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Federal appeals court rules against Alabama in COVID-19 voting case

Eddie Burkhalter

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Judges on the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals turned down the state of Alabama’s appeal to the court over a federal judge’s ruling lifting a statewide ban on curbside voting and waiving certain absentee ballot requirements for voters in at least Jefferson, Mobile, and Lee Counties for the July 14 runoff.

U.S. Circuit judges Jill Pryor and Robin Rosenbaum in the court’s decision Thursday wrote that state officials, including Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, early on dismissed concerns about COVID-19, and that the state in its request failed to show plaintiffs might not win in court over claims that the state’s voting requirements run afoul of the plaintiffs’ Constitutional protections or of the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

The appeals court refused to lift the injunction ordered by the federal district court.

Appellants fail to explain why voter confidence is not negatively affected by their enforcement of voting restrictions that force Alabamians to choose between voting and potentially contracting a severe or deadly case of COVID-19,” the judge’s wrote in the ruling. 

U.S. District Judge Abdul Kallon, in his June 15 opinion, approved, in part, a preliminary injunction filed by the plaintiffs, the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund Inc., the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program.

Those groups sued Gov. Kay Ivey and Secretary of State John Merrill, and they seek to implement curbside voting for at-risk citizens during the COVID-19 pandemic. Plaintiffs also asked the court to remove requirements for certain voter IDs and that witnesses sign absentee ballot requests. 

The appeals court judges in their order wrote that the science is “clear and undisputed.”

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COVID-19 spreads easily between people in close- proximity, and it can spread between people who are never physically in the same room because it stays in the air for up to 14 minutes,” the judge’s wrote. 

The photo ID and the witness requirements force at least some Alabamians, including the plaintiffs, to increase their risk of contracting COVID-19 by foregoing nationwide and statewide social distancing and self-isolation rules and recommendations to apply for and successfully vote absentee, the order continues. 

“It’s bad enough that COVID-19 cases can be severe or deadly for people for all ages. But that burden weighs even more heavily on those people who face a higher risk of contracting a deadly or severe case of COVID-19 like the individual plaintiffs here,” the order reads. 

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The judge’s also took exception with the state’s argument that Alabama’s photo ID and witness requirements impose “a little bit of work” for Alabama voters. 

“Despite Appellants’ insinuations, that risk isn’t comparable to the normal risk faced ‘when we leave home.’ Sure, anyone may risk getting hit by a bus on the way to a polling station. But that doesn’t mean we set up polling stations in the middle of the street,” the judges wrote. “Appellants’ failure to acknowledge the significant difference between leaving one’s home to vote in non-pandemic times and forcing high-risk COVID-19 individuals to breach social-distancing and self-isolation protocols so they can vote reflects a serious lack of understanding of or disregard for the science and facts involved here.” 

Addressing the state’s argument that Alabama’s photo ID and witness requirements are meant to combat voting fraud, the judges wrote that “according to Plaintiffs’ evidence from the Heritage Foundation, Alabama has prosecuted a total of only sixteen people for absentee-ballot voter fraud since the year 2000.” 

“That suggests that Alabama has not found itself in recent years to have a significant absentee-ballot fraud problem,” the order reads.

Alabama recorded 1,129 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, a record-high daily increase. The previous high was June 14 when the state added 1,014 new cases. The state’s 14-day rolling average of new cases was also at a record high Thursday at 734.

Eddie Burkhalter is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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Education

Exposure notification app for college students launches pilot phase

Micah Danney

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Screen captures of the GuideSafe application. (UAB)

College students across Alabama and anyone with a .edu email address are being invited to participate in an anonymous Exposure Notification System app for iPhone and Android users. The app launched in a closed pilot phase on Monday that will allow up to 10,000 downloads for each phone type.

The app is part of the GuideSafe platform, a suite of tools designed to help people reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus. It features a tool called HealthCheck, which allows users to report COVID-19 symptoms, and another called Event Passport, which uses an algorithm to assess whether a person is safe to attend a gathering of 10 or more people or not based on the responses they log in HealthCheck. 

The GuideSafe platform encompasses the Stay Safe Together and Testing for Alabama initiatives. Participation is voluntary and designed to protect users’ privacy while anonymously alerting each user to potential exposure to someone who has tested positive in the last 14 days. The exposure notification system assigns random numbers to each user to keep them anonymous to each other and to the system.

The app will be made available for mass public download later this month after the pilot phase ends and the app’s performance is assessed.

GuideSafe is the largest-scale testing initiative for higher education in the nation. It uses exposure notification technology developed jointly by Google and Apple.

Alabama is one of the first states to launch the technology, which is part of the state’s program for safe entry to campuses of higher education. Gov. Kay Ivey allocated more than $30 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding for the plan.

