Here are 5 countries that are opening up and living with Covid

By Laura Smith-Spark | CNN

More than 18 months into the coronavirus pandemic, a number of countries have decided it’s time to open up and adopt a “living with Covid” model.

Some have enviable vaccination rates; others have decided that the costs of continued economic and social restrictions outweigh the benefits.

Here are five nations to watch closely for how their new strategies play out.

Denmark: The country that declared precautions over

The Danish government lifted all remaining coronavirus restrictions in the country on September 10, saying Covid-19 was no longer “an illness which is a critical threat to society.”

Danes can now enter nightclubs and restaurants without showing a “Covid passport,” use public transport without wearing a face covering and meet in large numbers without restrictions — essentially returning to pre-pandemic life.

The key to Denmark’s success lies partly in its vaccination rollout: as of September 13, over 74% of Denmark’s population was fully vaccinated against Covid-19, according to Our World in Data.

The transmission rate, or R-rate, currently stands at 0.7, Health Minister Magnus Heunicke tweeted Wednesday, meaning that the epidemic is continuing to decline. If it’s above 1.0, Covid-19 cases will increase in the near future. If it’s below 1.0, cases will decrease in the near future.

“The vaccines and all citizens in Denmark’s great efforts over a long period of time are the basis for us to do so well,” Heunicke said.

Despite such optimism, Heunicke sounded a note of caution last month as the government announced the planned end date for restrictions. “Even though we are in a good place right now, we are not out of the epidemic. And the government will not hesitate to act quickly if the pandemic again threatens important functions in our society,” he said.

Singapore: Trying to live with Covid, but Delta isn’t helping

Singapore’s government announced in June that it was planning to move toward a living with Covid strategy — attempting to control outbreaks with vaccines and monitoring hospitalizations rather than restricting citizens’ lives.

“The bad news is that Covid-19 may never go away. The good news is that it is possible to live normally with it in our midst,” Singapore’s top Covid-19 officials wrote in an op-ed at the time.

Authorities began to ease some restrictions in August, allowing fully vaccinated people to dine in restaurants and to gather in groups of five, up from two.

But a surge in cases caused by the highly infectious Delta variant has put that strategy under strain, leading officials to pause further reopening. Officials warned last week that they might need to reimpose Covid-19 restrictions if the new outbreak was not contained.

Singapore’s Covid-19 taskforce said it would attempt to limit the outbreak through more aggressive contact tracing, “ring-fencing” cases and clusters, and more frequent mandatory testing for high-risk workers.

Despite such measures, Singapore reported its highest one-day Covid-19 case total in more than a year on Tuesday. So far, the number of people falling seriously ill remains low thanks to vaccination, authorities said.

Singapore pursued an aggressive “zero-Covid strategy” before shifting its approach, and has one of the highest Covid-19 vaccination rates in the world, with 81% of the population fully vaccinated.

Thailand: Slow vaccine takeup but it’s opening up anyway

Thailand plans to reopen Bangkok and other popular destinations to foreign visitors next month, officials said last week, as the southeast Asian nation tries to revive its crucial tourism industry despite rising infection numbers.

Under the expanded program, tourists who are fully vaccinated against Covid-19 and commit to a testing regime will be allowed to enter the capital, Hua Hin, Pattaya and Chiang Mai, according to Reuters.

The island of Phuket reopened to vaccinated foreign visitors on July 1 without quarantine requirements. On July 15, the country launched a similar program on the islands of Koh Samui, Koh Pha Ngan and Koh Tao, dubbed “Samui Plus.”

Although it kept infection numbers low in 2020 thanks to successful containment measures, Thailand has struggled to keep cases in check this year.

Vaccination rates are lagging behind those of some neighbors. Just under 18% of the Thai population were fully vaccinated against Covid-19 as of September 13, according to Our World in Data, with a further 21% partially vaccinated.

South Africa: Easing restrictions, but Delta’s still a threat

South Africa has started to ease several Covid-19 restrictions as infection rates decrease in the country.

Among other measures, the nationwide nighttime curfew has been shortened to 11 p.m. until 4 a.m., the size of gatherings allowed has increased to 250 people indoors and 500 outdoors, and restrictions on alcohol sales have been further reduced.

The easing of restrictions, announced by President Cyril Ramaphosa on Sunday, are notable in a country that passed much of the pandemic with extremely strict social distancing rules, even banning all gatherings except for funerals, at times — and where vaccination rates remain low.

Ramaphosa warned that a devastating third wave of infections driven by the more transmissible Delta variant was not over, but added that the country now has enough vaccine doses to cover the entire adult population, with more than a quarter of adults receiving at least one dose.

He encouraged everyone to get vaccinated and comply with remaining restrictions to allow the country to get back to normal.

“The third wave is not yet over, and it is only through our actions individually and collectively that we will be able to reduce the number of new infections,” he said.

Chile: High vaccination rates mean tourists can return

Chile has been internationally praised for its smooth and successful vaccination campaign. According to the health ministry’s latest reports, almost 87% of eligible Chileans are fully vaccinated.

The country has already started distributing booster shots to those who are fully vaccinated. Health authorities on Thursday approved the use of the Chinese vaccine Sinovac for children aged six and over; inoculations started on Monday.

Despite the threat posed by the Delta variant, the government on Wednesday announced moves to reopen the country to international tourism from October 1, just in time for the southern hemisphere nation’s summer season.

Foreign non-residents will be able to enter provided they meet certain requirements and isolate for five days on arrival.

“The fact that foreign tourists can come to Chile is an important step for the recovery of inbound tourism,” said Under-Secretary for Tourism José Luis Uriarte. “It’s important to point out that this is the first step, and we will be able to keep moving forward as long as we maintain the right health conditions.”

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Nearly two dozen California students and their families are stuck in Afghanistan

By Cheri Mossburg | CNN

About 20 San Diego students and their families who traveled to Afghanistan this summer are stranded in the country and unable to get to Kabul’s airport, school and congressional spokespeople told CNN Wednesday.

Six families, including about 24 children, became stuck in Afghanistan after traveling there to visit relatives, said Howard Shen, spokesperson for the Cajon Valley Union School District.

