Friday, May 15, 2020

The Missouri River basin is drier than it was during the Dust Bowl, and a new study says it'll happen again

Two men ride bicycles on the riverbed of the Little Missouri River in North Dakota in June 2017.
(Associated Press photo by Carey J. Williams)
"For the first decade of the century, the Upper Missouri River basin was the driest it’s been in 1,200 years, even more parched than during the disastrous Dust Bowl of the 1930s," Darryl Fears reports for The Washington Post, citing a study. "The drop in water level at the mouth of the Missouri — the country’s longest river — was due to rising temperatures linked to climate change that reduced the amount of snowfall in the Rocky Mountains in Montana and North Dakota, scientists found."

Human-caused global warming is a big contributor to an emerging megadrought in North America, according to the study. Thus far, it has been mostly seen in the Western U.S., with California clocking a record-dry February and Western states fighting over who gets the water rights that once belonged to shuttered coal plants. Midwestern states, meanwhile, have seen record precipitation over the past few years.

Book examines opioid epidemic through women's stories

A new book, Rx Appalachia: Stories of Treatment and Survival in Rural Kentucky (Haymarket Books) examines women's experiences with the opioid crisis in Central Appalachia through a series of in-depth interviews.

Author Lesley-Marie Buer, an applied medical anthropologist and director of research at Choice Health Network Harm Reduction in Knoxville, Tenn., says the book is an extension of her work and research on how place, gender, ethnicity, class, drug use and sexuality intersect. "Documenting how people navigate state policies, socioeconomic inequalities, and networks of relatedness in Appalachia contests depictions of people who use drugs or Appalachians as helpless victims or creators of some moral crisis," Buer writes in 100 Days in AppalachiaClick here to read an excerpt.

Pandemic makes more people long for the rural life

File under silver linings: according to a new Harris poll, the covid-19 pandemic has made many Americans want to leave the cities for (literally) greener pastures.

Three in eight Americans surveyed (37 percent) said the pandemic makes them want to live in a rural area more than 21 miles away from a major city or a suburb within 10 miles of a major city (35%).

Older Americans are more likely than younger ones to have such a wish, with 44% of Baby Boomers saying they want to move to the country, compared to 34% of Millennials and 31% of Gen Xers.

Overall, 28% of urban residents surveyed and 25% of suburban residents said the pandemic makes them want to live in a rural area.

The urge to flee the cities during the pandemic isn't new; some small towns, fearing the spread of the virus, have asked people with summer homes to stay away.

Quick hits: Rural neighborliness a lifeline; rural pharmacies struggle; webinar on farmers' aid short of information

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

Rural neighborliness, which one writer dubs "the front porch network," is a lifeline in Appalachia during the pandemic. Read more here.

Pharmacies in rural Colorado struggle to compete with big chains to remain in business—and remain cornerstones of their communities. Read more here.

"More than half of the political comments posted publicly on social media in rural parts of six swing states last week criticized President Donald Trump for his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic," The Daily Yonder reports. That's an increase since the last such analysis a few weeks ago.

A USDA webinar on Thursday promised to give more details on how the agency will distribute $16 billion in aid to farmers, but it lasted only 15 minutes and gave few answers, Politico reports.

Crowded rural prisons could usher in pandemic health care crisis in rural America

Meatpacking plants became covid-19 hotspots because of the difficulty in observing social distancing and hygiene practices. Prisons could go the same way and for many of the same reasons. And since almost 70 percent of prisons are in non-metropolitan areas, an outbreak could spread the virus to the rural communities through prison workers and overwhelm local health care resources, L.J. Dawson reports for Kaiser Health News.

"A breakdown of New York Times data tracking covid-19 cluster sites on April 26 revealed that out of 100 top cluster sites, 35 were tied to correctional facilities. In comparison, 28 percent of infections were linked to nursing homes," Tana Ganeva reports for The Intercept. "Those numbers are astounding when you consider that nursing home residents are at much higher risk of serious infection because of their age, while incarcerated people and prison staff vary in age. Seven of the top 10 cluster sites are linked to American prisons or jails."

Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees are frequently moved to prisons after weeks in crowded and unsanitary detention camps on the border, alarming prisoners who protest that not enough precautions have been taken to screen the sick. Public health and corrections officials have warned that conditions in prisons and jails could spread the disease.

