Friday, July 31, 2020

Pandemic complicates response to huge California wildfire; check your county's wildfire risk with interactive map

Wildfire risk map from Click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.
California is facing its largest wildfire since the deadly 2018 Camp Fire, aided by an exceptionally dry winter, but the coronavirus pandemic has sidelined more than 1,000 incarcerated firefighters. "The setbacks highlight the challenges that California and other Western states are facing heading into the most dangerous part of fire season amid the worst pandemic in more than 100 years," Kevin Stark reports for NPR. "Even a potential exposure to the virus could sideline hundreds of firefighters for weeks."

Two smaller lightning-sparked fires in Modoc and Siskiyou counties, near the Oregon border, have merged to form the Caldwell Fire, now approaching 80,000 acres and about 45 percent contained. In comparison, the Camp Fire was 153,336 acres, The Bay Area News Group reports.

The fire has been more difficult to contain because nearly 1,000 incarcerated firefighters have been quarantined by the coronavirus pandemic. "In late June, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials put 12 prison fire camps on lockdown after they were potentially exposed to the coronavirus through outbreaks within the prison system, sidelining as many as 750 inmate firefighters," Stark reports. A few weeks later, the quarantine was extended after another potential exposure.

According to state fire agency Cal Fire, about 3,500 of the state's 15,500 wildfire fighters were inmates in recent years. "But this year, many inmate firefighters were sent home from prison after the state granted early release to thousands of prisoners to depopulate crowded facilities and slow the spread of the coronavirus," Stark reports. "As a result, less than half of California's inmate firefighting crews were active for duty much of July." Gov. Gavin Newsom, has promised to hire more than 800 seasonal firefighters.

The Caldwell Fire will not likely be the last significant wildfire this season, since much of the Western U.S. had an exceptionally dry winter. And responding to those wildfires could be complicated even without the issue of prison labor, since volunteer firefighters face the same quarantine issues.

Wildfires aren't just a California phenomenon. See your county and state's risk level at, a searchable, interactive database maintained by the U.S. Forest Service.

New covid tracker highlights rural inequalities; meanwhile, new federal database is rife with errors, analysts say

A screengrab from the CURE database. Washington State University map; click the image to enlarge it.
Scientists from Washington State University's Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine have launched an online tracker that provides daily updates on covid-19 cases and deaths in rural communities.

The Covid Urban Rural Explorer also highlights rural-urban contrasts in the pandemic, providing a daily report on areas with spiking cases. It also identifies rural counties with both limited hospital capacity and rapidly increasing infections. Moreover, it provides daily case and death statistics based on a moving seven-day average.

CURE uses publicly available data. The data on cases and deaths comes from The New York Times (which receives its data from state and local health agencies and hospitals). Hospital bed data comes from The Accountability Project, which receives the data for that database from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Population data comes from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The CURE database does not rely on the new federal coronavirus reporting system. In that system, instituted earlier this month, hospitals bypass the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and file information with a private contractor for the Department of Health and Human Services.

The Trump administration promised that the new system would be an improvement, but data analysts say it is "updated erratically and is rife with inconsistencies and errors," Pien Huang and Selena Simmons-Duffin report for NPR.

Pandemic highlights need for better rural internet access

Lack of access to health care and education during the pandemic has highlighted the need for better broadband access in rural areas, Gene Zaleski reports for The Times and Democrat in Orangeburg, S.C., pop. 13.964.

For example, many students in Orangeburg County didn't have good enough internet access to do their homework or distance learning this spring, so the county school district outfitted buses with wi-fi and sent them into neighborhoods where it was needed, Zaleski reports.

Even using data from the Federal Communications Commissions, which tends to overestimate rural broadband access, a Times and Democrat-created data map shows wide swaths of rural South Carolina with inadequate broadband access, defined by the FCC as a minimum speed of 25 megabits per second for download and 3 Mbps upload.

