Friday, August 21, 2020

Ark. papers honor legislator who sponsored law requiring governing bodies to record their meetings, keep recordings

Arkansas Rep. Vivian Flowers
The Arkansas Press Association is giving its Freedom of Information Award to the legislator who sponsored a law requiring governing bodies to make audio recordings of all their meetings and keep them for a year. The legislation "is one of few substantive improvements" to the state open-records law in an era when "legislators most often have tried to claw back transparency provisions in the bill, APA reports.

"Flowers filed the bill . . . after a constituent raised concerns to her about inaccuracies in the meeting minutes of one local governmental entity," APA reports, noting that minutes "may describe in a few words what government leaders took two hours to debate, not to mention that sometimes important comments get cut from minutes entirely, Flowers said."

Flowers introduced the measure during the final days of the 2019 session, but it got 18 co-sponsors, including “both arch conservatives and arch liberals,” Flowers noted. She said the bill would be of particular help to journalists who are unable to attend meetings.

Postmaster general says some changes delayed mail, vows extra effort to get ballots delivered timely; backs 6-day mail

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy spoke with a Senate committee in an online meeting. (Associated Press photo)

By Al Cross
Director and Professor, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy acknowledged in sworn testimony before a Senate committee this morning that his changes in the U.S. Postal Service have delayed delivery of some mail, but he said he has ordered extra effort to make sure that mailed election ballots are delivered on time.

DeJoy said that at his first meeting about election mail, he told his subordinates, "Whatever efforts we have, double them. I was very concerned about all the political noise we were hearing." He said USPS will have enough capacity for the expected amount of election mail, and won't require that ballots be first-class mail, thus saving states and localities money, but will treat ballots as first class.

The postmaster general told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that he has suspended operational changes until after the election. "I think the American people can feel comfortable that the Postal Service will deliver on this election," he said. However, he said he couldn't provide a detailed plan for ensuring delivery of ballots.

DeJoy told Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, that delays have been greater in urban areas "where the coronavirus and the intimidation of the coronavirus" have scared employees from working, raising absenteeism to 20 percent or more in some cities, and "a substantial portion of our delays are related to covid." He said the national rate is only 4%, but most rural mail is sorted in cities.

DeJoy rejected a suggestion by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., that Congress save money by removing the requirement that mail be delivered six says a week, saying that standard maintains a high level of trust between it and the public. "That is probably our biggest strength that we can capitalize on."

But when Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., asked about maintaining rural post offices, DeJoy merely answered by stating his previous point a different way: "We have an unbelievable asset in our letter carriers reaching every American each day."

(NPR's Kirk Siegler reports "why rural America is fighting the Trump administration on the post office," The Daily Yonder explains how the Postal Service "became the center of a federal frenzy," and Jack Healy of The New York Times reports "what happens when the mail suddenly becomes unreliable in rural towns and stretches of countryside [with] FedEx or UPS deliveries, and where people rely on the post office as an irreplaceable hub of commerce and connection.")

In response to questions, DeJoy said he had never discussed the Postal Service with President Trump, other than a brief conversation in which Trump congratulated him on his appointment by the USPS Board of Governors, or with anyone in the Trump campaign. Asked about Steven Mnuchin, he said he told the Treasury secretary that he had a plan to improve service, but gave "no great detail."

He said he would remain independent of the Trump administration, called "outrageous" assertions that his changes are designed to help the president, who has repeatedly attacked universal mail-in voting but endorsed traditional absentee voting. Trump has opposed giving USPS money to handle mail ballots. DeJoy "seemed to want to distance himself from President Trump," CNN's Pamela Brown reported.

DeJoy said he won't bring back any sorting machines that have been removed because "they're not needed," given the decline in first-class mail volume. The machines sort letter-size mail; some states' absentee ballots are that size. Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., said the Manchester sorting center now has only one machine, and it broke down yesterday. DeJoy said he didn't know that.

DeJoy said one of his major changes was to require that mail trucks leave on time. American Postal Workers Union President Mark Dimondstein told MSNBC after the hearing that "We're being told to leave mail behind, and the system is backing up, and every customer knows that." 

Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., the committee vice chair, said he had been unable to get documents relating to DeJoy's changes, and asked him to provide them by Sunday. DeJoy said he would speak with his staff about that. Another hearing, by the Democrat-controlled House Oversight Committee, is set for Monday, with in-person testimony from DeJoy and Board of Governors Chair Mike Duncan.

Funerals important to rural communities but restricted during pandemic; writer shares his experience with a Zoom funeral

Funerals are important community events, especially in rural areas, allowing friends and family the chance to to say goodbye to their loved ones and support each other through a difficult time, as Donna Kallner wrote for The Daily Yonder in May.

But funerals can help spread the coronavirus; two funerals in rural Georgia in early March did just that, turning southwest Georgia into a pandemic hotspot. With restrictions or bans on funerals (along with other public gatherings), some Americans are turning to the same piece of technology that helps them work at home to help them mourn together.

Jeremy N Smith recounts his experience attending a funeral via Zoom in a recent piece for Slate: "I had no idea what to expect. That phrase—'Zoom funeral'—sounds so tacky and degrading. Who would come? How would it work? What would people wear? Would we be gathering respectfully to mourn a loved one, or slouch on our respective couches, alone together, arguing with other family members at home about how to position the phone, tablet, or laptop screen, with the cat mewling to be fed?"

