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Missouri vaccination teams not ready for first 50,000 doses, but state will be, officials say

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The first coronavirus vaccines could arrive in Missouri and other states on Dec. 11 or 12, a federal official said Sunday.

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Here comes Santa Claus — at a distance

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The pandemic has quashed the ritual of children sitting on St. Nick’s lap, and St. Louis area venues are finding ways to uphold the tradition.

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Missouri Senate to vote next week on COVID funding. Fate of liability bill uncertain

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The Missouri Senate will meet next week to consider a $1.3 billion COVID-19 spending bill, but the timeline for debating pandemic liability protections is not clear.

The Senate Appropriations Committee is scheduled to meet Tuesday, and the full Senate will spend Wednesday debating the spending bill as the special session called by Gov. Mike Parson resumes after a delay caused by COVID-19 cases among Senate Republicans members and staff. 

Those cases became part of the surge in coronavirus infections that has added almost 100,000 new infections in November. The contagion is spreading far faster than at any time previously in the pandemic.

It took from the time the first case was found in the state in early March until Sept. 12 for the state to record its first 100,000 cases.

While some foes of the liability protection bill have argued it should wait until the next regular session begins in January, “nothing is off the table,” Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden said.

“Don’t know the schedule beyond next week,” Rowden, R-Columbia, wrote in a text message.

The special session began Nov. 5. The Missouri House on Nov. 10 passed the spending bill that would provide $752 million in new spending authority for federal CARES Act funding, $18.7 million for local agencies working to prevent homelessness and $96 million in child support payments.

The CARES Act funds, from a bill approved in March by Congress, must be spent by Dec. 30. The appropriation includes enough authority to spend money currently held by the state treasury, funds expected from federal matches to state emergency spending and money expected from counties unable to use their funds by the deadline.

The child support appropriation is needed to deliver money captured by the state from CARES Act stimulus funds, unemployment supplements and tax refunds to custodial parents. 

The regular appropriation did not anticipate the extra funds. In a House Budget Committee hearing, Budget Director Dan Haug said the state will not be able to distribute child support funds after the end of the month without the supplemental spending bill.

Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence, said he agreed with the plan to focus the coming week on the appropriations.

“I am hoping it won’t take that long to get it done, simply for the fact that we need to get this relief out to Missourians,” Rizzo said.

The debate over COVID-19 liability protections could be protracted and the difficulties presented by holiday and legislative transition schedules will make passage difficult during the special session, Rizzo said.

The sponsor of the liability protection measure, Sen. Ed Emery, R-Lamar, is one of the legislators who will not return in January because of term limits. The transition time is when members change offices, new members are oriented and staff change jobs, Rizzo noted.

“You couple those changes with the fact that we are not going to do it next week, and you really get down to doing it possibly the following week,” Rizzo said. “And after that it gets really, really dicey.”

The schedule for a hearing on the liability protection bill, Emery said in an interview, will be determined by when a quorum of the seven-member Government Reform Committee is available. Emery chairs the committee.

He would like to have the hearing in the coming week, Emery said.

“It is not the easiest thing in the world to find out when everybody can be there,” he said.

Under his bill, healthcare providers and businesses would be protected not just from litigation stemming from the pandemic — but also under declared states of emergency in the future.

The bill is being revised, Emery said, and one area where it could be altered is in the definitions of what is covered and for how long. A national bill sponsored by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, is being reviewed, he said.

“We are taking a look at it to see what could help us clarify and specify the liability provisions we want in Missouri,” Emery said.

The Missouri House is not scheduled to meet as it waits for Senate action on the appropriation bill and the liability protection legislation. If the Senate changes anything in the spending bill, the House will have to convene to ratify the changes or seek a compromise.

A House version of the liability protection bill has been introduced but it has not been assigned to a committee.

The Capitol Building is open to the public but anyone wishing to watch committee hearings or floor debate in person will have to go through a health screening on their way in. There is no mask requirement for visitors to the Capitol.

The Senate Appropriations Committee hearing will be held in the Senate chamber, where there is no permanent placement of video cameras, unlike the House. In his text message, Rowden said live audio will be available online of the committee meeting and floor debate but not a video feed.

Emery said he would like “to have a COVID-era open hearing” with video but he will not take remote testimony on the liability bill.

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Troy's Miller leaves lasting impression on athletic field and in community

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Troy Buchanan sophomore Maggie Miller died Nov. 11 and left behind many friends in the Lincoln County community. She was a multi-sport athlete.

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How state political parties helped big money pay for this year’s elections

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This Thanksgiving recipe doesn’t depend on food or family

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With all of the frustrations, the tragedies and the maddening political chaos that have been with us this year, I have the perfect recipe for our Thanksgiving celebrations.

No, it is not a new take on green bean casserole. It’s not some newfangled way to ease the strain on our belts after a holiday meal.

More than anything else, what our celebrations need this year is an extra helping of gratitude.

Yes, there are more than 3,700 empty seats at the dinner table in Missouri this Thanksgiving because of the terrible coronavirus death toll. Yes, there are tens of thousands of others who will be staying away from holiday gatherings because of the disease.

But no one has taken away our memories. No one is stopping us from savoring each and every memory this year. And those memories are more valuable than gold.

Beyond the thoughts of family and friends, we all can draw strength from the examples set by the people around us.

Consider:

Small acts of kindness

Setting aside the antics of cats and dogs on people’s videos, social media usually is overflowing with hateful postings that only serve to infuriate and inflame. But last week I came across a posting that warmed my heart — and it should remind all of us of the too often forgotten spirit of looking after each other.

The posting was from Creston, Iowa, and it dealt with a chance encounter outside the Fareway store there a few weeks before Christmas 10 years ago. An elderly man stepped aside to allow other shoppers to enter before him. A woman stopped next to him and they stood there for a few moments in front of the Christmas trees and holiday wreaths that were for sale.

“If you could get one, what would it be?” the woman asked.

“I’d get the wreath for my wife’s grave,” he replied, explaining that it would be their second Christmas apart.

The conversation ended, and the man proceeded into the store to do his shopping. Afterward, as he headed to his pickup truck with his groceries, a Fareway attendant was waiting there holding a large wreath.

“A customer purchased this for you,” the employee said. “She said for you to have a Merry Christmas.”

And he did — with the wreath decorating his wife’s grave and with him telling anyone who would listen what an incredible gift he had received from a total stranger.

That random act of kindness was the very last gift Kenneth Nielsen received. The retired teacher and farmer, who was 74, died in a house fire near Blockton two days after Christmas in 2010.

But his family will never forget that wreath. His daughter retells the story each year in the hope of reminding everyone what a powerful message a small gift can convey.

“There are still angels in this world,” she wrote. “There are still selfless people that are giving and have not lost sight of a good deed. No one knows when it is their last day. So, in the holiday hustle and bustle, just remember that one small act of kindness could be the last thing that a person ever experiences.”

Big acts of kindness

Just as a holiday wreath in Iowa became a lasting symbol of giving and thinking of others, another woman with a big heart has made a lasting contribution during a time of need, only on a much larger scale.

Dolly Parton was in the news recently, not for her sequins and singing but for her generosity. The country music star donated $1 million to help underwrite the cost of developing one of the coronavirus vaccines that will soon be rolled out worldwide to help bring the disease under control.

In typical Dolly humility, she told the BBC, “I felt so proud to have been part of that little seed money that hopefully will grow into something great and help to heal this world. Lord knows we need it.”

The donation was not Dolly’s first venture into giving.

She grew up in poverty in the hills of eastern Tennessee, and her father never learned to read or write. For 25 years, she has given a book each month to hundreds of thousands of needy children so they can become proficient readers.

After wildfires ravaged parts of the Great Smoky Mountains in 2016, Dolly stepped up again. She provided $1,000 checks each month for six months to each of the families displaced by the fire. She gave all junior and senior high school students who lost their homes to the fires $4,500 college scholarships.

Whether it’s someone with a larger-than-life personality like Dolly, or someone who steps forward like the mystery shopper in Creston, everyone’s caring and compassion can provide a needed tonic for what ails us and our country these days.

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In Memoriam: St. Charles County Obituaries, November 1 – 7, 2020

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The following obituaries were posted by local funeral homes from November 1 – 7, 2020. Click or tap the link provided to access the obituary on the funeral home’s website. Baue Funeral Homes Marilyn “MJ” READ MORE

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St. Charles County COVID-19 update: 20,662 positive cases, 215 total deaths as of Nov. 25

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St. Charles County Government and the Department of Public Health staff are working closely with local, regional, state and federal partners to investigate COVID-19, monitor individuals who may have been exposed to the virus and READ MORE

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Public Health to Focus on Priority Investigations, Eliminate Quarantine Release Letters

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To better respond to new COVID-19 cases – especially those individuals at a higher risk for adverse illness outcomes – the Department of Public Health is implementing changes to its investigation protocols.

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Rural areas in Missouri and Kansas send their sickest patients to cities, straining hospitals

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Registered nurse Pascaline Muhindura has spent the past eight months treating COVID patients at Research Medical Center in Kansas City.

But when she returns home to her small town of Spring Hill, Kansas, she’s often stunned by what she sees, like on a recent stop for carryout food.

“No one in the entire restaurant was wearing a mask,” Muhindura said. “And there’s no social distancing. I had to get out, because I almost had a panic attack. I was like, ‘What is going on with people? Why are we still doing this?’”

Many rural communities across the U.S. have resisted masks and calls for social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic, but now rural counties are experiencing record-high infection and death rates.

Critically ill rural patients are often sent to city hospitals for high-level treatment and, as their numbers grow, some urban hospitals are buckling under the added strain.

Kansas City has a mask mandate, but in many smaller communities nearby, masks aren’t required — or masking orders are routinely ignored. In the past few months, rural counties in both Kansas and Missouri have seen some of the highest rates of COVID-19 in the country.

At the same time, according to an analysis by Kaiser Health News, about 3 in 4 counties in Kansas and Missouri don’t have a single intensive care unit bed, so when people from these places get critically ill, they’re sent to city hospitals.

A recent patient count at St. Luke’s Health System in Kansas City showed a quarter of COVID patients had come from outside the metro area.

Two-thirds of the patients coming from rural areas need intensive care and stay in the hospital for an average of two weeks, said Dr. Marc Larsen, who leads COVID-19 treatment at St. Luke’s.

“Not only are we seeing an uptick in those patients in our hospital from the rural community, they are sicker when we get them because [doctors in smaller communities] are able to handle the less sick patients,” said Larsen. “We get the sickest of the sick.”

Dr. Rex Archer, head of Kansas City’s health department, warns that capacity at the city’s 33 hospitals is being put at risk by the influx of rural patients.

“We’ve had this huge swing that’s occurred because they’re not wearing masks, and yes, that’s putting pressure on our hospitals, which is unfair to our residents that might be denied an ICU bed,” Archer said.

study newly released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that Kansas counties that mandated masks in early July saw decreases in new COVID cases, while counties without mask mandates recorded increases.

Hospital leaders have continued to plead with Missouri Republican Gov. Mike Parson, and with Kansas’ conservative legislature, to implement stringent, statewide mask requirements but without success.

Parson won the Missouri gubernatorial election on Nov. 3 by nearly 17 percentage points. Two days later at a COVID briefing, he accused critics of “making the mask a political issue.” He said county leaders should decide whether to close businesses or mandate masks.

“We’re going to encourage them to take some sort of action,” Parson said Thursday. “The holidays are coming and I, as governor of the state of Missouri, am not going to mandate who goes in your front door.”

In an email, Dave Dillon, a spokesperson for the Missouri Hospital Association, agreed that rural patients might be contributing to hospital crowding in cities but argued that the strain on hospitals is a statewide problem.

The reasons for the rural COVID crisis involve far more than the refusal to mandate or wear masks, according to health care experts.

Both Kansas and Missouri have seen rural hospitals close year after year, and public health spending in both states, as in many largely rural states, is far below national averages.

Rural populations also tend to be older and to suffer from higher rates of chronic health conditions, including heart disease, obesity and diabetes. Those conditions can make them more susceptible to severe illness when they contract COVID-19.

Rural areas have been grappling with health problems for a long time, but the coronavirus has been a sort of tipping point, and those rural health issues are now spilling over into cities, explained Shannon Monnat, a rural health researcher at Syracuse University.

“It’s not just the rural health care infrastructure that becomes overwhelmed when there aren’t enough hospital beds, it’s also the surrounding neighborhoods, the suburbs, the urban hospital infrastructure starts to become overwhelmed as well,” Monnat said.

Unlike many parts of the U.S., where COVID trend lines have risen and fallen over the course of the year, Kansas, Missouri and several other Midwestern states never significantly bent their statewide curve.

Individual cities, such as Kansas City and St. Louis, have managed to slow cases, but the continual emergence of rural hot spots across Missouri has driven a slow and steady increase in overall new case numbers — and put an unrelenting strain on the states’ hospital systems.

The months of slow but continuous growth in cases created a high baseline of cases as autumn began, which then set the stage for the sudden escalation of numbers in the recent surge.

“It’s sort of the nature of epidemics that things often look like they’re relatively under control, and then very quickly ramp up to seem that they are out of hand,” said Justin Lessler, an epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Now, a recent local case spike in the Kansas City metro area is adding to the statewide surge in Missouri, with an average of 190 COVID patients per day being admitted to the metro region’s hospitals. The number of people hospitalized throughout Missouri increased by more than 50% in the past two weeks.

Some Kansas City hospitals have had to divert patients for periods of time, and some are now delaying elective procedures, according to the University of Kansas Health system’s chief medical officer, Dr. Steven Stites.

But bed space isn’t the only hospital resource that’s running out. Half of the hospitals in the Kansas City area are now reporting “critical” staffing shortages. Pascaline Muhindura, the nurse who works in Kansas City, said that hospital workers are struggling with anxiety and depression.

“The hospitals are not fine, because people taking care of patients are on the brink,” Muhindura said. “We are tired.”

This story is from a reporting partnership that includes KCUR, NPR and KHN. Kaiser Health News (KHN) is a national health policy news service. It is an editorially independent program of the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation which is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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With no statewide mandate in Missouri, more local governments are requiring masks

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In early July, the Columbia City Council passed an ordinance requiring everyone over 10 years old to wear a face mask when in close contact with someone from outside their household.

Since that vote, a requirement for face masks has been in every health order issued for the city of 123,000 by the Columbia-Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services.

But the mask mandate didn’t extend to the county, because the commissioners never passed a corresponding ordinance.

That changed Tuesday, when the Boone County Commission voted 2-1 to require masks in public.

While the state’s urban centers were quick to require masks to combat the spread of COVID-19, most cities and counties around the state have hesitated to follow. The reason, for many, was a mixture of concerns about the political blowback they could face and questions about whether they had the legal authority to issue such an order. 

Most are now convinced the legal question has been answered. And the political will is growing as well.

Boone County joined other local jurisdictions, including Franklin County, Joplin, Marshfield and Clinton in Henry County that have acted since Gov. Mike Parson made clear in a Nov. 19 news conference that he would not change course and issue a statewide mask order.

“What we did in this state is that I truly do support local control and will continue to support the decisions that they make,” Parson said.

Boone County’s deputy director of health, Scott Clardy, said the delay between the city and county ordinance came down to questions of whether an order was needed and whether it would be accepted.

When Columbia acted, Boone County had 513 total COVID-19 infections and two deaths and was averaging 23 new cases per day. And, Clardy said, most of those were within Columbia city limits. 

Five days after the ordinance was enacted the average peaked at 43 per day. It then fell as low as 19 per day before University of Missouri students began arriving in August.

Now, the county has recorded 9,611 cases, including 24 deaths, and is averaging 149 new cases every day. And a lot more of those cases — about 40 percent, Clardy said —  are outside Columbia, which has about two-thirds of the county’s 180,000 people.

“Absolutely, that is a trend we have been noticing and it is alarming,” Clardy said. 

The level of acceptance has also changed in recent weeks, he said. On a conference call with commissioners, health officials and municipal leaders Monday, Clardy said it became clear there has been a shift in the past 30 days.

“What we are seeing with the disease spread is how quickly that is happening,” Clardy said, “and if we went about it on a patchwork basis it is going to be much more difficult.”

The rate of new cases has been accelerating in Missouri since mid-June, going from an average of 204 per day on June 14 to 4,254 per day on Tuesday.

The earliest mask mandates in Missouri were put in place by Jackson County, St. Louis and St. Louis County. And a study by St. Louis University showed that infection rates in St. Louis and St. Louis County have been well below that of surrounding areas in the period since they were put in place.

Some counties, like St. Francois, enacted mask ordinances but then revised them or allowed them to lapse in the face of public opposition and splits among public officials.

Health officials have tried, to no avail, to push numerous arguments in the hope of convincing Parson to issue a statewide order. Among them is the idea of offering political cover for local officials who want to enact a mask requirement fear public backlash if they do.

“I do believe that it is safer to move kind of when the herd moves,” Jon Doolittle, CEO of the Mosaic Medical Center in Albany, said in a conference call with Parson on Oct. 29.

Legal authority

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson speaks to the media from his office in the state Capitol (photo courtesy of Missouri Governor’s Office).

When the Pettis County Health Center Board of Trustees approved a mask mandate Aug. 5, it was soon challenged in a lawsuit alleging the board had overstepped its authority.

Stanley Cox, a former Republican state representative and the attorney who filed the lawsuit, argued in court filings that the mandate was void because it had not been approved by the Pettis County Commission. He also told the courts that because it did not get a majority of votes from the five-member health center board, it should be overturned.

On Nov. 9, Cox dropped the lawsuit, which did not actually challenge whether authority exists in state law and regulation for the mandate. Challenging it directly would have been too daunting, he said.

“The only basis you could prove that an ordinance of the county commission was invalid was that it was unreasonable,” Cox said.

He said he dropped the litigation because the enforcement provisions don’t specify any penalty for failure to obey it.

There is no doubt that the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is spreading rapidly in control in Pettis County. On Aug. 5, when the board voted, there were 454 cases, including three deaths, in the county and by the end of month, there were 797 and eight deaths.

On Tuesday, the state health department reported there have been 2,590 cases, including 32 deaths.

The authority for county health agencies to enact regulations and ordinances to control infectious disease is clear, said JoAnn Martin, Pettis County Health Center administrator. 

“It is not something that has never been done before,” she said.

The authority is spelled out in the statutes and state regulations, Martin said.

It can be found in the section allowing health centers or county commissions to enact health ordinances that do not conflict with state Department of Health and Senior Services regulations.

The provisions of that section were first enacted in 1901, soon after the state Board of Health was established. It has survived virtually unchanged, except for a 2019 amendment that took away local authority to write health regulations applying to agricultural operations.

Boone County didn’t delay a mask order because of questions about authority, Clardy said.

“I don’t think the issue has ever been due to a lack of authority,” he said. “Our question was did we feel it was necessary and would it work.”

