Senate Passes COVID-19 Relief Bill

Photo courtesy of Senate Television (via AP).

By Terrance Turner

March 6, 2021

By a 50-49 vote, the Senate has passed President Biden’s COVID-19 relief bill.

The legislation, known as the American Rescue Act, passed around 11:30 am — without any Republican support. (Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, was absent for the vote because of a family emergency, according to NBC News.) Democrats advanced the package through the budget reconciliation process, meaning it did not require any Republican support to pass. However, that process prevented Democrats from including a provision to increase the minimum wage to $15/hour in the legislation. The Senate parliamentarian ruled last month that the wage increase could not be a part of the bill.

There was high drama on Capitol Hill as the legislation was prepared. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) sparked a minor panic yesterday when he expressed reservation about the unemployment checks. In the end, Democrats — with virtually no room for error — compromised to get his support. Instead of $400 a week through the end of September, the checks will be $300 a week through Sept. 6. After uniting against the bill, Senate Republicans forced dozens of votes overnight into Saturday on amendments in an effort to stall the process.

The bill’s passage came after a marathon session by lawmakers. According to the Associated Press, the Senate had been in session since 9 a.m. EST Friday. But after hours and hours of debate and negotiations, the $1.9 trillion bill passed. It next heads to the House for final approval. If that occurs, the bill will be signed into law by President Joe Biden, marking his first major legislative victory as president.

“This bill will deliver more help to more people than anything the federal government has done in decades,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said just before final passage. “This is the most progressive [legislation] in a generation,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

The massive relief package provides $1,400 checks to Americans making up to $75,000 a year. For married couples who file their taxes jointly, both would qualify for the full amount if they make up to $150,000 jointly, per NBC News. (Couples would therefore get $2,800.) MSNBC’s Kyle Griffin adds that the package also includes an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Child Tax Credit. Additionally, there’s a permanent increase of $130 million/year for child care assistance.

According to Axios, the bill’s highlights include:

  • Expanded federal funding for COVID programs, including $46 billion for testing and tracing; $7.6 billion for pandemic response at community health centers; $5.2 billion to support research, development and manufacturing of vaccines, therapeutics and other medical products; and $7.7 billion to expand the public health care workforce.
  • $1,400 stimulus payments for most Americans.
  • $128.6 billion to help K-12 schools reopen.
  • $350 billion in state and local aid.
  • $25 billion in aid to restaurants and other food and drinking establishments.
  • $19 billion in emergency rental assistance.
  • $7.25 billion in funds for Paycheck Protection Program loans.

In the wake of the successful passage of this legislation, many observers are thanking Stacey Abrams. After a narrow loss in Georgia’s governor race, Abrams launched Fair Fight 2018, a voting rights organization to promote fair elections around the country. Fair Fight encourages voter participation and educates voters about their rights. The organization raised $34.5 million in just 39 days from late October to the last week of November, funneling a large chunk of the money into helping Democratic candidates, per the Atlanta-Journal Constitution.

It was Abrams’ efforts that helped re-enfranchise Georgia voters. Vox credited her with helping a record surge of Georgia voters to the polls in November. “Abrams’s group Fair Fight and other voting rights groups like the New Georgia Project have been putting a ton of effort into registering and turning out Black voters at high rates this year. And those efforts have been successful. The state has already hit record registration levels, with about 7.6 million voters registered. And since early voting started, more than 2.7 million voters have cast ballots — at least 1 million of whom were Black.”

That increase in Black voter turnout helped power the Democrats’ success in Georgia’s Senate elections in January. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff both won their races, defeating incumbent Republicans. Those two wins put the Senate at a 50-50 tie, with Vice President Kamala Harris the tie-breaking vote. This legislation would not have passed if not for those two seats in Georgia (and Abrams’ efforts).

Gov. Greg Abbott Announces Texas Will Open “100 Percent”

Photo courtesy of Twitter.

By Terrance Turner

March 2, 2021 (UPDATED March 3)

Today, Texas Governor Greg Abbott made a game-changing announcement.

In remarks delivered live from Lubbock, Gov. Abbott touted the state’s economy: “If Texas were its own country, it would still have the ninth largest economy in the world.” But due to the pandemic, he said, the economy has suffered. “Too many Texans have been sidelined from employment opportunities. too many small business owners have struggled to pay their bills. This must end,” Gov. Abbott said. And then, he said:

“It is now time to open Texas 100 percent.”

