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Saturday, October 23, 2021

Biden seeks to go big, fast and alone on COVID relief

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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden laid out his case Friday for moving fast and without Republicans, if necessary, to pass $1.9 trillion in coronavirus relief, armed with new signs of economic strain brought on by the continuing pandemic.

The stakes for the county and economy were amplified on Friday morning by the release of the government's jobs report for January, which showed that hiring had stalled to a pace that could hinder a return to full employment for several years. Some 406,000 people left the labour force last month as deaths from the pandemic have surged.

“A lot of folks are losing hope,” Biden said in a speech at the White House. “I believe the American people are looking right now to their government for help, to do our job, to not let them down. So I’m going to act. I’m going to act fast. I’d like to be doing it with the support of Republicans ... they’re just not willing to go as far as I think we have to go.”

The jobs report landed shortly after Senate Democrats cast a decisive vote to muscle the COVID relief plan through the chamber without Republican support, a step toward final approval next month. Vice-President Kamala Harris cast the tie-breaking vote in the Senate, her first.

Biden's speech solidified a marked shift in tone and strategy for a president who entered the White House pledging bipartisanship and met on Monday with 10 Republican senators pushing a slimmed-down $618 billion alternative. Biden concluded in his Friday speech that aid at that level would only prolong the economic pain.

Senate Democrats applauded after Harris announced the chamber's 51-50 vote on the budget measure at around 5:30 a.m. The action came after a grueling all-night session, where senators voted on amendments that could define the contours of the eventual COVID-19 aid bill.

Following Senate approval, the House passed the measure 219-209 on Friday afternoon, also without a Republican vote. The coronavirus aid package can now work its way through congressional committees with the goal of finalizing additional relief by mid-March, when extra unemployment assistance and other pandemic aid expires. It’s an aggressive timeline that will test the ability of the new administration and Congress to deliver.

“We have been focused like a laser on getting this done,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said after leading Democrats in the House met with Biden on Friday. “We hope to be able to put vaccines in people's arms, money in people’s pockets, children safely in schools and workers in their jobs. That’s what we are doing now.”

The push for stimulus comes amid new signs of a weakening U.S. economy. Employers added just 49,000 jobs in January, after cutting 227,000 jobs in December, the Labor Department said Friday. Restaurants, retailers, manufacturers and even the health care sector shed workers last month, meaning that private employers accounted for a meagre gain of 6,000 jobs last month.

“At that rate, it’s going to take 10 years until we hit full employment,” Biden said during his Oval Office meeting with House Democrats. “That’s not hyperbole. That’s a fact.”

The unemployment rate fell to 6.3% from 6.7%, but there was a decline in the number of people who were either working or looking for a job in a sign that people are dropping out of the labour force. The U.S. economy is 9.9 million jobs shy of its pre-pandemic level.

Biden, who has been meeting with lawmakers in recent days to discuss the package, welcomed the leaders of House committees who will be assembling the bill under the budget process known as “reconciliation.” Money for vaccine distributions, direct payments to households, school reopenings and business aid are at stake.

The size of the package has been a concern for several Republican lawmakers and some economists. Larry Summers, a former treasury secretary during the Clinton administration, said in a column for The Washington Post that the $1.9 trillion package was three times larger than the projected economic shortfall. A separate analysis by the Penn Wharton Budget Model found the plan would do little to boost growth relative to its size.

The marathon Senate session brought test votes on several Democratic priorities, including a $15 minimum wage. The Senate by voice vote adopted an amendment from Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, opposed to raising the wage during the pandemic. Ernst said a wage hike at this time would be “devastating” for small businesses.

The Senate also passed an amendment 99-1 that would prevent the $1,400 in direct checks in Biden’s proposal from going to “upper-income taxpayers.” But the measure, led by Sens. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia, is ultimately symbolic and nonbinding and does not specify at what level a person qualifies as upper income.

And while Biden seemed willing to break with Republicans in his speech, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters afterward that the budget process approved by the Senate still allows for bipartisanship.

“The process enables for time for negotiations through committee work,” Psaki said. “We certainly are hopeful that there will be opportunities for amendments from Republicans, amendments from others across the board to be a part of this process moving forward.”

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Associated Press writers Zeke Miller and Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.

Josh Boak, The Associated Press

Oscar winner, ‘Sound of Music’ star Christopher Plummer dies

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NEW YORK — Christopher Plummer, the dashing award-winning actor who played Captain von Trapp in the film “The Sound of Music” and at 82 became the oldest Academy Award acting winner in history, has died. He was 91.

Plummer died Friday morning at his home in Connecticut with his wife, Elaine Taylor, by his side, said Lou Pitt, his longtime friend and manager.

Over more than 50 years in the industry, Plummer enjoyed varied roles ranging from the film “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” to the voice of the villain in 2009's “Up” and as a canny lawyer in Broadway’s “Inherit the Wind.” In 2019 he starred as murdered mystery novelist in Rian Johnson’s whodunnit “Knives Out” and in the TV suspense drama series “Departure.”

But it was opposite Julie Andrews as von Trapp in 1965 that made him a star. He played an Austrian captain who must flee the country with his folk-singing family to escape service in the Nazi navy, a role he lamented was “humourless and one-dimensional.” Plummer spent the rest of his life referring to the film as “The Sound of Mucus” or “S&M.”

