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Fighting COVID-19: Biden signs burst of virus orders, vows 'Help is on the way'

WASHINGTON — With a burst of executive orders, President Joe Biden served notice Thursday that America’s war on COVID-19 is under new command, promising an anxious nation progress to reduce infections and lift the siege it has endured for nearly a year.

At the same time, he tried to manage expectations in his second day in office, saying despite the best intentions “we’re going to face setbacks.” He brushed off a reporter’s question on whether his goal of 100 million coronavirus shots in 100 days should be more ambitious, a point pressed by some public health experts.

The 10 orders signed by Biden are aimed at jump starting his national COVID-19 strategy to increase vaccinations and testing, lay the groundwork for reopening schools and businesses, and immediately increase the use of masks — including a requirement that Americans mask up for travel. One directive calls for addressing health care inequities in minority communities hard hit by the virus.

“We didn’t get into this mess overnight, and it will take months to turn this around,” Biden said at the White House. U.S. deaths have have surged past 400,000, and he noted projections that they could reach 500,000 in a month.

But then, looking directly into the TV camera, Biden declared: “To a nation waiting for action, let me be clear on this point: Help is on the way.”

The new president has vowed to take far more aggressive measures to contain the virus than his predecessor, starting with stringent adherence to public health guidance. A key difference is that under Biden, the federal government is assuming full responsibility for the COVID response. And instead of delegating major tasks to states, he is offering to help them with technical backup and federal money.

He faces steep obstacles, with the virus actively spreading in most states, slow progress on the vaccine rollout and political uncertainty over whether congressional Republicans will help him pass a $1.9 trillion economic relief and COVID response package.

On Thursday a group influential with Republican office holders lent its support to Biden’s strategy. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce said, “We support the new administration’s focus on removing roadblocks to vaccinations and reopening schools, both of which are important steps to accelerating a broad-based economic recovery for all Americans.”

Biden officials have said they’ve been hampered by a lack of cooperation from the Trump administration during the transition. They say they don’t have a complete understanding of their predecessors’ actions on vaccine distribution. And they face a litany of complaints from states that say they are not getting enough vaccine even as they are being asked to vaccinate more categories of people.

The U.S. mask order for travel implemented by Biden applies to airports and planes, ships, intercity buses, trains and public transportation. Travelers from abroad must furnish a negative COVID-19 test before departing for the U.S. and must quarantine upon arrival. Biden has already mandated masks on federal property.

Although airlines, Amtrak and other transport providers now require masks, Biden’s order makes it a federal mandate, leaving little wiggle room for passengers tempted to argue about their rights. It marks a sharp break with the culture of President Donald Trump’s administration, under which masks were optional, and Trump made a point of going maskless and hosting big gatherings of like-minded supporters. Science has shown that masks, properly worn, cut down on coronavirus transmission.

Biden is seeking to expand testing and vaccine availability, with the goal of 100 million shots in his first 100 days in office. But some independent experts say his administration should strive for two or three times that number. Even with the slow pace of vaccinations, the U.S. is already closing in on 1 million shots a day.

“It’s a disappointingly low bar,” said Dr. Leana Wen, a public health expert and emergency physician.

Asked about that at the White House on Thursday, Biden told a reporter: “When I announced it, you all said it’s not possible. Come on, give me a break, man.”

The Democratic president has directed the Federal Emergency Management Agency to begin setting up vaccination centers, aiming to have 100 up and running in a month. He’s ordering the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to begin a program to make vaccines available through local pharmacies starting next month, building on a plan devised by the Trump administration. And he’s launching an effort to train more people to administer shots.

Biden has set a goal of having most K-8 schools reopen in his first 100 days, and he’s ordering the departments of Education and Health and Human Services to provide clear guidance for reopening them safely. States would also be able to tap FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund to help get schools back open.

Getting schools and child care going will help ease the drag on the U.S. economy, making it easier for parents to return to their jobs and for restaurants to find lunch-time customers.

But administration officials stressed that reopening schools safely depends on increased testing.

Biden is giving government agencies a green light to use the Cold War-era Defense Production Act to direct manufacturing. It allows the government to direct private industry to produce supplies needed in times of national emergency. In this case it could be anything from swabs, to masks, to certain chemicals.

“We do not have nearly enough testing capacity in this country,” said White House coronavirus coordinator Jeff Zients. “We need [more] money in order to really ramp up testing, which is so important to reopen schools and businesses.”

This means that efforts to boost the economy could hinge on how quickly lawmakers act on the $1.9 trillion package proposed by Biden, which includes separate planks such as $1,400 in direct payments to most working people, a $15 minimum wage and aid to state and local governments that some Republican lawmakers see as unnecessary for addressing the public health emergency.