“Everybody who wants to work should have that opportunity. Every business that wants to be open should be open,” the governor declared, adding that “we are in a completely different position” than when he issued an executive order last March. Back then, Texans didn’t even know what PPE was, he said. He highlighted the tests and therapeutics that have become available over the past year, as well as the protective measures citizens have adopted. “Texans have mastered the daily habits to avoid getting COVID. But most importantly,” he said, “in Texas and across the country, we now have vaccines — vaccines to protect Texans from COVID.” More than 5.7 million vaccine shots have been administered in Texas, he claimed.

Gov. Abbott further promised that “by the end of this month, every senior who wants a vaccine shot will be able to get a vaccine shot.” Hospitalizations in Texas are the lowest they’ve been in four months. The same goes for the positivity rate, he said. (According to the Associated Press, “the seven-day rolling average of positive tests has dropped to about 7,600 cases, down from more than 10,000 in mid-February.”) The number of active COVID cases are the lowest they’ve been since November, the governor claimed.

Gov. Abbott cautioned that the virus has not disappeared. But state mandates are no longer needed, he says. Today, he is issuing an executive order that rescinds most of the previous orders he issued. And Gov. Abbott took his already bold pronouncement one step further: “Effective next Wednesday, all businesses, of any type, are allowed to open 100 percent. That includes any type of entity in Texas. Also, I am ending the statewide mask mandate.”

Abbott stressed that personal responsibility is still necessary regarding the spread of COVID-19. Personal vigilance is crucial, he stated: “Each person has their own role to play in their own personal safety, as well as in the safety of others.” Nevertheless, he asserted that the statewide mandates are no longer necessary. Businesses are free to continue capacity limits for safety, he said, but the governor added that “people and businesses don’t need the state telling them how to operate.”

Abbott tempered his bold order with one caveat: if the positivity rate of counties and cities rises above 15% for seven straight days, a county judge may take action of mitigation strategies like a mask mandate. (Though it remains under 15%, the positivity rate is up 63% from October 2020: from 8.3% on Oct. 7 to 13.5% today, on March 2). However, nobody can be arrested, fined, or otherwise penalized for breaking rules on masks.

Texas is the latest (and largest) of the states to ease COVID-19 restrictions, as cases and hospitalizations drop. (North Dakota, Montana and Iowa have also lifted mask orders in recent weeks.) But the AP reports that only California and New York have reported more COVID-19 deaths than Texas. According to the New York Times, Texas has been averaging about 7,600 new cases a day recently, a figure that rebounded after a drop in February when testing was disrupted by a severe winter storm. It is among the top 10 states in recent spread, relative to the size of its population.

Significantly, Gov. Abbott delivered his remarks from a Mexican restaurant — on the 185th anniversary of Texas declaring independence from Mexico in 1836.

As you might have guessed, the move is sparking a lot of reaction. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued a statement that reads, in part: “Taking away critical public health interventions that we know are working won’t make our community safer, nor will it hasten our return to normalcy. Quite the opposite: every time public health measures have been pulled back, we’ve seen a spike in hospitalizations […] With the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines, we’re inching closer to the finish line of this pandemic – now is not the time to reverse the gains we’ve worked so hard to achieve. At best, today’s decision is wishful thinking. At worst, it is a cynical attempt to distract Texans from the failures of state oversight of our power grid.”

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner agreed, tweeting today: “Is the Governor’s statement today an attempt to deflect from the winter storm systemwide state leadership failure? Yes.” He made his feelings even clearer when speaking with reporters today. “I don’t feel defeated. I feel disappointed about the governor’s decision,” Turner said. He expressed frustration with the move, writing on Twitter: “Every time we start moving in the right direction the Governor steps in and sets us back and makes all of our jobs harder. He minimizes the sacrifices of people and businesses. I just don’t get it.” He also tweeted the following:

Mayor Turner and Judge Hidalgo sent Gov. Abbott a letter today that reads, in part: “Supported by our public health professionals, we believe it would be premature and harmful to lose adoptions of this preventative measure [mask-wearing]. Scientific studies have shown repeatedly that the widespread wearing of face masks slows down the spread of the virus.” The letter includes mask wearing as one of several activities (frequent handwashing and keeping physical distances of at least six feet) that can reduce the spread of COVID-19.

The COVID-19 cases in Texas have dropped dramatically since last month, according to ABC 13 Houston. However, hospitalizations for the virus have jumped by 59% (from 3,519 cases on Oct. 7 to 5,611 today). Deaths from COVID-19 have nearly doubled: from 119 on Oct. 7 to 227 deaths today. Tonight, on his show, journalist Anderson Cooper revealed that Texas has only vaccinated 6.8% of its citizens — one of the lowest rates in the country. (By contrast, neighboring New Mexico has vaccinated over 12% of the residents there.) Over 40,000 Texans have died from COVID-19, according to the AP.