“We tried so hard to put humour into it,” he told The Associated Press in 2007. “It was almost impossible. It was just agony to try to make that guy not a cardboard figure.”

A GIF of the captain ripping a Nazi flag became a popular meme in recent years, and gave Plummer a new does of fame.

The role catapulted Plummer to stardom, but he never took to leading men parts, despite his silver hair, good looks and ever-so-slight English accent. He preferred character parts, considering them more meaty. His memoir in 2012 was titled "In Spite of Myself."

Plummer had a remarkable film renaissance late in life, which began with his acclaimed performance as Mike Wallace in Michael Mann’s 1999 film “The Insider,” continued in films such as 2001’s “A Beautiful Mind” and 2009's “The Last Station,” in which he played a deteriorating Tolstoy and was nominated for an Oscar.

“He was a mighty force both as Man and Actor," Helen Mirren, his co-star in “The Last Station,” said in a statement Friday. “He was fearless, energetic, courageous, knowledgeable, professional and a monument to what an actor can be.”

In 2012, Plummer won a supporting actor Oscar for his role in “Beginners” as Hal Fields, a museum director who becomes openly gay after his wife of 44 years dies. His loving, final relationship becomes an inspiration for his son, who struggles with his father’s death and how to find intimacy in a new relationship.

“Too many people in the world are unhappy with their lot. And then they retire and they become vegetables. I think retirement in any profession is death, so I’m determined to keep crackin’,” he told AP in 2011.

Plummer in 2017 replaced Kevin Spacey as J. Paul Getty in “All the Money in the World” just six weeks before the film was set to hit theatres. That choice that was officially validated in the best possible way for the film — a supporting Oscar nomination for Plummer, his third. “I was just hopeful that at my age, my memory would serve me,” he said at the time. “I had to learn my lines very quickly.”

Director Ridley Scott said he had “a wonderful experience” with Plummer on the film. “What a guy. What a talent. What a life," Scott said in a statement.

There were fallow periods in his career — a “Pink Panther” movie here, a “Dracula 2000? there and even a “Star Trek” — as a Klingon, no less. But Plummer had other reasons than the scripts in mind.

“For a long time, I accepted parts that took me to attractive places in the world. Rather than shooting in the Bronx, I would rather go to the south of France, crazed creature than I am,” he told AP in 2007. “And so I sacrificed a lot of my career for nicer hotels and more attractive beaches.”

The Canadian-born actor performed most of the major Shakespeare roles, including Hamlet, Iago, Othello, Prospero, Henry V and a staggering “King Lear” at Lincoln Center in 2004. He was frequent star at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada.

“I’ve become simpler and simpler with playing Shakespeare,” he said in 2007. “I’m not as extravagant as I used to be. I don’t listen to my voice so much anymore. All the pitfalls of playing the classics — you can fall in love with yourself.”

He won two Tony Awards. The first was in 1974 for best actor in a musical for playing the title role in “Cyrano” and his second in 1997 for his portrayal of John Barrymore in “Barrymore.” He also won two Emmys.

Plummer was born Arthur Christopher Orme Plummer in Toronto. His maternal great-grandfather was former Canadian Prime Minister Sir John Abbott. His parents divorced shortly after his birth and he was raised by his mother and aunts.

Plummer began his career on stage and in radio in Canada in the 1940s and made his Broadway debut in 1954 in “The Starcross Story.” While still a relative unknown, he was cast as Hamlet in a 1963 performance co-starring Robert Shaw and Michael Caine. It was taped by the BBC at Elsinore Castle in Denmark, where the play is set, and released in 1964. It won an Emmy.

Plummer married Tony-winning actress Tammy Grimes in 1956, and fathered his only child, actress Amanda Plummer, in 1957. Like both her parents, she also won a Tony, in 1982 for “Agnes of God.” (Grimes won two Tonys, for “Private Lives” and “The Unsinkable Molly Brown.”)

Plummer and Grimes divorced in 1960. A five-year marriage to Patricia Lewis ended in 1967. Plummer married his third wife, dancer Taylor, in 1970, and credited her with helping him overcome a drinking problem.

He was given Canada’s highest civilian honour when he was invested as Companion of the Order of Canada by Queen Elizabeth II in 1968, and was inducted into the American Theatre’s Hall of Fame in 1986.

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AP Film Writers Lindsey Bahr and Jake Coyle in New York and AP Entertainment Writer Andrew Dalton in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits

Mark Kennedy, The Associated Press

The Latest: NFL offers league’s 30 stadiums for vaccinations

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TAMPA, Fla. — The NFL is telling the federal government it will make the remaining of the league’s 30 stadiums available for COVID-19 vaccination sites.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is making the offer to President Joe Biden in a letter obtained by The Associated Press. There are already seven NFL stadiums serving as vaccine sites. They are in Arizona, Atlanta, Baltimore, Carolina, Houston, Miami and New England. Goodell says stadiums can get prepared quickly because of previous use as virus testing centres and election sites.

Goodell says the offer on vaccination sites was made in conjunction with the NFL inviting 7,500 vaccinated health care workers to attend the Super Bowl for free Sunday when Tampa Bay hosts Kansas City.

