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Moving beyond masks: Biden toils to put pandemic behind him

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WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden’s administration has been working for months to prepare people to rethink their personal risk calculations as the nation gets used to the idea of living with an endemic COVID-19.

But that measured approach disappeared abruptly when a federal judge on Monday threw out the federal requirement to mask up when using mass transit. The ruling added to the urgency of the messaging challenge as the administration tries to move past the virus in the lead-up to midterm elections.

After the government last month eased indoor mask-wearing guidelines for the vast majority of Americans – even in schools — masking on planes was one of the last redoubts of the national COVID-19 restrictions. Now, as the policy falls, the administration turns to accelerating its efforts to provide the best advice for millions making their own personal safety decisions in the still-dangerous pandemic.

It’s both a public health imperative and an important shift in emphasis for Biden’s political future.

“There is an opportunity now, instead of saying this is a disappointing ruling, they could say this is a good time to have a conversation about how we move forward in this pandemic about risk calculation,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja an infectious disease physician and a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

“With COVID-19, I think we’re at a point with immunity from prior infections, vaccines, home tests and treatments that we can start to manage this the way we manage other infectious diseases,” he said.

Biden himself went all-in on flexibility Tuesday when asked if Americans should mask up on planes.

“That’s up to them,” Biden declared during a visit to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. But his own White House nonetheless continues to require face coverings for those traveling with him on Air Force One, citing guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The shift toward less formal regulation was actually previewed in a 100-page plan released by the White House coronavirus response team in February. Back then, administration officials had hoped that children under 5 would be eligible for vaccination by now — a move that would have eased the concern of millions of parents and provided the umbrella of protection to nearly everyone in the U.S. who wanted it.

Monday’s court order lifting the mask mandate came at a crossroads in the nation’s pandemic response, just shy of a year to the day from when all American adults were eligible for vaccination against COVID-19. The ruling sent government agencies and the White House scrambling to comply, but that didn’t stop momentary confusion among travelers as airlines and airports dropped their mask requirements — in some cases mid-flight.

The administration stressed that Americans should still comply with CDC recommendations to wear face coverings, even in the absence of the mandate. Biden’s press secretary, Jen Psaki, said as much just an hour before his “up to them” comment.

“The CDC continues to advise and recommend masks on airplanes. We’re abiding by the CDC recommendations, the president is, and we would advise all Americans to do that,” she said.

On Tuesday, Justice Department spokesman Anthony Coley said officials believe that the federal mask order was “a valid exercise of the authority Congress has given CDC to protect the public health.” He said it was “an important authority the Department will continue to work to preserve.”

But he said the department would only appeal the ruling if the CDC determined that the mask mandate was still necessary for public health. As of Tuesday evening, the agency hadn’t made a determination, officials said.

Psaki on Tuesday indicated that while the administration was disappointed with the ruling, it didn’t rank with Congress’ inability to reach a compromise on additional COVID funding to purchase booster shots and antiviral treatments.

“Those are our biggest concerns,” she said.

Face-covering requirements, which have proven to lower the risks of infection, have grown increasingly political in the U.S. over the last year, particularly as cases and severe outcomes have fallen.

The lingering mandate for public transit and air travel served as a daily reminder for many people that the pandemic they badly wanted to be over was still affecting their lives, even if vaccinations and antiviral treatments had dramatically lowered their risk. For others who are still fearful of the virus, each roll-back of pandemic restrictions has sparked fresh disquiet — and in some cases criticism of the Biden administration.

“There are still a lot of people in this country who still want to have masks in place — either they have immunocompromised relatives, they have kids under 5, whatever it may be,” said Psaki.

Monday’s court ruling hastened an outcome that was likely coming in weeks anyway. Many administration officials believed that last week’s 15-day extension of the mask order to May 3 would be the last. The public health agency had asked for the additional time to monitor whether a recent rise in infections would result in increased hospitalizations or deaths. So far it hasn’t.

The court’s order caught the administration by surprise and left it struggling to grasp its impact — both on the requirement’s end and on CDC’s authorities going forward.

