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Jones, Alexander introduce bill to delay Trump’s auto tariffs

Brandon Moseley

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Wednesday U.S. Senators Doug Jones (D-Alabama) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) introduced the Automotive Jobs Act of 2018. The bipartisan bill would delay President Donald J. Trump’s (R) recently proposed twenty five percent tariff on imported cars, trucks, and automobile parts.

At President Trump’s direction, the U.S. Commerce Department initiated a Section 232 investigation in May to determine whether imported automobiles, trucks, and parts are a threat to U.S. national security and to subsequently levy tariffs.

The senators’ legislation would require that the International Trade Commission (ITC) conduct a comprehensive study of the well-being, health, and vitality of the United States automotive industry before any tariffs could be applied.

“These tariffs are a tax on American consumers and they’re going to cost Alabama jobs,” said Senator Jones. “I share the President’s goal to reinvigorate manufacturing and secure trade deals that benefit our country, but not at the expense of one of Alabama’s biggest job creators. This bipartisan legislation will hold the Administration accountable by ensuring it has all of the facts about the positive impact American automakers have on their communities, regardless of where they’re headquartered. With that information in hand, the Administration could no longer make the ridiculous claim that this industry is somehow a national security threat.”

“This bill would delay the administration’s proposed 25 percent tariff on automobiles and automotive parts imported into the United States until the President has a second opinion from the International Trade Commission about the effect those tariffs would have on the more than 7 million jobs in the American automotive industry,” said Senator Alexander. “About 136,000 of those auto jobs are in Tennessee, one third of our state’s manufacturing jobs. The president has gotten the world’s attention with his tariffs, but what deserves more attention is his long term solution – zero tariffs, zero barriers, which is, as the president said at the G7 summit in June, ‘the way it should be.’ Taking steps in the direction of reciprocity—insisting that other countries do for us what we do for them—rather than a trade war, will be much better for the American worker.”

Last month, the senators wrote a letter to U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross urging him to reconsider the tariffs. This legislation addresses the key concerns the senators raised in their letter to Secretary Ross.

As part of the mandated study, the ITC will be required to assess, among other things: The number of automobiles assembled in the United States that are exported each year and to which countries; The percentage of component parts of automobiles assembled in the United States that are imported: The number of component parts for automobiles that are not produced in the United States and would thus not be available to United States automotive producers if prohibitively high duties were imposed on imports of those parts; and, The effect an increase in automotive manufacturing costs would have on jobs in the United States.

The ITC will be required to deliver the report to Congress and is to include policy recommendations based on the study. Under this legislation, these tariffs cannot be applied until the report is delivered.

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In recent administrations, Congress has delegated more and more authority to U.S. Presidents to deal with trade disputes and issue retaliatory tariffs. With the Trump Administration, the Congress appears to be moving toward exercising more control and input over these matters. Now if this somehow passes both Houses of Congress, why would any President sign any bill that reduces his own presidential authority?

Both Governor Kay Ivey (R) and Commerce Secretary Greg Canfield have both expressed their own concerns about Trump’s proposed automotive tariff.

The problem with tariffs on automobile parts is that even American made cars all have foreign parts in them. The tariff will dramatically increase the cost of cars produced in the U.S. and foreign retaliation on American exports will price American cars out of many foreign markets.

Earlier today negotiators between the U.S. and the E.U. suggested that they could be on a path toward no tariffs at all between the two. The Trump Administration is reportedly also making progress on bilateral negotiations with Mexico.

Doug Jones is Alabama’s junior Senator.

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Elections

League of Women Voters of Alabama sue over voting amid COVID-19 pandemic

Eddie Burkhalter

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The League of Women Voters of Alabama on Thursday filed a lawsuit against Gov. Kay Ivey, Secretary of State John Merrill and several Montgomery County election officials asking the court to expand Alabama’s absentee voting and relax other voting measures amid the COVID-19 outbreak. 

The nonprofit is joined in the suit by 10 plaintiffs who range in age from 60 to 75, many of whom have medical conditions that put them at greater risk for serious complications or death from COVID-19. 

“Voting is a right, not a privilege, and elections must be safe, accessible, and fairly administered,” the League of Women Voters of Alabama said in a press release Thursday. “Alabama’s Constitution specifically requires that the right to vote be protected in times of ‘tumult,’ clearly including the current pandemic.” 

Currently, to vote absentee in Alabama, a person must send a copy of their photo ID and have their ballot signed by a notary or two adults. The lawsuit asks the court to require state officials to use emergency powers to waive the notary or witness requirement, the requirement to supply a copy of a photo ID and to extend no-excuse absentee voting into the fall. 