But Smith logged in, wearing a suit and tie but no shoes, and saw his great uncle Larry, who had died of covid-19, on the screen in a closed coffin at the mausoleum. His uncle's son, his spouse, and the rabbi (all wearing masks) were the only ones there in person and the rabbi sat more than six feet away from the couple. More than 50 households joined the service, talking among themselves as they waited for the service to start, like at any normal funeral.

As different family members shared stories and read Scripture, "I laughed and cried, embarrassed but grateful that I could get up and grab a roll of toilet paper when my scant supply of tissues ran out," Smith writes. He marveled at the fact that, through this Zoom funeral, he was able to meet a host of second cousins he had never been introduced to, "virtually but very much face-to-face, and in the intimacy of our living rooms, kitchens, bedrooms, and home offices instead of a more alien public setting. Close enough to see the books on one another’s shelves, the art on our walls, and the photos on our mantel. Close enough to meet each other’s eyes."

In some ways, a Zoom funeral might be better than the traditional service, Smith writes. He doubts he would have been able to attend his uncle's funeral in Florida under traditional circumstances, but "here I was home and with Larry—and at the homes of my extended family. The Zoom funeral left me feeling much more connected to everyone involved—and to everyone else who has lost a loved one during this pandemic. And it made me appreciate the ways technology like Zoom can make clearer our shared experiences—how it can literally show us all the other lives—and deaths—happening one 'square' over.

Meatpackers say they couldn't have prepared for pandemic, but ignored years of warnings from public-health officials

Meatpacking companies insist they could not have anticipated the pandemic and acted as quickly as possible to increase safety measures when infections broke out, Michael Grabell and Bernice Yeung report for ProPublica. However, "for more than a dozen years, critical businesses like meatpackers have been warned that a pandemic was coming," they report. "With eerie prescience, infectious disease experts and emergency planners had modeled scenarios in which a highly contagious virus would cause rampant absenteeism at processing plants, leading to food shortages and potential closures. The experts had repeatedly urged companies and government agencies to prepare for exactly the things that Smithfield’s CEO now claims were unrealistic."

Kenneth Sullivan, CEO of Smithfield Foods, wrote in a letter to senators investigating outbreaks in meatpacking: "What no one anticipated, and has never happened in our lifetimes, is the scenario we are living through today . . . That is, our harvest facilities, which are the critical linchpin in the supply chain, could be threatened, en masse, by a global pandemic that threatens our ability to produce food."

John Hoffman, who developed food and agriculture emergency plans at the Department of Homeland Security under George W. Bush, told ProPublica that the pandemic was "an unmitigated disaster for food processors, and it didn’t have to be." Though there are sometimes surprise developments in a pandemic, this one has unfolded "pretty much as the pandemic plan has suggested it would," he said.

But instead of heeding public-health experts' plans to slow the spread of a pandemic through closures, social distancing, masks and other measures, "the industry repeatedly expressed confidence in its ability to handle a pandemic, and when asked to plan, relied on a wait-and-see approach, records and interviews show," Grabell and Yeung report.

'Appalachia's dual pandemics: Substance abuse and covid-19' webinar set for 11 a.m. Wed.; register by Monday

The Appalachian Regional Commission will hold a webinar, "Appalachia’s dual pandemics: Substance Abuse and COVID 19" at 11 a.m. ET Wednesday, Aug. 26. Participants include Deputy Secretary of Health Preparedness and Community Protection Ray Barishansky of Pennsylvania; Julie Bolen, executive director of the Ross County Community Action Commission in Ohio; and Jennifer Gregory, executive director of Southern Tier East Regional Planning Development Board in New York. They will discuss how Appalachia is weathering the storm of having two pandemics to overcome. The conversation will be moderated by RecoveryOhio Director Alisha Nelson. Registration will close Monday. Register here.

National Newspaper Association convention Oct. 1-3 will be online, giving more rural newspapers a chance to participate

The convention will open with this panel.
Rural newspaper journalists and publishers who rarely get a chance to attend a meeting of the National Newspaper Association, the main group for weeklies and small dailies, have a better chance Oct. 1-3, as NNA takes its convention online due to the pandemic and charges a fee of only $50. To register, click here.

The convention program is packed with knowledgeable presenters and panels on a wide range of topics, including coverage of the pandemic and the election, using the Freedom of Information Act, the future of obituaries, getting into podcasts, doing video interviews, appealing to young readers, building audience with Instagram, Facebook strategies for weeklies, managing paywalls, selling digital audience as total audience, building and retaining print circulation, getting advertisers back in the paper as the economy strengthens, starting niche publications, and turning your newspaper into a nonprofit. Steve Waldman of Report for America will explain the program that funds reporting positions at newspapers and how to apply for one, and publishers who have participated will discuss their experiences.

The convention will begin with a timely keynote panel, "The Unique Relationship of Rural America to the Mail: A View from Washington," including members of the Postal Regulatory Commission, NNA lobbyist Tonda Rush and NNA President Matt Adelman of the Douglas Budget in Wyoming, followed by an update on postal issues. It will end with presentation of awards and a final session, "The digital revolution in March 2020 and what it means for newspapers." Presenter Thad Swiderski of eType Services says "The predicted waterfall moment of readers rushing to digital formats happened in March 2020. Newspapers of all sizes are experiencing dramatic increases in traffic. This session will focus on this trend and what newspapers can do to capitalize on this trend."

