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Thousands Gather for Memorial Day Celebrations, Ignoring Social Distancing Guidelines

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Photo by Kevin Lamarque for Reuters

  • Videos and pictures from Memorial Day weekend show thousands of people all over the country going to crowded beaches, boardwalks, pool parties, and other events, largely ignoring health guidelines.
  • One viral video showed dozens, if not hundreds, of people without masks in a crowded pool in the Lake of the Ozarks.
  • A speedway opening in North Carolina attracted 2,500 people, despite state-wide orders preventing outdoor gatherings of more than 25. The county sheriff refused to enforce the orders because he felt they were “unconstitutional.”
  • Meanwhile, the U.S. is on track to hit 100,000 deaths this week, and studies show at least 24 states still have epidemic levels of spread.

A Crowded Pandemic Memorial Day 

Despite numerous calls from health officials at every government level, thousands of people all over America spent Memorial Day weekend at crowded beaches, pool parties, and other packed locations, flouting recommendations for social distancing and mask-wearing.

One of the most viral examples came from a video of a pool party at the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri.

In the video, dozens and dozens of people can be seen packed together in a pool with no masks in sight. It is unclear how many people were there, but according to reports, a Facebook event for the party, which was called “Zero Ducks Given,” showed nearly 400 people had attended.

The video sparked a lot of backlash on social media, with some noting that it came just days after the governor of neighboring Arkansas said a similar pool party caused a new cluster of coronavirus cases and a “second peak” in his state.

Numerous officials in Missouri slammed the move, including St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson, who called it “irresponsible and dangerous.”

“Now, these folks will be coming home to St. Louis and counties all over Missouri and the Midwest, raising concerns about the potential of more positive cases, hospitalizations, and tragically, deaths,” she said. “It’s just deeply disturbing.”

St. Louis County Executive Sam Page, a physician, also condemned the party, and warned of the risk it posed.

“The risk of contracting COVID- 19 is exponentially increased,” he said. “This reckless behavior endangers countless people and risks setting us back substantially from the progress we have made in slowing the spread of COVID-19.”

Page also announced that the County Department of Public Health issued a travel advisory in response to the video. The advisory urges anyone who traveled over the weekend and did not take proper safety precautions to self-quarantine for 14 days or until they test negative for the coronavirus.

Parties in the U.S.A.

The footage from the Lake of the Ozarks pool party, however, is only one of several notable videos and photos that surfaced from the long weekend.

When videos of a pool party at a club in Houston also circulated on social media, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner announced that authorities will start enforcing capacity limits for bars and restaurants.

According to Turner’s office, the city recieved hundreds of complaints alleging violations.

Separately, another video spread on social media showed thousands of people packed in the stands at the Ace Speedway season opening in North Carolina.

Ace Speedway co-owner Jason Turner told local reporters that 2,500 people attended. He also said that social distancing was recommended but not enforced, and that hand sanitizer would be provided. The event did not, however, recommend that attendees wear masks.

Very notably, the Ace Speedway opening appeared to violate state-wide restrictions on outdoor gatherings. Under Gov. Roy Cooper’s second phase of reopening, North Carolina currently limits outdoor gatherings to 25 people.

But according to local reports, the County Sheriff said he would refuse to “enforce an unconstitutional law.” 

Beach Bashes Strain Resources

Many of the largest crowds from the weekend were those seen on beaches and boardwalks. 

Some of the most jarring pictures that circulated showed crowded boardwalks in Ocean City, Maryland, and Venice Beach in California, as well as other photos of crammed beaches like Newport Beach in California.

However, some of the most crowded beaches were in Florida. Pictures from Pensacola show crowds of people all over the beach. One of the cities that saw the biggest throngs was Daytona.

“Without a doubt, this is one of the busiest weekends I’ve seen in many years,” Volusia County Beach Safety Deputy Chief Andrew Ethridge told reporters. “We have 47 miles of beach in Volusia County and every bit of it has crowds.”

Separately, organizers for a large block party called “Orlando Invades Daytona” canceled the event at the request of the police department, but hundreds of people still showed up, dancing in streets and on top of cars near the boardwalk.

At one point, a man began throwing money from a car, prompting a huge cluster of people to rush forward and creating a traffic jam.

Like in North Carolina, Volusia County, which houses Daytona, has strict regulations on group gathering, which are limited to ten or fewer. But unlike the North Carolina Speedway, the lack of enforcement in Daytona was not due to a lack of will.