Other rural areas across the nation are facing the same issues; recent reports estimate that 42.8 million people in the U.S. lack broadband access, and about 70% of people with no broadband access are in rural areas, according to a 2019 study.

Verizon is testing a new LTE home internet service specifically meant to bring faster internet to rural areas, but it's still comparatively slow. "Verizon says LTE Home customers will receive unlimited data and download speeds of 25Mbps with peak speeds of 50Mbps," Monica Chin reports for The Verge. "That’s much slower than the best speeds available through Verizon’s Fios or 5G services, which promise speeds of up to 940Mbps for the top plans." Verizon does not say what upload speeds customers would receive.

A 4G home internet plan already offered by Verizon notably says it averages only 5-12 Mbps download and 2-5 Mbps upload. It's unclear if the new rural service would rely on different equipment or a more robust cell tower network in the test areas to achieve the speeds advertised.

Quick hits: movement seeks to increase number of young Black farmers; hope outlasts prosperity in oil-bust town

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

Movement seeks to increase number of young Black farmers. Read more here.

Smaller specialty flour companies are helping revitalize local economies; could other industries copy their model? Read more here.

Hope outlasts prosperity in N.D. town flattened by oil bust. Read more here.

Could pandemic make it even harder for rural students to go to college? Read more here.

The Environmental Protection Agency has canceled its paid subscription to Energy & Environment News, one of the largest publications dedicated to covering the EPA. That ends EPA employees' free access to coverage about the agency, including reporting on EPA's "union-busting" actions. Read more here.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Senate Republicans' relief bill has no special help for ethanol, unlike House bill; could have political repercussions

The petroleum and ethanol industries, long at odds with each other, are both hurting from decreased energy demand during the pandemic, but ethanol producers—and some rural voters in ethanol states—may be feeling left out in the cold by the Trump administration and Senate Republicans.

The Environmental Protection Agency "has surpassed the deadline by one month to release proposed 2021 renewable volume obligations in the Renewable Fuel Standard, an important market driver for biofuels," Todd Neeley reports for DTN/The Progressive Farmer. "And while congressional leaders continue to hammer out details on a new round of covid-19 stimulus that may include relief for ethanol producers this time, President Donald Trump was in west Texas on Wednesday touting the oil industry on a fundraising stop."

Though Senate Republicans' $1 trillion pandemic relief bill has $20.5 billion in broad funding to the Department of Agriculture, none is specifically earmarked for the ethanol industry. In contrast, the House relief bill authorizes $33 billion in agricultural spending, and "would establish the Renewable Fuel Reimbursement Program," Neeley reports. "It would provide a 45-cent per-gallon payment for feedstock purchases made by biofuels producers from Jan. 1, 2020, through May 1, 2020."

Former Iowa lieutenant governor Patty Judge, a Democrat, wrote for The Gazette in Cedar Rapids that the biofuel industry's swoon and Trump's trade war are why Trump is winning rural voters by only 9 points, when Trump carried that voting bloc by nearly 30 points in 2016. In Iowa, a Des Moines Register poll taken June 7-10 showed Trump leading Joe Biden by 1 point.

Free online course aims to help farmers and and their neighbors recognize signs of stress and suicide risk

A free online course aims to help rural farmers and those in farming communities learn how to recognize the signs of stress and suicide risk, communicate effectively with stressed farmers, and help reduce the stigma attached to mental health issues. The course is timely, because suicide and mental illness are higher for farmersespecially during the pandemic.

Rural Resilience: Farm Stress Training takes less than three hours to complete, but you can go at your own pace. It has slide presentations and downloadable resources, and is available through June 2021.

The course was funded by the Cooperative Extension Service, Farm Credit, the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Farmers Union. Course content was created by Extension experts at Michigan State University, the University of Illinois, the University of Wisconsin, Montana State University, and South Dakota State University.

