Virus Outbreak

In this undated photo, provided by NY Governor's Press Office, is the new "Excelsior Pass" app, a digital pass that people can download to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test.

(The Center Square) – Democratic governors railed against former President Donald Trump for what they claimed was a lack of leadership because Trump didn’t push federal COVID regulations.

Instead, Trump focused on the straight-line path to a solution: the development of a vaccine, mass vaccination, and ultimately the suppression of the disease’s impact via mass immunity.

So now here we are in the first 100 days of President Joe Biden’s administration, and now vaccines from three manufacturers – Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson – continue to roll out as each of the pharma companies scales and states improve their distribution practices. And very soon all Americans older than 16 will be eligible to be vaccinated. Little to no ink will be spilled by Big Media correcting stories that ridiculed Trump’s prediction last year of today’s reality.

The slog through the final phase of COVID-19 feels as is if the end is upon us. Deaths from the virus – the most meaningful statistic in a pandemic – have fallen precipitously.

But most state politicians continue to involve themselves wherever they can. The latest example of this is in the call from some governors and legislatures to implement vaccine passports.

First, it’s not clear that vaccine passports are necessary. Immunizations increase daily. Biden, in his first and only public address to the media in which he fielded “live” questions from the media, confirmed that the United States should be able to deliver 200 million doses of the vaccine in his first three-plus months on the job.

Second, if vaccine passports are important, they shouldn’t be important to the government.

Third, if you had to choose folks responsible for vaccine passports, would you trust the same people who tried to define and regulate “essential” work, who haven’t been able to manage their way through the unemployment payment crises that plague too many states, and who struggle counting COVID-only deaths? Quick take: most wouldn’t.

If any vaccine passport might be required, and it’s not certain that they will, that would be a job better suited for the private sector, not the government.

It would seem reasonably applicable for use by professional sports teams or leagues, to ensure that their fans could return to the games and regain some sense of normalcy with an assurance that the person next to them has been vaccinated.

It would also seem reasonable that nursing homes could use something such as a passport to permit friends and family members to see their loved ones. And, certainly, the travel and convention industries – think massive cruise ships, theme parks, and other places where people would have to consent to a confined space for hours, if not days, at a time – might benefit from a certification program that allays fears and serves to minimize a risk of wide spread.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute released a report last week that said no fewer than 17 private companies are working to create credentialing applications that could be used to solve some of the challenges with what we all hope is the final phase of living life amidst COVID-19 and its corresponding political lockdowns.

CEI also said that if the government should involve itself in any way around this matter, it should be as an arbiter of standards.

It would have been helpful had the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – in the very early days of COVID-19 – been the arbiter of standards for what actually was a coronavirus-related death and then communicated that effectively to the myriad counties that were left to make those decisions themselves. But it wasn’t.

So perhaps the federal government should stay out the way. And here’s why: In states where people have demonstrated a higher degree of personal responsibility, followed safe-distancing practices, and practiced basic hygiene, the trends are positive. Very positive.

States have started to reopen, to differing degrees of success. Texas, Mississippi, and Arkansas – each maligned for lifting mask mandates – have outperformed states in safety and in prosperity such as Illinois, Michigan and Pennsylvania, which have maintained mask rules and other more severe restrictions. It’s no wonder so many in those latter states are wondering whether it’s a mask or a muzzle.

If we have learned anything from how people behave during a pandemic, it’s that some people will listen to the recommendations of the state but perhaps just as many won’t. And that’s OK.

If we use any standard for returning to life before COVID, let the local business owner or operator determine what that standard may be.

Americans are no stranger to risk. Let us decide how to weigh it without the nanny state tipping the scales. 

TEXAS

Gov. Greg Abbott continued his criticism of President Joe Biden over the border crisis, saying last week that the administration "is presiding over the abuse of children.” The comments came after two state agencies received reports of child abuse and neglect occurring at the Freeman Coliseum, which has been set up as a temporary shelter to house the surge in immigrants illegally crossing the border. Abbott said the problems “are a byproduct of Biden’s open border policies and lack of planning and fallout from those disastrous policies.”

