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Govt-and-politics
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House passes McAdams amendment to block funding for nuclear weapons testing

The United States House of Representatives on Monday passed an amendment sponsored by Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, to block federal funding for future nuclear weapons testing.

The amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act would “prohibit any funding for new nuclear testing in FY21,” according to a description of McAdams’ amendment.

“Explosive nuclear testing is not necessary to ensure that our stockpile remains safe, and nothing in this amendment would change that,” McAdams told his colleagues in the House on Monday. “Explosive nuclear testing causes irreparable harm to human health and to our environment, and jeopardizes the U.S. leadership role on nuclear nonproliferation.”

The Democratic Utah congressman put forward the amendment following reports that President Donald Trump’s administration was considering resuming nuclear weapons testing explosions. The last nuclear test in the U.S. was an underground explosion in Nevada in 1992, according to the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization.

“Thousands of Utahns are still dealing with trauma inflicted by bombs exploded from decades past, leaving a legacy of illness, suffering and death,” McAdams said in a press release Tuesday. “Why would we ever go down that path again?

“The U.S. maintains the most effective and capable nuclear deterrent in the world,” the congressman continued. “We have done so while observing a moratorium on explosive nuclear testing for the past three decades.”

McAdams’ amendment to the defense appropriations bill passed 227-179, almost entirely along party lines; only two Republicans voted in favor of the amendment and only one Democrat voted against it.

Utah’s three Republican congressmen, Rep. John Curtis, Rep. Chris Stewart and Rep. Rob Bishop, all voted against the amendment to block nuclear weapons testing.

The amendment is one of multiple recent efforts by McAdams to address nuclear testing in the U.S. and its effect on public health.

Earlier this month, McAdams signed on to a bill that would expand the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, or RECA, which provides compensation to uranium miners and “downwinders” who have been exposed to radiation linked to various cancers, including leukemia, thyroid cancer and lung and liver cancer.

The bill, introduced and sponsored by U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., would expand eligibility for RECA compensation to the entire state of Utah, as well as 11 other states near historic nuclear testing sites, and extend the RECA trust fund, which is set to expire in 2022, to 2045.

“Today, we know that RECA falls short of making amends to hundreds of thousands of Americans who suffered illness and death, yet never even got so much as an apology from their government,” McAdams said during a press conference in West Valley City on July 6, the 58-year anniversary of an underground nuclear blast at the Nevada Test Site that McAdams said shot clouds of radioactive debris over Utah, Wyoming, South Dakota and other states.

Additionally, McAdams blocked nuclear testing spending from being included in an Energy and Water Development appropriations bill.

In a July 1 letter to U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-OH, who is chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Energy and Water, McAdams asked that the committee include language in the bill “that would prohibit the use of funds to conduct or make preparations for any explosive nuclear weapons test.”

“For generations, Utahns have experienced higher rates of cancer and other serious medical conditions due to harmful radiation exposure, leading to thousands of premature deaths,” wrote McAdams. “I believe it is imperative that the Energy and Water Subcommittee prohibit additional explosive nuclear testing on U.S. soil and prevent additional harm to our citizens.”

That language was added to the bill and approved by a House committee on July 13, according to McAdams.

The U.S. Senate version of the National Defense Authorization Act currently includes $10 million for the purpose of preparing for nuclear weapons testing, the press release from McAdams said.


Community
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BYU study reveals effectiveness of masks against COVID-19

Since the COVID-19 pandemic erupted in March, contrary opinions about the effectiveness of masks against the spread of the virus have dominated discussions both online and in real life.

A recent study conducted by a group of BYU researchers may have put those arguments to rest.

The research group is headed by Ben Abbott, a faculty member in Plant and Wildlife who teaches in the environmental science department. The other three authors of the study – Mitchell Greenhalgh, Isaac St. Clair and Jonas Bush – are undergraduates.

They identified 115 scientific studies on COVID-19 by independent groups from all around the U.S. and the world.

The BYU group wrote in the executive summary of its study that, “Researchers from hospitals, universities, the private sector and government agencies have concluded that masks could be one of the most powerful and cost-effective tools to stop COVID-19 and accelerate the economic recovery.”

Last week a friend with serious questions about masks and the virus prompted Abbott to begin his research to put together a non-technical summary.

“Given how many scientific studies have come out on COVID just in the past three months, there was no way I could have done that alone on a reasonable time frame, so I turned to my lab group to get some help,” Abbot said. “Three of my undergraduate students stepped up. The issue is so timely and important that we worked on the report night and day until it came out.”