Here are some other farmer suicide prevention and mental-health resources:

Poultry workers' unions sue USDA over line speed waivers

"The union representing workers at chicken processing plants in six states sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Tuesday, saying its policy of allowing companies to slaughter birds more quickly endangers workers and makes it more difficult to protect against spread of the coronavirus," David Pitt reports for The Associated Press. "The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union and local unions representing 10 plants in Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi and Missouri joined with nonprofit consumer advocacy group Public Citizen to file the lawsuit in federal court in Washington, D.C."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture allowed plants to waive line speed caps in 2018, after it said the issue had been studied via pilot programs for 25 years. However, "the unions said in court documents that an average of eight workers per year died on the job between 2013 and 2017 in poultry processing plants, and that workers commonly suffer sprains, lacerations, and contusions," Pitt reports. "They contend that research and worker experience shows work speed is a major contributing factor to the high injury rates suffered by poultry workers."

Senate Democrats introduced a bill on Tuesday that would block faster line speeds at meatpacking plants during the pandemic and suspend line-speed waivers already issued, Chuck Abbott reports for Successful Farming.

USDA website feature aims to help farmers more easily hire H-2A workers

An update to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's website is meant to help farmers more easily hire immigrant workers with H-2A visas, according to a press release.

The new updates on the website include:
  • A real-time dashboard that enables farmers to track the status of their eligible employer application and visa applications for temporary nonimmigrant workers
  • Streamlined login information so farmers can save and track multiple applications quickly 
  • Easier access to the Department of Labor’s Foreign Labor Application Gateway
  • Allows farmers to track time-sensitive actions taken in the course of Office of Foreign Labor Certification’s adjudication of temporary labor certification applications
  • Allows farmers to access all application forms on-line

New toolkit aims to help rural areas better access infrastructure grants

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao announced this week an initiative aimed at helping rural communities get more grant money for infrastructure projects. The Rural Opportunities to Use Transportation for Economic Success (ROUTES) initiative includes an online toolkit to help more easily find and complete applications for infrastructure project grants.

"While only 19 percent of the U.S. population lives in rural areas, 45% of all roadway fatalities and 34% of all public highway-rail grade crossing fatalities occur on rural roads, and the fatality rate on rural roads is two times higher than on urban roads," Rhonda Brooks reports for Farm Journal's Ag Professional.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Tight budgets, lack of summer programs leave more kids eating poorly in W.Va., new nonprofit newsroom reports

In West Virginia, tight budgets and lack of summer programs have left more children eating poorly. The state's "plan to feed out-of-work families relies on the state's cash-strapped nonprofits to fill in gaps in the system, including food distribution sites only accessible by vehicle and a two-hour pickup window in the middle of one workday for a week's worth of food," Amelia Ferrell Knisely reports for Mountain State Spotlight, the new investigative news nonprofit co-founded by award-winning reporter Ken Ward Jr. and affiliated with ProPublica. The story is the organization's first; it planned to start later this summer, but an editor wrote, "We found a story that couldn't wait."

The story comes on the heels of a recent Brookings Institution report that food insecurity is up, and that about 14 million children in the U.S. are eating less these days. According to Save the Children, one in five children in West Virginia are food insecure, Knisely reports.

"When Gov. Jim Justice mandated that schools close in March, schools and nonprofits jumped into action to make sure food was available to kids," Knisely reports. "School lots turned into drive-in feeding sites, bus drivers dropped off meal boxes to kids hidden in hollers, and the National Guard assisted in food handouts. State officials said they served a million meals to students in one month. Then summer arrived, and the number of food sites shrank. School systems with tight budgets couldn’t sustain as many feeding programs or pay bus drivers to deliver meals to isolated communities. Many summer camps and in-person tutoring programs, which typically help feed kids in summer, never opened because of covid-19."

Justice has not directly designated any of the $1.25 billion the state was allocated in federal relief funding on any food efforts, but localities getting funds can use them for food relief, Knisely reports.