The Biden plan estimates that a national vaccination strategy with expanded testing requires $160 billion, and he wants an additional $170 billion to aid the reopening of schools and universities. The proposal also calls for major investment in scientific research to track new variants of the virus.

As part of his strategy, Biden ordered establishment of a Health Equity Task Force to ensure that minority and underserved communities are not left out of the government’s response. Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans have borne a heavy burden of death and disease from the virus. Surveys have shown vaccine hesitancy is high among African Americans, a problem the administration plans to address through an education campaign.

But Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, the top White House health adviser on minority communities, said she’s not convinced that race is a factor in vaccination reluctance. Disparities seem to have more to do with risky jobs and other life circumstances.

“It’s not inherent to race,” she said. “It’s from the exposures.”

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey welcomes President Biden’s relief package for tackling pandemic

President Joe Biden has proposed a $1.9 trillion dollar rescue plan for tackling the coronavirus pandemic and resulting economic challenges.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) said that it is important that Biden’s proposal makes it through the Senate and House.

“This is going to be difficult but it’s the first thing that we have to do because it gets at the two big problems — the virus and jobs,” the senator said during an interview with The Tribune.

Known as the American Rescue Plan, the package bolsters many of the measures in Congress’ $3 trillion coronavirus relief bill from March and in the $900 billion legislation from December.

Key elements of Biden’s proposal include a $1,400-per-person stimulus payment, aid to state and local governments, a boost for coronavirus testing and vaccination efforts, enhanced unemployment, aid to childcare providers, renters and schools, and raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour.

“I think that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris not only want to focus on the immediate needs, whether it’s vaccines or getting schools open — but to make it big enough so you could have a beginning at least of a transformative impact on people’s lives,” Casey said of the proposal.

The plan has garnered support from national organizations such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and SEIU, but some Republicans have criticized the effort as too expensive.

“For those who are saying that it’s too big and it’s too expensive, they aren’t paying attention to the reality of the horror and the reality out there,” Casey said.

He wants Biden’s proposal to receive bipartisan support.

“I think there is a very likely prospect that the bill can pass. I’m not certain that it will pass in the form that it is in now,” Casey said.

He acknowledged that Democrats will have to engage in negotiations with Republicans for the measure to pass.

“The last time I checked we won the presidential election,” Casey said.

“We now have a majority in the Senate and we have a majority in the House. We should try to get it passed either with them or without them. But I think it’s always better to start with a bipartisan effort.”

Casey also called for former President Donald Trump to be held accountable for his role in inciting a mob attack on the U.S. Capitol Building on Jan. 6, which left five people dead.

The House impeached Trump last week following the insurrection. Casey said the U.S. Senate is duty bound to conduct an impeachment trial.

“My view of this is even if he’s not convicted in the U.S. Senate, that is still accountability that would not be imposed if we just said, well, it’s too late, let’s not do this,” he said.

“The second measure of accountability — at least potentially — is the potential of barring him from serving in federal office.”

Casey said Sens. Tom Cruz (R-Texas) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) should be censured over spearheading objections to Pennsylvania’s electoral college votes after a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol demanding that the election be overturned.

Biden revokes Trump order banning some diversity training

NEW YORK — Civil rights groups on Thursday celebrated President Joe Biden’s swift revocation of a Trump administration order that had banned federal agencies, contractors and recipients of federal funding from conducting certain diversity training.

The order had targeted workplace trainings that explored systemic racism and privilege, which former President Donald Trump had deemed “un-American” and potentially harmful to white workers. The Department of Labor had already suspended enforcement of the order after a California federal court granted a preliminary injunction against it in response to a lawsuit filed by Lambda Legal, an organization that advocates for the rights of LGBT people.

Biden’s move “underscores the priority he attaches to the United States government grappling honestly with implicit bias, racism and sexism in this country,” said Noel Twilbeck, chief executive officer at CrescentCare, a New Orleans non-profit that was part of that lawsuit. CrescentCare, which provides health and housing services to LGBT communities, was among the organizations affected by the order because it receives federal funding.

Camilla Taylor, director of constitutional litigation at Lambda Legal, said Biden’s decision ensures that organizations “don’t have to look over their shoulders constantly to wonder if someone is going to report them and if it will lead to them losing their federal funding.” She said several of Lambda Legal’s clients are already taking steps to resume training that had been suspended because of the order.

