Friday, March 20, 2020

Rural newspapers need to step up in national emergency

A special message to readers of The Rural Blog, especially newspapers:

We are hearing from public-health experts who are concerned about the lack of caution—social distancing and other measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus—in rural America. We've reported on the possible reasons for that, but what's important right now is to get past the politics and finger-pointing and make rural Americans realize that they are part of the greatest domestic emergency since the Civil War, and that they need to behave socially as if EVERYONE HAS THE VIRUS.

Sample copy edition
The means of giving those warnings are up to individual news outlets, but every newspaper has a great tool to reach everyone in its community: a sample-copy edition, as was done by The Cynthiana Democrat, the weekly in the first Kentucky county to identify a case of covid-19. A sad fact of newspaper circulation these days is that it doesn't reach most people in most counties. Sample copying does that, and we can help you can find ways to have others pay the extra printing and postal costs.

Beyond newspapers and sample copying, please remember that this is a LOCAL story for every news outlet in the world. Your local government and public-health officials should have received plenty of information that they can share with you and your audience. In some cases, local officials may not understand the gravity of this situation, and you could play a role in reminding them of it.

We stand ready to help you help your community in this national emergency.

Al Cross, Director
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

Coronavirus is hurting rural tourism, even though health experts say it shouldn't prevent outdoor recreation

Health experts say the coronavirus should't prevent outdoor recreation, and the time of year for that is arriving. However, the coronavirus pandemic is expected to hurt local economies that depend on tourism and leisure, according to a new analysis from The Brookings Institution. Towns that rely on oil and gas production will also likely be affected disproportionately, the analysis predicts.

The layoffs have already begun, The Washington Post reports. "We will definitely see an effect on jobs from the coronavirus, and it could be pretty large in leisure and hospitality,” Julia Pollak, a labor economist at ZipRecruiter, told the Post. "The first thing we’ll see is a reduction in hours. We hear many reports of employers canceling staff everywhere except in health care."

Over the past week, for example, ski resorts in Colorado, Utah, California, Vermont and more have shut down during one of the most popular months for ski trips, John Branch reports for The New York Times. State officials in Moab, Utah, barred any new tourists from staying in hotels, worried that the local hospital couldn't handle treating locals and tourists if there was a local outbreak, The Associated Press reports.

Economic disruption from coronavirus could cost small farmers and ranchers dearly, new research says

The closure of restaurants, farmers' markets, and other local and regional customers of farmers and ranchers could cause up to a $688 million decline in sales from March to May, according to a new analysis by a former official in USDA's Local Food Research and Development Division, along with researchers at Colorado State University and the University of Missouri. The researchers predict a payroll decline of up to $103.3 million and a total loss to the economy of up to $1.32 billion during that time period. The paper has been circulating on Capitol Hill, Philip Brasher reports for AgriPulse.

About 159,000 farms and ranches sold food to local and regional markets in 2017. The vast majority, 85 percent, are small farmers, and one-quarter are beginners, according to the study. "Congress or USDA should waive limitations on the ability of feeding programs to procure locally and regionally produced foods, and farmers should be encouraged to integrate online ordering and sales into their businesses, the paper says," Brasher reports.

"The latest Senate stimulus does not cover USDA programs or farmers, but that could change," Catherine Boudreau reports for Politico's Morning Agriculture. The National Cattlemen's Beef Association requested direct financial aid for ranchers in the next emergency aid package, and the National Corn Growers Association plans to make a similar request.

Farmers might soon face a different kind of squeeze, too: the U.S. recently closed its consulates in Mexico, which processes migrant farmworker visas under the H-2A program, Geoffrey Mohan reports for the Los Angeles Times.

Quick hits: Biden dominated the rural vote this week; Blackjewel settles in Wyoming class-action lawsuit

Here's a roundup of stories with rural resonance; if you do or see similar work that should be shared on The Rural Blog, email us at

The Environmental Protection Agency's inspector general will review whether the EPA followed federal rules and sound science when approving the herbicide dicamba for farm use in 2016 and renewing its registration in 2018. Read more here.

The AgriPulse 2020 Ag & Food Policy Summit has been postponed from March 23 until June 22. Read more here.

In the Florida and Illinois primaries earlier this week, Joe Biden enjoyed his most widespread support in rural areas, according to The Daily Yonder. Read more here.

Bankrupt coal operator Blackjewel has reached a tentative settlement in a class-action lawsuit representing hundreds of miners in Wyoming. Read more here.

Rural health care providers brace for coronavirus impact. Read more here.

CDC plans webinar Monday, March 23, with updates for rural stakeholders on response to coronavirus

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will host a free webinar on March 23 to update rural stakeholders and communities on the coronavirus pandemic. The webinar starts at 1 p.m. ET and will last about an hour. Click here to register. You'll need Zoom software, which is free.

Dr. Jay Butler, deputy CDC director for Infectious Diseases, will discuss what the agency knows and what it is doing in response. The webinar is aimed at public health practitioners, health care providers, and other stakeholders promoting rural health, including journalists.

Butler will answer questions after his presentation. Email to submit questions in advance and indicate that questions are for the March 23 call. If your question is not answered during the call, send it to A recording of the webinar will be available later.