White House task force finds Indian Health Service needs big changes to better protect sexually abused children

"A White House task force called for broad changes at the U.S. Indian Health Service to protect children from abuse at the agency’s facilities, saying officials must redo earlier, insufficient attempts at fixes," Christopher Weaver reports for the PBS program "Frontline." "The task force was formed in spring 2019, after a joint investigation by The Wall Street Journal and "Frontline" revealed the agency had mishandled a pediatrician who sexually abused his patients on Native American reservations over the course of two decades."

The task force's report, released last week, confirmed many of the same conclusions and called for a wide range of changes to the agency that oversees health care for 2.6 million Native Americans. "It says the agency should reform the ways it recruits, vets and pays its medical providers. And it calls for the agency to replace child-protection policies and a staff training program it announced just last year in the wake of the Journal-Frontline reports," Weaver reports. The task force also "recommended the IHS standardize sex-abuse reporting policies across its entire network of hospitals and clinics, arrange yearly training conducted by federal law enforcement authorities on sex abuse for all employees, and centralize its efforts to screen new providers for problem backgrounds, an activity the IHS now allows local managers to conduct, among other things."

Rural Ga. hospital's closure highlights worries about the role such hospitals play in areas hit hard by the pandemic

A hospital in rural Georgia is shutting down, highlighting the financial struggles such hospitals face, even as they play a crucial role in areas hit hard by the covid-19 pandemic.

"Officials with Southwest Georgia Regional Medical Center said in a statement that the coronavirus pandemic has only worsened financial difficulties the hospital has endured for years. The Cuthbert hospital is about an hour from Albany, and is set to close its doors in October," Jim Burress and Lily Oppenheimer report for NPR affiliate WABE. "Public health experts have stressed that these hospitals miles from major cities like Atlanta are especially critical for rural seniors, or poverty-stricken communities that don’t necessarily have reliable transportation. For some, it could just mean they will have to journey much further to get intensive care. For others, it will mean inadequate care, delays, and possibly no intensive care at all."

Rural southwest Georgia, which has a high proportion of African-American residents, has suffered some of the highest coronavirus infection rates in the state. That's particularly concerning because rural African Americans who develop covid-19 are at a higher risk of serious hospitalization or death.

Jimmy Lewis, CEO of rural Georgia hospital collaborative Hometown Health, told WABE that one reason rural hospitals struggle is their communities' smaller tax base, limiting local funding. 

"That means that the sustainability under normal circumstances is tough," Lewis told WABE. But when a pandemic is added to the mix, "the surge introduces major external forces and costs that typically the small hospital is not prepared to withstand. It tries to find people to staff, it tries to find cash to supply personal protective equipment. All things considered, it becomes the intersection of all bad things."

The Senate's newly proposed $1 trillion Health, Economic Assistance, Liability Protection & Schools Act "allocates US $25 billion to the Provider Relief Fund, which is far short of the nearly US $100 billion provider associations like the American Hospital Association, American Medical Association and American Nurses Association have called for," The National Law Review reports.

New coronavirus infections increased in rural counties July 18-25, declined in metro counties; see county-level data

Covid-19 red zones July 18-25. Daily Yonder map; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive map.
"The surge in new covid-19 cases moved deeper into rural America last week, with the number of nonmetropolitan counties in the pandemic’s 'red zone' climbing from 630 to 734 from July 18 to July 25," Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder. "Red zone counties are those where the rate of new covid-19 cases exceeds 100 per 100,000 residents [a thousand per million] during a one-week period." The definition in a leaked White House report listing places that should impose restrictions because of high infection rates. The leaked report was issued July 14 and published July 16 by the Center for Public Integrity.

The number of new cases increased in nonmetropolitan counties from July 18 to 25, while new cases declined in metro areas. Nearly half of all rural counties had higher rates of new cases July 18-25 than in the preceding week, especially in the South, Murphy and Marema report. Rural counties in the Midwest and Intermountain West with higher infection rates tend to have meatpacking plants, prisons, and/or a higher proportion of Native Americans. 

