Financial catastrophe looms for state and local governments

The impact of the fiscal crisis "will be even worse than the Great Recession — by a factor of at least two," warned one mayor.
Image: Las Vegas Strip
The Las Vegas Strip is deserted as casinos and other business are closed because of the coronavirus outbreak, on April 14, 2020.John Locher / AP

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State and municipal governments across the country are clamoring for the federal government to rescue them from what could quickly become a fiscal catastrophe, saying that they may need as much as three quarters of a trillion dollars as the coronavirus pandemic dries up many of their revenue sources.

Without the help, these governments will need to lay off or furlough workers, reduce benefits, cancel projects, defer construction and maintenance and more. The impact of the fiscal crisis "will be even worse than the Great Recession — by a factor of at least two," warned Nan Whaley, the mayor of Dayton, Ohio.

But state and local governments like Dayton's will have to wait until at least May before Congress considers further economic relief, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has indicated. The House is set to vote Thursday on an interim round of coronavirus aid aimed at small businesses, and while Democrats sought to include roughly $150 billion in funding to shore up state and local budgets, the money didn't make it into the final bill because of objections from Republicans and the Trump administration.

Here's what to know about the coronavirus, plus a timeline of the most critical moments:

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Poll: Most Florida voters want social distancing to continue into May

An overwhelming majority of Florida voters don't agree with the loosening of social distancing guidelines and only support the reopening of the state's economy if public health officials agree, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday

The poll was conducted as Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, allowed beaches in his state to reopen over the weekend with the caveat that beachgoers continue socially distancing. Poll participants agreed 72 percent to 22 percent that the state should continue such distancing efforts and most said they're not ready to "drop their guard" if stay-at-home orders expire at the end of April.

In addition, voters in the highly coveted swing state don't appear to have a clear favorite in the 2020 presidential election, with former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democrats' presumptive nominee, getting 46 percent of the vote and President Donald Trump earning 42 percent, according to Quinnipiac. The poll has a margin of error of +/- 2.6 percentage points.

McConnell taps brakes on next round of coronavirus aid as state, local governments plead for help

State and local governments facing dire financial straits due the pandemic will have to wait until at least May before Congress considers further relief, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has indicated.

The House is set to vote Thursday on an interim round of coronavirus aid aimed at small businesses, and while Democrats sought to include roughly $150 billion in funding to shore up state and local budgets, the money didn't make it into the final bill due to objections from Republicans and the Trump administration.

After the Senate passed the bill Tuesday by voice vote, the Kentucky Republican predicted that future relief efforts would not be afforded such expeditious proceedings, citing concerns about the national debt and adding that "until we can begin to open up the economy, we can't spend enough money to solve the problem."

Read the full story here.

Victoria's Secret buyout may fall through as lockdowns keeps stores closed

The private equity firm buying up lingerie brand Victoria’s Secret has stepped away from the billion-dollar deal, citing store closures and other decisions the retailer made during the coronavirus pandemic. 

Sycamore Partners said Wednesday it is backing out of an agreement made in February to acquire a 55 percent stake in Victoria’s Secret, in a deal that valued the company at $1.1 billion.

L Brands, owner of the racy lingerie retailer, said in a statement it is headed to court to continue the transaction. It believes the termination is invalid.

Shares declined more than 20 percent Wednesday, temporarily halting trading. L Brands and a representative for Sycamore Partners were not reachable for further comment.

Connecticut town tests 'pandemic drone' to detect fevers. Experts question if it would work.

A Connecticut police department said it plans to begin testing a "pandemic drone" that could detect whether a person 190 feet away has a fever or is coughing.

But an expert on viruses and a privacy advocate question whether such technology can work and, if it does, whether it would help in controlling the spread of the coronavirus.

The Westport Police Department and the town's top elected official, First Selectman Jim Marpe, said the goal is to use the technology as part of a pilot program to "flatten the curve" of the pandemic.

