Coronavirus News Roundup

4 GOP lawmakers call for a special session to deal with pandemic’s effects

OLYMPIA — Four Republican legislators made a pitch Tuesday for a special session in the near future to help bring the state back from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, arguing that lawmakers should call themselves back to the Capitol if Gov. Jay Inslee won’t.

They said they are hearing from people ordered to stay home and off the job, and who now want to get back to work.

“We have to go to Olympia and protect the people we represent,” Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, said.

With the state in a crisis, people expect their legislators to be working to help solve it, he said.

Sen. Phil Fortunato, of Auburn, one of several Republicans running for governor, said the current orders on what is open and what is closed lack consistency.

“I can go to Costco, but I can’t play golf. I can go to Costco, but I can’t go fishing,” he said. Legislators have ideas on how to address the economic slowdown and “we need to fight this out on the Senate floor,” he added

While Inslee has said the state may need a special legislative session at some point, there was no mention of it Tuesday evening in his roadmap for lifting the restrictions currently in place on nonessential businesses.

The Washington Constitution allows the Legislature to call itself back into session, but the process is complicated, and hasn’t been used in the history of the state. It would require two-thirds of each house to approve a resolution that spells out what the special session would cover.

Fortunato said he sent an email to each legislator, asking them to indicate whether they’d be willing to call a special session.

Legislative leaders said Tuesday that’s unlikely. House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, of Yelm, said he expects the state will eventually hold a special session, but not until there’s “a pretty rock solid agreement on what we’re considering and what we’re not.”

If legislators are concerned about the budget, they should wait until the state gets its revenue forecast in June, which will show how badly the economic downturn has hurt tax revenues, Wilcox said.

Even if all Republicans in both chambers supported calling a special session, they’d still need a significant number of Democrats, who control both chambers, to reach that two-thirds majority.

— The Spokesman-Review

Autopsies reveal first confirmed U.S. coronavirus deaths occurred in Bay Area in February

SAN FRANCISCO — Two coronavirus-infected people died in Santa Clara County on Feb. 6 and Feb. 17, the medical examiner revealed Tuesday, making them the first documented COVID-19 fatalities in the United States.

Until now, the first fatalities were believed to have occurred in Kirkland, Wash., on Feb. 29.

Officials previously had said the first Silicon Valley death was March 9. But the Santa Clara County medical examiner revealed Tuesday that people who died Feb. 6, Feb. 17 and March 6 also died of COVID-19.

“These three individuals died at home during a time when very limited testing was available only through the (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Testing criteria set by the CDC at the time restricted testing to only individuals with a known travel history and who sought medical care for specific symptoms,” the county said in a statement. “As the Medical Examiner-Coroner continues to carefully investigate deaths throughout the county, we anticipate additional deaths from COVID-19 will be identified.”

Silicon Valley was an early center of the coronavirus outbreak. So far it has reported nearly 2,000 cases and eight deaths.

There have been growing concerns that the new coronavirus has been in California longer than experts first believed.

Dr. Jeff Smith, a physician who is the chief executive of Santa Clara County government, said earlier this month that data collected by the CDC, local health departments and others suggest it was “a lot longer than we first believed” — most likely since “back in December.”

In January and most of February, there was little if any community testing in California.

— Los Angeles Times

Medical supplier says FEMA seized 400,000 N95 masks

NEW YORK — A medical supply company in Delaware is questioning the legality of federal seizures of N95 respirator masks destined for medical workers amid the coronavirus pandemic.

George Gianforcaro, owner of Delaware-based Indutex USA, told the New York Daily News that the Federal Emergency Management Agency confiscated 400,000 masks in two imported shipments meant for his U.S. customers.

He said the masks, which arrived in separate shipments on April 6 and April 19, are still being held at John F. Kennedy International Airport, apparently stranded in limbo as federal officials work out where they should go next.

“The product is just sitting on a loading dock at JFK. They want to charge me $3,000 a day to store it there. I said, ‘I’ll just come pick it up then.’ They said, ‘No, it’s not released.’ It’s un-American. It’s horrible,” Gianforcaro told The News.

“I’m frustrated. I’m shocked. I’m angry. It’s really, really upsetting,” he said in a phone interview Tuesday evening. “Here I’m trying to help. I talked to FEMA and offered to be their logistics arm. I said, ‘If you call and say Mount Sinai need masks, and you give me an order by 3 p.m., I’ll ship it by 5 p.m. I’m volunteering my time as an American. But it’s just sitting there. God knows what’s happening.”

Gianforcaro said he provided his customer list to federal officials along with his pricing and shipment details before the second seizure.

Once he got a lawyer involved, FEMA finally sent him something in writing, explaining his equipment was being held under the authority of the Defense Production Act.

He said his customers include nursing facilities, police departments and the state of Michigan.

In an emailed statement, FEMA reportedly told the Delaware News Journal that reports of the agency commandeering or rerouting supplies were “false.”

Such in-demand equipment “being distributed internally within the United States is not being seized,” FEMA reportedly said.

Gianforcaro, meanwhile, shared a written order with the newspaper in which FEMA directed Indutex to sell to the federal government “all filtering facepiece respirators, including the N95 respirators contained within shipment number 8994645378 that arrived at JFK Airport” on April 6.