The authority for cities to enact ordinances to prevent the spread of contagious disease is even older. In language dating to the 1830s, even villages, the smallest incorporated places, have power to pass ordinances to “prevent the introduction and spreading of contagious diseases.”

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Columbia, St. Louis and Kansas City, as charter cities, can do anything not prohibited by state law. Other cities, like counties, only have authority granted by lawmakers.

Clinton in Henry County, a third-class city, has the same power described in the same language as villages plus authority to enforce quarantine within five miles of city limits. The ordinance passed Monday includes a fine of up to $100 for violations.

Whether Henry County will act to extend the ordinance countywide is an open question, Presiding Commissioner Jim Stone said.

“We are in the process of visiting with some of the other towns, to see what their thoughts are,” he said.

Although cases have more than doubled in the county of 22,000 this month, from 444 on Oct. 31 to 1,020 on Tuesday, Stone said he doesn’t think the idea will be popular. 

“We have some smaller towns and it can get a little touchy,” he said.

Enforcement

The Columbia and Boone County mask ordinances include fines of $15 for individuals who violate it and $100 for businesses. Those are the same fines set by Franklin County, while Clinton set its fine at $100 for any violation.

But in the almost five months since it was enacted, there have been no citations issued for a simple mask violation in Columbia, Clardy said. And while businesses have been closed for a few days after multiple violations, there have been no citations to businesses, either.

One of the problems, he said, is how heavy-handed to be. The Columbia ordinance, like most mask mandates, includes an exemption for people who have a medical condition that would be aggravated by a mask.

“We never did expect any individual to carry proof of their exemption,” he said.

And that makes enforcement by citation difficult, he said.

“We have gotten several complaints about the same business and that none of the employees were wearing masks,” he said. “We were told that all the employees have an exemption. That is highly coincidental and there is nothing much more we can do with it.”

Stone, in Henry County, said that enforcement could be difficult and he doesn’t want to pass a law that can’t be enforced fairly and evenly.

“We haven’t got enough deputies,” he said.

The Pettis County order doesn’t spell out a specific fine but refers to prosecution under state law for a violation. Martin said she would prefer for Parson to issue a state order because changing rules from county to county and city to city can be confusing.

“I think it makes it challenging when we do things county by county because we have a number of people who work in one county, live in another county, and may shop or get health care in another county,” Martin said.

Enforcement will be complaint-driven, she added.

“We have no intention,” she said, “of ever having a deputy or anyone else standing in front of a business and cite people for not wearing a mask.”

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After Trump loss, replace populism and pity parties with persuasion and pragmatism

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Reflecting over these last few weeks as the president continues to attempt to undermine the outcome of the election with unsubstantiated claims of fraud that have been rejected by courts around the country, I am reminded of an important lesson I learned in November fourteen years ago.

On the morning of Nov. 8, 2006, I woke up disappointed due to the results of the U.S. Senate race in Missouri the night before.

Incumbent Republican Jim Talent lost, and Democrat Claire McCaskill was Missouri’s new, junior senator.

At the time I was fortunate to be on the staff of Missouri’s senior senator, Republican Kit Bond. I was hungover and discouraged by the outcome the night before, but joined the senator and senior staff for breakfast.

That’s where I learned the lesson of a lifetime from a simple telephone call he made.

Sen. Bond called Senator-elect McCaskill, congratulated her, and, sincerely, said he looked forward to working with her and, more importantly, that he would have his well-seasoned staff in Missouri and Washington assist her staff in every way it could for a smooth transition into her new role.

This, to me, was completely jarring.

In my early 20s, I was somewhat of a true believer and had drunk the proverbial Kool-Aid from talking heads and ads that had said the sky would fall if McCaskill won and Democrats prevailed.

Plus, I had just witnessed Sen. Bond relentlessly campaign all over the state to keep his colleague Jim Talent in the upper chamber with him. How could he want to work with her?

Back to the lesson. Sen. Bond showed in one phone call the way our politics should be, and the way they used to be — civil and honest. He accepted the outcome of the election and immediately sought to reach out and work together with the very person he campaigned against, for the betterment of Missouri and ultimately our country.

He fought like hell against a Democratic senate majority, but he did so in a civil and honest way.  He focused on policy contrasts, not politics of personal destruction, or attacks on McCaskill’s motives or that of her supporters.  Because of that approach, the ability to forge the new relationship and work together was made possible.

This was a time when United States senators sought to persuade one another, and the public, to their point of view on how to address the issues before our country, rather than taking shots at their colleagues, acting like pundits with memes and bumper sticker slogan tweets that are all too commonplace today.

As Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse recently said, “this is a nation of laws, not tweets.”

So the lesson was this: When elections don’t go our way, it is our duty to first acknowledge and accept the result and our shortcomings, and then do the best we can in the circumstances before us. This will require moderation, compromises, and pragmatism.

The is not a call to abandon our principles and priorities, but rather to recognize that an alternative viewpoint exists, and prevailed, and therefore should be honored.

I think a very admirable example of pragmatism is personified in Gov. Parson’s leadership in navigating two critical issues in our state.

First, the governor courageously campaigned in 2018 for a modest motor fuel tax increase to address our undeniably decaying roads and bridges. I say courageously because he willingly campaigned for a tax increase in an anti-tax environment within a bright red state, unafraid of a potential primary opponent attack.

Secondly, Gov. Parson has committed to implementing Medicaid expansion, despite Republican opposition, because it was approved by a majority of Missourians at the ballot. It is laudable that he recognizes the need for pragmatism, acting as both a delegate and a trustee for Missourians while honoring the alternative viewpoints that prevailed on an issue most of his own party objected.

In 2006, I didn’t see a moment of self-pity from Sen. Bond, but rather an impressive pivot to the new playing field and an eagerness to get back to work on the issues.  Issues he agreed and disagreed with his Democratic colleagues and friends on, issues important to the country – not just his electoral prospects.

Kit went back to work like the Chiefs did after a frustrating AFC Championship loss.  Brett Veach, Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes didn’t question the outcome or attempt to undermine the result because of the atrocious officiating. Rather, they congratulated their opponents and went back to work, only to become Super Bowl Champions the following season.

So as we approach Thanksgiving, I am still thankful for the opportunity to work for and learn from a statesman like Kit Bond, for the lesson itself, the example he set and the directive he gave me with that simple phone call.

I’m thankful that it encouraged me to develop a meaningful relationship with McCaskill aide and my counterpart at the time, Greg Razer, now a state senator representing Kansas City.  Finally, I’m thankful that the lesson led me to have a more open mind about policy, politics, and most importantly, about people in general.

We should return to a time when we, the people, demanded a higher standard of our elected officials.  Missouri Republicans were right to force the scandal-ridden-indicted former governor of their party to resign in 2018, and that same standard should be applied to the president.

Words and actions matter, and a majority of American voters agreed and said no to the politics of grievance and division over the last four years. It would be wise for Republicans to acknowledge the fault, and commit to a new path forward, and for Democrats to be as willing to work together as they were in proposing it as an alternative on the ballot.

Acknowledging who won the presidency should not be a provocative position for Republicans, and recognizing that your legislative losses are due to more than gerrymandering should not be dismissed by Democrats. Credibility in our government can be restored if these steps are taken in good faith.

Politics should be about addition, not division. Persuasion and pragmatism lead to good policy, and good policy is ultimately good politics.

Subscribing to “ends justify the means” politics (but judges!), amplified by social media and cable news, has unquestionably divided our country in a time desperate for unity during a raging pandemic. We can benefit from President-elect Joe Biden’s tone and unifying approach, a sharp contrast from the last four years.  The career public servant’s desire to return America to a leadership position in the world, rather than one of isolation is also encouraging and should be given a chance to succeed.

Character is destiny, and I look forward to the return of the old character of politics where civility and common truths are shared, and in turn a more united America.

This Thanksgiving, we should all be thankful to live in a country with free and fair elections.

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Area officials rein in Thanksgiving: St. Charles orders bar curfew. St. Louis urges quarantine. Missouri deaths hit record.

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Bars and restaurants in St. Charles County must close at 11 p.m. for the foreseeable future.

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St. Charles County COVID-19 update: 20,282 positive cases, 211 total deaths as of Nov. 24

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St. Charles County Government and the Department of Public Health staff are working closely with local, regional, state and federal partners to investigate COVID-19, monitor individuals who may have been exposed to the virus and READ MORE

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St. Charles County restaurants and bars must close at 11 p.m.; school quarantine agreement reached

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Daily, St. Charles County Government addresses difficult issues involving COVID-19 – increases in case numbers, concerns about keeping children in school, educating residents on how to stay safe and more. “St. Charles County Government is READ MORE

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Immigration advocates push Biden to not just bring back DACA but expand it

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Voter turnouts in St. Louis area were large, but not record-breaking

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ST. LOUIS — Voter turnout in the region was high for the tense and tempestuous presidential election this month, but not record-breaking, despite those expectations.

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Five years after Ferguson report, some say progress has come too slow

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Like so around the country, Dr. L.J. Punch was glued to the television on the night of Nov. 24, 2014.

That night, the country learned that then-Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted in the Aug. 9 shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown Jr.

Punch was a critical-care surgeon working in Houston at the time and trying to care for a two-year-old son. 

“I remember the fire,” said Punch, of the unrest that erupted in Ferguson when the grand jury’s decision not to indict was announced. “I saw the sensationalized images from a distance because I was so far away. In a way, it was so detached from my life at the time.”

Within two years, Punch was living in Ferguson and among the most outspoken advocates for implementing reforms laid out in the Ferguson Commission’s report, released five years ago this month.

The Ferguson Commission was created in reaction to the unrest in Ferguson by then-Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon. It’s goal was to conduct a “thorough, wide-ranging and unflinching study of the social and economic conditions that impede progress, equality and safety in the St. Louis region.”

The report it eventually created was a culmination of 10 months of meetings, where the commission heard from more than 100 regional leaders, 1,000 community members and 80 subject matter experts.

It outlined 187 calls to action in achieving racial equity in education, jobs, housing and the criminal justice system.

But for all its promise, and all the work that went into producing it, much of its suggestions have seen little progress.

Among those feeling disappointed by the lack of action on the report’s recommendations are Punch, who early this month stepped down as a member of the St. Louis County Board of Police Commissioners after repeatedly hitting roadblocks in moving forward policy changes.

“I think the reason why the Ferguson Commission has not moved St. Louis County is that the county is not interested in increasing equity,” Punch said. “The county is interested in reducing crime. And even though they come to the same conclusion, those inspirations create wildly different structure, policy and culture.”

In response to Punch’s criticism, a county police spokesman said that the department strives to improve by gaining public input on various things, including its updated use-of-force policy and an external review of the department — a study Punch repeatedly challenged.

“I believe we are better than we were five years ago,” said spokesman Sgt. Benjamin Granda, “but not as good as we will be five years from now.”

Dr. L.J  Punch (far right) participates in a planning meeting for Forward Through Ferguson’s #STL2039 Action Plan to achieve a racially equitable St. Louis by the year 2039, which will mark the 25th anniversary of the death of Michael Brown. The organization is responsible for implementing the Ferguson report’s calls to action. (Photo courtesy of Forward Through Ferguson.)

‘The people’s report’

For many, Nov. 24 is a reminder of the criminal justice movement that ignited after Brown’s death and the calls to action outlined in what was called “the people’s report.” 

It’s principles are now at the heart of what people mean when they cry “Defund the police,” said Rep. Rasheen Aldridge, D-St. Louis. 

“The Ferguson Commission report is saying: how do we reimagine public safety?” Aldridge said. “How do we reinvest back into the people? That’s the same call that individuals like myself and others have been chanting in the streets. It does not mean abolish the police.”

Aldridge was in the streets with other protesters when he heard the news in 2014. Earlier that November, the governor had appointed Aldridge to be part of the 16-member Ferguson Commission.

At 22, he was the youngest member, and he was hesitant to apply because he disapproved of Nixon’s militarized response to the protests.

Rep. Rasheen Aldridge was the youngest member on the Gov. Jay Nixon’s 16-member Ferguson Commission. (Photo courtesy of Forward Through Ferguson.)

However, a close friend convinced him to do it.

“Unless somebody is at the table to speak for the people on the street, your ideas that you want to see on the menu won’t be there,” he said.

The commission experience helped inspire Aldridge to run for state representative in November 2019, he said.

George Floyd’s death sparked a renewed energy in the racial justice movement, said David Dwight, executive director of Forward Through Ferguson, which is the organization tasked with advocating for the implementation of the report’s calls to action.

The Ferguson report didn’t just stop at reforming the criminal justice system, Dwight said. It demands investment in early childhood, creating accessible housing, expanding access to healthcare, better job opportunities and pay rates to address the root cause of crime.

“That’s so much of what ‘Defund the police’ is about at its essence,” Dwight said. “How are we reducing the systems that are actually perpetuating inequity and disproportionately hurting people of color.”

The St. Louis region has seen “drops in the bucket” of what the Ferguson report calls for, he said, but they are still considered wins.

Just this year, the group established a $2 million Racial Healing and Justice Fund to invest in healing community trauma and changing the conditions that reinforce systemic racism. The report called for a larger fund, but it’s a start, Dwight said.

The region has also enacted some protections around discrimination in housing and the creation of a housing trust fund in St. Louis County, he said. 

There have been some advancements in funding for early childhood, including a ballot measure in St. Louis city that will potentially raise $2.3 million annually for early childhood services in the city’s most divested areas. Some school districts have also improved their discipline policies.

But police reform remains the area that’s seen the least progress, Dwight said.

“A lot of public policy leaders have not shown the courage to implement changes that we knew were needed, and now, it’s undeniable that they’re needed,” he said. 

Meanwhile, “defund the police” has become a lightning rod for controversy and a cudgel that the GOP used against Democrats throughout the 2020 elections. 

“It’s not an organized organization called ‘Defund The Police,’” Jean Evans, executive director of the Missouri Republican Party, said shortly before the November elections. “Some of these organizations that are supporting (Democratic gubernatorial candidate) Nicole Galloway want to see the dismantling and the disarming of police.” 

St. Louis residents voted for additional taxes to support police officers, Evans noted, and people want to see those funds go towards police equipment and adequate staffing.

“I think there’s a minority of people who think that we should take money away from the police and put them towards other resources,” she said, later adding that there was an outcry from the public in the St. Louis area because some of the tax revenue approved by voters was “diverted away from police to other, quote unquote, public safety.”

New prosecutors

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Kimberly Gardner. (Photo by Rebecca Rivas.)

Many reforms in the Ferguson Commission’s report have largely stalled, but St. Louis city and county residents elected two prosecutors who ran largely on the promises the report contained. 

In August 2016, Kimberly Gardner won handily in the four-way Democratic primary race for circuit attorney, beating her nearest challenger by nearly 10,000 votes. She became St. Louis city’s first black circuit attorney. 

Last year, Gardner released her Justice 2020 initiative to reform — or, as she says, “tear down” — the system.

“We have to stop having this rhetoric that we’re going to be able to lock our way out of this, prosecute our way out of this,” Gardner said. “That simply cannot be our strategy for crime reduction. It does not work. And we have not been successful.”

But more shocking that Gardner’s victory was what happened two years later in St. Louis County.

In 2014, Wesley Bell was a professor at St. Louis Community College-Florissant Valley, which is in Ferguson. 

St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell

On Nov. 24, he was watching the news from home on West Florissant Avenue, which local organizers and national media have described as “Ground Zero” for the movement.

Then-St. Louis County Prosecutor Bob McCulloch made the announcement at 8 p.m. from downtown Clayton. Bell remembers fielding calls from friends and family afterwards who wanted to hear a lawyer’s take on the issue.

“It’s one of those moments many of us know exactly where we were,” he said.

Bell had no idea that four years later, he would shock the country by unseating McCulloch — an incumbent Democrat who had been in office since 1991.

Ending the “debtor’s jails” was a major cry during the Ferguson protests, and it was a main priority for Bell when he took office. Asked if anyone is currently in the county jail because they can’t afford bail, Bell said that there shouldn’t be.

“We make it clear to the public defenders and to the judiciary,” Bell said. “If there is someone that has slipped through the cracks that we’re not aware of, bring it to our attention and we will join in the motion to get that individual out.”

Bell has also implemented one of the biggest diversion programs in the state, along with Kim Gardner.

This is good for public safety, he said, because violent offenders don’t generally start off committing violent offenses. They typically start with stealing or drug possession offenses. 

“When you catch them at that point and give them the treatment and support they need, the research is clear,” Bell said, “They’re significantly less likely to reoffend and we’re seeing it happen in our prosecution-led diversion.”

The national recidivism rates for state prisoners is nearly 80 percent, and the rate in their diversion program is 5 percent. 

According to Gardner, a year of diversion is 95 percent less expensive than a year in jail. The average cost to incarcerate a person in a St. Louis jail is $31,543, she said.

 “When you hear the term ‘Defund the police,’ which really is about reallocating resources, that’s exactly what we’ve been doing in our office,” Bell said.

They have been reallocating positions to create these positions to have social workers in their diversion programs.

“Your budget decisions reflect your values,” Bell said, “and our values are that we want to make sure that we’re helping people and connecting them to the resources that they need.”

One of the reasons the reforms on the prosecutorial sides have advanced is because Bell and Gardner were elected to do just that,  he said, and they aren’t beholden to any council.

In August, Bell had to make a similar announcement that McCulloch did in 2014. Bell assigned his conviction and incident review unit to look into the facts of Michael Brown’s death again, which concluded that there was not enough evidence to charge Darren Wilson with a crime.

“The physical evidence is what it is, and unfortunately, six years later, you can’t recreate a crime scene,” Bell said. “We’re stuck with the investigation that was done at the time.”

As for Punch, the search continues for a way to engage with people who “want to focus on keeping things the way they are” in the county police department.

“I tried really hard at using information and compassionate listening,” Punch said. “And I had to leave. Sometimes I was intense. Sometimes I was quiet. I tried to be intelligent all the time and thoughtful, and it wasn’t enough.”

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Capitol Perspectives: What’s next?

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The title of this column is a question that kept popping into my head during Missouri’s gubernatorial campaign.

That question repeatedly was asked by fictional Pres. Jed Bartlet in the TV series West Wing of two decades ago.

Bartlet used that question to cut off meandering conversations by his staff that went nowhere.

To one aide, Bartlet explained “it means I’m ready to move on to other things.”

As Missouri’s gubernatorial campaign seemed more dominated by attacks than specific, positive proposals for the next four years, I pondered when the campaigns would move on to “other things.”

There are some pretty major “what’s next” questions facing Missouri that were not fully answered.

Those questions include implementation of voter-approved Medicaid expansion; the economic impact from COVID-19; the likelihood of a possible crisis-load of patients because of COVID-19; violent-crime rates; and a potential funding shortfall for education.

Add to that list the secretly-funded attack ads that increasingly dominate Missouri’s campaigns.

Those are just a few of the “what’s next” questions facing the state’s governor.

