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Ohio governor sets virus goal for lifting of health orders

COLUMBUS (AP) — Gov. Mike DeWine on Thursday set a specific target of reduced coronavirus cases as the benchmark for ending public health orders in Ohio, including mask wearing. Those orders will be lifted once the state hits the mark of 50 coronavirus cases per 100,000 people for two weeks, DeWine said. He called the goal “very doable,” noting that that figure has already dropped from 731 cases on Dec. 3 to 445 cases on Feb. 3, and to 179 cases on Thursday. But meeting that goal requires continued mask wearing for now and for as many people to receive the coronavirus vaccine as possible, DeWine said. The state now has supplies of three vaccines from Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson. DeWine, many of whose grandchildren are runners, compared the requirement for continued vigilance to toughing out the last portion of a marathon. “No marathoner pulls out on purpose at the 25th mile marker,” the governor said. DeWine called masks a “battle-tested” tool proven to work. The announcement came a week after the governor announced expanded attendance figures for sports and entertainment venues and lifted bans on large gatherings — such as wedding receptions — as long as social distancing and mask wearing continues. It also came two days after Texas announced it was ending its mask mandate. Rep. Emilia Sykes of Akron, the top House Democrat, credited DeWine for keeping the mask mandate even as she criticized him for not properly planning for the vaccine rollout.

Bill would allow Ohio schools more time to give spring tests

COLUMBUS (AP) — Ohio schools still would have to administer nearly all the usual tests this spring but would have an extra week in April or May to conduct most of those assessments in person under legislation passed by the Ohio House in a bipartisan vote Thursday, weeks before the testing windows begin. The measure also would allow for canceling the state-required end-of-course exam in U.S. history this year. And it would adjust rules for current high schoolers so final course grades from this year could be used in lieu of end-of-course exams to meet graduation requirements. Ohio lawmakers initially wanted to seek a federal waiver to skip required tests for the second straight year amid the pandemic, but federal education officials indicated that wouldn’t be an option. They say the tests are needed to help understand and address the pandemic’s impact on learning. Instead, they’re offering some flexibility on when and how it’s done, and say states can apply to be exempt from certain accountability measures linked to the results. The Ohio proposal would direct state officials to seek that exemption. The measure would meet federal requirements while providing schools what relief is available in light of the guidance issued by President Joe Biden’s administration, said Rep. Adam Bird, a Republican from New Richmond who sponsored the measure. Some Democratic lawmakers criticized the updated bill for offering too little relief, and echoed educators and families who have questioned the merits of having the tests just as some students are returning to classrooms after a year of virtual learning. Teachers and administrators have noted they use other evaluations throughout the year to gauge academic progress and can be more responsive with that information than with standardized test results that aren’t released for months. The measure now goes to the Senate for consideration.

Indicted lawmaker introduces bills for govt accountability

COLUMBUS (AP) — A disgraced Republican lawmaker on Thursday introduced a pair of pandemic-related bills aimed at bringing checks and balances to Ohio government while he is under a federal investigation for his alleged role in a $61 million bribery scheme. Rep. Larry Householder joined the line of GOP critics of Ohio’s anti-coronavirus efforts by introducing his own pair of bills to trim public health officials’ powers during the pandemic. The first piece of legislation the two-time lawmaker introduced would allow for a board of county commissioners to terminate or modify any order issued by a county board of health. The other legislation would similarly handicap any health order brought on by the Ohio Department of Health or Republican Gov. Mike DeWine by allowing the General Assembly to modify or terminate any order with a simple majority vote from both chambers. The pair of bills match the legislative action taken by a number of Republicans since DeWine began to issues orders last March in an effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus. The governor vetoed a similar GOP-backed Senate bill to limit his pandemic authority in December but now appears to be working with the Legislature on another similar bill moving through the House. The pair of bills ended months of legislative silence for Householder following his indictment last summer on racketeering charges in the alleged bribery scheme to pass a $1.3 billion bailout of two Ohio nuclear plants. The former House speaker was one of the driving forces behind the nuclear plants’ financial rescue, which added a new fee to every electricity bill in the state and directed over $150 million a year through 2026 to the plants near Cleveland and Toledo. He has pleaded not guilty. His successor, House Speaker Bob Cupp, remained mum Thursday on the topic and the use of the majority party’s resources to promote Householder’s bills.

