown, many facilities announced that they would begin prohibiting social visits altogether.

“As every day unfolds, it becomes clearer that the skilled nursing sector and the assisted living sector face one of the most significant challenges, if not the most significant challenge, in our histories,” said Mark Parkinson, president and CEO of the nursing home trade group American Health Care Association, which Tuesday announced new national guidance recommending that nursing homes prohibit visits from anyone other than health care providers and other essential workers. “The evidence has become overwhelming that the mortality rate to COVID-19 for people that live in our buildings is shocking.”

Although many patients have reported only moderate symptoms, experts say people over the age of 70 are at serious risk of respiratory failure or death. Parkinson said experts were telling him that the death rate for people over the age of 80 might well exceed 15 percent, though government officials say it won’t be possible to calculate a true mortality rate until far more people are tested.

On Monday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that state officials had barred visitors from senior living facilities in New Rochelle, a New York City suburb at the center of an emerging outbreak in the region. Later that evening, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued national guidelines for nursing homes, including a recommendation to limit or end social visits from loved ones.

Public health officials say these drastic measures are needed to slow the spread of the coronavirus among those most vulnerable to it.

Dorothy Campbell and her son, Charlie Campbell, talk through a window with her husband, Gene Campbell, at the Life Care Center outside Seattle.David Ryder / Reuters

As the outbreak worsened at the Life Care Center in the suburbs of Seattle last week, news reports revealed the tragic consequences that can follow when a nursing home is put on lockdown — a grim foreshadowing of what experts worry could be repeated across the country in the coming weeks.

Some of those cut off from their elderly loved ones at Life Care said they were struggling to learn basic details about what was happening in the facility. Others said they feared they would never see their parents or grandparents again, given their poor health. Photos of a gray-haired woman standing at a window, trying to talk to her quarantined husband on the other side of the glass, made national headlines.

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Bryan James, an epidemiologist at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago, said nursing homes are probably doing the right thing by restricting access until the outbreak is brought under control. But those decisions come at a cost, said James, who studies the way people’s social connections affect their health as they age.

“I think that by isolating people and saying that their family members can’t come to see them, you can very well see scenarios where people begin losing a sense of purpose in their lives,” James said. “That social connectedness is incredibly important in keeping people going every day and keeping people healthy.”

James said relationships with friends and family help people stay mentally sharp as they grow older. He worries that prolonged restrictions on nursing home visits could be devastating for some residents, particularly those already in very poor health. Some, he said, might be forced to spend their final moments alone.

“We already have the problem of people dying alone in this country at such high numbers,” he said. “And now I worry that we’re going to have even more people dying alone in hospice without their loved ones next to them, even though their families desperately want to be with them.”

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Yvonne Michael, an epidemiologist at Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health in Philadelphia, said nursing homes that ban visitors might need to plan additional social activities to keep residents from feeling isolated.

But that won’t help family members on the outside.

“At the end of the day, it might be harder for the person outside the nursing home than the one inside of it,” Michael said. “For the family members on the outside, that sense of hopelessness — of not being able to be with their loved one who needs them — could also be devastating.”

Weinstein lawyers seek minimum sentence for rape conviction

61 0 10 Mar 2020

With prosecutors seeking a severe punishment for Harvey Weinstein in his landmark #MeToo case, his lawyers argued on Monday that he deserves mercy for his already “historic fall from grace” and serious health issues.

In a letter filed in advance of Weinstein’s sentencing on Wednesday for his New York City rape conviction, his defense team asked Judge James Burke to give him to only five years behind bars — a far cry from the potential 29-year maximum term allowed by law.

A man who was once admired for putting part of his fortune into charitable causes during his rise to one of Hollywood’s most powerful producers now “cannot walk outside without being heckled,” the papers say. “He has lost his means to earn a living. Simply put, his fall from grace has been historic, perhaps unmatched in the age of social media.”