Democrat Joe Biden’s victory for president adds a wrinkle to the West Wing question because of his focus on specific issues for his future administration.

For example, will Biden’s call for face mask requirements have any impact on Parson, who continues to reject mask mandates?

Will Parson place a greater emphasis on police race relations in his law enforcement proposals given Biden’s election outreach to the Black community?

Another “what’s next” question involves style.

Will Biden’s history of seeking compromises and his repeated promises to work across party lines have any impact on Parson’s approach to Democrats in the Missouri General Assembly?

On one hand, there’s no political pressure for Parson to change his approach.

Missouri voters handed large majorities to all five Republican statewide office holders on the ballot.

Republicans will continue to hold commanding majorities in both the Missouri Senate and House.

So, unlike Biden, there’s less pressure on Parson to reach across the aisle to pass his legislative goals.

Beyond that, Parson’s agenda reflects the values of a deeply committed conservative as a rural farmer who had been a former sheriff and U.S. Army police officer.

That’s quite different from Biden, whom some Democrats have criticized as being too moderate.

On the other hand, while serving in the state Senate, Parson won a major victory by seeking compromise.

The issue involved regulation of puppy mills.

Animal-rights advocates had won statewide approval in 2010 for a measure providing protections for animals with stiffer penalties for violations.

Pet store owners complained it could put them out of business. Farmers warned it could impact livestock practices.

Parson crafted a successful legislative compromise.

Although his plan won only a few votes from legislative Democrats, it was enough of a compromise that it was signed into law by the Democratic governor, Jay Nixon.

Another show of party independence by Parson came in 2015 when he delivered an emotional attack on the Missouri Senate floor against a demeaning political ad ridiculing Republican State Auditor Tom Schweich’s physical stature that ran just before Schweich’s suicide.

Schweich had been challenging other Republicans for the GOP nomination for governor when the ad was aired.

“I will no longer stand by and let people destroy other peoples’ lives using false accusations and demeaning statements all in the name of money and winning elections,” Parson told the Senate.

While Parson has avoided the tactics taken against Schweich, including a whispering campaign about the deceased auditor’s religion, Parson has embraced a somewhat strident and divisive tone since he took over from disgraced Gov. Eric Greitens.

That tone was demonstrated by signing into law abortion restrictions even in cases of rape or incest.

Parson’s anti-crime package for this fall’s special session was so divisive that major provisions failed to clear a legislature controlled by fellow Republicans.

Just weeks later, he presented to a second legislative special session a measure that would protect businesses from COVID-19 lawsuits that sparked immediate opposition from the House Democratic leader.

If there is going to be something “next,” Parson’s next major opportunity could be his State of the State address to the Missouri General Assembly in early January.

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St. Charles County COVID-19 update: 20,020 positive cases, 206 deaths as of Nov. 23

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St. Charles County Government and the Department of Public Health staff are working closely with local, regional, state and federal partners to investigate COVID-19, monitor individuals who may have been exposed to the virus and READ MORE

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St. Charles County police recruit training led to outbreak, union says

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Social distancing wasn’t possible during some training, such as for defensive tactics, department officials said Monday.

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St. Charles County Collector to start mailing 2020 tax bills November 24

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On Nov. 24, the first of nearly 350,000 real estate and personal property tax bills for 2020 will be mailed by Michelle McBride, St. Charles County Collector of Revenue. Bills are already available to view READ MORE

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Election spending in 2020 doubled to $14 billion – 3 takeaways from a campaign finance expert

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Individuals and companies spent a record $14 billion trying to get politicians elected in 2020, according to the latest estimate, more than double the $6.5 billion expended in 2016.

What do donors get for parting with all that cash?

Some of those who put large sums toward supporting a winner, such as President-elect Joe Biden, may be rewarded with government positions or the chance to meet with members of the administration. But most donors, no matter how much they give, get nothing more than the satisfaction of having someone who shares their values and priorities in a position of power.

I study the effects of campaign finance laws on the behavior of politicians and interest groups. In fact, there’s surprisingly little evidence of quid pro quo corruption in American politics – that is, a direct exchange of money for some government reward.

Political scientists like me have drawn three basic conclusions from the actions of campaign donors over the years.

1. The problem isn’t corruption – it’s illicit favors

President Donald Trump raised the prospect of favoritism in the first presidential debate when he alleged without evidence that Biden does deals for Wall Street executives in exchange for campaign contributions and suggested he himself could raise a lot more money if he did the same.

It is certainly not hard to find anecdotal evidence of this kind of donor influence. Many people who become ambassadors or Cabinet officials, for instance, contributed money to the presidents who later appointed them. But then again, we can’t be sure that they got these positions because of their contributions. And many other political appointees give little or nothing.

The most obvious instances of political corruption stand out because they are illegal – they consist of illicit favors like paying for a candidate’s daughter’s wedding or giving a candidate large sums of cash. These favors are illegal because they are personal gifts to these legislators, not contributions to their campaigns.

2. Small donors aren’t always better

In fact, most campaign donors give very little and so have very little influence.

The latest campaign finance data show that about 45% of the $596 million that went to Trump’s campaign committee came from small donors who gave $200 or less. For Biden, 39% of the $938 million he raised came from small donors.

Many of the year’s most competitive Senate campaigns also drew extensive support from small donors as well.

Candidates often tout their small average donation size as a sign that they are not beholden to anyone. The problem, however, is that research has found that people who make these meager donations are more ideologically extreme than those who make large ones. That means that candidates of any party who successfully appeal to such voters could be more ideologically extreme as well.

Larger donors, then, can be a moderating force, even if these contributions are more likely to be self-interested.

3. Distorted priorities

But even large donors don’t appear to get all that much for their money.

The majority of direct donations to both Trump and Biden were more than $200 but at or below $2,800, the federal limit. These large donors often do have contact with candidates, who typically solicit money from them directly at social events. As such, they have the opportunity to let candidates know why they are contributing.

The biggest donors give most of their contributions to super PACs, which can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money as long as they don’t coordinate what they are doing with the candidates themselves. As of Sept. 30, the latest data available, 97 people had given more than $3 million to candidates, parties or groups active in the 2020 election. The list includes billionaires such as Sheldon Adelson, Michael Bloomberg and Steven Spielberg.

While these donors certainly influence elections far more than regular donors, many of the most prominent super PAC funders have clearly stated ideological or philanthropic reasons for their contributions. In other words, they are not generally seeking or getting personal favors – legal or otherwise – in return for their cash.

Even often vilified political spenders such as Charles Koch or George Soros have made a compelling case that they have a philosophy that guides their giving. And most of their spending has not been on contributions to politicians but on advocacy for their point of view.

The real problem with large donations is something else. Studies of campaign contributors have consistently warned that the biggest danger of large contributions is not corruption or favoritism so much as the possibility that it distorts legislators’ perceptions of public opinion. The more time a legislator spends courting large donors, the more likely he or she will assume that the priorities of very wealthy people are shared by other Americans. This is why Washington frequently has pitched battles over issues such as carried interest or inheritance taxes, which affect only a small number of the wealthiest Americans.

Campaign contributions may sometimes influence policy, but politicians will always have an incentive to do favors for major employers in places they represent, for influential local lawmakers or for other people who support their candidacy. That’s not corruption; that’s just democracy.The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Many Missouri tenants lack legal counsel during eviction proceedings

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When disabled veteran Eddie Logan learned his landlord had filed for his eviction, he began gathering evidence of what he considered the property’s “derelict conditions” to fight it and represent himself.

He had less than a week to prepare for a hearing on Aug. 17 that, because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, was going to be held remotely via Zoom. 

The St. Louis city court mailed Logan a notice with instructions on how to submit his evidence ahead of his virtual hearing, and after rounding up 10 exhibits, he took them to the court building, as instructed. 

But when he arrived at the courthouse, he says he was turned away by staff and told he wasn’t allowed to deliver the exhibits in person. 

Logan called an eviction hotline and was told he was doing the right thing and to try to submit to the court again. He did, twice, and both times was refused.

He mailed his exhibits express, but they didn’t arrive in time.

In the end, 22nd Circuit Court Judge Mark Neil refused to continue his case to allow the exhibits to arrive. Logan says he had no way to refute the landlord’s claims.

The judgement was filed against him that day and he was ordered to be evicted from his home, along with paying the landlord $2,839.51.

Logan filed a lawsuit on Aug. 21, arguing that he was denied his due process because of a technology barrier.

But the bigger issue Logan faced, tenants rights advocates say, is that he didn’t have access to an attorney that could have helped guide him through the process. 

And he’s not unique. Tenants are far less likely to have legal representation in eviction proceedings. 

With a potential COVID-19 fueled wave of evictions on the horizon, advocates worry the situation may get far worse — and will have lasting effects. 

Sarah Owsley

“If you lost your house in 2008, you are probably not able to be a homeowner now,” said Sarah Oswely, policy and organizing manager for Empower Missouri. “What we don’t want to see is all these tenants who are facing evictions because of the pandemic not be able to rehouse themselves later. And that’s what’s going to happen with all these folks.”

The National Coalition for a Civil Right Counsel estimated that as few as 1 percent of tenants across the country have access to an attorney during eviction proceedings, compared to 90 percent of landlords. 

In order to decrease evictions during the pandemic, several states and cities, including St. Louis and Kansas City, have allocated federal COVID relief funds towards legal representation for tenants.

And some places, like Baltimore, are passing “right to counsel” legislation to ensure that every person has the right to the equivalent of a public defender in eviction hearings. 

In Logan’s case, he finally obtained an attorney to intervene and file a lawsuit. In the end, the judge set aside the judgement against Logan on Aug. 25 and gave him a new hearing. His case is almost settled without an eviction judgement on his record.

“The evidence is clear: Tenants have more success when they have attorneys,” said Lee Camp, an attorney with ArchCity Defenders, a nonprofit law group, who represented Logan. 

Right to counsel

The group KC Tenants leads a protest against evictions on Oct. 15, outside of the 16th Circuit Court of Jackson County in Kansas City (photo courtesy of Christina Ostemeyer).

It’s much more expensive to evict someone than to keep them housed, said Steve Conway, chief of staff to St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson.

It costs the city about $60 a day for a hotel room for an unhoused individual. For 90 days, that’s $5,400. Three months rent is at most $3,500, Conway said.

“Once you become homeless, you are at risk of being permanently homeless,” Conway said. “With early intervention, you can get them back into where they have permanent housing.”

This is why that city allocated funds to Legal Services of Eastern Missouri to fund four attorneys to represent low-income defendants, as well as for eviction mediation programs.

Several states ― including Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia and Vermont ― have secured CARES Act funding to expand tenant representation. Some allocated Emergency Shelter Grant Program funding toward tenant representation. 

The Missouri House approved a budget proposal that allocated $18.7 million in the Emergency Shelter Grant Program funds for homeless prevention. It still needs approval by the state Senate and the governor’s signature.

Missouri lawmakers previously approved $9.6 million in CARES Act funding for the program in May. As the Independent reported previously, the Missouri Housing Development Commission will begin to distribute the funds this month.

This money would mainly go towards agencies, such as Catholic Charities and others, that provide rental and utility assistance. The MHDC has also received applications from Legal Services, an agency that provides free legal aid to low-income individuals, according to the commission’s spokesman.

Gov. Mike Parson announcing last month that he will call lawmakers into special session to appropriate federal CARES Act funds. (Rudi Keller/Missouri Independent)

Roger Dyer is an attorney with Mid-Missouri Legal Services, which provides free legal aid in 11 counties in central Missouri. He’s struggling to keep up with the need for counsel, he said, because evictions cases are still proceeding even in the pandemic.

“Landlords usually do have attorneys and tenants typically don’t, so that does put them at a disadvantage,” Dyer said. “I would certainly be for a program that would put them on more even ground with the landlords.”

Last week, the Baltimore City Council approved a bill that ensures a legal representative to be designated “as soon as practicable” and no later than a first scheduled appearance for tenants facing eviction. The requirement will phase in over the next four years.

Those advocating for the bill cited a study funded by the Abell Foundation, which estimated that the city would save $35.6 million in various costs typically undertaken by the city and state to help those who have been evicted. The foundation estimated it would cost $5.7 million to provide counsel to about 7,000 tenants.

“When tenants have representation, either they stay in their homes, or they have stable housing by the end of the process,” said John Pollock, coordinator of the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel.

CDC moratorium

There’s a big misunderstanding about what local and federal eviction moratoriums do. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) nationwide eviction moratorium prevents the final act of the eviction process — the physical removal of people from their homes.

But, eviction hearings are still occurring throughout the state, and judgements are still being made against tenants — which will stay on their records and prevent them from obtaining housing after the pandemic is over.

Also, the federal moratorium does not automatically prevent evictions. Tenants have to present a declaration form that says they have been affected by the pandemic.

Dyer said last week during a Missouri Bar Association panel discussion that some Missouri judges mention the CDC moratorium and the need for a declaration form in eviction proceedings, but some don’t.

“There is a misconception out there that evictions aren’t happening,” said Camp, who was also a panelist. “And that really couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Boone County has issued 150 notices to vacate since March. In Jackson County, there have been 499 evictions executed from June to October. In Jasper County, there have been 142 evictions this year.

St. Louis County has 333 eviction judgements that are on hold and will be executed as soon as the court’s order and federal order preventing evictions lifts. 

But this doesn’t include the thousands of court filings and proceedings going on statewide. 

Since March, there have been more than 500 evictions filed in Boone County and nearly 350 in Jasper County. In Jackson County, there were about 3,500 evictions filed from March to October, and about 3,100 in the St. Louis area.

The ACLU filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of the housing advocacy group KC Tenants, alleging that Jackson County Circuit Court’s administrative order allows landlords to defy the CDC moratorium. They allege that the court is forcing tenants to participate in “overly intrusive and potentially retaliatory evidentiary hearings.” 

“Every tenant deserves the right to safe, accessible housing,” said Tara Raghuveer, director of KC Tenants. “The Jackson County courts are allowing landlords to strip tenants of that right by evicting them in the middle of a pandemic and economic crisis. It’s inhumane and unconstitutional.”  

On the other side of the state, Camp believes that the virtual hearings are denying many tenants their right to due process. 

While other counties including Jackson and Boone are holding both in-person and virtual hearings, the St. Louis area is only having virtual hearings. 

And just like in Logan’s case, some tenants only have the ability to call in using the phone number. They can’t present evidence because they don’t have access to video. They can’t refute evidence that their landlord’s lawyer is presenting because they can’t see it. 

“The unanswered questions regarding our arguments over the due process violations in these remote hearings have not yet been reviewed by the high courts,” Camp said, “and no precedent has been established either in our favor or against it.”

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Washington at a standstill as states face the loss of federal help amid ‘the worst part of the crisis’

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WASHINGTON — The number of coronavirus infections across the country is swelling at a perilous time for state governments, just weeks before federal support rushed through Congress in the pandemic’s early stages is set to end.

The expiring provisions from the $2 trillion CARES Act and subsequent executive orders will mean reductions in unemployment benefits for those struggling to find work, the loss of eviction protections, and a restart to monthly student loan bills that had been suspended.

Those changes heading into the darkest months of winter will not only hit hard at vulnerable Americans. They’ll increase the fiscal strain on state governments, which are facing a deadline to spend any remaining federal dollars received for pandemic-related costs — or send that money back to Washington. And the critical moment is coming at a time when a new president has been elected, the current president is refusing to concede and Congress is unable to muster the consensus to take action.

“It really is becoming a problem, in that I think the people in the White House are focused on fighting elections and the people in the Biden administration don’t have any information and haven’t taken over, and there’s a little bit of a vacuum right now,” Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, said during a recent news conference.

Hogan added that he still just sees “bickering” from those in Congress: “The states are out here fighting probably the worst part of the crisis we’ve ever had to deal with, and we don’t really know what’s going on at the federal level.”

Despite calls for a new infusion of federal relief, any additional COVID-19 aid appears unlikely until President-elect Joe Biden takes office. Top congressional leaders and the Trump administration held on-again, off-again negotiations over a new coronavirus relief package before the November election, but those talks have not resumed since Election Day.

Lawmakers are now on recess for the Thanksgiving holidays. They will return for the lame-duck session — the period between an election and when the newly elected lawmakers take office — to consider government funding legislation needed to avert a shutdown after Dec. 11.

That has left states on their own to deal with the looming consequences as COVID-19 infections nationally exceed 11 million and more than 250,000 deaths in the U.S.

Cumulatively, state, local, territorial and tribal governments are projected to face a budget shortfall between $275 billion and $415 billion, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and that’s if elected officials drain any remaining fiscal reserves.

Already, states and localities have furloughed or laid off 1.2 million workers to date, based on CBPP data.

In a recent letter to congressional leaders urging more financial help to states, Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz wrote that in February, his state was projecting a budget surplus of $1.5 billion. That expected surplus quickly crumbled to a $2.3 billion projected deficit for the fiscal year ending in June. Now there’s a yawning $4.7 billion shortfall anticipated for the following two-year budget.

The CARES Act approved last spring included a $150 billion relief fund for state and local governments. Those dollars came with specific requirements on how they must be spent, and a deadline of spending the money by Dec. 30 even though “we know the virus is not going away by the end of the year,” Walz wrote.

“To the contrary, at the rate of increase we are seeing in the current surge, it is going to get much worse before it gets better,” he wrote. “And yet states will be left with no additional federal resources to combat the rising tide of infections, unemployment, and human services needs that will continue long after the funds from the CARES Act expire.”

Minnesota has nearly exhausted those dollars, as have most states across the country. Iowa was awarded about $4.61 billion in CARES Act funds. State agencies have spent about 72.6% of the money, totaling $3.35 billion, according to the Iowa Department of Management.

Among 42 states and territories surveyed by the National Governors Association last month, 89% of the federal coronavirus relief dollars had been allocated. The NGA had unsuccessfully urged this summer for another round of relief to states of $500 billion.

A $3 trillion relief package approved by the U.S. House of Representatives in May would have provided state and local governments with more than $1 trillion in aid, and more flexibility in how those dollars could be used. That relief to state and local governments was one of several sticking points during the protracted negotiations this fall between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.

In the Senate, top leaders have pointed fingers at each other in explaining the lack of action: Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has criticized Democrats for blocking coronavirus relief bills on the floor, and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has decried those GOP measures as inadequate for addressing the growing crisis.

Even a measure co-sponsored by Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, to extend the time frame when states could use any remaining federal relief dollars, has failed to gain traction.

In addition to the expiring state aid, these federal provisions also will end:

  • Unemployment benefits: The CARES Act had provided an additional 13 weeks of unemployment insurance and expanded who is eligible for unemployment benefits through December.
  • Eviction protection: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had issued a moratorium on evictions for most tenants nationally through Dec. 31.
  • Student loans: Federal student loan payments were deferred through September, and President Donald Trump had extended that relief through December.

Biden sought to offer reassurance to governors this week, saying after a video conference call with Hogan and other governors that his administration will seek to deliver economic relief to state and local governments “soon rather than later, and with flexibility for the states to meet their needs.”