Tonight, Dr. Peter Hotez appeared on Anderson Cooper 360 to discuss the problem. (Dr. Hotez is the Professor of Pediatrics and Molecular Virology & Microbiology at Baylor College of Medicine, where he is also Director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development.) When asked about the governor’s actions, Dr. Hotez didn’t mince words: “We’ve got some rough sledding ahead of us.” Dr. Hotez pointed out that the UK variant of COVID-19 is “accelerating” (and one of five variants in Texas, per ABC), meaning potentially greater transmission and mortality.

When Cooper asked why the vaccination rate is so low, Dr. Hotez noted that “we lost a week” due to the winter storm in February. But the doctor also pointed out that Texas is a massive state, with 30 million residents (some of whom live in remote areas, making them hard to reach). He also expressed confusion about the urgency behind Gov. Abbott’s decision. When asked directly by Cooper why Abbott made the decision, Dr. Hotez admitted he didn’t know. “I don’t understand the urgency,” he said, in part.

UPDATE (March 3, 2021): Reaction continues to pour in, and the governor’s decision was discussed today on The View. co-host Sara Haines pointed out that Texas has one of the worst vaccination rates in the country — trailed by only two other states. She questioned why Abbott insisted on both opening businesses and removing mask mandates.

On ABC’s “Eyewitness News” at 11 am, anchor Art Rascon highlighted the fact that, though the state mask mandate is gone, President Biden’s federal mandate remains in place. That means that anyone on federal property (including airports) is still required to wear masks. Furthernore, several Texas businesses reserve the right to require masks and refuse service to those who don’t comply. Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo added that failure to comploy may incur criminal charges:

BREAKING: President Joe Biden has offered his first public comments on Gov. Abbott’s decision. “I think it’s a big mistake,” Biden said. “Masks make a difference … The last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking.”

President Biden Arrives in Houston


President Biden gets a hug from a young girl who was volunteering with her mom at the Houston Food Bank. Photo courtesy of Twitter (@dougmillsnyt).

By Terrance Turner

Feb. 26, 2021

BREAKING NEWS (12:00 pm): President Joe Biden and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden have arrived at Ellington Airport. Upon leaving the plane, they were greeted by Gov. Greg Abbott (R-TX) as well as Rep. Sylvia Garcia (D-TX), Cong. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX) and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner (D). The President and First Lady took separate vehicles; the President is reportedly headed to NRG Park, while Dr. Biden is heading to the Houston Food Bank, in northeast Houston. (As it turned out, the president also went to Houston Food Bank. There, he and the First Lady bagged up food to give to Houstonians, according to ABC 13 Houston.)

UPDATE: In a televised address at NRG Park, Biden updated the public about the COVID-19 vaccine efforts in the city of Houston. “I wanna show the American people the extraordinary effort,” he said. “It’s remarkable. About six thousand doses a day here.” People can call by phone, sign up online, drive up, stay in their cars, and get a shot, he explained. That requires massive logistical coordination.

“VP Harris and I did a virtual tour in Arizona,” Biden noted. One nurse told him she felt like she was administering “a dose of hope”. And that’s what Biden was offering in today’s address — along with a lot of information. He’s sent millions of vaccines to local pharmacies (over 7000) because people feel comfortable going there, Biden said. That includes 50 pharmacies here in Houston. Also: pop-up clinics are being deployed to rural areas “to meet folks where they live,” Biden said. Additionally, vaccines are being sent to community health centers, to reach diverse communities. As Biden noted, Black, Latino, and Native American populations have higher rates of COVID-19 infections and deaths than any other group.

COVID-19 hospitalizations are down; they’ve declined dramatically in recent weeks. But “I need to be honest with you,” Biden said. “Cases and hospitalizations could go up as new variants emerge. And it’s not the time to relax. We have to keep washing our hands, staying socially distant, and — for God’s sake — wear your mask. Wear your mask.” The president warned that “the worst thing we could do now is let our guard down.”

The president acknowledged the history that has many Black and brown Americans hesitant about the vaccine (i.e. the Tuskegee experiment). “There is a history in this country of subjugating certain communities to terrible medical and scientific abuse,” he said. “But if there’s one message that needs to cut through all of this: The vaccines are safe. I promise you. They’re safe and effective. Listen to Dr. Fauci. Listen to the scientists,” Biden urged. “I did. And I took my shot publicly to demonstrate to the American people that it’s safe and effective. To address this challenge, we’re gonna launch a massive campaign to educate people about the vaccines,” Biden said.

