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National Govt & Politics
Appeals grow to close US national parks during pandemic
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Appeals grow to close US national parks during pandemic

Appeals grow to close US national parks during pandemic
Photo Credit: AP Photo/Julie Jacobson, File
FILE - This Sept. 15, 2015, file photo, shows Zion National Park near Springdale, Utah. Zion National Park announced Monday, Marc h 23, 2020, it is closing its campgrounds and part of a popular trail called Angel's Landing that is often crowded with people. The top part of the hike that is being closed is bordered by steep drops and ascends some 1,500 feet (457 meters) above the southern Utah park's red-rock cliffs, offering sweeping views.(AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

Appeals grow to close US national parks during pandemic

The Trump administration is sticking with its crowd-friendly waiver of entrance fees at national parks during the coronavirus pandemic, as managers at some parks try and fail to keep visitors a safe distance apart and communities appeal for a shutdown at other parks that are still open.

While the Interior Department agreed this week to requests from local managers of Yellowstone and some other iconic national parks to close, others remained open and newly free of charge. In Arizona, local governments and the Navajo Nation were waiting for an answer Thursday on their request earlier this week for federal officials to shut down Grand Canyon National Park as cases of the coronavirus grow in surrounding areas.

“We think it’s just in the best interest of the community, the visitors and the staff,” said Lena Fowler, a supervisor in Coconino County, which includes the Grand Canyon. “What we’re really concerned about is making sure everyone is safe.”

Park officials announced Thursday evening that three of the canyon's most popular trails — Bright Angel, South Kaibab and North Kaibab — were being temporarily closed as of noon Friday, with some other operations being modified.

The National Parks Conservation Association, a nonprofit group that advocates on park policy issues, called the administration's decision to keep the Grand Canyon open “beyond reckless."

The Trump administration has issued guidelines to Americans urging them to stay at home whenever necessary, skip discretionary travel and avoid gatherings of more than 10 people. But critics see the move to keep the parks open as a mixed message with potentially dangerous consequences for virus spread. As jobless rates explode and the death toll surges in the country, the Republican president also is increasingly pushing to convey a rapid return to normalcy.

The National Park Service is deciding whether to shut down individual sites on a park-by-park basis, in consultation with state and local health officials, Nicholas Goodwin, a spokesman for Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, said Thursday.

Goodwin said a decision by Bernhardt earlier this month to waive entrance fees during the pandemic was meant to give a financial break to those visitors who had decided they wanted to go, not to draw people outdoors and together on vistas and trails as coranavirus deaths and illnesses grow.

“It was not meant to create a flood of people to national parks,” Goodwin said.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park was one of those whose request to close was granted by the Interior Department earlier this week.

There, the number of visitors last week surged over the previous year's figures despite infection risks, with about 30,000 people entering the park each day.

Despite efforts at Smoky Mountains park to protect staff and visitors from COVID-19, including closing restrooms and visitor centers, the park found it impossible to keep people from crowding together in popular spots, spokeswoman Dana Soehn said.

The day after the closure announcement, park officials learned that an employee had tested positive for COVID-19.

“We looked at different models, including closing just the highly congested trails, but in the end, we decided to support the local community efforts to decrease unnecessary travel,” she said.

In the Southwest, local health officials for Arches and Canyonlands national parks also urged the park service Thursday to shut down those sites.

Despite orders barring out-of-town residents from staying overnight, hundreds of visitors are still coming to the parks, said Bradon Bradford with the Southeast Utah Health Department. That puts park staff at risk of infection, especially when shortages have left them unable to get items they need to keep the restrooms sanitized, he said.

The small, rural hospital could still be overwhelmed if people get seriously ill, officials said.

Across the United States, deaths from COVID-19 topped 1,200 on Thursday, and there were more than 80,000 confirmed coronavirus cases. For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.

Current recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention call for canceling "all U.S. events of 10+ people" when there is a “minimal or moderate spread of COVID-19 in the community.”

Although Vice President Mike Pence said the CDC would be releasing new guidance on national parks and the virus on Thursday, there was no such release, CDC spokeswoman Jasmine Reed confirmed Thursday evening.

Criticism of the Interior Department's delayed response grew Thursday.

“I just don’t understand what’s going on in terms of the senior leadership,” regarding cutting the entrance fees and keeping national parks open, said Kristen Brengel, a senior official with the National Parks Conservation Association.

National parks, including the Grand Canyon, have roads and trails designed to funnel visitors en masse to see views and wildlife, Brengel said. “They know they can’t keep people safe there,” she said.

National Park Service spokeswoman Alexandra Picavet said Thursday that the agency is working with Grand Canyon staff to review documentation the park sent in support of the request to close.

In an email to Grand Canyon staff this week, the park said it included information on the limitations of its public health system, wastewater treatment and emergency responders.

The park gets more than 6 million visitors a year, but it’s also home year-round to about 2,000 people, including a small community of Havasupai tribal members. The spread of the coronavirus quickly could overwhelm a small clinic at the national park.

The Navajo Nation, which has 71 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, closed tribal parks, placed restrictions on businesses and issued a stay-at-home order for residents on the vast 27,000-square-mile (70,000-square-kilometer) reservation that extends into Utah, New Mexico and Arizona.

