Connecting state and local government leaders
STATE AND LOCAL ROUNDUP | Michigan prohibits voters from carrying guns to the polls … Virginia home health workers to get one-time bonus pay … Rhode Island cracks down on break rooms.
A fast moving wildfire that began Saturday in Boulder County, Colorado grew to more than 8,700 acres in less than 24 hours, destroying at least 26 homes and forcing nearly 3,000 people to evacuate. The fire, just 15% contained by Monday morning, is the latest blaze in a series of wildfires hammering the state in a season of prolonged drought. “It just exploded,” Mike Wagner, division chief with the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office, said at a news briefing Monday morning. “We do believe multiple homes were probably lost. It’s still too dynamic to get in and begin to assess.” Courtney Walsh, a county resident who rushed out of her home with her kids, dogs and rabbits on Saturday afternoon after deputies came to warn the family, later learned her house was a total loss. “There were baby books that I didn’t grab, and I’m regretting it. Those are the one thing I always thought, ‘I have to grab those if anything happens,’ and I just didn’t. I froze,” she said. The CalWood blaze, already ranked as the largest in the county’s history, is located about 50 miles from the Cameron Peak Fire, which has burned since mid-August and consumed more than 317 square miles. That fire, the largest in the state’s history, was 62% contained as of Monday. The fires are among 60 major wildfires burning across 11 Western states, many of them sparked by the same circumstances: unusually dry conditions, strong winds, low humidity and warmer-than-normal temperatures. There is “no record of such a large fire starting so late in the year” in the state, according to the Colorado Climate Center. The prolonged fire season is attributed in part to human-driven climate change. [Washington Post, USA Today; Denver Post
BULLET-FREE BALLOTING | Michigan voters are prohibited from carrying guns to polling places on Election Day under new rules announced last week by Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson. “I am committed to ensuring all eligible Michigan citizens can freely exercise their fundamental right to vote without fear of threats, intimidation or harassment," Benson said in a statement. Guns are also banned at clerk’s offices and any place where absentee ballots are counted, and anyone openly carrying a gun in public is prohibited from coming within 100 feet of buildings containing polling places, according to the directive. “The presence of firearms at the polling place, clerk’s office(s), or absent voter counting board may cause disruption, fear, or intimidation for voters, election workers, and others present,” the policy says. “Absent clear standards, there is potential for confusion and uneven application of legal requirements for Michigan’s 1,600 election officials, 30,000 election inspectors, 8 million registered voters, and thousands of challengers and poll watchers on Election Day.” The proclamation comes amid fears of confrontations at polling places, thanks partly to President Donald Trump’s repeated suggestions to his supporters that they go to the polls to act as unofficial poll watchers. [NPR]
HEALTH HAZARD PAY | Personal care attendants in Virginia will receive hazard pay for providing in-home care to elderly or disabled Medicaid recipients during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic earlier this year, Gov. Ralph Northam announced last week. Northam will allocate $73 million from federal coronavirus relief money to provide a one-time, pre-tax $1,500 payment to more than 43,000 personal care attendants for their work in March (when the state’s public health emergency began) through the end of June. The current state budget also authorized a 7% pay raise for home health workers, Northam said, and the state Department of Medical Assistance Services is “working to provide those workers with personal protective equipment, including masks, gloves and hand sanitizer.” The bonuses are included in a budget compromise reached by negotiators for the state House of Delegates and the Senate. That agreement also requires that Northam include any future federal emergency aid in his forthcoming budget proposal, and use unallocated coronavirus relief funding to help pay down a projected $750 million shortfall caused by a surge in unemployment claims from the pandemic. [Richmond Times-Dispatch]
BREAK ROOM BUST | Employee break rooms in Rhode Island will be closed for the next three months, part of the state’s latest effort to quell the spread of Covid-19. Gov. Gina Raimondo outlined the change in a news conference last week, saying the state is “in a rough spot right now.” Under the new rules, companies must close break rooms for 90 days unless they’re federally or contractually required to keep them open. (Those companies, Raimondo said, should consider alternatives, like establishing a schedule to use the room or removing the furniture to keep people from lingering.) The policy also does not apply to cafeterias and does not prevent employees from taking breaks—only from congregating in designated break rooms, which have been linked to clusters of coronavirus cases throughout Rhode Island. [Providence Journal]
SUPERSPREADER MOTORCYCLE RALLY | The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, a 10-day event held without restriction in South Dakota in August, was likely a catalyst for the coronavirus outbreak currently spreading across the Midwest, experts say. The rally drew roughly half a million people from all over the country, and weeks later the Dakotas and neighboring states Minnesota, Wyoming and Montana led the nation in new coronavirus cases per capita. State and local health officials largely did not identify or monitor attendees, so experts say it’s unlikely they will ever know the full impact of the event on the spread of the virus. A Washington Post survey of health departments linked 330 coronavirus cases and one death directly to the event, but the actual toll is likely much higher. Most state and local health departments did not coordinate on efforts to identify chains of transmission, and contact tracing—even when done well—is an inexact science that fails to account for asymptomatic spread. Some people with suspected cases of the virus also refused to be tested, further complicating tracing efforts. [Washington Post]
Kate Elizabeth Queram is a staff correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.