Florida breaks record for COVID-19 hospitalizations

The Sunshine State had 10,207 people hospitalized with confirmed COVID-19 cases, according to data reported to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

The previous record was from July 23, 2020, more than a half-year before vaccinations started becoming widespread, when Florida had 10,170 hospitalizations, according to the Florida Hospital Association.

Florida is now leading the nation in per capita hospitalizations for COVID-19, as hospitals around the state report having to put emergency room visitors in beds in hallways and others document a noticeable drop in the age of patients.

In the past week, Florida has averaged 1,525 adult hospitalizations a day, and 35 daily pediatric hospitalizations. Both are the highest per capita rate in the nation, according to Jason Salemi, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of South Florida.

The hospitalizations and increasing cases have come as the new, more transmittable delta variant has spread throughout Florida, and residents have returned to pre-pandemic activities.

“The recent rise is both striking and not-at-all surprising,” Salemi said in an email late Saturday.

Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has resisted mandatory mask mandates and vaccine requirements, and along with the state Legislature, has limited local officials’ ability to impose restrictions meant to stop the spread of COVID-19. DeSantis on Friday barred school districts from requiring students to wear masks when classes resume next month.

Florida’s Democratic agriculture commissioner, Nikki Fried, who is seeking to run against DeSantis for governor, on Sunday urged unvaccinated Floridians to get the shots. She said she was heartened by a recent uptick in vaccinations in the state.

“We are already behind the curve and in a worse spot every time the numbers come out,” Fried said at a news conference in Tallahassee. “This surge is and will impact every single one of us.”

Throughout Florida, from Jacksonville to Miami to Tampa, hospitals have become overwhelmed.

Barry Burton, the Pinellas County administrator, told the Tampa Bay Times that some local hospitals are already having to divert ambulances to different locations because of capacity concerns.

There has been a startling rise in the number of children with the virus at hospitals in Miami, many of them requiring intensive care.

Memorial Health’s Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital in Hollywood had seven patients with COVID-19. At Nicklaus Children’s Hospital in Miami, there were 17 patients with COVID-19 on Friday, including six in the ICU and one who needed a ventilator, Dr. Marcos Mestre, vice president and chief medical officer, told the Miami Herald.

About half of the patients were under 12, Mestre said, and the rest were older and eligible for the vaccine. But none of the patients with COVID-19 at Nicklaus Children’s on Friday were vaccinated. Most children who get COVID-19 do not need hospitalization, Mestre said.

In the state capital, COVID-19 hospitalizations reached 70 patients on Sunday at Tallahassee Memorial HealthCare, a jump of 11 people in two days.

“This is the most we’ve ever had,” Stephanie Derzypolski, a hospital spokeswoman, told the Tallahassee Democrat.

The Mayo Clinic hospital in Jacksonville said it had exceeded its capacity of 304 licensed beds due to COVID-19 cases and asked the Agency for Health Care Administration for permission to operate overcapacity until the current surge ends, First Coast News in Jacksonville reported Sunday.

At the UF Health North hospital emergency room in Jacksonville, COVID-19 patients once again were being put in beds in hallways due to a surge in visits.

For many hospital workers, up until a month ago, it looked like there was light at the end of the tunnel, as people got vaccinated and hospitalizations decreased. But then the summer surge, powered by the new delta variant, hit Florida in July.

“That light did turn out to be a train in this case,” Marsha Tittle, a nursing manager at UF Health North, told The Florida Times Union. “We’re taking more patients than we normally would take. … My staff is wonderful. You walk out there, they’re going to have smiles on their faces and they’re doing a great job. But there’s a sense of defeat, like they’re just defeated.”

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This story has been corrected to reflect hospitalizations broke 10,000-person threshold, not 1,000-person threshold.

Canadian trucker freed, says hes victim of marijuana scam

Federal prosecutors have dropped charges, at least for now, against a Canadian trucker who was arrested at the U.S. border early last month with more than a ton of marijuana in his rig

Tasbir Singh, 32, was detained on July 7 after border agents in Detroit found more than 2,200 pounds (998 kilograms) of marijuana worth an estimate $3.2 million in his truck.

Singh told authorities that he believed he had picked up compression springs in North York, Ontario. The delivery was supposed to go to Ohio. Because of COVID-19 rules, he never got out of his truck while it was being loaded, his attorney Ellen Michaels said.

“I had not done anything wrong,” Singh told the Detroit Free Press.

Michaels said Singh was the victim of marijuana dealers who hacked into the trucking company’s computers, created a fake order for springs and packed the trailer with marijuana.

“He had no knowledge of what was in his truck,” Michaels said.

The U.S. attorney’s office filed a request with the court on July 22 to have the criminal complaint against Singh dismissed without prejudice, meaning prosecutors could refile the charges at a later date.

“The complaint was dismissed and the defendant released in order to allow the government to investigate further and decide whether criminal prosecution of Singh is appropriate,” Gina Balaya, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, said in a statement.

Prosecutors also stated in court documents the “government needs additional time” to “identify all other individuals who should be held criminally responsible” for the pot smuggling, the Free Press reported.

Singh, a native of India, was released from custody on July 23. During his 16 days locked up, he missed his naturalization ceremony in Canada. He has since returned to his home in Windsor, Ontario.

“They gave me justice,” Singh said.

Got next: US draws Australia in womens hoops quarterfinals

The next challenge for the U.S. is rival Australia in the quarterfinals of the women’s basketball tournament

The Opals beat the U.S. in an exhibition last month in Las Vegas and will be the latest test for a U.S. team that has been challenged at the Tokyo Games unlike any other time during its gold medal run.

“Australia will be a formidable opponent because we know each other so well and we look forward to the challenge of getting out of the quarterfinals,”” said U.S. coach Dawn Staley. “We certainly have to execute on both sides of the ball and continue to get better to advance.”

Despite their struggles, there won’t be a fear factor for the Australians after the victory over the U.S. in Las Vegas.

“Obviously not the team we wanted to play in the quarterfinals, but we will fight and hope to play our best game,” Australia coach Sandy Brondello said.

Australia has never beaten the U.S. in the Olympics, losing to the Americans in the gold medal game in 2000, 04 and 08. The Australians also lost in the semifinals of the 1996 and 2012 Olympics to the U.S. as well.

The Americans have won 52 consecutive Olympic contests dating back to the bronze medal game of the 1992 Olympics. They went undefeated in group play — albeit not in the dominant fashion the team is used to.