The FEMA document also ordered Indutex to “set aside” all N95 or surgical masks that it acquires during the coronavirus emergency for a potential sale to FEMA.

It said the masks would be sent to the Strategic National Stockpile.

FEMA did not respond to follow-up questions about the paperwork, the newspaper reported.

— New York Daily News

GOP gubernatorial candidate sues Inslee over ban on religious gatherings

Republican gubernatorial candidate Joshua Freed sued Gov. Jay Inslee in federal court on Wednesday, challenging the state’s ban on religious gatherings issued as part of the governor’s stay-at-home order to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

The 12-page complaint, filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, contends the ban violates the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment guarantees of religious freedom, assembly and free speech.

Freed’s lawsuit says Inslee’s order prohibiting in-person spiritual meetings overstepped his authority, and ignored less burdensome alternative restrictions.

“Prohibiting or punishing Plaintiff’s religious speech does not serve any legitimate, rational, substantial, or compelling governmental interest,” the lawsuit states.

Freed, a former Bothell mayor and real-estate developer, is a Christian and says the ban has interfered with his right to host a regular Bible study at his home. His lawsuit seeks a preliminary injunction voiding Inslee’s order and a judgment that the restrictions violate the Constitution.

Mike Faulk, a spokesman for Inslee’s office, referred requests for comment to the governor’s reelection campaign, “because the plaintiff is running for governor.” An Inslee campaign spokesman declined to comment.

Freed, who participated in a protest against Inslee at the state Capitol in Olympia over the weekend, is among several Republican candidates for governor vying to attract attention and support to get past the August primary and face off against Inslee in November.

His rivals include initiative promoter Tim Eyman; Loren Culp, the police chief of Republic, Ferry County; state Sen. Phil Fortunato, R-Auburn; and Anton Sakharov, a Maple Valley program manager.

— The Seattle Times

Trump Organization, written out of US bailout, taps Europe aid

The Trump Organization is seeking U.K. and Irish bailout money to help cover wages for bartenders, bagpipers and other employees furloughed from its European golf properties because of the coronavirus lockdown.

Overseas businesses owned by U.S. President Donald Trump can tap government funds meant to help retain workers. In the U.S., by contrast, they’re specifically written out of the enormous U.S. economic relief package. The result is a potentially stark gap between how workers in different countries may weather the crisis, even within the same global operation.

In the U.K. and Ireland, where Trump owns three money-losing golf resorts, companies can tap enough government cash to pay most of their workers’ salaries. It’s unclear whether the Trump Organization is paying the balance of the salaries for furloughed workers.

In the U.S., roughly 2,000 employees dismissed from Trump golf courses and hotels will have to line up with millions of others to apply for unemployment payments.

There’s nothing improper about Trump companies seeking the U.K. and Irish funds, which are offered universally to help workers weather the crisis. Even so, social media blowback has been swift against deep-pocketed owners who could arguably weather the crisis without seeking state handouts. These include Victoria Beckham, the former Spice Girl who reportedly furloughed as many as 30 employees at her money-losing luxury fashion label.

Martin Ford, an elected official in Aberdeenshire, Scotland, where one of the resorts is located, said that a similar standard should be applied to Trump, who’s boasted of his billions.

“The huge tab for this will be borne throughout the whole population through higher taxes,” said Ford, a longtime critic of the Trump resort. “If what he says about his personal wealth is true, Trump doesn’t need the money, and I don’t see why U.K. taxpayers of the future should be helping him out.”

Alan Garten, the Trump Organization’s chief lawyer, didn’t respond to requests for comment. Managers at two of the sites said they had taken measures offered by the government to protect their employees.

Although the Trump family business was explicitly prohibited from benefiting from federal aid authorized in the last few weeks by Congress, its hotel in Washington is seeking separate relief on $3 million of annual rent that it pays to the U.S. General Services Administration for use of government-owned former post office, The New York Times reported on Tuesday.

— Bloomberg News

Harvard pushes back against Trump’s claim it took stimulus money for small businesses

This Ivy isn’t wilting under pressure.

Harvard University is pushing back hard against President Donald Trump’s “inaccurate” claim that it scored coronavirus stimulus cash intended for struggling small businesses.

“Harvard did not apply for, nor has it received any funds through the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) for small businesses. Reports saying otherwise are inaccurate,” the university wrote on its official Twitter feed.

The elite Ivy League college says it only received money under a separate plan designed to help universities support disadvantaged students left stranded by the closure of the campus.

“It would not have been appropriate for our institution to receive funds that were designated for struggling small businesses,” it said on Twitter.

Trump lashed out at Harvard, which has a $40 billion endowment, after reports surfaced that it scored stimulus cash.

“Their whole ‘endowment’ system should be looked at!” Trump wrote on twitter.

It’s not clear what he meant by “looked at.” Like other private universities, Harvard has accumulated a massive nest egg mostly through the generous support of alumni and others.

Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, obtained admission to the elite Ivy League school despite middling academic performance after his wealthy parents made a $2.5 million donation.

— New York Daily News