But Biden won’t be sworn in for two more months.

In the meantime, state lawmakers in Pennsylvania must pass a budget for the remainder of the fiscal year that ends in June, after deciding this spring to approve only a months-long spending plan instead of a year-long budget, due to difficulties in projecting how dramatically the pandemic would affect state finances.

Pennsylvania has $1.3 billion left in unspent CARES Act funds, and the budget proposal that cleared a state House committee would use those dollars to backfill salaries of state law enforcement, corrections officers, and Department of Health employees, according to the Pennsylvania Capital-Star.

States also have been preparing plans for distributing the COVID-19 vaccines racing through the federal approval process, potentially becoming ready to be administered before the end of the year.

The CARES Act included $200 million to help with those costs, a small fraction of the more than $8 billion that public health officials estimate will be needed.

With help from Washington lacking, states are attempting their own solutions. Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers has put forward his own coronavirus relief bill relying on state funds, though legislative Republicans so far have not embraced his proposal, the Wisconsin Examiner reported.

Evers has said he hopes to see another round of federal relief to states, and that if money does come through, it could be used instead of the state money that he has proposed.

Responding to criticism about the measure’s price tag, Evers told the Examiner: “It’s pretty simple. We chose state money because the federal money ends, and we have expended all of the money that we did receive from the federal government on contact tracing and testing and making sure that we provide resources for farmers and small businesses across the state, and other areas that are struggling mightily economically.”

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St. Charles County Food Inspection Scores: Mellow Mushroom, Sweetie Pie’s, Bavarian Smoke Haus and more

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The St. Charles County Department of Public Health monitors more than 1,300 food service providers in St. Charles County. (The City of St. Peters conducts its own inspections.) Routine inspections are conducted by specialists with the department READ MORE

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O’Fallon Police Blotter: July 13 – July 26, 2020

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The following reports for July 13 – July 26, 2020 were supplied to 70 West Sentinel by the O’Fallon Police Department. A report of an arrest or charges filed is not an assumption of guilt, READ MORE

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In Memoriam: St. Charles County Obituaries, October 25 – 31, 2020

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The following obituaries were posted by local funeral homes from October 25 – 31, 2020. Click or tap the link provided to access the obituary on the funeral home’s website. Baue Funeral Homes Marcella Crump, READ MORE

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St. Charles County Libraries temporarily shift to enhanced curbside services

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St. Charles City-County Library will temporarily shift to curbside delivery only starting on Monday, November 23, 2020. Due to the significant increase in COVID-19 cases in St. Charles County and recent closures of individual branches READ MORE

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St. Charles County COVID-19 update: 18,977 positive cases, 205 total deaths as of Nov. 20

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St. Charles County Government and the Department of Public Health staff are working closely with local, regional, state and federal partners to investigate COVID-19, monitor individuals who may have been exposed to the virus and READ MORE

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St. Charles libraries will shift to curbside services only

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St. Charles City-County Library will temporarily close its buildings to patrons and shift to curbside delivery due to the rise in coronavirus cases in St. Charles County.

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Farmers likely to see more multinational trade deals crafted in Biden administration

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WASHINGTON—American farmers who have gone through the drama and turbulence of trade and agriculture policy in the Trump administration can expect a far more sedate and multinational experience when President-elect Joe Biden takes office in January.

On just the third day of his administration, President Donald Trump rattled world leaders and upended exports by announcing that he would pull the United States out of a trade deal with other Pacific countries that he claimed was a bad deal for American workers.

It was a sign of more to come. The Republican president threatened to leave NAFTA, gummed up the operations of the World Trade Organization and started a trade war with China.

American farmers often bore the brunt of those moves. Countries retaliated against Trump’s protectionist moves by levying tariffs on everything from soybeans to blueberries.

American whiskey exports to the European Union dropped by 27 percent, after the EU imposed retaliatory tariffs on the spirits in 2018. Likewise, pork exports to Mexico fell 28 percent from 2018 to 2019 because of a trade dispute. China went from buying $12.2 billion of U.S. soybeans in 2017 to $3.1 billion the next year, because of the trade war. In Maine, a blueberry boom suddenly went bust, as exports to China plunged by 97 percent in two years.

While U.S. subsidies and subsequent trade deals alleviated some of the heartburn farmers felt, the unrest throughout the Trump administration left American agricultural exporters on edge.

Nonetheless, Trump enjoyed wide political support in rural America, where farmers worried that a Biden administration could bring more environmental regulation. In September, Farm Futures reported that three-quarters of farmers they surveyed said they’d be backing Trump in the election.

While Biden may be less politically aligned with farmers, he is unlikely to make such a startling debut on agriculture and trade policy.

He will have many pressing matters domestically —starting with getting the COVID-19 pandemic under control—that will likely occupy his attention early in the administration.

And observers expect that Biden will work to boost trade by crafting multinational agreements, rather than the one-on-one deals Trump favored, that take months, if not years, to complete.

“I think it’s fair to say that the president-elect is not going to use tariffs in the same way the Trump administration has been using them. I think it’s also fair to say that in efforts to hold countries like China accountable, you’ll see a more collaborative effort with other nations,” said Tom Vilsack, a former Iowa governor and agriculture secretary in the Obama administration, in an interview with States Newsroom. Vilsack also helped the Biden campaign develop its agricultural platform.

“That means a more stable market situation, which I think farmers would appreciate,” added Vilsack, who is now the president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council.

Trump trade deals

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (L) and U.S. President Donald Trump pose for photographs at the White House October 11, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images).

Biden will also take over at a time when exporters are still optimistic about gains they made under Trump’s most significant trade deals.

Those are a “Phase One” agreement with China that Trump agreed to in January in order to stop the trade war, and the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement that updated a trade pact among the North American countries that was first crafted in the 1990s.

Both deals contain provisions that U.S. agricultural interests like, such as Chinese promises to increase their purchases of agricultural products and Canadian assurances that it would open its markets further to U.S. milk and dairy sales.

But it would be up to the incoming Biden administration to ensure that those goals are met.

Biden has also promised he “won’t enter into any new trade agreements until we’ve made major investments here at home, in our workers and our communities—equipping them to compete and win in the global economy. That includes investing in education, infrastructure, and manufacturing here at home.”

Relations with China

Biden, like Trump, has criticized China’s trade policies. He reiterated Thursday that he wants China to understand it has to “play by the rules.”

But the incoming president has said he would handle disputes with the Asian rival differently than Trump.

“I will do something Trump hasn’t done and can’t do: I will rally the world to support the U.S. in its fights with China and other countries that violate trade rules. [Trump] can’t build a coalition against our adversaries when he insults and embarrasses our friends. But, where needed, a Biden administration will fight for fair trade on our own,” he said in response to a questionnaire from steelworkers.

When it comes to agricultural products, though, relations between the two countries have been improving.

Under the Phase One agreement, China agreed to take steps to make its markets and regulatory processes more transparent. The changes, for example, could make it easier for U.S. companies to get approval to sell genetically modified crops.

The Chinese also promised to significantly increase the amount of agricultural goods they bought from the United States under the agreement. Their targets would amount to a 50 percent increase over what China bought in 2017, which was a good trade year.

China will almost certainly not make those targets, but it has been buying a significant amount of U.S. corn and soybeans since late summer, which has driven up prices.

“China is buying based on what its needs are,” said Randy Gordon, president of the National Grain and Feed Association, which represents grain elevators, processors and exporters.

Swine herds in China were devastated in recent years by the African swine flu, but now China is rebuilding those herds. That requires a lot of feed.

“Soybeans are going through the roof right now. We’re seeing record amounts of corn exports into China,” he said. “That’s been a real boon for American agriculture. It has really helped strengthen our farm prices.”

The big unknown factor, though, is what China wants, cautions Seth Meyer, the associate director of the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute at the University of Missouri.

In recent years, China has switched up its purchasing patterns to respond to both political and economic developments, but only temporarily, he noted.

So Meyer said it’s too early to tell whether the recent surge in Chinese purchases means that it will return to buying the same amount of American crops as it did before the trade war.

“It’s an open question right now: Is this demand transient, or is this a signal that we are back to Chinese demand really driving what’s going on in the market for now with row crops?” he said.

A return to normal?

President-elect Joe Biden and his running mate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) arrive to deliver remarks in Wilmington, Delaware. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

One step the new administration could take to ensure more trade in the future, would be to reduce or remove the tariffs both countries imposed during the U.S.-China trade war, said Grant Kimberly, director of market development for the Iowa Soybean Association.

China, which buys 60 percent of all soybeans globally, agreed to let its buyers get exemptions from the tariffs that are currently under place. “But they could quickly put those right back in place if they wanted to, because they’re technically still there,” Kimberly said.

Mary Lovely, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute and an economics professor at Syracuse University, said those kinds of concessions would be key to returning U.S.-Chinese relations to normal.

“If there’s going to be some type of rapprochement with China on this, there’s going to have to be negotiations before that between the Chinese and the Americans that deescalate the conflict and result in some other wins from both sides,” she said.

Any adjustments in U.S. trade policy toward China could have ripple effects in other markets, too.

Earlier this month, China and 14 other countries signed onto a trade deal called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. That lowers barriers between China and signatories including Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.

In response to the news, Biden said the United States should be aligned with other democracies “so that we can set the rules of the road instead of having China and others dictate outcomes because they are the only game in town.”

But when Trump decided to withdraw the United States from the Trans Pacific Partnership early in his presidency, the remaining countries forged an agreement without the United States.

President Barack Obama had argued that the TPP was necessary to act as a counterbalance to China in the Pacific region, but many of his fellow Democrats soured on the deal. Biden has said he would only consider joining the new agreement if more concessions were made.

In the meantime, the United States has tried to expand into new markets and increase its market share in other places to boost its agricultural exports.

“For example, we’ve seen [the Trump administration] push with several of our trading partners to get them to lower tariffs on … lobsters,” said Lovely, the Syracuse professor. “It’s not a main line agricultural product, but it was very important to Maine.”

“The problem is that farmers built those markets in China over a 20-year period. It’s very hard to instantly turn around and create new markets. They’re built on trust,” she said.

Many times, American exporters specialize their products for specific foreign markets. “This cannot be turned around on a dime. How President-elect Biden will approach this is difficult to see.”

Canada markets and U.S. dairy products

Pres. Trump participates in USMCA signing ceremony, Nov. 30 2018 (Photo courtesy US Department of State)

One of the concessions the United States gained in the USMCA was the promise from Canada that it would open its markets to more American dairy products.

“Canada has always been a tough one to work with on dairy. They’re very protective of their dairy industry,” said Rick Ebert, the president of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau and a dairy farmer himself. “Hopefully, with a new trade agreement in place, some of the things they put into place to get more dairy into Canada will come to fruition.”

Still, as Canada has released more details about its plans, American dairy officials have grown concerned.

Vilsack, the head of the dairy exporters group, said the “spirit and the letter” of the USMCA made clear that Canada would “open new market opportunities that didn’t exist before.” But the way Canada has structured its rules, the companies that could import more American dairy products would have little incentive to do so.

“You want to make sure that, as [Canada] gets rid of its pricing systems… they don’t replace it with something that basically operates in the same way to distort the market,” he said.

Vilsack said dairy farmers would “hope that the president-elect’s approach to trade would be to make sure that the deals that have been negotiated… are implemented in the way they were intended.”

But Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said a bigger question might be how high of a priority the Biden administration would put on following up on those kinds of issues.

“I strongly expect the labor enforcement will be the top priority. If you look at the political problem that the Biden administration has on trade, it has to reassure union-leaning Democrats that whatever trade agenda it pursues is consistent with expansion of labor rights,” he said.

Environmental protection figures to be a top priority too.

Expanding dairy exports would likely be a lower priority for the Biden administration, he said.

“Canadian milk is a problem up in Wisconsin,” Alden added, “but it doesn’t move votes in the Democratic Party the same way labor rights in Mexico does, so I think [labor issues] will clearly be the priority.”

WTO, talks with the UK

One of the first tests the Biden administration will face on international trade is how it will respond to an impasse with the World Trade Organization, which resolves trade disputes between countries. The United States has long taken issue with aspects of how the WTO operates, but Trump escalated matters by blocking the appointment of judges to handle appeals and by blocking the appointment of a new director.

Meanwhile, the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union will require follow-up negotiations with Britain that have the potential to open new markets or to solidify the United States’ existing relationships there.

Most observers expect the Biden administration to avoid the fireworks of the Trump administration. Even if Biden wants to draw a hard line with countries like China, rallying countries to the cause could take longer than leaving—or threatening to leave—trade partnerships, as Trump did.

“It’s like entropy applied to economics and politics,” said John Beghin, an agricultural economist and faculty member of the Yeutter Institute of International Trade and Finance at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “It takes time to build things, but it doesn’t take much time to destroy them or to get out of them.”

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Levee districts, many controlled by one law firm, charge millions to taxpayers. And bills keep rising

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Critics say there’s few guidelines for deciding levee district taxes and little financial oversight of the districts, which often pay big money to lawyers and engineers.

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Tyson hires former AG Eric Holder to investigate claims of betting on worker COVID infections

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Tyson Foods’ CEO announced Thursday he has hired former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to lead an “independent investigation” into a lawsuit’s claims that managers at one of the company’s Iowa plants placed bets on the number of workers who would contract COVID-19.

The claims of a betting pool at the food giant’s Waterloo, Iowa, plant, first reported by Iowa Capital Dispatch, are just one set of allegations Tyson is facing in lawsuits across the country.

In Iowa alone, at least three coronavirus-related cases, involving a total of five plaintiffs, are pending in state and federal court. Other COVID-19 lawsuits, filed on behalf of dozens of workers, are pending in Texas courts.

In response to the latest allegations involving a betting pool among managers at the company’s Waterloo plant, Tyson Foods’ president and chief executive officer, Dean Banks, said Thursday in a written statement:

“We are extremely upset about the accusations involving some of the leadership at our Waterloo plant. Tyson Foods is a family company with 139,000 team members and these allegations do not represent who we are, or our core values and team behaviors. We expect every team member at Tyson Foods to operate with the utmost integrity and care in everything we do.

“We have suspended, without pay, the individuals allegedly involved and have retained the law firm Covington & Burling LLP to conduct an independent investigation led by former Attorney General Eric Holder. If these claims are confirmed, we’ll take all measures necessary to root out and remove this disturbing behavior from our company.

“Our top priority is and remains the health and safety of our team members.”

Marc Perrone, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers International labor union, which represents many of the workers in the Waterloo plant, also issued a statement on Thursday:

“America’s meatpacking workers are dying on the frontlines of this pandemic, putting themselves in harm’s way to ensure our families can put food on the table this Thanksgiving,” Perrone said. “This shocking report of supervisors allegedly taking bets on how many workers would get infected, pressuring sick workers to stay on the job, and failing to enforce basic safety standards, should outrage every American.”

Perrone said the allegations are evidence that the “Trump administration and Iowa Gov. Reynolds care more about industry profits than protecting America’s frontline workers … We are continuing to call on elected leaders to implement an enforceable national safety standard, increased access to PPE and COVID-19 testing, and rigorous proactive inspections.”

More than 1,000 Tyson employees at the Waterloo plant — a third of the facility’s workforce — have contracted the virus since the beginning of the pandemic and at least five of the workers have died.

Nationally, at least 4,600 Tyson employees in 15 states have been infected with COVID-19, and at least 18 have died. According to the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting,  there have been at least 42,000 infections tied to meatpacking facilities in at least 470 plants in 40 states, and at least 215 deaths are associated with 51 plants in 27 states.

Tyson Foods has several facilities in Missouri. In June, the company reported that 371 employees at its chicken processing plant in the far southwestern corner of Missouri had tested positive for COVID-19.

The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting has found 1,146 COVID-19 cases tied to meatpacking plants in Missouri, along with four deaths. However, they note that those numbers reflect what has been publicly reported; there might be more that have not been publicly identified.

In Texas, at least three lawsuits have been filed against Tyson — one by a group of 12 employees at the company’s plaint in Center, Texas, one by 41 employees of Tyson’s Amarillo plant, and one by the family of a deceased Tyson employee.

In one of the Texas cases, employees allege that Tyson Foods forced workers at one plant to continue to show up during the COVID-19 outbreak at a time when Gov. Greg Abbott’s stay-at-home order was in effect. The lawsuit also alleges that the company did not give workers proper personal protective equipment and did not provide employees with workers’ compensation insurance.

The lawsuit claims that in lieu of workers’ comp, Tyson implemented its own Workplace Injury Settlement Program wherein Tyson had employees sign liability releases before they could claim any benefits for on-the-job injuries. In many cases, the lawsuit alleges, Tyson had employees sign away their right to sue, and then either denied the workers benefits or paid out very smalls sums of money.

A common element of the lawsuits is the allegation that Tyson had plenty of advance notice as to the impact the virus was likely to have on its workforce in Iowa and other states.

The plaintiffs note that Tyson Foods has extensive business interests in China, with one of the company’s subsidiaries operating a facility in Hubei province. In January 2020, the company formed a corporate coronavirus task force after observing the impact the virus had on its operations in China.

On Jan. 11, Chinese state media reported its first known death from COVID-19, and by February, Tyson had allegedly halted operations at some of its facilities in China and scaled back operations in others.

On March 8, three COVID-19 cases were reported in Iowa, and four days later Tyson Foods barred all non-essential visitors from entering Tyson offices and facilities and mandated that all non-critical employees at its corporate offices work remotely.

On April 6, Tyson temporarily suspended operations at its Columbus Junction, Iowa, plant after more than two dozen employees tested positive for the virus. Despite that, employees of Packers Sanitation Services Incorporated allegedly moved back-and-forth between the Columbus Junction and Waterloo plants, working at both facilities without being quarantined and without being tested for COVID-19.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued general guidance on preparing workplaces for the virus was early as March 9. But it wasn’t until April 26 that the agencies published additional guidelines that were specific to meat and poultry processing plants.

By that time, state lawmakers in Iowa had already filed an OSHA complaint against Tyson Foods in response to workers claiming they did not have sufficient personal protective equipment; social distancing measures were not being implemented or enforced; and nurses at the Waterloo Facility were unable to accurately conduct temperature checks.

On April 20, Iowa’s OSHA office inspected the Waterloo plant and later reported it had found no regulatory violations. The plant closed two days later and reopened in May with new safety measures in place.

The federal OSHA office, meanwhile, offered to support meatpackers in any litigation brought by workers or their families due to workplace exposure to the virus, assuming the companies made “a good faith effort” to comply with voluntary mitigation guidelines.

Public Citizen, a nonprofit advocacy group, has argued that state and federal efforts to provide legal immunity to businesses that demonstrate an effort to comply with federal guidelines could cripple the ability for workers and tehri families to sue, even in cases of gross negligence. The organization notes that guidelines from the CDC are just that — suggested guidelines, not mandatory regulations, which means that compliance is discretionary and businesses need to show only that they considered following the suggested measures.