“It’s encouraging to continue to win knowing what we’re faced against,” Staley said. “We are a lot different than what we’ve been in the Olympic Games leading up to this one, in that we have just half of the team that’s been around and then the other half really hasn’t. When your makeup is such, you have a tendency to lean heavily on the people that have done it a whole lot.”

Nigeria became the first team to come within single digits of the U.S. since 2004 and France held an early fourth quarter lead. Still the Americans found ways to win and haven’t lost a game in group play since women’s basketball was added to the Olympics in 1976.

“The countries here at the Olympic Games, they pour into their women’s teams, and now you’re seeing the effects of it,” Staley said. “And that is great women’s basketball play. We know we’re in a dogfight every time we step on the floor. It’s great for those who just put the television on and sit down and watch players that they haven’t seen before, countries that they haven’t seen before, and see them play a great game.”

The other quarterfinals matchups on Wednesday include: Group A winner Spain (3-0) will face France (1-2, third place in Group B), Group C winner China (3-0) plays Serbia (2-1, second place in Group A), and Group C second-place finisher Belgium (2-1) drew a matchup with Japan (2-1, second place in Group B).

The U.S.-Australia winner will play the China-Serbia winner in one semifinal, and the Belgium-Japan winner plays the Spain-France victor in the other. The quarterfinals are win-or-go-home; a victory means teams are assured of two more games — the semifinals followed by a gold- or bronze-medal contest — before leaving Tokyo. The gold medal game is on Sunday.

Japan advanced to the quarterfinals for the second consecutive Olympics and coach Tom Hovasse likes the team’s chances of medaling for the first time in the country’s history.

“Now it’s an open field for us,” he said. “Yeah I’m happy. We have confidence. We’ve beaten pretty much everybody left in the field. If we can play our game and shoot like we did today we’re going to be a tough out for anybody.”

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More AP Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/2020-tokyo-olympics and https://twitter.com/AP—Sports

US employers ratchet up the pressure on the unvaccinated

NEW YORK — Employers are losing patience with unvaccinated workers.

For months, most employers relied on information campaigns, bonuses and other incentives to encourage their workforces to get the COVID-19 shot. Now, a growing number are imposing rules to make it more onerous for employees to refuse, from outright mandates to requiring the unvaccinated to undergo regular testing.

But the new measures are unlikely to affect many of the millions of unvaccinated Americans.

Many of the companies that are requiring shots have mostly office workers who are already largely vaccinated and are reluctant to work alongside those who aren’t.

In contrast, major companies that rely on low-income blue-collar workers — food manufacturers, warehouses, supermarkets and other store chains — are shying away from mandates for fear of driving away employees and worsening the labor shortages such businesses are facing.

Tyson Foods, for instance, said about half of its U.S. workforce — 56,000 employees — has received shots after the meat and poultry processor hosted more than 100 vaccination events since February. But the company said it has no plans to impose a mandate to reach the other half.

Walmart and Amazon, the country’s two largest private employers, have also declined to require its hourly workers to get vaccinated, continuing to rely on strategies such as bonuses and onsite access to shots. But in a potentially powerful signal, Walmart said employees at its headquarters will be required to get vaccinated by Oct. 4.

The biggest precedent so far has come from the federal government, the nation’s largest employer. President Joe Biden announced last week that all federal employees and contractors must get vaccinated or put up with weekly testing and lose privileges such as official travel.

The federal government has said it will cover the costs of the weekly tests. As for other employers, insurance may pay for such testing at some workplaces but not others.

Biden’s decision could embolden other employers by signaling they would be on solid legal ground to impose similar rules, said Brian Kropp, chief of research at consulting firm Gartner’s human resources practice.

But Kropp said some companies face complicated considerations that go beyond legalities, including deep resistance to vaccines in many states where they operate.

Retailers like Walmart might have a hard time justifying vaccine requirements for their workers while allowing shoppers to remain unvaccinated, Kropp added. Stores have mostly avoided vaccine requirements for customers for fear of alienating them and because of the difficulty in trying to verify their status.

In surveys by Gartner, fewer than 10% of employers have said they intend to require all employees to be vaccinated.

But a shift is building amid frustration over plateauing vaccination rates and alarm over the spread of the more contagious delta variant. As of Monday, 69.9% of American adults had gotten at least one shot, missing Biden’s goal of 70% by the Fourth of July, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Union Square Hospitality Group, a group of New York City restaurants and bars founded by Danny Meyer, is now requiring employees and customers to be vaccinated by Sept. 7.

The San Francisco Bar Owner Alliance, a group of about 300 bars, made a similar decision following a meeting where “the thing that stood out was anger and frustration” toward vaccine holdouts, said founder Ben Bleiman.

While some companies fear vaccine mandates will drive workers away, the pandemic itself is also causing absenteeism. Bleiman said he recently had to close his bar for a night after his bartender, who was fully vaccinated, tested positive and a replacement couldn’t be found.

Some employers are concluding that requiring vaccines is simpler than trying to come up with different rules on masks and social distancing for the small number of unvaccinated employees.

BlackRock, the global investment manager, is allowing only vaccinated workers into its U.S. offices for now and said people will be free to go maskless, as local health guidelines allow, and sit next to each other and congregate without restrictions. The firm said 85% of its U.S. employees are vaccinated or in the process of getting shots.

Matthew Putman, CEO of New York-based high-tech manufacturing hub Nanotronics, said he agonized over his decision to impose a vaccine mandate on his more than 100 employees. As it turned out, nearly all of them were already vaccinated, though he dreads the prospect of having to fire any holdouts.

“I hate the thought. But if it has to happen it has to happen,” Putman said. “I lost a ton of sleep over this but not as much sleep as I’ve lost over the fear of infection.”

Other mandates could provide a clearer test of the potential for employee backlash.

Hospitals and nursing home chains, for instance, are increasingly requiring the vaccine. So far, such mandates have survived legal challenges. More than 150 employees at a Houston hospital system who refused to get the COVID-19 shot were fired or resigned after a judge dismissed an employee lawsuit over the requirement.

Atria Senior Living, which operates more than 200 senior living communities across the country, was among the first to mandate vaccines for its staff in January.

It worked. Nearly 99% of Atria’s 10,000 employees are vaccinated, and only a tiny fraction quit over the requirement, said CEO and Chairman John Moore.

“Our residents deserve to live in a vaccinated environment. Our staff deserves to work in a vaccinated environment,” Moore said.