Click here for the CDC's general resource and information page for the covid-19 pandemic. The Rural Health Information Hub also has a toolkit with links to resources helpful in covering the outbreak.

Incident involving Facebook post and newspaper in Cape Girardeau, Mo., shows how dangerous fake news can be

Jon K. Rust
A column from the publisher of a small daily newspaper in Missouri shows how dangerous "fake news" can be, and how important it is for publications to safeguard their reputation with the public.

Last week, a man posted on Facebook a link to a story purporting to be from the Southeast Missourian in Cape Girardeau. The poster used the paper's logo and aped its online layout, and even used real names from a local hospital in a story that said the first local case of covid-19 had been confirmed. The man styles himself a prankster, but his actions were "an irresponsible fraud," writes Publisher Jon K. Rust. "What he did was like yelling 'fire' in a crowded movie theater.

Newspaper staffers were forced to escalate how they dealt with the fake story as it gained steam overnight. The post disappeared the next day after a Southeast Missourian article quoted Rust's threat to contact law enforcement and file suit. Rust later learned from local and federal authorities that the prankster had once held a part-time overnight job at the newspaper and had been fired.

"At some point, some semblance of the fake post is likely to become true. Southeast Missouri will, in fact, have its first covid-19 case," Rust writes. "But when dealing with sensitive information like this, it's important that the reporting is accurate. Knowledge is one way to maintain a sense of control in today's uncertain world. When credible sources are maligned or falsely diminished, it undercuts social cohesion. It is vital to you, our community and our democracy that you can trust our reporting. We take that responsibility seriously. Who knows what the motivation of many who post on Facebook is. Do you really know what's fake?"

Or, as we like to say, people need to understand the difference in news media and social media. News media pay for journalism, which practices a discipline of verification and emphasizes fact. Social media have no discipline and no verification, and emphasize opinion. That message needs to be repeated, now more than ever.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Colorado brings medication-assisted therapy for opioid users to rural areas with recreational-vehicle clinics

One of the RVs and two of its staff in Holyoke, Colorado.
(Photo by The Holyoke Enterprise)
Medication-assisted therapy (MAT) is widely acknowledged to be the most effective way to treat opioid addiction, but it can be difficult for rural residents to access it. Colorado is trying to make it a little easier by deploying six RVs to circulate among small towns with no access to MAT.

"Each RV will have a nurse, an addiction counselor and a peer coach who is in recovery from addiction," Jennifer Brown reports for The Colorado Sun. "The rigs — with satellite capacity — will use telehealth to connect a patient with a doctor who can write prescriptions" for the synthetic opioid buprenorphine. The RVs will also have a bathroom to collect urine samples, a nurse's station, and a private room for counseling sessions.

Buprenorphine can be prescribed for a month at a time, unlike methadone, which must be dispensed at clinics daily for those just beginning their recovery. That means the RVs can help more patients and cover more ground, Brown reports.

Three of the six RVs are already on the road, and the other three are still being retrofitted. "The goal is that each of the six vehicles eventually will see at least 50 patients per week, providing medication-assisted treatment for those who are addicted to heroin or prescription opioids," Brown reports. "Visits are by appointment or walk-in, and staff have been spreading the word at medical clinics, hospitals and shelters."

The RV staff say that being out-of-towners is an asset because it helps bring drug users out of the woodwork who wouldn't admit to locals that they needed help, Brown reports. That may help local leaders realize that their communities have an opioid problem and take action, said Robert Werthwein, director of the state Office of Behavioral Health. He had the idea for the RVs after hearing about a similar effort in New York state.

The Office of Behavioral Health in the Colorado Department of Human Services is funding the project with $6.7 million from a federal State Opioid Response grant. The grant has also paid for almost 42,000 overdose kits, provided naloxone to 16 county jails, helped open clinics, and trained doctors to prescribe buprenorphine.

Rural skepticism about coronavirus and covid-19 driven by ideology, not geography, NBC-Wall St. Journal poll shows

Rural Americans' greater skepticism about the coronavirus threat is driven by ideology, not geography, Chuck Todd, Mark Murray, Carrie Dann and Melissa Holzberg of NBC News report in this morning's "First Read."

"Our recent NBC News/WSJ poll turned some heads when it showed WIDELY different partisan reactions to the coronavirus, with Democratic voters much more concerned about the outbreak than Republican respondents," they write. "But couldn’t the difference also be geographical – that all voters in urban areas (regardless of party) are more concerned about the coronavirus than rural voters (regardless of party)?"