“They were not practicing social distancing and they did not necessarily respond in a lot of ways that we wanted them to as it relates to the normal expectations of visitors,” explained Daytona Mayor Derrick Henry. “You got 300 to 500 people per law enforcement officer, it is a tough order.”

Later in the eveing, the Daytona party got out of hand when a shooting broke out, reportedly injuring at least six people.

Concerns Grow as Enforcement Gets Sticky

The rowdy events of the long weekend come as the U.S. is about to hit a huge and horrific milestone: 100,000 deaths from the coronavirus.

With about 347,000 deaths worldwide, the U.S. now accounts for almost a third of all the people who have died from the virus.

Even before the holiday weekend, many experts and officials were concerned about the rate of spread as states and cities continue to ease more and more restrictions.

One recent study found that 24 states still have epidemic-level spread. According to other reports, cases are still trending upwards in at least 17 states.

But in places where restrictions have been rolled back and there are no enforceable executive orders, authorities have said there is not much they can do.

For example, the mayor of Osage Beach, Missouri, where the viral pool party was held, has insisted that it is essential for businesses to reopen for tourists. That, however, makes things complicated for law enforcement. 

“It kind of ties our hands when they’re just guidelines and not mandates,” Chris Twitchel, captain of operations for the Camden County Sheriff’s Office told the Washington Post. “We are doing the best thing that we can by urging people to use social distancing. But ultimately, there’s not a lot we can do about it.”

Meanwhile, the top health officials in the country are still warning that social distancing and masks are precautions that absolutely must be taken. 

On Sunday, Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House Coronavirus Response Coordinator, emphasized the importance of these measures while speaking to ABC This Week about the large Memorial Day crowds.

“Ee really want to be clear all the time that social distancing is absolutely critical,” she said. “And if you can’t social distance and you’re outside, you must wear a mask.” 

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (CNN) (NBC News)

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Aurora Police Apologize for Drawing Weapons on Black Family in Mistaken Stop

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  • Police drew guns on a Black family in Aurora, Colorado on Sunday who they believed were in a stolen vehicle, ordering the group out of the car and facedown down on the ground. 
  • The passengers were girls between the ages of 6 and 17 and video shows them sobbing in fear during the incident, with at least two minors in handcuffs. 
  • The adult female driver was able to confirm that the car was not stolen and police explained that the car had the same plate information as a car reported stolen in a different state. They also blamed the mixup on the fact that the family’s car was reported stolen earlier this year, even though Aurora police returned it back to them a day later. 
  • The city’s new police chief apologized and offered them therapy resources. She also said officers followed protocol but should be allowed to use discretion to deviate in situations like this and has ordered her team to look at new training practices.

What Happened? 

Police in Aurora, Colorado apologized Monday for drawing weapons on a Black family after mistaking their car for another stolen vehicle. 

On Sunday, August 2, Brittney Gilliam decided to take her 6-year-old daughter, 12-year-old sister, and 14 and 17-year-old nieces out to get their nails done. Gilliam told CNN that her niece had just gotten back in the car after looking to see if the nail salon they wanted to go to was open. At this point, she and the girls were parked in a parking lot with the car turned off.

That’s when Aurora police pulled up behind the vehicle with guns drawn. Then, police allegedly yelled at the group to put their hands out of the window and get out of the car.

She said the family exited the vehicle and were told to lay face down on the ground. At that time, police handcuffed Gilliam, her 12-year-old sister, and 17-year-old niece. Gilliam claims that police would not explain why she was pulled over until she was handcuffed. Then, they pulled her away to verify her claim that the car was not stolen as the children remained on the ground. 

A bystander named Jennifer Wurtz began recorded the incident after the family was handcuffed. The footage is about 12 and a half minutes long, but a shorter minute in a half-second clip went viral on Twitter. That clip shows the minors facedown on the floor sobbing as police try to keep onlookers away.

Eventually, police sit the children up and in the longer video, Wurtz can be heard pressing the officers about why they had drawn guns on children. 

Police repeatedly asked her to stop interfering, however, they did say she had the right to film. Wurtz stopped pointing the phone towards the scene, but continued to criticize the stop and asked for the officers’ names.

As frustration from onlookers grew, one officer explained that this was a “high-risk stop” and that police were following procedure.

The onlookers were still angry about the policy being used against children and became angrier after learning that the car was in fact, not stolen. 

What Caused the Confusion? 