The pilot app was built by the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Birmingham-based MotionMobs, in partnership with the Alabama Department of Public Health.

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“We have worked extremely hard to leverage research and innovation, community service, patient care and education to make a positive difference in this pandemic,” said UAB President Ray L. Watts. “This new app – using Google- and Apple-led technology and created by UAB faculty, staff and MotionMobs for the people of Alabama – is a necessary tool in our effort to return to college campuses safely this fall.”

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Governor announces $100 million internet voucher program for students

The governor has allocated for the program $100 million of the state’s $435 million in federal CARES act funds to help the state safeguard schools amid the growing spread of COVID-19. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Gov. Kay Ivey on Friday announced a program to increase internet access for K-12 students for distance learning as the start of the new school year approaches. 

The project, called Alabama Broadband Connectivity (ABC) for Students, will provide vouchers for families of students who are eligible for free and reduced lunches “or other income criteria,” according to a press release from Ivey’s office. The vouchers will pay for equipment and services for high-speed internet from the fall through Dec. 31. 

Ivey has allocated for the program $100 million of the state’s $435 million in federal CARES act funds to help the state safeguard schools amid the growing spread of COVID-19. 

The funds will be used to expand internet access by providing “equipment and service for broadband, wireless hot spots, satellite, fixed wireless, DSL, and cellular-on-wheels,” according to Ivey’s office. 

“Despite the upheavals in our lives during the past few months and at least into the near future, children must be able to continue their classroom instruction,” Ivey said in a statement. “This funding will expand internet access to allow more students to access distance learning while creating smaller classes in schools that provide those options and will also ensure their safety during the pandemic. While I respect those districts that have elected to use remote learning, I fear that a slide will come by keeping our kids at home. These funds will bridge the gap until all students can get back into the classroom as soon as possible.”

Families with children who receive free or reduced school lunch are to receive a mailed letter in August, and a website to assist Alabamians with questions as the program nears its launch can be found here.

“Once again, we are appreciative of the leadership and resources provided by Governor Ivey during this unprecedented time in our country’s history. More than ever before, the immediate need for broadband infrastructure, devices, and connectivity are an integral part of providing Alabama students with a quality education,” said Eric Mackey, Alabama superintendent of education, in a statement. “A huge part of evening the playing field to provide greater equity in educational services will come from closing the digital divide between varying Alabama communities. We still have a lot of work to do, but because of the resources provided by Gov. Ivey, we can head into what we know will be a challenging school year with greater optimism.”  

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The funds are to be administered by the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, which has partnered with Maryland-based CTC Technology & Energy for the project. 

“We have learned in the past several months that internet connectivity is a necessity for everything from education to healthcare and working remotely. I am pleased that Alabama is going to enter into this private-public partnership to make internet access available to those low-income households who cannot currently afford it. Economic status should not be a determining factor in receiving quality education, and it should not bar anyone from the ability to access vital online services,” said Sen. Del Marsh, president pro tem of the State Senate, in a statement. “Although this is only a temporary solution, I am confident that it will be a bridge to a time when fiber is put in the ground and access to the internet and devices will become standard across Alabama.”

According to Ivey’s office, the plan was drafted with the input from the Broadband Working Group, a group Ivey announced the creation of on June 25, which is composed of legislators and industry experts who are to provide to guidance on the state’s spending of $1.9 billion in CARES Act funds. 

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“I appreciate the opportunity to be a part of Governor Ivey’s working group to utilize federal funds in the CARES Act to provide broadband access to all Alabama students regardless of income. I think Governor Ivey has a good plan,” said Rep. Randall Shedd, a member of the working group and a leader of the Rural Caucus. 

Mackey said last week that approximately half of the state’s K-12 students will begin school by learning virtually for a period of time. A lack of internet connectivity in many homes is a major concern for school administrators who face the challenge of providing education to students when new coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths continue to increase in Alabama. 

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Education

Jones urges USDA to extend waiver program for school meals amid COVID-19

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Unless the U.S. Department of Agriculture extends a waiver program, set to expire at the start of school, thousands of Alabama’s schoolchildren without transportation to school and who are learning remotely could miss out on school meals.  

U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, and dozens of other senators on Wednesday urged the USDA to extend vouchers that provide critical meals to children during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic has forced schools around the country to close their buildings and shift instruction to online and distance-learning models,” the senators wrote in a letter to USDA. “For many children, school breakfast and lunch may be the only healthy and regular meals they receive.”

The economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has cost millions of parents their jobs, the senators wrote, and millions more students will be dependent on school-provided meals. 

“School meal program directors must begin procuring food, equipment, and supplies and placing orders now in preparation for the upcoming school year,” the letter continues. 