Gas flaring from oil extraction up 23% from 2018 to 2019 in U.S.; some states are taking steps to regulate it more

"Gas flaring in the United States increased 23 percent last year, contributing to global levels of the practice that have not been 'seen in more than a decade,' according to a new report," Carlos Anchondo reports for Energy & Environment News. The analysis by the World Bank says the U.S. "flared the third-largest amount of gas in the world from 2018 to 2019, following Russia and Iraq. Globally, the volume of gas flaring — in which surplus gas is burned off into the air — increased 3%, rising from 145 billion to 150 billion cubic meters."

That matters because flared gas contains methane, a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. Methane is the main volatile hydrocarbon in natural gas; flaring burns most of it, but some can escape, and one product of the burning is carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas.

Flaring intensity, the amount of gas flared per unit of oil produced, also increased nearly 12% in the U.S. from 2018 to 2019, but dropped by 10% in the first quarter of 2020 despite increased oil production, Anchondo reports. That's because of improved utilization of flared gas, the report says.

Some states are taking steps to regulate flaring, including major Permian Basin drilling states New Mexico and Texas, Anchondo reports.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Rural homelessness could go up once federal pandemic measures expire; study ranks states by risk

"With federal unemployment benefits ending soon and moratoriums on evictions soon to follow, social services organizations are bracing for a homelessness crisis to hit rural Americans," Liz Carey reports for The Daily Yonder. "The agencies and churches that would normally help are already stretched thin by the pandemic, says one nonprofit administrator."

Nationwide, around 20 million renters are at risk of eviction once the expanded unemployment insurance expires, according to a study from the Covid-19 Eviction Defense Project, an organization founded in March to study the looming problem and suggest solutions. According to their research, "mass evictions would be a disaster," The Aspen Institute reports. "For both individuals and families, evictions result in severe harm; when they become widespread, there are also significant consequences for entire communities and even the speed of economic recovery."

In more than a dozen states, governors halted evictions, but federal guidelines in the CARES Act lift some eviction moratoria on Aug. 24, and that could increase pressure on renters. In Kentucky, which has a moratorium, landlords are still trying to evict tenants who can't pay rent, sending them threatening texts, letters, or even disconnecting utilities, according to Adrienne Bush, executive director for the Homeless and Housing Coalition of Kentucky. Landlords have filed suit against the moratorium and Gov. Andy Beshear's administration is in mediation with them on the issue.

Analysis with lots of visual aids: Rural America needs more help to fight economic and health problems of pandemic

New covid-19 infections have shifted increasingly to rural areas, leading some local and state governments to re-impose businesses restrictions. But without more federal aid, many rural areas will have a much harder time recovering from a second shutdown, and that could help trigger a "prolonged, deep recession," senior economist Olugbenga Ajilore writes for the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank.

Many studies say the pandemic could cause extra harm to rural areas' economies and health, since they tend to have older and sicker residents, poorer infrastructure, and less access to health care. Local governments are likely to suffer disproportionately, since many are still recovering from the Great Recession and don't have the tax base many larger communities have — especially in areas with high minority populations. "State and local governments have been hit on both ends of their budgets by the increased costs of fighting the coronavirus and the decreased revenue resulting from lower individual and business incomes and a drop in retail sales," Ajilore reports.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act gave $1,200 direct payments to households in April and expanded unemployment insurance, and that boosted spending and business revenues, especially in Southern rural communities. But though the percentage of small businesses that were open rose in May and early June, the number tanked by the end of June along with small-business revenues. That trend coincided with the rural spike in covid-19 cases, Ajilore reports.

"In order to get the United States on the trajectory for economic recovery, policymakers need to ensure that states have adequate testing capacity and contact tracing programs in place in order to bring transmission of the virus down to a controllable level," Ajilore writes. "Policymakers also need to provide substantial relief to state and local governments. Finally, policymakers need to extend unemployment insurance and deliver relief to households in the form of direct checks for as long as this public health crisis lasts."