“Where regulatory standards give near-total discretion to businesses, as is the case with the CDC guidelines, a compliance defense amounts to immunity — even when the entities do almost nothing, Public Citizen reported in in an August report on mitigation compliance.

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Phelps County standoff: Woman fights order banning her from Missouri city hall

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EDGAR SPRINGS — A little over a year ago, Rebecca Varney was walking by city hall and saw vehicles belonging to the mayor and several aldermen parked outside.

She’d seen no notice the Board of Aldermen would meet that Saturday, so she looked through a window. 

Varney, 61, saw then-Mayor William Gallion and board members together, so she decided to go inside.

Under the Missouri Sunshine Law, before a quorum of a public body like the Edgar Springs Board of Aldermen meets to discuss public business, a notice must be posted at least 24 hours in advance. There’s an exception for social occasions.

Even in emergencies a notice must be posted, as far in advance as possible.

Varney asked them if they were having a meeting. They told her no, and asked her leave. She did.

Gallion then called the Phelps County Sheriff’s Department, telling the deputy who arrived that Varney had been warned a year earlier that she’d be arrested if she came to city hall for anything except a meeting of the alderman.

Her arrival, Gallion told the deputy, interrupted a discussion of important city matters.

“Gallion requested that I arrest Varney for trespassing and I advised him I would not be arresting Varney,” Deputy Cody Manley wrote in the incident report on the call. “I explained due to the condition of the trespass warning and Varney asking if they were having a meeting I did not believe she was knowingly trespassing.”

Manley did tell Varney that the trespass warning now extended to board meetings. And on Nov. 11, 2019, Edgar Springs Police Chief Joey Hohner delivered a notice that Varney was not allowed at city hall for any reason.

It was another episode in Varney’s contentious relationship with the city where she grew up and returned after retirement.

The first trespass warning, banning Varney from city hall except for board meetings, was issued after she began investigating city revenues from traffic violations. She was ticketed in early 2018 for failure to stop at a stop sign.

She spearheaded a petition drive to get the Missouri Auditor’s Office to investigate the city’s operations, which ultimately resulted in findings of numerous deficiencies in financial administration and Sunshine Law violations

And now, with the help of David Roland and the Freedom Center of Missouri, she’s suing the city to lift the trespass warnings, affirm her right to view city records in person and attend city meetings.

It hasn’t made Varney the most popular person in this town of 200 east of Fort Leonard Wood. During the Nov. 10 board meeting, city officials had to make clear to the audience that the city must pay for the work done by State Auditor Nicole Galloway’s office.

It took some doing.

“I just don’t understand why it should be the people that live here, that didn’t request it, why they should have to pay for somebody that we all know has it in for the city,” a resident, who was not identified, said during the meeting, which was streamed through the city’s Facebook page.

Varney, who received 26 votes running against Gallion, out of the 78 cast, in April 2019, said she understands how some people feel about her.

“I was basically discredited as a crazy person who was mad because I got a stop ticket and wanted to ruin the city,” Varney said.

City officials contacted for this story declined to comment on the dispute with Varney because of the pending lawsuit. Brandi Baird, the town’s attorney, did not return a telephone message seeking comment.

Audit issues

The Edgar Springs City Hall and Police Department, where Rebecca Varney is forbidden from entering, on a recent afternoon. (Rudi Keller/Missouri Independent)

The first settlement in the place that came to be known as Edgar Springs occurred in 1859, according to the 1889 history of Laclede, Camden, Dallas, Webster, Wright, Texas, Pulaski, Phelps and Dent counties. The first post office in Edgar Springs opened in 1866 and the population peaked at just under 300 around 1980. 

Perhaps the most attention this small community on the southern edge of Phelps County ever received was after the 2000 census, when it was identified as the incorporated place closest to the mean population center of the United States.

The central part of town is a mix of tidy, well-kept buildings, including a brick one-story post office, alongside a few weathered wooden buildings facing Broadway, which was once U.S. 63.

The two main businesses are a recently built Dollar General store and a convenience store serving traffic on the highway that now goes around rather than through town.

City Hall is only open part-time, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays, and when something breaks, there’s a good likelihood that Mayor Terry Austin, who works as an outpatient therapist by day, or another board member, will be pitching in to help.

“We have one maintenance person, who is the  sewer operator and does city maintenance,” Austin told the Independent. “Any work done on a lift station is a two-man job, two or three of us together, because it is a bigger job than two of us can manage by themselves. Late at night, weekends, that is part of the job.”

Austin would not talk about the lawsuit or the city’s conflict with Varney. He was willing to discuss the audit, which will cost the city from $20,000 to $45,000.

Several new city officials were elected in 2019, when Austin won a seat as an alderman. He became mayor this year when Gallion resigned.

“We had new aldermen and a whole new mayor and we were never given a chance to fix things because they went ahead with the audit,” Austin said. “We were already on the way to correct the financial issues.”

The audit, which focused on 2019 but was not limited to matters occurring that year, found numerous problems with the way the city is run. Sunshine Law violations included discussing public topics in closed meetings, failure to track requests and failing to respond to requests when city hall closed March 18 and did not reopen until after Gallion resigned in June.

Financial issues Galloway found include failure to comply with state law governing budgets, failure to maintain accurate financial statements and failure to publish and deliver to her office financial statements in the time frame required by law.

The reports that are available give widely varying information and do not agree. The financial statement published in January 2020 indicated that city revenues were $64,105 for 2019 and expenses were $48,786. 

The report on traffic revenues – due June 30 and completed Sept. 23 – gave operating revenue as $157,168, with fines revenue under the cap at $25,425.

A financial statement created from bank statements for the audit showed receipts were $187,449, including $109,598 in general fund revenue and $15,216 from municipal court fines.

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In an interview, Galloway said Edgar Springs books were in bad shape but it was not the worst case she has come across. 

There was no fraud or missing funds discovered, she said.

“In the state auditor’s office we see mismanagement, fraud and abuse in governments of all sizes,” Galloway said. “We also find very well-run cities with appropriate segregation of duties and checks and balances in other small cities.”

All of the issues can be fixed, she said, and the city’s responses, indicating they would implement all the recommendations for better record-keeping, is a good first step.

“I certainly give the city credit for their responses in the audit report, the auditee’s response, saying yes, we are working to implement all of these recommendations to audit findings and I certainly give the city officials credit for that,” she said.

As a fourth-class city, Edgar Springs is governed by a four-member Board of Aldermen and a mayor. Two aldermen were elected in June by write-in because no candidates filed, with one winner elected with two votes.

The town’s main services to its residents are sewer service and police.

“I was disappointed it wasn’t able to say where the money went or if there was a disappearance,” Varney said of the audit. “The records are so horrible there is no way to even know where the money went.”

Galloway said even when records are missing, some trace of theft or fraud remains and none was found in Edgar Springs.

Austin said he was generally pleased with the audit because it identified problems but did not find money was missing. 

Varney, he said, “wanted to find, basically, somebody with their hand in the cookie jar.”

Varney v. Edgar Springs

Rebecca Varney stands next to a stop sign installed near her home in Edgar Springs. Varney, who successfully petitioned for an audit of her town, is suing the town over an order banning her from City Hall. (Rudi Keller/Missouri Independent)

In her lawsuit, Varney isn’t seeking a big payout from the city. 

Instead, Roland said, he’s petitioning the court for a declaratory judgment that it cannot permanently ban her from city hall, that she has the right to ask for and inspect records while city hall is open and that she was denied rights under the state and federal constitutions.

On Nov. 25, 2019, Roland wrote a letter to the city asking that it reverse course and noted that a Missouri law, passed more than a decade before the first version of the Sunshine Law, includes criminal penalties for denying a citizen access to public records.

The penalties include removal from office, a fine of up to $500 and up to 90 days in jail.

That law was passed in 1961 along with a section allowing the person inspecting records to photograph the documents. Inspecting and photographing documents can avoid costs associated with copying records allowed by the Sunshine Law.

Varney was photographing records in March 2018 when she was told to leave city hall and issued the first trespass notice.

Roland also demanded that Varney be allowed to attend a board meeting that evening.

“I believe the word would be recalcitrant,” Roland said of the city’s reaction. “They have dug in their heels.”

Nothing Varney has done would justify banning her from city hall, Roland said. If she was causing a disturbance or being disruptive of other business, he could understand a temporary order that she was trespassing. That has not been alleged, he said.

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“To the best of our knowledge, there is no issue of a threat,” he said.

The records Varney was reviewing in 2018 involved traffic tickets and how much the city was receiving from fines, especially for stop sign violations. She found that the city issued seven of those tickets in 2016, 37 in 2017 and 90 during 2018.

“That is an incredible amount of failure to stop tickets in a town of 200,” she said. “That earned my own stop sign at what had been a private drive.”

One of the issues laid bare by the 2014 unrest in Ferguson was how small cities used traffic fines as a revenue source to replace lost sales taxes or other funds.

Edgar Springs was one of the towns that fought against the 20 percent cap imposed in 2015.

Then-city Clerk Paula James, who made the complaints about Varney that led to her first trespass warning, told the Rolla Daily News at the time that the cap would be “destructive” and “horrible.“

The stop sign, which Varney views as the city being petty, is literally in her front yard, at the intersection of Broadway and the gravel stub of Spruce Street that adjoins her property.

Varney said she can tolerate the stop sign and hasn’t risked arrest by violating the trespass order. 

And she thinks the city is better run, thanks to the audit.

“Since doing this, it has never taken me more than two letters to do a Sunshine request,” she said.

Ticket revenue has dropped and her neighbors no longer complain about failure to stop tickets, she said.

And the financial statements are easier to read and understand, Varney said.

“I’m glad that tickets are down and I’m glad that some changes have come but it has been an awfully hard road and a lot of horrible things were said about me,” she said.

The city can still avoid a lot of cost fighting the lawsuit, she added.

If the city will drop the ban and pay Roland’s legal fees, she said, the lawsuit would be withdrawn.

“Let’s just fix it all up,” Varney said, “and let me back in or tell me what I’ve done.”

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Wentzville debuts updated website with new features and a Parks & Rec micro-site

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Late last week, Wentzville launched an updated website with a slightly new address — www.wentzvillemo.GOV. A .GOV domain name assures visitors that they are accessing an official government site. The .GOV change also provides an READ MORE

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SSM Health re-implements visitation restrictions at local care sites

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To promote the safety of our patients, employees and the community, SSM Health is once again suspending visitors throughout its care sites. The restrictions are necessary due to an increase in the spread of COVID-19 READ MORE

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St. Charles County COVID-19 update: 18,582 positive cases, 190 total deaths as of Nov. 19

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St. Charles County Government and the Department of Public Health staff are working closely with local, regional, state and federal partners to investigate COVID-19, monitor individuals who may have been exposed to the virus and READ MORE

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Woman sentenced in St. Louis federal court to 2 years for embezzling from glass company

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Susan E. Darrow, of O’Fallon, Missouri, embezzled more than $430,000 from her employer, according to her plea agreement.

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To prevent abuse at religious schools, Missouri lawmakers recommend new regulations

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In order to improve safety and understand the scope of unlicensed youth residential facilities throughout Missouri, lawmakers are recommending every facility be registered, background checks be required and that three substantiated reports of abuse and neglect result in children being removed.

Registration with the state would include a requirement that facilities conduct background checks on all owners, operators, employees and volunteers. A failure to do so would result in misdemeanor charges and administrative penalties, lawmakers recommended.

After three substantiated reports of abuse or neglect, a facility’s registration would be revoked and children removed from the facility.

The recommendations were included in a report from the House Committee on Children and Families released on Wednesday. They follow a hearing last week in which the Department of Social Services explained they have no oversight over some Christian reform schools — despite dozens of former students coming forward sharing allegations of abuse.

That’s because Missouri law allows for facilities operated by religious organizations to be exempt from licensure requirements.

“The committee concluded that there are numerous facilities in the state that have abused vulnerable children in their care, with no state oversight, for many years,” the report read.

The recommendations aim to close that gap by requiring all unlicensed facilities to be registered with the state and meet minimum health and safety requirements that other child care facilities are held to.

All of the committee’s members signed off on the report except for Rep. Dan Stacy, a Republican from Blue Springs.

The report follows The Kansas City Star’s investigations into Christian boarding schools that had substantiated reports of abuse, neglect and sexual abuse. The Star spoke with dozens of former students who recounted enduring emotional and physical abuse, being used as manual labor and ignored calls for help.

Rep. Sheila Solon, a Republican from St. Joseph and chair of the Children and Families committee, said Thursday that while lawmakers want to balance a parent’s right to place their children in religious facilities and protect religious freedom, steps like registration and background checks may help prevent abuse before it occurs. 

“We don’t want to become the state that attracts facilities that have basically been shut down in other states,” Solon said, later adding, “A lot of facilities that relocated in Missouri would have never been able to set up shop and continue to abuse children had we just had simple background checks.”

The Department of Social Services, or DSS, said during last week’s hearing that due to strict confidentiality laws the agency has no legal authority to notify other families when there has been a credible finding of abuse or neglect at a facility their child attends. A family may only learn about an investigation if their own child needs to be interviewed or if they submit a request in writing to be notified about previous investigations.

DSS said it would have to receive a list of students from the facility itself.

Thursday’s recommendations aim to address that by requiring that DSS maintain a report or website that the public can use to look up not just registered and licensed facilities — but also criminal complaints and substantiated reports of abuse and neglect found at them.

Solon said it was difficult to determine at what point a facility’s registration would be revoked, but based the recommendation on other states’ standards. Under the committee’s recommendations, children would be removed after a facility has received three substantiated reports of abuse and neglect.

“Three is too many,” Solon said. “But at this point, there is no trigger for shutting a facility down.”

Over the course of four hours last week, lawmakers heard testimony from advocates and representatives of unlicensed facilities and received written testimony from former students who had endured abuse. 

While some unlicensed facilities who testified expressed concern about overreach from the state, advocates said understanding the scope of facilities would be a first step toward preventing abuse in the future. They also spoke of the need for increased communication and cooperation between different entities investigating reports of abuse at the local level.

The proliferation of unlicensed facilities throughout Missouri is not new and has been an issue for decades. However, Solon said she was hopeful some of these recommendations will make it into law, citing support from both the governor’s office and House leadership.

The Kansas City Star reported earlier this week that Parson directed the attorney general’s office to assist local authorities in Cedar County with their investigation and possible prosecution of charges against the Circle of Hope Girls’ Ranch — where 25 girls were removed in a raid this past August.

“We all found this all alarming, disturbing, and it was something we were unaware of,” Solon said. “So I believe that the fact that we are now aware of it and can take some decisive action to protect these children is important.”

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Lawsuit: Tyson managers in Iowa bet money on how many workers would contract COVID-19

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A wrongful death lawsuit tied to COVID-19 infections in an Iowa pork processing plant alleges that during the initial stages the pandemic, Tyson Foods ordered employees to report for work while supervisors privately wagered money on the number of workers who would be sickened by the deadly virus.

Earlier this year, the family of the late Isidro Fernandez sued the meatpacking company, alleging Fernandez was exposed to the coronavirus at the Waterloo, Iowa, plant where he worked. The lawsuit alleges Tyson Foods is guilty of a “willful and wanton disregard for workplace safety.”

Fernandez, who died on April 20, was one of at least five plant employees who died of the virus. According to the local health department in Black Hawk County, more than 1,000 workers at the plant — over a third of the facility’s workforce — contracted the virus.

The lawsuit alleges that despite the uncontrolled spread of the virus at the plant, Tyson required its employees to work long hours in cramped conditions without providing the appropriate personal protective equipment and without ensuring workplace-safety measures were followed.

The lawsuit was recently amended and includes a number of new allegations against the company and plant officials. Among them:

  • In mid-April, around the time Black Hawk County Sherriff Tony Thompson visited the plant and reported the working conditions there “shook [him] to the core,” plant manager Tom Hart organized a cash-buy-in, winner-take-all, betting pool for supervisors and managers to wager how many plant employees would test positive for COVID-19.
  • John Casey, an upper-level manager at the plant, is alleged to have explicitly directed supervisors to ignore symptoms of COVID-19, telling them to show up to work even if they were exhibiting symptoms of the virus. Casey reportedly referred to COVID-19 as the “glorified flu” and told workers not to worry about it because “it’s not a big deal” and “everyone is going to get it.” On one occasion, Casey intercepted a sick supervisor who was on his way to be tested and ordered him to get back to work, saying, “We all have symptoms — you have a job to do.” After one employee vomited on the production line, managers reportedly allowed the man to continue working and then return to work the next day.
  • In late March or early April, as the pandemic spread across Iowa, managers at the Waterloo plant reportedly began avoiding the plant floor for fear of contracting the virus. As a result, they increasingly delegated managerial authority and responsibilities to low-level supervisors who had no management training or experience. The supervisors did not require truck drivers and subcontractors to have their temperatures checked before entering the plant.
  • In March and April, plant supervisors falsely denied the existence of any confirmed cases or positive tests for COVID-19 within the plant, and allegedly told workers they had a responsibility to keep working to ensure Americans didn’t go hungry as the result of a shutdown.
  • Tyson paid out $500 “thank you bonuses” to employees who turned up for every scheduled shift for three months — a policy decision that allegedly incentivized sick workers to continue reporting for work.
  • Tyson executives allegedly lobbied Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds for COVID-19 liability protections that would shield the company from lawsuits, and successfully lobbied the governor to declare that only the state government, not local governments, had the authority to close businesses in response to the pandemic.

Tyson has yet to file a response to the new allegations, and did not respond to a call seeking comment. In previous court filings, Tyson said it “vigorously disputes” the plaintiffs’ claims in this case, adding that it has “worked from the very beginning of the pandemic to follow federal workplace guidelines and has invested millions of dollars to provide employees with safety and risk-mitigation equipment.”

The lawsuit claims that while Tyson has repeatedly claimed that its operations needed to remain open to feed America, the company increased its exports to China by 600 percent during the first quarter of 2020.

The lawsuit is seeking unspecified damages for fraudulent misrepresentation and gross negligence.

The case was initially filed in state court, claiming violations of Iowa law. At Tyson’s request, the case was moved to federal court, with the company claiming it had remained open during the pandemic “at the direction of a federal officer” — President Donald Trump, who, on April 28, invoked his authority under the Defense Production Act and ordered meat and poultry processing companies to continue operating.

The nonprofit organization Public Citizen has filed an amicus brief in the case, supporting the Fernandez family’s efforts to remand the action back to state court. In its brief, Public Citizen has said that neither the Defense Production Act nor the executive order signed by President Trump had “directed” Tyson to do anything.

The Waterloo facility is Tyson’s largest pork plant in the United States. The facility employs approximately 2,800 workers who process approximately 19,500 hogs per day.

Tyson Foods has several facilities in Missouri. In June, the company reported that 371 employees at its chicken processing plant in the far southwestern corner of Missouri had tested positive for COVID-19.