The waivers have allowed students to receive free meals when learning remotely, and the meals could be delivered to areas when transportation wasn’t available for students. 

State Superintendent Eric Mackey during a press briefing hosted by Jones on July 24 said “we do not anticipate that waiver being extended by the United States Department of Agriculture.” 

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Mackey said those waivers allowed for the delivery of meals to students who couldn’t come to school to pick the food up, and it allowed for the serving of bulk items, such as milk by the gallon. That all goes away if the USDA does not extend the waivers, he said. 

“Essentially, they will have to come to school to get the meals,” Mackey said. 

Mackey said last week that about half of the state’s K-12 students will be learning remotely for a period of time once school begins.

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The senators are urging the USDA to extend those waivers to help ensure low-income students can get school-provided meals throughout the upcoming school year. The senators also called on the USDA to reimburse schools for the transportation costs for delivering meals to low-income students.  

“While many school meal programs are managing these costs for the time-being, they cannot continue absorbing them for the foreseeable future. We ask that the USDA make additional funds available to schools to assist with the cost of delivering meals to low-income students until regular school operations are restored,” the letter continues. 

Senators in the letter asked the USDA to extend the following waivers: 

  • Unexpected School Closures Waiver 
  • Afterschool Activity Waiver
  • Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program Parent Pick-Up Waiver
  • Waiver of Child Nutrition Monitoring
  • Waiver of Food Management Company Contract Duration Requirements
  • Waiver of Local School Wellness Assessments
  • Area Eligibility Waiver
  • Summer Food Service Program (SFSP) and Seamless Summer Option (SSO) Waivers

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Nearly 20 Alabamians per day died from COVID-19 in July

The state is entering August and pending schools reopening with 48,346 actively infected people living in the state — not counting the thousands or even tens of thousands who are infected and have not yet been diagnosed.

Brandon Moseley

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The Alabama Department of Public Health reported Friday that another 15 Alabamians had died by the last day of the month, raising the number of confirmed COVID-19 deaths in the state to 1,531. July was by far the worst month of the pandemic in Alabama — with 605 Alabamians dying from the virus.

The high death toll in July translates into a rate of 19.52 deaths per day over the course of the month. At least 299 of the 605 deaths in July occurred in the last two weeks of the month — a rate of 21.36 deaths per day.

The state of Alabama entered the month with 37,536 diagnosed cases of coronavirus combined for March through June. Many of those cases had long since recovered. A largely apathetic public ignored all the warnings and insisted on parties, barbecues and vacations, often without masks, radically worsening the conditions on the ground in Alabama.

Another 47,742 cases of the novel strain of the coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, were confirmed by the state department of health in July alone — more than doubled the number of cases diagnosed in the month of June, when 19,584 coronavirus cases were diagnosed in Alabama.

Nearly 56 percent of Alabama’s known cases were diagnosed just in July. Hundreds of them have died. 35,501 Alabamians, mostly from the previous months, have recovered from their ordeal, but most of Alabama’s cases are still considered active infections.

As of Aug. 1, Alabama has the seventh-highest per capita infection rate in the country — with 1,822 cases per 100,000 people, according to the New York Times. When limited to cases in the last seven days, Alabama has the sixth-highest rate in the country — at 239 cases per 100,000 people in the last seven days.

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The state is entering August and pending schools reopening with 48,346 actively infected people living in the state — not counting the thousands or even tens of thousands who are infected and have not yet been diagnosed.

The state also set a new record for COVID-19 hospitalizations on Thursday at 1,642. Intensive care beds continue to be in high demand as hundreds fill hospitals.

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While testing has increased, the percentage of tests that return positive rose dramatically through the month of July. On July 1, roughly 12.37 percent of tests were positive, based on 7-day averages of daily case and test increases. By July 31, that number rose to nearly 22 percent. Experts say that percentage — known as the positivity rate or percent positive — should be below 5 percent or many cases are going undetected and not enough tests are available.

On July 31, the Department of Public Health said “overwhelmed” labs and limited testing supplies are delaying testing results with most people taking at least a week to get their results back. Experts say test results that take that long are nearly worthless.

There are growing fears in business and government circles that the surging coronavirus cases could jeopardize what originally appeared to be an economic recovery. Already the Southeastern Conference, which includes the University of Alabama and Auburn University, has announced that it is moving the start of their college football season back three weeks from Sept. 5 to Sept. 26 to allow more time to assess the situation and plan for how they will play in the midst of the pandemic.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey and State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris have extended the public health emergency to the end of August. The order to wear a mask or cloth face covering has similarly been extended to August 31.

Congress is debating passing another coronavirus relief package but Capitol Hill is bitterly divided on how large this latest package should be. Meanwhile, there were another 1.5 million new unemployment claims filed last week.

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