Ajilore provides a treasure trove of maps, charts and graphs illustrating health and economic trends in rural America over the course of the pandemic.

Three meatpacking workers sue OSHA, accuse government of not protecting essential workers from coronavirus

"Frustrated by the lack of response to their complaint of the 'imminent danger' posed by covid-19," three workers at the Maid-Rite Specialty Foods plant near Scranton, Pa., filed suit against the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia, Bernice Yeung and Michael Grabell report for ProPublica. The suit "accuses the government of failing to protect essential workers from dangerous conditions that could expose them to the coronavirus. It relies on a rarely used provision of the Occupational Safety and Health Act that allows workers to sue the secretary of labor for 'arbitrarily or capriciously' failing to counteract imminent dangers."

The three workers worked with Pennsylvania labor organization Justice at Work to help them file an anonymous complaint with OSHA May 19, saying they had only been given masks three times, and there was no social distancing on the production line or in restrooms where washed their hands, Yeung and Grabell report. Meatpacking plants have been infection hotbeds during the pandemic.

According to the lawsuit, two of the workers who filed suit have contracted covid-19, though ProPublica was not able to verify whether anyone at Maid-Rite has been infected, Yeung and Grabell report. An anonymous complaint to OSHA in April alleged that about half of the plant was out sick, and that the plant was simply hiring more people and not taking prevention or containment measures.

The lawsuit says the workers were filing suit because they could no longer wait for OSHA to act, and "argues that OSHA’s failure to respond effectively to workers’ covid-19 concerns is part of a larger pattern," Yeung and Grabell report.

A Labor Department spokesperson declined to comment to ProPublica, but wrote in an email that OSHA opened an inspection at Maid-Rite on June 2, has six months to complete it, and no further details will be made public until the inspection is complete, the spokesperson wrote.

"ProPublica has previously reported that despite receiving thousands of complaints, OSHA has not prioritized essential workers like meatpackers in its covid-19 enforcement efforts," Yeung and Grabell report. "Public health departments across the country have found themselves overwhelmed by the flood of cases linked to the meat industry, which has sometimes stymied the efforts of local officials to curb the spread of the virus."

Farm and meatpacking workers at high risk for covid-19, says documentary that will follow up with online talk Thur.

Rural counties with many farmworkers are likely to have higher death rates from covid-19, according to a study from the University of California, San Diego. Those most at risk in such counties are those who don't speak English, farmworkers, and those living in poverty. That puts migrant farmworkers in the bullseye, Rosa Tuirán and Nick Roberts report for the PBS program "Frontline."

Though the Trump administration declared farm laborers as essential workers, there hasn't been much federal guidance on how to keep them from getting sick, leaving states and employers to figure it out. "The federal Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration has issued workplace guidance to protect employees from covid-19, including encouraging employees to stay home if they’re sick, promoting frequent hand washing, and implementing regular sanitation procedures. None of the guidance is mandatory," Tuirán and Roberts report. OSHA declined to speak with the journalists, but said in a statement that the voluntary guidelines were enough to protect workers from covid-19. However, covid-19 cases have been spiking among farmworkers and meatpacking workers.

The workers, who often live in crowded housing, say they work sick because they need the money; one said he was not told that he would still get paid if he went into quarantine. His employer didn't respond to multiple requests for interviews, but "a company update said it is following local, state and federal guidance to stem the spread of the virus, and that its worksites have always had gloves and hand washing stations available," Tuirán and Roberts report. Many workers who work for other agri-businesses reported that they were not given masks.

For more information about the pandemic's impact on farmworkers and PBS's work to uncover it, "Frontline" has a documentary called "Covid's Hidden Toll," and a podcast discussion about what the documentary reveals about the dangers to workers on farms and at meatpacking plants. On Thursday at 6:30 p.m. ET, the filmmakers will have an online discussion; click here for more information.