The answer is no, they say, giving breakdowns form the poll, which was taken March 11-13:

Are you worried that someone in your immediate family with catch the coronavirus?
All voters: 53 percent
Urban Democrats: 70 percent
Suburban Democrats: 68 percent
Rural Democrats: 65 percent
Urban Republicans: 44 percent
Suburban Republicans: 37 percent
Rural Republicans: 41 percent

Have you stopped or do you plan to stop attending large public gatherings?
All voters: 47 percent
Urban Democrats: 59 percent
Suburban Democrats: 63 percent
Rural Democrats: 59 percent
Urban Republicans: 32 percent
Suburban Republicans: 28 percent
Rural Republicans: 30 percent

3 p.m. ET today is deadline to co-sign statement urging governments to be transparent during coronavirus crisis

The National Freedom of Information Coalition and the University of Florida's Brechner Center for Freedom of Information will send out a statement urging state and local public officials all over the nation to ensure that residents continue to have unfettered access to their proceedings during the coronavirus pandemic:

"As our public institutions must make arrangements to function in this time of uncertainty, changing their open meeting laws and administrative practices that provide more flexibility to public officials yet decrease access and accountability to their residents must not occur. Instead, these institutions need to use this crisis to increase transparency and public access to their proceedings and information."

If you, your organization or publication would like to co-sign the statement, please email NFOIC executive director Daniel Bevarly by 3 p.m. ET at

Legislation to control surprise medical billing, air-ambulance costs and drug pricing could be in next coronavirus package

Advocates of long-debated legislation to control surprise medical billing are trying to add it to the third coronavirus package being written by Republican senators, sources close to the negotiations told Inside Health Policy. "Also uncertain is the fate of pending drug-pricing legislation," Ariel Cohen reports. For surprise billing, the package "is viewed as the last vehicle for the legislation for some time," Cohen writes. "There’s no telling when lawmakers will return to the Capitol due to the global pandemic."

The billing legislation would use a plan "favored by insurers because it relies on a benchmark payment rate before moving to arbitration for out-of-network charges," Cohen reports. "Hospitals and providers prefer surprise-billing fixes that rely more heavily on arbitration. . . . Lawmakers are presenting the measure as part of the bailout to hospitals," which "are going to have to make a choice," an unnamed insurance lobbyist told Cohen. "Do they defeat surprise billing or say we’re getting a lot here, let's not rock the boat too hard'?"

The surprise-billing measure "includes a benchmark payment rate to resolve air-ambulance payment disputes," Cohen notes. "Air ambulance providers have lobbied against the policy because they say it could lead to air bases closing in rural areas."

Webinar on Monday, March 23, will cover what rural residents, especially farmers, need to know about covid-19

The AgriSafe Network's Learning Lab will host a free webinar at noon CT Monday, March 23, to share evidence-based information about covid-19 geared toward a rural audience, including farmers, ranchers, veterinarians, Extension Service personnel, rural health-care workers, and others who work in or with agriculture. The webinar will take a little over an hour, organizers say. Register here.

The webinar aims to familiarize participants with common symptoms of covid-19, explain the transmission risk between people and potentially farm animals, teach infection control principles and appropriate strategies for limiting disease transmission, and share infection prevention resources and training for agriculture producers. It will feature four speakers:
  • Heather Fowler, director of producer and public health at the National Pork Board.
  • Chad Roy, director of infectious-disease aerobiology and director of biodefense research at the Tulane National Primate Research Center and professor of microbiology and immunology at Tulane School of Medicine.
  • Charlotte Halverson, clinical director for AgriSafe.
  • Jeff Bender, professor of veterinary public health at the University of Minnesota; professor and director of the Upper Midwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health.
A recording of the webinar will be available on the website within a few hours afterward.

Grasslands conservation program applications open; farmers and ranchers get paid for protecting grazing lands

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Conservation Reserve Program opened applications for its Grasslands initiative this week. Through CRP Grasslands, farmers and ranchers will receive an annual rental payment and up to 50 percent cost-share for establishing approved conservation practices on their grasslands, rangelands and pastures, while still using the land for agricultural purposes, according to a USDA press release.

Participants still retain the right to conduct common grazing practices like haying, mowing or harvesting seed, though the timing some activities may be restricted by things like the primary nesting season of birds. CRP contracts are for either 10 or 15 years.

The USDA's Farm Service Agency will administer the program, one of the largest conservation programs at USDA. This year marks its 35th anniversary, with more than 22 million acres currently enrolled. The 2018 Farm Bill authorized 2 million new acres for the program. Applications are due by May 15. Contact your local Farm Service Agency to apply for the program or for more information.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

USDA to increase efforts to help beginning farmers and ranchers; national coordinator for program hired

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is creating a new team focused on helping beginning farmers and ranchers, Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico's Morning Agriculture.

The average farmer is 58 years old, and 63 percent of American farmland will need a new farmer in the next 25 years as more farmers retire. More than a quarter of producers are beginners, and may not know about resources and programs they're eligible for. The 2018 Farm Bill directed the USDA to create one national coordinator position, plus state-level coordinators for each of its four agencies: the Farm Service Agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Risk Management Agency, and Rural Development. Each state coordinator will receive training tailored to their state.

The newly hired national coordinator is Sarah Campbell. "A beginning farmer herself, Campbell held previous positions with USDA and has a wealth of experience working on issues impacting beginning farmers and ranchers. She recently served as acting director of customer experience for the Farm Production and Conservation Business Center," said a press release. Campbell's perspective as a female farmer may be helpful, since women make up an increasing share of young farmers.

Stories cover rural impact of the coronavirus, plus a closeup on a rural town where many are already sick

Three recent news stories offer a good overview of how the coronavirus pandemic is affecting rural America.