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Associated Press Business Writers Anne D’Innocenzio and Dee-Ann Durbin contributed to this story.

US to offer refugee status to Afghans at risk because of American ties amid growing Taliban threat

The Biden administration is expanding the group of Afghans who could be granted refugee status and flee to the United States to escape the growing threat of the Taliban across Afghanistan, the State Department announced Monday.

The militant group is increasingly gaining control of districts across the country, as the war-torn country teeters dangerously towards collapse into all-out civil war.

But while President Joe Biden has committed to helping Afghans who helped the U.S. military and diplomatic mission in the country for the last 20 years, the new policy will apply only to Afghans who have left the country and will take at least over a year for their cases to be processed, according to senior State Department officials — even as the risk to these Afghans is urgent.

The Biden administration has launched relocation flights for thousands of Afghans who worked as interpreters, guides, and other contractors and applied for Special Immigrant Visas – some 20,000 applicants in total, according to a State Department spokesperson, although only a fraction of them will be evacuated by the U.S.

For interpreters and other contractors who did not meet the required two years of service for a Special Immigrant Visa, the State Department will now allow them to apply for refugee status instead. They’re also expanding the pool of potential refugees to any Afghan who worked for a U.S.-based media outlet, for a U.S. government-funded program, or for a U.S. government-supported project.

After 20 years of humanitarian development across the country, that’s a wide category of Afghans, along with their eligible family members. Senior State Department officials declined to provide an estimate, but said it was likely in the tens of thousands in total.

The administration has been under pressure, especially from Republican and Democrat lawmakers and U.S. veterans’ groups, to do more to help Afghans who worked with or for the U.S. during two decades of war and development – and who therefore may be at greater risk of retaliatory attacks by the Taliban.

While the militant group’s political leaders have said Afghans will not be harmed, the last year has seen a string of high-profile assassinations against journalists, women’s rights activists, minority leaders, and military and police chiefs. At least 300 interpreters have been killed by Taliban fighters since 2014, according to the advocacy group No One Left Behind.

“The U.S. objective remains a peaceful, secure Afghanistan. However, in light of increased levels of Taliban violence, the U.S. government is working to provide certain Afghans, including those who worked with the United States, the opportunity for refugee resettlement to the United States,” the State Department said in a statement.

But the refugee resettlement process takes several months, if not years, including intensive security vetting, and the process will require Afghan applicants to leave the country, according to senior State Department officials – something that many cannot afford, cannot risk, or cannot manage.

“This program is meant to expand the aperture of people who have an opportunity to be resettled in the United States beyond the SIVs. It is our attempt to try to offer an option to people,” said a senior State Department official.

The State Department has said it will evacuate nearly 5,000 of those “SIV’s,” or Special Immigrant Visa applicants, along with their eligible family members like spouses and children.

Some 750 and their dependents – 2,500 in total – who have been granted approval by the U.S. embassy in Kabul and cleared security vetting will be moved to Fort Lee, a U.S. Army base in central Virginia. The first of them arrived last Friday, with a second flight with several hundred more arriving early Monday, according to a U.S. official.

In addition, 4,000 applicants who have been approved by the embassy, but are awaiting security clearances, will be moved to safe third countries. Along with their family members, the group could total approximately 20,000, and diplomatic discussions on where to house them all as they wait months for their applications to be processed remain underway with several countries, including Kuwait, Qatar, and Kazakhstan, according to U.S. officials.

But a senior State Department official said the administration does not plan to relocate any of the Afghans who now qualify for refugee status under this new designation, known as Priority 2, or P2. Instead, their employer will open a case with the embassy in Kabul, and once the U.S. government confirms it is ready to begin processing their case, they must find their own way to a third country and declare themselves a refugee.

“At this point in time, unfortunately, we do not anticipate relocating them, but we will continue to examine all the options to protect those who have served with or for us, and we will review the situation on the ground, and our planning will continue to evolve,” said the senior official.

Once outside of Afghanistan, it could take at least 12 to 14 months for their case to be adjudicated, per the senior official.

As the new designations could lead to thousands of Afghans fleeing the country and seeking refugee status, a second senior official said the U.S. government has had conversations with some of Afghanistan’s neighbors, like Pakistan, about preparing for refugee flows and keeping their borders open to refugees.

ABC News’s Luis Martinez contributed to this report.

Cuomo mandates vaccines or testing for NYC transit workers

Gov. Andrew Cuomo says workers in New York City’s airports and public transit system will have to get vaccinations or face weekly testing for the coronavirus, but he stopped short of mandating either masks or inoculations for the general public

“The Legislature would have to come back, they’d have to pass a law to do that. So I don’t have any legal authority to mandate,” Cuomo said of a mask mandate. “The best I can do is say I strongly recommend that they do that.”

Cuomo announced that the vaccinate-or-be-tested policies already covering thousands of municipal employees would be extended to the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and for Port Authority employees working in New York facilities beginning Labor Day. The policy will cover more than 70,000 workers, most of whom are already vaccinated.

Transport Workers Union Local 100 President Tony Utano said they will continue to urge members to get the vaccinated and will work with the MTA to make sure testing is widely available.

Shortly after Cuomo spoke to reporters, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said he was “strongly recommending” that even vaccinated people return to wearing masks indoors when not at home, but also declined to make masking mandatory.

An average of nearly 2,300 people have been testing positive for COVID-19 daily across New York state over the past week, up from around 300 new cases per day in late June. Almost two dozen of the state’s 62 counties met the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s threshold for masking up indoors.

Health officials say the delta variant of the coronavirus accounts for 72% of new cases in New York City.

Infection rates have been rising nationwide. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently issued guidelines recommending that even vaccinated people wear masks indoors in parts of the U.S. where the delta variant is fueling infection surges.

The governor and mayor have resisted reimposing mask mandates, instead stressing vaccination as the key to fighting the pandemic. De Blasio announced last week that city employees would have to get coronavirus vaccines by mid-September or face weekly COVID-19 testing. Cuomo later announced a similar rule for state employees.

Citing new information about the variant’s ability to spread among vaccinated people, the CDC also recommended indoor masks for all teachers, staff, students and visitors at schools nationwide, regardless of vaccination status.

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Hill reported from Albany. Associated Press writer Mallika Sen contributed from New York.

