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Texas order reflects growing GOP vaccine mandates hostility

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — With the governor of Texas leading the charge, conservative Republicans in several states are moving to block or undercut President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine mandates for private employers before the regulations are even issued.

The growing battle over what some see as overreach by the federal government is firing up a segment of the Republican Party base, even though many large employers have already decided on their own to require their workers to get the shot.

The dustup will almost certainly end up in court since GOP attorneys general in nearly half of the states have vowed to sue once the rule is unveiled.

The courts have long upheld vaccine mandates, and the Constitution gives the federal government the upper hand over the states, but with the details still unannounced and more conservative judges on the bench, the outcome isn’t entirely clear.

On Monday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order barring private companies or any other entity from requiring vaccines. It was perhaps the most direct challenge yet to Biden’s announcement a month ago that workers at private companies with more than 100 employees would have to get either vaccinated or tested weekly for the coronavirus.

“No entity in Texas can compel receipt of a COVID-19 vaccine by any individual … who objects to such vaccination,” Abbott wrote in his order.

White House officials brushed off Abbott’s order, saying the question of whether state law could supersede federal was settled 160 years ago during the Civil War. They said they Biden administration will push through the opposition and put into effect the president’s package of mandates, which could affect up to 100 million Americans in all.

Noting the nation’s COVID-19 death toll of more than 700,000, White House press secretary Jen Psaki accused the opposition of putting politics ahead of safety.

“I think it’s pretty clear when you make a choice that’s against all public health information and data out there, that it’s not based on what is in the interests of the people you are governing. It is perhaps in the interest of your own politics,” she said.

Several large companies in Texas have already implemented their own vaccine mandates, and two Texas-based airlines, Southwest and American, indicated Tuesday they would follow the order of the Biden administration, saying federal action supersedes any state mandate or law.

Elsewhere, lawmakers in Arkansas have approved a measure creating vaccine-mandate exemptions. Though the GOP governor hasn’t said whether he will sign it, it has prompted fears businesses will be forced to choose whether to break federal or state law.

“We are tying the hands of Arkansas businesses that want to make their own decision in how best to keep their people safe,” said Randy Zook, president of the Arkansas Chamber of Commerce. Some of the state’s largest companies, including Walmart and Tyson Foods, have required some or all employees get vaccinated.

Calls for special legislative sessions to counter vaccine mandates have been heard in states like Wyoming, Kansas and South Dakota, where Republican Gov. Kristi Noem is so far resisting calls to immediately consider a bill that would guarantee people could opt out.

“I hear from people almost daily who are going to lose their jobs, are living in fear,” said Republican state Rep. Scott Odenbach, who has clashed with Noem on the issue. “They shouldn’t have to choose between feeding their family and their own medical freedom.”

In Tennessee, a $500 million incentive deal to lure a Ford Motor Co. project could be undermined if GOP Gov. Bill Lee refuses to consider further loosening COVID-19 restrictions, including vaccine requirements, the powerful House speaker told a local radio station.

In Indiana, Republican Gov. Eric Holcomb is also resisting a push from within his party to ban workplace vaccine mandates.

Bills are being introduced or drafted elsewhere too, including swing states like Ohio and New Hampshire, where the Republican sponsor was elected House speaker after his predecessor died of COVID-19.

“We have made it clear that government mandates are not the path to successful vaccination rates and will only cause further division in this country,” Speaker Sherm Packard said last month.

In Utah, lawmakers have not taken action, but a record-setting crowd of over 600 people packed a legislative hearing room last week.

Rob Moore, CEO of Salt Lake City-based Big-D Construction, said he supports vaccines but has questions about the mandate rollout. He already has a worker shortage on his job sites, and he said employee surveys tell him that nearly 20% of his workers don’t want to get inoculated, so they would need to be tested weekly.

“That’s heavy on our mind right now. I don’t know if the federal government has thought through that all that well. The cost is going to be enormous,” he said.

In other sectors, vaccine requirements have gone smoothly. In Utah, the NBA’s Jazz is making its employees get vaccinated. It is also requiring fans at games to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test. So far, just a few ticket refunds have been needed, and the season opener is expected to be sold out by next week, said Jazz spokesman Frank Zang.

“I think there’s understanding of what’s at stake here, in terms of having a safe environment for people to enjoy sports and concerts and shows again,” he said.

While the conservative legislative push may not ultimately succeed in blocking the mandates, it could be a stumbling block and could prove to be another factor pushing the GOP further right.