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THE VIRUS OUTBREAK:

Biden administration seeks to go big, fast and alone on COVID relief. Pentagon OKs troops to assist with vaccines. Spain says 1st case of Brazilian variant in Madrid. “Hug tent" provides safe space to embrace in Colorado. Coronavirus cases drop at US homes for elderly.

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Follow all of AP’s pandemic coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic, https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-vaccine and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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HERE’S WHAT ELSE IS HAPPENING:

NEW ORLEANS — New Orleans bars will be shut down, even for takeout service, throughout next week’s Mardi Gras weekend.

That’s usually among the busiest times of the year, but Mayor LaToya Cantrell says it is an attempt to slow the spread of coronavirus.

Many bars already were closed to indoor service. Cantrell’s announcement Friday means they can’t sell drinks to go -- a popular option year-round and especially during Mardi Gras. The city is also expanding the closure order to include bars with “conditional” food permits that allowed them to operate as restaurants during various pandemic shutdowns.

The bar shutdown begins next Friday and runs through Feb. 16.

Cantrell and other city officials say businesses violating the rules face on-the-spot shutdowns and loss of licenses.

“If by chance you have an aversion to wearing a mask, stay where you’re at,” says City Council member Jay Banks, who knows people who have died from COVID-19. “If your expectation is the Mardi Gras of the past, don’t waste your money.”

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MADRID — The Spanish Health Ministry has decided not to administer the AstraZeneca-Oxford University vaccine to people over 55 years.

The ministry said Friday the vaccine, the first doses of which are to arrive in Spain this weekend, will be used for health care workers and assistants who are not on the front line.

Several other European countries have already placed age restrictions on the vaccine because of a lack of data regarding its efficacy in older age groups.

Spain is currently using the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines for residents and workers in nursing homes. It has so far administered 1.98 million vaccine doses, with more than 680,000 people having received the required two doses.

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BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — Slovakia’s Prime Minister Igor Matovic says a highly contagious variant of the coronavirus has become dominant in the country.

The Slovak authorities sequenced all samples that tested positive across the country on Wednesday, with the fast-spreading variant originally found in Britain detected in 74%.

Health Minister Marek Krajci has called it “an unbelievable high number.” The government plan to partly reopen schools next week has been cancelled for the hardest hit counties.

Krajci says the first 20,000 AstraZeneca vaccines expected to arrive next week will be used for elementary school teachers. The country of 5.4 million has registered 5,050 confirmed deaths.

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BEIRUT — Lebanon’s Health Ministry approved the emergency use of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, opening the way for a vaccination campaign later this month.

Lebanon’s interior minister says the country will begin easing the nearly one-month lockdown in four stages next week. The announcement by minister Mohamed Fehmi came as the nation registered a new daily record of 98 deaths.

Fehmi says the lockdown easing starts Monday, but a nationwide curfew will remain in place for two more weeks. Supermarkets and groceries and businesses related to agriculture, poultry, meat and milk production can open first.

Lebanon, a country of six million people including 1 million Syrian refugees, registered 3,071 new cases and raised the total to more than 315,000. The Health Ministry has registered 3,495 total confirmed deaths.

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MADRID — Spain has reported its first case of the Brazilian variant in a passenger arriving at Madrid airport.

The Madrid regional health department said Friday the 44-year-old man arrived from Brazil on Jan. 29 and had a negative PCR document but tested positive in an antibody test at the airport. He was taken to a city hospital, which later confirmed the variant.

Spain this week began tightening restrictions on flights from Brazil and South Africa owing to variants detected in those countries. It already has similar restrictions with Britain.

The 14-day average infection rate per 100,000 population continued to ease, dropping to 750 on Friday from 783 on Thursday. ICU bed occupancy by coronavirus patients remains at 44%.

On Friday, Spain reported 28,565 new coronavirus cases, resuming a downward trend. Spain has registered 2.9 million cases and a confirmed death toll of 61,386.

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LISBON, Portugal — Portugal has set a new daily record for COVID-19 patients requiring intensive care with 904 patients on Friday.

The Austrian government offered to take in five COVID-19 patients and five non-COVID patients to relieve Portuguese hospitals. The Portuguese government says it was considering the offer. Earlier this week, a German army medical team arrived in Lisbon to open eight ICU beds.

Overall, Friday was the fourth day in a row that total hospitalizations were lower, at 6,412.

Health authorities on Friday reported 234 deaths, bringing the country’s total to 9,920. The nearly 14,000 new cases was the second-highest during the pandemic, increasing the total to more than 755,000 confirmed cases

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WASHINGTON — The White House says the Pentagon will deploy troops to assist Americans getting vaccinated against COVID-19.

Coronavirus senior adviser Andy Slavitt announced Friday that Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin has approved a request for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It means about 1,000 active duty military personnel will deploy to help state vaccination centres.

President Joe Biden has called for setting up 100 mass vaccination centres around the country within a month. Two are opening in California, and Slavitt says military personnel will arrive at those centres in a little over a week.

Slavitt says support from the military will support vaccination sites, helping administer thousands of shots a day. Currently about 6.9 million Americans have received the full two-dose regimen required to get maximum protection from the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Tensions are running high in some state capitols over coronavirus precautions after this year’s legislative sessions began with an outbreak of COVID-19 cases.

The Associated Press tally shows at least 40 state lawmakers have already contracted the coronavirus in 2021. More than 330 state lawmakers have contracted the virus since the start of the pandemic.