Official in Michigan county gives up post in COVID aid flap

An official has resigned as chairman of a county board in Michigan in the latest fallout from his decision to give himself a $25,000 bonus with federal COVID-19 relief money and reward others in the community

CORUNNA, Mich. — An official resigned as chairman of a county board in Michigan, the latest fallout from his decision to give himself a $25,000 bonus with federal COVID-19 relief money and reward others in the community.

Jeremy Root will remain one of seven Shiawassee County commissioners but will no longer lead the board.

“This whole county government needs major reform. … The integrity of the board is gone. There is no way to return it,” Daniel Law of Owosso said during a rare Sunday meeting that attracted more than 200 residents.

Root did not attend the meeting, but his resignation letter was read to the public.

Republican county commissioners in July voted 6-0 to give themselves $65,000 in COVID-19 “hazard pay,” part of an effort to distribute more than $500,000 in federal aid to 250 county employees.

Root and fellow Commissioner Cindy Garber, who got $5,000, defended the bonuses. But at least one commissioner said she had no idea that she had voted to reward herself until money turned up in her bank account.

Commissioners reversed course on July 23 and said they would return the money. Separately, a judge last week ordered the county to recover any bonus that exceeded $5,000 after a lawsuit claimed commissioners violated open meetings law when the money was approved.

No summer break: 35 million in EU cant afford holidays

The majority of low-income families in the European Union can’t afford a summer holiday, according to a study by the the European Trade Union Confederation

BRUSSELS — The majority of low-income families in the European Union can’t afford a summer holiday, according to a study by the the European Trade Union Confederation .

The organization, which represents 45 million members in 38 European countries, said many low-paid workers are among 35 million of EU citizens who don’t have enough money for a break. The union used data from Eurostat, the EU’s statistical office.

“A holiday should not be a luxury for the few. While many workers are away enjoying time off with friends and family, millions are missing out because of low pay,” the confederation’s deputy general secretary Esther Lynch said. “The rise in holiday inequality shows how the benefits of economic growth in Europe over the last decade haven’t been shared fairly.”

According to the study, 28% of those aged 16 or over living in the bloc of 450 million people don’t have the means to enjoy a one-week holiday away from home. The study stressed that this rose to 59.5% for people whose income falls below Eurostat’s at-risk-of-poverty threshold, which is set at 60% of national median income.

ETUC said many people in the poverty group are unemployed or retired, but it also includes millions of low paid workers.

“Statutory minimum wages leave workers at risk of poverty in at least 16 EU member states and, according to the European Commission, 22 million workers make less than 60% of the median,” the union said, adding that holiday inequality grew in 16 EU countries over the past 10 years.

The biggest divides in access to holidays between those with income below 60% of median and those with income above that threshold are in Croatia, Greece ,Bulgaria, Czech Republic, France and Romania, it said.

ETUC said it is working with European legislators to introduce a “threshold of decency” into EU law that would ensure statutory minimum wages could never be less than 60% of the median wage and 50% of the average wage of any EU nation. The union said the move would help deliver a pay rise to over 24 million people.

Bipartisan negotiators unveil 2,702-page infrastructure bill

The bill is worth $550 billion in new spending.

After days of deliberation, senators who negotiated a bipartisan infrastructure package unveiled the legislative text of the massive proposal Sunday night.

The 2,702-page bill was released after weeks of deliberation among a bipartisan group of 10 senators and members of the administration.

The bill, worth $550 billion in new spending, will address core infrastructure needs. It includes $110 billion in new funds for roads and bridges, $66 billion for rail, $7.5 billion to build out electric vehicle charging stations, $17 billion for ports, $25 billion for airports, $55 billion for clean drinking water, a $65 billion investment in high-speed internet and more.

The Senate will begin deliberation on amendments as it heads into the work week. Members of both parties have said they support a robust amendment process that will give lawmakers the chance to try to modify the bill.

There’s not yet an agreement on how many amendments will be considered, but Majority Leader Chuck Schumer made clear late Sunday night that he wants to see the Senate act swiftly to pass the legislation.

“Given how bipartisan the bill is and how much work has already been put in to get the details right, I believe the Senate can quickly process relevant amendments to pass this bill in a matter of days,” Schumer said.

Members of the bipartisan group heralded the agreement as a triumph of bipartisanship.

In a politically contentious environment with an evenly divided Senate, the bipartisan group said they felt it was important to demonstrate that across-the-aisle work can yield results.

“This process of starting from the center out has worked,” Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican and the chief Republican negotiator in the bipartisan group, said on the Senate floor Sunday evening.

“I am delighted to demonstrate to the American people that we can work across the aisle in a bipartisan way to achieve real results that matter to the people of this country,” Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, added.

It is not yet clear how many Republicans will ultimately vote to pass the legislation after amendments are considered, but the bill enjoyed broad bipartisan support in a key procedural test vote last week. Seventeen Republicans — including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell — voted with all of the Democrats to advance the legislation.

The bipartisan agreement is just one part of the two-pronged approach Democrats are taking to try to pass President Joe Biden’s American Families Plan into law.

Schumer has long stated that after the bipartisan bill is passed Democrats will work on moving a separate $3.5 trillion budget bill using a process called reconciliation, which allows them to bypass the usual 60-vote threshold necessary to pass legislation in the Senate.

That second, larger package is expected to include funding for things like pre-K, housing, health care and other items that Republicans struck from the bipartisan plan in order to achieve a more narrowly tailored infrastructure proposal.

To pass the budget bill, Schumer will need the support of every Democrat serving in the Senate. It’s not yet clear he’ll have it.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., the chief Democratic negotiator on the bipartisan infrastructure deal, released a statement last week which said she does not support a bill that costs $3.5 trillion.

Several members of the Senate Budget Committee, which will handle that larger bill, say that for now, they’re focused on passing the bipartisan bill and on opening discussions about their package.

Citing Taliban violence, US expands Afghan refugee program

The Biden administration is expanding efforts to evacuate Afghan citizens from Afghanistan as Taliban violence increases ahead of the U.S. military pullout at the end of the month

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration on Monday expanded its efforts to evacuate at-risk Afghan citizens from Afghanistan as Taliban violence increases ahead there of the U.S. military pullout at the end of the month.

The State Department said it is widening the scope of Afghans eligible for refugee status in United States to include current and former employees of U.S.-based news organizations, U.S.-based aid and development agencies and other relief groups that receive U.S. funding. Current and former employees of the U.S. government and the NATO military operation who don’t meet the criteria for a dedicated program for such workers are also covered.