In this piece, April Simpson of Stateline digs into how covid-19 is stretching the limits of rural America's already strained health-care system.

This piece, from Forbes contributor Clary Estes, takes a deep dive into the many issues that can exacerbate or complicate the outbreak in rural areas, including broadband, black lung, demographics, and (frequently) the lack of reliable local news sources. Estes, who lives in a small town just outside Lexington, Kentucky, notes that many rural residents—including her parents—aren't taking the pandemic seriously and aren't heeding calls to practice social distancing.

And finally, this piece from just down the road in Cynthiana, Kentucky, shows what it's like in a small town already seeing a significant number of covid-19 cases. At one point the town accounted for about half the cases in Kentucky, Rick Rojas reports for The New York Times.

To help with covid-19, government relaxes Medicare tele-health rules, lets closed schools serve meals to students

The federal government has been taking a number of measures to help rural areas impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Tuesday that it is working with several organizations to provide meals to students in schools closed due to the coronavirus. Many school districts have been serving meals to students as they would during the summer; the USDA already waived the requirement that students eat the food in a "congregated" setting, which allows students to take meals home and avoid unnecessary exposure to others, AgWeek reports. Areas that don't have access to the USDA's Summer Food Service Program will be prioritized.

The USDA is working with the Baylor University Collaborative on Hunger and Poverty, McLane Global, PepsiCo, and others to provide nearly a million meals a week, starting next week. Pepsi is providing $1 million. The program will be based on the 2019 "Meals-2-You" home-delivery pilot program. Children will get boxes containing five days' worth of shelf-stable, nutritious, individually packaged foods that meet the USDA's summer food requirements, AgWeek reports. Initial capacity will be limited, and other vendors are actively being sought to contribute to the program.

Meanwhile, Medicare tele-health services have been temporarily expanded nationwide. "Physicians, nurse practitioners, clinical psychologists and licensed clinical social workers can now offer tele-health to Medicare beneficiaries in any healthcare facility, including a physician's office, hospital, nursing home or rural health clinic, as well as from their homes," Mike Miliard reports for Healthcare IT News. The Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General "is also adding flexibility for healthcare providers to reduce or waive cost-sharing for telehealth visits paid by federal healthcare programs. Providers can learn more with this fact sheet."

The move is meant to keep patients with non-coronavirus health issues from traveling to a clinic or hospital where they may be exposed (or expose others) to covid-19. It will also free up clinics and hospitals to focus on covid-19 cases, Miliard reports.

"A bipartisan group of 24 senators is asking FEMA to coordinate with USDA and the Interior Department to deploy federal workers trained in emergency response to rural communities overwhelmed by the pandemic. The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management are 'uniquely qualified,' the senators wrote," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico's Morning Agriculture.

One problem to keep an eye on in rural areas, though: hospitals nationwide could start running low on ventilators if they get overwhelmed with covid-19 cases. Since rural hospitals are generally last in line in medical supply chains, the problem could be more acute there. President Trump recently advised states not to rely on the federal government and to start looking for ventilators themselves. But China, South Korea and Italy snapped up ventilators months ago as they dealt with the pandemic, and now it will be months before major manufacturers can make a dent in the projected need in the U.S. Click here for a deeper dive into the ventilator situation, and how some are attempting to mitigate it.

Wednesday webinar will discuss ideas for farmers and ranchers to make more money with agritourism

On March 19, the Texas AgrAbility program will present a free webinar called "Ideas for Starting Rural Agriculture Businesses" at 2 p.m. CT. The presentation will last about an hour; you will need to download (free) Zoom software to access it on your computer or phone.

The presenter will be Greg Clary, a business consultant with the Texas Center for Rural Entrepreneurship and a retired Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service economist with more than 30 years of experience in helping people start and expand agriculture- and natural resource-based businesses. During the webinar, he will discuss ideas for helping farmers and ranchers add new revenue streams to their agricultural operations via agritourism and other ventures.

Why are freshwater mussels dying off? It's a mystery

Dead mussels along the Clinch River
(Photo by Meagan Racey, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
From NPR: "In 2016, biologists and fishermen across the country started to notice something disturbing. Freshwater mussels were dying in large numbers. NPR National Correspondent Nathan Rott tells us about the unsolved mystery surrounding the die-off, the team racing to figure it out, and why mussels are so important for the health of our streams and rivers." Listen to the segment here.

"Biologists at a regional branch of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in southwestern Virginia first learned about losses in fall of 2016 when locals in reported that large numbers of pheasantshell mussels (Actinonaias pectorosa) were dying in the Clinch River along the Virginia and Tennessee border," Jason Daley reports for Smithsonian Magazine. "The Clinch River isn’t alone. Biologists have also recorded recent mass freshwater mussel die-offs in the Pacific Northwest, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, Michigan and even one in Spain. What exactly is killing off the mollusks is not clear, and testing has not identified a single culprit. At first, researchers suspected chemical spill or some pollutant was responsible. But the fact that only one species—the pheasantshell—was affected at first suggests a disease is responsible."

