Florida faces pressure, sees record high virus deaths

MIAMI (AP) — Health officials in Florida on Thursday tallied a new record high in daily confirmed COVID-19 deaths for the third straight day as the state faces pressure to outline new measures to combat the pandemic.

The Florida Department of Health said 253 more deaths were reported, bringing its average reported deaths per day to 154 for the past week and raising the state's total death toll to 6,586.

The head of a congressional coronavirus oversight panel sent letters to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and three other Republican governors Wednesday requesting documents to show how their states are fighting the pandemic.

According to the letter, Florida is not following three recommendations outlined in a White House coronavirus task force report by allowing gyms to remain open even in worst-hit Miami and Tampa, permitting a larger capacity for indoor dining and not limiting social gatherings. The report hasn't been made public.

The request by South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, a Democrat, comes days after White House coronavirus task force leader Dr. Deborah Birx implored leaders to close bars and for residents to wear masks.

The letter also says Florida is only partially complying to three other guidelines by not mandating masks in all counties with rising test positivity singling out Polk County as one that is currently not requiring the use of facial coverings. DeSantis has refused to issue a statewide mask mandate.

The letter also says that even when the state ordered bars to close in late June, restaurants that make less than 50% of their revenue from alcohol sales could still operate bar-top seating, which draws crowds to establishments such as sports bars that also sell food.

Counties such as worst-hit Miami-Dade have implemented curfews to discourage social gatherings in such establishments. Neighboring Broward County, home to Fort Lauderdale, has also ordered a curfew to curb the spread of the virus.

Kanye West's NJ ballot petition falls short, complaint says

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Kanye West’s petition to appear on New Jersey’s ballot as a presidential candidate fails to pass legal muster because signatures are incomplete, and in some cases appear written with very similar handwriting, according to a formal complaint filed with the state Wednesday.

Election law attorney Scott Salmon, a registered Democrat, filed the objection with the state Division of Elections after reviewing the more than 1,300 signatures the rapper had submitted.

New Jersey requires presidential candidates to get 800 signatures to appear on the ballot, but Salmon said in an interview that he counted more than 600 that were in some way defective.

“Mr. West’s petitions do not contain the valid signatures of 800 qualified voters and should have been rejected by the Division,” Salmon wrote in the complaint.

The petition shows that a number of signatures appear nearly identical, including lower-case i's dotted with a small circle. Some signatures lack complete addresses.

West's spokesperson directed questions to what appeared to be a campaign email address. A message seeking comment was sent to that address.

The Division of Elections did not respond to an emailed message seeking a response.

The status of the rapper and fashion designer's presidential campaign and whether he is truly seeking the White House remains a question. Kim Kardashian West last week asked for empathy for her husband and said he is bipolar.

Earlier this month in South Carolina, Kanye West delivered an unconventional campaign introduction speech during which he proposed a $1 million payout to mothers and decried Harriet Tubman for her work on the Underground Railroad.

2nd US virus surge hits plateau, but few experts celebrate

NEW YORK (AP) — While deaths from the coronavirus in the U.S. are mounting rapidly, public health experts are seeing a flicker of good news: The second surge of confirmed cases appears to be leveling off.

Scientists aren’t celebrating by any means, warning that the trend is driven by four big, hard-hit places — Arizona, California, Florida and Texas — and that cases are rising in at least half of all the states, with the outbreak's center of gravity seemingly shifting from the Sun Belt toward the Midwest.

Some experts wonder whether the apparent caseload improvements will endure. Nor is it clear when the trend in deaths might change direction. COVID-19 deaths do not move in perfect lockstep with the infection curve, for the simple reason that it can take weeks to get sick and die from the virus.

The future? “I think it’s very difficult to predict,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government's foremost infectious-disease expert.

The virus has claimed over 150,000 lives in the U.S., by far the highest death toll in the world, plus more than a half-million others around the globe.

Over the past week, the average number of deaths per day in the U.S. has climbed more than 25%, from 843 to 1,057. Florida on Thursday reported 253 more deaths, setting its third straight single-day record. The number of confirmed infections nationwide has topped 4.4 million.

Panel approves model of Billy Graham statue for US Capitol

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A North Carolina legislative committee has approved a model of a statue honoring the late Rev. Billy Graham to replace one of a former governor and white supremacist who currently represents the state in the U.S. Capitol's National Statuary Hall.

The Legislature’s Statuary Hall Selection Committee on Wednesday approved the model of the Southern Baptist minister created by Charlotte-based sculptor Chas Fagan, The Charlotte Observer reported.

A congressional committee will hold a final vote on the model.

Graham, a Charlotte native who was a counselor to presidents, has been described as the most widely heard Christian evangelist in history. He died in 2018 at the age of 99.

Each state is allowed two statues to represent it in the hall, and the statue of Graham would replace that of Charles Aycock, a governor who also led white supremacist campaigns at the turn of the 20th century. Aycock's statue has represented North Carolina in the hall for nearly 90 years.

