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AP News in Brief at 6:04 p.m. EDT

| July 23, 2020 3:27 PM

AP-NORC poll: 3 in 4 Americans back requiring wearing masks

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Three out of four Americans, including a majority of Republicans, favor requiring people to wear face coverings while outside their homes, a new poll finds, reflecting fresh alarm over spiking coronavirus cases and a growing embrace of government advice intended to safeguard public health.

The survey from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research also finds that about two-thirds of Americans disapprove of how President Donald Trump is handling the outbreak, an unwelcome sign for the White House in an election year shaped by the nation’s battle with the pandemic.

More than four months after government stay-at-home orders first swept across the U.S., the poll spotlights an America increasingly on edge about the virus. The federal government's response is seen as falling short, and most Americans favor continued restrictions to stop the virus from spreading even if they might hamstring the economy.

Support for requiring masks is overwhelming among Democrats, at 89%, but 58% of Republicans are in favor as well. The poll was conducted before Trump, who for months was dismissive of masks, said this week that it’s patriotic to wear one.

“Not wearing a mask, to me, poses a greater risk of spreading the COVID,” said Darius Blevins, a 33-year-old Republican-leaning independent from Christiansburg, Virginia, who works in bank operations. Blevins said he wears a mask in public because “it’s much more effective than not wearing the mask.”

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Pepcid as a virus remedy? Trump admin's $21M gamble fizzled

As the coronavirus began its deadly march through the world, two well-respected American doctors identified a possible but seemingly unlikely remedy: Pepcid, the heartburn medication found on drugstore shelves everywhere.

There were no published data or studies to suggest that famotidine, the active ingredient in Pepcid, would be effective against the novel coronavirus.

And in early April, when government scientists learned of a proposal to spend millions in federal research funding to study Pepcid, they found it laughable, according to interviews, a whistleblower complaint and internal government records obtained by The Associated Press.

But that didn’t stop the Trump administration from granting a $21 million emergency contract to researchers trying it out on ailing patients. The Food and Drug Administration gave the clinical trial speedy approval even as a top agency official worried that the proposed daily injections of high doses of famotidine for already sick patients pushed safety “to the limits,” internal government emails show.

That contract is now under scrutiny after a government whistleblower accused a senior administration official of rushing the deal through without the scientific oversight necessary for such a large federal award. And the doctors who initially promoted the Pepcid idea are locked in a battle for credit and sniping over allegations of scientific misconduct.

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White House drops payroll tax cut after GOP allies object

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump on Thursday reluctantly dropped his bid to cut Social Security payroll taxes as Republicans stumbled anew in efforts to unite around a $1 trillion COVID-19 rescue package to begin negotiations with Democrats who are seeking far more.

Frustrating new delays came as the administration scrambled to avert the cutoff next week of a $600-per-week bonus unemployment benefit that has helped prop up the economy while staving off financial disaster for millions of people thrown out of work since the coronavirus pandemic began.

Trump yielded to opposition to the payroll tax cut among his top Senate allies, claiming in a Twitter post that Democratic opposition was the reason. In fact, top Senate Republicans disliked the expensive idea in addition to opposition from Democrats for the cut in taxes that finance Social Security and Medicare.

“The Democrats have stated strongly that they won’t approve a Payroll Tax Cut (too bad!). It would be great for workers. The Republicans, therefore, didn’t want to ask for it," Trump contended.

“The president is very focused on getting money quickly to workers right now, and the payroll tax takes time,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said at the Capitol. Only Sunday, Trump said in a Fox News interview that “I would consider not signing it if we don’t have a payroll tax cut.”

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Watchdogs to review conduct of US agents in Portland, DC

WASHINGTON (AP) — Two government watchdogs said Thursday that they had opened investigations into the conduct of federal agents responding to unrest in Portland, Oregon, following abuse of power allegations by members of Congress, local officials and the public.

The Justice Department watchdog said that it would investigate use of force allegations in Portland, while its counterpart at the Department of Homeland Security said it would examine whether officers from the agency improperly detained and transported protesters in the city last week.

The Justice Department is also examining the training and instruction provided to the federal agents who responded last month to protest activity at Lafayette Square, near the White House. Among the questions being studied are whether the agents followed department guidelines on the use of chemical agents and less lethal munitions and whether they followed identification requirements.

Democrats in Congress cheered the announcement of the investigations. The chairs of the Judiciary, Homeland Security and Oversight committees issued a joint statement saying many federal agents are dressed as soldiers, driving unmarked vehicles and refusing to identify themselves or the agencies where they work.

“Congress will continue to check this reckless Administration, but it is deeply important that these independent inspectors general get to the bottom of President Trump’s use of force against his own citizens," the statement said.

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Jobless claims rise as cutoff of extra $600 benefit nears

WASHINGTON (AP) — The nation got another dose of bad economic news Thursday as the number of laid-off workers seeking jobless benefits rose last week for the first time since late March, intensifying concerns the resurgent coronavirus is stalling or even reversing the economic recovery.

And an extra $600 in weekly unemployment benefits, provided by the federal government on top of whatever assistance states provide, is set to expire July 31, though this is the last week recipients will get the extra funds. It is the last major source of economic help from the $2 trillion relief package that Congress approved in March. A small business lending program and one-time $1,200 payment have largely run their course.

With the count of U.S. infections passing 4 million and the aid ending, nearly 30 million unemployed people could struggle to pay rent, utilities, or other bills and economists worry that overall consumer spending will drop, adding another economic blow.