Most of the tensions are in Republican-controlled statehouses, where Democrats have been raising concerns about GOP colleagues who don’t wear masks or practice social distancing.

The Missouri Capitol has had at least 10 coronavirus cases among lawmakers in 2021. Some lawmakers have refused to say whether they contracted the virus and aren’t required to tell legislative administrators.

Missouri’s legislature has no mask requirement, no formal contact tracing and no ability for lawmakers to vote remotely. Social distancing also is difficult in the 163-member House chamber where desks are packed tightly together.

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PARIS — French President Emmanuel Macron says the European Union has faced difficulties in the rollout of the vaccination program.

Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, speaking in a joint news conference via video, both reaffirmed they are fully supporting the EU vaccine purchase process.

Macron says the EU hadn’t anticipated “such rapid success” of the messenger RNA vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna that mostly produced in the United States.

Both vaccines have been the first to be approved in the EU. The AstraZeneca vaccine was authorized last week.

Macron says the EU, which has ordered a supply of about 2.3 billion vaccines, has taken steps to boost production on its soil and accelerate vaccinations.

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NEW YORK -- Yankee Stadium is open as a COVID-19 vaccination site and attracting lines of people from surrounding neighbourhoods in the Bronx.

The megasite is being restricted to Bronx residents to boost vaccination rates in the city borough that has the highest percentage of positive coronavirus test results. The New York Yankees’ home opened for appointments for qualified residents early Friday under damp skies.

The site run jointly by the city and state expects to handle 15,000 people during its first week. It will be open seven days a week.

New York state leads the country with more than 44,000 confirmed coronavirus deaths.

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WASHINGTON — The White House says President Joe Biden is using the Defence Production Act to help bolster vaccine production, at-home coronavirus testing kits and surgical gloves.

Tim Manning, the White House’s COVID-19 supply co-ordinator, says the administration will help Pfizer clear a bottleneck around capabilities with vaccine production by giving the drugmaker first priority to needed supplies.

Manning says the U.S. is also investing in six manufacturers to develop at-home and point-of-care tests for the coronavirus, with the goal of producing 60 million tests by the end of the summer.

Manning says, “The country is well behind where we need to be in testing,” and the new contracts will help boost supply.

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LONDON — The developers of AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine say the shot appears to work against the variant detected in Britain late last year.

It’s similar to previously reported results by other vaccine manufacturers, including Pfizer and Moderna.

Andrew Pollard of Oxford University, which helped develop the AstraZeneca vaccine, says the shot also appears to reduce the amount of virus in people infected with COVID-19. That could potentially slow the disease’s spread. The research hasn’t yet been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

Sarah Gilbert of Oxford says it should be straightforward to tweak their vaccine to account for the variant detected in the U.K. She says vaccine manufacturers could quickly insert a new gene sequence from the variant into the virus needed to make the vaccine. Gilbert adds scientists are already in talks with regulatory agencies about how they might quickly authorize any new vaccine. It’s a similar process for seasonal flu vaccines.

Also, researchers are studying the potential effectiveness of the vaccine against the variant that arose in South Africa.

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LONDON — The UK government says it will support a German biopharmaceutical company’s effort to develop vaccines to combat new variants of the coronavirus.

Tuebingen, Germany-based CureVac will produce the vaccines in the U.K. and supply the government with 50 million doses of the shots if they gain regulatory approval. It comes as public health officials around the world raise concerns about new virus variants that are possibly more contagious or resistant to existing vaccines. While viruses mutate constantly, most of the changes cause little concern. But scientists are closely tracking these mutations to make sure they quickly identify variants of concern.

Earlier this week, drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline said it would invest in CureVac for the development of new vaccines targeting emerging variants, using its messenger RNA technology to attack the disease. GSK said it plans to invest 150 million euros ($181 million) in the project.

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ATHENS, Greece — Greece has approved the use of the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine for use in people under 65.

The health ministry says the country’s National Vaccination Committee unanimously approved the vaccine’s use for people 18 to 64 and recommended a 12-week interval between the first and second doses.

The committee says the guidance could be amended as more data on the vaccine becomes available.

Vaccinations with the AstraZeneca vaccine are expected to begin in Greece after Feb. 12, according to the secretary general of primary healthcare Marios Themistokleous.

Greece, a country of 11 million people, is currently vaccinating those 80 and over, as well as health care workers. A total of 359,723 shots have been administered, with 68,464 people having received both doses of the vaccine.

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PARIS — France is urging people to use the option of working from home.

Labor Minister Elisabeth Borne told Bleu radio on Friday as many as 2.5 million workers who could “easily work from home” are going to the office instead. “If your job can be done remotely, you should be working remotely five days a week.”

The government has been urging work from home for those professions that allow it since the coronavirus resurged in October. But unlike during France’s first lockdown last spring, many offices have stayed open.

The government plans to step up inspections of companies to ensure that anyone able to work from home is doing so.

France has imposed 12-hour-a-day nationwide curfew but has stopped short of imposing a third lockdown because current virus infections have stabilized, although cases remain high.

France has registered 3.3 million cases and 78,000 confirmed deaths, the third highest in Europe and seventh globally.