Rural Health Information Hub releases toolkit with links to resources helpful in covering coronavirus

The Rural Health Information Hub has compiled a toolkit with links to state and federal resources that may be helpful in covering the coronavirus pandemic. Click here to read it.

Report catalogues groups interested in open government, suggests ways to better access public information

A new report catalogues more than 300 U.S. groups that have an interest in government transparency and provides advice on ways such organizations can further work together to improve access to government information.

The report, released on Monday at the beginning of Sunshine Week, is the second part of a study commissioned by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to identify barriers for journalists and citizens in accessing government information and suggest solutions. The first part of the report, released in March 2017, focused on the barriers. This second part focuses on solutions, and gathered data by analyzing the groups and interviewing 53 executive directors.

The report creates a rough taxonomy of transparency groups, dividing them into 12 loose "galaxies" such as journalists, civil societies, state Freedom of Information coalitions, philanthropists, and more, each with their own strengths and wheelhouses. Some of the 300+ groups already work with groups from other galaxies to harness these differing strengths; more such coordination is the key to improving access to government information, the report says.

Click here for a searchable spreadsheet of the groups.

Ellis, who was only rural correspondent in Ky.'s capital, dies

Ronnie Ellis in a prime spot, outside a leadership office on the legislative floor of Kentucky's Capitol. (Lexington Herald-Leader)
Ronnie Ellis, a political reporter and columnist who was the only rural correspondent in Kentucky's state capital, died of lung disease Monday. He was 68.

Ellis retired in November 2018 as the Frankfort correspondent for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., but continued to write a column for the company, which has daily newspapers in Ashland, Richmond, Somerset, Corbin and Ellis's hometown of Glasgow, plus several Kentucky weeklies. His passing brought tributes from political leaders on both sides.

Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear said, “Ronnie Ellis’s journalistic instincts were surpassed only by his journalistic integrity. The role he played for some of Kentucky’s more rural outlets was integral to the Capitol press corps.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Ellis “earned a reputation as one of the hardest working reporters in Kentucky. He was always armed with the tough questions, and he helped set the standard for other journalists. Ronnie gave his readers a first-hand look into their government and helped shape countless conversations across the commonwealth. . . . Even when he disagreed with your position, you knew he’d treat everyone fairly. I’m going to miss his insightful perspective.”

Another Republican, state House Speaker David Osborne, said, “Ronnie Ellis was a legend in Kentucky journalism. His coverage provided local newspapers throughout the commonwealth with unparalleled access to Kentucky government and politics. However, those who knew Ronnie will also remember his great sense of humor and incredible institutional knowledge.”

Last month, the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame announced that Ellis would be in its 40th anniversary class, to be inducted later this year. "It just goes to show that what he did was so good," a Glasgow friend, Chris Eaton, in an audio tribute on Twitter. "Everybody wanted to talk to Ronnie Ellis. . . . People followed him throughout the commonwealth."

Services for Ellis are being delayed by the pandemic. The family says memorial gifts may be made to the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which publishes The Rural Blog.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Bill headed to Trump's desk would force FCC to do a better job collecting and publishing rural broadband data

A bipartisan rural broadband bill has cleared the House and Senate and is on its way to President Trump's desk. The Broadband Deployment and Technological Availability Act (styled the DATA Act, but don't confuse it with the 2014 DATA Act) is intended to provide funding for rural utilities to build out high-speed internet, Jeff Postelwait reports for T&D World, a trade publication for utilities.

The bill is more about laying the groundwork for gathering better rural broadband data than it is about funding. The Federal Communications Commission has been criticized for relying on internet service providers' self-reporting to assess rural broadband coverage. ISPs have an incentive to overstate their rural reach; it may help them qualify for federal funds. That and other issues have led to maps that could be more accurate. Though FCC data shows only 6.5 percent of the population lacks broadband access, crowdsourced data shows that the number is higher.

Under the DATA Act, the FCC would have to to create better rules to gather, monitor, verify and disseminate detailed broadband coverage data. "According to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, the bill also would make it illegal to provide false information to the FCC and allows cooperatives, consumers, local governments and others to challenge FCC maps with data of their own," Postelwait reports.

New digital tool aims to help sniff out and keep track of state legislation nationwide that affects government transparency

Just in time for Sunshine Week, the National Freedom of Information Coalition is launching a digital tool meant to help people find and keep track of state legislation that would affect government transparency.

"One goal is to alert the public quickly so advocates can try to stop anti-transparency bills from becoming law or from spreading to other states," Ryan Foley reports for The Associated Press. "Another is to allow journalists and researchers to spot trends, ranging from efforts to expunge more court cases from the public record to preventing out-of-state residents from seeking documents.

Tracking such bills is an increasingly tall order. For one thing, only a handful of states (including Florida and Maine) require bills to state up front that they would affect government transparency, according to NFOIC executive director Daniel Bevarly. "The number of reporters covering statehouses also has dropped significantly in recent years, meaning there are fewer eyes watching legislative action," Foley reports. "Anti-transparency provisions are often buried deep in legislation, some of which may be about unrelated topics, Bevarly said. The new program could act as an early alarm system that blocks poorly written bills from becoming laws."