Among the plaintiffs is Ardis Albany, 73, of Jefferson County who has an artificial aortic valve, according to the lawsuit. 

“Because she fears exposing herself to COVID-19 infection, Ms. Albany has already applied for an absentee ballot for the November 3, 2020, general election,” the complaint states. “Her application checked the box for being out of county on election day, and she is prepared to leave Jefferson County on election day if necessary to vote an absentee ballot.” 

Another plaintiff, 63-year-old Lucinda Livingston of Montgomery County suffers from heart and lung problems and has been sequestered at home since March 17, where she lives with her grandson, who’s under the age of five, according to the complaint. 

“She fears acquiring COVID-19, given her physiological pre-morbidity, and she fears spreading the virus to her grandson at home,” the complaint states. “She has never voted an absentee ballot, but she wishes to do so in the elections held in 2020. She does not have a scanner in her home, cannot make a copy of her photo ID, and has no way safely to get her absentee ballot notarized or signed by two witnesses.” 

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In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, Gov. Ivey pushed the Republican runoff election back until July 14. Although Merrill has allowed those who may be concerned about voting in person in the runoff to vote absentee by checking a box on the ballot that reads “I have a physical illness or infirmity which prevents my attendance at the polls.”

Merril has not extended that offer for voters in the municipal and presidential elections in November, however. 

Meanwhile, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Alabama continue to rise, while testing for the virus has remained relatively flat in recent weeks. 

“We’re extraordinarily concerned about the numbers that we have been seeing,” said Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris, speaking during a press briefing Thursday. 

Harris said the department continues to see community spread of the virus and have identified several hotspots. He’s concerned that the public isn’t taking the virus seriously or following recommendations to wear masks in public and maintain social distancing, he said Thursday. 

“One hundred years ago the nonpartisan League of Women Voters was founded to protect and preserve the right to vote and the integrity of the electoral process,” said Barbara Caddell, President of the League of Women Voters of Alabama, in a statement. “The unexpected risks posed by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 (COVID19) challenge our election system to the utmost.  Today, we ask that Alabama’s courts use Alabama’s laws to make it safe and possible for all citizens to vote.”

The League of Woman Voters of Alabama’s lawsuit is similar to a suit by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program which asks the court to require state officials to implement curbside voting for at-risk citizens during the coronavirus pandemic and to remove requirements for certain voter IDs and witnesses requirements.

The U.S. Department of Justice on Tuesday filed a brief in that suit that states the department doesn’t believe Alabama’s law that requires witnesses for absentee ballots violates the Voting Rights Act.

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Alabama includes antibody test results in total test counts

Chip Brownlee

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The Alabama Department of Public Health is combining some antibody test results with diagnostic test results in its total tested count on the state’s public coronavirus dashboard, potentially complicating the picture of the virus’s spread.

Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said Thursday that some antibody test results have been included in the state’s “total tested” count on its public dashboard, but that the state is working to separate the two categories of tests.

“I think the total number does include some antibody tests, although I’ve asked our staff to sort of ferret those out and start reporting those separately,” Harris said.

Diagnostic PCR tests, which are the vast majority of tests performed currently, check for a current infection, while antibody tests, which use blood and are sometimes called serologic tests, check for a past infection.

The acknowledgment that Alabama has combined the two types of tests on its public dashboard comes after several states faced a backlash from public health experts who say the two types of tests should not be combined.

Combining the two types of tests muddies the picture and could mislead the public and policymakers about where and when the virus spread. Depending on how many antibody tests have been included, it may also falsely inflate the total tested count.

Several other states — including Texas, Virginia and Vermont — said they also recognized the issue and have been working to fix them. The CDC also came under fire for combining the two types of tests in its public reporting of testing numbers.

Harris said he was not sure how many antibody tests have been included in the total tested category, but that the state is working to separate the tests into two different counts.

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“I’m not sure what that number is but we’re going to start reporting that separately just to make that clear to the public,” Harris said.

The state health officer also said the state does not use antibody test results to calculate the percent of tests that are positive, an important metric used to determine if the state is doing enough testing and if increased cases are the result of increased testing or community transmission.

“When we look at the percent of positive tests, those are not including antibody tests at all. We’re only looking at people who were tested with a PCR (diagnostic) test to see if they were actively infected,” Harris said during a live-streamed town hall with U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell Thursday. “And so that percent positive rate, which is the one we’re monitoring the most, is the one that does not include the antibody tests.”

On Wednesday, the CDC urged caution when seeking antibody tests because the tests could be wrong up to half of the time.

The CDC also warned that antibody tests are not accurate enough to use to make public policy decisions or personal safety decisions, despite calls from some policymakers who say the tests can be used to give people an all-clear to return to normal life.