At least one of the stranded families was able to make it safely back to the US, Shen said Wednesday evening. The family has five children, four of whom are students in the district.

“They are stateside, and they are safe,” Shen said, noting it is unclear if they are currently in California or elsewhere.

“The hope is that all 24 students will be in school sooner rather than later,” Shen said.

The school district, which serves between 16,000 and 17,000 students from preschool through eighth grade, is home to a large immigrant and refugee population, mostly from Afghanistan and Iraq. District officials have reached out to US Rep. Darrell Issa for help getting the affected families back to the United States.

Issa and his staff “are aware of the location of several American citizens,” and are in direct and consistent contact with them, said Jonathan Wilcox, a spokesperson for the representative.

“They are scared, stranded and trapped in the Kabul area,” Wilcox said in a statement. “So far, they’ve been unable to reach the airport. I know the President and his Press Secretary have previously said this isn’t happening, but that’s dead wrong.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday there are about 1,500 people who may be Americans left in Afghanistan as evacuation operations continue. And while the pace of those evacuations has picked up significantly in recent days, Biden administration officials have voiced concern about security around Kabul’s airport.

The United States has evacuated at least 4,500 Americans since August 14 and more than 500 in the past day alone, Blinken said, adding that “over the past 24 hours we’ve been in direct contact with approximately 500 additional Americans and provided specific instructions on how to get to the airport safely.”

“For the remaining roughly 1,000 contacts that we had who may be Americans seeking to leave Afghanistan, we’re aggressively reaching out to them multiple times a day through multiple channels of communication,” he added.

Asked about the group of Southern California students at a White House briefing Wednesday afternoon, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said, “I certainly don’t have additional information on that.”

Wilcox said Issa and his staff are “in consistent contact” with the State Department and the Pentagon and others on the ground in Afghanistan.

“We have reason to believe that other California residents are very much in the same situation,” Wilcox said. “This is real.”

Shen, the district spokesperson, could not provide details on whether anyone from the group has been hurt amid the crowds of people who are hoping to flee the country, or whether the families are together.

“The situation is fluid, but we are expecting them to be back,” Shen said. “That is the hope.”

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‘Nowhere to run’: UN report says global warming nears limits

By SETH BORENSTEIN | The Associated Press

Earth’s climate is getting so hot that temperatures in about a decade will probably blow past a level of warming that world leaders have sought to prevent, according to a report released Monday that the United Nations called a “code red for humanity.”

“It’s just guaranteed that it’s going to get worse,” said report co-author Linda Mearns, a senior climate scientist at the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research. “Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.”

But scientists also eased back a bit on the likelihood of the absolute worst climate catastrophes.

The authoritative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, which calls climate change clearly human-caused and “unequivocal,” makes more precise and warmer forecasts for the 21st century than it did last time it was issued in 2013.

Each of five scenarios for the future, based on how much carbon emissions are cut, passes the more stringent of two thresholds set in the 2015 Paris climate agreement. World leaders agreed then to try to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above levels in the late 19th century because problems mount quickly after that. The world has already warmed nearly 1.1 degrees Celsius (2 degrees Fahrenheit) in the past century and a half.

Under each scenario, the report said, the world will cross the 1.5 degrees Celsius warming mark in the 2030s, earlier than some past predictions. Warming has ramped up in recent years, data shows.

“Our report shows that we need to be prepared for going into that level of warming in the coming decades. But we can avoid further levels of warming by acting on greenhouse gas emissions,” said report co-chair Valerie Masson-Delmotte, a climate scientist at France’s Laboratory of Climate and Environment Sciences at the University of Paris-Saclay.

In three scenarios, the world will also likely exceed 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) over pre-industrial times — the other, less stringent Paris goal — with far worse heat waves, droughts and flood-inducing downpours “unless deep reductions in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions occur in the coming decades,” the report said.

“This report tells us that recent changes in the climate are widespread, rapid and intensifying, unprecedented in thousands of years,” said IPCC Vice Chair Ko Barrett, senior climate adviser for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The 3,000-plus-page report from 234 scientists said warming is already accelerating sea level rise and worsening extremes such as heat waves, droughts, floods and storms. Tropical cyclones are getting stronger and wetter, while Arctic sea ice is dwindling in the summer and permafrost is thawing. All of these trends will get worse, the report said.

For example, the kind of heat wave that used to happen only once every 50 years now happens once a decade, and if the world warms another degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit), it will happen twice every seven years, the report said.

As the planet warms, places will get hit more not just by extreme weather but by multiple climate disasters at once, the report said. That’s like what’s now happening in the Western U.S., where heat waves, drought and wildfires compound the damage, Mearns said. Extreme heat is also driving massive fires in Greece and Turkey.

Some harm from climate change — dwindling ice sheets, rising sea levels and changes in the oceans as they lose oxygen and become more acidic — is “irreversible for centuries to millennia,” the report said.

The world is “locked in” to 15 to 30 centimeters (6 to 12 inches) of sea level rise by mid-century, said report co-author Bob Kopp of Rutgers University.

Scientists have issued this message for more than three decades, but the world hasn’t listened, said United Nations Environment Program Executive Director Inger Andersen.

Nearly all of the warming that has happened on Earth can be blamed on emissions of heat-trapping gases such as carbon dioxide and methane. At most, natural forces or simple randomness can explain one- or two-tenths of a degree of warming, the report said.

The report described five different future scenarios based on how much the world reduces carbon emissions. They are: a future with incredibly large and quick pollution cuts; another with intense pollution cuts but not quite as massive; a scenario with moderate emission cuts; a fourth scenario where current plans to make small pollution reductions continue; and a fifth possible future involving continued increases in carbon pollution.

In five previous reports, the world was on that final hottest path, often nicknamed “business as usual.” But this time, the world is somewhere between the moderate path and the small pollution reductions scenario because of progress to curb climate change, said report co-author Claudia Tebaldi, a scientist at the U.S. Pacific Northwest National Lab.

While calling the report “a code red for humanity,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres kept a sliver of hope that world leaders could still somehow prevent 1.5 degrees of warming, which he said is “perilously close.”