The company said at the time that it had put protective measures in place at all of its facilities, including symptom screenings for all employees before every shift, providing mandatory protective face masks to all team members and installing physical barriers between workstations and in breakrooms.

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Utilities offer help to Missourians behind on bills. Will that mean rates will increase?

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Almost half a million customers of Missouri’s regulated utilities were behind on their bills in September, and 185,000 were working on payment plans to catch up with past-due accounts.

That data, from a report published in October by the Missouri Public Service Commission, isn’t complete enough to know if there are more customers now than last year at this time behind on their payments. But it does show the number of customers on payment plans is 81 percent higher than September 2019.

As Missourians struggle during the COVID-19 pandemic, utilities have implemented programs to help customers who have fallen behind on bills. But the costs associated with those measures may eventually mean higher gas, water and electric bills for all of their customers.

Many people fell behind in the spring as businesses closed their doors for local and state stay-at-home orders. About 200,000 people lost jobs as the state unemployment rate went from 3.5 percent in February to 10.2 percent in April.

To help, most utilities, whether regulated by the PSC or not, placed moratoriums on payment and waived fees for late payments.

“It was evidenced during the voluntary moratorium we imposed that customers elected not to pay their electric bill if they knew they could put off paying, despite additional payment plans we have put in place and other assistance available to help them pay off balances while they were smaller,” Evergy Metro Inc., an electric supplier to about 600,000 customers in western Missouri, wrote in a response to the PSC order directing utilities to report on COVID-19 costs.

All of Missouri’s large regulated utilities have either received or are seeking state approval to bundle extra costs related to COVID-19 for future rate cases. For Ameren Missouri, that cost has been $9 million through Sept. 30, Warren Wood, the company’s vice president of regulatory and legislative affairs, wrote in an email.

Most of the other utilities seeking an order allowing them to track their costs have not reported total amounts, and it is impossible to calculate whether that will eventually mean higher utility bills.

“If our requests are approved by the Missouri PSC, the recovery and timing of recovery of these costs would be determined as part of the next electric and gas rate reviews,” Wood wrote.

Many of the utility cases are pending. The two that have been approved so far, for Spire’s natural gas customers and Missouri American Water Company customers, include company help to bring accounts current.

Last week, the commission heard arguments over the plan submitted by Evergy, formerly Kansas City Power and Light.

Evergy, with the support of PSC staff analysts and a coalition of other groups, wants an order similar to those issued for Spire and Missouri American Water allowing it to track the costs for future rate cases.

Attorney James Fischer said during the hearing Thursday that Evergy thought of its customers and their challenges early on in the pandemic.

“Evergy was one of the first to announce a voluntary moratorium on bills,” Fischer said, “waiving all charges, fees and deposits associated with non payment or late payment.”

The Office of Public Counsel, which by law represents consumer interests before the commission, opposes Evergy’s plan.

Caleb Hall, an attorney for the Office of Public Counsel, noted that Spire — which provides gas to about 1.2 million customers — is providing a $100 credit against bills and matching $300 of additional payments against past charges for those who sign payment agreements. Missouri American Water, which has about 470,000 water customers and 15,000 sewer customers, is increasing the fund it uses to assist customers by $250,000.

Evergy, Hall argued, isn’t offering anything new.

“Evergy’s position is that it should be able to insulate its books through deferral accounting and that it has done enough for customers this past summer and so everything is fine for the customers,” Hall said.

Utility regulation

Missourians receive their utility services from three types of providers – public utilities like municipal power companies or water districts, electric cooperatives, and investor-owned utilities.

The PSC only has power over the investor-owned utilities, determining what should and should not be included in the costs that become the basis of rates and the company’s profit. There are four investor-owned electric providers with two million customers and five gas companies with 1.4 million customers.

As part of its process, the commission has developed a language of its own that can be daunting to the uninitiated. The costs for COVID-19, in the orders issued so far, refer to it as a “regulatory asset.”

A regulatory asset is the mechanism used to identify extraordinary costs that are not anticipated in the normal course of business. A record ice storm or a tornado would be examples, said Mark Oligschlaeger, director of the commission’s financial and business analysis division.

“In other words, very unusual, unique, not something that happens to the utility every day, every year or even every decade,” Oligschlaeger said.

The costs included in the regulatory assets that were approved for Spire and Missouri American include new or extra costs for maintenance or protecting employees and customers, as well as capped amounts of bad debt and lost revenues due to waived late fees, reconnection and disconnection charges.

For each company, the regulatory asset will be an issue in its next rate case, including the one currently underway for Missouri American. That is when the commission will consider if the costs can be recovered, how, and which customers will see a change in their rates.

“The example that we use is, there’s a pot of money or a pie, and so that the regulatory asset would be included in that entire pie,” said Natelle Dietrich, director of commission’s industry analysis division. “And then during the design phase of a rate case, the commission would determine how to allocate it among the different parties. So depending on all of the factors in the rate case, it could be allocated to different customer groups in different amounts.”

That is, Oligschlaeger said, if it is included at all.

“There may be allegations that the company didn’t spend the money in question prudently, they made improvident decisions, and so on,” Oligschlaeger said. “So there’s absolutely no guarantee that any regulatory asset will ultimately get rate recovery.”

Public Counsel Marc Poston said his office in the past has fought the use of this accounting method.

“We have made arguments that say this is essentially single issue ratemaking, generally with offsetting savings that is not being accounted for,” Poston said.

Those arguments have not been accepted by the courts, he said.

In the Spire case, Poston said the public counsel dropped its opposition after the company offered the customer support program.

“We were pleased to see the company agree to those terms,” he said. 

Spire will be filing a rate case with the commission in December, Raegan Johnson, public communications manager for Spire, wrote in an email.

“Even with those costs recovered,” she wrote, “we expect customer bills to be lower than they were in 2005.”

Keeping up

The best way for someone struggling to keep utilities connected going into winter is to contact their water, power or gas provider to work out a payment plan or access programs for support.

For those who qualify, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program provides up to $800 to pay winter bills and $600 to pay summer bills. 

Evergy started contacting people in June to tell them about its program to provide up to $100 credit on bills for customers who bring their accounts current within four months, said Gina Penzig, spokeswoman for the utility.

Customers who cannot afford large payments are given 12 months to cover the balance due, she said.

“The sooner those lines of communication are open, we may be more effectively able to point them to community resources or craft a payment plan,” she said. “That communication is key, especially in something like the pandemic where you have people who are struggling with their bills for the first time, that can be challenging and difficult to make that first phone call.”

Most utilities have eased the terms of their payment programs during the pandemic, Poston said, so the large increase in the number of customers using those programs was expected.

He agreed that customers should communicate with their utilities when they are having trouble keeping up with bills.

“That is one way we could help keep bad debts from going up,” Poston said. “To my knowledge, there is still money available for customers who qualify for it.”

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Sale of Christmas wreaths decorated by Cuivre River employees to benefit Youth in Need

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Christmas wreaths decorated by employees at Cuivre River Electric Cooperative will be on display and offered for purchase starting on Monday, November 23 through Monday, December 23. The available wreaths will be on display at READ MORE

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St. Charles County COVID-19 update: 18,210 positive cases, 187 deaths as of Nov. 18

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St. Charles County Government and the Department of Public Health staff are working closely with local, regional, state and federal partners to investigate COVID-19, monitor individuals who may have been exposed to the virus and READ MORE

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Christmas Candlelight Walks and Hays House Holiday Tours canceled due to COVID

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To ensure the safety of all during the COVID-19 pandemic, the St. Charles County Parks and Recreation Department has announced the cancellation of the 2020 Christmas Candlelight Walks at The Historic Daniel Boone Home and READ MORE

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Questions about road construction or potholes? Read the Road Crew chat

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Ask the experts from the Missouri Department of Transportation, St. Louis and St. Charles counties and St. Louis City your questions about highways and roads. The live chat starts at 1 p.m. on Wednesday.

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Christmas Candlelight Walks and Hays House Holiday Tours Canceled Due To COVID

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To ensure the safety of all during the COVID-19 pandemic, the St. Charles County Parks and Recreation Department has announced the cancellation of the 2020 Christmas Candlelight Walks at The Historic Daniel Boone Home and holiday tours at The Daniel Boone

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Missouri Republicans hope to shield businesses from COVID lawsuits

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Missouri businesses are pushing for sweeping legislation that aims to shield them from lawsuits alleging COVID-19 was contracted on their premises.

Under the bill proposed by Sen. Ed Emery, R-Lamar, healthcare providers and businesses would be protected not just from litigation stemming from the pandemic — but also under declared states of emergency in the future.

Sen. Ed Emery, R-Lamar

The idea, which has been a top priority of Gov. Mike Parson and has the public support of hundreds of businesses, has been floated since the spring. While previous attempts to pass COVID-19 liability protections failed, Parson expanded the special session’s call last week to include liability protections at the request of legislators.

“None of these groups should be penalized for their efforts to respond to a declared state of emergency,” Parson said Thursday. “They must be able to continue operating and serving the public without risk of unnecessary and senseless claims.”

But critics argue it will provide protection to businesses who flout the rules — and will leave customers and employees with little means of recourse to hold them accountable.

Brett Emison, the immediate past president of the Missouri Association of Trial Attorneys, said the bill would infringe on Missourians’ 7th Amendment rights to a trial by jury.

“Immunity only has one purpose,” Emison said, “and that is to protect wrongdoers from accountability for their actions.”

The GOP is determined to push the bill forward. But when is still up in the air, after an outbreak of COVID-19 among Senate Republicans and staff resulted in the postponement of the special session until after the Thanksgiving holiday at the earliest.

Scope of the problem

It’s unclear how many businesses in Missouri have already faced the type of lawsuits Emery’s bill aims to prevent.

The Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a major backer of the legislation, has said that since March more than 1,000 COVID-19 lawsuits have been filed nationwide.

According to the law firm Hunton Andrews Kurth’s “COVID-19 Complaint Tracker,” Missouri has seen about 90 COVID-19 related complaints. Nearly half have been insurance-related claims, like coverage for small businesses, or civil rights cases, like a house of worship challenging regulations, Emison said.

“This is a solution in search of a problem,” he said.

Brad Jones, the Missouri state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, or NFIB, said that while there haven’t been many cases filed in Missouri yet, he believes there will be — and that small businesses may be a target.

“I think for 2021, you’re looking at the possibility of some of those companies getting sued,” Jones said.

It’s a concern for businesses, too. A recent NFIB survey of its Missouri members found 69 percent of small business owners are moderately or very concerned about increased liability and 65 percent are similarly concerned about getting customers back.

Other states have passed similar legislation, and while some are wide-ranging, others have limited their scope.

In Nevada, liability protections don’t extend to schools, hospitals and other health services. In North Carolina, protections are limited to “essential” businesses.

Emery’s bill would provide protection to a large swath of businesses, from healthcare providers to property owners to a person who “designs, manufactures, labels, sells, distributes, or donates” a product in response to an emergency.

And it leaves those seeking to file lawsuits with a high standard to meet. For example, to be successful in a claim over a product, a plaintiff would have to prove that there was an intent to harm, “a deliberate and flagrant” disregard for safety or knowledge that the product was defective and that it could cause injury.

Emery said higher standards are necessary to prevent frivolous and costly lawsuits from being filed in the first place.

“It’s not really lawsuits that are lost that are frightening to business. It’s class action lawsuits that are settled,” Emery said. “So many times for a business, they can’t afford to fight a lawsuit, particularly a class action suit, and so they just go bankrupt or close their doors or suffer the losses.”

Unintended consequences

Senate Minority Leader John Rizzo, D-Independence, cautioned against creating a policy that provides “blanket immunity forever for bad actors.”

Sen. John Rizzo, D-Independence

When the legislature allowed for expanded early voting options amid the pandemic, Rizzo noted, lawmakers were clear to limit the provisions to only the August and November elections and to specifically name the virus itself.

Emery’s proposed bill would extend to future emergencies, not just the pandemic, and would use the definition of an “emergency” that allows it to be declared by either the governor or the legislature.

Emison warned of unintended consequences that he said would arise from such broad protections. What’s more, the widespread nature of the virus already makes it difficult to determine exactly where someone may have contracted it. And even then, under existing law a breach of responsibility would have to be proven — which Emison said shouldn’t be a concern for businesses who are following safety guidelines.

Emery said it can go both ways.

“It may be virtually impossible to prove that I got COVID at Walmart, but it’s also virtually impossible to prove that I didn’t,” Emery said. “And those are expensive fights to have.”

Among the businesses that have signed on in support of the Chamber’s letter to Parson are some of the state’s largest hospital systems on the frontlines, like BJC HealthCare, Mercy, SSM Health and St. Luke’s Health System.

The bill explicitly notes that healthcare providers would not be liable for civil damages or administrative sanctions for failure in the delivery or “nondelivery of health care necessitated by the emergency.”

Dan Mehan, president of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said that “nondelivery” of care could translate to the cancellation of elective surgeries or other delays due to the pandemic. Hospitals across the state have recently canceled elective procedures as they warn they are in danger of being overwhelmed.

Emison noted a section of Missouri’s statutes already provides basic protections to healthcare providers in an emergency, but Mehan said the pandemic has brought forward many lessons, including that “it’s always prudent to evaluate existing law and see where you can make it clear and easy to interpret, if changes are necessary.”

Rep. Mark Ellebracht, D-Liberty

Rep. Mark Ellebracht, a Democrat from Liberty and attorney, said the sweeping nature of the bill may only serve to provide fuel for lawsuits challenging the language. While it could potentially prevent verdicts, he said it won’t save money when it comes to fighting litigation.

“They’re not protecting themselves from having lawsuits,” Ellebracht said. “They’re opening themselves up to new lawsuits to litigate what this language means.”

Emery said he’s hopeful the comprehensive nature of the bill stays intact. Too much definition, like what constitutes “substantial compliance” or “reasonably consistent” with health orders, “gives either favor to one side or too much protection to the other,” he said.

But he anticipates significant changes as the bill’s provisions are debated — much of which won’t happen until after Thanksgiving depending on lawmakers’ availability.

While it remains to be seen if the legislation is passed amid the special session or taken up again come January, Parson said Thursday that COVID-19 lawsuits are “the last thing we need right now.”

The Independent’s Rudi Keller contributed to this story.

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Older adults in Kansas City facing increased anxiety, depression during the pandemic

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Before Vickie Smith’s husband died in 2017, the couple frequented the Don Bosco Senior Center in the Columbus Park neighborhood almost daily to play pool and dance. After he passed away, Smith continued going. 

But with the center closed due to the pandemic, Smith, age 70, misses her friends. A breast cancer survivor, she’s been dealing with a variety of medical issues during the pandemic, including pain and exhaustion. Now, many of her doctor appointments are over the phone instead of in person.

“With the pandemic, I can’t get out to keep myself active like before. So it’s harder to fight,” Smith said. “You can’t really socialize like we did. And all of the social distancing when you do get out. It’s made a big difference, and I have some times when I’m kind of sad.”

For many seniors in Kansas City, everyday social interactions have been disrupted for eight months. Even before the pandemic, many felt isolated, said Barbara French, a retired psychiatric nurse who volunteers at the Don Bosco Senior Center. But now, the issue is exacerbated.

“What we are dealing with, with COVID, is uncharted territory,” French said. “No one knows how long this is going to go on, what are going to be the consequences of it. The fear of if I get it, am I going to die alone?”

Barbara French sits at the Don Bosco Senior Center in the Columbus Park neighborhood. French is a retired psychiatric nurse who volunteers at the center (Chase Castor/The Beacon).

Kadie Harry, psychologist at St. Luke’s Health System, said loneliness was already an important public health concern in older adults. Since the pandemic began, she’s noticed an increase in loneliness and symptoms of depression in her patients.

“I’ve seen higher reports of this because of the demands of being physically distant, where they would have been out of the house more spending time with family or friends, or maybe even church settings or volunteer activities,” Harry said.

A Kaiser Foundation Family study in August found that one in four adults over the age of 65 reported experiencing depression or anxiety during the pandemic.

Harry said she has also seen an increase of complicated grief in her older adult patients since many who have lost loved ones had been unable to visit them before they died or attend their funerals.

Smith lost contact with one of her friends, who had been diagnosed with brain and kidney cancer, three months ago. She tried to call, and neither of her friend’s phone numbers was active anymore

“I don’t know what happened to her, and that really bothers me,” Smith said. “There’s no closure.”

The menu remains unchanged from the last day the center could host guests for a meal (Chase Castor/The Beacon)

To stave off loneliness, it’s important for people to feel loved and connected from a safe distance, Harry said. Older adults can write letters, call or use video conferencing to stay in touch with family and friends. They also can start new projects or take up old hobbies, she said.

Finding help in Kansas City

A variety of organizations that serve older adults — senior centers, day centers, independent living homes and nursing homes — are working to make sure their clients still feel connected.

But they all face a different set of challenges.

Ed Matheny, an independent living resident at Bishop Spencer Place, near the Country Club Plaza, would usually be at one of his children’s homes for Thanksgiving. This year, he and his wife will be staying home.

“There is no substitute, and I miss that,” he said. “I can be in touch with them, but it’s not the equivalent of a hug.”

At Bishop Spencer Place, which has both assisted living and independent living, the biggest changes for residents have been visitation limits and the lack of family interaction.

“We have a lot of activities, but families are usually very involved and do a lot behind the scenes,”  said Mendi Hanna, director of sales for Bishop Spencer Place.

Staff has been helping residents connect to their family members virtually and checking in more with higher risk residents.

Since residents are less able to leave their rooms to exercise, Bishop Spencer Place has brought in physical therapists to visit them in their rooms. The dining staff has also been bringing meals to residents in their rooms, along with special food deliveries like chocolate chip cookies or red wine. Bishop Spencer Place has been organizing different activities that residents can all participate in without being together, like having theme days or showing movies on closed-circuit TV.

“Everybody is tired,” Hanna said. “It’s the little things.”

Staying connected while living alone 

When people are referred to the Midland Care Program of All-inclusive Care for the Elderly in Wyandotte County, one of the top five chronic conditions they have is a mood disorder.

“Most have a history of depression, but now also that is coupled with situational depression, kind of like what all of us are facing where our routines have changed,” said Jancy Stroud-Bush, a social worker at Midland Care.

PACE is a health care program that helps those who are at risk of needing a nursing home but who meet the criteria to stay in their own homes. It provides both medical and social services.

Since its day center closed, Midland Care has instead focused on low-risk services, such as Meals on Wheels, to provide social contact for the adults age 55 and over they serve. It also delivers medications and hygiene products, and staff do drive-by visits or visits through windows.

The Don Bosco Senior Center hosts a weekly Harvesters food pick up in their parking lot. Cars were lined up around the center and down an adjacent road (Chase Castor/The Beacon)

Every participant also has a social worker who meets with them at least once a month. The center has made a push to deliver services virtually, but Stroud-Bush says that Midland Care has had to deal with access and learning curve issues.