Experts warn that getting a positive antibody test should not be taken as a license to think you are now immune from the virus. There is limited evidence about how long immunity lasts, and the test could be a false positive.

“Serologic testing (antibody testing) should not be used to determine immune status in individuals until the presence, durability, and duration of immunity is established,” the CDC said.

The CDC also cautioned against using antibody tests to make decisions about returning to work or school.

“Serologic test results should not be used to make decisions about grouping persons residing in or being admitted to congregate settings, such as schools, dormitories, or correctional facilities,” the CDC said. “Serologic test results should not be used to make decisions about returning persons to the workplace.”

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Alabama health officer: More testing doesn’t account for spike in cases

Chip Brownlee

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Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris said Thursday that the spike in new COVID-19 cases over the last two weeks is not totally attributable to increased testing and that the Alabama Department of Public Health believes there is ongoing, widespread community transmission of the virus.

“We’re extraordinarily concerned about the numbers that we have been seeing,” Harris said. “We know that ADPH and partners we work with have managed to increase the number of tests we’re doing throughout the state, but that doesn’t account for the case numbers that we’re seeing, or certainly doesn’t completely account for it.”

Harris said the state has identified a number of growing hotspots, including in Montgomery County, Tuscaloosa County and Walker County, where spikes in cases are not attributable to increased testing but rather outbreaks connected to businesses, nursing homes and widespread community transmission.

“We know that we continue to have community transmission going on in many parts of the state,” Harris said on a Facebook town hall with U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell. “We certainly identified many hotspots. …Sometimes we understand the reasons. Sometimes we do not. But clearly there’s a lot of disease transmission still going on.”

Harris said the increased daily case counts — which are increasing faster than 46 other states — should serve as a reminder that social-distancing recommendations must be followed, people must wear masks when out in public and people should avoid large crowds, even if those actions are not mandated by the government.

“Now more than ever, now that people are out in public, this is the time when they really need to follow those rules, those guidelines,” Harris said. “We need people to stay six feet apart, or more, from folks who aren’t in their own household. When people are going out into public, and particularly in indoors, perhaps into businesses or in other places, where they’re mixing with other people, face coverings, mask of some kind, are imperative and absolutely everyone needs to do that.”

The state health officer, who leads Alabama’s Department of Public Health, said the state was very concerned by photos and videos of massive crowds not wearing masks on Alabama’s beaches and Gulf restaurants over Memorial Day weekend.

“We did not like that at all,” Harris said. “I had conversations with local officials there about them and they certainly recognize and understand the dangers of that as well. They have done their best to use law enforcement to try to enforce that to the extent they can. But ultimately, we need the public to accept this. And to do this, we need the public to buy in and understand.”

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Over the past two weeks, Alabama has confirmed an additional 5,080 cases, bringing the total number of confirmed cases up to 16,181. About a third of the state’s cases have been confirmed in the two weeks since the state relaxed restrictions on bars and restaurants on May 11.

Seven- and 14-day rolling averages, used to smooth out daily variability in reporting, are higher than during any point in the outbreak, meaning more new cases per day are being confirmed than ever before.

There has been no comparable increase in testing. Alabama broke 200,000 total tests performed on Thursday. But over the past 14 days, about 4,004 tests per day have been performed, on average. Over the previous 14-day period, ending May 14, the average number of tests per day was roughly the same at 4,032.

Meanwhile, the percent of tests that are positive has been rising after dropping to as low as 3 percent on May 1, based on 7-day averages of increases in tests and cases. The same metric rose to 10 percent by Wednesday.

Over the last 14 days, at least 117 people have died from COVID-19. On Thursday, the number of deaths attributable to the virus rose to 590.

“Those numbers do sound like numbers, they’re statistics,” Harris said on another Facebook town hall with Sen. Doug Jones. “But it’s really important to remember that every one of those numbers is a person. They’re someone’s parent or child or brother or sister. And so we never want to lose sight of the fact that we are having Alabamians who are dying from COVID-19 disease.”

Harris said the rise in cases is worrisome, and the state expected some rise after lifting the state’s stay-at-home order and loosening restrictions on businesses and gatherings.

“We’re going to need people to be more careful than ever,” Harris said.

Harris repeatedly emphasized the importance of wearing masks when out in public and said maybe public health officials need to do more to emphasize the importance of masks.

“People feel like a mask just protects me, and if I’m not worried about getting sick, then why should I wear a mask?” Harris said. “But a mask is how you protect other people.”

A mask controls your own coughing or sneezing or other symptoms — or just transmitting it because you’re talking or yelling or spitting. Such precautions are important because at least a quarter of people and maybe as many as a third of people who are infected and can infect others won’t have any symptoms at all.