There is also a way for the world to stay at the 1.5-degree threshold with extreme and quick emission cuts, but even then, temperatures would rise 1.5 degrees Celsius in a decade and even beyond, before coming back down, said co-author Maisia Rojas Corrada, director of the Center for Climate and Resilience Research in Chile.

“Anything we can do to limit, to slow down, is going to pay off,” Tebaldi said. “And if we cannot get to 1.5, it’s probably going to be painful, but it’s better not to give up.”

In the report’s worst-case scenario, the world could be around 3.3 degrees Celsius (5.9 degrees Fahrenheit) hotter than now by the end of the century. But that scenario looks increasingly unlikely, said report co-author and climate scientist Zeke Hausfather, climate change director of the Breakthrough Institute.

“We are a lot less likely to get lucky and end up with less warming than we thought,” Hausfather said. “At the same time, the odds of ending up in a much worse place than we expected if we do reduce our emissions are notably lower.”

A “major advance” in the understanding of how fast the world warms with each ton of carbon dioxide emitted allowed scientists to be far more precise in the scenarios in this report, Mason-Delmotte said.

The report said ultra-catastrophic disasters — commonly called “tipping points,” like ice sheet collapses and the abrupt slowdown of ocean currents — are “low likelihood” but cannot be ruled out. The much talked-about shutdown of Atlantic ocean currents, which would trigger massive weather shifts, is something that’s unlikely to happen in this century, Kopp said.

The report “provides a strong sense of urgency to do even more,” said Jane Lubchenco, the White House deputy science adviser.

In a new move, scientists emphasized how cutting airborne levels of methane — a powerful but short-lived gas that has soared to record levels — could help curb short-term warming. Lots of methane the atmosphere comes from leaks of natural gas, a major power source. Livestock also produces large amounts of the gas, a good chunk of it in cattle burps.

More than 100 countries have made informal pledges to achieve “net zero” human-caused carbon dioxide emissions sometime around mid-century, which will be a key part of climate negotiations this fall in Scotland. The report said those commitments are essential.

“It is still possible to forestall many of the most dire impacts,” Barrett said.

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Read more of AP’s climate coverage at http://www.apnews.com/Climate

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Follow Seth Borenstein on Twitter at @borenbears.

___

The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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‘Staggering and depressing’: Covid-19 takes dramatic toll on U.S. life expectancy

By John Tozzi | Bloomberg

Life expectancy in the United States dropped the most in more than seven decades last year as Covid-19 sent hundreds of thousands of Americans to early deaths.

The pandemic’s disproportionate toll on communities of color also widened existing gaps in life expectancy between White and Black Americans, according to estimates released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The tally represents an extraordinarily grim accounting of an ongoing catastrophe. The first year of the pandemic delivered a bigger blow to American life expectancy than any year of the Vietnam War, the AIDS crisis or the “deaths of despair” that nudged down life expectancies in the mid-2010s.

“It’s staggering and depressing,” said Noreen Goldman, a professor of demography and public affairs at Princeton University. “The U.S. lags behind virtually all high-income countries in life expectancy, and now it’s lagging further behind.”

The pace of Covid-19 deaths dropped sharply as vaccinations spread in the first half of 2021. But it’s unclear how long it will take for life expectancy to rebound. The U.S. has recorded a total of 609,000 Covid deaths since the pandemic began. More than 43% occurred in 2021, with almost half the year still to come.

The first year of the pandemic reduced Americans’ life expectancy at birth by 1.5 years, to 77.3 years. That erased the country’s gains since 2003. It was the largest annual decline since 1943, in the middle of World War II. Goldman said that it was the second largest decline since the 1918 influenza pandemic, which is believed to have killed some 50 million people worldwide.

The 2020 pandemic decline widened the distance between the U.S. and other wealthy democracies like France, Israel, South Korea and the U.K., according to research recently published in The BMJ journal.

“This is not a decline that happened in other high-income countries, so something went terribly wrong in the U.S. where the number of Americans who died was vastly in excess of what it needed to be,” said Steven Woolf, director emeritus of the Center on Society and Health at Virginia Commonwealth University and one of the authors of the BMJ study.

Life expectancy is a statistical construct that reflects death rates in a given place and time. The CDC report describes life expectancy at birth as the “average number of years a group of infants would live if they were to experience throughout life the age-specific death rates prevailing during a period.” It isn’t meant to predict the actual lifespans that people born in that period will experience. Rather, it’s a way to compare death rates across geographies and years.

Covid accounted for three-quarters of the decline in 2020. Unintentional injuries, a category that includes record fatal drug overdoses for 2020, also dragged down the measure, as did homicides, diabetes and liver disease. The drop would have been steeper had it not been offset by fewer deaths from other factors including cancer, chronic lower respiratory disease, heart disease and suicide.

All demographic groups saw declines in life expectancy in 2020. But the drops weren’t evenly distributed. Men lost more ground than women. Hispanic Americans, who have longer life expectancies than White or Black Americans, recorded the greatest losses during Covid, with life expectancy dropping three full years, double the rate of the country as a whole.

Black Americans likewise recorded a 2.9-year loss of life expectancy. That decline widened the gap between Black people and White people in the U.S., a disparity in life expectancy that had been shrinking since the 1990s. Life expectancy for White Americans declined by 1.2 years in 2020.

“There’s no biological reason for people of a certain skin color to die at higher rates of a virus,” Woolf said, noting that the disparate impact reflects structural inequities.

Skewed representation in frontline jobs like retail, meatpacking, transport and health care, combined with higher rates of chronic conditions, put people of color both at increased risk of exposure to Covid and increased risk of dying from it, Goldman said.

Unequal access to health care, language barriers, and crowded or multigenerational housing also contributed to the virus’s disproportionate toll on Hispanic and Black populations, she said.

The estimates published by the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics reflect death certificate data reported by states and cities. The report didn’t include data on populations of Asian Americans, American Indians, Alaskan Natives, Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders.

As alarming as the one-year drop in life expectancy in 2020 is, Woolf said that more attention should focus on the decades-long gap in life expectancy that has cut short more American lives than Covid has.