“In Kansas City, Kansas, due to poverty and oppression, a lot of folks are doing well to just have a phone, and not necessarily a smartphone,” she said. “Using things virtually and remotely is difficult for people who are low-income.”

Midland Care received grants to buy GrandPads, tablets designed for older adults. However, at its Kansas City site, there are 60 participants in the program and only five Grandpads.

When virtual services aren’t an option

For some people, like the older adults in the urban core whom the Don Bosco Senior Center serves, connecting with others virtually isn’t an option. Many have difficulty with hearing, vision or mobility that can make it difficult to interact over the phone, as well. And about a third are limited English speakers, said Anne Miller, director at the Don Bosco Senior Center.

Many of those the center serves might not have family members in the area and face transportation barriers during the pandemic.

The center makes 370 Meals on Wheels deliveries every day, with well-known staff who are paid instead of volunteers. Staff also may deliver other products, from Depends to cat food, and check in with the seniors. Staff can also send handymen to come fix a client’s door or money to help someone pay a phone bill or prescription. Lately, they’ve been delivering fun items like word searches and Cracker Jacks that remind people that someone cares about them.

The Don Bosco Senior Center’s workout area serves more as a storage area since the center closed to guests because of the pandemic (Chase Castor/The Beacon)

Every Wednesday, French goes to the center and calls seniors who may have mental health issues. She says it is harder to assess people over the phone because they are more likely to lie and she is unable to see if they are getting dressed or bathing.

French said it is also harder to refer people to mental health services or support groups during the pandemic because they are inaccessible either because they are virtual, or because transportation can be a barrier. People who are social distancing are unable to take public transportation or carpool with family or friends, which were likely their main modes of transportation before.

Staff have continued to meet with clients who need help outside but have now also set up rooms where they can talk safely and socially distanced with plexiglass during the winter.

The center plans to have more volunteers come in to make wellness check calls from its phones in the winter months. Many of the seniors won’t answer calls from numbers they don’t recognize, and calling from the center helps to protect their client’s privacy. The center also is partnering with agencies that provide holiday meals to homebound seniors.

“There are a lot of challenges to aging: the physical issues, the psychological issues and emotional issues,” French said.

“If you add on the isolation, it’s like there are so many more stressors to just get through day-to-day life.”

The Beacon is an online news outlet based in Kansas City focused on local, in-depth journalism in the public interest.

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St. Charles County COVID-19 update: 17,809 positive cases, 182 deaths as of Nov. 17

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St. Charles County Government and the Department of Public Health staff are working closely with local, regional, state and federal partners to investigate COVID-19, monitor individuals who may have been exposed to the virus and READ MORE

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St. Charles County Executive urges residents to change behaviors immediately to stop COVID spread

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With the number of positive COVID-19 cases rising drastically in the county, St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann is sending a stern message to residents: Change your behaviors immediately to stop the spread. “Our county READ MORE

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St. Charles County Executive Urges Residents to Change Behaviors Immediately to Stop COVID Spread

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With the number of positive COVID-19 cases rising drastically in the county, St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann is sending a stern message to residents: Change your behaviors immediately to stop the spread.

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Questions about road construction or potholes? Ask the Road Crew, 1 p.m. Wednesday

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Ask the experts from the Missouri Department of Transportation, St. Louis and St. Charles counties and St. Louis City your questions about highways and roads. The live chat starts at 1 p.m. on Wednesday.

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Celebrate Holiday Happenings Safely in St. Charles County Parks

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‘Tis the season to visit a St. Charles County Park for an extra dose of holiday cheer and family-friendly fun! With safety guidelines in place, including wearing masks inside all County buildings, and social distancing required, the St. Charles County

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As Missouri COVID cases surge, what does it mean to be ‘safe’ in the pandemic?

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Cat O’Toole says she did everything right to protect herself and others from COVID-19. 

“I am strict about mask wearing,” said O’Toole, who works as a server at a high-end restaurant in St. Louis. “I am constantly using hand sanitizer and thoroughly washing my hands, especially after talking with a guest or walking up to anyone’s table.”

The restaurant she works at has extensive protocols in place. They installed four medical-grade air filters and leave the doors open for airflow when the weather permits. They have contactless payments and mandatory masks for all employees and patrons when they are not seated. 

The restaurant’s large patio and multiple dining rooms all have distanced seating. 

At home, O’Toole gets her groceries delivered and doesn’t personally dine out. She keeps distance from others as much as possible.

Despite all this, O’Toole caught the virus. 

So far she’s lucky and is only suffering from fever and a loss of smell. But the experience has left her shaken and convinced it’s no longer safe to dine out.

“The unfortunate fact of the matter is that no matter what precautions I take, my job still exposes me to unmasked people everyday,” O’Toole said. “I hope that people will understand that no matter how careful you are, you can get this virus, even if you always wear a mask.”

Missouri, like much of the Midwest, is seeing a surge in COVID-19 cases that threatens to overwhelm hospitals. With no statewide restrictions in place, local governments across Missouri have begun clamping down once again in a desperate attempt to slow down the virus’ spread

That includes St. Louis County, where O’Toole estimates that she sees upwards of 650 guests a week during five shifts at the restaurant.

“When you think about a restaurant, even with good ventilation, you are still talking about a number of people with their masks down, eating and talking and breathing out,” said Spring Schmidt, acting co-director for the St. Louis County Department of Public Health.

The county has issued an order temporarily banning all indoor dining. 

“The longer you’re in there,” Schmidt said of restaurants, “the more you’re exposed to it.”

It creates a cloud of “aerosolized respiratory droplets” that builds up in interior rooms, which servers like O’Toole have to walk through all day, Schmidt said.

Lowering our risk

What it means to be “safe” during the pandemic is changing with the increased amount of community spread, health experts say.

“We all have done thousands of things in the last couple months where we encountered somebody, and we didn’t get to COVID,” said Schmidt. “But the more COVID there is in the community, the narrower your chances get that your next interaction won’t be with someone who can pass COVID.”

With the surge in COVID-19 cases statewide, people have to make a distinction between what it means to lower their risk and what it means be safe. 

“It lowers your risk to wear a mask,” she said. “It lowers your risk to eat outside. It lowers your risk to go out to eat and have a smaller group or to sit six feet away. But it doesn’t eliminate it. And that’s the key piece.”

The Independent spoke with several people who considered themselves hypervigilant, yet still caught the virus.

These are situations that many would have considered to be safe even a month ago — a bank manager having a breakfast meeting outside, an occupational therapist who wears the right protection every day, and a pregnant woman who went to the hospital thinking she was in labor.

“We’re headed for holidays,” Schmidt said. “And they matter to us the most when we’re traumatized and hurting and have been through a really rough year.”

But she, like many leaders across the country, is asking people to rethink their holiday plans and not gather for Thanksgiving.

“These are the people that I care about the most,” Schmidt said. “Caring about them the most means that I need to protect them.”

Breakfast meeting
Tracy Verner (far right, standing), talks with her children at their home in St. Louis. They will spend Thanksgiving at home with just immediate family. (photo submitted)

Tracy Verner is the community development manager at Alltru Credit Union in St. Louis. Throughout the summer, she had her business meetings outside at a nearby coffee shop, believing that it was the safest way to meet rather than indoors. 

In October, she met with two bank colleagues and two business partners who don’t work at the bank. 

They all wore masks to greet, get their coffee and order food. But after their food arrived, they took off their masks to eat and talk for about an hour. They sat around a rectangular table.

Verner and her colleagues ended up testing positive. The two business partners, who sat at the other end of a rectangle table, did not. Later they learned that a colleague who they believe was sick but asymptomatic had a family member who was feeling ill that day.

“If anyone in your house doesn’t feel well, stay home,” Verner said.

Her case was thankfully mild, with only body aches and a low-grade fever for about a week. Her own daughter had the virus in the summer, but no one else in the house caught it because she isolated quickly.

“In our new normal,” she said, “we have to measure our risk carefully. Maintain your distance and don’t remove your masks.”

Hospital visit for pregnant mom

A mother who gave birth to her third child on Thursday morning spoke with The Independent about her positive COVID-19 test. She asked that she not be identified by name. 

Her positive test came just nine days before her child was born on Nov. 2.

She and her husband considered themselves hypervigilant because she didn’t want to get sick and complicate her birth or pregnancy. 

However at the end of October, she had a false alarm and went to the hospital thinking she was in labor. She and her husband were there for three hours in the early morning, and that’s their best guess for where they caught it.

Her husband tested positive two days before her, and he had eaten in the hospital cafeteria.

“He sat down to eat a snack and I stayed standing,” she said. “It was 2 a.m., so no one was there.”

Outside of the hospital, they had been to the grocery store and their child’s daycare. But the day care center has not had any cases since February. The timing was about four days after they went to the hospital.  

When she began feeling sick, she got tested. Finding out she had the virus left her terrified that her baby could contract it from her.

“Luckily after talking to several people at Mercy,” she said, “newborns born to COVID-positive moms haven’t had it.” 

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‘Time, odds and luck’

An occupational therapist who spoke with The Independent said though he takes every precaution he’s not surprised he caught the virus. 

“My work has done a pretty good job, but we’ve had cases at work,” he said. “I’m careful but with the risk it’s just a matter of time, odds and luck.”

He wears a mask at all times and he’s screened every day before work.

If he works with anyone returning from a hospital appointment, he wears an N95 mask, face shield and gloves. If he goes into an area with suspected COVID or confirmed case, he wears an N95, face shield, gown, gloves, and foot covers. 

“Most people have a choice over their personal risks, but those of us in healthcare don’t,” he said. “If the general public isn’t careful, those of us working in healthcare will get sick. It’s more a matter of when than if.” 

Outside of work, he hasn’t attended any gatherings recently. He only gets carry out from restaurants. When he goes grocery shopping, he wears a mask and wipes everything down. He even changes clothes when he gets home. 

“I’m more careful than most people because this is likely to be deadly to my clients,” he said. “Thankfully, because of testing and awareness at my work, it doesn’t look like I passed it to anyone.”

His symptoms started on Oct. 31, and his wife began feeling ill on Nov. 2. Because the virus doesn’t affect people equally, he said it’s impossible to know who was actually sick first. 

Too much attention is paid toward the death rate, he said, and not enough attention is directed toward the damage to various organs.

“I feel lucky that it looks like I had a mild case,” he said, “but I’m knowledgeable enough to know that this thing might not be done with me.”

Schmidt said St. Louis County, like the rest of the state, is seeing many more cases coming from health care workers because they are exposed to more COVID-positive patients.

“Now that they’re seeing so many cases and our hospitals are at the verge of being overwhelmed,” she said, “they’re going through heartbreak to heartbreak and continuing to risk their own health day after day to be there to help someone else.”

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A record number of women will serve in the 117th Congress, including at least 51 women of color

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Women will gain at least 14 seats in the 117th Congress, setting a new record for female representation.

In 2018, the nation elected 127 women – and 48 women of color – to the House and Senate. Next Jan. 3, at least 141 women, including 51 women of color will be sworn in. Eight races involving women had yet to be called as of Nov. 16, meaning this number could still grow.

Women will be at least 27% of the House and 24% of the Senate. The Senate numbers do not include Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, or Kelly Loeffler, a Georgia Republican involved in a runoff that will take place after Congress is sworn in. Women make up 50.52% of the U.S. population.

A strong showing by Republican women helped drive this trend, with at least 36 serving in the next Congress, compared to 22 currently.

Throughout my 20-plus year career as a political science professor, I’ve studied women’s representation in mayoral, congressional, gubernatorial and presidential elections.

Here’s my look at the female demographics of Congress following the 2020 elections.

In it to win it

It is often said that “When women run, women win,” and 2020 also saw record numbers of women running in congressional elections.

In total, 643 women were candidates in congressional primary elections, including a record number of Asian or Pacific Islander, Latina, Middle Eastern or North African and Native American women.

Black women also set a new record in 2020 with 117 entering primaries for the House and 13 for the U.S. Senate, according to the Center for American Women and Politics.

Holding onto gains

Many of the women first elected to Congress in 2018 retained their seats.

All four members of “the Squad” were reelected. These women – Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib – are Democratic women of color known for their progressive policies, including the Green New Deal.

Also re-elected were women first elected in 2018 like Illinois Democrat Lauren Underwood, winner in a predominantly white Republican district; Jahana Hayes, the first Black woman to represent Connecticut; and Georgia’s Lucy McBath, Democratic winner in a district that had been held by Republicans for almost four decades.
These re-elections prove that their victories in 2018’s “pink wave” weren’t a fluke and that they have real staying power in Congress.

In some 2020 congressional races, African American women ran against each other – a sign of their strong participation. For example, Florida’s Val Demings, Florida’s Frederica Wilson and Georgia’s Nikema Williams – who will succeed the late civil rights icon John Lewis – won their congressional races after defeating other Black women.

Notable newcomers

The freshman class in the House of Representatives will include at least 26 women serving their first term.

Cori Bush, a Black Lives Matter activist, became Missouri’s first Black congresswoman. She represents a district that includes the cities of St. Louis and Ferguson, the site of the police killing of African American teenager Michael Brown in 2014. Ferguson also elected its first Black and first female mayor this year.

Bush defeated African American U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay. Clay and his father represented the district for over 50 years.

Other women of color joining the House for the first time include former Telemundo journalist Maria Elvira Salazar, a Republican who unseated Donna Shalala in Florida, and attorney Teresa Leger Fernandez, a Democrat from New Mexico.

Marilyn Strickland, the former mayor of Tacoma, Washington, will be the first Korean American woman elected to Congress and the first Black representative from Washington State.

Some underdogs didn’t make it

So who lost?

Arkansas’ Joyce Elliott, a former teacher and veteran state legislator, came up short in her bid to become the first African American congressional member from Arkansas.

Florida’s Pam Keith, a military veteran and attorney, lost by a wide margin to her Republican opponent.

Patricia Timmons-Goodson, the first African American member of the North Carolina Supreme Court whose federal judicial nomination by Barack Obama was blocked by Republicans, failed to win a seat in Congress.

Also coming up short was Tennessee’s Marquita Bradshaw, a single mother and environmental activist who would have been Tennessee’s first Black female congressional member if she had won.

California’s Tamika Hamilton, Georgia’s Vivian Childs, Maryland’s Kimberly Klacik and Ohio’s Lavern Gore are all Republicans who ran in mostly urban Democratic districts, but none won on election night. All Black female congresswomen – with the exception of Utah’s Mia Love, who served two terms in the House – have been Democrats, suggesting that the path to victory is especially steep for Black Republican women.

Candace Valenzuela would have become the first Afro Latina in Congress, but lost her race for Texas’ 24th congressional district to Republican Beth Van Duyne, a former Trump administration official.

Although they lost, their candidacies hint that more women of color will continue to run for Congress as both Democrats and Republicans and may just win next time.

A white man’s government?

Three white men with their feet on an African American soldier lying on the ground
The caption of this 1868 cartoon read, ‘This is a white man’s government. We regard the Reconstruction Acts (so called) of Congress as usurpations, and unconstitutional, revolutionary, and void – Democratic Platform.’ World Cat

For most of its history, the members of both Houses of Congress have been white men.

The monotony began to break in 1916 when Montana’s Jeannette Rankin won election as the first female congresswoman. In 1964, Hawaii’s Patsy Mink became the first Asian American elected to congress. The first Latina, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, was elected in 1989.

In 1968, the late Shirley Chisholm became the first Black woman to serve in Congress. Four years later, two more Black women arrived in Congress, Barbara Jordan of Texas and Yvonne Brathwaite-Burke of California.

Chisholm called Black women “catalysts for change” in politics. Rep Maxine Waters, a Democrat from California, once tweeted, “I cannot be intimidated and I’m not going anywhere.”

Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw’s theory of intersectionality suggests Black women are discriminated against because of the “intersection” of their racial, gender and class identities. One result is that they encounter disadvantages when running for office.

Some of the women I’ve mentioned faced disadvantages related to their race, gender or class when running against well-funded incumbents. Yet, my work in the field of women and politics also suggests that the long tradition of Black female political leadership in America is gaining momentum. Despite some women’s losses, their representation has, and will continue to, increase in Congress.The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Tickets now available for Wentzville Historical Society Holiday Home Tour

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Join the Wentzville Community Historical Society on Saturday, December 5th for their second annual Holiday Home Tour.  The tour starts at the historic Green Lantern Senior Center, and from there you’ll be able to enter READ MORE

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St. Charles County COVID-19 update: 16,198 positive cases, 181 deaths as of Nov. 16

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St. Charles County Government and the Department of Public Health staff are working closely with local, regional, state and federal partners to investigate COVID-19, monitor individuals who may have been exposed to the virus and READ MORE

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Former St. Louis-area Scout leader gets life term for sexually abusing children

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Matthew C. Baker, 51, pleaded guilty to several counts of child molestation, statutory sodomy, witness tampering and exposing himself to a child.

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COVID-19 cases force Missouri Senate to delay meetings for special session

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COVID-19 cases among members and staff of the Missouri Senate will force it to postpone consideration of an emergency spending bill and pandemic liability protection, Senate Majority Leader Caleb Rowden announced via tweet Monday.

Republican members of the Senate were on a conference call Monday to discuss the situation and Rowden issued his tweet after several sources told The Missouri Independent the postponement was coming.

The Senate had been scheduled to meet Tuesday and planned to hold hearings this week on both bills under consideration in the session that opened Nov. 5.

Now, no action will be taken until the first week of December, Rowden tweeted.

“Due to a number of positive COVID-19 cases among members and staff, the Missouri Senate will postpone action related to the special session until after the Thanksgiving holiday,” Rowden wrote. “This decision was not made lightly and, although disruptive, is in the best interest of protecting members, staff, and the public.”

Rowden was not immediately available for comment on his announcement. Other members of the Senate Republican Caucus also did not respond immediately to text and voice messages sent by The Independent.

Republican members of the Senate were together last week in Branson for a caucus and retreat. They met with Gov. Mike Parson and photos from that meeting show few, if any, members wearing masks.

The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is spreading rapidly in the state, with 60,010 cases reported so far this month, more than any other full month since the virus was first identified in the state in March. The Missouri Hospital Association on Friday sent Parson a letter pleading for a mask mandate and warning their ability to treat patients is being overwhelmed by the rapid rise in sickness.

Parson, who has said it is up to Missourians to take personal responsibility for avoiding the virus, was diagnosed with an infection in September, forcing postponement of an election debate.

The Missouri House has already passed the $1.3 billion spending bill sought by Parson that would provide $752 million in new spending authority for federal CARES Act funding, $18.7 million for local agencies working to prevent homelessness and $96 million in child support payments.

The child support funds come from money intercepted from federal stimulus payments, unemployment supplements and tax refunds. With the postponement, some families may be left waiting for money until the emergency spending bill is passed.

Payment were still going on as of Nov. 9 but the creative accounting used to deliver them will be exhausted by the end of the month, state Budget Director Dan Haug told the House Budget Committee that day.