“We are experiencing constant traffic through Navajo communities, and we simply cannot afford any additional outbreaks among our Navajo people, non-Navajo residents or those tourists travelling through the Navajo Nation,” tribal President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer wrote in the letter seeking the park closure.

___

Fonseca reported from Flagstaff, Ariz., and Loller from Nashville, Tenn. Associated Press writer Lindsay Whitehurst contributed to this report from Salt Lake City.

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Washington Insider

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It lists the President, Vice President, member of Congress, top Executive Branch officials as people covered by this prohibition. But it goes further - adding, 'spouse, child, son-in-law, or daughter-in-law' as well. One GOP Senator pointed out the 'son-in-law' provision. 'I wonder who that could be targeted towards,' said Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) in a mocking tone, referring to Jared Kushner, as Lankford said Democrats were wrong to pursue such provisions. 'A lot of this fight that we've had over the last three days is because they were demanding that there was no way the President, or any member of his family could get any benefit from this loan program at all,' Lankford said. Democrats won those provisions. + 2. Temporary tax break for makers of hand sanitizer. With various alcohol producers switching over some of their production in recent weeks to make hand sanitizer, this bill also provides a temporary exception to the excise tax on the alcohol used to make hand sanitizer products. To an outsider, it shouldn't be any big deal for a liquor producer to shift into production of hand sanitizer, but in reality - it can have pretty big tax implications in how the federal government deals with the process. For example, after a company makes over 100,000 gallons of alcohol, the tax goes from $2.70 per gallon to over $13 per gallon. This provision on page 212 would allow those hand sanitizer products to be made without being hit by those higher taxes. Here was the social media appeal from one company in Maryland. 3. Special oversight for economic recovery spending. As part of provisions providing public insight into what companies get what kind of aid from the federal government, this bill sets up a special Inspector General inside the Treasury Department dealing with the 'Pandemic Recovery.' The internal watchdog would be charged with 'audits and investigations of the making, purchase, management, and sale of loans, loan guarantees, and other investments made by the Secretary of the Treasury under any program established by the Secretary under this Act.' There is also a new 'Congressional Oversight Commission,' with members appointed by various parts of the government, to oversee the operations of this economic recovery effort - all to guide against favoritism, and any questionable financial awards - much like there was with the Obama stimulus in 2009. 4. Postal Service gets special loan help. Just like after the anthrax attacks following Nine Eleven, the U.S. Postal Service finds itself in a crunch with the Coronavirus. Not only are some employees getting sick, but mail volume is going down - and that's leading to an even bleaker financial outlook. The Coronavirus rescue bill does not give a blank check to the Postal Service, but instead allows it to borrow up to $10 billion from the U.S. Treasury. Page 607 of the bill specifically says the money can only be used to pay for operating expenses - and not any outstanding debt of the Postal Service. The bill also orders the Postal Service to prioritize the delivery of medical products related to the Coronavirus, and also gives the Postal Service the right to establish 'temporary delivery points' during the outbreak, in order to shield employees from the virus. 5. Miscellaneous Provisions. Any reporter who has gone through Congressional spending bills starts to get a little excited when you get to the section labeled 'Miscellaneous Provisions' - and this bill does not disappoint. Starting on page 609, there is a laundry list of extra money sent to various government agencies to deal with the Coronavirus. Some, like money for food safety won't raise any eyebrows. But others were quickly getting the thumbs down from some GOP lawmakers who actually read their way through the details of the bill. 6. There is no Congressional Pay Raise. Let me say it again. There is no pay raise for members of the House and Senate, no matter what you read on Twitter or Facebook. The troublemakers on Twitter didn't take long in spreading fake news about the details of this bill, accusing lawmakers of voting themselves a pay raise. Let me be very clear - that did *not* happen in this bill. There is no reference to the underlying federal code which governs the pay of lawmakers (section 601(a) of the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946 (2 U.S.C. 4501)).  Is there extra money for Congress in this bill? Yes, there is. The Senate gets $10 million, and the House gets $25 million. Where would that money go? It doesn't take too much imagination to come up with items like extra medical, safety, and security precautions for 435 members of the House. Expanded telework with laptops, servers, and more. Cleaning crews to deal with any outbreaks that might touch Congressional offices or the Capitol complex. And finally, even if lawmakers voted themselves a pay raise, they would not be allowed to get any extra money until the new Congress. That's not a law - that's in the Constitution.
  • The morning after the U.S. Senate unanimously approved an unprecedented $2 trillion economic rescue package to confront the negative impact of the Coronavirus outbreak, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters that she was already thinking ahead to the next Congressional move to spur economic growth. 'We have to do more,' the Speaker said at a U.S. Capitol news conference, as she told reporters about a phone conversation with Jerome Powell, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve. 'The Chairman of the Fed, Mr. Powell said to me, interest rates are low, think big,'  'There's no question that more money will be needed,' Pelosi added, as she indicated there would be support to funnel more money directly to Americans. 'I don't think we've seen the end of direct payments,' the Speaker said. Pelosi said the House would vote Friday to approve the $2 trillion economic package, most likely by a voice vote. 'We will have a victory tomorrow for America's workers. If somebody has a different point of view they can put that in the record,' the Speaker said.