But many of the rural hospitals that would need to care for sickened prisoners have struggled in recent years, and more than 120 have closed nationwide in the past decade, Dawson reports. County jails are a problem too: a report from The Justice Collaborative last month found that 12% of people in jails nationwide (and up to one-third in some states) are in counties without any intensive care unit beds.

The prison-related death toll could top 100,000 if incarcerated populations are not dramatically reduced, according to an epidemiological model released last week from the American Civil Liberties Union.

Many cities, counties and states have been releasing non-violent inmates in recent weeks, making fewer arrests, and suspending visitation in an effort to keep prisons and jails from becoming too crowded. Prison reform organization The Vera Institute for Justice recently released recommendations for how jails and prisons can reduce the spread of the virus.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Hospitals with thin margins and poorer patients—like most rural hospitals—tended to get less relief from Congress

Many hospitals and health-care providers are foundering after having to cancel money-making elective procedures during the pandemic; rural hospitals, many of which were already on the brink, are having an especially hard time. The federal government is giving out billions to help health-care providers, but the formula Congress used to allocate the money ended up disproportionately helping providers that have many privately insured patients. Typically, rural providers have fewer such patients, relying disproportionately on Medicare and Medicaid.

Providers were promised $175 billion in the $2 trillion CARES Act. The Department of Health and Human Services has begun distributing $72.4 billion in grants to either defray costs of treating covid-19 patients or make up for lost revenue. HHS is allocating $50 billion of that for providers with a higher historical share of revenue from Medicare compared to total net patient revenue from all sources, Karyn Schwartz and Anthony Damico report for Kaiser Family Foundation

KFF looked at hospital data from 2017, the most recent year available. "The hospitals in the top 10 percent based on share of private insurance revenue received $44,321 per hospital bed, more than double the $20,710 per hospital bed for those in the bottom 10% of private insurance revenue," Schwartz and Damico report. The hospitals with the highest share of private-insurance revenue are less likely to be teaching hospitals and more likely to be for-profit. They also tend to have higher profit margins and treat a smaller share of uncompensated care. Most rural hospitals tend to have lower profit margins and higher percentages of uncompensated care.

"These hospitals’ large share of private reimbursement may be due either to having more patients with private insurance or charging relatively high rates to private insurers or a combination of those two factors," Schwartz and Damico report. Reimbursement rates vary widely by payer, but private insurers usually reimburse hospitals an average of twice as much as Medicare does per patient.

All providers that get Medicare money are eligible for the $50 billion, including hospices, skilled nursing facilities, and physicians. Though KFF's analysis focused on hospitals, Schwartz and Damico write that they would expect to see the same pattern with other providers. Providers who got no Medicare money in 2019 weren't eligible, and that includes providers who specialize in Medicaid patients. "HHS has stated that Medicaid-only providers will receive a separate allocation of funding, as will skilled nursing facilities and dentists," Schwartz and Damico report.

Webinar at 11 a.m. CT Friday will discuss USDA farm-relief payments and purchases of produce for food banks

University of Illinois agricultural economists will host a live webinar Friday, May 15 at 11 a.m. CT to discuss the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Coronavirus Food Assistance Program.

The program, approved in mid-April as part of the $2 trillion CARES Act, allots $16 billion in direct relief payments for producers, and $3 billion for the government to buy dairy, meat and produce from struggling farmers to distribute to food banks. Farmers and lawmakers have criticized the administration for delaying the excess-produce purchases; President Trump said last weekend that USDA will begin rolling out the plan this week.

The webinar hosts will talk about what farmers' income could look like given different potential payment options, and will also discuss how difficult it is for farmers to make decisions for 2021 given the current uncertainty. The webinar is expected to last about 45 minutes and will be held on the YouTube channel of Farmdoc, the university's agriculture information service. Participants can submit questions via chat. Click here for more information or to register.

What one presidential campaign spokesman learned about the value of local journalism after a year in Iowa

The pandemic is hurting local newspapers at a time when the public needs them most. That's a tragedy, writes Ben Halle in a guest opinion column for the Carroll Times Herald in Iowa. Halle was Iowa communications director for Pete Buttigieg's presidential campaign, and says he learned a lot about the value of local journalists. After working closely with them for a year, "I can tell you firsthand: the impact of losing local journalism would be devastating for our democracy and civil discourse for generations to come."