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The Associated Press

Activists complain of weakened voting security standard

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BOSTON — Leaders of the federal agency overseeing election administration have quietly weakened a key element of proposed security standards for voting systems, raising concern among voting-integrity experts that many such systems will remain vulnerable to hacking.

The Election Assistance Commission is poised to approve its first new security standards in 15 years after an arduous process involving multiple technical and elections community bodies and open hearings. But ahead of a scheduled Feb. 10 ratification vote by commissioners, the EAC leadership tweaked the draft standards to remove a requirement that would have banned wireless modems and chips from voting machines as a condition for federal certification.

The mere presence of such wireless hardware poses unnecessary risks for tampering that could alter data or programs on election systems, say computer security specialists and activists, some of whom have long complained than the EAC bends too easily to industry pressure.

Agency leaders argue that overall, the revised guidelines represent a major security improvement. They stress that the rules require manufacturers to disable wireless functions present in any machines, although the wireless hardware can remain.

In a Feb. 3 letter to the agency, computer scientists and voting integrity activists say the change “profoundly weakens voting system security and will introduce very real opportunities to remotely attack election systems.” They demand the wireless hardware ban be restored.

“They’re trying to do an end run to avoid scrutiny by the public and Congress,” said Susan Greenhalgh, election security co-ordinator for Free Speech for The People, a nonpartisan non-profit, accusing agency leaders of bowing to industry pressure.

Seven members of the commission’s 35-member advisory board including its chair, Michael Yaki, wrote EAC leadership to express dismay that the standards were “substantially altered” from what they approved in June. They asked that the Feb. 10 vote be postponed. At the very least, the wrote, they deserve an explanation why the draft standards “backtracked so drastically on a critical security issue.”

Yaki said he was puzzled by the commission’s move because “the mantra adopted by pretty much the entire cyber community has been to take radios or things that can be communicated via wireless out of the equation.”

A modem ban is especially important because millions of Americans continue to believe former President Donald Trump’s unfounded claims that voting equipment was somehow manipulated to rob him of re-election in November, said Yaki. “You don’t want to give QAnon enthusiasts or the ‘Stop the Steal' people any reason to think that our our voting infrastructure is less than perfect.”

EAC Chair Benjamin Hovland noted that the agency relied on experts with the National Institute of Standards and Technology to help draft the guidelines. He said objections to the change should not be allowed to hold up the new rules' significant cybersecurity improvements, including a requirement that voting systems be subjected to break-in attempts by white-hat hackers known as “penetration testing” to test their defences.

The ban on wireless hardware in voting machines would force vendors who currently build systems with off-the-shelf components to rely on more expensive custom-built hardware, Hovland said, which could hurt competition in an industry already dominated by a trio of companies. He also argued that the guidelines are voluntary, although many state laws are predicated on them.

“You have people putting their own personal agenda, putting themselves before the health of our democracy,” Hovland said, adding that elections officials are among those supporting the change. “It’s so small-sighted the way some people have been approaching this.”

Hovland stressed that the amended guidelines say all wireless capability must be disabled in voting equipment. But computer experts say that if the hardware is present, the software that activates it can be introduced. And the threat is not just from malign actors but also from the vendors and their clients, who could enable the wireless capability for maintenance purposes then forget to turn it off, leaving machines vulnerable.

Still, one member of the NIST-led technical committee, Rice University computer scientist Dan Wallach, said that while the changes came as a surprise, they don't seem “catastrophic." Objections shouldn't hold up adoption of the new guidelines, he said.

California, Colorado, New York and Texas already ban wireless modems in their voting equipment. The standards being updated, known as the Voluntary Voting System Guidelines, are used by 38 states either as a benchmark or to define some aspect of equipment testing and certification. In 12 states, voting equipment certification is fully governed by the guidelines.

In 2015, Virginia decertified and scrapped a voting machine called the WINVote after determining that it could be wirelessly accessed and manipulated.

Created to modernize voting technology following the “hanging chad” debacle in the 2000 presidential election, the Election Assistance Committee has never had much authority. That's partly because voting administration is run individually by the 50 states and territories.

But after Russian military hackers meddled in the 2016 election in Trump’s favour, the nation’s voting equipment was declared critical infrastructure and Democrats in Congress have attempted to exert greater federal control to improve security.

Republicans, however, have stymied attempts at election security reform in the Senate. While the most unreliable voting machines — touchscreens with no paper ballots to recount — have largely been scrapped, privately held equipment vendors continues to sell proprietary systems that computer scientists say remains vulnerable to hacking. Experts are pushing for universal use of hand-marked paper ballots and better audits to bolster confidence in election results.

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Associated Press writer Christina A. Cassidy contributed from Atlanta.

Frank Bajak, The Associated Press

Reopening debate testing Biden’s ties with teachers unions

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The increasingly heated school reopening debate is forcing President Joe Biden to balance two priorities: getting children back into the classroom and preserving the support of powerful labour groups that helped him get elected.

Following weeks of standoff in some cities and states where teachers unions are demanding vaccines as a condition of reopening, the issue came to a head Wednesday when Dr. Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said vaccination of teachers “is not a prerequisite for safe reopening of schools.”

But in a juggling of positions, the White House declined to back Walensky, saying she was speaking “in her personal capacity." Asked Friday about her earlier comments, Walensky punted.