‘This past year has been one of the most painful years in American history,” Biden concluded. “I met today with Gov. Abbott, Sen. Cornyn — conservatives Republicans. I’m a Democratic president. There’s plenty of things we disagree on, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But there’s a lot of things we can work on together.” One of them, Biden said, is the virus. “We’re not giving shots to Democrats or Republicans; we’re giving shots to Americans,” the president emphasized. “None of this has a a partisan tinge or a partisan element to it.”

Biden highlighted his connection to Houston. At Houston’s M.D. Anderson Clinic, the president’s son Beau Biden was treated when he had brain cancer. “We’re gonna beat cancer. I know we will,” Biden declared. He said if he could be known for one thing, it would be ending cancer as we know it. Biden also noted the landing of a Rover on Mars. That mission was in part developed by a team here in Houston. “We can do anything!” he exclaimed. “America can do anything.”

“Americans never give up, they never give in, they never cry uncle — they just struggle, innovate, and they preserve — and persevere,” Biden said. “God bless you all, and may God protect our troops. You’re the best.”

Biden Gets to Work On First Day in Office

Jan. 20, 2021 (Updated Jan. 22)

By Terrance Turner

President Joe Biden got right down to brass tacks after his inauguration today. After the shortened inaugural parade on Jan. 20, the new president went to his office and got to work. “There is no time to waste when it comes to tackling the crises we face,” Biden said. “That’s why today, I am heading to the Oval Office to get right to work delivering bold action and immediate relief for American families.”

On his first day in office, President Biden signed 17 executive orders. The orders cover a wide range — from DACA to the border wall to COVID-19. Wearing a mask at the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office, Biden issued a mask mandate in federal buildings. The executive order requires masks to be worn on federal land and in federal buildings. The order applies to any federal employee or contractor working in these locations and facilities, according to Business Insider.

Since Biden does not have the legal authority to require every American to wear a mask, his order instead challenges the public to wear masks for 100 days. He has called on governors, mayors, and public-health officials to support him in the mission.

President Biden also created a COVID-19 “response coordinator” who will report to the president on vaccines, testing and personal protective equipment production, supply, and distribution, per CBS News. On Wednesday, Biden rejoined the World Health Organization. He put a stop to the US withdrawal process started under Trump. Biden also tapped Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, to represent the US at WHO’s annual meetings this week.

Biden also rejoined the Paris Climate Accord, which the previous president had withdrawn from. The international agreement calls for dramatically reducing global greenhouse gas emissions heating the planet. Countries set their own goals to try to curb global temperature rise, with a collective aim to stay well below 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, according to The Independent.

Biden revoked the previous president’s “Muslim ban” — which prohibited immigration from majority-Muslim countries — and abolished the so-called “extreme vetting” practices that were hard on immigrants and led to rejected visa applications. The order also instructed the State Department to restore fairness in visa processing and remedy harms caused by the previous bans, according to Forbes.

Biden also directed an immediate halt to construction of the border wall along the U.S. Mexican border and called for a review of the legality of funding and contracting methods used by the previous administration. The order terminated the “national emergency” declaration used to justify the wall. (The U.S.-Mexico border spans over 1,900 miles; the Trump administration added merely 80 new miles of barrier fencing along the border.)

Another executive order directed the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice to take appropriate measures to fortify Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and ensure that “Dreamers” be protected from deportation. Biden also revoked the prior administration’s orders to exclude undocumented individuals from the census.

Furthermore, Biden signed an order calling for an eviction moratorium until the end of February. He also requested that student loans be paused and that interest rates be set at zero percent. According to the Huffington Post, Biden has extended the pause on student loan payments until September 2021. Borrowers may defer payments without penalty.

President Biden also issued an executive order addressing workplace discrimination against LGBTQ people. Titled “Executive Order on Preventing and Combating Discrimination on the Basis of Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation”, it is written in Biden’s voice. The order begins: “By the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, it is hereby ordered as follows:

Section 1.  Policy.  Every person should be treated with respect and dignity and should be able to live without fear, no matter who they are or whom they love.  Children should be able to learn without worrying about whether they will be denied access to the restroom, the locker room, or school sports.  Adults should be able to earn a living and pursue a vocation knowing that they will not be fired, demoted, or mistreated because of whom they go home to or because how they dress does not conform to sex-based stereotypes.  People should be able to access healthcare and secure a roof over their heads without being subjected to sex discrimination.  All persons should receive equal treatment under the law, no matter their gender identity or sexual orientation.

These principles are reflected in the Constitution, which promises equal protection of the laws.  These principles are also enshrined in our Nation’s anti-discrimination laws, among them Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” Biden writes. “It is the policy of my administration to prevent and combat discrimination on the basis of gedner identity and sexual orientation,” he goes on.