Even if the ailing 67-year-old defendant is given a lesser term, “the grave reality is that Mr. Weinstein may not even outlive that term” making it “a de facto life sentence,” the papers say. Weinstein has denied all allegations of nonconsensual sex and his lawyers said they will appeal the conviction.

From the start, Weinstein’s use of a walker to get in and out of court each day at his trial raised questions about his health. After his Feb. 24 conviction, he was sent to Bellevue Hospital amid concerns about high blood pressure and heart palpitations for more than a week before being transferred late last week in an infirmary on the notorious Riker Island jail complex.

In addition to the heart issues, Weinstein’s lawyers have said he was also dealing with the ramifications of unsuccessful back surgery stemming from a car crash last summer and a condition that requires shots in his eyes so he does not go blind.

In their own filing last week, prosecutors detailed a litany of allegations starting with a claim by a woman that she woke up in the middle of the night in a Buffalo, New York, hotel room in 1978 to find Weinstein on top of her and “forcing himself sexually on her.”

They said it fit a pattern that continued for decades: Weinstein getting young women alone in hotel rooms and other settings before sexually attacking them, often while trying to trick them into thinking it was a path to stardom.

The judge had told potential jurors during jury selection that the trial “was not a referendum on the #metoo movement” and to consider only the specific allegations contained in the charges. But prosecutors said that by law, Burke is allowed “to consider all aspects of a defendant’s life and characteristics” and a “broad spectrum of information” in considering a proper sentence.

Based on “a lifetime of abuse toward others, sexual and otherwise,” the judge should impose a sentence that “reflects the seriousness of the defendant’s offenses” and punishes him for “his total lack of remorse for the harm he has done,” prosecutors wrote.

On the criminal sex act count, Weinstein faces a minimum of five years in prison and a maximum of 25 years in prison, while the third-degree rape count carries a maximum penalty of four years in prison.

Judges often run sentences concurrently, meaning a defendant can serve both sentences at the same time.

At Weinstein’s sentencing hearing, his accusers will again get a chance to confront him in court, and the former producer will be afforded another opportunity to speak. He declined to testify on his behalf at his trial, but at sentencing he wouldn’t have to worry about getting grilled by the prosecution like he would’ve on cross-examination.

Once Weinstein is sentenced, he’ll be transferred from the city’s jail system to the state prison system. There, he will undergo a thorough evaluation, including a comprehensive medical review, to determine which facility is best for his physical and security needs.

Broken Boeing airplanes are going to the military thanks to corruption and bad decisions

59 0 10 Mar 2020

The 737 Max isn’t Boeing’s only airplane that suffers from malfunctions. Its new aerial refueling tanker — the type of plane that makes it possible for the Air Force’s aircraft to traverse long distances while being based a safe distance away from enemy attacks — is also riddled with problems.

And yet, the Pentagon earmarked $2.85 billion in the 2020 budget for 15 Boeing aircraft it can’t use — while retiring 29 refueling tankers that still work fine to free up resources for the new planes. With military leaders headed to Capitol Hill this week to testify about their budget priorities for 2021, lawmakers need to hold them accountable for the decision.

U.S. Air Force and Boeing officials gather during a delivery celebration of the Boeing KC-46 Pegasus aerial refueling tanker to the U.S. Air Force in Everett, Wash., on Jan. 24, 2019.Lindsey Wasson / Reuters

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein recently admitted that the Boeings have “profound problems” and are not yet suitable for “day-to-day operations.” Yet the planes that refuel the Air Force’s bombers, fighters, surveillance and cargo planes in mid-air are in near-constant demand, and are frequently called upon to do double-duty as cargo planes themselves.

Right now the Pentagon relies upon an unparalleled fleet of around 450 KC-135s and KC-10s for this job. But some of those tankers are now over 60 years old, and the Air Force has been trying since 2001 to find a replacement for the aging planes. Unlike developing cutting-edge new stealth fighters, devising an updated tanker should have been a fairly straightforward matter of outfitting a newer airliner with proven air-refueling technology.