Abbott’s order, for example, comes as he faces criticism from candidates on the right on COVID-19 policies. In Arizona, the attorney general has filed an early lawsuit as he runs in a crowded Republican primary for U.S. Senate.

Mike Meckler, a conservative activist from Texas who helped found the tea party a decade ago, said the mandate issue is firing up younger people. He summed up the mood among activists as: “If you’re not with us, then you’re with the fascists.”

Only about 56% of Americans have been fully vaccinated, far short of the level experts say is needed to keep the virus in check.

COVID-19 vaccinations have been given to more than 200 million Americans, and serious side effects have proved extremely rare. Experts say any risk from the vaccine is far lower than the danger posed by COVID-19.

Recent polling shows about half of Americans favor requiring workers in large companies to get vaccinated or tested weekly. But people are deeply split based on their political party, with about 6 in 10 Republicans opposing the mandate for employees, according to the survey by The Associated Press and NORC-Center for Public Affairs Research.

Even before Biden’s announcement, there were more than 100 bills in state legislatures seeking to limit vaccine mandates over the past year, said Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, a professor at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law. Most of those failed, but several states did impose some limits, many involving state agencies or schools.

Montana is the only state to pass a law banning private employers from requiring vaccines. The measure includes penalties for business owners of a $500 fine or prison. It is is facing two court challenges, from the Montana Medical Association and from a law firm that says the rule interferes with businesses’ decisions about how to provide a safe working environment.

As judges weigh some of these cases, much will depend on exactly how the nationwide rule is written. It will come through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which has broad power to regulate the workplace. It will be drafted as a temporary emergency rule.

“They will have to frame it in a way that makes a case this is workplace-related and not just an attempt to raise vaccination rates in the United States more broadly,” Reiss said. “I expect the main benefit to the mandate will be that it gives cover to companies that already want to do that.”

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AP writers David Koenig in Dallas; Andrew DeMillo in Little Rock, Arkansas; John Hanna in Topeka, Kansas; Stephen Groves in Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Zeke Miller in Washington; Holly Ramer in Concord, New Hampshire; Iris Samuels in Helena, Montana; and others around the country contributed to this report.

Lindsay Whitehurst, The Associated Press

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UAE says it intercepted 2 ballistic missiles over Abu Dhabi

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — The United Arab Emirates intercepted two ballistic missiles fired by Yemen’s Houthi rebels over the skies of Abu Dhabi early Monday, authorities said, the second attack in a week that targeted the Emirati capital.

The missile fire further escalates tensions across the Persian Gulf, which previously had seen a series of assaults near — but never indisputably on — Emirati soil. It comes during Yemen’s yearslong war and the collapse of Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers. American troops at Al-Dhafra Air Base in the capital took shelter in bunkers during the attack.

The attacks threaten the business-friendly, tourism-focused efforts of the Emirates, a federation of seven sheikhdoms on the Arabian Peninsula also home to Dubai. For years, the country has marketed itself as a safe corner of an otherwise-dangerous neighborhood.

Videos on social media showed the sky over Abu Dhabi light up before dawn Monday, with what appeared to be interceptor missiles racing into the clouds to target the incoming fire. Two explosions later thundered through the city. The videos corresponded to known features of Abu Dhabi.

The state-run WAM news agency said that missile fragments fell harmlessly over Abu Dhabi.

The Emirates is “ready to deal with any threats and … it takes all necessary measures to protect the state from all attacks,” WAM quoted the UAE Defense Ministry as saying.

The missile fire disrupted traffic into Abu Dhabi International Airport, home to the long-haul carrier Etihad, for about an hour after the attack.

Houthi military spokesman Yehia Sarei claimed the attack in a televised statement, saying the rebels targeted several sites in the UAE with both Zulfiqar ballistic missiles and drones, including Al-Dhafra Air Base. He warned the UAE would continue to be a target “as long as attacks on the Yemeni people continue.”

“We warn foreign companies and investors to leave the Emirates!” Sarei shouted from a podium. “This has become an unsafe country!”

The Dubai Financial Market closed down nearly 2% after the attack, with nearly every company trading down. The Abu Dhabi Securities Exchange also fell slightly.

At Al-Dhafra, which hosts both American and British forces, U.S. troops took shelter in bunkers during the attack, the U.S. Air Force’s Mideast command said. Al-Dhafra is home to the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing and has seen armed drones and F-35 stealth fighters stationed there.