Local journalism covers news that communities can't get from cable news, Halle notes, citing a Carroll Times Herald investigation of a police officer who had an inappropriate relationship with a teenage girl. He also gives a nod to Art Cullen of the Storm Lake Times, an hour north, who won a Pulitzer Prize for exposing how corporate agriculture interests controlled local water policy.

"The reality is that what’s happening in your community will impact your daily life more than the president getting impeached," Halle writes. "The decision your mayor or county supervisors make about keeping a restaurant open during the pandemic will affect your life more than what happens in the halls of Congress. But with the depletion of local journalism, local power brokers no longer will be held accountable to the people they serve."

Local journalists know how to ask the important questions, too, Halle notes: "On the campaign trail, while too many national reporters frantically tried to get Pete’s reaction to whatever Trump had said that day, local journalists asked the hard-hitting questions. Like how Pete planned to bring jobs back to rural Iowa towns that had seen populations decline and businesses shutter. Or how to square the consequences of corporate agriculture’s monopolies with the fact that they keep several rural Iowa towns running. Or about how to provide care to Iowa’s aging population in a way that doesn’t bankrupt Iowa families. They ask questions that matter to their communities, and hold politicians accountable for the solutions they’re offering."

House Democrats' latest relief bill has money for farmers, smaller local governments, Postal Service and more

House Democrats unveiled a $3 trillion economic relief package Tuesday that includes help for the Postal Service, aid for small local governments, and more. "The House is expected to vote on the $3 trillion proposal on Friday, although it is considered dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled Senate," Grace Segers reports for CBS News.

The Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act would implement a second round of direct payments to Americans, up to $1,200 for each family member, with a $6,000 per-household limit. The bill also "provides $500 billion in direct assistance to state governments to counter the fiscal impacts of the pandemic, $375 billion to assist local governments, $20 billion to tribal governments and $20 billion to U.S. territories," Segers reports.

"Unlike the last round of federal funding for local governments, the HEROES Act would provide funding to governments serving populations of all sizes. Only governments serving populations of at least 500,000 are eligible for emergency money under the CARES Act passed in April," Ben Nandy reports for Spectrum News. (See pages 22-32 for how that money would be allocated.)

Under the bill, employers of essential workers would be able to apply for grants to give essential workers $13-an-hour hazard pay on top of regular wages, up to $10,000 per worker, out of a $200 billion "Heroes Fund," Segers reports. States would get $850 million to provide childcare and family care for essential workers as well as personal protective equipment for essential workers.

The bill would extend CARES Act provisions for unemployment insurance through January and extend existing student-loan payment plans. Private loan borrowers, who were not covered in the CARES Act, could receive up to $10,000 in debt relief, Segers reports.

"The bill would provide $50 million in assistance to farmers, farmers markets and local food outlets affected by market disruptions, as well as another $50 billion to beginning farmers and ranchers," Segers reports. "It would also provide $16.5 million in direct payments to agricultural producers."

A $100 billion emergency assistance fund would be set aside to help low-income renters avoid eviction, and $75 billion would be given to states, territories and tribes to help homeowners with mortgage payments and other housing costs, Segers reports.

The bill also allots $25 billion to the financially struggling Postal Service. Partly because of a drop in mail volume, the service projects it will lose another $22 billion over the next 18 months, and says it could run out of money by September without a bailout. "The bill also would repeal several restrictions on a $10 billion line of credit for the Postal Service authorized in a previous economic rescue law," Matthew Daly reports for The Associated Press. "President Donald Trump has publicly threatened to block the $10 billion loan unless the Postal Service significantly raises rates for packages delivered for Amazon and other big shippers."

Rural Wisconsin artist offers tips for how to navigate a loved one's death and funeral during the pandemic

Donna Kallner
(Photo provided to Daily Yonder)
With funerals banned, the pandemic has disrupted how we say goodbye to our loved ones and celebrate their lives, especially in close-knit small towns. 