The Trump administration had said the order prohibited training that implies anyone is racist or sexist “by virtue of his or her race, sex, and/or national origin.” Civil rights groups said the wording was overly broad and had a chilling effect on workplaces trying to address concepts like white privilege, systemic racism and unconscious bias.

Within the government, the order had prompted the Justice Department to suspended all diversity and inclusion training. The State Department, Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Veteran Affairs had also canceled some programs.

“In the few months of its existence, it negatively impacted the lives and livelihoods of countless Americans and advanced the dangerous cause of white supremacy and disinformation,” said Janai Nelson, associate director-counsel of the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, which had filed a separate lawsuit against the order on behalf of the National Urban League and the National Fair Housing Alliance.

“We will continue to work to ensure that all vestiges of President Trump’s executive order are removed from workplaces across the country,” Nelson added.

SAGE, an organization that advocates for older LGBT people, said Trump’s order had led to the cancellation of a VA webinar in September to raise awareness about the needs of diverse older veterans. SAGE had been planned in the webinar to address discrimination LGBT older adults face when seeking health services, said SAGE CEO Michael Adams. The VA now plans to reschedule the webinar, Adams said.

Adams said SAGE developed its training years ago to educate health care providers “on the need to work respectfully with LGBT older people.” The Trump administration’s order “was highly convoluted and there was no way to comply with their guidelines while undertaking anti-racism and anti-sexism training.”

“We think it’s clear that both the impact and in fact the intent of the presidential order was to silence and eliminate anti-racism training,” Adams said.

In a separate but related effort, the Labor Department last fall opened inquiries into companies including Microsoft and Wells Fargo over their publicly announced efforts to boost Black employment and leadership. Trump administration letters had warned both companies against using “discriminatory practices” to meet diversity goals voiced by CEOs over the summer in response to Black Lives Matter protests.

The Labor Department did not immediately respond to questions Thursday about whether the inquiries are still being pursued. Microsoft and Wells Fargo declined to comment.

Juneteenth is no longer an official city holiday

Juneteenth is no longer listed as an official city holiday.

This comes after Mayor Jim Kenney used a one-time executive action in 2020 to designate the June 19 celebration, commemorating the abolition of slavery in the U.S., an official city holiday for the first time.

City employees will not receive comp or administrative leave time for Juneteenth, which falls on a Saturday this year.

Jim Engler, Kenney’s chief of staff, said the administration was negotiating with the city’s four major labor unions to include Juneteenth among other observed holidays in their collective bargaining agreements going forward.

The mayor hasn’t ruled out using another executive action to observe Juneteenth this year, Engler said. The collective bargaining agreements for the city’s major unions sunset on June 30 — after Juneteenth.

Michael Bresnan, president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 22, said the mayor set a precedent last year by designating Juneteenth a new city holiday so his union was fighting to keep it that way without making concessions.

“It’s sort a slap in the face to African-American members to take the holiday away,” Bresnan said.

Cathy Scott, president of AFSCME District Council 47, said in an email that the union “supports making Juneteenth an additional holiday.”

The Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 does not comment on contract negotiations, said police union spokesman Mike Neilon in an email.

AFSCME District Council 33, another major city union, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A source inside City Hall said the city is angling to replace an existing observed holiday, such as Columbus Day, with Juneteenth so as not to negatively affect the city’s budget.

Kenney designated Juneteenth an official city holiday last year as protests and civil unrest were ongoing in the city and U.S. following the police killing of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer. City offices and facilities were closed, and trash pickup was delayed that day, which was a Friday.

The Kenney administration said in a released statement at the time that it would “pursue all necessary steps to ensure Juneteenth continues to be an official City holiday in Philadelphia for years to come.”

The School District of Philadelphia will observe Juneteenth this year on June 18, a Friday, by closing schools and administrative offices. (The last day of the school year for students is June 11.)

In 2019 Gov. Tom Wolf designated June 19 as Juneteenth National Freedom Day, creating a state holiday for employees under the governor’s jurisdiction.

Juneteenth dates to 1865 (more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was in effect) when Union Maj. Gen. Gordon Granger brought news to Galveston, Texas, that the war had ended and issued General Order No. 3, stating that all slaves were free. Regional celebrations of Emancipation Day, or Juneteenth, took place the following year and spread throughout the Union.

Gary Shepherd, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Juneteenth Initiative, which puts on the city’s annual Juneteenth parade and festival, called for making Juneteenth an official city holiday.

“An official holiday every year in Philadelphia would bring to light some of the true history that has been hidden in the past,” Shepherd said.

“It’s very, very important that all citizens know and recognize what happened on June 19, 1865: That’s when all citizens of the United States became free and that should officially be celebrated as True Freedom Day.”