In the 20th century, life expectancy generally increased in wealthy countries as science and sanitation helped conquer infectious diseases. In the U.S., troubling signs that the country wasn’t keeping up with other nations’ gains in the measure emerged in the 1990s. This divergence came to be known as the U.S. health disadvantage.

“The more important issue than the acute event we’re seeing right now in life expectancy is the long-term trend,” Woolf said. “That’s actually much scarier for the U.S. than what we’re reporting for 2020, as strange as that might sound.”

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

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As protests mount, Reps. Gaetz, Greene move America First rally back to Orange County

Less than 24 hours before Reps. Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene are scheduled to host an America First rally in Southern California, protesters have pushed the controversial GOP Congress members to move the event for a third time.

The America First rally is now slated to take place Saturday night at the Anaheim Event Center on Harbor Boulevard.

“The radical left and the woke mob is trying to cancel our rally but we’re not gonna let it happen,” Greene said in a video she tweeted Friday night.

Last week, Gaetz and Greene announced plans to take their America First Rally tour to Laguna Hills. But the venue canceled Tuesday when they learned that the Congress members would be taking the stage.

Next, the pair announced plans to head 50 miles east, to the Riverside Convention Center. But protesters flooded Riverside leaders with complaints and plans to protest allowing the event to take place at the city-owned venue.

So late Friday night, Greene’s campaign spokesman confirmed they were moving the event back to Orange County.

“You can’t cancel us, you can’t stop us, we’re going to save America,” Greene said in a tweeted video.

Fliers started circulating last week about an America First rally at Pacific Hills Banquet & Event Center in Laguna Hills on Saturday, July 17. But the center’s general manager, Javad Mirtavoosi, said as soon as they found out who the speakers at the event would be, they canceled it, hoping to stay clear of the controversy surrounding Gaetz and Greene.

After searching for a week for a new venue in Orange County, Greene’s team announced Thursday that they were moving the rally to Riverside. They refused to disclose the location, citing security concerns. But Ted Weggeland, CEO of the company that runs the downtown Riverside Convention Center, told the Southern California News Group that his venue was expecting to host the event.

Multiple organizations announced plans to protest the rally, including Women’s March Action and The League of Women Voters Riverside. And some Riverside city leaders raised concerns, calling for an emergency meeting to discuss the issue.

“The hateful and racist rhetoric that will be perpetrated at this event by these two well-known extremists has absolutely no place in our City,” Riverside City Councilmember Ronaldo Fierro said in an emailed statement late Thursday.

Late Friday, city officials reported they were notified by operators of the convention center that the rally wouldn’t take place in Riverside.

Shortly after 10 p.m., organizers announced the event is now slated to be held in Anaheim.

Gaetz, who represents a Florida House district, and Greene, who represents one in Georgia, are known for their staunch support of former President Donald Trump, their rejection of COVID-19 safety measures and their false belief that the 2020 presidential election was stolen.

Greene also is known as a conspiracy theorist who has written pro-QAnon articles and reportedly said 9/11 was a government plot and that a California wildfire was the work of a “space solar generator” controlled by a Jewish banking family, among others.

Video clips have surfaced of her espousing racist and Islamophobic views, and a recording showed Greene, who has reportedly claimed the government orchestrated several mass shootings to gin up support for gun control, following and taunting a survivor of the 2017 school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

While Greene has said her past social media posts don’t reflect who she is, 11 House Republicans joined all House Democrats in February in voting to remove Greene from her committee assignments as punishment for her statements.

Gaetz, who has said leftist radicals posing as Trump supporters were responsible for the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, is under investigation for an alleged sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl. He has denied the allegations and said he’s the victim of an extortion plot.

But Gaetz and Greene also have become firebrands for Trump-brand Republicanism. The pair have been co-hosting America First rallies across the country since early May, when they kicked off the series in a Florida retirement community that heavily supported Trump in 2020.

Tickets were to be free to reserve for general admission. But those who registered received an email asking if they wanted to upgrade to VIP status for $250 per person, which was to include the chance to take a photo with Gaetz and Greene plus preferred seating.

Proceeds were to go to the Put America First Joint Fundraising Committee, formed in Georgia in late April to support Gaetz’s and Greene’s reelection campaigns.

Staff writer Jeff Horseman contributed to this report.

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Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg surrenders to authorities in New York

By Greg Farrell and Patricia Hurtado | Bloomberg

The Trump Organization’s longtime chief financial officer has surrendered to authorities in New York, facing tax-related charges in the most direct attack on Donald Trump and his business to emerge from Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.’s years-long criminal probe.

Allen Weisselberg, 73, went through a freight entrance to avoid cameras awaiting his arrival in lower Manhattan Thursday, one day after a grand jury indicted him and the company in an extraordinary challenge to the former president.

The exact charges he’s facing will be unsealed later in the day, but are expected to involve unpaid taxes on benefits extended to Weisselberg, according to a person familiar with the issue who asked not to be identified discussing confidential matters. Trump isn’t expected to be named in the charges, but they ratchet up the pressure on Weisselberg to cooperate against his boss.

Weisselberg’s cooperation could lead to a more expansive case against the company and raise the prospect of a historic and politically charged prosecution of a former president. With a trial unlikely before next year, Weisselberg will have months to decide whether to fight the charges or plead guilty and possibly strike a deal with prosecutors. A Trump executive for four decades, Weisselberg has unique insight into the former president’s finances and business deals.

Trump has slammed the probe by Vance, a Democrat, as politically motivated. “They will do anything to stop the MAGA movement (and me),” he said in a June 28 statement, referring to his campaign slogan to “Make America Great Again.” Former Trump senior adviser Jason Miller tweeted on Wednesday that a case against Weisselberg would be a “political disaster” for Democrats because it didn’t include Trump.

Trump Organization lawyer Ronald Fischetti said last week that the district attorney’s case appeared thin.

“In my more than 50 years of practice, never before have I seen the district attorney’s office target a company over employee compensation or fringe benefits,” he said in a June 25 interview. “The IRS would not, and has not, brought a case like this.”

But a number of legal experts said the charges against his CFO raised the potential legal jeopardy for Trump.