"It’s hard to guess when things might get back to normal, or what a new normal might look like. In the meantime, the rituals we observe when a loved one dies may not be possible," Donna Kallner writes for The Daily Yonder

Kallner, a fiber artist from rural Wisconsin who often writes for the Yonder, writes from experience; her mother died May 2. She offers tips to help others prepare for the death of a loved one and navigate grieving during the pandemic. Read more here.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Governments at all levels delay responses to, or completely disregard, public-records requests, citing the pandemic

Governments at all levels are delaying or disregarding requests for records during the pandemic, according to a wide-ranging rundown by The New York Times editorial board, which says that some delay is understandable, but that responses to requests made under the federal Freedom of Information Act or state open-records laws should be considered an essential service.

"It is reasonable to expect delays in processing public records requests and even incomplete responses, especially where public entities may not have access to physical files or other resources," the board writes. "But work-from-home orders have demonstrated that government can carry on remotely. New data, contracts and communications are being created digitally every day that would certainly fall under public access laws. Fulfilling FOIA requests can be grueling grunt work, but such labor should be deemed essential during the pandemic."

The board notes, "Far too often, officials have sought to alter or disregard FOIA laws to obscure government conduct or mismanagement. Particularly as reports emerge of profligate state spending on protective masks and conflicting accounts of the federal response to the pandemic, Americans deserve to see freedom of information laws obeyed, not trampled."

Farmers' hopes for a respite from seven years of mainly bad news fade, amid market problems caused by pandemic

Idaho potato farmer Ryan can't sell his crop, so he's giving it away. (Associated Press photo by Pat Sutphin)
"President Trump promised this year to deliver a financial bonanza for American farmers, boosted by two historic trade deals that would free them from their dependence on government bailouts," write David J. Lynch, Annie Gowen and Laura Reiley of The Washington Post. "Instead, as the local Wendy’s runs out of hamburgers and some shelves at Costco lie bare, farmers are forced to euthanize millions of hogs and chickens, give away tons of unwanted potatoes, and pour out enough milk to fill a small lake. The closure of most U.S. restaurants amid the covid-19 pandemic has thrown the nearly $2 trillion food industry into chaos, convulsing specialized supply chains that are struggling to adjust."

The crisis "has exposed an agricultural economy that despite repeated injections of taxpayer support finds many farmers under growing and unexpected financial pressure," the Post reports. "Farmers this year face losses of more than $20 billion, according to the University of Missouri’s Food and Agricultural Research Institute. Expectations of massive Chinese orders for American crops under the trade deal Trump signed shortly before traveling to Austin are clouded by an escalating war of words between Washington and Beijing over the novel coronavirus. With pandemic-related restaurant closures disrupting commercial links, farmers are being forced to plow under their crops and destroy their livestock rather than bring them to market."

Crop prices have generally declined since 2013, and farm bankruptcies are increasing. "Some analysts say only extraordinary federal aid will enable farmers to continue making their loan payments as the economy struggles to recover from the covid-19 pandemic," the Post reports. "Prices for commodities such as corn and wheat have dropped since March by double-digit percentages." The story quotes New York dairy farmer Scott Glezen, 43: “This is the worst I’ve ever seen it. And I’ve seen some very bad times.” The story has much more; read it here.

Successful Farming offers farmers nine tips for dealing with stress.

Democrats' new relief bill would allow chain-owned papers to apply individually for forgivable paycheck-protection loans

The latest coronavirus relief package proposed by House Democrats would allow more newspapers to apply for Small Business Administration loans under the Paycheck Protection Program, the News Media Alliance reports. One section would let chain-owned papers apply as individual, independent entities, falling under the 500-employees for the forgivable loans, which are, in effect, grants.

More than two-thirds of U.S. newspapers are chain-owned; among community newspapers, the latest available figure is 62 percent. "The Wall Street Journal calculated recently that titles accounting for around 80% of national newspaper circulation were ineligible under the program’s terms, because they’re 'affiliated' with bigger companies," Columbia Journalism Review's Jon Allsop reports.

The alliance urged members to "share your own personal stories outlining what your newspaper has been doing to serve your community during the covid-19 crisis: explain how the crisis has negatively impacted the newspaper’s financial position; threatens the livelihood of your employees; and jeopardizes your ability to continue to provide news and information in your community."

