Some of the most enduring images of the COVID-19 pandemic will be the eerie sight of empty city streets. With many office workers stuck in their home offices all year, downtowns from New York City to Los Angeles have taken on a post-apocalyptic feeling. A silver lining has been that it's been much faster to get somewhere ? especially during rush hour ? when you do need to leave the house.
However, many drivers have learned the wrong lessons about how to behave when there is less traffic on the roads, and it has deadly consequences. If you're hitting the road, you still need to remember to be safe out there.
According to the latest data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a federal agency, traffic fatalities rose 4.6% through the first nine months of 2020 compared to 2019. This is despite the fact that pandemic lockdowns and working from home took millions of drivers off the roads.
Safety advocates were celebrating after data from 2019 showed that traffic deaths were continuing to decline across the country. But the pandemic seems to have undone all of that positive momentum. In New York City, for example, 2020 saw more traffic deaths than any year since 2014.
Experts blame the rise squarely on the pandemic and the toll it has taken on us ? beyond financial and physical health effects.
"Preliminary data tells us that ... fewer Americans drove, but those who did took more risks and had more fatal crashes," NHTSA announced in its findings. The agency said that vehicle speeds were up 22% in many cities. California reported an 87% increase in tickets issued for drivers topping 100 mph during a statewide lockdown.
New York officials found a 30-year high in motorcyclist fatalities, and that 60% of those accidents involved drivers without a motorcycle license. An NYC official said that "a lot of younger people, young men in particular, seem to be seeking an outlet from the stress and boredom of COVID."
NHTSA also reported that 65% of drivers requiring treatment after an accident had alcohol or drugs in their system in 2020, up from a pre-pandemic level of 51%.
Another problem is the rise in illegal street racing, seen in many major metro areas across the country due to bar and nightlife closures.
Despite the pandemic, for many Americans there are times when you have to leave the house, whether it's to pick up some cold medicine, care for an ailing relative, or report to your work as an essential employee.
The stats show that it's more important than ever that you practice defensive driving, both to keep yourself and other drivers safe. That means:
"The pandemic made me drive fast" will not be a valid defense in a personal injury lawsuit. Drive safe!
While Americans are having a hard time agreeing on much these days, most everyone was pretty pleased with the multiple rounds of stimulus checks sent out during the COVID-19 pandemic.
While many of us wanted ? or needed ? more to make ends meet during a time of such great economic upheaval, most were not upset to receive a check for $1,200 in the spring and another recent payment of $600. The incoming Biden administration is now stumping for another quick infusion of $1,400 in Americans' pockets.
But it's now tax time as well, and you might be wondering whether those cash injections last year are going to now show up as part of your income, which you will then owe taxes on.
Let's get the most important information out of the way first. According to the IRS, the stimulus checks are "not income and taxpayers will not owe tax on it." This means that it will not decrease any refund or increase what you may owe. The IRS also notes that receiving a stimulus check will not affect your eligibility for any federal assistance programs, such as food stamps. It is likely that any additional stimulus checks passed by Congress during the Biden administration will be treated the same way.
So rest easy, because that money is essentially a free tax refund on money that you've already contributed as an American taxpayer. Spend it, save it, invest it; do whatever you want with it.
While you will not owe any taxes on your stimulus checks, the IRS does use your tax return in determining whether you are eligible to receive a check.
For the first round of checks in the spring of 2020, the agency looked at 2018 and 2019 year tax returns to determine whether you made too much to receive the $1,200 checks. For this most recent round, of which all checks were required to be issued by Jan. 15, the agency looked at 2019 tax returns for determining eligibility.
Millions of people who may have been eligible didn't receive stimulus checks from either round of relief. This could have been for reasons like:
If you think that you are owed stimulus money, you still have a chance to claim it. However, you will need to file a 2020 tax return to claim your Recovery Rebate Credit. You must do this even if you did not make enough money to have to file. A tax professional can help you determine whether you are eligible.
Every year there are plenty of new laws that might have an impact on our lives. So, it can be helpful this time of year to scan the legal horizon, identify the most important of the bunch, and see if any new trends have emerged.
That is what we have done, and here are a few things we have found:
The death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police on Memorial Day 2020 sparked a wave of protests across the U.S. In response, several legislatures passed new laws to improve police oversight with civilian review panels.
Several passed laws prohibiting police chokeholds. Some moved in the opposite direction; Georgia, for instance, passed a new law defined as ?bias-motivated intimidation," which would apply to the death or serious injury of police, firefighters, or emergency personnel.
This was a notable trend of 2020, and it is continuing. Low-wage workers in 20 states got raises January 1 when minimum-wage increases went into effect.