A bill by the Democratic-led House Appropriations Committee announced this month seeks to remove all Confederate busts and statues of “individuals with unambiguous records of racial intolerance” from the Capitol, including Aycock's.

The plan to replace his statue with one of Graham has been in the works since 2015, but the bill would speed up the removal process and also affect North Carolina’s other statue, which depicts Zebulon B. Vance, a former governor and Confederate military officer, according to The Charlotte Observer.

Former State Rep. Dan Soucek, who proposed the switch, said representatives wanted the statue to be of someone who made an impact in the lives of North Carolinians and those around the world.

Judge keeps Powerhouse gambling machines shut down in ND

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — A federal judge has denied a request by a gaming equipment company to reactivate hundreds of electronic pull tab machines that were shut down by the attorney general in North Dakota.

Powerhouse Gaming argued Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and the state's gaming director, Deborah McDaniel, interfered with its business and contracts and violated its right to operate the machines.

Stenehjem suspended the company's gambling license because he said it failed to show it had purchased a software license for each device in the state. The move shut down nearly 500 pull tab machines July 8.

U.S. District Judge Daniel Traynor said in denying the motion for a restraining order that Powerhouse Gaming failed to show that “immediate and irreparable injury, loss or damage” will occur before its case is heard, the Bismarck Tribune reported.

The case is not an emergency situation and any harm that may have been prevented has already occurred, the judge said.

“In the end, this is a case that largely involves money damages that can be recouped if Powerhouse’s claims prove successful,” Traynor said.

Powerhouse filed a lawsuit filed on July 17 seeking monetary damages.

There's only 1 ride at this year's SC State Fair — your car

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — There will be no rides or rows of games like ring toss, basketball or Whac-a-Mole, but officials with the South Carolina State Fair are still planning to hold a scaled-down version of the event this year in what they’re calling an effort to give the community a bright spot amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Officials with the fair announced Wednesday that they will be holding a drive-thru fair event on Oct. 20 and 21 at the fairgrounds in Columbia. Organizers say the event will be heavy on “unique, car-friendly attractions that highlight South Carolina’s agriculture, history, arts and culture.”

Large-scale gatherings remain shut down across South Carolina as the coronavirus outbreak continues. As recently as June, officials had been planning to go ahead with preparations for a traditional fair, saying they would continue to monitor the situation and make a determination later. Officials in at least 20 states have called off their events altogether, as North Carolina did Wednesday, its first fair cancellation since World War II.

For many people, no trip to the fair is complete without sampling the wide array of fair-specific cuisine, including footlong corndogs, funnel cakes and deep-fried delicacies. Organizers say visitors can still have that experience in a drive-thru format on part of the fairgrounds.

Considered the largest single attraction in South Carolina, the 12-day state fair has been a massive economic driver for the state, having a total economic impact of $45.5 million in 2018, according to researchers at the University of South Carolina, including nearly $3.8 million in federal tax revenue and more than $2.5 million in state and local taxes. In recent years, the fair has marked more than 400,000 in annual attendees.

This year's event is free, meaning no revenue from admissions tickets that in years past have ranged from $7 to $10, with free admission for military members and children 5 and under.

Storm causes erosion at Trump backers' private border wall

HOUSTON (AP) — Weeks after it was criticized by President Donald Trump as “done to make me look bad,” a private border wall built by his supporters in South Texas has suffered new erosion in a weekend tropical storm that was the project's first major weather test.

Heavy rain and winds from Hanna left behind wide gashes in the land in front of the fence, which is next to the Rio Grande, the now-swollen river that separates Texas and Mexico. While the fence's posts are all still standing, some of the holes in front of the fence are several feet deep, suggesting that part of the barrier could become unstable, according to the project's opponents.

Despite a widely shared viral video purporting to show the storm taking down a border wall, neither the private fence nor government-built border barriers were knocked down by the storm. U.S. Customs and Border Protection on Monday said that video shows a border wall construction site in New Mexico in June.

But a legal battle continues over the soundness of the private border wall, which was built in Texas' Rio Grande Valley by North Dakota-based Fisher Industries, a company that has since received a $1.3 billion wall contract from the U.S. government, the largest award to date. The project has been regularly promoted by We Build the Wall, a nonprofit group set up by Trump supporters whose online fundraiser has collected more than $25 million. We Build the Wall organizers have repeatedly claimed they have the president's support.

A tweet sent by Trump indicates otherwise.

“I disagreed with doing this very small (tiny) section of wall, in a tricky area, by a private group which raised money by ads,” he tweeted July 12 after initial reports of erosion along the fence. “It was only done to make me look bad.”

A day later, former Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who joined We Build the Wall as general counsel and is running for the U.S. Senate in Kansas, said the president had “personally applauded We Build the Wall to me multiple times.”

Fisher Industries installed fence posts just 35 feet (10 meters) from the Rio Grande. That’s much closer to the river than the government ordinarily builds border barriers because of concerns about erosion and flooding that could violate U.S. treaty obligations with Mexico.

Concerns mount over outbreak at immigrant detention center

FARMVILLE, Va. (AP) — Virginia's governor and two U.S. senators urged President Trump to respond to the nation's worst coronavirus outbreak that has occurred inside an immigrant detention center, calling it a “dire situation.”