Some in journalism see a problem not just with lobbying for the money, but taking it. "The media-specific ethical issue concerns the old dilemma of whether independent news outlets, whose job it is to hold government accountable, can take money from the government without triggering a conflict of interest," Allsop writes. "This debate feels misguided, too. The question of which outlets a government chooses to support can undoubtedly raise problems; in Canada, for example, critics recently accused a publicly-funded reporting initiative of discriminating against newer outlets. . . . As several newsrooms pointed out to justify applying for the money, PPP is not a bailout for the media, specifically."

Meanwhile, several major news organizations are suing the SBA after it refused to fulfill Freedom of Information Act requests for the names of businesses getting money from the program, and how much. The plaintiffs include The Washington Post, The New York Times, Bloomberg, ProPublica and Dow Jones & Co., publisher of The Wall Street Journal.

"The program has been plagued with problems, and five weeks after it was launched, the SBA has yet to divulge the names of any recipients," ProPublica reports. The names of a few — Shake Shack, Ruth’s Chris Steak House and the Los Angeles Lakers among them — have come out through other means. Those three returned the loans after an outcry. The SBA hasn’t argued that the names of the companies that get these loans should stay secret. It has instead pointed to generalized statistics on its website or put off responding to the FOIA requests until sometime in the future."

Cardiovascular mortality rate in rural areas keeps declining, but not as much as in metropolitan areas, study finds

The death rate for cardiovascular disease in rural areas continues to decline, but not as much as it has in metropolitan areas, says a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

From 1999 and 2017, age-adjusted death rates for cardiovascular disease declined 4.1 percent in large metropolitan areas, 3.7% in smaller metro areas, and 3.2% in rural counties. Thus, the disparity in death rates urban and rural areas grew; it rose from 24 deaths per 100,000 population in 1999 to 42.8 deaths per 100,000 population in 2017.

The actual rate declines from 1999 to 2017 were: large metros, 347.6 to 208.6; medium and small metros, 343.7 to 221.8; and rural areas, 371.6 to 251.4.

The study involved several researchers from leading institutions and was led by Sarah Cross of the Sanford Institute of Public Policy at Duke University.

One of the co-authors, Dr. Haider J. Warraich, associate director for the heart-failure program at the VA Boston Healthcare System, told United Press International, "This should be a wake-up call for the American people and policymakers. Rural health has been ignored far too long, and the rural health system has not been designed to help patients with chronic conditions like cardiovascular diseases . . . What we need is a more robust outpatient and population-focused healthcare system that incentivizes improvement in outcomes rather than rewards hospitalizations and procedures."

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Pandemic made telehealth necessary and easier to get, and 'We are never going back' to the way it was, surgeon says

Rural Health Information Hub graphic
The coronavirus pandemic made telehealth necessary, and much easier to get, and its uptick will continue long after the crisis is over, federal officials predicted in a Rural Health Information Hub webinar Tuesday, covered by Melissa Patrick of Kentucky Health News.

"I can tell you from personal experience that we are never going back," said Dr. Jeff Colyer, a surgeon who chairs the National Advisory Committee on Rural Health and Human Services. "I've seen the majority of my patients via telehealth, and they like the convenience and the access that it gives them. And so we are going to see those changes continue on in the future."

Bette Brand, deputy undersecretary for Rural Development in the Department of Agriculture, said, "The coronavirus has made the need for telehealth even more urgent. Its life-saving convenience is now underscored by its lifesaving ability to limit travel and unnecessary exposure."

Deputy USDA Secretary Stephen Censky pointed to a USDA summary of recent changes in telehealth policy by the Department of Health and Human Services. Deputy HHS Secretary Eric Hargan called the changes "historic" and said they include, among other things, eliminating some barriers to Medicare reimbursement, enabling waivers or reductions of cost sharing, and allowing the use of everyday technologies, like FaceTime and Skype, in health care.

"In just about a month and a half, I think we've seen about seven or eight years worth of progress on telehealth," Hargan said. "Really, it's a revolution provoked by necessity. I'm excited to see what the future looks like based on getting patients and providers acclimated to the idea of telehealth in this way," he said. "What sounds to many like dry, obscure flexibilities in regulations and reimbursement is translating into millions of Americans getting access to healthcare more safely."

Tom Morris, associate HHS administrator for rural health, said the use of telehealth resource centers is "well more than 1,000 percent of this time a year ago."