The researchers found convincing evidence from multiple controlled experiments and field observations that wearing a cloth mask can stop up to 90% of the dispersal droplets carrying the virus. They concluded that masks are highly safe, with only minor and uncommon side effects.

“When we went through the studies that mask skeptics were sharing on social media, we found that literally every one was being taken out of context or blatantly misinterpreted,” Abbott said.

In addition, there is universal agreement that masking alone will not be enough to stop the pandemic. Physical distancing, frequent handwashing, rapid testing and coordinated contact tracing are also key in the effort to beat the virus. They added that public masking works through source control, where “my mask protects you, and your mask protects me.”

Wearing a mask is also considered the best way to keep the virus from having disastrous effects on the nation’s economy, according to the study.

“The most recent analysis by Goldman Sachs suggests that increasing masking by 25 percentage points from current levels would cut the COVID-19 growth rate by three-fold and prevent the need for a second round of economic shutdowns,” the group wrote. “They predict this would result in an economic benefit of approximately $1 trillion. Another study found that 80% of the population wearing cloth masks when in public would be more effective at stopping the virus than a strict lockdown of the whole population.”

Abbott said it came as a surprise how clear the evidence was on public masking.

“We expected there to be a lot of side-effects and only mild benefits, but instead, we found overwhelming evidence that masking could turn the tide on the pandemic,” he said. “When public masking gets to 80% or higher, rates of COVID transmission and also the lethality of COVID infections drop sharply. It’s not known why the death rate drops so much with masking, but the leading hypothesis is that when you are exposed to fewer viral particles, you may still get the disease, but the symptoms are much milder.”

The reaction to the study has been overwhelming for Abbott and his team.

“We’ve published over 50 scientific papers, but we’ve never gotten as much response as we have for this report on COVID,” he said. “I think that the people of Utah sincerely want to know the real information about this threat so they can protect their families and so we can get back to normal life.

“We are grateful that so many people are taking this seriously and considering all available evidence as they decide how to react to COVID-19. Masks could be one of our most powerful tools to fight this virus and our fastest and safest bridge back to normal. However, we need 80% or more of the public to wear masks to get there.”

Abbott said he and his research group did not receive any funding to carry out the work and didn’t plan on seeking financial support.

“The fact that some people still don’t believe this science is a grim reminder about what happens when we put politics before reality,” he said. “The blatant politicization of masks has cost us precious lives, time and money.”

For the complete study, which is entitled, “Making Sense of the Research on COVID-19 and Masks,” go to https://pws.byu.edu/covid-19-and-masks.


Orem
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Orem's three-month sales tax revenues better than expected

When it comes to Orem’s three-month sales tax revenues, city leaders are satisfied with a best out of three result.

“Well, our sales taxes for this month (May) didn’t turn out like we had been led to believe they might be, but (they’re) still not in the terrible category either,” said Brandon C. Nelson, city finance director.

The state released the May sales tax revenues Tuesday and over the first three months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Orem didn’t fare so bad.

“March and April were super at any time, but were super phenomenal considering the situation,” Nelson said.

Nelson released a month-to-month comparison between fiscal year 2019 vs. fiscal year 2020. The sales tax numbers look like this.

  • March 2019 = $1,996,134 vs. March 2020 = $2,129,635 (6.7% increase)
  • April 2019 = $1,686,163 vs. April 2020 = $1,791,705 (6.3% increase)
  • May 2019 = $1,970,872 vs. May 2020 = $1,933,953 (1.9% decrease)

The three-month total = $5,653,169 in 2019 vs. $5,855,293 in 2020 or a 3.6% increase.

Nelson said that two months ago, before the first three months of COVID-19 numbers were available, the city was prepared to see between a 20% and 40% decrease in sales tax revenues.

May’s 1.9% decrease coupled with the other two months has Orem looking “so far, so good”, according to Nelson.

Why these numbers are so different than expected is surprising but could be due to a number of factors.

“I don’t really have much in the way of answers other than perhaps stimulus checks, tax refunds, huge grocery store purchases, car sales (incentives?), and home improvement purchases,” Nelson said.

Orem never could have expected a run on toilet paper, hand sanitizer or water to keep city coffers in the black when it comes to sales tax. Nelson also said car dealerships were offering pretty hefty incentives. Those include 0% interest on new cars, pushing back first payments for as far into the future as January of 2021.

Why May showed a decrease could be just on the timeliness of reporting and paying of the sales tax to the state.