The order mandates that the head of each agency shall review its order, regulations, programs, policies, etc. that may be inconsistent with Section 1. The head of each agency must then also consider whether to revise, suspend, or rescind such agency actions, or to effect new agency actions, in compliance with this. (He or she must also determine whether that policy was administered under Title II.)

The Human Rights Campaign called Biden’s order the “most substantive, wide-ranging LGBTQ order in U.S. history.”

UPDATE (Jan. 25, 2021): President Biden has signed an executive order reversing Donald Trump’s ban on transgender people serving in the U.S. military.

COVID Deaths Top 400,000 on Trump’s Last Day in Office

Vice President-Elect Joe Biden, his wife Dr. Jill Biden,

By Terrance Turner

Jan. 19, 2021

On his last full day in office, President Donald Trump is leaving the White House with his legacy stained by a global pandemic. In February, he said it would “disappear, like a miracle” from our shores. Now, nearly a year later, COVID-19 is still spreading across the country. More than 24 million cases have been reported in America; today there are more than 400,000 deaths.

As CNN noted today, that’s more than the number of Americans who died in World War I, Vietnam War and the Korean War combined. It’s nearly as many Americans who died in World War II. That death toll of 400,000 is far higher than any other country’s COVID-19 death toll.

Today, a memorial service for the victims took place in the District of Columbia. According to USA Today, the brief service was kicked off by an invocation from Cardinal Wilton Gregory, archbishop of Washington. It was capped by a performance from Houston-born gospel singer Yolanda Adams, who sang Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” 

Tonight, the National Mall in Washington, D.C. is lined with 400 lights, representing those 400,000 lives lost. In a visual memorial for the victims, the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool featured 400 lights illuminating on its north and south sides, in striking contrast with the rest of the National Mall dark. It is the first-ever lighting around the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool. President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris joined their spouses in front of that display tonight, observing a moment of silence to remember those we have lost.

“Between sundown and dusk, let us shine the lights in the darkness along this sacred pool of reflection and remember all who we lost,” Biden said today.

“It’s hard sometimes to remember,” the president-elect said at the memorial service, held at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool. “But that’s how we heal. It’s important to do that as a nation. That’s why we’re here.”

Tonight, Mr. Biden and his family are staying at the Blair House, the official guesthouse of the White House. The Blair House is merely two minutes from the White House, which is also illuminated. Surprisingly, the White House flag remains at full-staff.

Bow Wow Performs at Packed Houston Club As COVID Cases Spike

By Terrance Turner

Jan. 16, 2021

Last night, rapper Bow Wow performed at (and hosted) an event at Cle Nightclub in Houston. Cle, located downtown at 2301 Main St, was packed. Hundreds of people hit the club, in the middle of a pandemic, to see Bow Wow — for what reason, we don’t know. What we do know is that videos on social media show him rapping maskless in front of a largely maskless crowd.

The news comes amid a dramatic spike in COVID-19 cases. Harris County, which contains the city of Houston, reported more than 3,000 new cases of COVID-19 today. As of today, there are 281,422 total confirmed cases of coronavirus in Harris County and 2,763 deaths, according to the Harris County Public Health Department. The positivity rate is 20.3%. It has climbed every day since January 11.

Harris County has reported 36,557 new cases in just the past 14 days, according to the Texas Tribune. During the first week of January, Houston set hospitalization records every day for seven straight days. For a week straight, more than 15% of patients in local hospitals were being treated for coronavirus. That should’ve triggered mandatory rollbacks laid out in an order by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott. Under that order, Houston bars must close indoor service, and Houston restaurants must reduce capacity to 50%.

Mayor Turner said today that clubs are masquerading as restaurants, and he’s calling on TABC to start crackdowns. “I’m still getting some disturbing pictures of people hanging out in clubs that have been recategorized as restaurants,” he said. “And let me tell you, they are not restaurants.” KTRK reported that he and his staff will be reviewing those restaurants tonight. “When you look at these pictures, there’s no food on the table,” Turner said. “That is crazy. I am calling on the state to review their policies.”

Harris County consistently leads the state in case counts and deaths. But the statewide tale is even more grim. Statewide, 26,334 new cases were reported today, along with 400 deaths. (A record-high 426 deaths reported on Thursday.) There are now 13,953 patients with COVID-19 in Texas hospitals, per the Dallas Morning News. Texas now has a total of 2,072,903 coronavirus cases. That’s the most for any state besides California, according to Complex. During the first week of January, the state reached record highs for both case counts and deaths.

But Bow Wow appears to not know any of that. After waking up at around 2 pm today….