Two analysts and a fellow at the Brookings Institution came to many of the same conclusions after taking a detailed look at telehealth regulations and recent changes. They write:
Telehealth has proven itself a viable supplement to an already strained health-care system, where both medical providers and patients are seeking timely, effective, and robust tools for early detection, primary care, and long-term evaluation. While progress was being made before the coronavirus outbreak to adopt telehealth in states, the pandemic not only demonstrated its worth but also proved it necessary to avert larger meltdowns in hospital systems and among medical professionals—even those whose work was stopped due to social distancing.
The world will probably not return to the normalcy it once experienced before covid-19—and neither should health care. As Congress is charged with re-evaluating the leniencies permitted to health-care providers during this crisis, federal lawmakers should also see the benefits. The same holds true for states that will need to reconsider lifting boundaries on telehealth services to accelerate its transformational capabilities for patients and doctors.

Coronavirus outbreaks are increasing on farms, and protections for farmworkers are inconsistent

Crowded working conditions and weak protections for workers have helped meatpacking plants become pandemic epicenters. The same factors may be causing outbreaks in agriculture. 

"Farm outbreaks are already cropping up across the country: A large orchard in Washington tested 70 workers for the coronavirus and found more than 50 positive cases, for example. And in Monterey County, California, nearly one in four coronavirus cases is an ag worker, according to local officials," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico's "Morning Agriculture" newsletter.

The Trump administration designated farm laborers as essential workers, but hasn't done much to keep them from getting sick, leaving states and employers to take care of it. "Produce growers in the thick of harvest season are installing hand-washing stations, giving out face masks and directing workers to keep their distance. But such protective measures are largely voluntary, and they’ve been inconsistent so far," McCrimmon reports. "Following social distancing rules is easier said than done for farmworkers, who typically live in close quarters and travel in tightly packed buses . . . Even in the field, keeping a safe distance is tricky; tomato pickers, for example, generally carry fruit in their own buckets and then haul it to a common collection point — as fast as possible, since they’re paid by the pound."

Growers told McCrimmon they didn't need federal regulations to make them want to keep their workers safe, since sick workers wouldn't be able to pick their crops. But farm labor advocates told him they would prefer consistent, government-enforced standards.

USDA to start buying farm products for food banks next week; will increase limits on direct payments for farmers

President Trump said on Twitter that his administration will start buying American farm products for food banks next week. He apparently referred to a mid-April relief plan to buy $3 billion in dairy, meat and produce from farmers hurt by the pandemic, Makini Brice and Chris Prentice report for Reuters. Farmers and state officials have criticized the administration for waiting so long to fulfill the promise while demand at food banks soared and farmers' crops rotted in the field.

Meanwhile, the Department of Agriculture says it will increase the caps on relief checks for farmers in the $16 billion direct payment program announced in April. "The department initially planned to cap the relief checks at $125,000 per commodity and $250,000 per farmer, which matches the general farm payment caps that Congress approved in the 2018 Farm Bill," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico's Morning Agriculture. "But after heavy pressure from farm-state lawmakers and industry groups, Secretary Sonny Perdue said last week that USDA will increase the aid limits before the program is finalized this month."

The higher payments could help struggling sectors, but could make the program run out of money more quickly. "There’s also the political risk of larger producers vacuuming up the money and leaving less for small farmers — a frequent criticism of the Trump administration’s trade bailout in the eyes of Democrats and farm watchdog groups," McCrimmon reports.

U.S. judge refuses to narrow ruling to Keystone XL pipeline

"A federal judge in Montana on Monday upheld his ruling last month that canceled an environmental permit for the long-delayed Keystone XL oil pipeline and threatened other oil and natural-gas pipeline projects with delays," Timothy Gardner reports for Reuters.

District Judge Brian Morris ruled in April that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers didn't adequately comply with the Endangered Species Act in 2017 when it renewed a general permit that allows dredging work on pipelines through bodies of water. Morris also said letting construction proceed could do serious harm to protected species and habitats.

The corps asked Morris to limit his April 15 ruling to the Keystone XL permit, but Morris refused. "The ruling does not block construction of Keystone or other pipelines, but without the permit to do dredging work many oil and gas projects could be delayed," Gardner reports.