California has the highest state minimum wage, $14 an hour. The municipality with the highest required minimum wage is Emeryville, California, at $16.84 per hour, followed by Seattle at $16.69. As of December 31, New York City's minimum wage is $15 an hour.
A vast number of laws are going into effect this year as a direct result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Some states have greatly expanded family-leave programs. In California, for instance, employers with at least five employees must now provide at least 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for employees to take care of young children or sick family members.
Georgia and Virginia passed laws to protect people from getting surprise medical bills, such as those from out-of-network providers during an emergency.
Overcoming resistance from Republican lawmakers, Oklahoma residents approved a constitutional amendment to expand Medicaid coverage this July. It is expected to help about 215,000 low-income residents.
Starting October 1, your old driver's license won't be enough to get you through airport security. You will need a REAL ID-compliant driver's license, U.S. passport, U.S. military ID, or other acceptable identification to board a commercial plane in the U.S.
This change was scheduled to go into effect October 1, 2020, but was pushed back a year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
On Election Day 2020, voters in four states ? Arizona, Montana, New Jersey, and South Dakota ? voted yes on recreational marijuana. The effective dates this year vary ? Arizona, for instance, estimates an April launch after licensing procedures are ironed out and in New Jersey nobody knows because disagreements over penalties for underage pot use have kept things in limbo.
This brings to 15 the number of states that now allow recreational marijuana.
Meanwhile, Oregon becomes the first state to decriminalize possession of small amounts of hard drugs.
Every year, we set aside the third Monday of January to celebrate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and his special place in our country's past as a civil rights leader.
But as a symbol, King continues to play an important role in the country's present and future. The enduring images of the civil rights protests from the 1960s that King and others led inform our views on civil disobedience in the modern American consciousness.
And if 2020's summer of unrest caused by the death of George Floyd was any indication, many Americans have renewed their faith in these teachings.
King was actually not the first person to teach civil disobedience. Essayist Henry David Thoreau penned "Civil Disobedience" in 1849, popularizing the term here in the U.S. It was employed in Mahatma Gandhi and his followers in their struggle for Indian independence.
Many Christians also point back to the life of Jesus Christ as an early example of civil disobedience against the Roman empire to win devotees to his cause.
Like Gandhi, King used civil disobedience as a means of effectuating government change. It took the form of large-scale, non-violent refusals to obey government commands. There were sit-ins and marches, all carried out against the wishes of local authorities.
In King's mind, the purpose was to "create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation." Civil disobedience, if on a grand enough scale, forces the government to negotiate change.
Tens of thousands of Americans ? if not more ? employed this strategy in 2020. While some people protesting in the wake of Floyd's death caused destruction, many marched, held sit-ins, and refused police orders to disperse to demonstrate their commitment to their principles.
Many peacefully handed themselves over to police. Each of them risked a criminal record in the name of change.
Martin Luther King's civil disobedience legacy was honored by all of these acts. So why not take the time Monday to honor him? While we do not advocate breaking the law, MLK day is also recognized as a national day of service. There are countless volunteer opportunities available across the country for you to take advantage of.
Well, this was predictable.
We are speaking of vaccine scams, the latest effort by the nefarious thieves who see the coronavirus as a golden opportunity to exploit people's fears.
Coronavirus scams have taken a variety of forms ? so many that it's hard to keep track ? as COVID-19 has spread across the country. There have been the snake-oil salesmen pedaling bogus ?cures," stimulus-payment and unemployment fraud, investment scams, and fake-charity scams.
Now that approved vaccines are rolling out to the public, scammers see new opportunity ? especially since the rollout is slow and people are nervous about the wait.
On January 5, Reuters reported that on the dark web forum Agartha, vials of fake COVID-19 vaccines were being offered for $500 and $1,000 or the equivalent in Bitcoin. On another dark web site, someone claiming to be from the ?Wuhan Institute of Science" was offering COVID-19 vaccines in exchange for donations and information about the donors' medical histories.
Reuters also reported that several channels on the Telegram messaging app claimed to offer COVID-19 vaccines. ?One user offered supposed Moderna Inc. vaccines for $180, and claimed the vaccine from Pfizer Inc. and BioNTech SE could be had for $150 and AstraZeneca's for $110 per vial."
Other fraudsters are seeking to get victims' personal information. In December, federal agents took down websites of fake biotech companies whose real purpose was to gain personal information they could use for ?nefarious purposes, including fraud, phishing attacks, and/or deployment of malware," according to the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of Maryland.