By slimmest of margins, Senate takes up $1.9T relief bill

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate voted by the slimmest of margins Thursday to begin debating a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill, after Democrats made eleventh-hour changes aimed at ensuring they could pull President Joe Biden’s top legislative priority through the precariously divided chamber. Democrats were hoping for Senate approval of the package before next week, in time for the House to sign off and get the measure to Biden quickly. They were encountering opposition from Republicans arguing that the measure’s massive price tag ignored promising signs that the pandemic and wounded economy were turning around. Democratic leaders made over a dozen late additions to their package, reflecting their need to cement unanimous support from all their senators — plus Vice President Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote — to succeed in the 50-50 chamber. It’s widely expected the Senate will approve the bill and the House will whisk it to Biden for his signature by mid-March, handing him a crucial early legislative victory. The Senate’s 51-50 vote to start debating the package, with Harris pushing Democrats over the top, underscored how they were navigating the package through Congress with virtually no margin for error. In the House their majority is a scrawny 10 votes. The bill, aimed at battling the killer virus and nursing the staggered economy back to health, will provide direct payments of up to $1,400 to most Americans. There’s also money for COVID-19 vaccines and testing, aid to state and local governments, help for schools and the airline industry, tax breaks for lower-earners and families with children, and subsidies for health insurance.

Myanmar protest crackdown, widely filmed, sparks outrage

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Footage of a brutal crackdown on protests against a coup in Myanmar unleashed outrage and calls for a stronger international response Thursday, a day after 38 people were killed. Videos showed security forces shooting a person at point-blank range and chasing down and savagely beating demonstrators. Despite the shocking violence the day before, protesters returned to the streets Thursday to denounce the military’s Feb. 1 takeover — and were met again with tear gas. The international response to the coup has so far been fitful, but a flood of videos shared online showing security forces brutally targeting protesters and other civilians led to calls for more action. The United States called the images appalling, the U.N. human rights chief said it was time to “end the military’s stranglehold over democracy in Myanmar,” and the world body’s independent expert on human rights in the country urged the Security Council to watch the videos before meeting Friday to discuss the crisis. The coup reversed years of slow progress toward democracy in Myanmar, which for five decades had languished under strict military rule that led to international isolation and sanctions. As the generals loosened their grip in recent years, the international community lifted most sanctions and poured in investment.

Capitol Police chief appeals for National Guard to stay

WASHINGTON (AP) — Worried about continuing threats, the acting chief of the U.S. Capitol Police appealed to congressional leaders Thursday to use their influence to keep National Guard troops at the Capitol, two months after the law enforcement breakdowns of the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection. Yogananda Pittman told the leaders in a letter obtained by The Associated Press that the board that oversees her department has so far declined to extend an emergency declaration required by the Pentagon to keep Guardsmen who have assisted Capitol officers since the riot. Pittman said she needed the leaders’ assistance with the three-member Capitol Police Board, which reports to them. She said the board has sent her a list of actions it wants her to implement, though she said it was unclear whether the points were orders or just recommendations. The letter underscored the confusion over how best to secure the Capitol after a dismal lack of protection in January and biting criticism for law enforcement’s handling of the invasion. And it came came as authorities spent the day on high alert, primed for a “possible plot” by a militia group to storm the building again, two months after Trump supporters smashed through windows and doors in an insurrection meant to halt the certification of Joe Biden’s presidential victory.

Pacific quake sets off tsunami, threat lifts in New Zealand

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — One of the strongest earthquakes to hit the South Pacific in modern history triggered tsunami warnings across the ocean and forced thousands of people in New Zealand to evacuate coastal areas Friday. Small tsunami waves were seen but little damage was apparent hours later. The magnitude 8.1 quake in the Kermadec Islands region about 620 miles from New Zealand was the largest in a series of tremors, including two earlier quakes that registered magnitude 7.4 and magnitude 7.3. The tsunami threat caused traffic jams and some chaos in New Zealand as people scrambled to get to higher ground. Residents recorded videos of small wave surges in some places, including at Tokomaru Bay near Gisborne. In the afternoon, the National Emergency Management Agency said the threat had passed and people could return to their homes, although they should continue avoiding beaches.