Texas also became the latest U.S. state to ban "vaccine passport" requirements. Abbott issued an executive order Tuesday prohibiting state and local governments and agencies from implementing any such requirement. The order prohibits the state from refusing service to individuals based on their vaccination status, as well as any organization receiving public funds from requiring consumers to provide documentation of vaccine status in order to receive any service or enter any place, according to the order.

IOWA

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds last week also spoke against the concept of “vaccine passports” – the requirement to carry a credential proving receipt of the COVID-19 vaccination. She said that questions with these passports include infringing on privacy, Health Insurance and Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) privacy protections, and First and Fourth Amendment rights.

Reynolds also signed HF 621. With the new law, firearm, firearm accessory and ammunition manufacturers and other industry businesses cannot be held legally responsible for damages following “criminal or unlawful use” of those items by another individual or regarding “the lawful design, manufacture, marketing or sale of the items.” The businesses would still be liable for breaches of contract or warranty on firearms or related items, including harm caused by defective weapons.

MICHIGAN

Michigan’s government-imposed COVID-19 restrictions are among the most stringent in the country, yet the state’s positivity rates are the worst in the nation. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer boasted her executive orders protected state residents, but a poll released this week indicated 63% of those surveyed  strongly support a ballot proposal to limit the use of gubernatorial emergency powers.

MINNESOTA

As Minnesota returns to a semblance of normalcy with an increasing number of injected COVID-19 vaccines, one Republican aims to ban “vaccine passports.” SF 1589 aims to ban forced COVID-19 vaccinations, forced digital contact tracing, and required proof of COVID-19 vaccination before entering a government business.

Despite the GOP swearing they won’t approve any tax increase, Minnesota House Democrats pitched a wide range of tax hikes in packages unveiled Monday. The bills follow budget negotiations and a $52.5 billion budget target released by House Democrats, exceeding the target of Gov. Tim Walz, a Democrat, and the Senate GOP.

WISCONSIN

Despite Gov. Tony Evers promising to veto any and all of the 11 pieces of what Republicans are calling the Responsible Stimulus Plan, Republican lawmakers in Madison are preparing to spend the next week approving nearly a dozen changes to how they want Wisconsin to spend its billions of dollars in federal stimulus money. The Republican list includes paying down debt, creating a statewide public safety communications system, setting money aside for Wisconsin’s unemployment trust fund, and sending grants to small businesses, nursing homes, and tourism operations across the state.

ILLINOIS

Gov. J.B. Pritzker says he’s confident he’s within the bounds of his authority with continued COVID-19 orders lasting more than a year that impact  restaurants and other businesses. Now, he may have to prove that in court. While other challenges have either been dismissed or withdrawn, a Sangamon County judge Wednesday denied Pritzkers’ motion to dismiss a Geneva restaurant’s challenge. “[T]he governor cannot rely on emergency powers indefinitely,” wrote Sangamon County Circuit Court Judge Raylene Grischow. “The U.S. Constitution recognized the importance of dispersing governmental power in order to protect individual liberty and avoid tyranny.” Pritzker on Thursday downplayed the judge's denial to dismiss the case. “There have been a number of right-wing organizations that have stoked some of these lawsuits and they continue to try and poke and prod to find something and anything,” Pritzker said. “They’ve lost at every turn. This is just another one of those cases.”

FLORIDA

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is reveling in rare consensus as some Democrats and respected media analysts join his conservative allies in blasting Sunday’s "60 Minutes" report about claims of vaccine favoritism in Florida. And he’s sparing no forum in sharing his delight in public appearances across Florida and in TV interviews on Fox News and other networks. Sunday’s "60 Minutes" segment reported by Sharyn Alfonsi suggested DeSantis gave Publix, Florida’s largest grocery chain, preferential treatment in a “pay-to-play” scheme to distribute COVID-19 vaccines after Publix donated $100,000 to his reelection campaign. The claim has been widely repudiated not only by DeSantis and Publix, but by state and local officials from both parties. Flanked by Division of Emergency Management (DEM) Director Jared Moskowitz, a Democrat, the governor Wednesday detailed his case against the report in a “FACTS VS. SMEARS” presentation. The “pay-for-play’ allegation is “verifiably false because I know that decision was made in my office. I’m the one making the phone call, and I tried to go to Walmart first. So, the whole Publix pay-to-play thing is garbage,” Moskowitz said.