Democratic platform for rural: broadband, credit, health care, 6-day mail, school funding, and a lot relating to agriculture

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden didn't say anything specific about rural America in his acceptance speech last night. What does the Democratic party platform say? Here are a few things:

"We will increase public investment in rural, urban, and Tribal broadband infrastructure, offer low-income Americans subsidies for accessing high-speed internet, and invest in digital literacy training programs, so children and families and people with disabilities can fully participate in school, work, and life from their homes. . . . We will increase access to credit for small businesses in low-income and rural areas. . . .We will double investments in community health centers and rural health centers, and expand mobile health units, to make it easier for low-income people to access health care." The platform also promises to keep six-day mail delivery and "reliable funding for rural schools."

The word "rural" appears 38 times in the 92-page, single-spaced document, once in a 425-word paragraph about agriculture, "the American heartland and rural communities." It promises to "make it easier for new and beginning farmers, aquaculture farmers, ranchers, and foresters, including returning veterans, to start and grow their operations . . . protect family farms and promote food security, including by taking steps to limit foreign ownership of U.S. farmland and reforming agricultural subsidies to better support small- and mid-sized farms. Democrats believe farmers should have the right to repair their own farming equipment, rather than being forced to rely on large corporations for even the simplest fixes. And we will expand domestic markets for family farmers and ranchers by developing and growing regional food systems to deliver fresh, American-grown produce to schools, hospitals, Department of Defense installations, and other major public institutions, so small, mid-size, and traditional farmers can stay competitive."

Biden identified climate chance as one of the four crises facing the nation. The platform says "Democrats will partner with America’s farmers, ranchers, and foresters to make the U.S. agriculture sector the first in the world to achieve net-zero emissions, which will spark a revolution in agriculture and open up new revenue streams for farmers in energy and waste products, and grow bio-based manufacturing jobs. We will grow the nation’s biofuels manufacturing sector, including by strengthening the Renewable Fuel Standard, supporting E15 blends, and supporting research, development, and deployment of advanced biofuels. We will expand popular, voluntary programs for sustainable and regenerative agricultural practices that help protect clean air and water and support wildlife habitats, including for threatened pollinators. Democrats will invest in research and development to support climate-resilient, sustainable, low-carbon, and organic agricultural methods."

On farm labor, the platform promises to "enforce labor and environmental protections for farmworkers, including overtime and safety rules protecting workers from exposure to pesticides and extreme heat, and ensure farmworkers are able to exercise their right to bargain collectively."

The platform also promises to "empower small and mid-size family farms by tackling market concentration in agriculture . . . and use the federal government’s procurement power to incentivize the humane treatment of farm animals in accordance with commercially-recognized animal welfare standards." For the entire platform, click here.

Quick hits: baby chicks DOA because of mail delays; rural legal deserts a critical health determinant, study finds

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

Legal experts question move that leaves William Pendley in power at the Bureau of Land Management. Read more here.

Mail delays cause chicks, ducklings and seedlings to be delivered dead, and "Replacement parts for farm machines are late in coming. Prescription refills are taking a week or more to reach mailboxes, a particular threat because rural communities are older than most of America," The New York Times reports.

Rural legal deserts are a critical health determinant, study finds. Read more here.

Traditional farming releases carbon from the soil into the air; a practice known as "regenerative agriculture" could help put it back. Read more here.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Mail delays expose pitfalls of prescription home delivery

The recent delays with the U.S. Postal Service have exposed a pitfall with mail-order prescription drug plans: some people aren't getting their meds on time, Shelby Livingston reports for Modern Healthcare.

Some health-insurance plans require patients to fill long-term medications by mail, and some rural residents may prefer that since they live far from pharmacies or lack transportation, Livingston reports. Some evidence suggests that receiving meds by mail increases the likelihood that patients with chronic diseases will take their meds. But that can only happen when medications show up on time and undamaged.

"AllianceRx Walgreens Prime, a home delivery venture between Walgreens and PBM Prime Therapeutics, said prescriptions have taken longer to be delivered by the USPS since March, and the company is monitoring how those delays affect patients. In some cases, delivery has been significantly delayed by three or more days," Livingston reports. "AllianceRx attributed the delays to the covid-19 pandemic, aircraft availability, significant network volume and the USPS elimination of overtime. It said it is evaluating soon-to-be-implemented postal rate increases and is looking at other mail delivery options if delays worsen. Alliance sends most prescriptions through the USPS, but also uses DHL E-Commerce to sort and enter shipments to the USPS, which helps speed up the process, it said."

The House Energy and Commerce committee said it will investigate how Postmaster General Louis DeJoy's changes have affected prescription-drug delivery. But pharmacist trade groups say the issues aren't new, and that mail-order prescriptions are prone to delays or other problems that can make it hard for patients to stay medicated.

"Even before the slowdown there was some unpredictability in the shipment of medications," B. Douglas Hoey, CEO of the National Community Pharmacists Association, told Livingston. He said that auto-shipments sometimes get lost in the mail, and that during slow-downs, medications are sometimes exposed to unsafe temperatures. "When patients experience mail order issues, the burden falls on local pharmacies that end up filling emergency supplies of medication," Livingston reports. "But those local pharmacies likely won't be reimbursed for that work, he said."

Local, independent pharmacies may lose out in another way over mail-order prescriptions, said Scott Knoer, CEO of the American Pharmacists Association. He told Livingston that he worries that, when pharmacy benefit managers require members to deliver prescriptions by mail, it can hurt the bottom lines of local pharmacies and help drive them out of business.