“CDC scientists had asked for 15 days to make a more data-driven durable decision,” Dr. Aashish Jha, the new White House COVID-19 coordinator, tweeted on Tuesday. “We should have given it to them.”

The uptick in cases and a recent spate of positive cases in Biden’s orbit — including second gentleman Doug Emhoff and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — was a potent reminder that the virus isn’t going away.

Biden, 79, was never identified as a “close contact” under CDC guidelines, the White House said, and officials emphasized that he is strongly protected against the virus by being vaccinated and twice-boosted.

Controlling the virus that has killed 986,000 Americans has been a priority for Biden since taking office. The U.S. now averages about 35,000 confirmed cases per day, down from a high of more than 806,000 during January’s omicron surge, but up slightly from lows of about 26,000 a month ago. Those figures are surely an undercount since many people don’t report the results of at-home tests to public health authorities.

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Trump impeachment leader Schiff joins California Senate race

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, who rose to national prominence as the lead prosecutor in President Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial, said Thursday he is running for the Senate seat held by long-serving Democrat Dianne Feinstein.

The 2024 race is quickly emerging as a marquee Senate contest, even though the 89-year-old Feinstein, the oldest member of Congress, has yet to announce if she will seek another term, though her retirement is widely expected. Schiff is jumping in two weeks after Rep. Katie Porter became the first candidate to declare her campaign for the safe Democratic seat.

Schiff, a former federal prosecutor, made clear he intends to anchor his candidacy to his role as Trump’s chief antagonist in Congress. In his campaign kickoff video, he said the “biggest job of his life” was serving as impeachment manager, and he promised to continue to be a “fighter” for democracy.

“If our democracy isn’t delivering for Americans, they’ll look for alternatives, like a dangerous demagogue who promises that he alone can fix it,” Schiff said of Trump, who has announced his 2024 campaign for the presidency.

Feinstein, a former San Francisco mayor who joined the Senate in 1992, told reporters in Washington this week that she will make a decision about 2024 in the “next couple of months.”

The jockeying for the seat has created a politically awkward dynamic for Feinstein, who has broken gender barriers throughout her decadeslong career in local and national politics. In recent years, questions have arisen about her cognitive health and memory, though she has defended her effectiveness in representing a state that is home to nearly 40 million people.

Schiff, 62, said in an interview Thursday that he had spoken to Feinstein a day earlier to inform her about his plans.

“I want to make sure that everything I did was respectful of her and that I did so with her knowledge and her blessing,” Schiff told The Associated Press.

Asked if he was aware of the senator’s plans, Schiff said, “I don’t want to presume to speak for Sen. Feinstein, and I think she’s earned the right to announce her decision when she’s ready to make that announcement.”

Schiff was first elected to Congress in 2000 and represents parts of Hollywood. He has been a frequent target of conservatives — Trump in particular — since the then-GOP-led House Intelligence Committee he served on started investigating Trump’s ties to Russia in the 2016 election. Schiff appeared frequently on television to question Trump’s actions.

That criticism intensified when Democrats took the House majority in early 2019 and he became the committee chair, and it reached a full-on roar with his role in the impeachment investigation of Trump’s dealings with Ukraine. Trump was impeached in December 2019 on charges he abused the power of the presidency to investigate rival Joe Biden and obstructed Congress’ investigation.

In an impassioned plea to the Senate in early 2020, Schiff urged Trump’s removal from office and framed the choice in moral terms. “If right doesn’t matter, we’re lost,” he said at the time.

“You know you can’t trust this president do what’s right for this country,” Schiff said. “You can trust he will do what’s right for Donald Trump. He’ll do it now. He’s done it before. He’ll do it for the next several months, he’ll do it in the election if he’s allowed to. This is why if you find him guilty you must find that he should be removed. Because right matters.”

The Republican-led Senate acquitted Trump of both charges. In 2021, he became the first president in U.S. history to be impeached twice, this time for inciting the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol after he lost the 2020 election. He was again acquitted by the Senate.

Republicans are still angry about Schiff’s starring role at the impeachment trial, with new House Speaker Kevin McCarthy accusing him of using his leadership position to “lie to the American public again and again.” McCarthy, R-Calif., said this week that he intended to block Schiff from continuing his service on the House Intelligence Committee.