PENNSYLVANIA

Donations traced back to Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg that supported election efforts in a number of Pennsylvania counties have drawn the ire of several Republican lawmakers. A new bill would require that any such donations go to the Department of State, which in turn would be in a position to prioritize which counties would most need the assistance. “It is deeply disturbing to me, and to many people I represent, that outside organizations were permitted to ‘invest’ in our elections in this way,” said Rep. Clint Owlett, R-Wellsboro. “As we work to restore the people’s faith in our election processes, eliminating this type of grant funding from outsiders should be a top priority.”

NEW YORK

Gov. Andrew Cuomo – still embroiled in multiple scandals, including accusations of sexual harassment and questions about COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes – reversed his opposition to a tax increase on the wealthiest state residents, saying that the measure was needed for state budget priorities and would be offset by federal tax changes. Cuomo says Congress will soon fully restore the state-and-local tax deductions on federal taxes. But Republicans countered that the state tax hike will only increase the exodus of New York residents seen in recent years. 

ARIZONA

News of teacher layoffs at one of Arizona’s largest public school districts has the state’s elected officials pointing fingers over how to solve the issue. Gilbert Public Schools announced last month it would not welcome back 152 certified professionals next year, blaming the layoffs on a decline in student attendance. Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, wrote Arizona Department of Education Superintendent Kathy Hoffman, asking her to release what she estimated to be $85 million in discretionary federal funds. Hoffman, a Democrat, responded, saying the Arizona Legislature and Gov. Doug Ducey were to blame for shorting public schools by approving $370 million in an Enrollment Stability Grant program that fell short of the needed $619 million.

NORTH CAROLINA

A second piece of legislation seeking to expand the state’s school voucher program for low-income students was filed last week. The bill would increase the Opportunity Scholarship program’s income eligibility threshold from 150% of the federal reduced-price lunch level to 175% and raise the state-funded award amount to about $6,500 a year.

SOUTH CAROLINA

South Carolina is one of three states that does not have a hate crime law, but lawmakers in the House have advanced legislation that increase penalties for violent physical crimes committed against a victim because of their race, color, religion, sex, gender, national origin, sexual orientation or disability. The Clementa C. Pinckney Hate Crimes Act passed the House on Wednesday and will be considered by the Senate. The bill has bipartisan support in the South Carolina Legislature and from the South Carolina Chamber of Commerce, the University of South Carolina, key corporations, law enforcement and equality advocates.

GEORGIA

Gov. Brian Kemp signed an executive order Wednesday lifting gathering bans, shelter-in-place requirements and social distancing mandates at businesses through April 30. The order also stops businesses from being closed for not following the order's provisions. "Georgia has broken economic development records, and with a life-saving vaccine now being administered, we are taking steps every day to return to normal," Kemp said.

TENNESSEE

The Tennessee Senate unanimously passed a bill last week that expands craft breweries' ability to distribute their beer on their own. The bills allows Tennessee breweries to self-distribute 1,800 barrels of beer throughout the state each year without having to go through a wholesaler. It was the result of negotiations between the Tennessee Malt Beverage Association, a coalition of the state’s beer distributors, and the Tennessee Craft Brewers Guild. The craft beer industry in Tennessee is growing. Carl Meier of Black Abbey Brewing Company in Nashville said there were fewer than 60 craft brewers in the state in 2013, but that total now has reached a 115 brewers.

LOUISIANA

A Louisiana Legislative Auditor report said the Louisiana Workforce Commission may have paid more than $405 million in unemployment benefits to people who were not eligible based on their income between January and September last year. During that time, the LWC paid out almost $6.9 billion in state and federal benefits to more than 694,000 people. The LLA said it identified 97,585 people who received benefits despite being employed for all three months of a quarter. The increase in applications for unemployment benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic led to a backlog of documentation from former and/or current employers of applicants, causing delays in LWC’s ability to work through the documentation, the commission said.