…the rapper defended himself on Twitter. He insisted that he’d worn a mask in the club:

“Man Texas is open. ATL is open. I can’t help I live in a city where we been open since last spring,” Bow Wow claimed in a series of now-deleted tweets. And then he had the audacity to claim “COVID fatigue”:

The backlash was swift and strong:

https://twitter.com/koordell/status/1350504299739148289

UPDATE: Cle is among three Houston clubs that got their liquor licenses suspended. According to ABC 13, “Three Houston businesses have had their liquor permits suspended following Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission investigations, which found violations of state requirements to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”

The nightclubs involved are Grooves at 2300 Pierce St., Cle at 2301 Main St. and Spire at 1720 Main St. (Spire had its liquor license suspended in July 2020 and then again in October, per the Houston Chronicle.) In a press release, the TABC said the suspensions are the result of inspections by their agents conducted over the weekend.

“All three businesses are accused of violating Gov. Greg Abbott’s Executive Order GA-32, which requires businesses which sell alcohol for on-premise consumption to comply with capacity limits as well as social distancing and facial covering requirements,” the release stated.

WE HAVE A DEAL!

By Terrance Turner

As a government shutdown looms, President Donald Trump has agreed to sign a $900 billion COVID-19 relief bill. Axios reports (and CNN confirms) that the president will sign the current bill, which provides $600 checks for most Americans. The bill also includes $300 per week in enhanced unemployment insurance for 11 weeks. Further additions include $25 billion in rental assistance and an extension of the eviction moratorium.

Also included are $319 billion for small businesses, including $284 billion for loans given through the Paycheck Protection Program and $15 billion for live venues, independent movie theaters, and cultural institutions. Other features are $13 billion in increased SNAP and child nutrition benefits, $82 billion in education, and billions for vaccine distribution and COVID-19 testing.

The bill is attached to a $1.4 trillion omnibus bill, which provides funding to keep the government open. That makes it a legislative behemoth: a $2.3 trillion, 5,593-page bill with a host of objectives and goals. After eight months of deadlock and negotiation, the bill was finally agreed upon last week. It passed with overwhelming (and rare) bipartisan support.

But on Tuesday, the president blindsided lawmakers by attacking the bill, calling it “a disgrace”. In a video posted online, Trump complained that the bill had alnost nothig to do with COVID-19. “Congress found plenty of money for foreign countries, lobbyists and special interests while sending the bare minimum to the American people,” he said.

“I am asking Congress to amend this bill and increase the ridiculously low $600 to $2,000,” he added. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi agreed. “At last, the President has agreed to $2,000 — Democrats are ready to bring this to the Floor this week,” she wrote on Twitter. “Let’s do it!”

The Democrats did indeed bring a bill with $2000 payments to the congressional floor, but House Republicans rejected it. Instead of working with Congress on a new bill, the president departed the White House with First lady Melania Trump to begin his end-of-year vacation at Mar-a-Lago in Florida. He has spent much of the weekend golfing in West Palm Beach. Lawmakers delivered the legislation to him in Florida, per the Times.

Meanwhile, unemployment benefits expired at midnight, leaving millions in jeopardy of losing benefits. As the New York Times explained: “States cannot pay out benefits for weeks that begin before the bill is signed, meaning that if the president does not sign the bill by Saturday [Dec. 26], benefits will not restart until the first week of January. But they will still end in mid-March, effectively trimming the extension to 10 weeks from 11.”

As of Nov. 28, there were 14 million people receiving unemployment benefits through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) programs, an increase of 958,000 from the previous week, Axios’ Dion Rabouin reports. The Associated Press says that about 9.5 million people rely on the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program alone (including the author). That program made unemployment insurance available to freelancers, gig workers and others who are normally not eligible. After receiving their last checks, those recipients will not be able to file for more aid after Saturday.

  • 1.4 million Americans filed unemployment claims for the first time earlier this month, with 935,000 filing for traditional unemployment benefits and 455,000 filing claims for the PUA program.
  • The current bill would extend the period that unemployment can be collected until March, per the New York Times.

This sudden decision came as a shutdown loomed. Per the AP, the government was scheduled to shut down at 12:01 am Tuesday when funding ran out. That placed pressure on everyone, Trump included. As the weekend progressed, lawmakers — both Democratic and Republican — urged the president to sign the current bill now and push for the $2,000 payments later. “I think the best thing to do is sign this and then make the case for subsequent legislation,” said Republican Sen. Pat Toomey. He warned that the president’s legacy would be adversely affected.

“I understand he wants to be remembered for advocating for big checks,” Toomey said on Fox News Sunday. “But the danger is he’ll be remembered for chaos and misery and erratic behavior, if he allows this to expire.” (If Trump had merely sat on the bill, it would expire after 10 days, forcing lawmakers on Capitol Hill to start all over with new legislation.)