The software for the tool copies the raw text of bills from every state website at least once a day and dumps it into a searchable database. A pilot program using the software found that 13.6 percent of the 142,000 state bills introduced in 2019—more than 19,000—contained transparency-related search terms like "public record" or "open meeting," Foley reports. Some of those bills weren't really related to government transparency, but Quorum, the software developer that created the tracker, is refining it to provide more accurate results.

Map shows counties economically worse off in 2019 than in 2016; most are rural, and none are in large cities

County economies in 2019 compared to 2016 by three economic measurements: number of jobs, average wages, and unemployment rate. U.S. counties worse off in no or one economic measures are in gray; counties worse off in two economic measures are in coral, and counties worse off in all three economic measures are in red. (New York Times map)
The coronavirus pandemic is expected to lead to a major recession, but many counties still haven't recovered from the last one in 2009. In more than half of U.S. counties, the local economy was worse off in 2019 than it was in 2016 in at least two key economic measures, according to an analysis of data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the Census Bureau.

The New York Times compared data for three economic measures: number of jobs, average wage, and unemployment rate. "Among the 3,142 U.S. counties, more than 1,700 had either fewer jobs, lower inflation-adjusted average wages or a higher unemployment rate in 2019 than in 2016," Jed Kolko reports for the Times. "Almost 500 counties had setbacks in at least two of these three measures (meeting our definition of worse off). A handful of small counties were especially unfortunate, declining on all three measures."

Most of the worse-off counties are rural, and none of the worse-off counties are in the largest metropolitan areas, Kolko reports.

USDA opens applications for rural water well system grants

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced this week that it's accepting Fiscal Year 2020 applications for grants to build, fix or improve household water well systems.

The Household Water Well System Grants program doesn't provide funding to individual households. Instead, qualified non-profit organizations can use the funds to create a revolving loan fund; individual well owners who might otherwise be unable to qualify for a loan can then take out a low-interest loan from the non-profit. The non-profit or a third-party donor must contribute at least 10 percent in matching funds for the grant.

Eligible areas are: tribal lands in rural areas, rural areas with a population of 50,000 or under, and colonias. Applications are due by May 31. Click here for more information or to apply.

What happened when a small Colo. town tried to isolate itself during 1918 flu pandemic; N.C. county limits access

Dare County is in yellow.
UPDATE, 5 p.m.: Dare County, North Carolina, a major tourist destination "faced with an unexpected influx of visitors — including some drawn by special 'coronacation' deals offered by local vacation rental companies — restricted access as of 2 p.m. Tuesday," The Charlotte Observer reports. Access will be limited the way it is before and after a hurricane."

Living in a rural area means the coronavirus will likely arrive later, but once it hits, getting treatment will be more difficult. And it's almost impossible for a small town to protect itself from a pandemic, but some have tried it, according to experts like Alex Navarro, a medical historian at the University of Michigan's Center for the History of Medicine, who studied the Spanish flu pandemic for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Remote rural towns are a good place to be early in a pandemic, as they tend to be more spread out, which potentially means fewer chances to catch a bug," Frank Morris reports for NPR. "Remote rural areas are also, by definition, way removed from major seaports, airports and often even big highways. So it generally takes longer for new viruses to show up in tiny towns."

A clip from the Gunnison News-Champion,
the local paper in 1918. (History Colorado)
However, while the most rural towns don't get many visitors, residents drive to larger cities frequently and can bring back the virus. That's likely how the illness will spread to very small towns, said Andy Pekosz, a molecular microbiology and immunology professor at Johns Hopkins University: "I think it's just a matter of time," he told Morris.

There are very few exceptions. Gunnison County, Colorado, was one such exception during the Spanish flu pandemic in 1917-1918. For four months, the county and its eponymous town "literally barricaded the roads and forced everyone who did come into town into quarantine," Navarro told Morris.

According to Navarro's research, the local newspaper at the time, the Gunnison News-Champion, frequently published articles to keep the public informed, Allison Sylte reports for KUSA-TV in Denver.

The plan worked as long as the county stayed isolated. At the height of the pandemic, only two died from the Spanish flu in Gunnison, and both were in quarantine. But when the town ended its shutdown, more than 100 people got the flu and several died, Navarro told Morris.

Gunnison County, Colorado
(Wikipedia map)
Gunnison is still rural these days, with about 15,000 residents. There were seven confirmed covid-19 cases in the county as of March 16, the third-highest rate of infection in the state, Nancy Lofholm reports for The Colorado Sun.

Though the county is not barricading itself this time around, county leaders are taking steps to contain the virus's spread: on Monday they closed all hotels and resorts, outlawed all in-person retail transactions except for groceries and other necessities, and banned public gatherings of more than 10 people. Bars and restaurants can stay open as long as they don't allow more than 50 people at a time, but customers age 60 and up are banned from such venues, as they are the most at-risk population, the Crested Butte News reports.

Dollar General and other retailers to allow only seniors for first hour of business during coronavirus pandemic

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, Dollar General Corp. announced Monday that it will allow seniors and other "at-risk populations" only during its first hour open each day. Though the measure isn't enforceable, CEO Todd Vasos asks customers to observe it voluntarily in the company's 16,000-plus stores, Kelly Tyko reports for USA Today. Stores will also close an hour early so staff can clean and restock.