So far, it doesn't appear that the issue is driving a wedge between Biden and the unions. Even those taking a hard line on vaccines say shots would not be required if schools were taking other steps to make buildings safe.

Walensky on Wednesday cited CDC data showing that social distancing and wearing a mask significantly reduce the spread of the virus in school settings. Just a week earlier, the agency issued a study similarly finding that, with mask wearing and other precautions, it’s generally safe to hold in-person schooling.

To many Republicans and some on the left, Walensky's comment was seen as an endorsement to reopen schools immediately. Some believed it discredited teachers unions that have demanded vaccines before returning to in-person instruction.

Unions, however, largely met it with a shrug. With the right mix of safety measures in places, teachers unions generally agree the vaccines aren't a condition for reopening. The problem is that many schools are far behind on ventilation updates and other important measures recommended by health officials, said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.

“Vaccinations go from a priority to essential if you can’t do some of these basic mitigation strategies,” Weingarten said. “Rather than keep these schools closed for months, why not vaccinate teachers more quickly?”

Even among state and local unions that have taken a harder line on vaccinations, Walensky's comment drew little fire. The California Teachers Association is pushing for all teachers to be vaccinated but it's largely because many schools “aren’t anywhere close” to making buildings safe through other methods, said Claudia Briggs, a union spokesperson.

Briggs applauded the Biden administration's response, saying the president has made clear that teacher safety is of “paramount importance." She cited his proposal for $130 billion in additional pandemic relief to help schools reopen.

In Chicago, vaccinations have been a major sticking point between the city and the teachers union as they work to negotiate a return to the classroom. At a Friday news conference held by the Chicago Teachers Union, special education teacher Dawn Kelly said teachers want to return but feel they aren't being protected.

“We want to come back to school. I miss my babies, I want to hug my students, I want to sit on the carpet and do read-alongs, but right now it’s just not safe,” she said.

Despite the seemingly definitive statement from the CDC, the White House has declined to take a firm stance on teacher vaccinations. Asked about it on Thursday, Biden press secretary Jen Psaki said Walensky was speaking "in her personal capacity" and that the White House would await updated school guidance that Biden has requested from the CDC.

“Obviously she’s the head of the CDC, but we’re going to wait for the final guidance to come out so we can use that as a guide for schools around the country,” Psaki said.

Biden has pledged to reopen most of the nation’s K-8 schools within his first 100 days in office, a goal he says is possible if Congress approves his pandemic rescue plan and if states prioritize teachers in vaccine rollouts. In many states, teachers are being included early in a second wave of shots.

But the plan has drawn fire from critics who say Biden is cowing to teachers unions who see him as an ally.

Both of the nation’s two major teachers unions endorsed Biden for president, including the National Education Association, whose 3 million members include first lady Jill Biden, who is a longtime community college professor.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said efforts to get students back in the classroom have been blocked by “rich, powerful unions that donate huge sums to Democrats and get a stranglehold over education in many communities.”

“An administration that puts facts and science first would be conducting a full-court press to open schools,” he said on the Senate floor Wednesday.

Some on the left have issued similar rebukes, including former New York Mayor and Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg, who said on MSNBC that Biden must “stand up” to teachers unions and force a return to the classroom.

In California, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom cited Walensky’s comment as evidence that it’s safe to reopen schools before all teachers get vaccines. He has been pressing schools to reopen for weeks, and so far it appears the CDC's finding has done little to persuade teachers to return.

Vaccine shortages and slow rollouts have jeopardized Biden's reopening plan as more schools delay in-person instruction. Leaders in some districts have expressed doubt that they will bring all students back for in-person instruction until next school year.

The Biden administration says it hopes to accelerate openings by boosting funding and helping schools implement virus testing. Miguel Cardona, Biden’s pick for education secretary, has said he's prepared to help reopen schools safely even if teachers have not all been vaccinated.

Weingarten, of the AFT, said Biden’s proposed pandemic relief would go far getting schools opened. But even if Congress approves it, she said, it could be months before schools receive it and make necessary fixes. Instead of scapegoating teachers, though, she said blame should fall to the Trump administration for failing to deliver vaccines sooner and to districts that have failed to update buildings for years.

“There’s not a lot of trust for districts because we’ve had years and years of austerity budgets, and we know that the facilities are not what they should be,” she said. “It shouldn’t take a pandemic to fix ventilation systems.”

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Associated Press writer Don Babwin contributed to this report.

Collin Binkley, The Associated Press

Bayern leaves for Club World Cup after beating Hertha 1-0

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BERLIN — A deflected effort from Kingsley Coman helped Bayern Munich eke out a hard-fought 1-0 victory at Hertha Berlin in the Bundesliga on Friday.

Bayern stretched its winning run in the league to five games, while Hertha remained in relegation trouble with just one point from its last six games.

New signings Sami Khedira and Nemanja Radonjic went on in the second half to make their Hertha debuts, but the home side was left to rue a late missed chance from Matheus Cunha when he had only Manuel Neuer to beat. The Brazilian’s chip over the Bayern goalkeeper drifted to the right of the unguarded net and wide.

Robert Lewandowski missed a penalty before Coman broke the deadlock in the 21st.

Kickoff was brought forward by half an hour to facilitate Bayern’s departure for Qatar, where it has a Club World Cup semifinal against Egyptian champion Al Ahly on Monday.