On ABC’s “This Week” this morning, Sen. Bernie Sanders criticized the president’s obstruction: “What the president is doing right now is unbelievably cruel,” said Sanders. “Many millions of people are losing their extended unemployment benefits. They’re going to be evicted from their apartments because the eviction moratorium is ending. We are looking at a way to get the vaccine distributed to tens of millions of people. There’s money in that bill.”

Sen. Sanders is correct in asserting that renters will face eviction if the bill is not signed. But there are other pressing problems affecting many out-of-work Americans — problems that will be exacerbated if no deal is reached:

  • Nearly 12 million renters will owe an average of $5,850 in back rent and utilities by January, per WaPo — showing that people are running out of money for basic needs.
  • The U.S. poverty rate jumped to 11.7% in November, up 2.4 percentage points since June — making this the biggest jump in a single year since the government began tracking poverty 60 years ago, the Washington Post reports.

Ashanti Tests Positive for COVID-19 Ahead of “Verzuz” with Keyshia Cole

By Terrance Turner

Dec. 12, 2020

Photo courtesy of Variety.

Singer Ashanti has tested positive for COVID-19. This forced her to bow out of a planned “Verzuz” with singer Keyshia Cole. Ashanti made the announcement tonight via Instagram, writing: “Hey y’all I can’t believe I’m saying this but I tested positive for COVID-19. I’m ok and not in any pain. I’m actually down to do the Verzuz from my house… we’re trying to figure it all out!!!”

 But Verzuz wasn’t down for that, writing: “Unfortunately, we have to postpone tonight’s @Ashanti vs @KeyshiaCole #VERZUZ. Ashanti tested positive for COVID-19 beforehand, and we cannot put anyone at risk in the process. First time this has struck us so close to showtime. We apologize to our incredible audience! Get well soon, Ashanti. Wear a mask, stay inside, and take COVID-19 seriously. It’s truly affecting our community.”

For the uninitiated: “Verzuz” is a music event in which two artists alternate playing versions of their greatest hits. Fans typically determine which singer “won” the battle via comments on social media. Past participants include singers Patti LaBelle and Gladys Knight, Monica and Brandy, and Jill Scott and Erykah Badu. Rappers Jeezy and Gucci Mane also took part (albeit in tense and controversial fashion).

Ashanti scored a string of hits in the early 2000s, including several number one singles. In fact, the singer broke records by having three top ten songs (“Foolish,” “What’s Luv?” and “Always on Time”) on the Billboard Hot 100 charts in the same week. She is the first female artist ever to do so.

In 2001, Ashanti was featured on rapper Ja Rule’s “Always on Time” and rapper Fat Joe’s single “What’s Luv?”. In February 2002, “Always on Time” hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, becoming Ashanti’s first number one single. “What’s Luv?” peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard chart in April. Just two weeks later, Ashanti’s single “Foolish” (which she co-wrote) hit No. 1 on the Hot 100. With that feat, Ashanti became the first female artist to occupy the top two spots on the Billboard singles chart.

That same week (April 19, 2002), Ashanti’s self-titled debut album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard albums chart. It sold over 503,000 copies in its first week of release. The album set a Soundscan record for the biggest opening week sales for a new female artist, according to Empire Online. Ashanti eventually sold six million copies worldwide, according to Jet magazine. It won Ashanti a Grammy for Best Contemporary R&B Album.

The Verzuz battle has been rescheduled to Jan. 9, 2021.

Dez Bryant Out for MNF, But Ravens Continue Wild Ride With Unforgettable Win

By Terrance Turner

Dec. 8, 2020 (first published Nov. 30; updated Dec. 14)

Tonight’s Ravens-Cowboys game started with high drama.

Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Dez Bryant was pulled from pregame warmups before tonight’s game against the Dallas Cowboys (his former team). Bryant left practice in order to take a test for COVID-19. (NFL reporter Kevin Seifert says that Bryant had taken a test this morning that came back “inconclusive” after he took the field. That necessitated a follow-up test, which came back positive.)

Less than an hour before game time, Bryant tweeted that he had tested positive for coronavirus. This, of course, would prevent him from playing in tonight’s game. But according to Bryant, he may be out for the rest of the season:

This comes after a dramatic sequence of events for the Ravens. On Monday, November 23, multiple players tested positive for COVID-19 after the Ravens’ loss to the Tennessee Titans. (The players included running backs Mark Ingram and J.K. Dobbins, who tested positive for coronavirus on Nov. 23. Both players were placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list, per the NFL Network. The Ravens shut down their facility, the NFL said.)