Dollar General has a large and expanding presence in rural America, which has a disproportionate share of seniors. Covid-19 is deadliest for people over age 60 and those with underlying health issues.

Other stores are taking the same or similar measures, in the U.S. and around the world. The Stop & Shop Supermarket Co. in the northeastern U.S. will allow only shoppers age 60 and over from 6 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. starting Thursday, Tyko reports.

Texas supermarket chain H-E-B said it will not implement special hours for vulnerable customers, and said that data showed that it was not the "best and safest option" for customers, David Williams reports for CNN. But H-E-B and other major grocery chains such as Kroger and Walmart are reducing store hours for cleaning and restocking, Shannon Liao reports for CNN Business.

Monday, March 16, 2020

Democratic debate recap and fact-checking: Biden calls for end to fracking, then says he meant only on public lands

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the CNN-Univision debate was moved from Phoenix to the CNN studios in Washington, with no studio audience. The lecterns were placed six feet apart to demonstrate preventive social distancing, and the candidates greeted each other with an elbow bump instead of a handshake. (New York Times photo by Erin Schaff)
Last night, former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont met for a debate in hopes of swaying voters in the battleground states Arizona, Florida, Illinois and Ohio, who go to the polls Tuesday. The debate, hosted by CNN and Univision, touched on many topics with rural resonance (click here for a full transcript). Here are some of the highlights:

The debate started with questions on the coronavirus. Biden said the federal government needs to plan for and deploy additional hospital bed capacity. He said they must prevent economic consequences for people who lose their job because of the pandemic, and that small businesses should be able to take out interest-free loans. He also criticized President Trump for turning down World Health Organization testing kits, which he said left the U.S. unprepared. According to New York Times fact-checkers, the WHO tests were unreliable.

Sanders said it's critical to make sure that people don't have to pay for coronavirus testing or treatment, and said it's also important to make sure hospitals have enough supplies and medical personnel to handle the crisis. He also said the pandemic highlights the nation's dysfunctional health-care system. "We are the only major country on Earth not to guarantee health care to all people. We're spending so much money and yet we are not even prepared for this pandemic," Sanders said. "How come we don't have enough doctors? How come hospitals in rural areas are shutting down? How come people can't afford to get the prescription drugs they need because we have a bunch of crooks who are running the pharmaceutical industry, ripping us off every single day?"

Biden said he was the better candidate because he has broad support, including from people with a high-school diploma. Biden received outsized rural support on Super Tuesday, whereas Sanders' rural support dropped compared to 2016, The Daily Yonder noted.

Sanders said climate change will prevent Midwestern farmers from being able to grow their crops.

Biden noted that climate change makes many invasive species harder to deal with, and said it helps the spread of disease-causing pests (such as ticks that cause Lyme disease). He also called climate change "the single greatest threat to our national security," because people from poor countries hurt by climate change will increasingly try to come to the U.S. (alluding to undocumented immigration).

Both candidates said they believe that America must transition to renewable energy.

Sanders said he wants to end the practice of hydraulic fracturing as soon as possible, and said it's "insane" that the fracking industry continues to operate in the U.S. In the same breath, he also said it's "absurd" that the fossil-fuel industry receives tens of billions of dollars a year in tax breaks and subsidies. Fossil-fuel companies lied to the public by saying that evidence was inconclusive that linked their fuels to climate change, Sanders said, and said he thinks those companies should be "held criminally accountable."

Biden said, for the first time, that he opposes all new fracking operations, though his campaign later clarified that he meant that he only opposes new drilling on public lands. He also said he would not support any more subsidies for the fossil-fuel industry, or drilling on public lands or offshore. He said that he played an instrumental role in ensuring that the 2009 Recovery Act invested $90 billion in solar and wind, and said that that helped steer the energy sector away from coal.

Sanders said he voted against the Hyde amendment, which he said denies low-income women the ability to get an abortion, and said Biden had "consistently" voted for it. The Hyde amendment specifies that a woman cannot use Medicaid funding for an abortion. Biden said he does not support the Hyde amendment, but said that everyone in Congress has voted for it whether they approve of it or not because it was attached as a rider to other bills. Biden also said he wants abortion rights codified by law, not just court precedent.

Rural hospitals worry about having enough beds, employees and supplies to handle likely influx of covid-19 patients

Rural hospitals are already stretched thin on resources and staffing. A portrait of a tiny hospital in rural southeastern Washington shows how that and other factors will make it harder for rural areas to cope with the coronavirus, Eli Saslow reports for The Washington Post.

Dayton General Hospital in Columbia County recently got its first confirmed case of covid-19. Staff had been trying to prepare for an outbreak for the past month, but are low on masks and other protective gear, and are having a hard time finding it anywhere. As a recent Post story noted, rural hospitals are at the "tail end of supply chains" for medical gear, and are most likely to have difficulty keeping critical supplies in stock.