“U.S. military forces successfully reacted to multiple inbound threats during an attack near Abu Dhabi,” the Air Force said, without elaborating. Videos on social media suggested outgoing interceptor fire came from the base.

The U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi later issued a security alert to Americans living in the UAE, warning citizens to “maintain a high level of security awareness.” The alert included instructions on how to cope with missile attacks, something unheard of previously in the UAE, a tourist destination home to skyscraper-studded Dubai and its long-haul carrier Emirates.

“If these types of attacks end up occurring on a weekly basis as they do in the Saudi Arabia … that will shift the perception of the threat landscape in the UAE,” said Torbjorn Soltvedt, an analyst with risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft. “The concern is now the contagion is going to be broader if we start to see attacks against civilian infrastructure.”

The Emirati Defense Ministry later tweeted out a black-and-white video that it said showed an F-16 striking the ballistic missile launcher used in the Abu Dhabi attack. The Defense Ministry identified the site as being near al-Jawaf, a Yemeni province around 1,400 kilometers (870 miles) southwest of Abu Dhabi.

The state-linked newspaper The National in Abu Dhabi identified the F-16 as Emirati, raising the question of how directly involved the UAE now is in the fighting after withdrawing most of its ground forces in 2019. The Emiratis continue to back militias on the ground, including the Giants Brigade, which has made advances against the Houthis in recent weeks.

The Zulfiqar ballistic missile, believed to have a range of 1,500 kilometers (930 miles), is modeled after the Iranian Qiam missile, according to a report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Iran denies directly arming the Houthis, though United Nations experts, Western nations and analysts have linked weapons in the rebels’ arsenal back to Tehran.

“It’s got the classic elements of the coercive strategy,” said Tim Wright, a research analyst at IISS. “In this case, it’s to make them back down on their support” of the Giants Brigade.

The attack came a week after Yemen’s Houthi rebels claimed an attack on the Emirati capital targeting the airport and an Abu Dhabi National Oil Co. fuel depot in the Mussafah neighborhood with drones and cruise missiles. That attack on the fuel depot killed three people and wounded six others.

New, high-resolution satellite photographs obtained by The Associated Press from Planet Labs PBC showed repair work still ongoing at the fuel depot Saturday. Emirati officials have not released images of the attacked sites, nor allowed journalists to see them.

In recent days, a Saudi-led coalition that the UAE backs unleashed punishing airstrikes targeting Yemen, knocking the Arab world’s poorest country off the internet and killing over 80 people at a detention center.

The Houthis had threaten to take revenge against the Emirates and Saudi Arabia over those attacks. On Sunday, the Saudi-led coalition said a Houthi-launched ballistic missile landed in an industrial area in Jizan, Saudi Arabia. The missile tore a deep crater in the ground, television footage showed, and slightly wounded two foreigners of Bangladeshi and Sudanese nationality.

The hard-line Iranian daily newspaper Kayhan, whose editor-in-chief was appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, just Sunday published a front-page article quoting Houthi officials that the UAE would be attacked again with a headline: “Evacuate Emirati commercial towers.”

The newspaper in 2017 had faced a two-day publication ban after it ran a headline saying Dubai was the “next target” for the Houthis.

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Associated Press writers Isabel DeBre, Malak Harb and Lujain Jo in Dubai, Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran, and Samy Magdy in Cairo contributed to this report.

Jon Gambrell, The Associated Press

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National

Boy killed in Brampton fire called 911 to report that he was trapped

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BRAMPTON, Ont. — The mayor of Brampton, Ont., says one of the three boys killed in a house fire Thursday called 911 to report the blaze, but firefighters couldn’t get there in time to save the children.

Patrick Brown says the boy told the emergency dispatcher that he was stuck in the house.

Brown says it only took six minutes for fire trucks to reach the burning house, but by then, the home was fully engulfed in flames.

The boys, who have not been publicly named, but who were aged nine, 12, and 15, died after being taken to hospital.

The local fire department and Office of the Fire Marshal are investigating.

Peel Police Const. Akhil Mooken said Thursday that a mother left her home that morning to drop a younger child off at school, and returned to find the house engulfed in flames.

It’s one of five fatal fires across Ontario that have together claimed 15 lives so far this month.

The Office of the Fire Marshal, which is tasked with investigating such fires in the province, said the numbers of both fatal fires and deaths have dipped compared to January of last year, but there are significantly more deaths than in January 2020.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 21, 2022.

The Canadian Press

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