“The question is not whether this is the strongest case they can make against the Trump Organization, but whether this is the strongest case they can make against Weisselberg,” said Jeremy Temkin, a former prosecutor. “The pressure on a potential cooperating witness changes significantly when they are in the caption of an indictment. This is all about putting pressure on Weisselberg and getting him to cooperate.”

Prosecutor Focus

Vance’s investigation initially focused on the Trump Organization’s reimbursement, through Weisselberg’s office, of hush-money payments made by Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer and fixer. In the run-up to the 2016 election, Cohen paid two women claiming to have had affairs with Trump.

The district attorney’s investigation has since grown into a review of the company’s dealings with a variety of outside business entities, including Deutsche Bank AG and Ladder Capital, where one of Weisselberg’s sons works. New York Attorney General Letitia James earlier this year joined the criminal probe, while also maintaining a separate civil investigation of the company’s business practices, particularly its valuation of properties.

Prosecutors have also examined an array of perks that the Trump Organization bestowed on favored employees, including Barry Weisselberg, Allen’s son, who managed Trump-run New York City properties like Wollman Rink before those concessions were revoked by Mayor Bill DeBlasio this year. He was provided a rent-free apartment in a Trump building starting in 2005, Bloomberg reported.

The Trump Organization also paid the private-school tuitions for Allen Weisselberg’s grandchildren. Such perks are usually taxable as income, and failure to report them could be a crime.

To convict the Trump Organization or Weisselberg of tax fraud, prosecutors must show they had an intent to defraud, and must prove the value of those benefits and the taxes underpaid.

“Payroll taxes are due on income,” said Susan Hoffinger, a criminal tax attorney and former prosecutor in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. “If those fringe benefits are considered income, they owe payroll taxes on that.”

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These are the hotshot firefighters leading attacks against California wildfires. And they’re quitting

By Paul Vercammen and Christina Zdanowicz | CNN

A swirling tornado of flames reaching 40,000 feet into the sky tore through a California city in 2018, leaving a veteran hotshot firefighter horrified.

The fire tornado, which obliterated entire neighborhoods in Redding, California, during the massive Carr Fire, still haunts former hotshot supervisor Aaron Humphrey. He says that terrifying moment forever changed his outlook.

“You are in a fog and expecting death or disaster around every corner … It collectively killed my hotshot spirit,” Humphrey, 44, said of the fire tornado.

“Hump,” as fellow firefighters and friends call him, supervised hotshot crews from the US Forest Service on blister-inducing hikes to dig out fire lines, hack down trees and set blazes to fight advancing flames. Hotshot crews of 20 to 22 people spearhead fire attacks, and it’s not uncommon for them to hike 10 miles daily with fire gear packs that can weigh up to 45 pounds.

Hump rose up from a seasonal rookie firefighter to the prestigious position of supervisor of the Eldorado Hotshots. He called it the “best job in the world.”

But he quit a year ago.

After 25 years, Hump says he became just the latest mentally fried, underpaid hotshot veteran to leave, at a time when California wildfires are at their worst.


Two firefighters were killed in the 2018 Carr Fire.(Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images)

Hotshots are leaving for better pay

The pay discrepancy between federal hotshots, most of whom are employed by the US Forest Service, and firefighters for other jurisdictions is staggering.

First-year federal hotshots make $13.50 an hour, according to David Alicea, vice president of the Forest Service Union in California.

“Yes, you can make overtime, but we’re putting them through the meat grinder,” Alicea told CNN. “We’re abusing them because we are short-staffed, and they are not getting their rest periods. They get laid off when fire season is over, and they choose not to come back.”

These usually young, seasonal firefighters are some of the ones who are leaving. But all levels of firefighters are moving on, including top managers who have the most experience.

“We have experienced staffing challenges as a result of issues such as compensation, remote and hard-to-fill duty stations, a competitive employment market, and the physical and mental stress of year-round fire conditions on fire personnel,” Regina Corbin, a spokeswoman for the US Forest Service, told CNN via email.

Corbin said that Region 5, which includes California, is converting temporary seasonal positions to permanent full-time posts to improve recruitment and retention.

She says the problems are not new and apply to other federal firefighters.

Alicea agrees.

“We’re down engine crews,” he said. “I know of three or four forests that are down staffed.”

He estimates they are missing hotshots in 35 key positions this summer in California.

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein pressed the US Forest Service in a May hearing on how it can stop losing hotshots to other places offering bigger salaries.

“We have 19 million acres [of California forestland] under federal jurisdiction,” Feinstein said in the May 26 hearing on Capitol Hill. “State pay is $70,000, that’s what Cal Fire pays to a state firefighter. The United States Forest Service pays $38,000.”

During the hearing, US Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen confirmed the average yearly pay for a US Forest Service firefighter is $38,000.

“State, local and private entities can range from $70,000 to $88,000 a year, and their benefits are better,” she said.

On Wednesday, Senators Feinstein and Alex Padilla of California, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Steve Daines of Montana wrote a letter proposing a plan to raise federal firefighter pay. They are asking the Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government to include it in the 2022 funding bill, according to the letter.

Fires are getting fiercer

Experts fear another terrible wildfire season — possibly worse than 2020, the most active fire season that California has ever recorded. The prolonged drought in the West is also fueling the fires, just one of the ways climate change is compounding the crisis.

The recent fires are part of a larger trend in California.

The seven largest wildfires in state history happened within the last four years, according to Cal Fire. The Carr Fire, which changed Hump’s perspective on his work, ranked as the 12th largest fire in state history.

The increase in California’s wildfire intensity and acres burned can only be explained by factoring in climate change, according to a recent analysis of several peer-reviewed studies. Land management plays a role in the trend, experts say, but it alone cannot explain why the state’s fires have become so much more destructive.

On top of fiercer fires, an unrelenting drought and another big fire season on the horizon, California is losing hotshots, the rock star firefighters with the track records to successfully fight these mega blazes.

“I needed to be home with my family,” Hump told CNN. “The level of stress I was bringing home (from massive fires) — I didn’t even recognize myself anymore.”