“The U.S. objective remains a peaceful, secure Afghanistan,” it said in a statement. “However, in light of increased levels of Taliban violence, the U.S. government is working to provide certain Afghans, including those who worked with the United States, the opportunity for refugee resettlement to the United States.”

The creation of a “Priority 2” category for Afghans within the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program is intended for Afghans and their immediate families who “may be at risk due to their U.S. affiliation” but aren’t able to get a Special Immigrant Visa because they did not work directly for the U.S. government or didn’t hold their government jobs long enough.

To qualify for the Priority 2 category, Afghans must be nominated by a U.S. government agency or by the most senior civilian U.S. citizen employee of a U.S-based media outlet or nongovernmental organization.

The first group of Afghan Special Immigrant Visa applicants — most of whom served as translators or did other work for U.S. troops or diplomats — who have cleared security vetting arrived in the U.S. on Friday. That group of 221 people are among 2,500 who will be brought to the U.S. in the coming days.

Another 4,000 SIV applicants, plus their families, who have not yet cleared the security screening are expected to be relocated to third countries ahead of the completion of the U.S. withdrawal. Roughly 20,000 Afghans have expressed interest in the program.

Anti-gun violence group pledges $25 million to stop shootings

The move is designed to counteract the recent spikes in violent gun crimes.

The nation’s largest gun violence prevention organization is stepping up efforts to address the scourge of recent shootings across the country as part of a new initiative unveiled exclusively by ABC News on Monday.

Everytown for Gun Safety is delivering millions of dollars in grants and providing support to local organizations that aim to reduce gun crimes by tapping into communities most impacted by firearms. The new initiative, known as the Everytown Community Safety Fund, is dedicating $25 million over five years to gun violence prevention programs. The first million is set to be distributed across organizations next month.

“It’s an urgent moment,” said Michael-Sean Spence, Everytown’s director of community safety initiatives who is leading the rollout of the new initiative. “We’re in the middle of a public health crisis — one that has been brewing for a number of years and has really taken off over the last year, year and a half.”

The rate of homicides with a firearm is nearly 25 times higher in the U.S. compared to similar economically developed countries, according to a 2015 study published in the journal of Preventive Medicine. More recently, 2020 marked the highest number of firearm deaths in at least 20 years, according to Britannica, the group behind the famed encyclopedia, and the Gun Violence Archive.

On a recent week in July, a joint analysis by GVA and ABC News found that 2.4 people were killed and 5.5 people were wounded every hour.

“The trends we’re seeing today don’t approach the ’90s levels of gun homicides that we fortunately were able to reverse,” Spence told ABC News. “But they are some of the highest numbers we have seen since the early 2000s, and we’ve also seen a prolonged, persistent spike.”

The funds from Everytown will support 100 local intervention programs, building on its original list of 60 programs funded by the organization over the past two years.

“There are a number of factors that drive gun violence. One is the lack of opportunity,” Spence said. “Many of these programs, once they’ve identified individuals, can put them into workforce development programs and connect them with other opportunities to change their life.”

One of the groups set to receive funding is No More Red Dots, which runs a handful of gun violence prevention programs in Louisville, Kentucky. The organization maintains a database of high-risk individuals in the area and works to prevent them from engaging in future shootings.

Led by Dr. Eddie Woods, who has more than 20 years of experience in community safety, No More Red Dots has deep roots in Louisville. Some of the organization’s programs include an artist’s workshop and basketball league that are designed to build the skills and interests of at-risk youth and provide them with mentorship opportunities.

“We’ve been around forever, so a lot of the young people’s parents, and maybe in some cases grandparents, were in our group sessions back in the day,” Woods told ABC News. “So we kind of got a feel for the culture in some families — the personalities of some families.”

The hyper-local formula appears to be moving the community in a positive direction. Thousands of kids have gone through the program, Woods said, and more than 115 have gone from engaging in dangerous activity in the streets to obtaining a college education.

Pelosi, Democrats call on Biden to extend eviction ban

WASHINGTON — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the House Democratic leaders on Sunday called on the Biden administration to immediately extend the nation’s eviction moratorium, calling it a “moral imperative” to prevent Americans from being put out of their homes during a COVID-19 surge.

An estimated 3.6 million Americans are at risk of eviction, some as soon as Monday.

Congress was unable to pass legislation swiftly to extend the ban, which expired at midnight Saturday, and the Democratic leaders said in a statement that it was now up to President Joe Biden’s administration to act. They called on the administration to extend the moratorium through Oct. 18.

“Action is needed, and it must come from the Administration,” Pelosi said in the statement signed by Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Whip James E. Clyburn and Assistant Speaker Katherine Clark. “Science and reason demand that they must also extend the moratorium in light of the delta variant. Doing so is a moral imperative.”

The White House, which has urged localities and states to tap aid already approved by Congress, had no direct response to the Democrats’ call for action.

Some Democratic lawmakers said they were caught by surprise last Thursday when Biden announced that he would not extend the moratorium again in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling that suggested congressional action was necessary for another extension. Lawmakers were left with only days to act before the ban expired, creating frustration and anger and exposing a rare rift with the administration.

On Sunday, hours after the expiration, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., said that Democrats had to “call a spade a spade” and pointed to her own party.

“We cannot in good faith blame the Republican Party when House Democrats have a majority,” the progressive congresswoman said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Ocasio-Cortez and other Democrats joined Rep. Cori Bush, D-Mo., who camped outside the Capitol over the weekend in protest.

On Saturday, with no legislative action pending, Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., the chair of the Financial Services Committee, told CNN, “We thought that the White House was in charge.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention put the ban in place as part of the COVID-19 response when jobs shifted and many workers lost income. The ban was intended to hold back the spread of the virus among people put out on the streets and into shelters.

Another source of frustration for lawmakers is the slow pace of pandemic relief already approved by Congress — nearly $47 billion in federal housing aid to the states — getting to renters and landlords owed payments. Biden has called on local governments to “take all possible steps” to disburse the funds immediately.

“There can be no excuse for any state or locality not accelerating funds to landlords and tenants that have been hurt during this pandemic,” Biden said in a statement Friday.

Brian Deese, director of the White House National Economic Council, appeared on “Fox News Sunday” to echo that sentiment. “No landlord should evict without seeking that rental assistance, and states and localities need to get that money out urgently, and they can do that,” Deese said.

Landlords also have argued for speeding up the distribution of rental assistance and opposed another extension of the moratorium.