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More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Ciarán Fahey on Twitter: https://twitter.com/cfaheyAP

CiaráN Fahey, The Associated Press

Josh Evans, Titans tackle in 2000 Super Bowl, dies at 48

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ATLANTA — Josh Evans, a defensive tackle who started for the Tennessee Titans in the 2000 Super Bowl, has died. Evans was 48.

Evans died Thursday night in Fayetteville, Georgia, one year after he was diagnosed with kidney cancer. His death was confirmed to The Associated Press by Willie Watkins Funeral Home in Riverdale, Georgia, which is handling arrangements.

Evans, a native of Langdale, Alabama, retired in 2005 following a nine-year career, including six seasons with the Houston Oilers and Tennessee Titans. He played his final three seasons with the New York Jets.

“His fight against cancer was one of courage and strength and his teammates were by his side encouraging him throughout that fight,” Titans controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk in a statement released by the team. “We will remember his big personality and even bigger smile.”

Evans had 21 1/2 sacks and started 53 of 94 games in his career.

He started 10 games and had 3 1/2 sacks as the 1999 Titans advanced to the Super Bowl in Atlanta, where they lost to the Rams. He had five tackles in the 23-16 Super Bowl loss.

Evans sacked Jacksonville quarterback Mark Brunell for a safety in the 33-14 AFC title game victory over the Jaguars.

Evans set a career high with six sacks for the Jets in 2002.

While with the Jets, Evans was suspended indefinitely by the NFL in 2003 for violating the league's substance-abuse policy for a third time. He missed the first four games in 1999 with Tennessee following his first violation and was suspended for the entire 2000 season.

The Titans honoured Evans as the 12th Titan in their game against Houston on Oct. 18, 2020.

He made the Oilers as an undrafted rookie from UAB in 1995. He was named to the UAB Athletics Hall of Fame in 2020.

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More AP NFL: https://apnews.com/NFL and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL

The Associated Press

South Korea’s trade minister drops bid to become WTO chief

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SEOUL, Korea, Republic Of — South Korea’s top trade official is dropping her bid to become the next director-general of the World Trade Organization, making it likely the job will go to former Nigerian finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. She would become the first woman to lead the organization.

South Korea’s Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy said in a statement Friday that its minister for trade, Yoo Myung-hee, will soon tell the WTO she is withdrawing her candidacy.

The WTO, which makes world trade rules, announced in October that Yoo and Okonjo-Iweala were the two finalists to become its next director-general, ensuring a woman will fill the top job for the first time. The WTO had been expected to announce a winner before the end of 2020, but the process dragged on because of disagreements between member states over the candidates, the South Korean ministry said.

While it appeared Okonjo-Iweala had broader support, the WTO operates by consensus, which means that any single member country can block decisions.

The South Korean ministry said Yoo discussed her candidacy with officials from the United States and other WTO member states before deciding to withdraw over “comprehensive” considerations.

The Trump administration had opposed Okonjo-Iweala's candidacy. But President Joe Biden's Office of the Trade Representative issued a statement Friday supporting her: “She is widely respected for her effective leadership and has proven experience managing a large international organization with a diverse membership.''

The previous WTO director-general, Roberto Azevedo of Brazil, made a surprise announcement in May last year that he would leave the job a year early, citing a “personal decision.” He left without a successor at the end of August.

The Geneva-based WTO, which was created in 1995 out of the former General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, has never had a woman or African as its leader.

The Associated Press

AP sources: Alabama senator has indicated he won’t run again

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MONTGOMERY, Ala. — U.S. Sen. Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, the Senate’s fourth most senior member, has indicated to confidantes that he does not intend to run for reelection next year — prompting some Republicans to urge the powerful, establishment politician to reconsider, even as potential replacements prepare to run for his seat.

The senator in recent weeks told one close Alabama ally that he was not planning on running in 2022 for what would be his seventh term, according to the ally, who was not authorized to discuss the matter and spoke with The Associated Press on condition of anonymity. The person said some in the state were still trying to get Shelby to change his mind out of concern about losing clout and worries that the senator might be replaced by a fringe candidate who would not be as effective.

Shelby spokeswoman Blair Taylor said the senator has not made a decision, “but there will likely be an announcement forthcoming in the next few weeks.”

A titan of Alabama politics, the 86-year-old politician has spent 42 years in Washington, serving first in the House and the Senate. His stepping down would leave a power void for the region. It would also set off a free-for-all primary in a national party deeply divided between traditional Republicans like Shelby and those who model themselves on former President Donald Trump.

Shelby was elected to the Senate in 1986 as a conservative Democrat during the party’s waning days of power in the Deep South, but he switched to the GOP in 1994. He's spent the last two years as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, before Democrats gained control of the chamber. All along he has used his influence to benefit the state's interests, particularly universities, ports and military manufacturers. He played a key role in bringing an FBI campus and the newly announced Space Command to Huntsville.

“I don’t know anybody who knows how to wield power like Shelby does," said David Mowery, an Alabama-based political consultant.

“I would say that is his greatest accomplishment, to get money allocated to the state for many different projects,” said Alabama Republican Party Chairman Bill Armistead.