Rural jobs grew in June but still 1.4 million lower than last year, and many rural areas lost jobs; see county-level data

Employment change from May to June 2020; Daily Yonder map.
Click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.
Nonmetropolitan counties gained about 610,000 jobs from May to June, putting total rural employment at 19.1 million jobs, according to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics figures. That's a 3.3 percent growth rate, compared to a nationwide rate of 3.9%, Bill Bishop and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder. The largest cities, those with 1 million residents, saw the highest job-growth rate, at 4.2%, while many rural areas and states with large rural populations saw job losses.

Part of the reason for the slower rural growth is that rural areas lost fewer jobs during the pandemic's economic shutdown this spring. But counties of all population sizes are faring worse than they were a year ago. Rural America had 1.4 million fewer jobs in June 2020 than in June 2019, a 6.8% drop. The largest cities had 10% fewer jobs, in comparison, Bishop and Marema report.

Aided by covid-19 relief funds, longtime officer manager buys and resurrects closing rural Minnesota weekly

Chatfield, Minn. (Wikipedia map)
After 40 years working at the Chatfield News in rural southeastern Minnesota, Pam Bluhm got a big promotion, in a way: When she found out the weekly was closing in March, the 60-year-old office manager bought it and is now the publisher, John Reinan reports for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis.

In doing so, the lifelong Chatfield resident saved a 164-year-old paper that's older than the state of Minnesota. Bluhm said she couldn't stand the thought of Chatfield, a town of 2,800, losing the News. And she wasn't sure what she would do with her life after working at the paper for so long.

"I didn’t know what I was going to do after 40 years," Bluhm told Reinan. "And I thought, 'This [ownership] is what I gotta do.' And Chatfield needs a newspaper. It was either this or go to work at the deli."

Bluhm only had $400 in her checking account when the paper closed, and still has a second job cleaning a local medical building 10 hours a week. "Her startup money was the $1,200 covid stimulus check she got in the spring. That was enough to register a new corporation with the secretary of state and buy the paper’s computers and file cabinets," Reinan reports.

Bluhm's determination to serve Chatfield has come back to her tenfold; as she helps the townspeople through policies such as free obituaries (which she views as a community service), the town helps her right back. "She has a small freelance budget but gets most of her content from community members who write for free," Reinan reports. "Volunteers make the weekly 60-mile run to pick up the papers in Calmar, Iowa, where they’re printed."

Bluhm lives on the second floor of the News building and is almost always around the office, ready to swap stories or take some news. Her policies seem to be working: "Since Bluhm took over, the News’ circulation is up about 15 percent, to 865 subscribers. A yearly subscription costs $35 — or $40 for out-of-towners," Reinan reports.

Subscriptions and volunteering aren't the only way townspeople support the paper. Current and former locals have sent Bluhm dozens of letters, many with checks for as much as $400, thanking her for keeping the paper going, Reinan reports.

Local business owner Dawn Cole told Reinan that the News "is kind of a staple here in town, especially for us business owners. There are still a lot of people in Chatfield who like to have the paper in hand."

Federal derecho aid excludes relief for farmers and homeowners; some could be approved in a week

"A federal major disaster declaration approved Monday does not include financial assistance for Iowans recovering from last week's devastating derecho, despite President Donald Trump tweeting he approved the state's application in 'FULL.' Kim Norvell reports for the Des Moines Register. "Gov. Kim Reynolds' request for $82.7 million to cover the 8,273 homes that were damaged or destroyed was not approved. Neither were her requests for $3.77 billion for agriculture damage to farm land, grain bins and buildings and $100 million for private utilities repair."

The Federal Emergency Management Agency said it is still assessing damage to determine if the state qualifies for more assistance. Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf said Tuesday it could be another week before individual assistance is approved. The disaster declaration issued Monday, which includes 16 Iowa counties, "includes federal funding for emergency work, such as debris removal, and repair or replacement of storm-damaged facilities for local governments and nonprofits," Reynolds reports.

The Aug. 10 storm carved a 700-mile swath across the Midwest. In Iowa alone, a quarter of a million people remain without power, and nearly half of the corn crop was damaged or destroyed. About 6.1 million acres of corn and soybeans were destroyed, Donelle Eller reports for the Register.

Local leaders talk about how smarter federal policy can help rural areas during pandemic

"The covid-19 pandemic is threatening to exacerbate the nation’s geographic divergence in community well-being and economic prosperity that has been widening since the Great Recession. Over one-quarter of U.S. counties had not yet recovered to pre-2008 levels before the pandemic hit, This is disproportionately true for rural America, whose diversity belies general perceptions and is attracting leaders such as Todd Wolford of Wytheville, Va, and Lindsey Dotson of Charlevoix, Mich., who direct rural economic development organizations and are eager to build rural institutions and places that thrive," Tracy Hadden Loh and Anthony Pipa write for the Brookings Institution. Pipa is a senior fellow in global economy and development at Brookings, and Loh is a fellow at the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Center for Transformative Placemaking.

Loh and Pipa recently interviewed Wolford and Dotson via Zoom to discuss what the local leaders are doing to help their communities. Both said they're committed to supporting and growing small businesses, which make up the majority of jobs in their towns. Such jobs also make their communities unique and can attract outsiders, they said. "Yet their experiences demonstrate that federal policy for rural development is outdated and mismatched in helping rural leaders meet the demands and opportunities of the modern economy and the additional pressures wrought by covid-19," Loh and Pipa write.

Rural entrepreneurs face a host of barriers even without the pandemic: it's more difficult for them to access financing, and they tend to have inadequate broadband access, Dotson and Wolford said. Read more here.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Biden aims at rural voters during Democratic convention

"The Biden campaign wants to undercut President Donald Trump’s sweeping victory across rural America in 2016 by making its case that the White House has failed voters in small communities," Liz Crampton reports for Politico. "No one expects former Vice President Joe Biden to win the rural vote outright. But his strategists and supporters are working to peel away voters by hammering on Trump’s economic agenda and haphazard response to the pandemic."