Dallas police officer charged with arranging two killings

DALLAS (AP) — A Dallas police officer was arrested Thursday on two counts of capital murder, more than a year and a half after a man told investigators that he kidnapped and killed two people at the officer’s instruction in 2017, authorities said. Bryan Riser, a 13-year veteran of the force, was arrested Thursday morning and taken to the Dallas County jail for processing, according to a statement from the police department. Jail records show Riser is held without bond pending an appearance before a judge, but do not list an attorney for him. Riser was arrested in the unconnected killings of Liza Saenz, 31, and Albert Douglas, 61, after a man came forward in August 2019 and told police he had kidnapped and killed them at Riser’s direction, police Chief Eddie Garcia said during a news conference. He said investigators don’t know the motives for the killings, but that they were not related to Riser’s police work. Garcia did not explain why Riser was arrested nearly 20 months after the witness came forward, and police declined to answer subsequent questions about the timing. Riser joined the department in 2008, and Garcia acknowledged that he had been patrolling Dallas while under investigation for the killings. The chief stressed that his homicide division and the FBI were still investigating and said the department was reviewing Riser’s arrests.

US demands Myanmar release detained journalists, protesters

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Biden administration stepped up its condemnation of the coup in Myanmar on Thursday, demanding that military authorities stop their brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters and release demonstrators and journalists who have been detained. The White House called the situation, including the arrest of an Associated Press journalist, “troubling” and of “great concern.” The State Department said it’s working with other countries to send a unified message to the military that its actions are unacceptable and will be met with consequences. The U.S. has already imposed sanctions on Myanmar’s top military leaders since the Feb. 1 coup, but stepped up pressure after security forces killed as many as 38 people on Wednesday. The administration says it’s in close touch with partners and allies, as well as with countries like China, to try to convince Myanmar officials to ease their heavy-handed response to the protests. “The detainment of journalists, the targeting of journalists and dissidents is certainly something that is of great concern to the president, to the secretary of state and to every member of our administration,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said. At the State Department, spokesman Ned Price said the administration was “deeply saddened” by reports of deaths in the crackdown on protests. “This latest escalation in violence demonstrates the fact of the junta’s complete disregard for their own people, for the people of Burma,” he said. “It is unacceptable.”

Boy Scouts given more time to respond to lawsuit over assets

DOVER, Del. (AP) — The official committee representing child sex abuse victims in the Boy Scouts of America bankruptcy has agreed to give the BSA more time to respond to a lawsuit challenging BSA’s claims that several hundred millions dollars of its assets are unavailable for creditors. The tort claimants committee filed a complaint in January challenging BSA’s assertion that two-thirds of its listed $1 billion in assets, more than $667 million, are “restricted assets” that are unavailable to compensate abuse victims or other creditors. Attorneys submitted a court filing Wednesday, the deadline for BSA to respond to the complaint, indicating that the committee has agreed to extend the response time until April 2. The judge signed the order that same day. The bulk of BSA’s purportedly restricted assets consists of a note receivable from Arrow WV, a nonprofit entity that was formed by the BSA in 2009 and which owns the Summit Bechtel Reserve in West Virginia, home to the National Scout Jamboree. The BSA leases the Summit from Arrow WV for a nominal fee and provides the services required for its operation. The Summit was built with bonds that are held by JPMorgan, the BSA’s senior secured lender. The tort committee contends that there is no restriction that could be applied to the Arrow WV note. The BSA’s purportedly restricted assets also include three “High Adventures Facilities” valued at more than $63 million. They are the Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico, the Northern Tier in Minnesota and the Florida Sea Base. The committee asserts that there are no specific deed restrictions or donor restrictions that preclude the sale of those facilities and use of the proceeds to pay creditors.

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