On Wednesday, Nov. 25, a scheduled game between the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers was postponed. The match had been scheduled for Thanksgiving night (Nov. 26). But the day before, NPR reported that the game was being postponed, after at least seven Ravens players tested positive for the coronavirus or were in close contact with someone who was infected. The news was confirmed by team releases.

On Thanksgiving night, word broke that four players — including Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson — had also tested positive for COVID-19. The next day, the NFL made a major decision. On Friday, Nov. 27, the Ravens-Steelers game was rescheduled to Tuesday, Dec. 1. That decision came after more positive tests by players within the organization. (As a result, the Cowboys-Ravens game was moved to tonight, from its original scheduling of Dec. 4.) On Saturday, six more players were added to the reserve/COVID-19 list, per ESPN. That gave Baltimore at total of 17 positive tests.

Ravens’ game versus the Steelers had been rescheduled for Tuesday night, Dec. 1. But additional positive tests mandated another change of plans. On Nov. 30th, the game was rescheduled for the third time, due to COVID-19. This was the first match this season to be rescheduled three times, according to ESPN. (By that point, at least one Ravens player had tested positive for nine straight days, prompting the decision.)

The game was set for Wednesday at 3:40 pm. It was the first Wednesday NFL game since 2012, ESPN says. The game kicked off at 3:40 p.m. because NBC, which is broadcasting the game, wanted to honor its commitment to broadcast a Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree lighting ceremony on Wednesday night, sources told ESPN reporter Adam Schefter. The Ravens lost to the Steelers on Wednesday afternoon, marking Pittsburgh’s 11th straight victory.

Players who test positive must quarantine for 10 days. Two other players were put on the team’s reserve/COVID-19 list that week, which means they either contracted the coronavirus or came into close contact with someone who had it, according to the Ravens’ roster.

The Ravens officially placed three more starters, including two 2019 Pro Bowlers, on that list last Monday. Tight end Mark Andrews, outside linebacker Matthew Judon and wide receiver Willie Snead IV were placed on the Reserve/COVID-19 list Monday. Andrews, who is also a Type-1 diabetic, has played every game this season and leads the Ravens in catches (38), receiving yards (454) and touchdown catches (six). Andrews and Judon are both 2019 Pro Bowlers, making it seven Pro Bowlers on the list for Baltimore. As of today (Nov. 30), 21 players have been placed on that list, per the Ravens organization.

Despite all this drama, the Ravens won! The team beat the Cowboys 34-17 in tonight’s game, racking up 294 yards on the ground. Quarterback Lamar Jackson rushed for a 37-yard touchdown, then threw another TD to wide receiver Marquise Brown. RB J.K. Dobbins (who also tested positive for COVID-19) ran in for a touchdown just before the two-minute warning.

Jackson threw for 107 yards and two touchdowns, in spite of his lingering COVID-19 symptoms. “I still can’t really taste or smell, but I’m good now,” he told reporters after the game. “I guess my taste or smell gon’ come back sooner or later…I wouldn’t wish that on nobody, though.”

Mark Meadows Tests Positive for COVID-19

By Terrance Turner

White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows has tested positive for coronavirus. The news was announced by CNN roughly half an hour ago, just minutes after Joe Biden delivered a speech ahead of his almost-certain victory in the presidential race. CNN reporter Kaitlan Collins noted that Meadows was at an election night party at the White House on Tuesday — with no mask. Notably, he was also in attendance at a Wednesday morning speech by the president:

Also worth noting: Meadows was involved in a combative exchange with reporters regarding that very issue, just weeks ago. Meadows was asked by reporters to keep the mask on. Meadows claimed he was distanced “ten feet away” and refused to do so. “I’m not going to talk through a mask,” Meadows said, before turning and walking away.

Bloomberg, which broke the story, added that Meadows told a close circle of associates about his diagnosis. Bloomberg added: “A Trump campaign aide, Nick Trainer, is also infected, according to two people familiar with the matter. He and campaign spokespeople declined to comment.”

Significantly, today was the worst day for coronavirus since the pandemic began. There were more than 125,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 today. Reuters reports that there were at least 129,606 news cases on Friday. Reuters reporter Anurag Mann added that Friday is the third straight day that at least 100,000 cases have been reported. Twenty of the 50 U.S. states reported record increases on Friday, the same as Thursday when the national daily total crossed 120,000 for the first time.

Speaking of states, Texas (which accounts for over 10% of U.S. cases) reported about 9,000 infections and is on the verge of becoming the first state to exceed 1 million cumulative COVID-19 cases. Governor Greg Abbott said the U.S. Department of Defense has deployed three U.S. Air Force Medical Specialty Teams to El Paso. KHOU reports that those 20 military medical providers will support three El Paso hospitals. Significantly, hospitalizations have risen in this country for the 12th consecutive day.