OHIO

It didn’t take long for coronavirus to impact economies across the country. It may take longer for some states, however, to recover economically than others, especially Ohio. According to a new study, Ohio’s economy is the fourth most drastically affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The study compared all 50 states and the District of Columbia over what it called 13 key metrics, including percentage of employment from small businesses to percentage of workers with access to paid sick leave and increases in unemployment insurance claims. The Buckeye State also is next-to-last in recovery for unemployment claims.

VIRGINIA

A person will be able to legally possess small amounts of marijuana within Virginia in less than three months after legislation narrowly passed the General Assembly. The legalization is effective July 1 after the successful amendment by Gov. Ralph Northam won support from a majority of the House of Delegates and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax broke the tie in the Senate. The language that previously passed the General Assembly would have delayed the legalization for three years.

INDIANA

The Indiana General Assembly passed a bill allowing the state to withhold money from cities that fail to protect monuments and memorials from vandalism and destruction. The bill, authored by Sen. Eric Koch, R-Bedford, lays out a new state policy, with the Indiana State Police instructed to investigate and prosecute people who damage, destroy or otherwise vandalize “a private or government monument, memorial, statue or other commemorative property” including the state capitol building. The bill also instructs State Police to prioritize the investigation and prosecution of any person who “damages, defaces, or destroys religious property” and says funding for cities and counties “may be withheld” if it is found that they have failed to protect monuments, memorials and statues from vandalism and destruction.

KENTUCKY

Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron filed a federal lawsuit against the Biden Administration in an attempt to stop what he claims is an unconstitutional attempt by the federal government to block states from enacting tax cuts. The American Rescue Plan, which Congress passed last month, contained $200 billion in aid for state governments. However, Cameron said that the new law forbids states from cutting taxes over a four-year period. Cameron, who was joined in the lawsuit by Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery, was among a group of 21 state attorneys general who wrote to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen about their concerns over that provision. 

WEST VIRGINIA

West Virginia is considering three different approaches to eliminating the state income tax – the House’s proposal, the Senate’s proposal and Gov. Jim Justice’s revised proposal. The governor’s plan would enact changes more quickly, but would require future action to fully eliminate the income tax. The House and Senate versions create a plan to fully eliminate the income tax with one bill, but take a slower approach to reaching that goal. Justice’s revised plan would immediately slash the state income tax by 50%, which is more modest than his original plan to immediately slash it by 60%. The plan does not account for the final half of the income tax, but rather it presumes future legislation to pass to eliminate the remainder of the tax.

COLORADO

A new coalition of taxpayer advocacy groups has formed to oppose a $3.9 billion gas fee proposal in Colorado. Colorado drivers currently pay a 22-cent gas tax, which hasn’t changed since 1991. The state constitution's Taxpayer's Bill of Rights requires taxpayer approval for all tax increases, but lawmakers can avoid going to the ballot box for approval by raising fees instead of taxes. “Coloradans won’t just be paying more at the pump,” said Jesse Mallory, state director of Americans for Prosperity-Colorado, which is leading the coalition. “They will be paying even more for goods and services when it comes to Amazon package deliveries or ride-hailing services like Uber. The tax will eventually drive up the costs for all goods and services in the state, bleeding into families’ budgets for essentials like clothing and groceries at a time when Coloradans can least afford it.”

OREGON

Two bills in the Oregon Legislature would bring drug prices down and boost industry-wide competition, but drug companies claim otherwise. Senate Bill 764 would place new duties on Oregon's attorney general and state courts to consider any "pay-for-delay" agreements with payouts of $10 million or more as "anticompetitive behavior." But the legislation "is so broad that it will capture virtually every type of settlement and make it that much more expensive," a lobbyist for drug manufacturers claimed. Another bill would have sales representatives register with the state, receive education on ethical standards, and disclose their meetings with providers.

Chris Krug is president of the Franklin News Foundation, a non-partisan 501(c)3 non-profit news organization, and publisher of The Center Square. Contact Chris at ckrug@franklinnews.org.

Publisher

Chris Krug brings more than 25 years of award-winning media experience to The Center Square. He is the former publisher of the Chicago Pioneer Press newspaper chain, and was vice president for Shaw Suburban Media and a deputy editor at the Denver Post.