As far as what the mixup actually was, Gilliam explained that she had reported her car stolen in February, but that case was cleared up. In fact, her attorney told CNN that when her vehicle was stolen, it was actually returned to her the next day by Aurora police. 

In a statement late Monday, Intern Chief of Police Vanessa Wilson said that after the stop, police realized the car Gilliam was driving was not stolen. Instead, another vehicle with the same plate information but from a different state had been. The Associated Press reported that the vehicle was a motorcycle from Montana. 

In her statement, Wilson said “The confusion may have been due, in part, to the fact that the stopped car was reported stolen. After realizing the mistake, officers immediately unhandcuffed everyone involved, explained what happened and apologized.”

“I have called (Gilliam’s) family to apologize and to offer any help we can provide, especially for the children who may have been traumatized by yesterday’s events,” she continued. “I have reached out to our victim advocates so we can offer age-appropriate therapy that the city will cover.”

Outrage and Apology 

Still, that did little to put the community at ease, especially since the incident comes amid widespread frustration over how Black people are treated by police. Frustrations are especially high in Aurora, where police have faced security for the 2019 death of Elijah McClain. McClain was an unarmed Black man who was stopped by officers as he walked home after he was reported as a suspicious person in a ski mask. 

During the confrontation, officers placed him in a chokehold and paramedics injected him with ketamine to sedate him. He then suffered a heart attack in the ambulance and was declared brain dead days later before being taken off life support. 

Just last month, two officers were fired for reenacting the chokehold in a photo near the memorial site for Elijah McClain A third officer was fired for not alerting supervisors about the photo while a fourth resigned before a disciplinary hearing about the incident. 

So this latest incident piled on the existing outrage against the local department and police policies in general. And many, including Gilliam, felt that the stolen car mixup did not justify how the young girls were treated. 

“That’s police brutality,” she told KUSA. “There’s no excuse why you didn’t handle it a different type of way. … You could have even told them, ‘Step off to the side let me ask your mom or your auntie a few questions so we can get this cleared up.’ ”

In her statement, Chief Wilson confirmed that a suspect in a stolen vehicle is a high-risk stop, and said officers followed procedures they are trained to carry out. However, she added that the department, “must allow our officers to have discretion and to deviate from this process when different scenarios present themselves.”

Wilson added that an internal investigation into this incident has been opened and said she had directed her team to look at new practices and training. Her promises to reexamine department practices are especially significant because that same Monday night, Aurora’s city council voted to make Wilson the city’s permanent police chief. 

See what others are saying: (Denver Post) (CNN) (Sentinel Colorado)

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260 Campers and Staffers at Georgia Summer Camp Tested COVID-19 Positive

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  • In Georgia, 260 people at a summer camp tested positive for the coronavirus in June, per a report from the CDC. 
  • In total, 597 Georgia residents were at the camp, meaning there was at least a 44% attack rate. 
  • Campers, as well as a good portion of the staff, were 17 and under. The vast majority of those who tested positive were aged 17 or under, contradicting the narrative that kids are less likely to get and spread COVID-19. 
  • Officials believe a variety of factors contributed to this outbreak, including campers not being required to wear masks, being lodged in close quarters, engaging in indoor activities, and participating in daily singing and cheering that likely promoted disease spread.

Campers Test Positive

In Georgia, 260 campers and staffers at an overnight summer camp tested positive for the coronavirus in June, according to a recently released report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

This data contradicts the narrative that children are less likely to fall ill with and spread COVID-19, which many are relying on in the push to open schools back up in the fall. According to the CDC, 597 Georgia residents were at the camp, meaning the camp had a 44% attack rate. That rate is likely even higher, as test results from just 58% of those at the camp were available.

While the CDC referred to the camp just as “Camp A,” many reports have since identified the camp as YMCA Camp High Harbour, which closed following the outbreak. The median age of campers there is 12, while the median age for staffers is 17. According to NBC News, 231 of those 260 people who tested positive were aged 17 or under.

The outbreak started when a teenage staff member left the camp after developing chills. The next day, that staff member tested positive for the coronavirus. The camp then began sending kids home until it was fully shut down three days later. It was recommended that everyone get tested for the virus and isolate if positive. 

How Did the Outbreak Spread?