Dayton, in Columbia County, Wash.
(Wikipedia map)
Also, Dayton hospital staff are concerned because covid-19 is deadlier for seniors and those with underlying health problems, and the population of Dayton (and most of rural America) has disproportionate amounts of both. "Like most rural communities, Dayton had high rates of COPD, obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Experts estimated that as many as 1 million of the most vulnerable Americans might need to rely on lifesaving ventilators, and Dayton General had none," Saslow reports.

Dayton has no coal miners, but the increased need for oxygen tanks highlights a potential problem for rural hospitals in coal-mining areas: Covid-19 will hit black-lung patients harder, Will Wade reports for Bloomberg. The United Mine Workers of America recently warned that miners are at "significant risk" when the virus spreads to coal-mining areas, since they work in enclosed spaces where the virus can be easily transmitted.

Another concern in Dayton and other rural hospitals: staffing numbers are so low that, if any hospital workers catch the virus, it could grind operations to a halt, Saslow reports.

The lack of local hospital beds worries Dan Brown, a former council member in Bellaire, Ohio, near Wheeling, W.Va., Liam Niemeyer reports for Ohio Valley ReSource, a public-radio consortium. "The number of beds have gone down so dramatically. I can’t imagine if we had any kind of outbreak, with a two percent or five percent fatality rate, we’re in deep trouble," Brown told Niemeyer. "The whole thing is setting up for failure."

For first time since 2009, public-records suits from outside the news media outnumber those from the news media

For the first time since 2009, public-records lawsuits by plaintiffs from outside the news media outnumber those from news media, according to the National Freedom of Information Coalition's biennial open government survey. The news comes, fittingly, on the second day of Sunshine Week, which celebrates government transparency and the role of the news media in ensuring it.

News media have been less interested or able to pursue open-records litigation in recent years, mostly due to lack of money and resources and a decline in the number of investigative reporters who often require legal action to gain access to information, according to the NFOIC.

Many public entities refuse news-media requests for information, drag their feet, or refuse to answer at all, increasingly hoping that the requesters can't afford to file suit. Respondents to the NFOIC survey consistently said that such stonewalling was the biggest obstacle they faced in acquiring public information. Many were also frustrated because they believed that there were few penalties for public officials who violate open-records or open-meeting laws.

Daniel Bevarly, NFOIC's executive director, "cited growing efforts to assist local news organizations with financial and in-kind backing to pursue lawsuits is a response to this trend," according to the press release. "The Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press Local Legal Initiative and the Legal Clinic Fund from the Democracy Fund are recent examples."

Trump's tariffs leave tobacco growers in the lurch; some can't get sales contracts despite new trade agreement

Washington Post photo by Matt McClain
Tobacco growers and their communities have been struggling for years because of a declining market, but the trade war with China made it worse—especially in North Carolina, the nation's top tobacco producer, and some other Southern states. Though the Trump administration recently signed a Phase One trade deal with China, many tobacco farmers are still unsure about how much to plant this year. Seeds need to be planted this month, but many still don't have sales contracts with manufacturers, Amanda Abrams reports for The Washington Post.

"The uncertainty is endangering individual livelihoods, not just of growers but of the workers who earn off-season dollars in the processing plants," Abrams reports. "It’s also threatening rural communities, which have long been buoyed by tobacco money, and exacerbating the divide between them and North Carolina’s booming urban areas."

In 2018, the Trump administration announced billions in tariffs on Chinese goods. China volleyed back with its own tariffs, including on American tobacco products. China was the top customer for North Carolina tobacco; since the trade war began, farmers have lost about $250 million, but weren't eligible for federal bailout payments like most other farmers, Abrams reports.

Farmers are trying to turn to alternatives, but other crops don't bring in the kind of profit tobacco did, and many are struggling. In North Carolina, 16 family farms filed for bankruptcy in 2019.  "The economic troubles ripple outward; one of the region’s biggest private employers, Vidant Health, announced possible layoffs a month ago. Economists have estimated that every dollar earned from tobacco results in almost $4 in new spending — on farm equipment, fertilizer, labor and other purchases in the community," Abrams reports.

Louisiana, Georgia delay presidential primaries, Ohio to block in-person voting Tuesday amid coronavirus pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has affected much of American routine. For some, that includes voting.

Louisiana announced Friday that it will postpone its presidential primary elections from April 4 to June 20. The state, which just saw its first covid-19 death last week, is the first state to delay its primary in response to the disease. Georgia followed suit, delaying next week's primary to May 19, the date of the primary for other offices.

UPDATE, 4:30 p.m.: Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said a lawsuit will be filed to block in-person voting in Ohio's primary tomorrow, because such voting would not conform with a federal recommendations to avoid gatherings of 50 people or more. Later in the day, the recommendation was lowered to 10.

"Authorities are concerned that holding elections will provide an opportunity for further community spread of the outbreak, particularly among poll workers," Andrea Noble reports for Route Fifty. Many poll workers are older, and covid-19 is deadlier for older people.

Some polling locations have been eliminated in Arizona, Florida and Illinois tomorrow because of poll workers canceling, or moved elsewhere to protect nearby vulnerable populations such as nursing homes, Rebecca Morin reports for USA Today.