A1 A1
IT’S OK TO UNMASK in some circumstances
CDC says many Americans can now go outside without a mask

NEW YORK — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eased its guidelines Tuesday on the wearing of masks outdoors, saying fully vaccinated Americans don’t need to cover their faces anymore unless they are in a big crowd of strangers.

And those who are unvaccinated can go outside without masks in some situations, too.

The new guidance represents another carefully calibrated step on the road back to normal from the coronavirus outbreak that has killed over 570,000 people in the U.S.

For most of the past year, the CDC had been advising Americans to wear masks outdoors if they are within 6 feet of one another.

“Today, I hope, is a day when we can take another step back to the normalcy of before,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said. “Over the past year, we have spent a lot of time telling Americans what you can’t do. Today, I am going to tell you some of the things you can do, if you are fully vaccinated.”

The change comes as more than half of U.S. adults — or about 140 million people — have received at least one dose of vaccine, and more than a third have been fully vaccinated.

Walensky said the decision was driven by rising vaccination numbers; declines in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths; and research showing that less than 10% of documented instances of transmission of the virus happened outdoors.

Dr. Mike Saag, an infectious disease expert at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, welcomed the change.

“It’s the return of freedom,” Saag said. “It’s the return of us being able to do normal activities again. We’re not there yet, but we’re on the exit ramp. And that’s a beautiful thing.”

Some experts portrayed the relaxed guidance as a reward and a motivator for more people to get vaccinated — a message President Joe Biden sounded, too.

“The bottom line is clear: If you’re vaccinated, you can do more things, more safely, both outdoors as well as indoors,” Biden said. “So for those who haven’t gotten their vaccinations yet, especially if you’re younger or thinking you don’t need it, this is another great reason to go get vaccinated now.”

The CDC, which has been cautious in its guidance during the crisis, essentially endorsed what many Americans have already been doing over the past several weeks.

The CDC says that whether they are fully vaccinated or not, people do not have to wear masks outdoors when they walk, bike or run alone or with members of their household. They can also go maskless in small outdoor gatherings with fully vaccinated people.

But unvaccinated people — defined as those who have yet to receive both doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or the one-shot Johnson & Johnson formula — should wear masks at small outdoor gatherings that include other unvaccinated people, the CDC says. They also should keep their faces covered when dining at outdoor restaurants with friends from multiple households.

And everyone, fully vaccinated or not, should keep wearing masks at crowded outdoor events such as concerts or sporting events, the CDC says.

The agency continues to recommend masks at indoor public places, such as hair salons, restaurants, shopping centers, gyms, museums and movie theaters, saying that is still the safer course even for vaccinated people.

“Right now it’s very hard to tease apart who is vaccinated,” Walensky explained.

She said the CDC guidance should be a model for states in setting their mask-wearing requirements.

The advice to the unvaccinated applies to adults and children alike, according to the CDC. None of the COVID-19 vaccines in use in the U.S. is authorized for children under 16.

“The biggest thing that it helps us is our mental health,” said Tim Stephens, a 52-year-old software salesman in Birmingham, Ala., who suffered a bout of COVID-19 and has since gotten vaccinated.

“To be able to feel like we’re turning the corner and can confidently go out and experience life and do a lot of the things that we did before COVID became an acronym in our world. It’s one more step in the process of moving beyond this.”

In Oxford, Neb., population 800, hardly anyone wears a mask, and the school district dropped its mask mandate last month. Superintendent Bryce Jorgensen said maybe 10 of the 370 students are still covering their faces.

“What goes on in other states is what goes on in other states,” Jorgensen said. “You just can’t compare Chicago to Oxford, Neb. Things are just different.”

Dr. Babak Javid, a physician-scientist at the University of California, San Francisco, said the new CDC guidance is sensible.

“In the vast majority of outdoor scenarios, transmission risk is low,” Javid said.

Javid has favored outdoor mask-wearing requirements because he believes they increase indoor mask-wearing, but he said Americans can understand the relative risks and make good decisions.

He added: “I’m looking forward to mask-free existence.”

“The timing is right because we now have a fair amount of data about the scenarios where transmission occurs,” said Mercedes Carnethon, a professor and vice chair of preventive medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.

What’s more, she said, “the additional freedoms may serve as a motivator” for people to get vaccinated.

Drugs and gangs are drivers of violent crime on Yakama reservation, sheriff says during community meeting
  • Updated

Yakima County Sheriff Bob Udell told community members Tuesday evening that two forces are responsible for the growth of violent crime in the White Swan area: drugs and gangs.

“I know it’s been very concerning for people living out in White Swan and the tribe,” he said during a Zoom meeting. “You see drugs, you’re going to find gangs.”