Officials believe that while the camp followed a good chunk of the CDC’s suggested safety guidelines, the size of the outbreak might be tied to the fact that the camp neglected to implement a few key rules. For example, while staff at the camp were required to wear masks, the roughly 360 campers were not. The camp also did not utilize ventilation protocols, like keeping windows and doors open to allow air to circulate. Activities took place both indoors and outdoors, including “daily vigorous singing and cheering” which could have promoted disease spread. 

“The multiple measures adopted by the camp were not sufficient to prevent an outbreak in the context of substantial community transmission,” the CDC said in their report. “Relatively large cohorts sleeping in the same cabin and engaging in regular singing and cheering likely contributed to transmission.”

The CDC also believes that asymptomatic spread was common and factored into the high case rate. The organization also believes that it is possible that some of the cases could have been tied to outbreaks outside of the camp given the spikes the state of Georgia saw throughout June and July. 

The biggest takeaway from this outbreak, though, is the way that the disease spread among young people. It has commonly been believed that children are not as susceptible to the virus as adults; however, as officials receive new data, that belief is being questioned. 

“This investigation adds to the body of evidence demonstrating that children of all ages are susceptible to SARS-CoV-2 infection and, contrary to early reports, might play an important role in transmission,” the CDC wrote. 

Questions of School Safety

This case is adding to concerns that there could be severe outbreaks when schools open up in the fall. 

“We are not ready to have full in-person contact consisting of hundreds of students, faculty and staff with the expectation that no one spread or contracts COVID-19,” Dooly County Schools Superintendent Craig Lockhart told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We are not ready to return to in-person schooling and be highly confident that we can protect employees and students.”

Georgia in particular has seen rapid case spikes throughout the state. The safety of schools was further called into question on Monday when it was reported that 260 employees from Gwinnett County School District, the largest school district in the state, either tested positive or were exposed to the coronavirus. They are currently being excluded from work as a result.

It is unclear if these events will change the way the state handles its school reopening strategies or if new policies will be implemented as a result of them.

See what others are saying: (NBC News) (Atlanta Journal-Constitution) (Washington Post)

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Trump Administration Announces New DACA Restrictions

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  • The Trump administration has rolled back key aspects of DACA in order to review the future of the policy, including preventing new applicants and limiting other benefits for current recipients.
  • In a memo, Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf said he was making the changes “in light of the Supreme Court’s decision.”
  • Last month, the Supreme Court rejected President Donald Trump’s 2017 decision to end DACA, a move that put similar restrictions in place, including preventing new applicants.
  • After numerous reports of new applicants being rejected, a federal judge ruled that the SCOTUS decision meant that DACA needed to be restored to its full status and that the application process must be reopened.
  • As a result, the new decision by DHS appears to violate the appellate court’s decision and will almost certainly face legal challenges.

DACA Revisited

The Trump administration on Tuesday announced a series of new restrictions to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) including prohibiting new applicants and limiting renewals of current recipients in a move that appears to directly violate a federal court ruling.

The move marks the latest attack by the Trump administration on the program, which was created via executive action by President Barack Obama in 2012 to help young immigrants who were brought to the U.S. illegally before the age of 16, also known as DREAMers.

In September 2017, President Donald Trump announced that he was going to wind down DACA and blocked all new applications, claiming that it was unconstitutional because Obama acted outside his executive powers by creating the program without Congress’ approval.

The Supreme Court rejected that attempt last month in a 5-4 decision. Notably, the Court specifically did not say whether or not DACA was legal or illegal.

Instead, it said Trump could not end DACA because the administration did not give adequate legal reasoning to justify scrapping the program; however, the court did not prevent the Trump administration from getting rid of the program if it came up with more sound legal reasoning.

While Trump did say that he still wanted to end DACA, most legal experts believed that SCOTUS ruling meant that the program, which had been diminished under Trump, had to be restored to its full version before Trump rescinded it in September 2017.

Not only would that mean that the 650,000 DREAMers whose futures had been in limbo for nearly three years would now have security, it also meant that the Trump administration would now have to reopen DACA applications for the estimated 300,000 young immigrants who qualified for the program but were unable to apply since 2017.

Court Rulings

But about a month after the Supreme Court decision, numerous reports began to circulate claiming that the Trump administration was rejecting new DACA applications.

As a result, on July 17, U.S. District Judge Paul Grimm ruled that the Supreme Court decision meant DACA had to be restored to its full status before Trump tried to scrap it, meaning the Trump administration must accept new applicants.