“For May, it appears several of our larger sales tax payers were not included in the distribution which means they must have held their payment until later in the month while they paid earlier in the month in the prior year,” Nelson said. “Distribution cutoff is around the 20th of the month.”

Nelson has not had time to do a complete analysis of what areas provided the most sales tax revenues, but that will come.

For now, Nelson hopes the sales tax revenues will continue to keep city coffers filled. What appears to be the unknown is if there will be another stimulus package, if businesses will stay afloat, if more jobs will be found or lost and just how flat the COVID-19 curve will become. All of these could have an effect on sales tax revenue.

On the other hand, there is still summer home improvement projects to buy for, back-to-school shopping, Halloween purchases coming and, yes, by mid-September the Christmas goods will be starting to fill the shelves. How all that sales tax revenue will look by the last quarter of the year is what Nelson is waiting for.


Provo
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Provo Municipal Council, mayor discuss face mask policy in the city

Provo City’s Administration and Municipal Council have a conundrum – to mask or not to mask. There are some differences of opinion on how that should look.

During Tuesday’s council work session, Councilman Dave Sewell said that when the state was in the red phase of the COVID-19 shutdowns and transferring into the orange, they were only seeing 140 new cases a day.

“Now we are seeing four times that many,” Sewell said. “We need to evaluate where we are at. I’m feeling like we need to do more.”

Sewell said he has shied away from doing something stronger and now is feeling like it’s time. He feels like strong executive action needs to be taken.

Mayor Michelle Kaufusi said it has been the number one topic in her office for weeks. She has been on the phone with the local county health department, with the state and has held discussions with her own department heads.

“It’s a moving target,” Kaufusi said. “We need to keep educating the people.”

She told the council she had talked with Ralph Clegg at the Utah County Health Department and he said there was an uptick after Memorial Day, he expects to see it when children go back to school, and again when churches are fully open again. There is also this coming weekend with the July 24th holiday.

It doesn’t have to be that way if people would wear their face masks in public and social distance.

Councilman David Shipley said he would like to see something put in place similar to Orem’s mandate of wearing masks in all city-owned buildings, similar to Governor Gary Herbert’s mandate of wearing masks in all state facilities.

Kaufusi said comparing Orem to Provo is like apples to oranges. Provo has several more public buildings and while she approves of masks, she is also huge proponent of self-governance on the issue.

“As a government organization we have more we can do,” said Councilman David Harding. “It’s too bad this has become so political. Wearing masks is the most effective thing we can be doing.”

Whether it’s proper to have a mandate in Provo can be debated. If the public’s response is anything, according to council members, it’s either all wear them or just wear if you like.

“Shipley’s suggestion is a good next step. It sends a message,” Sewell said. “Asking visitors and employees to wear masks is hard. We need to set the example. I think it could be really powerful.”

Councilman Bill Fillmore agreed with wearing face masks in public facilities. “There are a few exceptions, like playing golf.”

Kaufusi said that she had just spoken to Police Chief Rich Ferguson, whose staff is wearing face masks, about what he thinks. His biggest concern is how and who would enforce people wearing face masks.

Councilman Travis Hoban has the same question.

“How would it be enforced? Would employees be sent home,” Hoban asked. “I’ve been wearing a mask in public places. It’s a goal for everyone. I’m pro mask but concerned how to enforce it.”

On her Tuesday’s Mayor’s blog, Kaufusi said she has received hundreds of emails and half of them demand a local mask mandate while the other half are equally adamant against one.

“Without a doubt, the issue of mask-wearing has become political and, as my inbox shows, our community, our state and our nation are divided,” Kaufusi said.

“We are in the midst of a health pandemic the likes of which none of us have never experienced in our lifetimes. Is it any wonder there is confusion and frustration over what each of us should be doing to protect ourselves and those around us? Only adding to this confusion is how inundated we all are with conflicting information,” Kaufusi added.

Kaufusi will continue to educate and discuss. Beginning July 27 and every Monday, Kaufusi is having Mask Mondays that will provide information and something creative about masks.

There will be photos of Kaufusi and the council all wearing masks, she has ordered Provo City-branded face masks for the employees. She will do anything that can keep the word out there and encourage residents to stay safe and proceed with caution.

Kaufusi’s Proceed With Caution program was released on May 4 and is available online with updates at covid19.provo.org.

The city continues to follow the guidelines provided by the Utah County Health Department, the Utah Coronavirus Task Force and Herbert.