Hump, a married father with three children — ages 12, 10 and 8 — now works for Pacific Gas and Electric, as a lead on the utility’s safety infrastructure protection team.

Hump says he’s paid at least $40,000 more annually than what he made before as a hotshot supervisor. The money comes with peace of mind, as he now attends all of his children’s events, even coaching some flag football.

Not enough firefighters to form hotshot crews

There are hotshot shortages across the country, but California hotshots are getting hit harder, according to Jonathan Miller, chairman of the National Forest Service Firefighters Union.

“We’ve seen some attrition across the federal crews and engines, but nothing like the shortages in California,” Miller said.

Alicea says 15 California Interagency Hotshot Crews don’t have enough members to activate as a full firefighting unit. CNN obtained a CIHC document that confirms that number.

When a hotshot crew isn’t big enough, it’s harder to fight fires, Hump says. Smaller crews can’t split up into small squads or help teams with special missions as effectively.

Members with particular qualifications are required to be called a hotshot crew, which were nicknamed for fighting the hottest fires. These crews are trained to tackle “strategic and tactical wildfire assignments,” according to the US Forest Service website.

Two crews, Modoc and Horseshoe Meadow, are operating as even lesser-staffed firefighting modules.

The Eldorado Hotshots may soon lose another seasoned manager, captain D.J. McIlhargie.

“I have five irons in the fire right now,” McIlhargie told CNN. “I’m looking for something that will work for my family more. And my wife knows that I’m tired of waiting for the forest service to give me a commensurate salary to what other departments pay.”

The father of two boys, 7 and 10, McIlhargie lives an hour outside Sacramento. He described feeling “wiped out” and “frustrated” by battling the recent streak of super fires.

McIlhargie, 39, says there are just not enough firefighters to take on massive blazes such as the ones that ravaged Northern California last year.

He says the Eldorado Hotshots spent a month trying to stop the largest wildfire in California history, the August Complex fire, which scorched more than 1 million acres.

The years in fire battle wear down the hotshots from helmet to boots, McIlhargie says.

“My knees ache every day,” he said. “My rotator cuffs are ratchety and clicky from swinging tools and carrying cans (used for backfire fuel) and carrying saws and carrying your (back) pack.”

“Your range of movement in your hips starts to go,” McIlhargie said.

More homes will burn without enough hotshots

If vacant hotshot positions don’t get filled, the firefighters CNN interviewed said more homes will burn.

“It used to be for us hotshots we are up in the mountains, the back country fighting these fires,” McIlhargie said. “Now it seems that every single fire has some element of wild land fire meets urban interface.”

Maeve Juarez spent a year as a Redding Hotshot in 2004.

The 41-year-old mother of two left her US government job as a battalion chief in the Los Padres National Forest four years ago.

“I left because I took a higher paying job with the Montecito Fire Department that allowed me to spend more time with my kids, and it’s less stress,” she said.

Juarez says the pay is significantly higher in her new role as wildfire specialist in Montecito.

Because of her experience, Juarez serves as an operations section chief on major fires, a sort of general directing fire troops from many agencies.

Juarez says losing hotshots, especially supervisors, to other jobs is hindering California’s effort to fight mega fires.

“These hotshot supes know the terrain, what type of brush is burning, how it burned in an area in the past,” Juarez said. “They are a big part of our decision making, strategy and tactics on fighting fires.”

She added: “When a veteran superintendent leaves, we lose that experience, and they are our backbone.”

Hump recalls his hotshot decades, visions of firefights, falling trees, crew members seriously burned and hotshots dying. He helped set up a memorial service in Arizona for the 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots killed when a fire burned over them eight years ago.

“It’s this feeling of doom, that every fire you go to you are going to lose someone you care about,” Hump said. “It’s terrifying. It’s hard to communicate with your family because you don’t want to scare them. You just hug them and never want to leave.”

Leaving behind the doom of that deadly fire tornado in 2018, Hump is looking ahead to this Fourth of July do something he’s never done before.

“I plan on teaching my kids to fish,” he said. “I’ve never had the time.”

The-CNN-Wire™ & © 2021 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.

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After San Jose mass shooting, new gun tax falls short in California Assembly

By ADAM BEAM | The Associated Press

SACRAMENTO  — The California Assembly on Thursday failed to pass a bill that would have raised taxes on handguns and ammunition.

The bill by Assemblyman Marc Levine, a Democrat from San Rafael, would have imposed a 10% tax on the sales price of handguns and an 11% tax on the sales price of rifles, precursor parts and ammunition.

The tax would have applied to retailers, not consumers. But a legislative analysis of the bill said retailers could have passed that cost along to buyers. The Assembly Appropriations Committee estimated it would have generated $118 million per year, with the money going toward gun violence prevention programs and research.

A majority of the Assembly’s 80 members voted for the bill. But because the bill would create a new tax, it required a two-thirds vote. The bill fell five votes short of the 54 required for passage. Democrats control 59 votes. But several Democrats come from more moderate districts, making a tax increase on guns a tough vote for them.

Despite the bill’s failure on Thursday, Levine said he believes it’s possible to revive the legislation later this year.

“California is in the midst of a gun violence epidemic that will only end when our leaders have the courage to do what is right and necessary to end it,” Levine said.

The vote comes one week after nine people were killed in a mass shooting at Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority rail yard in San Jose, California. Assemblyman Alex Lee, a Democrat from San Jose, read the names of each victim on the Assembly floor as he urged his colleagues to support the bill.

“We continue to see the breaking news headlines of yet another mass shooting in our nation on a nearly weekly basis. And frankly, I’m sick of it,” he said.

In a letter to lawmakers, the pro-gun group Gun Owners of California wrote that the bill wasn’t fair because it sought to “penalize the lawful for the misdeeds of the unlawful.’

Levine, the author of the bill, said his goal was in part a response to the increase in gun sales and gun violence since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

California already imposes a fee of $37.19 on gun sales, which includes a fee for background checks.

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California lawmakers eye shuttered malls, big box retail stores for new housing

By ADAM BEAM | The Associated Press

SACRAMENTO  — California state lawmakers are grappling with a particularly 21st-century problem: What to do with the growing number of shopping malls and big box retail stores left empty by consumers shifting their purchases to the web.