As the deadline approached Saturday night, Pelosi urged House Democrats to check into how the money already allocated had been distributed so far in their own states and localities. She said the Treasury Department, which transferred the funds earlier in the year, offered to brief lawmakers during the coming week.

When the Supreme Court voted 5-4 in late June to allow the broad eviction ban to continue through the end of July, one of those in the majority, Justice Brett Kavanaugh, made clear he would block any additional extensions unless there was “clear and specific congressional authorization.”

The White House has maintained that Biden wanted to extend the moratorium but that concerns remained over challenging the court. Doing so could lead to a ruling restricting the administration’s ability to respond to future public health crises.

While racing to respond to Biden’s announcement Thursday that congressional action was needed, Democrats strained to draft a bill and rally the votes. Waters produced a draft of a bill that would require the CDC to continue the ban through Dec. 31. At a hastily arranged hearing Friday morning to consider the bill, she urged her colleagues to act.

In the end, Democratic lawmakers had questions and concerns and could not muster support to extend the ban.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington, the top Republican on another panel handling the issue, said the Democrats’ bill was rushed and that “this is not the way to legislate.”

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Associated Press writer Alexandra Jaffe contributed to this report.

German court sets trial date for former Nazi guard, aged 100

A German court has set a trial date for a 100-year-old man who is charged with 3,518 counts of accessory to murder on allegations he served as a Nazi SS guard at a concentration camp on the outskirts of Berlin during World War II

BERLIN — A German court has set a trial date for a 100-year-old man who is charged with 3,518 counts of accessory to murder on allegations he served as a Nazi SS guard at a concentration camp on the outskirts of Berlin during World War II.

A spokeswoman for the Neuruppin state court said Monday that the trial is set to begin in early October. The centenarian’s name wasn’t released in line with German privacy laws.

The suspect is alleged to have worked at the Sachsenhausen camp between 1942 and 1945 as an enlisted member of the Nazi Party’s paramilitary wing.

Authorities say that despite his advanced age, the suspect is considered fit enough to stand trial, though the number of hours per day the court is in session may have to be limited.

“A medical evaluation confirms that he is fit to stand trial in a limited way,” court spokeswoman Iris le Claire said.

The Neuruppin office was handed the case in 2019 by the special federal prosecutors’ office in Ludwigsburg tasked with investigating Nazi-era war crimes. The state court in Neuruppin is based northwest of the town of Oranienburg, where Sachsenhausen was located.

The defendant is said to live in the state of Brandenburg outside of Berlin, local media reported.

More than 200,000 people were held there between 1936 and 1945. Tens of thousands of inmates there died of starvation, disease, forced labor and other causes, as well as through medical experiments and systematic SS extermination operations including shootings, hangings and gassing.

Exact numbers on those killed vary, with upper estimates of some 100,000, though scholars suggest figures of 40,000 to 50,000 are likely more accurate.

In its early years, most prisoners were either political prisoners or criminal prisoners, but also included some Jehovah’s Witnesses and homosexuals. The first large group of Jewish prisoners was brought there in 1938 after the Night of Broken Glass, or Kristallnacht, an antisemitic pogrom.

During the war, Sachsenhausen was expanded to include Soviet prisoners of war — who were shot by the thousands — as well as others.

Like in other camps, Jewish prisoners were singled out at Sachsenhausen for particularly harsh treatment, and most who remained alive by 1942 were sent to the Auschwitz death camp.

Sachsenhausen was liberated in April 1945 by the Soviets, who turned it into a brutal camp of their own.

In a different case, a 96-year-old woman will go on trial in late September in the northern German town of Itzehoe. The woman, who allegedly worked during the war as the secretary for the SS commandant of the Stutthof concentration camp, has been charged with over 10,000 counts of accessory to murder earlier this year.

Her case and the charges against the 100-year-old suspect both rely on recent legal precedent in Germany establishing that anyone who helped a Nazi camp function can be prosecuted for accessory to the murders committed there.

Giant panda in French zoo gives birth to female twins

A French zoo has announced that a giant panda on loan to France from China has given birth to two female twin cubs

The Beauval Zoo, south of Paris, said the twins were born shortly after 1 a.m. They weigh 149 and 129 grams (5.3 and 4.6 ounces).

Their mother Huan Huan and father Yuan Zi are at Beauval on a 10-year loan from China aimed at highlighting good ties with France. The twins are their second and third cubs after the first panda ever born in France, Yuan Meng, in 2017.

“Huan Huan is taking care of them very well. She took them in her mouth to lick them and clean them. We can hear little cries,” the zoo said in a statement.

The zoo said the sex of the cubs were determined by the Chinese experts in charge of taking care of them but will need to be definitively confirmed since external genitalia does not appear until they are several months old.

The birth comes after the zoo announced with great joy in March that Huan Huan and Yuan Zi had “mated eight times.” Veterinarians then carried out an artificial insemination “to have as much chance as possible” to see a pregnancy.

Giant pandas have difficulty breeding and their pregnancies are notoriously difficult to follow.

“We just lived a moment of rare intensity. These births are always very exceptional but they also bring some surprises,” said Delphine Delord, director of the Beauval Zoo.

The cubs will not be named before 100 days. They will spend a few years in France before being sent to China, the zoo said.

There are about 1,800 pandas living in the wild in China and about 500 in captivity worldwide.

China for decades gifted friendly nations with its unofficial national mascot in what was known as “panda diplomacy.” More recently the country has loaned pandas to zoos on commercial terms.

Death toll triples to more than 300 in recent China flooding

Chinese authorities have announced a large jump in the death toll from recent floods

BEIJING — More than 300 people died in recent flooding in central China, authorities said Monday, three times the previously announced toll.

The Henan provincial government said 302 people died and 50 remain missing. The vast majority of the victims were in Zhengzhou, the provincial capital, where 292 died and 47 are missing. Ten others died in three other cities, officials said at a news conference in Zhengzhou.

Record rainfall inundated the city on July 20, turning streets into rushing rivers and flooding at least part of a subway line. Video posted online showed vehicles being washed away and desperate people trapped in subway cars as the waters rose. Fourteen people died in the subway flooding.

The previous death toll, announced Friday, was 99.

Authorities said 189 people were killed by floods and mudslides, 54 in house collapses and 39 in underground areas such as basements and garages and including those on subway Line 5. The death toll remained at six in an expressway tunnel from which 247 vehicles were removed as it was drained.