Another form these scams take is to promise buyers the opportunity to ?jump the line" to receive a vaccination earlier than they would be allowed to do under state distribution priority rules. One of them making its way around the country is a robocall that claims to let people skip ahead by sending $79.99 for a Pfizer vaccine.
The FBI and two other federal agencies jointly issued a warning in December, cautioning the public to be aware of these vaccine scams. The agencies provided several tips to avoid being victimized by vaccine fraudsters:
Meanwhile, if you or a family member have been victimized by a scammer, it's important to report it to law enforcement. The U.S. Justice Department's National Center for Disaster Fraud provides a complaint form that you may fill out and submit. Also, most state attorney general's offices have consumer protection divisions that may also provide reporting forms, such as this one from Minnesota.
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The nation was rocked last summer by large racial justice protests. While the vast majority of them featured thousands of peaceful protesters asserting their First Amendment rights, some gatherings did turn violent.
To quell the unrest, President Trump and then-Attorney General William Barr argued for a federal response in several cities, sending in armed agents from a host of different federal law enforcement agencies.
The only problem is that many of those agents would not identify themselves, even when they were apprehending protesters. A new law passed at the end of the 116th Congress will now require more transparency from the federal government in future encounters with protesters.
In Portland, Oregon, which featured some of the longest-lasting protests of the summer, masked, camouflaged federal officers showed up with little more than badges that said "police" on them.
It turned out that many were officers with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency. Officials argued the lack of identification was necessary to protect officers from reprisals from protesters, such as having home addresses posted online.
Similar scenes occurred in Washington, D.C., with officers from the federal Bureau of Prisons.
The big problem for protesters is this: It is hard to tell unidentified federal officers apart from private security guards, which many businesses hired this summer to protect their property from looting and vandalism. If an "officer" without ID tries to arrest or detain you, how can you know if this is a legitimate arrest or not? Should you run, or should you comply?
A new law adopted as part of the National Defense Authorization Act, enacted earlier this month as the end of the 116th Congress was quickly approaching, is being hailed as a win for protesters.
The new law will require that whenever "a member of the armed forces or Federal law enforcement personnel provide support to Federal authorities to respond to a civil disturbance," those personnel must "visibly display" each officer's name ? or another individual identifier ? and the name of the agency they are a part of.
There are small exceptions for officers who go undercover or do not wear a uniform as part of their official duties.
The ACLU applauded the bill's adoption, but cautioned that officers may try to rely on displaying badge numbers instead of their names, which can be harder for protesters to remember.
"Still," the organization said, "the message that Congress is sending to the executive branch and enshrining into statute is unmistakable: Secret police forces patrolling our neighborhoods in response to protests and other mass gatherings ... do not belong in a democracy such as the United States."
As COVID-19 cases continue to spike in the U.S., governors have taken unprecedented measures to minimize the surge of infections. These measures mainly include restricting gatherings in homes, schools, businesses, and places of worship.
These restrictions, of course, didn't go unchallenged. There has been a deluge of lawsuits against the governors opposing these restrictions. The most recent one that made it to the Supreme Court was against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo's restrictions on the size of gatherings in houses of worship.
The Supreme Court sided with religious groups in striking down restrictions on attendance at religious services. It stated that such actions are an unconstitutional restriction of the First Amendment's protection to the free exercise of religion.
The matter came before the Court after Cuomo restricted large gatherings in the houses of worship. Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn and Agudath Israel of America brought the case to the Court, arguing the restrictions violate the First Amendment because "the regulations treated the houses of worship more harshly than comparable secular facilities."
COVID-19 has brought unique challenges, forcing governors to use their emergency powers to maintain public health of the American people, including prohibiting religious gatherings. These orders have been challenged in court multiple times, and courts continue to struggle to find the right balance between individual religious rights and communal public health.
Generally, the government is within its power to restrict gatherings in a church to ensure public safety. But problems can arise when restrictions are not neutral and applicable to everyone. When that happens, the government must provide more proof that the limits are necessary and that there is no better alternative to maintaining public safety.
The Supreme Court, when addressing this issue, acknowledged the need to respect the judgment of public health experts. But the Court refused to allow the restriction to stand, stating that it is "far more restrictive than any COVID-related regulations that have previously come before the court, much tighter than those adopted by many other jurisdictions hard hit by the pandemic, and far more severe than has been shown to be required to prevent the spread of the virus."
This Court has been dealing with balancing public health and religious liberties for some time. Before Justice Amy Coney Barrett was sworn in, the Court had ruled upholding regulations restricting gatherings in houses of worship. The Court in a 5-4 majority stated pandemic-related laws restricting gatherings at churches in California and Nevada were valid.