A possible answer in crowded California cities is to build housing on these sites, which already have ample parking and are close to existing neighborhoods.

But local zoning laws often don’t allow housing at these locations. Changing the zoning is such a hassle that many developers don’t bother trying. And it’s often not worth it for local governments to change the designations. They would prefer to find new retailers because sales taxes produce more revenue than residential property taxes.

However, with a stubborn housing shortage pushing prices to all-time highs, state lawmakers are moving to pass new laws to get around those barriers.

A bill that cleared the state Senate last week would let developers build houses on most commercial sites without changing the zoning. Another proposal would pay local governments to change the zoning to let developers build affordable housing.

“There has always been an incentive to chase retail and a disincentive to build housing,” said Sen. Anthony Portantino, a Los Angeles-area Democrat who authored the bill to pay local governments. “There is more dormant and vacant retail than ever.”

  • This Thursday, May 27, 2021, photo shows the closed Sears in Buena Park Mall in Buena Park, Calif. California state lawmakers are grappling with a particularly 21st-century problem: What to do with the growing number of shopping malls and big-box retail stores left empty by consumers shifting their purchases to the web. A possible answer in crowded California cities is to build housing on these sites, which already have ample parking and are close to existing neighborhoods. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

  • This Thursday, May 27, 2021, photo shows the closed Sears in Buena Park Mall in Buena Park, Calif. California state lawmakers are grappling with a particularly 21st-century problem: What to do with the growing number of shopping malls and big-box retail stores left empty by consumers shifting their purchases to the web. A possible answer in crowded California cities is to build housing on these sites, which already have ample parking and are close to existing neighborhoods. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

  • This Thursday, May 27, 2021, photo shows an empty shopping cart in an empty parking lot at the closed Sears in Buena Park Mall in Buena Park, Calif. California state lawmakers are grappling with a particularly 21st-century problem: What to do with the growing number of shopping malls and big-box retail stores left empty by consumers shifting their purchases to the web. A possible answer in crowded California cities is to build housing on these sites, which already have ample parking and are close to existing neighborhoods. Even before the pandemic, big-box retail stores struggled to adapt as more people began buying things online. In 2019, after purchasing Sears and Kmart, Transformco closed 96 stores across the country, 29 in California. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

  • This Thursday, May 27, 2021, photo shows the closed Sears in Buena Park Mall in Buena Park, Calif. California state lawmakers are grappling with a particularly 21st-century problem: What to do with the growing number of shopping malls and big-box retail stores left empty by consumers shifting their purchases to the web. A possible answer in crowded California cities is to build housing on these sites, which already have ample parking and are close to existing neighborhoods. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

  • This Thursday, May 27, 2021, photo shows the closed Sears in Buena Park Mall in Buena Park, Calif. California state lawmakers are grappling with a particularly 21st-century problem: What to do with the growing number of shopping malls and big-box retail stores left empty by consumers shifting their purchases to the web. A possible answer in crowded California cities is to build housing on these sites, which already have ample parking and are close to existing neighborhoods. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

  • This Thursday, May 27, 2021, photo shows the closed Sears in Buena Park Mall in Buena Park, Calif. California state lawmakers are grappling with a particularly 21st-century problem: What to do with the growing number of shopping malls and big-box retail stores left empty by consumers shifting their purchases to the web. A possible answer in crowded California cities is to build housing on these sites, which already have ample parking and are close to existing neighborhoods. Even before the pandemic, big-box retail stores struggled to adapt as more people began buying things online. In 2019, after purchasing Sears and Kmart, Transformco closed 96 stores across the country, 29 in California. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

  • This Thursday, May 27, 2021, photo shows the closed Sears in Buena Park Mall in Buena Park, Calif. California state lawmakers are grappling with a particularly 21st-century problem: What to do with the growing number of shopping malls and big-box retail stores left empty by consumers shifting their purchases to the web. A possible answer in crowded California cities is to build housing on these sites, which already have ample parking and are close to existing neighborhoods. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

  • This Thursday, May 27, 2021, photo shows the closed Sears in Buena Park Mall in Buena Park, Calif. California state lawmakers are grappling with a particularly 21st-century problem: What to do with the growing number of shopping malls and big-box retail stores left empty by consumers shifting their purchases to the web. A possible answer in crowded California cities is to build housing on these sites, which already have ample parking and are close to existing neighborhoods. Even before the pandemic, big-box retail stores struggled to adapt as more people began buying things online. In 2019, after purchasing Sears and Kmart, Transformco closed 96 stores across the country, 29 in California. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

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If successful, it’s believed California would be the first state to allow multi-family housing on commercial sites statewide, said Eric Phillips, vice president of policy and legislation for the California chapter of the American Planning Association. Developers who use the law still would have to obey locally approved design standards. But Phillips said the law would limit local governments’ ability to reject the projects.

That’s why some local leaders oppose the bill, arguing it undermines their authority.

“City leaders have the requisite local knowledge to discern when and which sites are appropriate for repurposing and which are not,” wrote Mike Griffiths, member of the Torrance City Council and founder of California Cities for Local Control, a group of 427 mayors and council members.

It’s a familiar battle in California. While nearly everyone agrees there is an affordable housing shortage, state and local leaders face different political pressures that often derail ambitious proposals. Last year, a bill that would have overridden local zoning laws to let developers build small apartment buildings in neighborhoods reserved for single-family homes died in the state Senate.

Sen. Anna Caballero, a Democrat from Salinas and author of this year’s zoning proposal, said her bill is not a mandate. Developers could choose to use the bill or not. The Senate approved the measure 32-2, sending it to the state Assembly for consideration.

“It’s always a challenge when you’re trying to do affordable housing, because there are entrenched interests that don’t want to negotiate and compromise, and we’re working really hard to try to break through that,” she said. “I’m trying to give maximum flexibility to local government because the more that you start telling them how they have to do it, the harder it becomes for them to actually do it.”

Even before the pandemic, big-box retail stores were struggling to adapt as more people began buying things online. In 2019, after purchasing Sears and Kmart, Transformco closed 96 stores across the country — including 29 in California.