“We can’t send it out to the custodial parents until we get this authority,” Haug said.

Check back later for more on this developing story.

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2020 was a bloodbath for Missouri Democrats. Will 2022 be any better?

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There’s no point trying to spin it: While the 2020 election was a mixed verdict nationally, with Republicans gaining congressional seats and minimizing Senate losses even as Joe Biden defeated President Donald Trump, the Missouri verdict was unequivocal.

It hurts to say, but 2020 was a bloodbath for Missouri Democrats.

It started atop the ticket with Trump’s dominance. He and Gov. Mike Parson set the tone, winning by 16 percent in the two races polling suggested would closer. Other statewide incumbents won by even more, and the advantage filtered down to legislative races.

Since 2000, the House Republican Campaign Committee (HRCC) has engineered a circle of strong fundraising attracting talented operatives, leading to large majorities and eventually supermajorities, which offer the type of agenda control that attracts still more money.

While the HRCC has repeatedly proven itself in swing seats, Democrats have struggled. This cycle, they gained just one seat, a 35-vote victory in a Springfield House district that has been trending left, against a Republican incumbent feckless enough to spend a fall weekend canvassing for a colleague 200 miles away.

Likewise, Senate Republicans ran effective campaigns that produced the kind of painful losses Democrats have experienced since 2001.

The first was in St. Louis, where – between her campaign and supportive independent expenditures – Deb Lavender spent $2.4 million and failed to topple incumbent Republican Sen. Andrew Koenig.

The second came in Columbia, where Sen. Caleb Rowden performed the political highwire act of leading a largely conservative Senate caucus as perhaps the chamber’s most moderate member while successfully branding himself as a non-ideological senator bringing home Mizzou’s bacon.

In a year when everything was about Trump, Rowden cruised in Cooper County while staying within 1 percentage point of Judy Baker in Boone County — even as Trump lost the county by 12 points. Few races in Missouri, let alone the nation, saw such frequent ticket-splitting.

Democrats’ sole swing-seat Senate win came in south St. Louis County, where Republican David Lenihan failed to pony up the cash he’d promised to spend against Rep. Doug Beck. Longtime pipefitter Beck fit the working-class district better than Lenihan, whose mailers boasted of his J.D. and Ph.D. from prestigious British universities, the sort of declaration that’ll get you cold-cocked at a South County biker bar.

In other words, Democrats’ two notable wins were aided by flawed Republican candidates.

The election’s biggest surprise – and its most consequential single outcome – was the passage of Amendment 3, a redistricting ballot measure likely to seal Democrats’ minority status in the Legislature for a decade.

Major Democratic funders were banking on new maps drawn to increase competitiveness through finger-like appendages reaching out to absorb conservative exurban voters into Democratic-leaning districts. But the dozens of 55 percent Democratic districts they envisioned will not materialize.

Instead, the new maps will likely resemble the old maps: Dozens of 65 to 85 percent districts in Kansas City, St. Louis City, and inner-ring suburbs, with the rest of the state dominated by 55-65 percent Republican districts.

Republican voters will continue to be more efficiently distributed than Democratic voters, a geopolitical coincidence with outsized implications for state government.

Looking forward

The 2022 marquee races will be those for Missouri Auditor and U.S. Senate.

Incumbent Democratic Auditor Nicole Galloway will face voters having just absorbed more incoming fire than any statewide candidate facing re-election in Missouri history – roughly $20 million in negative advertisements from her unsuccessful gubernatorial run.

That helps explain why so many Republicans are exploring Auditor bids.

The names mentioned most often for auditor are Treasurer Scott Fitzpatrick, state Sen. Bob Onder, House Speaker Elijah Haahr, state Reps. David Gregory and Mary Elizabeth Coleman, and losing 2018 candidate Saundra McDowell.

But Galloway can cite the example of Claire McCaskill coming back from a 2004 gubernatorial defeat as a model – and she will likely benefit from an expensive Republican primary that could leave the victor broke and bloodied.

Meanwhile, with the demise of split ticket voting nationally, the 2022 Senate race does not look especially promising for Missouri Democrats.

A Jason Kander candidacy may be the only chance for the race to become a national target. But one might imagine that Kander takes a good look at the 2020 Missouri election results and posits that a political re-emergence would work best through a different door, perhaps through President-elect Biden’s Veterans Administration.

Several other Democratic names have been floated for Senate, but the drop off from Kander in name identification and fundraising capacity is steep. There is probably only one other person who can put the seat in play for Democrats.

And that person would be former Gov. Eric Greitens.

In the Missouri of yesteryear, incumbent U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt would be a shoo-in. Like his predecessor Kit Bond, he’s brought home significant federal money, leveraging his leadership position to secure funding for scientific research, Federally Qualified Health Centers and New Markets Tax Credits for struggling communities, and the relocating National Geospatial Agency.

And yet, a recent private poll showed a tight Blunt-Greitens race in a hypothetical 2022 primary.

It’s not clear if Blunt will run again, but what does appear clear is the space to his right. As the state’s savviest pol, he surely understands this vulnerability better than anyone.

Would Greitens primary him? The 2017 Greitens, who sought coast-to-coast donor backing as he positioned himself for a future national candidacy, wouldn’t have done such a thing. The 2020 Greitens, surrounded by Trumpy rabble rousers like Rudy Giuliani, just might.

If Greitens challenges Blunt, it would be a bloodbath. Given Greitens’ baggage, the only question would be who leaves more blood on the battlefield.

If Blunt retires, Greitens seems likely to run. Fearing a scandal-scarred nominee emerging from a splintered primary, national Republicans would try to coalesce around a single candidate. Would they circle the wagons around Jay Ashcroft, whose father himself served in the Senate before becoming U.S. Attorney General; whose national name identification could provide an instant national donor base; and whose statewide name ID helped him lead the 2020 ticket in votes?

Or would the establishment embrace Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who after visiting Washington, D.C. in 2017 stepped aside for his predecessor Josh Hawley, perhaps earning points for being a good soldier? Has Schmitt, once seen as a relatively moderate state senator, mollified the base with a series of Made-For-Fox-News legal actions such as suing the Chinese Communist Party and drafting President Trump’s brief contesting the Pennsylvania result?

Only one thing is certain: Missouri Democrats would salivate at the prospect of Greitens leading the GOP ticket, the kind of bank shot that could conceivably put the state back in play. Perhaps, then, Democrats’ quickest plausible route back to statewide competitiveness isn’t a methodical effort to encourage metropolitan growth or embrace heterodox candidates outside the major metros, as I’ve previously hypothesized.

It could be a Republican civil war resembling the long-running Kansas Republican schism that gave one of America’s most Republican states a Democratic governor – with Eric Greitens reprising the role of Kris Kobach.

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Women are skipping breast exams, fighting cancer complicated by COVID-19

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Amid a battle with breast cancer, Kari Rawley found herself combating a second potentially fatal condition — COVID-19.

The Kansas City resident thought she had done everything right to help herself in her immunocompromised state. Her family wore masks and practiced social distancing, but after a small going away party for her daughter with family and close friends, Rawley tested positive, and later so did several other family members.

Rawley’s coronavirus symptoms began as they often do with aches and pains before transitioning to severe fatigue, breathing problems and eventually pneumonia. Rawley was admitted to the hospital for treatment.

“The worst part was being in the hospital alone and not knowing,” Rawley said. “At home, I had three other family members that also had COVID, and a sister and her husband ended up being positive also. So, the fear of the unknown and not knowing if it would get better or the next day I was going to end up on a ventilator.”

COVID-19 risks are amplified for immunosuppressed breast cancer patients, and women nationwide are opting out of coming in for mammograms for fear of contracting the virus. This leaves women at risk of developing advanced breast cancer.

Those already diagnosed, like Rawley, often must cease treatment that suppresses their immune system. Rawley, for example, was asked to hold her medication from her COVID-19 diagnosis until she was clinically improving.

“COVID-19 infection this year has been a big hurdle in the cancer world to deal with because, as we know, cancer doesn’t stop for COVID,” said Lauren Nye, Rawley’s medical oncologist at the University of Kansas Health System. “We’ve had to figure out ways to continue on treatments and to continue our screening and still take care of our patients.”

Nye said altering treatment is often necessary so as not to put patients at further risk, but this can complicate their outcome. While telehealth is an option, she said coming into the clinic for cancer treatment is still one of the safest courses of action.

A concerning trend amid COVID-19, however, is curbing the number of patients receiving treatment. Since the pandemic began, there has been a 50% drop in the number of breast cancer diagnoses across the country.

Jamie Wagner, chief of the Breast Surgery Division at KU Health System, said this is not because there is less breast cancer, but rather because of a fear of contracting COVID-19 driving people to put off breast cancer screening.

“What that then leads to is women finding it at more advanced stages, and that’s when they’re finally coming in versus what that screening mammogram would have otherwise picked up at an early stage,” Wagner said. “That dramatically changes the breast cancer treatment that we then can offer patients, and a lot of times it’s much, much more significant types of treatments they are having to receive.”

Wagner said the number of diagnoses did rise in October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but not enough to offset the decrease amid the pandemic. She said women should still come in for a yearly screening and that they should not be worried about contracting coronavirus.

Patients are spaced out in waiting rooms, equipment is sterilized, and all technicians and physicians are using appropriate personal protective equipment. Online scheduling also allows increased flexibility and reduced chance of virus transmission.

“We’ve really settled on very good procedures. We have very good PPE stores now. There are masks available, and there is eye protection,” said Dana Hawkinson, medical director of infection prevention and control at KU Health System. “It’s all geared toward keeping the patients safe from each other, keeping the patient safe from the health care workers and keeping the health care workers safe from each other as well.”

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Environmental justice expected to get more attention in the Biden administration

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WASHINGTON —  Community activists and some Democratic lawmakers have long sought to give low-income communities more latitude to challenge the cumulative effects from air, water and industrial pollution and climate change.

And they expect to have a ready ear in the White House in 2021, unlike the last four years.

“We have somebody to talk to now,” said House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), who pushed a broad environmental justice bill that cleared the House this fall as part of a broader energy package.

The issue of environmental justice has gained more traction as the COVID-19 pandemic revealed disproportionate health concerns facing members of marginalized communities.

The NAACP estimates that 71 percent of Black Americans live in counties in violation of federal air pollution standards. Those communities often have worse health outcomes and higher rates of asthma and cancer, problems that have become more pronounced as the COVID-19 respiratory illness has added another threat.

President-elect Joe Biden’s new transition plan highlights environmental justice as one of his incoming priorities — a significant shift for an issue that has been on the margins before.

The Biden team updated its website last week with four policy areas the incoming administration will focus on: COVID-19, economic recovery, racial equity and climate change.

The climate change plan says it will “ensure that environmental justice is a key consideration in where, how, and with whom we build … righting wrongs in communities that bear the brunt of pollution, and lifting up the best ideas from across our great nation — rural, urban, and tribal.”

Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris both spoke on the campaign trail about the importance of protecting fenceline communities from pollution. And Harris, a Democratic senator from California, introduced sweeping environmental justice legislation in the Senate last summer, just days before Biden tapped her as his running mate.

‘It makes it so much easier’

Advocates who have been pushing for environmental justice protections said having Biden and Harris in the White House will help their cause.

“It makes it so much easier. It is never going to be easy, but it does make it easier to have somebody who is there in the White House … who is anchored in a positive way to these issues and thinking critically about them,” said Mustafa Santiago Ali, vice president of environmental justice, climate and community revitalization at the National Wildlife Federation.

Ali helped found the Environmental Protection Agency’s environmental justice office in 1992, under the George H.W. Bush administration. He had a 24-year career in the federal government before he resigned from leadership of the EPA’s environmental justice office at the beginning of the Trump administration.

“The Trump administration brought us back to a low point,” said Ali.

The Trump administration suspended key environmental reviews  and proposed rollbacks to the National Environmental Policy Act, the nation’s bedrock environmental law that sets standards for public comment.

Biden and Harris could reverse some of those changes through new regulations or executive orders or prioritize environmental justice reviews with new agency positions.

During the Obama administration, Ali oversaw an interagency working group on environmental justice but said he was the only senior adviser on the issue.

“It was impossible for me to be in all the agencies and departments, so hopefully the next administration will have senior level people [in all of the agencies] who have environmental justice experience and can help navigate a set of choices,” Ali said.

The Climate Equity Act that Harris proposed in the Senate would create a dedicated Office of Climate and Environmental Justice Accountability within the White House and require the federal government to consider the effects of all environmental regulations on low-income communities.

The proposal is an expanded version of a bill she and Rep Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) introduced last year.

Biden also put forward a $2 trillion climate plan as part of his campaign  that set a goal for 40 percent of all clean energy spending to go to disadvantaged communities.

‘A really good shot’ at legislation

Meanwhile, Grijalva plans to push his environmental justice bill in Congress again. His proposal would give communities like those in St. James more recourse to challenge the cumulative effects of multiple industrial facilities in their area.

Grijalva and Rep. A. Donald McEachin (D-Va.), the original cosponsors of the environmental justice bill, each said after the election that it is one of their top priorities heading into the new Congress.

“Our country is in the midst of unprecedented, intersecting crises and the American people are demanding a bold, whole-of-government response. The Environmental Justice for All Act—and the process to create this comprehensive legislation—is a critical part of the solution,” said McEachin, in a statement.

The major hurdle, Grijalva says, remains the “bastion of ‘no’” in the Senate. But he is hopeful environmental justice concerns in both rural and urban areas may be able to break the partisan divide.

“I say this with hope probably more than reality, but this federal legislation we have has a really good shot,” said Grijalva.

Their proposal made significant progress in the House this year, when House lawmakers included most of it as part of a large energy bill that cleared the House. The Senate did not consider it.

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Westbound lanes on Blanchette Bridge to reopen Monday

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(From a MoDOT press release) After eight months of work on the I-70 Blanchette Missouri River Bridge, crews are planning to reopen all lanes in the westbound direction of I-70 by Monday, November 16 at READ MORE

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‘Virus is winning,’ task force warns as leaders urge Missouri governor to take action

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“If we stay on the path we’re on for just two more weeks, we will not have the staff we need to take care of patients,” Garza said.

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St. Charles County Public Health issues recommendations for reducing illness at holiday gatherings

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Because incidences of COVID-19 and other illnesses continue to grow, many are seeking safer ways to celebrate family traditions during fall and winter holidays. To aid in this planning, the St. Charles County Department of READ MORE

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St. Charles City-County Library supports students, parents, and schools

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(From a St. Charles City-County Library District press release) As coronavirus precautions continue to create challenges for students, the St. Charles City-County Library is committed to supporting parents and teachers as they search for effective READ MORE

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CarShield Collegiate League returns to CarShield Field in 2021

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O’Fallon Baseball is proud to announce the return of the CarShield Collegiate League to CarShield Field for the 2021 Summer schedule. The second season of the League will operate around the inaugural season of the READ MORE

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St. Charles County COVID-19 update: 16,198 positive cases, 180 deaths as of Nov. 13

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St. Charles County Government and the Department of Public Health staff are working closely with local, regional, state and federal partners to investigate COVID-19, monitor individuals who may have been exposed to the virus and READ MORE

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‘The virus is winning’: Health officials call for statewide mask mandate in Missouri

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Missouri Gov. Mike Parson needs to issue a statewide mask mandate and “safer-at-home” policy to prevent the state’s health system from becoming overwhelmed, Dr. Alex Garza, the incident commander of the St. Louis Metropolitan Pandemic Task Force, said Friday.

“Unfortunately, as has been painfully obvious to even a casual observer, we are past the time when individual behavior alone can address this disaster,” Garza said during a briefing Friday.

He later added: “Make no mistake. We’re at war. And right here, right now, the virus is winning that war.”

With cases and hospitalizations at all-time highs, Garza said the state must act to ensure hospitals across the state won’t have to turn patients awaylike some already have. Increasing the use of masks and urging residents to stay home as much as possible will slow the virus’ spread and give healthcare systems a chance to stay ahead of rising cases, Garza said.

Without such measures, Garza predicted that the number of COVID patients in Missouri’s hospitals may double in about two weeks. The four major health systems in the task force reported Friday that the seven-day moving average of hospital admissions increased to 105 — a new record.

Statewide, the seven-day averages of cases, positive rate on tests and hospitalizations are all at their highest levels of the pandemic. As of Thursday, 2,462 patients were hospitalized for COVID-19 according to the state’s dashboard —  a nearly 51 percent increase from the 1,632 hospitalized Nov. 1.

Garza’s call for increased restrictions was echoed Friday in a joint statement from six public health directors in the Kansas City area.

At a minimum, local governments should continue mask mandates for residents when in public, limit gatherings, require bars and restaurants to close by 10 p.m. or restrict occupancy levels, and limit attendees and sporting events, the health directors recommended.

“…we fully understand the impact that stay-at-home orders have on our local economy,” the statement read. “However, COVID-19 transmission cannot continue to rage out of control in our community given the severe strain on our health and medical systems.”

Missouri has never been under a statewide mask mandate. Parson has left the decision to local officials, noting the many of the state’s largest metro areas are already under local mandates.

“When it comes to the virus, we are all one big county now,” Garza said. “Every day, COVID patients are crossing county lines to go to hospitals. The lack of a mask mandate in one county, has implications for residents and health care professionals in other parts of the state.”

As Parson has resisted calls for a statewide mandate, he has continued to stress the need for personal responsibility, while acknowledging that “we can’t keep expecting the hospitals to meet the demand.”

“The reality of it is we can’t keep going at the pace we’re going and keep doing the same old things we’ve been doing,” Parson said during a press conference Thursday, in which the state relaxed quarantine guidelines for students and teachers.

Students in districts with mask mandates may no longer have to quarantine after being exposed if both individuals were properly wearing a face mask at the time, according to the new guidance.

In a news release Thursday, Cole County announced that it would only do contact tracing for cases tied to schools and that going forward individuals who test positive for COVID-19 will be responsible for notifying those they were in close contact with

The county, which is the seat of state government where the Capitol is located, cited a rise in cases, the need to expedite mitigation strategies and resistance it was meeting from residents when contacted.

Larry Linthacum, the superintendent of the Jefferson City School District, said in a statement Friday that Cole County’s decision raises questions regarding the district’s quarantine and employee leave processes, as well as the ability to keep schools open.

“From a safety perspective, the idea that contact tracing will no longer be conducted by the public health entity in Cole County creates a lot of uncertainty,” Linthacum said. “When you remove that layer of protection and leave contact tracing up to citizens, it may lead to more students and staff members who have been exposed to the virus coming to school and unknowingly transmitting it to others.”

In a letter sent Friday to families and staff, the Jefferson City School District expressed concern about Thursday’s announcements and said that at the time current procedures will not change.

Parson said Thursday “the next four weeks are critical,” and public health experts warn that gathering amid the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday and inside due to colder weather could increase the virus’ spread.

“These will be the most challenging months in the pandemic,” Garza said. 

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