The immediate impact of this case was setting aside two specific restrictions that Gov. Cuomo enacted in October. Thus, the recent decision will likely not automatically invalidate other measures taken by other governors to restrict religious gatherings.
Courts will have to assess matters on a case-by-case basis to determine whether a specific regulation is unconstitutional. However, this doesn't mean the Court's ruling can't be used to challenge other rules applicable to people in similar situations.
It's probably safe to say that the 2020 general election went far smoother than most people expected.
Challenged by the arrival of the coronavirus early in the year, election officials in many states expanded and liberalized the ways in which we could vote. In the end, an astonishing 46% of our ballots were cast by mail.
At the same time, fears that mail voting would result in chaos and voter fraud turned out to be unjustified. Little evidence of voter fraud has surfaced, and legal challenges by President Trump and other Republicans have gone nowhere.
Nevertheless, a number of Republican state legislators are already making plans to tighten voting restrictions, including a crackdown on mail ballots.
In the absence of much evidence of fraud, it does seem that their motivation may be one of perception ? the belief that, although it couldn't be proven this time, expanded mail and absentee voting could go wrong.
And, like it or not, there's no way to separate the issue from partisan politics. As Stanford University law professor Nate Persily said at a recent conference on election cybersecurity, ?There is incredible polarization around mail balloting right now that did not exist to the same extent before this election. A lot of that is because Democrats are now so much more in favor of it than Republicans. Because of the way that the post-election period has shaken out, we are now in a situation where the very idea of mail balloting is triggering a partisan response that is very concerning."
Even though the votes got counted in a timely fashion and fraud apparently failed to surface, there is a lingering perception ? at least among many Republicans ? that current election systems can't be trusted.
That's why election and cybersecurity experts like professor Persily have been weighing in on the 2020 election and the lessons we can learn from it. Their contention is that accurate assessments can help to ease the mistrust and may lead to developments that would ensure more secure elections.
J. Alex Halderman, an election security expert from the University of Michigan, put it this way to Politico: ?The big picture from 2020 is that ensuring an accurate result isn't enough. Elections also have to be able to prove to a skeptical public that the result really was accurate."
In the Politico piece, experts make several ?nuts and bolts" recommendations based on lessons learned from the 2020 election, including these:
Another point that could be publicly emphasized more strongly, according to the website Government Technology, is that mail voting is secure by its very nature. ?(O)ne of the biggest cybersecurity investments election officials made this year was one of the most analog solutions: expansion of vote-by-mail services. For years, election security experts have lobbied for this to occur. Research has shown that it is one of the most secure forms of election administration."
Another lesson, Government Technology said, is how important public education was in guiding people in how to vote. MIT professor Charles Stewart: ?There was an amazing degree of public education in this election. It started in the campaigns, it went down to the election officials, to the traditional media, and to the social media, all working together to remind voters to ? ask for the ballot early and get it back early."
Other security experts are talking about how the election pointed out the value of using post-election ?risk-limiting audits." These audits use a statistical formula to determine how many ballots need to be counted to verify the accuracy of the results. Several states use them now, including Georgia, which used it for the first time in mid-November to verify Joseph R. Biden's winning vote count.
The nation is polarized in many ways, including how we think of elections and how they should be administered.
Some states will take steps to restrict voting rights. Others, though, may look at the evidence from the historic 2020 general election and decide that expanded ballot access is a good thing ? as long as it's secure.
It sounds like nobody in Murdock, Minn. has any interest in letting a church called Asatru Folk Assembly open its doors in their town.
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks such things, the Asatru Folk Assembly is a white supremacist group. And even though Murdock (population 265) is located in the middle of rural Red America with a population that's 95% white, its residents have made it clear that a racially extremist church is not welcome there.
Nevertheless, on Dec. 9, the Murdock City Council voted 3-1 to let Asatru Folks Assembly convert an abandoned Lutheran church into its own regional gathering place.
Why? Because, as city attorney Don Wilcox explained to the council before the vote, ?There are certain constitutional protections that apply to religions. I haven't seen any evidence to overcome the presumption that they are a religion, whether you agree with it or not."
Asatru Folk Assembly, created in 1995 by Steven McNallen, claims on its website that its purpose is to return to a pre-Christian ?ancestral religion" that is only for white people. ?We believe that those activities and behaviors supportive of the white family should be encouraged while those activities and behaviors destructive of the white family are to be discouraged."
White supremacist groups who claim to have ties to religion are nothing new, of course, because by claiming religious roots they obtain First Amendment cover. The virulently anti-gay Westboro Baptist Church is one example. In the early 20th century, at least, the Ku Klux Klan emphasized its Protestant roots for that purpose.