“So, it’s certainly possible that you can be infectious to other people and not even know it,” Harris said. “So that’s what a mask is for. A mask, in my mind, is good manners. A mask is how you show that you care about people in your family or in your community, particularly those people who are very vulnerable, or seniors or people with chronic health problems.”

Masks are also important even when not around vulnerable people because you could spread the virus to someone else, who then unwittingly could spread it to a nursing home or extended care facility.

In Tuscaloosa County, DCH Health System has seen the number of hospitalizations from COVID-19 more than double over the course of a week, in part because of an outbreak at a long-term care facility in the county and in part because of community spread, Harris said.

Similar outbreaks at long-term care facilities in Elmore County, Butler County and a workplace in Walker County and Franklin County have contributed to rising numbers, Harris said.

“Some of those are outbreaks,” Harris said, “and yet again, those are still attributable to community spread. The people in the nursing home didn’t go out into the community and catch it. Someone brought it into them. There has to be transmission going on in the community for that to happen. We need to find a way to get people to take this seriously.”

Harris said the Department of Public Health is not aware of any particular origin for the rising cases in Montgomery County, however, and that officials believe the rise is largely due to widespread community transmission and in part due to increased testing.

But the increase in cases also accompanies a rise in the percent of tests that are positive in Montgomery County, despite increased testing there. There has been some controversy about Montgomery Mayor Steven Reed saying no ICU beds were available in the city, but Harris said he was “absolutely correct.”

“There were no ICU beds available,” Harris said. “We talked to the hospitals immediately upon learning about that. I think their response was that that’s correct. However, they do have some internal capacity, when they need to do it, to expand the space that they have available and take care of critically ill patients.”

In Montgomery, that has involved treating critically ill patients in emergency rooms and retrofitted ICU units, a Montgomery area doctor told APR earlier this week. But there remains a shortage of ICU beds.

“I think that the message that we want to be careful about putting out there is: clearly those hospitals have higher numbers, they have you know their normal beds filled, and yet the public sometimes hears that and thinks well if I have a heart attack, I don’t have a place to go or they’re going to turn me away if I show up because the hospital’s full, and that’s not the case,” Harris said. “And so we want people to understand they certainly still can continue to seek care, just as they always would for any kind of a problem. They should do that. They certainly shouldn’t try to sit at home if they’re concerned about a certain thing.”

But if numbers continue to rise, the situation could become a dire problem.

“If numbers go up, they can’t do that forever, and then we’ll have to have to make other arrangements,” Harris said.

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100+ clergy call on governor to take action on coronavirus effects in underserved communities

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Clergy with Faith in Action Alabama (FIAA), a federation of Faith in Action, are calling on Alabama Governor Kay Ivey to address the racial inequities in Alabama highlighted by the COVID-19 pandemic, in a public petition that was sent to her office today.

“I am honored to join with more than 100 clergy across race and faith lines throughout the state to impress upon our Gov. Ivey to provide needed leadership to save the lives of our most marginalized,” said Dr. A.B. Sutton, Jr., pastor of Living Stones Temple in Fultondale and the chairman of Faith in Action Alabama’s board of directors. The future of our state depends on it.”

Among the demands in the letter, which has been signed by over 100 clergy, FIAA is calling on Gov. Ivey to commit to greater access to testing in African American and rural communities; to increase emergency resources to food banks, nonprofits and churches so that they can support individuals suffering from the economic effects of the coronavirus; and to support Medicaid expansion so that underinsured and uninsured Alabamians can gain access to affordable quality health care.

The petition comes three weeks after FIAA faith leaders met with Gov. Ivey, Dr. Scott Harris, director of the Alabama Department of Public Health and Gov. Ivey’s chief of staff Jo Bonner; and several weeks after an op-ed published on AL.comdemanded her immediate attention to this issue. Nearly half of the state’s COVID-19 deaths are African Americans, and layoffs from the coronavirus are more likely to happen in black communities.

Just last week, FIAA visited the Jefferson County Jail to distribute masks and hand sanitizer to incarcerated individuals through the LIVE FREE Masks for the People campaign. Inmates across the country have been unable to adequately distance themselves from potential virus carriers and are at a much higher risk for contracting it due to such close confinement.

“As faith leaders, we know that taking action on the issue of systemic racism is an essential way to give praise, honor, and glory to the God of Liberation,” said Dr. Sutton. “James 2:26 says that ‘Faith without works is dead.’ we are putting our faith into action. There is no clear sign as to when the pandemic will be truly be curbed. We cannot continue to act in ignorance when our people are dying.  We need Gov. Ivey to provide bold moral leadership to respond to this grave reality.”

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