Wang Kai, the governor of Henan province, expressed deep condolences to the victims and sympathies to the families on behalf of the Henan Communist Party committee.

The worst came after Zhengzhou was hit by 20 centimeters (8 inches) of rain in one hour starting at 4 p.m. on July 20, overwhelming the already drenched city. Children were trapped in schools, and stranded people stayed in their workplaces overnight.

The rains headed north in the following days, hitting the Henan cities of Hebi, Anyang and Xinxiang. Seven people died and three are missing in Xinxiang, where record rains dropped more than 25 centimeters (10 inches) of water in a 19-hour period. Henan is an inland county about 620 kilometers (380 miles) southwest of Beijing.

Authorities said that about 250,000 hectares (625,000 acres) of crops were destroyed and have estimated losses at more than 90 billion yuan ($14 billion). About 1.5 million people were evacuated because of the rains and flooding.

The central government has set up an investigation team to evaluate the disaster response, summarize the lessons from it and hold accountable anyone guilty of dereliction of duty, Chinese media said.

3 people injured by darts from a blowgun in western Germany

German police say three people have been slightly injured when they were targeted with darts likely shot from a blowgun in the western city of Cologne

BERLIN — German police said three people were slightly injured Monday morning when they were targeted with darts likely shot from a blowgun in the western city of Cologne.

Several police teams were investigating and looking for a perpetrator. Possible witnesses were asked to get in touch with Cologne police.

Evacuations lifted as progress made against fires in US West

Firefighters in Oregon reported good progress in the battle against the nation’s largest wildfire, while authorities canceled evacuation orders near a major blaze in Northern California and another in Hawaii

Containment of the Bootleg Fire in remote southern Oregon was up to 84% late Sunday. It was 56% contained a day earlier.

“That reflects several good days of work on the ground where crews have been able to reinforce and build additional containment lines,” fire spokesman Al Nash said.

The blaze has scorched over 646 square miles (1,673 square kilometers) since being sparked by lightning July 6 in the Fremont-Winema National Forest.

California’s Dixie Fire covered nearly 388 square miles (1,005 square kilometers) in mountains where 42 homes and other buildings have been destroyed.

The fire was 33% contained Sunday evening, and evacuation orders and warnings had earlier been lifted for several areas of Butte and Plumas counties.

The cause of the blaze was still under investigation.

Authorities warned that with unpredictable winds and extremely dry fuels, the risk of flare-ups remained high.

In recent days, lightning sparked two wildfires that threatened remote homes in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. Evacuation warnings remained in place Sunday for communities along the Trinity River.

In Montana, a wind-driven wildfire destroyed more than a dozen homes, outbuildings and other structures, authorities said Sunday. Evacuations were ordered after flames jumped a highway and moved toward communities near Flathead Lake in the northwestern part of the state.

Crews also battled major blazes in northeast Washington and northern Idaho.

Nearly 22,000 firefighters and support personnel were battling 91 large, active wildfires covering 2,813 square miles (7,285 square kilometers) in mostly western states, the National Interagency Fire Center said.

A historic drought and recent heat waves tied to climate change have made wildfires harder to fight in the American West. Scientists say climate change has made the region much warmer and drier in the past 30 years and will continue to make weather more extreme and wildfires more frequent and destructive.

The U.S. Drought Monitor reported last week that while a robust monsoon has delivered drought-easing rainfall to the Southwest, critically dry conditions persist across Northern California and the Northwest, where there has been an expansion of “exceptional drought,” the worst category.

A fast-moving wildfire on Hawaii’s Big Island grew to 62.5 square miles (101 square kilometers), prompting mandatory evacuation orders. Those orders — which forced thousands of residents out of their homes — were lifted Sunday evening. However, authorities told residents to remain alert.

“County officials ask all residents of the affected areas to only return home if absolutely necessary,” Hawaii County spokesperson Cyrus Johnasen said in a statement. “Smoke and other conditions may make returns unsafe for those with prior and underlying respiratory conditions.”

Local media reported at least two homes had been destroyed. Two community shelters were open for residents who weren’t able to return home, the Hawaii Red Cross said.

American star Simone Biles to return for balance beam finals

Simone Biles is returning to competition in Tokyo

TOKYO — Simone Biles is back.

The 2016 Olympic gymnastics champion will return to competition in the balance beam final on Tuesday, a little over a week after stepping away from the meet to focus on her mental health.

“We are so excited to confirm that you will see two U.S. athletes in the balance beam final tomorrow — Suni Lee AND Simone Biles!! Can’t wait to watch you both!” USA Gymnastics said in a statement.

The 24-year-old Biles won bronze on beam in Rio de Janeiro five years ago and qualified for the eight-woman final at the Ariake Gymnastics Centre on the first weekend of the Games.

She removed herself from the team final on July 27 after a shaky performance on vault during the first rotation. She watched from the sidelines as her three American teammates completed the meet without her; the U.S. took silver behind the team known as the Russian Olympic Committee.

The six-time Olympic medalist later said she was dealing with issues surrounding air awareness, referred to as “the twisties” in her sport.

Biles qualified for all five individual event finals but took herself out of four of them: the all-around, vault, floor exercise and uneven bars. Lee earned the gold in the all-around, becoming the fifth straight American to claim the sport’s marquee title.

Considered to be the greatest gymnast of all-time and the unquestioned face of the U.S. Olympic movement when she arrived in Japan, Biles continued to train and be evaluated daily by the USA Gymnastics staff after opting out of multiple finals. She has also been a fixture in the stands supporting Lee, MyKayla Skinner and Jade Carey while they competed in the event finals.

She went into extensive detail about “the twisties” last week, explaining she lost the confidence of knowing what her body was going to do in midair. It’s not the first time Biles dealt with the problem, though she did say the issues followed her to both uneven bars and beam. Previous bouts with the phenomenon were limited to floor exercise and vault, where more twisting elements are required.

Biles has called the bronze the medal she earned in Brazil that she’s proudest of, and she’s taken to task those who called it a disappointment, using it as proof to the double standard she believes follows her whenever she competes.

Athletes from all over — both at the Olympics and elsewhere — have rallied around her over the last week, praising her courage for speaking up about the importance of mental health.

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More AP Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/2020-tokyo-olympics and https://twitter.com/AP—Sports

Evictions expected to spike as federal moratorium ends

BOSTON — Evictions, which have mostly been on pause during the pandemic, are expected to ramp up on Monday after the expiration of a federal moratorium as housing courts take up more cases and tenants are locked out of their homes.