With the centrist Feinstein in the twilight of her career, the race in the heavily Democratic state already is shaping up as a showcase for an ambitious, younger generation on the party’s left wing.

Both Schiff and Porter are nationally recognized — Schiff through his leading impeachment role and Porter, a favorite of the party’s progressive wing, through her tough questioning of CEOs and other witnesses at congressional hearings. Each is also a formidable small-dollar fundraiser.

Neither has run statewide before, and each would face the challenge of becoming better known beyond their Southern California districts. Democrats are expected to dominate the contest — a Republican hasn’t won a statewide race in California since 2006, and the past two Senate elections had only Democrats on the November ballot.

The field is expected to grow, with other possible contenders including Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee, a former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Asked how he would stand out in what is expected to be a crowded field, Schiff said he would emphasize his central role of national struggles over democracy and the economy.

“I think that record of leadership, that record of staunch defense of our democracy, and the way that I’ve championed an economy that works for everyone, I think are a powerful record to run on,” he said.

In his announcement video, Schiff mixed shots of his family and highlights from his courtroom work with video from the impeachment proceedings and clips of Trump and other Republicans.

He warns that the threat of extremism is not over.

“Today’s Republican Party is gutting the middle class, threatening our democracy” Schiff says. “They aren’t going to stop. We have to stop them.”

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Florida House Democrats React to House Bill 1 Passing its First Committee

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – In response to the committee vote referring House Bill 1 to its next House committee, Florida House Democrats provided the following statements.

“While I am disappointed my third amendment was not accepted to give Florida’s families the accountability and transparency they deserve so they make the right choice for their children, we will continue working with our Republican counterparts to ensure no student gets left behind,” said Choice and Innovation Subcommittee Democratic Ranking Member Representative Susan L. Valdés (D-Tampa).

“Today’s committee hearing hosted a robust discussion about policy and finance, but we need to realize that is ultimately about the children,” said Representative Kevin Chambliss (D-Homestead). “Each child is different and unique, especially those with disabilities. Every child deserves quality education, and I sincerely hope we can work together to put our children before the politics of the bill.”

“Today’s vote is disappointing. While there is definitely room for innovation in the public-school system, the negative fiscal impact on public schools will be felt on the back of public school students,” said Representative Katherine Waldron (D-Wellington).

This morning’s Choice and Innovation Subcommittee hearing can be replayed any time via The Florida Channel’s archive.

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Randy Fine Announces Endorsement of Brevard State Rep. Chase Tramont

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Melbourne Beach, Fla. – Today, State Representative Randy Fine (R-Melbourne Beach)
announced the endorsement of Brevard County State Representative Chase Tramont in Fine’s
bid for the open State Senate District 19 seat.

“For many years, I have had the privilege of knowing Representative Fine and observing his
service in the Florida House,” said Tramont. “I can personally vouch for his tenacious spirit.
When it comes to fighting for our families, he’s left it all on the field. I have no doubt he will
do the same in the Florida Senate.”

Representative Tramont joins fellow Brevard County Representative and former Senator Thad
Altman in endorsing Fine, along with former Senate President from Brevard Mike Haridopolos
and Republican Party of Florida Chairman and Senator Joe Gruters. Fine’s political committee,
Friends of Randy Fine, has almost $500,000 on hand.

“Representative Tramont has been a fantastic addition to the Brevard Delegation,” said Fine.
“Many legislators talk about fighting for the most vulnerable among us; Representative Tramont
is an inspiration in living that fight every day. I am so excited to work with him this term in the
House, and moving forward, in the Senate.”

Representative Fine currently serves as the Chairman of the House Health & Human Services
Committee, where he oversees all aspects of health care and welfare reform in Florida.

Previously, he served as Chairman of the House PreK-12 Appropriations Subcommittee, where
he sponsored the largest School Choice expansion in American history and as Chairman of the
House Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee, where he redesigned the process of
capital funding for state universities. He also served as the Chairman of the House Select
Committee on Gaming. In his time in the legislature, Fine has passed over two dozen pieces of
legislation, including the bill holding Disney accountable for its wokeists attacks on Florida’s
parents.

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