"We know that social distancing is working to flatten the curve and ultimately saving lives," Marpe said in a statement. "In an effort to continue safeguarding the citizens of Westport during the COVID-19 outbreak, and as we position ourselves to gradually return to our routines, we should explore ways to prevent a possible resurgence of the virus."

Read the full story here.

Senators want to ban U.S. from buying animals from China's 'wet markets' blamed for outbreaks

A bipartisan group of senators is proposing a bill to ban the U.S. from buying animals from the Chinese "wet markets" that have been blamed for outbreaks including the current coronavirus crisis.

The government has previously used animals — including cats and dogs — purchased at those markets in gruesome experiments at a federal lab in Maryland.

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said the purchases effectively subsidized the markets, which are believed to be the source of the current crisis as well as the 2002 SARS outbreak. "As Iowans, and all Americans, continue to battle COVID-19, we need to do all we can to ensure something like this never happens again. That includes preventing any more American tax dollars from going to unregulated 'wet markets' in China," Ernst said.

The bill proposed by Ernst and Sens. Mike Braun, R-Ind., Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Joe Manchin, D-W.V., would ban agencies and government grantees and contractors from spending money at the markets.

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Former NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg to lead regional contract tracing effort

Michael Bloomberg has volunteered to help a lead massive regional effort to test and trace the contacts of people infected with the coronavirus in the tri-state region of New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday.

Tracing the contacts of people found to be infected with the coronavirus — a public health strategy that's been widely credited for limiting its spread in South Korea — will be done across city, county and state lines around New York, Cuomo said.

"This entire operation has never been done before, so it's intimidating. You've never heard the words testing, tracing, isolate before," Cuomo said. "But I say, 'So what? Who cares that you've never done it?' That's really irrelevant. It's what we have to do now."

Read the full story here.

Bipartisan group of senators voices concern over cyber threats

A bipartisan group of five senators have written to the heads of the U.S. government's primary offensive and defensive cybersecurity agencies, asking for assurances that hackers won't cripple health care facilities during the coronavirus pandemic.

"We write to raise our profound concerns that our country’s healthcare, public health, and research sectors are facing an unprecedented and perilous campaign of sophisticated hacking operations from state and criminal actors amid the coronavirus pandemic," the letter states. 

The letter was sent to CISA, the Department of Homeland Security's cybersecurity arm, and U.S. Cyber Command, which conducts offensive cyber operations on behalf of the U.S. military. CISA has already released some specific measures that IT staff can use to guard against hackers, like a list of about 2,500 coronavirus-themed domains that are likely malicious or scams. U.S. Cyber Command rarely makes much publicly known about its operations, but is tasked with defending critical infrastructure, which includes health care systems.

Last week, the State Department issued a "zero tolerance" warning against anyone attempting to hack allies' healthcare networks.

At least 474 more confirmed COVID-19 deaths in New York state

More than 470 New York state residents were reported dead from COVID-19 in the past day, officials said Wednesday, bringing the state's death toll beyond 15,000. 

Of the 474 confirmed fatalities in the past 24 hours, 446 were at hospitals and 28 at nursing homes,  Gov. Andrew Cuomo said at his daily briefing on coronavirus.

The confirmed death toll in New York state now stands at 15,302. That total does not included  presumptive deaths.

 "At least it isn’t going up anymore and it seems to be on a gentle decline," Cuomo said.

More Florida Latino immigrant families, amid coronavirus job losses, seek food donations

MIAMI — Sergio Caon was working in aviation maintenance when he was furloughed. His wife was let go from her job at a banquet hall. Now, they're scraping by and eating less to feed their daughter. Caon says sometimes he feels like eating a snack, but he doesn't.

"We are eating less," he said, speaking from inside his car as he waited at a food distribution event in Doral organized by Farm Share, which partners with other groups to distribute food throughout Florida.

Over 65 percent of Latinos across the country are having difficulty buying or finding necessities such as food and medicine, according to a recent survey by the polling firm Latino Decisions.

In Florida, where unemployment claims are processed slower than anywhere else in the country, workers have less to fall back on. The state has only paid six percent of over 1.6 million claimants, according to the online dashboard of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.

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