At the heart of the issue is the corps' streamlined permitting process, which Morris said doesn't allow enough input from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service on risks to endangered species and habitats, Ellen Gilmer reports for Bloomberg Law.

"In Monday’s order, he agreed to narrow his April ruling to allow the Army Corps to use the fast-track permitting process for non-pipeline construction work and routine activities on existing projects," Gilmer reports. "But Morris declined to scale back his order to focus only on Keystone XL, and he refused to freeze his decision while the Trump administration and pipeline backer TC Energy pursue an appeal."

Sovereignty standoff: Cheyenne River Sioux tribe refuses to take down checkpoints as South Dakota governor ordered

"The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in South Dakota is refusing to end coronavirus checkpoints declared illegal by the state's governor, saying they are the best tool they have to stop the virus from spreading," CNN reports. "Gov. Kristi Noem sent letters Friday to the leaders of the Oglala Sioux and the Cheyenne River Sioux tribes demanding that the checkpoints along the U.S. and state highways through tribal land be removed."

Noem said the checkpoints are not legal because they're on state highways and have hindered travel and essential services from being delivered; she threatened to sue the tribes in federal court if they don't comply, Vanessa Romo reports for NPR.

"The restrictions require residents and nonresidents to fill out a health questionnaire each time they enter or leave tribal lands. They also limit nonresidents from entering the reservations unless on essential business or if the tribal government has granted them a travel permit. However, those who wish to drive straight through are allowed to pass, according to the tribes," Romo reports. "Noem said her office has been told of instances where through-travelers have been prevented from entering the reservations."

Leaders for both tribes say the checkpoints are necessary to protect their people, and have also issued lockdowns, stay-at-home-orders and curfews. Noem has not taken such measures statewide, Romo reports.

Many tribes have been hard-hit by the pandemic, often because of poor infrastructure, underlying health conditions, and limited access to health care.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Watchdog report: SBA didn't tell lenders to prioritize rural businesses for relief loans, so they got shortchanged

A new report from the Office of the Inspector General in the Small Business Administration said the agency didn't tell private lenders to prioritize borrowers in under-served and rural markets when implementing federal relief, so rural and other underserved businesses may not have gotten much-needed funds from the $669 billion Paycheck Protection Program under the CARES Act.

"The report is the first independent analysis of a key feature of the government’s efforts to deal with the economic fallout from the coronavirus," Aaron Gregg reports for The Washington Post. It buttresses concerns about whether the funds from the $2 trillion CARES Act are being distributed fairly: "Last month, the Treasury Department had to warn well-capitalized, publicly traded businesses that they would probably not be eligible for the program after several national brand names reported receiving tens of millions of dollars in loans under the Paycheck Protection Program, while many small businesses without strong banking relationships struggled to get loans."

The PPP is designed to allow small businesses to stay afloat and keep paying their employees via low-interest loans that can be forgiven if at least 75 percent of the funds are spent on payroll costs, among other measures. But the program relies on the banking industry to administer the program, with the SBA and Treasury functioning mostly as regulators, Gregg reports.

Interactive, county-level map shows higher rural infection rates in manufacturing areas through Thursday, May 7

Daily Yonder map; click on the image to enlarge it; click here for the interactive version.
"Covid-19 infections continued to spread more quickly in rural counties over the last week compared to the nation as a whole," Tim Marema and Bill Bishop report for The Daily Yonder. "The rise in the rural infection rate was especially pronounced in counties where manufacturing – which includes meatpacking – is a major part of the economy."

The Yonder included an interactive map that compares counties' infection rates to the national average for nonmetropolitan counties, which are classified as rural. "As of May 7, the rural counties classified as manufacturing (using a system devised by the USDA Economic Research Service) had an infection rate of 258.1 cases per 100,000 residents. The overall rural infection rate is 168.3," Bishop and Marema report.

USDA, HHS and CDC officials to discuss rural health-care tools and resources for pandemic in free webinar Tuesday

At 4 p.m. ET Tuesday, May 12, the Rural Health Information Hub will host a free webinar to discuss rural health efforts by the Department of Health and Human Services and the Agriculture Department, highlighting tools and resources to fight the pandemic.