Deep within the Yakama Reservation, White Swan and the surrounding area has grappled with violent crime in recent years, including a June 8, 2019, shooting spree that left five dead in Medicine Valley.

Two suspects, James Dean Cloud and Donovan Quinn Carter Cloud, are facing murder, assault and other charges in federal court. Their trial is scheduled for February 2022.

On Tuesday evening, Udell joined officers from other law enforcement agencies to discuss the growing violence in rural White Swan in a meeting hosted by the White Swan Community Coalition.

Officers from the Yakama Nation Tribal Police Department, Yakima County Sheriff’s Office, the Washington State Patrol and Federal Bureau of Investigation participated.

They all echoed Udell’s observations.

FBI agent Peter Orth said Yakima County is seeing a high concentration of “extreme violent gang activity.”

He urged parents and other family members to pay close attention to what their children and their friends are bringing into their homes.

Be aware of gang lingo, clothing, drugs and weapons, he said.

“That’s when it’s time to get authorities involved,” Orth said.

Lt. Aaron Wuitschick said deputies and Yakima police officers hosted a gathering at the Mt. Adams School District to inform students, teachers and staff about the deadly drug fentanyl, how to recognize gang markings, and other signs that may reveal gang participation.

“Stuff on notebooks, walls at home, gang lingo,” he said. “Until they are aware of that, it’s hard for them to address that with their kids, with the school.

“It’s going to take a team effort.”

Yakama Nation Police Sgt. Alexander — his first name wasn’t available during the meeting — urged community members to call in crime or suspicious activity when they see it.

He said that’s one of the biggest issues his department faces — a lack of reporting from the public.

Alexander said often officers learn of a shooting only to find later that people nearby heard the shots but didn’t call police.

“If something doesn’t look right, call it in,” he said. “That’s the best thing to do. If people want to help us get ahead of this, that’s the best thing they can do.”

Some community members asked questions about when the White Swan substation would be staffed, whether a deputy could serve as a student resource officer at the school district, and if officers had training in responding to mental health patients.

Alexander said his department had lost four officers to other agencies but is seeking to hire three more soon.

Udell said his office has a dedicated crisis response person to help handle calls involving someone suffering mental illness and that school district officials have approached him about providing an officer on campus.

“We’re working on that right now — the school district has requested an SRO,” Udell said. “It’s a great thing for the community to have. It’s gonna happen.”

Biden to propose free preschool, a $200B investment

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden will call for free preschool for all 3- and 4-year-old children, a $200 billion investment to be rolled out as part of his sweeping American Families Plan being unveiled Wednesday in a joint address to Congress.

The administration said the historic investment would benefit 5 million children and save the average family $13,000. It calls for providing federal funds to help the states offer preschool, with teachers and other employees earning $15 an hour.

“These investments will give American children a head start and pave the way for the best-

educated generation in U.S. history,” the administration said.

The new details are part of Biden’s $1 trillion-plus package focused on so-called human infrastructure — child care, health care, education and other core aspects of the household architecture that undergird everyday life for countless Americans. It would be paid for by hiking taxes on very high-income households, in keeping with the president’s vow not to raise taxes on those making less than $400,000 a year.

Before Wednesday night’s address, with details of the plan still in flux, lawmakers have been pushing to make sure key priorities are included in this next phase of Biden’s massive infrastructure reinvestment program.

A group of leading centrist and progressive Democrats was meeting late Tuesday with the White House to discuss its priority of making permanent the Child Tax Credit, which was increased to as much as $300 a month as part of a COVID-19 relief package. Right now, that benefit expires in 2022 and Biden has suggested extending it to 2025.

“We continue to push,” Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, the chairman of the Banking Committee and advocate for a permanent child tax credit, said late Monday evening. “We’re hopeful. We want it to be permanent because it’s so important for so many people’s lives.”

The president’s speech and the rollout of the American Families Plan come as Biden is marking his first 100 days in the White House, a rare moment for congressional action. Democrats narrowly control the House and Senate, giving the president’s party the full sweep of power for the first time in a decade.

While Biden is determined to reach out for bipartisanship, Republicans in Congress have largely panned his proposals as big government spending and vowed to oppose them. Biden’s Democratic allies in Congress are just as determined to ensure they seize this rare alignment of political power to deliver on long-sought priorities.

Administration officials said Monday that details of the proposal were yet to be finalized. But the package builds on Biden’s proposed $2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan, a massive investment in infrastructure that goes beyond roads and bridges to include veterans hospitals, child care centers and other developments.

The White House has portrayed its plan as a Robin Hood-style effort to tax the rich in order to spend on benefits for the middle class and poor.

It’s an argument that the hundreds of billions of dollars controlled by the wealthiest sliver of the country would lead to better results for the country if they were distributed instead to families.