Alabama's political circles have long braced for a Shelby retirement. Armistead said the senator told him during his 2016 bid for reelection that it was his last campaign, but Armistead added the caveat that,“Things change.” Several months ago, Shelby told a group of business leaders at a private meeting that he would retire rather than run again, according to a person in attendance who was not authorized to discuss the event and also spoke on condition of anonymity.

A list of potential GOP replacements is waiting in the wings. Possible candidates include Shelby’s former chief of staff, Katie Boyd Britt, who now heads an influential business lobby and who would likely have the senator’s backing if she decided to enter the race. Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, who suspended his 2020 Senate campaign when former Attorney General Jeff Sessions jumped in the race, said he would consider a run. Rep. Mo Brooks is also expected to eye the seat. Brooks has faced criticism for his role in the Jan. 6 siege at the U.S. Capitol. At a rally before the deadly riot, he told the crowd it was time for “taking down names and kicking ass,” but has maintained since that he was talking about fighting at the ballot box.

Brooks declined to comment. Britt did not immediately respond to a text message and a message on social media.

Shelby could use his power to give his preferred successor a boost. The senator has gone much of his career without serious opposition and has nearly $10 million in campaign money that he could throw toward his candidate of choice.

Still, the GOP primary could serve as a microcosm of the larger national tug of war over the direction of the Republican Party. While Shelby has amassed a conservative voting record, the measured Republican senator has not embraced the bombastic populist style of Trump and Trump-like candidates.

“I think it would be a total free-for-all,” said Mowery.

Shelby was one of the last of the “old style-Southern politicians who saw as their main job as to steer as much of the federal budget to the state, instead of jumping on the hot-button issue of the day," Mowery said. In 2017, Shelby bucked his party when he announced that he could not support Republican Roy Moore, who faced sexual misconduct allegations, in the special election for Alabama’s other Senate seat.

“You’ll have a lot of candidates that will try to be as loud or as dumb as possible because that is what plays to 50% or more of the Republican electorate — not realizing that’s not how you get things done in Washington," Mowery said.

Some prominent state figures are still hoping that Shelby will reconsider.

“I hope he will run again. I don’t think there is anyone who has meant more to the state of Alabama in that position in my lifetime,” former Gov. Bob Riley said.

Kim Chandler, The Associated Press

S&P 500 climbs again, closing out best week since November

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Wall Street closed out a winning week Friday as the S&P 500 notched its fifth gain in a row and its biggest weekly increase since November.

The benchmark index rose 0.4% and ended the week 4.6% higher, more than making up for its decline in January. The latest gain nudged the S&P 500 to another all-time high. The Nasdaq composite also capped the week with a record high. Small -company stocks fared even better than the broader market, a sign that investors are feeling more optimistic about the economy.

The market largely shrugged off a dismal jobs report for January that showed the U.S. economy remaining in dire straits due to the pandemic. Investors have been focusing instead on the prospects for another economic boost from Washington. Overnight, the Senate narrowly passed a measure that will fast-track aid.

"It looks as if the Democrats are moving ahead with or without support from Republicans, and that’s helping the market’s tone,” said Quincy Krosby, chief market strategist at Prudential Financial.

Surprisingly good company earnings reports, news that a recent surge in new coronavirus cases is easing, and progress in the distribution of vaccine, have also helped keep investors in a buying mood, she said.

The S&P 500 index rose 15.09 points, or 0.4%, to 3,886.83. Its weekly gain is its biggest since November. The Dow Jones Industrial Average gained 92.38 points, or 0.3%, to 31,148.24. The Nasdaq rose 78.55 points, or 0.6%, to 13,856.30.

The Department of Labor said Friday that employers added only 49,000 jobs in the month of January, far below economists' forecasts. The disappointing report came as much of the country remains saturated with coronavirus cases. A report on Thursday showed the number of Americans who filed for unemployment benefits remained well above historic norms.

“It’s very consistent with data over last two months which show that job growth is slowing,” said Sameer Samana, senior global market strategist at Wells Fargo Investment Institute.

Service industries continue to be the hardest hit by the pandemic as people continue to refrain from travel and dining out, among other activities.

“In some ways it seems the reopening economy is still struggling a little bit and it’s responsible for quite a few jobs,” Samana said.

Investors are focused on the prospects for more stimulus. President Joe Biden urged Democratic lawmakers this week to “act fast” on his economic stimulus plan. Democrats and Republicans remain far apart on support for Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package, but it appears Senate Democrats will be using their new-found majority to push the measure through without Republican support.

The Russell 2000 index of smaller company stocks climbed 30.91 points, or 1.4%, to 2,233.33, a record high. When the Russell outpaces other indexes it's a sign that investors are growing more confident about the economy’s growth prospects. The yield on the 10-year Treasury rose to 1.17% from 1.12% late Thursday.

Gains in communications stocks and companies that rely on consumer spending helped lift the market, outweighing a decline in technology sector stocks.

Meanwhile, companies that online investors have clambered to over the past few weeks continued to trade with heavy volatility. GameStop jumped 19.2% to $63.77. That's far below the high of $483 it reached last week but still well above the $17 it traded at near the beginning of the year.

The rally in GameStop may have been spurred by Robinhood's move Friday to lift all the restrictions the online trading platform had placed last week on trading in the stock and shares of a few other companies that were hyped on social media and internet forums.

Damian J. Troise And Alex Veiga, The Associated Press

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