But groups like Asatru Folk Assembly are a new type, according to the Washington Post. "In recent years," the Post said, "white supremacist groups have started to co-opt obscure folk religions and promulgate hateful views under the guise of ancestral worship."
For Murdock, the legal snarl is centered on the fact that Asatru Folk Assembly purchased an abandoned Lutheran Church earlier in 2020 for $45,000. Since that site is already zoned for church use, the city had little legal room to deny the permit.
At least that's what city attorney Wilcox says. ?There's not a compelling interest in keeping that building from being used for meetings," the Minneapolis Tribune quoted him as saying to the council. ?Just because you don't like it doesn't mean they can't do it."
Murdock Mayor Craig Kavanagh indicated in a Facebook post that there was a second legal reason why the city council voted as it did: The fear that rejecting the permit would have resulted in a First Amendment lawsuit the city could ill afford.
?The City of Murdock council," he wrote, ?was highly advised by multiple legal sources to not deny the permit as the circumstances could be (a) substantial burden."
After Murdock's citizens learned of the church purchase and the group that intended to meet there, many became incensed. Soon, a group calling itself Murdock Area Alliance Against Hate started holding meetings and organizing protests. The group pledges to continue telling Asatru Folk Assembly it is not welcome in their town.
But couldn't this all have been avoided? Must a municipality be held captive by First Amendment claims of a group that simply purports to be religious?
For starters, it's not that difficult to claim church status. The Internal Revenue Service lists requirements that are necessary to be a legitimate (and tax-exempt) church, and they are not onerous.
If you want to create a church, you need to show that you have some combination of things, including a distinct legal existence, a creed of some kind, a distinct religious history, a place of worship, ordained or commissioned ministers, and organized worship. (In 2015, "Last Week Tonight" host John Oliver demonstrated how easy it is by creating his own tax-exempt church, "Our Lady of Perpetual Exemption.")
When it comes to land-use and zoning laws as they apply to churches, the best way to gain an understanding is to take a look at a federal statute called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). That law, passed by Congress in 2000, gives churches latitude to avoid zoning-law restrictions on the use of their property.
Its primary intent is summed up in the statute's ?general rule," which states that ?(n)o government shall impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person, including a religious assembly or institution" unless the government can show that it has very good reason to do so.
The U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division provides a handy explainer on what RLUIPA does and doesn't do. It gives the impression that religious institutions really do have significant power when dealing with zoning restrictions.
In any event, the zoning issue in Murdock seems clear: The property in question has already been accepted by the city for religious use. That means if the city wants to contest Asatru Folk Assembly, it will be a First Amendment fight. And as the city's mayor pointed out in his Facebook post, numerous lawyers have told him that's a bad idea.
Meanwhile, you have to wonder why a church would choose to worship in a climate where it will be so unwelcome ? maybe even hated. But Asatru Folk Assembly doesn't seem to mind.
The Environmental Protection Agency says that tampering with vehicle emissions control devices is illegal and punishable.
So what are we to make, then, of the EPA's recent finding that the owners and operators of some half-million diesel pickups in the U.S. are knowingly breaking the law?
And what are we to make of the fact that an entire cottage industry manufactures and hawks devices ? which are illegal, according to the EPA ? that ?defeat" the required emission-control devices on vehicles?
If this sounds familiar, it's because the same issue surfaced in 2015 with revelations that Volkswagen had installed ?defeat devices" on some 580,000 VW, Audi, and Porsche diesel cars sold in the U.S. In that case, the German manufacturer-installed software that concealed the true levels of nitrogen oxide the engines were producing.
After the EPA launched legal action against Volkswagen that year, the company's chairman, Hans-Dieter Potsch, admitted that the carmaker had done it because it couldn't find a technical solution within the company's ?time frame and budget" to meet U.S. emission standards. Not only did the company have to spend $14.7 billion to settle claims, but it also had to pay a $2.8 billion criminal fine.
In that case, the EPA and the courts had a single target ? Volkswagen ? that simplified the regulatory and legal task.
But now, with the revelation of the widespread cheating among diesel pickup owners and the parts companies that serve them, the challenge is more difficult because many companies are doing it.
In fact, knowledge of the practice is not new. EPA has been aware of the problem for several years, and that's why the agency first officially targeted ?Stopping Aftermarket Defeat Devices for Vehicles and Engines" in June 2019. That's also why EPA began studying the extent of the illegality.
In addition to counting the 550,000 diesel pickups that had illegally altered their emission-control systems in the last decade, EPA also measured how many companies are manufacturing these devices. The agency counted 28 of them that are making at least 45 different products that are either hardware or software.