The Democratic party signaled its attention to rural voters during this week's Democratic National Convention. On Monday, speakers underlined the importance of the U.S. Postal Service, which rural residents rely on disproportionately. Later, the Biden camp hosted a virtual symposium to discuss issues that affect rural voters. And on Tuesday, members of the DNC's Rural Council held the floor during the daytime, Crampton reports.

"Winning over just a slice of the rural vote could make a difference in battleground states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania," Crampton reports. "Many sectors of the rural economy under Trump have been reeling as a result of his trade and ethanol policies since 2017, while the coronavirus has disproportionately affected rural areas, stressing an already fraying health care infrastructure with few ICU beds."

Recent Midwestern derecho was like an 'inland hurricane' but hasn't seen comparable news coverage from outsiders

On Monday, Aug. 10, a storm known as a derecho wreaked havoc over a 700-mile stretch of the Midwest. But though the storm was as strong as a Level 2 hurricane and destroyed or damaged nearly half of Iowa's corn crop, the disaster isn't getting the same kind of outsider coverage that a hurricane would, Cedar Rapids Gazette columnist Lyz Lenz writes for The Washington Post.

"While the storm did garner some coverage, mostly via wire stories, its impact remains under-reported days later. The dispatches, focused on crop damage and electrical outages, have been shouted down by the coverage of the veepstakes and the fate of college football. Conservatives’ consternation over the new Cardi B single has gotten more attention than the Iowans left without power or food for what may be weeks. And all this, as the pandemic continues to wreak havoc throughout the state," Lenz writes. "Iowa’s last disaster, breathlessly covered by the media, was the caucuses. After that, everyone moved out. The dearth of coverage means we are struggling here, and no one knows."

In Iowa alone, a quarter of a million people are without power, and nearly half of the state's corn crop was damaged or destroyed. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Risk Management Agency, about 8.2 million acres of corn and 5.6 million acres of soybeans in the state were in the path of the storm, Natalina Sents reports for Successful Farming. Preliminary estimates say the storm also damaged or destroyed more than 57 million bushels of permanently licensed grain storage that will cost more than $300 million to remove, replace or repair.

Postmaster general stops changes after uproar over slower delivery; will testify before Congress

"Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, facing intense backlash over cost-cutting moves that Democrats, state attorneys general and civil rights groups warn could jeopardize mail-in voting, said on Tuesday that the Postal Service would suspend those operational changes until after the 2020 election," The New York Times reports. "The measures, which included eliminating overtime for mail carriers, reducing post office hours and removing postal boxes, have been faulted for slowing mail delivery and criticized as an attempt to disenfranchise voters seeking to vote safely during the coronavirus pandemic."

DeJoy said that retail hours at post offices would remain the same, that no processing facilities would close, and that overtime would continue to be approved where appropriate. "It was unclear, however, whether the agency would reverse measures already put in place across the country that union officials and workers say have inflicted deep damage to the Postal Service," the Times reports. "That includes the removal of hundreds of mail-sorting machines, according to a June 17 letter sent from the Postal Service to the American Postal Workers Union. Some of those machines have already been destroyed, union officials and workers said.

DeJoy announced the pullback as at least 20 Democratic attorneys general said they plan to file federal lawsuits alleging that DeJoy is illegally changing mail procedures in an effort to suppress votes, the Times reports. 

House and Senate lawmakers, meanwhile, have summoned DeJoy to testify. Beyond that, Congress has limited options for ensuring that the Postal Service is ready for a fair and well-run presidential election conducted mostly by mail, Amber Phillips reports for The Washington Post. They can continue to encourage voters to speak up. They can also lean on the board of governors—most installed by Trump—who choose the postmaster general to remove DeJoy, pressure the Postal Service's inspector general to investigate DeJoy's changes and his possible conflicts of interest, and more. 

Meanwhile, the slowed mail delivery is causing problems for many small businesses, Ben Werschkul reports for Yahoo! Finance.

New rural coronavirus cases down a little over past 2 weeks but deaths up more than 20%; see county-level data

Daily Yonder map, adapted by The Rural Blog; click the image to enlarge it or click here for the interactive version.
"Despite tentative indications that the current wave of the pandemic might be cresting in rural America, covid-19 continued last week to dig into the rural counties that were already bearing the brunt of the pandemic," Tim Murphy and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder. "These 'red zone' communities, while containing less than half of the nation’s rural population, accounted for three-quarters of the new cases and deaths originating in rural counties last week." Red zones are defined by a White House task force as counties with at least 100 new coronavirus cases per 100,000 people in the reporting week, or 1 per 1,000.

The Yonder analyzed new covid-19 infections in nonmetropolitan counties during the week of Aug. 1-7 and compared them with new infections during the week of Aug. 8-14. During that time, new cases in rural America fell 2.9 percent, from 53,500 to about 52,000, Murphy and Marema report. But during that same time period, rural covid-19 deaths grew by 22%, from 1,023 to 1,248.

"The number of rural counties on the red-zone list climbed by four last week, to 738, after dropping from a high of 746 three weeks ago," Murphy and Marema report. "The pandemic also showed signs of deepening in these hard-hit counties. The number of new infections in rural red-zone counties increased by 4% in the last week, from 38,800 two weeks ago to 40,300 last week."