In addition to extending an expanded child tax credit through 2025, giving parents monthly payments of at least $250 per child, it would provide free community college and paid family leave, among other benefits.

Funding the initiative would be a tax increase on the extremely rich, most notably a near doubling of the capital gains tax rate on incomes above $1 million to 39.6%.

Similarly, the top income tax bracket for those households earning beyond $400,000 is expected to revert to 39.6%, according to a Democratic aide granted anonymity to discuss the planning. That had been the top rate before the 2017 GOP tax overhaul approved by Donald Trump.

Initial reports of an increase in capital gains taxes triggered a stock market sell-off last week. But Brian Deese, director of the White House National Economic Council, tried to assuage voters Monday by saying just a fraction of the country would be paying more.

At a White House briefing, Deese said that only the top 0.3% of taxpayers would owe more. Out of 1,000 taxpayers, that means three would be subject to the higher tax on capital gains — which reflect the profits from a sale of an asset such as a stock or house.

Because capital gains are taxed at a peak rate of 20% now, wealthier individuals who earn most of their income through the financial markets can often pay a lower tax rate than people who think of themselves as middle class and live off their salary.

“We believe that it’s not only fair, but it would also help to reduce the kinds of tax avoidance that significantly undermines trust and fairness in the tax code itself,” Deese said. “The revenue from this provision would help invest directly in our kids and our families and our future economic competitiveness.”

Republican leaders have said they are unwilling to undo the 2017 tax law, their signature achievement of the Trump presidency, to pay for what they view as big spending by Democrats.

No Republicans voted for Biden’s coronavirus rescue plan, which was signed into law last month. Last week, Republican senators proposed an alternative infrastructure plan focused on more traditional highway and bridge investments that would be one-fourth the cost, paid for by tolls and other user fees.

Voters approve school levies in Selah, Toppenish in special election
  • Updated

Selah and Toppenish residents voted in favor of renewing school levies in a special election Tuesday.

In Selah, a second try at the measure was passing with 53.7% of the vote on Tuesday. In Toppenish, the levy had a 58% approval rate, according to initial results. To pass, they need 50% plus one vote.

The education programs and operations levies are used to fund programs beyond basic education. In Toppenish, that includes arts, preschool upgrades, technology, safety, graduation specialists, additional classroom support, robotics programs, field trips and maintenance, said Superintendent John Cerna.

In Selah, all sports are funded by the levy, as well as all technology, safety, instructional materials and more, according to Superintendent Shane Backlund.

More ballots will be counted in the coming days. If approved, the ballot measures will replace existing levies expiring at the end of 2021.

In Selah, an initial attempt to renew the levy funds in February fell flat, leading the district to re-run the measure and rework its campaign strategy. The renewed energy appeared effective. On Tuesday, the $7.45 million two-year levy received 2,319 of an initial 4,316 votes, preliminary votes show. The 53.7% in favor was up from 47.2% approval in February.

While ballots will trickle in by mail and drop boxes, Backlund said the approval felt secure.

“The auditor’s office thought that was plenty of cushion based on what the remaining ballots will be, so we’re excited, happy,” he said.

“It’s so much bigger than athletics, because athletics is part of the whole package,” said Backlund, “but there’s just so many other things (like) student services for kids that are part of this levy. So I’m just glad we don’t have to go through the painstaking process of trying to decide where to make cuts. I think we do good things for kids, so we just want to make sure we maintain that.”

The funds will be matched with state dollars if approved. The adjusted levy amount is estimated to cost voters $1.50 per $1,000 in property value, compared to $1.55 pitched in February. Backlund said it is the lowest rate the district can bring in without decreasing the amount of state matching funds brought in by the district.

In Toppenish, the $8.9 million four-year levy will be matched with about $24 million in state funds over the same period. The annual levy amount in Toppenish will increase gradually from $1.42 million to $1.54 million over the four years, but is pitched to cost voters $2 per $1,000 property value under the premise that property value increases over time.

Voters approve levy amounts, not rates, which are estimates. Election results will be certified on May 7.

What changed in Selah

Backlund said the Selah levy performed better in April due to staff and community efforts to make sure people had correct information about how the funding would be used. Supporters also mobilized voters, sending text messages to encourage people to turn in ballots.

“There will be 400 or 500 ballots more when this is said and done just because of people reaching out and making personal connections,” he said, adding that the district’s new approach was shaped with the help of West Valley community member Michael Moore, who advocated for bond measures in his district in the past.

Backlund said the effort in Selah meant more people got their ballots in, and some minds were changed along the way.

“We had dozens and dozens of conversations with people one-on-one just to help them understand,” he said. “Once they did, it was such a relief to them and us that they got it.”