“I’m going to be broke,” said Melissa Bennett, who was laid off from her job at a vacation time-share in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. “I’ll be broke-broke. I want to go to work, I want health insurance, I want a 401K. I want a life; I have no life right now.”

Without the extra unemployment benefits, Bennett will receive just $200 a week, and she’ll have to decide whether to pay her mortgage or her utilities first.

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On House floor, Dem women call out abusive treatment by men

WASHINGTON (AP) — Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's outrage over a Republican lawmaker’s verbal assault broadened into an extraordinary moment on the House floor Thursday as she and other Democrats assailed a sexist culture of “accepting violence and violent language against women” whose adherents include President Donald Trump.

A day after rejecting an offer of contrition from Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., for his language during this week's Capitol steps confrontation, Ocasio-Cortez and more than a dozen colleagues cast the incident as all-too-common behavior by men, including Trump and other Republicans.

“This issue is not about one incident. It is cultural,” said Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., calling it a culture “of accepting a violence and violent language against women, an entire structure of power that supports that.”

The remarkable outpouring, with female lawmakers saying they'd routinely encountered such treatment, came in an election year in which polls show women leaning decisively against Trump, who has a history of mocking women.

“I personally have experienced a lifetime of insults, racism and sexism,” said Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif. “And believe me, this did not stop after being elected to public office.”

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Trump calls off Florida segment of GOP National Convention

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump announced Thursday that he has canceled the bulk of the Republican National Convention scheduled for Florida next month, citing a “flare-up” of the coronavirus.

Trump's formal renomination will still go forward in North Carolina, where a small subset of GOP delegates will still gather in Charlotte, North Carolina, for just four hours on Aug. 24. Florida was to have hosted four nights of programming and parties that Trump had hoped would be a "four-night infomercial" for his reelection.

“It’s a different world, and it will be for a little while," Trump said, explaining his decision. “To have a big convention is not the right time," Trump added.

Trump moved the ceremonial portions of the GOP convention to Florida last month amid a dispute with North Carolina’s Democratic leaders over holding an event indoors with maskless supporters. But those plans were steadily scaled back as virus cases spiked in Florida and much of the country over the last month.

Trump said he would deliver an acceptance speech in an alternate form, potentially online.

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HUD revokes Obama-era rule designed to diversify the suburbs

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration said Thursday that it is revoking an Obama-era housing regulation designed to eliminate racial disparities in the suburbs, a move that fair housing advocates have decried as an election year stunt designed to manipulate the fears of white voters.

In a tweet addressed to “The Suburban Housewives of America,” President Donald Trump made his intended audience clear. “Biden will destroy your neighborhood and your American Dream,” he said. "I will preserve it, and make it even better!”

Trump has repeatedly characterized the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing regulation as an existential threat to the suburban way of life that will bring about more crime and lower home prices.

In a statement, Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson said the regulation known as AFFH, was “unworkable and ultimately a waste of time for localities to comply with.”

It will be replaced by a new rule that reduces the burden on local jurisdictions to prove that they are actively taking steps to address historical patterns of racial segregation in order to qualify for HUD financing.

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Judge orders Michael Cohen to be released from prison

NEW YORK (AP) — A judge on Thursday ordered the release of President Donald Trump’s former personal lawyer from prison, saying the government retaliated against him for planning to release a book critical of Trump before November's election.

Michael Cohen's First Amendment rights were violated when he was ordered back to prison on July 9 after probation authorities said he refused to sign a form banning him from publishing the book or communicating publicly in other manners, U.S. District Judge Alvin K. Hellerstein said during a telephone conference.

Hellerstein ordered Michael Cohen released from prison to home confinement by 2 p.m. on Friday.

“How can I take any other inference than that it’s retaliatory?” Hellerstein asked prosecutors, who insisted in court papers and again Thursday that Probation Department officers did not know about the book when they wrote a provision of home confinement that severely restricted Cohen's public communications.

“I’ve never seen such a clause in 21 years of being a judge and sentencing people and looking at terms of supervised release,” the judge said. “Why would the Bureau of Prisons ask for something like this ... unless there was a retaliatory purpose?"

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Movie theaters implore studios: Release the blockbusters

NEW YORK (AP) — A long time ago in a pre-COVID universe far, far away, blockbusters opened around the globe simultaneously or nearly so. In 1975, “Jaws” set the blueprint. Concentrate marketing. Open wide. Pack them in.

Since then, Hollywood has turned opening weekends into an all-out assault. Staggered rollouts still happen, of course, but the biggest films are dropped like carpet bombs. Anything less risks losing the attention of moviegoers. Global debuts north of $300 million became commonplace. Last year, “Avengers: Endgame” made well north of $1 billion in a couple days.

Hollywood has now gone more than four months without a major theatrical release. While some films have found new streaming homes, the biggest upcoming ones — “Tenet,” “Mulan,” “A Quiet Place Part II” — remain idled like jumbo jets on the tarmac. The leading chains are still shuttered. Recent coronavirus spikes have forced release dates to shuffle and chains to postpone reopening to August.

Now, movie houses say that despite far from ideal circumstances, it’s time for new movies. Four months of near zero revenue has brought the $50 billion annual business to its knees. While the beleaguered restaurant industry still has takeout and airlines continue to operate with masked flyers, the vast majority of U.S. movie theaters haven’t punched a single ticket since March. Some have turned to selling popcorn curbside.

“The problem is, we need their movies,” says John Fithian, president and chief executive of National Association of Theater Owners. “Distributors who want to play movies theatrically, they can’t wait until 100% of markets are allowed open because that’s not going to happen until there’s a vaccine widely available in the world.”