Aug. 26 webinar to discuss rural maternal and childbirth care disparities, policy recommendations for improving it

A free Aug. 26 webinar will discuss the challenges women face in obtaining maternal and obstetric care in rural America and discuss policy recommendations for improving it. The webinar will begin at 3 p.m. ET and will go for about an hour.

The National Advisory Committee on Rural Health and Human Services will present the webinar through the Rural Health Information Hub.

From the webinar website: "More than 700 women a year die of complications related to pregnancy in the U.S., and two-thirds of these deaths are preventable. Maternal mortality is disproportionally affecting black and American Indian/Alaska Native women in the U.S. Additionally, there are disparities between rural and urban populations. According to publicly available data from the U.S Center for Disease Control and Prevention analyzed by Scientific American, rural areas had a pregnancy-related mortality ratio of 29.4 per 100,000 live births versus 18.2 in urban areas in 2015."

Click here for more information on the webinar, including speakers, or to register.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Rural publisher proposes temporary USDA-type 'prevented printing' subsidy for struggling community papers

Reed Anfinson
When farmers weren't able to plant crops in 2019, the U.S. Department of Agriculture compensated them for the money they would have made. The federal government could similarly compensate struggling community newspapers through a temporary subsidy program, rural publisher Reed Anfinson writes in an op-ed for the StarTribune in Minneapolis.

The "prevented planting" subsidies were meant to help farmers because, among other reasons, they're an important part of local rural economies. But local newspapers serve their communities too, Anfinson writes, so they deserve a similar subsidy that he dubs the "prevented printing" program.

"What we have learned from communities that have lost their newspapers is that fewer people vote," Anfinson writes. "Citizens don’t understand why the school district cut course offerings. They know little about who is running for office. They don’t know why the county is bonding and raising taxes by $30 million. Without a newspaper, the cost of issuing those bonds goes up [at least according to one study]. Fewer people run for office. We lose the stories that create a common bond to get things done."

For farmers, the problem was mainly terrible weather. For newspapers, the storm comes from waning advertising dollars. Some of that is because of digital competition, and some of it is because businesses have reduced advertising during the pandemic. Over the past 15 years, more than 2,000 American newspapers shuttered, many of them in small towns. As of early 2020, 198 U.S. counties no longer had a newspaper, Anfinson notes, citing news desert research by the University of North Carolina's Penny Abernathy.

Some plans have been proposed to shore up newspapers, but so far, all have targeted large papers. Anfinson argues that a "prevented printing" program can be easily scaled for each newspaper, no matter what its circulation, Anfinson writes. He is a former president of the National Newspaper Association and the publisher and owner of several small Minnesota papers: the Swift County Monitor-News, the Grant County Herald, and the Stevens County TimesRead more here about his idea.

Rural hospitals' broad experience can help in covid-19 fight

As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention. For many rural hospitals trying to cope with the influx of covid-19 patients, years of having to be flexible and make do with limited budgets and supplies could give them a leg up in fighting the pandemic, Ginger Christ reports for Modern Healthcare.

Tim Putnam, president and CEO of Margaret Mary Health, said the 25-bed hospital in Batesville, Indiana, has been struggling with the extra load since mid-March. "The hospital that normally has 15 patients at a time had as many as 28 patients at one point and went from being 80% outpatient to 80% inpatient, Putnam said. They had to purchase seven more ventilators to double their capacity to intubate patients," Christ reports.

But Putnam said rural hospitals' flexibility can help with the pandemic. "In rural hospitals, staff often have a broad scope of responsibilities and deal with a lot of different illnesses, Putnam said. Caregivers aren't separated by departments in the same way that they are in urban settings. That experience helped prepare them to respond to covid-19," Christ reports. One University of Minnesota study found that rural nurse practitioners at primary care clinics have more autonomy in every measurable way than their urban peers.

Rural hospitals are applying that flexibility not only internally, but externally. Some community hospitals, including Putnam's, have banded together to share staff as needed when local outbreaks sap their staff, Christ reports.

Such partnerships may prove critical to rural hospitals' ability to weather the pandemic, though the CARES Act provided some relief. "About 80 percent of the income for rural hospitals comes from outpatient services, which have not yet recovered," Christ reports. "Through April 15, 14 rural hospitals in the U.S. permanently shut their doors, which is on pace to the be the largest number of closures yet."

Rural home sales spike in New England amid pandemic

Some data has suggested that rural home sales may be increasing as city dwellers seek to flee the pandemic, but a new story out of rural New Hampshire confirms the trend, at least in New England.

"Not since almost 19 years ago, when traumatized New Yorkers swept into northern New England seeking safety in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, has there been such a pressing demand for homes in the Upper Valley, according to area real estate brokers," John Lippman reports for the Valley News in West Lebanon, N.H. "Although the Upper Valley has had a housing shortage for years, making it difficult for both local and out-of-state residents to find a home to buy or apartment to rent, the pandemic has pulled the supply of homes even tighter."

Home listings are down about 50 percent because many sellers say they don't feel comfortable moving during the pandemic, Lippman reports. So few homes on the market plus increased buyer interest has resulted in a strong seller's market. Homeowners report buyers offering unheard-of prices for their properties, some without even doing an inspection first. Anecdotally, many of the buyers are younger couples with children who have secure, good-paying jobs that aren't linked to the local economy and can work remotely.

Since many of the buyers have children, schools in the Upper Valley are seeing increased enrollment, which can be complicated when many schools are reopening with distance learning, Lippman reports.

Can the arts help save rural America from the recession?