In a court hearing Friday, Trump administration officials said for the first time that they had not “granted nor rejected” any applications, but instead, had put them all “on hold” while the administration decides on the future of the DACA program; however, they also said that some applications were rejected because of an error like missing information or an incorrect fee.

Judge Grimm responded to that new information by condemning the Trump administration for not explaining to applicants why they were being rejected. He also criticized them for not updating the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service website, which still said the government was not accepting new applications over a month after the Supreme Court ruling.

The Trump administration said that the website had “outdated and inaccurate information” that didn’t reflect their current policies. That did not satisfy Grimm.

“That is a problem,” he said. “As for the inaccuracy on the website, that has to change and that should be able to change very quickly… It creates a feeling and a belief that the agency is disregarding binding decisions by appellate and the Supreme Court.”

Grimm also told the administration that it must clarify the status of the program in the next 30 days.

DHS Memo

That clarification came in the form of a memo issued by Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf on Tuesday, where he announced that he was “making certain immediate changes to the DACA policy to facilitate my thorough consideration of how to address DACA in light of the Supreme Court’s decision.”

Those changes included rejecting all new DACA applicants, rejecting almost all requests for current DACA recipients to travel outside the U.S. except in “exceptional circumstances,” and requiring current DACA recipients to renew their deferred action and work authorizations every year instead of every two years.

Wolf did say that he was “determined to give careful consideration to whether the DACA policy should be maintained, rescinded, or modified,” but added that based on the evidence he has seen: “I have concluded that the DACA policy, at a minimum, presents serious policy concerns that may warrant its full rescission. At the same time, I have concluded that fully rescinding the policy would be a significant administration decision that warrants additional careful consideration.”

Wolf then went on to outline several reasons why he believes the program is problematic.

First, he said he has “serious doubts” about the legality of offering undocumented immigrants protection from deportation. He argued that Congress should be responsible for deciding legal protections for immigrants and that the executive action that created DACA should not be considered permanent.

Wolf also said he was worried about sending “mixed messages” on the enforcement of immigration laws.

“DACA makes clear that, for certain large classes of individuals, DHS will at least tolerate, if not affirmatively sanction, their ongoing violation of the immigration laws,” he said.

“I am deeply troubled that the message communicated by non-enforcement policies like DACA may contribute to the general problem of illegal immigration in a manner that is inconsistent with DHS’s law enforcement mission.”

Next Steps

Wolf’s memo is highly significant not only because it represents the Trump administration’s first official attack on DACA since the Supreme Court ruling, but also because the ruling appears to directly go against Grimm’s ruling. As a result, it is almost certain to face legal challenges.

“We obviously have no choice but to go back to court,” Mark Rosenbaum, a lawyer who argued against the Trump administration’s move to get rid of DACA in the Supreme Court told the New York Times. “It was illegal the first time, and now it’s a constitutional crisis. It’s as if a Supreme Court decision was written with invisible ink.”

The Trump administration is already on the defense. On Tuesday, unidentified administration officials gave different and even contradictory explanations to different media outlets.

One official told the Wall Street Journal that the interim rules do not go against Grimm’s order because they “constitute a new DHS policy that replaces the DACA cancellation invalidated by the Supreme Court.”

But another administration official also told ABC News that the memo did not create a new program, but served as an “intervening action” while the administration reviewed the policy. 

Right now, an exact timeline is unclear. Officials declined to answer whether or not the review would be completed before the election in November when asked by the Times.

Many experts believe that while Trump is positioning DACA as a key immigration issue in the election, he is unlikely to move on the question before then.

DACA is a complicated issue for Trump, who has long said the program is illegal, but DACA has been unusually popular among conservatives. Last month, a Pew Research Center poll found that 74% of Americans said they support the program, including 54% of Republicans.

By making this announcement but pushing this issue, Trump still can still energize his anti-immigrant base, while also avoiding at least some backlash from people who support the DREAMers—a point Trump himself seemed to hit on that point in a press conference Tuesday.

“We are going to make DACA happy and the DACA people and representatives happy, and also end up with a fantastic merit-based immigration system,” he said, adding that the Supreme Court’s DACA ruling gave him “more power,” though the decision said nothing about extending executive powers. 

Over the last few weeks, Trump has also said that he will deal with DACA through an executive order on immigration. While his team has tried to backtrack those comments, the remarks are still quite ironic, given the fact Trump’s entire reasoning for getting rid of the program is because he claims it was executive overreach. 

See what others are saying: (CBS News) (The Wall Street Journal) (The New York Times)

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