But due to a lengthy odyssey involving overt corruption and poor decisions, nearly 20 years later the Air Force is left purchasing an expensive new aircraft that still doesn’t work. And according to an Air Force general, the replacements aren’t expected to be capable of performing missions abroad for three more years.

That means the hard-pressed Air Mobility Command will need to meet the same demands with fewer aircraft — or, some argue, even pay private contractors to furnish additional refueling services — in the meantime.

From the beginning, the tanker replacement program has been beset by scandal. Back in 2003, observers raised eyebrows when the Air Force stated it would lease 100 767-based tankers from Boeing instead of buying them outright, as is the standard practice. Then it emerged civilian Air Force official Darleen Druyun had been essentially working for Boeing from the inside in exchange for a high-paying job with the company. The suspicious leasing arrangement was axed, while Druyun and Boeing’s chief financial officer were convicted of corruption.

A new tanker replacement competition saw Boeing’s design, based on its civilian 767 airliner, defeated by a competing offer from Airbus/Northrop Grumman in 2008. But here, too, there was controversy. Boeing complained the competition had been conducted unfairly, and the Government Accountability Office sided with Boeing — so the replacement competition had to be restarted again.

Boeing was expected to once more lose to Airbus — but it emerged the winner in 2011, apparently due to having underbid on the price, gambling that it could make money back in the long term through additional sales and exports. Indeed, in 2019 Boeing openly boasted to potential export clients that they would essentially receive free research and development funding for their Pegasus aircraft paid for by U.S. Air Force dollars.

Boeing also made another bad bet with its new design: The company decided to outfit its airliner-based aerial refuelers, the KC-46 Pegasus, with an unnecessary but nifty-sounding improvement: a refueling pipe, or boom in Air Force jargon, that could be remotely controlled from the cockpit.

(The current stable of Air Force tankers uses a pipe manually guided by a crew member peering through a window in the plane’s belly.) But in testing, the remote video screen sometimes shows distorted imagery, causing the refueling pipe to bang into the receiving airplane and potentially inflicting costly damage.

Trump’s first defense secretary, James Mattis, opposed accepting deliveries of the Boeing tankers until the problems were fixed, putting the onus on Boeing to correct the issue first. But after he resigned, the new acting defense secretary, Patrick Shanahan, was a former Boeing executive. He recused himself from involvement in the deal, but undersecretary of defense for acquisitions Ellen Lord authorized accepting the deliveries.

Soon after in early 2019, the Pentagon began receiving the aircraft despite the persistence of problems that “may cause … major damage to a weapon system.” It’s trying to compensate by withholding up to $28 million from each Pegasus (which cost $230 million each) until the problem is resolved, and Boeing has agreed to bear some of the cost for fixing it.

Meanwhile, serious new problems cropped up. The Air Force repeatedly froze deliveries of the unusable planes later in 2019 after maintenance personnel discovered Boeing technicians had left behind tools, nuts, bolts and trash in the airframe that could cause damage mid-flight. And then the fleet was temporarily banned from cargo flights when floor cargo restraints came undone without apparent cause.

Though senior Air Force officials have sent angry letters and issued stern warnings to Boeing regarding a lack of progress in fixing the faulty remote-control camera system, at this point the Air Force is too committed to the Pegasus to pull out.

The Pentagon is currently locked in a weird hostage relationship with Boeing in which it has to negotiate over how to spend research and development funding.

The bulk of its tanker fleet are aging out, and the Pegasus does come with useful improvements, such as more fuel-efficient engines and compatibility with Navy jets, which use a different refueling system. And the planes have new defenses as tankers are expected to become more vulnerable to attack.

So now the Pentagon is currently locked in a weird hostage relationship with Boeing in which it has to negotiate over how to spend research and development funding to make sure the non-mission-capable aircraft it has purchased eventually work. It’s scandalous that Boeing was forgiven so many past screw-ups that it ended up in a position where the Air Force has to beg it to fix the dysfunctional airplanes the company is delivering.