"Far from major population centers or cutting-edge cultural trends, galleries, museums and craft breweries have collectively brought life — and cash — back to rural communities devastated in the aftermath of the 2008 Great Recession and by longer-term decline," Stephen Starr writes for Ozy. "Now, these communities are counting on art to keep their economies going amid the crisis spawned by the coronavirus pandemic."

The arts can help improve the local economy, according to a 2019 National Governors Association study. About half of rural counties have seen population declines since 2000, but experts are predicting that more people will move from cities to smaller towns because of the increasing cost of living in urban areas and the possibility of working from home. Active arts and culture scenes could help attract former city dwellers, Starr reports.

Many rural arts programs have received pandemic funds. The National Endowment for the Arts, an independent federal agency, "has announced $75 million in relief funds to arts organizations. State governments, commissions and universities are also pumping millions of dollars into small-scale rural arts ventures," Starr reports. "Such initiatives are paying dividends. In 2015, arts and cultural initiatives contributed $67.5 billion to states where at least 30 percent of the population live in rural areas. According to the Rural Establishment Innovation Survey, residents in rural counties that are home to performing arts organizations earn up to $6,000 more than people who live in rural counties without such platforms."

Interior to reopen schools on Native American reservations

"The federal agency tasked with the oversight of some schools on Native American reservations announced that officials intend to reopen 53 schools they manage in 10 states to the “maximum extent possible” on September 16," Emma Coleman reports for Route Fifty. "The Bureau of Indian Education, part of the U.S. Department of the Interior, last week sent out a memo to bureau-operated schools saying that virtual-only learning environments would only be allowed if an outbreak occurred at the school that required a schoolwide shutdown. Though families can opt for distance learning if they want, teachers will be required to teach from the classroom, according to the memo."

Many school districts are offering online-only or other distance learning programs to reduce the spread of the coronavirus, though rural schools are more likely to reopen for in-person learning. But some schools that have resumed in-person classes have been obliged to quickly revert to distance learning after first-week infection spikes.

"Native American reservations have been some of the hardest hit locations during the coronavirus pandemic, becoming early hotspots for the virus in May and June," Coleman reports. "The Navajo Nation at one point had more positive cases per capita than any state in the country, while the disease has torn through other tribes."

Native Americans could also face increased risk from the pandemic because of a higher incidence of underlying health conditions that make them more likely to be hospitalized or die from the virus, along with frequent lack of access to hospitals or health care, Coleman reports.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Postmaster general and chairman of Postal Service Board of Governors agree to testify before House panel Monday

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy and the chair of the board that hired him have agreed to testify before a House committee next week "about his controversial Postal Service changes that have raised hackles around the nation, according to two people familiar with the matter," reports Daniel Lippman of Politico.

Mike Duncan of Inez, Ky., chairman of the Postal Service Board of Governors, has "also agreed to testify, according to a person familiar with the matter," Lippman reports. "Duncan is a former chairman of the Republican National Committee," in 2007-09, after being treasurer and general counsel. DeJoy was finance chairman of the 2016 Republican National Convention. 

"The Oversight and Reform Committee hearing is likely to be tense, with Democrats loudly objecting to changes that have slowed mail delivery in numerous parts of the country amid President Donald Trump’s calls to restrict the use of mail-in ballots for the November election," Lippman writes. "A number of Democrats, including moderate House member Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), had even said that they wanted DeJoy, a major Republican Party fundraiser, arrested by the House sergeant at arms if he didn’t agree to testify."

The Democrat-controlled House may vote "as early as this Saturday on a proposal to block DeJoy’s plans to overhaul the Postal Service," Lippman reports. "The emergency vote would occur weeks earlier than Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other House Democratic leaders had originally planned to return to Washington during the August recess. Both House and Senate Democrats have also demanded reams of documents from DeJoy and senior USPS staffers as they probe why the Postal Service has cracked down on the use of overtime for postal workers, restricted certain deliveries and warned states that if ballots are put in the mail too late, the Postal Service can’t guarantee delivery of them by election day. Even Trump seems to have changed his tune on what he wants from the Postal Service, telling reporters on Monday: “I have encouraged everybody to speed up the mail, not slow the mail.”

Medicaid expansion OKd by voters in Missouri was opposed by most voters in rural areas, but it may help them most

Kaiser Family Foundation map, adapted by The Rural Blog
"Missouri recently became the fifth straight red state to approve Medicaid expansion by referendum, joining Idaho, Nebraska, Utah and Oklahoma," former Minnesota senator Al Franken, a Democrat, notes in an op-ed for the StarTribune in Minneapolis.

Franken writes that he's unsurprised by the trend, since during his Senate career, he saw many rural Minnesotans who were "passionate" about Medicaid expansion. However, in Missouri, the largest state to expand Medicaid by referendum, the measure passed because of urban support; two-thirds of rural voters opposed it, Bill Bishop and Tim Marema report for The Daily Yonder.

Franken writes that Medicaid expansion will disproportionately help rural residents, as it has done in Minnesota. "After the Affordable Care Act became law and Medicaid expansion was adopted in our state, these hospitals suddenly found themselves with a lot less uncompensated care and, therefore, a lot more resources," Franken writes. Now that rural hospitals didn’t have to eat the costs of uninsured patients, they had money they could spend for more doctors, nurses, technicians, technology, rehabilitation therapists, dietitians — even better food! Suddenly, these rural hospitals were able to significantly expand their scope of practice."