New nonprofit argues that Trump has hurt rural America

Chris Gibbs
A new political non-profit launched Monday, Rural 2020, plans to advertise in battleground states to advocate policies it believes will benefit agriculture and rural Americans, and attempt to convince voters that the Trump administration has hurt rural America. It plans to build community coalitions in battleground states, and has a radio ad.

Chris Gibbs, an Ohio soybean farmer and former official of the Farm Service Agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, founded the organization and chairs it. Gibbs says he is a former Trump voter and former Republican who unsuccessfully ran as an independent against Rep. Jim Jordan, a Trump acolyte. "I knew we were in trouble when the president said trade wars are good and easy to win," Gibbs said in a statement. "Lost trade opportunities, dwindling health-care providers, rural hospital closures, below cost of production prices for commodities and livestock, collapse of the biofuel market, bankruptcies, and suicides all plagued rural America well before covid-19. The uncoordinated response of the Trump administration to the pandemic has upended traditional food supply chains and only made things worse for our dairy, livestock, and fresh produce farmers."

Monday, July 27, 2020

National parks getting trashed during pandemic

A volunteer scrubs graffiti off a rock in the Santa Paul Canyon in Ventura County, Calif. (Time photo by Ellie Mora)
Many U.S. national and state parks are getting trashed during the pandemic. "Many of these spaces, supposed to be untouched swaths of time-proof wilderness, have been overrun by first-time visitors seeking refuge from quarantine, joblessness, or the inability to take far-flung vacations," Andrew Chow reports for Time magazine. "And as people have flooded into the parks, new crises have arisen for rangers and nearby communities, including indigenous populations who were already particularly susceptible to the virus."

Some parks shut down briefly during March and April, but they began re-opening later, many with timed entry restrictions designed to keep people spread out, Chow reports. But that doesn't work to keep people from sneaking in before the rangers arrive in the morning or stop people from congregating at popular lookout points. The restrictions can also encourage park visitors to attempt to enter the park elsewhere—sometimes through Native American reservations that are disproportionately hit by the pandemic and trying to keep visitors away.

"In interviews, rangers at Big Bend National Park in Texas, Great Falls Park in Maryland, and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in Utah and Arizona said they have all seen increases in visitation following covid-19, particularly from first-timers," Chow reports. RV and camper sales have surged; so have campground reservations across the country. With travelers still leery of airplanes, and most indoor entertainment options closed, many families seem to be embracing a relatively cheap getaway option where the risk of catching the virus is much lower than it is indoors."

But the new visitors, many of whom are new to visiting the parks, are polluting the parks with urine and feces and spraying graffiti on rocks, Chow reports.

Study: Rural residents with disabilities less likely to trust news, follow health advice on pandemic than urban peers

Trust in information about covid-19 by metro status of county. (University of Montana chart; click the image to enlarge it)
Rural Americans with underlying health conditions are at a higher risk of catching covid-19 than their urban counterparts but are less likely to trust reliable information sources and less likely to follow public health recommendations for the pandemic, according to a study from the University of Montana's Research and Training Center on Disability in Rural Communities.

Rural respondents reported lower rates of all practices recommended to lower the spread of covid-19, including handwashing, avoiding crowds, social distancing, and avoiding at-risk individuals.

The sources respondents trusted for health information tended to make the biggest difference in their attitudes. Rural residents were less trusting of any covid-19 information across the board, with one exception: though President Trump was the least-trusted of any information source among all areas, rural residents reported the highest relative level of trust in him. Rural residents also tended to place little trust in the news media, whether local or national news.

A Bloomberg story out of Texas illustrates the disdain many rural residents feel for warnings about the pandemic, where "the disease is seen as more threatening to personal freedoms than personal health," Thomas Black reports. "I'm not worried about it," retired truck driver Jeff Donaldson told Black. "It's all just about the politics."