The environmental impact, EPA says, has been enormous. The illegal devices allow diesel pickups to emit 10 times the nitrogen oxide of the Volkswagen vehicles.
The EPA has resolved more than 60 cases against companies that make or distribute defeat devices since 2017, and often the task is not difficult. A Florida car-parts distributor, Freedom Peformance, LLC, literally advertised the product's illegal nature on its website: Referring to one particular emission control system, it said that while ?certainly noble in its intent, in reality it is putting your engine through hell. ? The best solution is deletion."
In February, EPA said Freedom Performance would pay $7 million for committing thousands of violations.
The makers and distributors of defeat devices claim that they increase mileage, improve engine performance, and extend vehicle lifetimes. The Specialty Equipment Market Association, a trade group representing the vehicle ?aftermarket," calls the EPA emissions rules ?confusing and draconian."
It's quite clear that the EPA's target is not individual pickup owners; it's the industry that makes and sells these products. While individuals may take heart in that knowledge, it does sound like the EPA fully intends to make these products much harder to find.
EPA does have other people in mind, however ? those who may be concerned about air quality. The agency has created a tip line, saying, ?If you suspect someone is manufacturing, selling or installing illegal defeat devices, or is tampering with emissions controls, tell EPA by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Air travel continues to be one of the industries that have been hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic. International travel has crawled to a virtual standstill as countries close their borders, and many Americans remain too nervous about infection to board domestic flights despite mask requirements and other safety measures.
But what if airlines started leaning heavier into vaccines ? once they are available ? and testing as part of their safety programs? Can airlines legally require COVID-19 tests and vaccines to allow you to take to the skies? It's looking that way.
Desperate to get international travel humming again, airlines are starting pilot programs for pre-flight testing on some international routes.
Delta, United, and American Airlines are all piloting testing programs. For example, passengers on Atlanta-to-Rome Delta flights will be able to avoid a 14-day quarantine in Italy if they test negative 72 hours before departure, before boarding in Atlanta, on arrival in Rome, and again before departure back to America.
On all U.S. flights that are testing this method, passengers must participate or be assigned to a different flight.
Many are starting to speculate that once vaccines are widely available to the flying public, airlines will require them. Australia's Qantas Airways and South Korea's Korean Air have both spoken recently about requiring proof of vaccination for international flights.
In America, Delta Airlines CEO Ed Bastian said last week that while his company had yet to decide, he envisioned vaccination becoming a requirement for international travel, "whether it's the airline that does it or some international authorities do it."
But the International Air Transport Association, a global airline trade group, argues that broad testing is more important, and rolling out a worldwide "vaccine passport" would be extremely difficult.
These moves may not be necessary if governments require new arrivals to present proof of vaccination before entering their reopened countries.
In a word, yes.
Here in America, and most countries, airlines have broad latitude in deciding who can and cannot board. Airlines cannot violate anti-discrimination laws, such as denying boarding because of a passenger's race or religion.
However, crews can deny boarding to almost any passenger who they feel poses a danger to other passengers. This could include the unvaccinated or untested, just as you cannot bring a lighter or a weapon into the passenger cabin.
Barring federal regulations to require airlines to allow boarding to those who refuse to vaccinate or get tested, which would almost certainly bring about litigation, there is not much a passenger could do to get around an airline's vaccination or testing requirement if one is put in place.
And with a majority of Americans favoring vaccine requirements for flying, it is possible that airlines will try to match that sentiment. (These airlines, however, would probably hope for a government order so they can avoid being the bad guy when denying boarding.)
A ticket is a contract between passenger and airline, with all of the lengthy terms and conditions that come with it. Make sure you understand what you are agreeing to before you buy!
Thanks to the pandemic, you're probably changing your holiday gift-giving plans.
Your family gathering may be smaller than usual, but you still want to give gifts to family members and friends who won't be there. So you're realizing that you'll need to mail the gifts or have them picked up for delivery.
If you're smart, you've also made plans to do it as soon as possible. The U.S. Postal Service and private delivery companies like FedEx say they anticipate record package volume this holiday season and are urging people to act quickly.
But in your haste, it might be wise to think about whether the things you intend to ship are actually legal. Most of the items we typically give as presents are obviously legal to ship ? clothing, toys, books, etc. But there are some commodities that are less obviously legal and may be subject to restrictions.
Let's take a look at some of them.
Take liquor, for example. It might be tradition that you always give Uncle Charlie a bottle of his beloved Old Sawbones for Christmas, but don't think you can just package up a well-cushioned bottle of his choice booze and send it. The Postal Service won't ship alcohol ? period. FedEx and UPS will ship liquor, but only from licensed distributors or manufacturers.