Expanded access to health care may help fewer people get sick with covid-19, he continues: "Not only did rural Minnesotans have access to more specialists and sophisticated medical equipment (including ventilators), now they could receive regular free checkups from their physicians, reducing the incidence and severity of the co-morbidities that make people so vulnerable to the coronavirus."

Controversial nominee pulled, but he will keep running BLM

William "Perry" Pendley
"The Trump administration withdrew the controversial nomination of William 'Perry' Pendley to head the Bureau of Land Management on Saturday amid signs that the choice would hurt the re-election prospects of Republican Sens. Cory Gardner (Colo.) and Steve Daines (Mont.)," Steven Mufson reports for The Washington Post. "Earlier this month, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee received the materials needed to hold hearings on the nomination. But Democrats were planning to press Daines, who sits on the committee and is in a tight race with Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D). It was not clear whether Gardner or Daines would vote for Pendley."

Senate Republicans have taken pains to help Gardner and Daines' re-election prospects, including passing a bill they co-sponsored that permanently protects public lands and addresses part of the national park system's maintenance backlog. Public-lands preservation has been a major campaign platform for both senators.

Pendley, BLM's deputy director for policy and programs, has been acting director since July 2019. He has been criticized for controversial views about public lands, the environment, and other issues. Before his tenure at BLM, he was the longtime president of the conservative Mountain States Legal Foundation. During that time, he wrote that there should be no public lands and said repeatedly that climate change lacks credible scientific evidence. Also while at the MSLF, "he had sued the Interior Department on behalf of an oil and gas prospector, sought to undermine protections of endangered species such as the grizzly bear, and pressed to radically reduce the size of federal lands to make way for development," Mufson reports.

However, just because Pendley's nomination has been withdrawn, he isn't out of the picture. "White House and Interior officials said that Pendley would continue to serve in his current, lower-level deputy director position at the Interior Department, a job that effectively lets him continue to act as head of the BLM. Pendley was the only person nominated to head the BLM under Trump," Mufson reports. "Several federal agencies are being run by the Trump administration using similar arrangements."

Wednesday webinar to discuss connection between immigrants and rural economies during the pandemic

The Aspen Institute will hold a free webinar at 2:30 p.m. ET Wednesday, Aug. 19, to discuss the links between immigrants and rural economies, and how they affect each other in the coronavirus pandemic. The webinar will last an hour, and will be followed by peer-learning breakout sessions starting at 4 p.m. Click here for more information on the webinar or to register.

The webinar is the second in the Aspen Institute's Rural Opportunity and Development Session series. From the website: "Immigrant workers and their families are a dynamic force behind recent population upturns or stabilization across rural America. In fact, between 2010 and 2016, immigrants from around the world were responsible for 37 percent of net rural population growth.

"Rural communities that rely on the economic drivers of tourism and recreation and essential services like health care and food production have been hit hard by the impact of covid-19. Due to multiple risk and systemic factors, the many immigrants employed in these rural industries have been disproportionately affected and face enormous challenges, as do the rural communities where they live and work."

Temporary battle against covid-19 gave Cherokees in N.C. impetus and tools to battle longstanding opioid epidemic

The "intricate and bold" steps taken to help tamp down the coronavirus pandemic among the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians may have helped them learn how to fight an older enemy: the opioid epidemic, Annette Saunooke Clapsaddle reports for 100 Days in Appalachia, in a story published by the Clay County Progress in North Carolina.

Qualla Boundary is shown in red, adjoining
the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
The infection rates in the EBCI reservation, known as the Qualla Boundary, have been "exemplary" compared to those in surrounding counties, Clapsaddle writes, partly because tribal authorities had enacted policies stricter than those required by the state or federal governments, and had pooled resources to better distribute them.

"In partnership with the nonprofit Dogwood Health Trust, a nonprofit health organization based in Asheville, we began providing access to free community-wide testing (even asymptomatic) long before North Carolina recommended it," Clapsaddle reports. "We set up roadblocks and allowed only residents or EBCI enrolled members to access the Boundary. We closed non-essential businesses, including Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and our government offices. We employed a sophisticated and comprehensive contact tracing system that has been credited with identifying asymptomatic carriers before they unknowingly transmitted the virus."

But even as they fought the pandemic, the tribe saw an "explosion" of drug-overdose deaths, and even more overdoses that didn't result in death. Tribal aid ensured that the community was cared for, "but it also meant that we became one of the few communities in far western North Carolina who still had the means to be paying customers — especially in the illegal drug trade," Clapsaddle reports.

Because of the pandemic blockades, drug runners tried to make the same money with fewer trips, Clapsaddle reports. So they brought in a concentrated form of fentanyl-laced heroin that street dealers could later cut before selling to customers. But fentanyl is deadly in tiny doses, and the new product was stronger even after the dealers cut it. That resulted in seven deaths.

That highlighted for tribal leaders the lack of consistent data on overdoses and drug use, Clapsaddle reports. Emergency care providers and health-care facilities often don't code a death as an overdose, fearing it might bring stigma. Instead, they sometimes code such deaths as heart attacks.

"The EBCI’s Overdose Map, where the collected data is housed for analysis, also does not account for instances when Narcan, an overdose-reversing medication, was used," Clapsaddle reports. EBCI Secretary of Health and Human Services Vickie Bradley said she's trying to improve data collection.

The biggest takeaway from the pandemic, Clapsaddle writes, is that "To date, state and federal aid has done little to assist impoverished Native communities coping with historical grief and trauma in their fight against substance abuse. But if we are to learn anything from covid-19, it is that waiting for outside help is a death sentence."