The pandemic, of course, accelerated this trend, prompting major retailers like J.C. Penney, Neiman Marcus and J. Crew to file for bankruptcy protection. An analysis by the investment firm UBS shows online shopping will grow to 25% of all retail sales by 2025. The analysis predicted that up to 100,000 stores across the country could close.

Local governments and developers in California are already trying to redevelop some retail sites. In Salinas, a city of about 150,000 people near the Monterey Peninsula, city officials are working to rezone a closed Kmart. In San Francisco, developers recently announced plans to build nearly 3,000 homes in the parking lot that surrounds Stonestown Mall — a sprawling, 40-acre site that has lost some anchor retail tenants in recent years.

Still, the idea of repurposing shopping centers has divided labor unions and affordable housing advocates, putting one of the Democratic Party’s core base of supporters against backers of one of their top policy goals.

Housing advocates love the idea, but they don’t like how Democrats want to do it. Both proposals in the Legislature would require developers to use a “skilled and trained” workforce to build the housing. That means a certain percentage of workers must either be enrolled or have completed a state-approved apprenticeship program.

Developers have said while there are plenty of trained workers available in areas like San Francisco and Los Angeles, those workers are scarce in more rural parts of the state, potentially delaying projects in those areas.

California needs to build about 180,000 new housing units per year to keep up with demand, according to the state’s latest housing assessment. But it’s only managed about 80,000 per year for the past decade. That’s one reason the state’s median sales price for single-family homes hit a record high $758,990 in March.

“At a time when we’re trying to increase production, we don’t believe we should be limiting who can do the work,” said Ray Pearl, executive director of the California Housing Consortium, a group that includes affordable housing developers.

Robbie Hunter, president of the State Building and Construction Trades Council of California, dismissed that argument as just greedy developers trying to maximize their profits.

He said there is no construction project in California that has been delayed because of a lack of workers, adding: “We man every job.”

“When there is a demand for workers, we rise with the demand,” Hunter said.

Labor unions appear to be winning. A bill in the state Assembly that did not initially require a “skilled and trained” workforce stalled in committee because it did not have enough support.

___

The legislation is SB 6 and SB 15.

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The IRS has no plans to bring back a tool that helped low-income Americans get their stimulus checks. Here’s what to do instead

By Katie Lobosco | CNN

About 8 million low-income people were eligible for stimulus payments last year but never received the money, raising concerns about getting the latest round of help to those most in need — yet there’s no sign the Internal Revenue Service plans to restore a tool that would make it easier.

Early in the pandemic, the IRS created a simple online form to allow low-income people who aren’t usually required to file tax returns to provide their contact information to the agency. But that tool has remained offline since November, even after Congress approved two more rounds of stimulus payments.

Now, people who missed out must file a 2020 tax return in order to get the money they’re owed from the first two stimulus checks, along with the third one. People who used the non-filer tool before it went offline will automatically receive their third stimulus payment without taking action.

An IRS spokesman told CNN Thursday that there are no plans to bring back the tool but encouraged people to file returns so that they can claim a credit for all three payments as well as claim any other expanded credits they may be eligible for, like the Earned Income Tax Credit or the child tax credit.

Filing a return ensures that families may get other benefits they qualify for, like the Earned Income Tax Credit or the now expanded child tax credit — but it can be a challenging process for someone who hasn’t filed in years.

“The stakes are high with billions of federal dollars not reaching low-income people in California and across the country. The IRS reposting its online non-filers tool immediately would be a good first step,” Aparna Ramesh, senior research manager at the California Policy Lab at UC Berkeley, said in a statement.

The group found that at least 1.5 million Californians could potentially miss out on $3.5 billion in stimulus payments. It estimated that about 25% of low-income Californians didn’t get the money automatically last year.

[vemba-video id=”business/2021/03/18/irs-stimulus-checks-pandemic.cnnbusiness”]

Still waiting for the latest round

Most Americans had their stimulus payments directly deposited into their bank accounts or sent in the mail without them having to take any action. In the weeks since President Joe Biden signed the most recent stimulus bill, the IRS has swiftly delivered more than 156 million payments — but those who likely need the money the most may still be waiting.

“I think the IRS has limited resources and has to decide how much to devote to its traditional lines of business, like processing tax returns and audits, or becoming more of a customer service agency focused on benefits delivery,” said Elaine Maag, a principal research associate in the Urban-Brookings Tax Policy Center. “It certainly doesn’t look like that’s the priority when they’re taking down these tools rather than creating them.”

IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig told lawmakers at a hearing last month that the agency had extended its reach far beyond its normal contacts to try to reach lower-income people, working with “hundreds of local community groups and religious organizations” as well as “thousands of homeless organizations.”

A challenging year for the IRS

It will be a challenging year for the IRS, an agency whose budget has been cut about 20% over the past decade, leaving it with antiquated technology and a smaller staff.

The agency is also grappling with several changes to the tax law made by the Covid relief bills. The one passed in March also directs the IRS to send out periodic payments for an expanded child tax credit, as well as waive income taxes on up to $10,200 in unemployment benefits received in 2020, helping some laid-off workers who faced surprise tax bills on their jobless benefits.

The changes create work for the IRS, tax preparers and taxpayers. Facing pressure from lawmakers, the agency recently extended the tax filing deadline to May 17.

“This has been the most challenging tax seasons I’ve experienced, hands down,” said Courtney O’Reilly, the director of Tax Help Colorado, an IRS-certified tax assistance center.

There’s more need and fewer volunteers due to the pandemic, even though most work is still done remotely. It’s a challenge to help out brand new filers, unfamiliar with the tax system, seeking desperately needed benefits over the phone.

Taxpayers earning less than $72,000 a year can use a tax preparer site for free to file a federal return. But they still need to gather the documents showing their income, have an email address and a phone number. New filers are sometimes hesitant to submit a return at all, fearing they might owe more in back taxes than they are set to receive from the stimulus benefits.

“These new benefits will be really helpful to families, but it’s so hard to make sure people who need it the most get them. It takes time to create the foundation to provide the support,” O’Reilly said.

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