Housing advocates fear the end of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention moratorium could result in millions of people being evicted in the coming weeks. But most expect an uptick in filings in the coming days rather than a wave of evictions.

The Biden administration announced Thursday it will allow a nationwide ban to expire. It argued that its hands are tied after the U.S. Supreme Court signaled the moratorium would only be extended until the end of the month.

House lawmakers on Friday attempted but, ultimately failed, to pass a bill to extend the moratorium even for a few months. Some Democratic lawmakers had wanted it extended until the end of the year.

“Without the CDC’s moratorium, millions of people are at risk of being evicted or becoming homeless, increasing their exposure to COVID just as cases are rising across the country. The effects will fall heavily on people of color, particularly Black and Latino communities, who face greater risk of eviction and more barriers to vaccination.”

More than 15 million people live in households that owe as much as $20 billion to their landlords, according to the Aspen Institute. As of July 5, roughly 3.6 million people in the U.S. said they faced eviction in the next two months, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey.

Parts of the South and other regions with weaker tenant protections will likely see the largest spikes and communities of color where vaccination rates are sometimes lower will be hit hardest. But advocates say this crisis is likely to have a wider impact than pre-pandemic evictions.

The Biden administration had hoped that historic amounts of rental assistance allocated by Congress in December and March would help avert an eviction crisis. But the distribution has been painfully slow. So far, only about $3 billion of the first tranche of $25 billion has been distributed through June by states and localities. Another $21.5 billion will go to the states.

Ashley Phonsyry, 22, who will be in court Thursday for an eviction hearing after falling several thousands dollars behind on her Fayetteville, Arkansas, two-bedroom apartment, said her landlord has refused to take rental assistance. She left her job after being hurt in a domestic violence incident and suffering from depression and anxiety. The eviction hearing is a day after her domestic violence case goes to court.

“It frustrates me and scares me,” she said of being evicted. “I’m trying so hard to make it right and it doesn’t seem like it’s enough.”

Around the country, courts, legal advocates and law enforcement agencies are gearing up for evictions to return to pre-pandemic levels, a time when 3.7 million people were displaced from their homes every year, or seven every minute, according to the Eviction Lab at Princeton University.

In St. Louis, the sheriff’s office handles court-ordered evictions. Sheriff Vernon Betts said 126 evictions have been ordered and are just waiting for the moratorium to end. His office plans to enforce about 30 evictions per day starting Aug. 9.

Betts knows there will be hundreds of additional orders soon. He’s already been contacted by countless landlords who haven’t yet filed for eviction, but plan to. And he expected to increase his staffing.

“We already know that we have about 126 evictions already lined up. What we’re planning on doing is tripling our two-man team,” he said. “Right off the bat we want to clean up that 126 evictions.”

Sgt. William Brown, who leads the evictions unit for the Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office, said he doesn’t know how quickly evictions will ramp up after the moratorium ends. Landlords still have to go through several steps before they can evict. But he said he has no doubt that many more people will be forced out, rattling off statistics that show the steep decline in evictions since the pandemic began: nearly 4,000 in 2018 and 2019, then a steep plunge to about 1,900 in 2020.

“Absolutely. Absolutely,” he said. “I think that once evictions are there fully, there’s no more moratorium in place, it’s going to get really bad.”

“It’s the most challenging position that I’ve ever been in, because at the end of the day I have an empathy and sympathy. I’m required by state statute to execute this,” he said. “You have to feel for these people … watching small kids go through this, this entire process.”

Lee Camp, an attorney with the St. Louis legal group ArchCity Defenders, said the vast majority of tenants facing eviction don’t have lawyers, often because they can’t afford them. Meanwhile, he said, eviction cases move through the courts quickly in Missouri, often in a matter of weeks.

“The scales of justice are just at this incredible imbalance,” Camp said.

In Wisconsin, Heiner Giese, legal counsel for the Apartment Association of Southeastern Wisconsin, said his trade association for rental property owners in the Milwaukee area has been “very strong in urging our members and all landlords not to evict.”

“I pretty strongly believe from the feedback we get from our members in the Milwaukee area … there will not be this giant tsunami of (evictions),” Giese said.

Still, Colleen Foley, executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Milwaukee, said she “certainly” expects an uptick. She said 161 evictions were filed last week, a significant increase from prior weeks where filings tended to hover around 100 to 120. She said she was waiting to hear when those cases would go to court.

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Associated Press writers Jim Salter in St. Louis and Doug Glass in Minneapolis contributed to this report.

Hong Kong pop singer, activist arrested on corruption charge

A prominent Hong Kong singer and pro-democracy activist has been arrested by the city’s anti-corruption watchdog over accusations that he broke the law by singing at a political rally three years ago

HONG KONG — A prominent Hong Kong singer and pro-democracy activist was arrested by the city’s anti-corruption watchdog Monday over accusations that he broke the law by singing at a political rally three years ago.

The arrest of Anthony Wong in the latest official move against those who had been pushing for greater democracy in the semiautonomous Chinese territory.

Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption said Wong performed two songs at the 2018 rally and urged attendees to vote for pro-democracy candidate Au Nok-hin in a legislative by-election.

The watchdog said in a statement that providing others with refreshments and entertainment at an election event is “a corrupt conduct and a serious offence” and is against the elections ordinance.

Local media reported that Wong was released on bail. Au, meanwhile, has been in jail since March. Au was one of the 47 pro-democracy activists arrested for alleged subversion over an unofficial primary election they held last year.

The arrests come as authorities crack down on dissent in Hong Kong following 2019 anti-government protests sparked by concerns that the former British colony was losing the freedoms it was promised when it was handed over to Chinese control in 1997.

Beijing last year imposed a sweeping national security law that has since been used to arrest more than 100 pro-democracy figures. Changes have also been made to Hong Kong’s election laws to reduce the number of directly elected lawmakers and give a largely pro-Beijing committee the leeway to nominate lawmakers aligned with Beijing.

The crackdown has drawn criticism from many governments around the world.

Wong rose to fame in the 1980s as the vocalist for pop duo Tat Ming Pair and later embarked on a solo career.

He became an outspoken supporter of the city’s democracy movement, backing the 2019 protests as well as the so-called Umbrella Revolution protests that hit the city in 2014. His support for the 2014 protests led to a ban on performing in mainland China and saw his music removed from streaming sites.

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