The webinar will last about 75 minutes, and a recording will be available later. Due to substantial interest, the number of attendees may be limited. Click here for more information or to register. The featured speakers scheduled are:
  • Eric Hargan, deputy secretary, HHS
  • Stephen Censky, deputy secretary, USDA
  • Jeff Colyer, chair, National Advisory Committee on Rural Health and Human Services
  • Bette Brand, deputy undersecretary for Rural Development, USDA
  • Diane Hall, senior scientist for policy and strategy, Policy Research, Analysis, and Development Office, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, HHS
  • Tom Morris, associate administrator for rural health, HHS
  • Betty-Ann Bryce, rural health liaison, USDA
For questions about the webinar's content, contact Bryce at

Former publisher will head Relevance Project, newspaper groups' effort to champion importance of community papers

Tom Silvestri
Tom Silvestri, a veteran newspaper-industry executive, will direct a renewed effort to "champion the importance of community newspapers across North America and to celebrate the vital contributions of press associations they represent," the Newspaper Association Managers of the U.S. and Canada said in a news release.

Silvestri will be executive director of the Relevance Project, "the joint effort of newspaper trade groups to strengthen the industry’s unique role as the provider of quality journalism and the keeper of public forums for thousands of communities across the continent," the NAMs said.

Silvestri recently retired as president and publisher of the Richmond Times-Dispatch and publisher and vice president of the Richmond Group of BH Media, now owned by Lee Enterprises. He has continued to consult the company and will remain in the Virginia capital.

"NAM has been shaping The Relevance Project since 2018 to counter newspaper struggles and to help members redefine their businesses in a digital world," the release said. "Rather than pull back during the covid-19 pandemic, NAM is pushing ahead at a time of intense urgency and sweeping uncertainty as some newspapers fight for their existence."

Relevance Project Chair Michelle Rea, executive director of the New York Press Association, said in the release, “We all know the challenges that newspapers face. But we also know community newspapers still play a vital role as the relevant forum for concerned citizens. The pandemic heightens that need. The Relevance Project aims to re-establish and strengthen our connections to the communities we serve, and to expand our relevance to new audiences. There are plenty of success stories to share as well.”

Silvestri said, “Some people say we need to save newspapers. Others worry about democracy without an army of journalists to report the news. Still others call for reinvention. I agree on all accounts and add we can never give up looking for solutions to keep local journalism and community news organizations strong.”

Two New Mexico towns illustrate nation's coronavirus divide

McKinley County in red, Cibola
County in blue (Wikipedia map)
"The disparate reactions from two mayors within the same region of a single state reflect America’s ever-widening gulf in the struggle against the coronavirus," Robert Klemko and Griff Witte report for The Washington Post. "As the country attempts to navigate its way out of a pandemic without slipping into full economic depression, every state, city and county leader is making his or her own determinations about how to weigh the threats."

In Gallup, a McKinley County town of over 21,000 near the Arizona state line, new mayor Louie Bonaguidi requested—and received—lockdown orders last week from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. But just south in Cibola County in the town of Grants, pop. 9,182, Mayor Martin "Modey" Hicks encouraged local businesses to defy statewide stay-at-home orders, Klemko and Witte report.

The towns, which are about an hour's drive apart on historic Route 66, have fundamental differences that may have informed the mayors' decisions. McKinley County has seen at least 1,274 covid-19 infections, about 30 percent of the state's total. But Cibola County has only had 74 confirmed cases. That's likely because McKinley County, and Gallup, have a much higher share of Native Americans than Cibola County and Grants, Klemko and Witte report. The pandemic has devastated nearby Native American reservations, especially the Navajo, with many communities trying to fight the disease without running water.

Gallup is prosperous, relying on shoppers from the five reservations surrounding the town to come shop on the weekends. But Grant, a former uranium mining town, was having a hard time economically even before the pandemic. "The main street is occupied by abandoned motels and storefronts, active automotive shops and the shuttered Uranium Diner," Klemko and Witte report.

The state is issuing fines to non-essential businesses that open in Grants, but not everyone in the town thinks it's a good idea to open businesses. Thomas Whelan, chief executive of Gibola General Hospital, told the Post that even a few very sick covid-19 patients could overwhelm the hospital's intensive care capacity. A local brewery owner told the Post that he wouldn't feel right about reopening since it could hurt some of his customers.