The state's Republican governor, Greg Abbott, initially resisted strong measures to combat the disease, but he's now advocating for such measures as infection rates rise in Texas. Rural residents told Black the contradictory advice from public officials was one reason they wouldn't wear a mask.

Tuesday virtual town hall with bipartisan former USDA secretaries to talk economic challenges in rural America

On Tuesday, July 28, at 3 p.m. ET, a virtual town hall will discuss the challenges and opportunities facing rural America in a crisis economy. Two former agriculture secretaries, Republican Ann Veneman and Democrat Tom Vilsack, will discuss the issues using examples from 9/11 and the Great Recession. "Rural America: Leadership in a Crisis Economy" will be moderated by Kirk Siegler, a National Public Radio reporter who covers rural issues.

The town hall will be presented by the National Association of Counties, the National Cooperative Business Association, and the Rural Community Assistance Partnership. NACo aims to connect and serve county governments. The NCBA is a membership organization for cooperatives. The RCAP is a national network of non-profit organizations that provide technical assistance and resources to rural communities. All three lobby lawmakers at the federal level.

Click here to join the town hall and share your views via chat.

Senate Republicans' relief bill includes more help for agriculture and rural areas

"A $1 trillion coronavirus relief package that Senate Republicans are trying to finalize would authorize compensation to livestock and poultry producers and also aid ethanol plants as well as additional direct payments to farmers, a key senator said Thursday," Philip Brasher reports for Agri-Pulse.

"The Senate package is expected to include $20 billion in direct appropriations for farmers and ranchers, on top of the $14 billion in new borrowing authority through the Commodity Credit Corporation that the Agriculture Department could tap to keep sending stimulus checks to producers," Ryan McCrimmon reports for Politico's Weekly Agriculture.

The bill includes "a five-year telehealth extension for Federally Qualified Health Centers and Rural Health Clinics," Inside Health Policy reports.

Two-thirds of the bill's funding for elementary and secondary education "would be reserved for schools that plan to physically reopen and provide some kind of in-person instruction," reflecting a priority of President Trump, Education Week reports.

The "proposal will sit around $1 trillion and include $105 billion for schools, a second round of direct payments to individuals and families, $16 billion in new money for testing, a second, more targeted round of forgivable small business loans from the Paycheck Protection Program, a myriad of tax incentives for employers to rehire, retain and retrofit their offices for employees," Phil Mattingly reports for CNN. "It will also include Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's redline: liability protections for businesses, schools, hospitals and non-profits."

Trump administration officials are pushing a series of narrower issue-by-issue bills in case the larger bill doesn't pass, Marianne Levine and Nolan McCaskill report for Politico.

Sinclair Broadcasting won't air discredited 'Plandemic' segment, after widespread outcry; thanks Fauci for his work

UPDATE, July 28: "Sinclair said that given the nature of Judy Mikovits’ claims to correspondent Eric Bolling, the segment was 'not appropriate, to air," The Associated Press reports. Sinclair said, “We also reiterate our appreciation for all that Dr. Fauci and his team have accomplished for the health and well-being of Americans and people worldwide.”

Following widespread public outcry, Sinclair Broadcasting is reconsidering plans to force local television stations it owns to broadcast an interview featuring a conspiracy theory video about the covid-19 pandemic, Aubree Eliza Weaver reports for Politico.

The video, "Plandemic," is about a discredited claim that Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was to blame for the creation of the novel coronavirus.

"'America This Week' host Eric Bolling was scheduled to air an interview with Judy Mikovits, a medical researcher featured in the 'Plandemic' video," referring to Mikovits as "an expert in virology," Weaver reports.

After broad pushback, Sinclair says it will delay and rework the episode, and said they in no way endorsed "Plandemic" or its message. Sinclair, which owns stations in 81 TV markets, has a disproportionately rural audience.