Liquor shipping across state lines is governed by a maze of state and local laws, which also come into play when you're thinking of mailing booze. It's much easier to ship liquor in-state, so if Uncle Charlie is in another state the best option is to order Old Sawbones online from a liquor store near him and have them or a service like Drizly deliver it.
Firearms are restricted in many ways. If there's a gun you envision as the perfect gift for your cousin Clive, it may not be as simple as just sticking it in the mail to him. According to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the sender and receiver of a firearm must generally be a Federal Firearms Licensee, so you would have to arrange the delivery through them. ATF does provide an exception, however, for long guns (rifles and shotguns). If you're a non-licensee, you can send a long gun (unloaded, of course) to another person in your state or to a licensee in another state. ATF also says that handguns cannot be put in the mail. They must be transported by common carrier.
Thinking of sending a box of fancy French cigarettes to the unrepentant smoker in the family? Forget it. Cigarettes and smokeless tobacco are restricted items and can only be mailed in limited circumstances. Cigars, on the other hand, are not restricted. Go figure.
Want to send a cute rabbit to Aunt Eleanor for Christmas? Don't even think about it. Neither the Postal Service nor any commercial delivery service will handle pets or any warm-blooded mammals except in limited circumstances.
But if you'd like to send fish, amphibians, reptiles, or even bees, you're in luck.
Of course, restrictions apply, so let's look at a couple of them.
If, for instance, you'd like to send a small, cold-blooded creature via the Postal Service, you can do so. But it must not require any food, water, or attention during its transport or create ?obnoxious odors."
Or let's say you'd like to give nature-loving Grandpa Chuck the gift of bees. The Postal Service and UPS both allow ground shipment of bees, subject to their packaging requirements and prominent disclosure about the contents, but if air transport is required, the Postal Service says it can only be a queen honeybee with up to eight attendant honeybees. We don't know why, but it certainly smacks of regal influence.
Or perhaps you'd enjoy nothing more than sending a snake (non-poisonous, of course) to delight your strange but lovable niece, Elvira. If so, be forewarned: It's difficult. Neither the Postal Service nor UPS will touch snakes of any kind. FedEx is the only carrier that will transport snakes, but they require a ?live reptile certification" that can only be obtained after you complete a series of tests. But take heart! There are third-party snake shippers like this one who have already passed FedEx's test and would be happy to give you a quote.
If you're not sure about the legality of shipping the gift you have in mind, it might be a good idea to check the rules that have been set by the Postal Service and the private carriers:
This post was updated on December 8, 2020.
When Congress passed the Coronavirus, Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act back in March, most lawmakers and the general public thought it was necessary legislation for a temporary problem.
But now it's December, the pandemic is still raging out of control, and many of the programs created as part of the CARES Act are expiring at the end of the year. Millions of Americans remain jobless, and crucial lifelines are about to be taken away if Congress and the White House cannot agree on new aid.
The CARES Act was unusually generous in granting an extra $600 a week for four months ? on top of normal unemployment benefits ? and relaxed rules to allow benefits to gig workers and independent contractors. The $600 Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program expired in July.
Now, approximately 12 million workers face a devastating "cliff" on December 26 if Congress does not act. That includes gig workers in the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) program and workers in the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) program.
The PEUC provides an extra 13 weeks of unemployment benefits after a worker exhausts their state benefits. The hard cutoff in the CARES Act means those in the middle of receiving that additional coverage will not be able to continue for a full 13 weeks. Those benefits will simply stop.
While the unemployment benefits are getting the most attention, there are several other benefits set to expire that will affect people facing financial struggles:
If you are worried about losing any benefits under the CARES Act, the first thing you can do is contact your representatives and senators in Congress. It is your right to let them know how you feel.
The next thing you should do, whether you need eviction or foreclosure relief, student loan relief, or unemployment benefits you are entitled to, is talk with an attorney about your options. Even if additional unemployment benefits expire, for example, there may be other ways for you to use the legal system to address financial problems.
Several times during his campaign this year, President-elect Joe Biden said that he favored a national mandate requiring people to wear face masks in public to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.
Now that he's ready to step into office on Jan. 20, can we assume that masks will be required everywhere?
In a word, no. Only governors have the power to issue that kind of order, not presidents.
This explains the wording about mask mandates that appears on a Biden transition team website that outlines how the new administration intends to tackle the pandemic. The site does call for implementation of ?mask mandates nationwide," but says that Biden intends to achieve that by ?working with governors and mayors and by asking the American people to do what they do best: step up in a time of crisis."