Immigration and Customs Enforcement said 262 undocumented immigrants are being monitored at the privately owned Farmville Detention Center after testing positive for COVID-19, The Washington Post reported Wednesday.

Immigrant advocates have called the detention center a “tinderbox” of infection and Gov. Ralph Northam as well as U.S. senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, all Democrats, have urged Trump to send in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to help stem the outbreak.

The outbreak “presents a clear risk to individuals within the facility, but also endangers the broader community as facility staff and released detainees have interaction with the general public,” Sen. Tim Kaine and Sen. Mark R. Warner wrote in a joint statement Wednesday.

A lawsuit filed by immigrant rights groups blames the outbreak on crowded sleeping conditions and infrequent testing.

The central Virginia facility is run by Richmond-based Immigration Centers of America.

Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky told The Post that the CDC has indicated that it's willing to get involved. CDC officials did not respond to the newspaper's requests for comment.

Farmer returns prosthetic leg that skydiver lost during jump

WEST ADDISON, Vt. (AP) — A Vermont skydiver who lost his prosthetic leg during a jump has it back, thanks to a farmer who kept an eye out for it and spotted it in a soybean field.

Double amputee Chris Marckres, of Hyde Park, went for a jump Saturday at Vermont Skydiving Adventures in West Addison and lost one of his prosthetic legs after leaping from the plane.

“I think my adrenaline was so high and I was just so excited, I didn’t realize I had lost it,” Marckres told NECN and NBC10 Boston.

Marckres, who was harnessed to an instructor, landed safely.

He then put out the word on social media that he’d lost his leg. Farmer Joe Marszalkowski saw the post before finding the prosthetic on Sunday in a soybean field. Beyond a few scratches, it was undamaged.

“You’ve always got to keep an eye out,” said Marszalkowski, who compared the discovery to a needle in a haystack. He said he was grateful he found the leg without running it over with a machine during the fall harvest.

“Or, God forbid, the combine sucked it up — it would’ve destroyed it,” Marszalkowski said.

Marckres said losing his leg turned into a positive experience.

"We kind of take for granted sometimes how many truly good people there still are in the world,” he said.

Democrats trim convention hours amid coronavirus pandemic

MILWAUKEE (AP) — Democrats will meet for just two hours each night of their national convention next month in Milwaukee, according to preliminary schedule for the event that has been scaled down due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Joe Biden is expected to accept the party's presidential nomination on the final night of the convention, which runs Aug. 17-20, the schedule released late Wednesday said. Biden's vice presidential pick will be nominated Aug. 19 and is scheduled to address the mainly virtual gathering.

The pandemic has delegates casting ballots remotely, beginning next week. A safety plan announced Monday says everyone attending will have to wear a face mask, consent to daily testing for COVID-19, fill out questionnaires and maintain a physical distance from others.

“We are looking forward to a historic convention anchored in Milwaukee, and through the leadership of the permanent officers who will help oversee this convention Democrats will come together to continue the work to elect Joe Biden as the next President of the United States,” DNC Chair Tom Perez said in a statement.

Typically, the party holds meetings during the day with delegates gathering for several hours each night to listen to speeches. This time, plans call for Democrats to meet from 8 to 10 p.m. Central Time each night.

Family of 9 slain Mexican-Americans sues Juarez drug cartel

Family members of nine women and children from an offshoot Mormon community who were killed in Mexico have filed a federal lawsuit accusing the Juarez drug cartel of carrying out the attack in retribution for their public criticism and protests against the cartel.

A lawyer for the family members said they are suing to show that the Juarez cartel was responsible for the Nov. 4 slaughter and to seek damages. Mexican prosecutors have identified more than 40 suspects in the attack. Authorities have arrested and indicted nine members of the Juarez cartel, according to the lawsuit, which was filed in U.S. federal court in North Dakota.

It was not clear if representatives of the cartel would appear in court to defend against the lawsuit.

Adrian LeBaron Soto, whose daughter Maria Rhonita LeBaron was killed, said in a statement, “We will no longer be silent victims. We will leave no stone unturned in our pursuit of justice for the murder of my daughter and grandchildren.”

Michael Elsner, an attorney for the family members, said the lawsuit is one of the first civil actions against a Mexican drug cartel in the United States and that he hopes it will help halt the flow of money to the cartel.

The family accuses the Juarez cartel of coordinating the attack as part of a decades-long effort to intimidate and coerce the local population and influence the Mexican government. They call it one of the most ruthless attacks to date.

The family members, including two widowers of women killed, are seeking monetary damages for seven claims, ranging from acts of international terrorism to inflicting emotional distress. The lawsuit also reveals grisly details of how the family members were killed and how survivors as young as 9 years walked miles, some with gunshot wounds, trying to find help.

The two men whose wives were killed, Howard Miller and Tyler Johnson, work in North Dakota, according to the lawsuit. Their lawyer said various family members live in the state and work in the oil industry, but travel back and forth to Mexico.

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