In other words, Biden intends to rely mostly on the soft power of his bully pulpit to get people to wear masks when they are in public.
But is there more he could do? The answer is yes.
Presidents have the power to issue executive orders covering federal land and federal buildings, and Biden has said that he would require face masks there.
Biden also said in an October speech that he intends to mandate masks in interstate public transport. A month earlier, the Centers for Disease Control had released a draft order to require masks on all airplanes, trains, buses, and subways, as well as in all transportation hubs, such as airports, bus depots, and train stations.
The Trump administration rejected that proposal, but Biden apparently intends to follow it. Some legal observers, however, question the constitutionality of CDC making that broad a rule.
Another option is economic incentives, which could be included in an upcoming spending bill.
A more remote possibility is to gain support for a liberal interpretation of a provision in the Public Health Service Act that arguably could pave the way for a national mask mandate. This provision, which the Congressional Research Service says ?could potentially form the basis for executive action," gives the secretary of health and human services the power to issue regulations to prevent the spread of communicable diseases from foreign countries into the U.S. or from state to state.
Could that provision be used to mandate face masks? The Congressional Research Service seems to be skeptical. CRS said the federal government could expect legal challenges no matter which interpretation they choose.
So, as we move forward into a foreboding winter and the specter of many more COVID-19 deaths ? and more lockdowns ? look for Biden to do whatever he can to get Americans to mask up. But don't look for a federal mandate.
The news is encouraging.
Two pharmaceutical companies and one biotech company report more than 90% effectiveness in clinical trials involving coronavirus vaccines, and they may be publicly available soon.
But it takes time to produce these vaccines, and supplies will be initially limited. So, as these companies prepare for emergency authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, important decisions must be made on who should be vaccinated first. And second. And so forth.
It might seem obvious that health workers and those most endangered by COVID-19 ? older people in nursing homes with underlying health issues ? should be the first.
But beyond those priority populations, it becomes less clear.
Figuring out how to allocate vaccines is ?a very complex problem," Eva Lee, director of the Center for Operations Research in Medicine and Health Care at the Georgia Institute of Technology, told the digital science magazine Undark.
Determining the order in which groups should receive the vaccine depends on what kinds of priorities we make. As the Undark article points out, the question is this: Do we mostly want to prevent deaths? Or is the priority to slow transmissions?
If we want to prevent deaths, then the first vaccines should go to the over-65 ?at risk" population. But if we want to slow transmissions, maybe primary recipients should be the biggest spreaders: young adults.
Mathematicians have been busy developing models for vaccine rollouts that consider age-based factors like these. But there are many others that can determine the most effective targeting of who might be next in line for vaccines: housing and socioeconomic status, local infection and transmission rates, even ZIP codes.
The group that determines the order of vaccination is the Center for Disease Control's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices. The ACIP is a group of medical and public-health professionals, and on Nov. 23 it released a set of four ?ethical principles" to guide the first allocations of COVID-19 vaccines.
ACIP said the priorities will be providing the vaccine first for health-care workers and those most at risk and ensuring that everyone, regardless of their socioeconomic status, will ultimately have access to vaccines.
More specifically, ACIP will be working from a distribution plan announced in October by a federal panel, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
That plan identified four phases of distribution:
It is interesting to note here that young adults, as the most active spreaders, would receive vaccines earlier than most older adults under age 65.
On Nov. 20, Pfizer became the first pharmaceutical company to file for FDA emergency authorization (the approval of an unapproved medical product) for its COVID-19 vaccine. Moderna, a biotech company, is expected to file for emergency authorization soon.
Pfizer has said it expects to produce enough to vaccinate 12.5 million Americans by the end of this year, or about 3.7% of the nation's population of 330 million.
Other manufacturers, like AstraZeneca (which reported a success rate of more than 90% in clinical trials) and several dozen others may be gaining approval as well. Still widespread availability of vaccines to all Americans isn't expected until late 2021.
The road ahead for vaccination against COVID-19 is full of uncertainties.
We've taken a major step with the early successes in clinical trials. But the sheer physical challenge of manufacturing and distributing vaccines for 330 million people is daunting.
In addition to scaling up production of the vaccines themselves, factories also need to ramp up production of vials, needles, and other equipment. Some vaccines need to be frozen in extreme cold, requiring the construction and distribution of large refrigerated units.
Meanwhile, until the day comes when you can be vaccinated, it will remain important to follow the same safety rules you've probably been following since March. Stay at home as much as possible, wear masks, and practice social distancing when you're out.
The end of the pandemic may be in sight. We need to be patient just a bit longer.