Church services resume as amid first step to reopen
LAUREL — Montana took its first, halting step toward reopening on April 26 as some churches resumed services and a general stay-at-home order expired.
Montana is among states that are beginning to loosen rules in hopes of restoring battered economies and regaining some normalcy.
Families at St. Anthony Catholic Church in Laurel, where roughly 100 people attended Mass, were seated apart from one another for the service, and Rev. Bart Stevens instructed attendees "not to linger" after the Mass to minimize social interactions.
At Christ the King Lutheran Church in Billings, Pastor Ryan Wendt said the church was mixing faith with common sense precautions. Every other pew was being kept empty to comply with social distancing guidelines and elderly and medically-vulnerable members of the congregation were advised to stay home.
But some religious houses stayed shuttered as their leaders expressed worry that returning too soon could put people at risk, including Open Bible Christian Center in Billings, which plans to reopen in May.
The daily number of new cases in Montana has dropped dramatically since late March.
During the first phase of Montana's reopening, which has no set timeline, people over age 65 and those with underlying health conditions are asked to continue to stay at home.
Gyms, pools, movie theaters and bowling alleys will remain closed. Residents are still asked to minimize nonessential travel and to self-quarantine for 14 days after returning to the state.
Legislative leaders start writing bills in response to pandemic
CHEYENNE – Legislative leaders began crafting two bills on April 25 that grant some abilities to Gov. Mark Gordon and state agencies to respond to Wyoming's numerous needs that have emerged in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Legislature's Management Council, which consists of leaders from both chambers and parties, met virtually in preparation for a special session that could come as soon as late May.
The first bill worked by lawmakers would set up a COVID-19 relief fund for a preliminary, partial distribution of the $1.25 billion Wyoming has received through the federal coronavirus relief bill.
Gordon has the ultimate authority on how to use those funds, but through the legislation, the pot would be divided into a few separate sections to address various needs. Federal rules prohibit the relief funds from being used to replace lost state revenues, forcing state officials to get slightly more creative with how they use the money.
The team of lawmakers decided to move forward with an initial $238 million appropriation for the COVID-19 relief fund, with $70 million of that going to municipalities, counties and political subdivisions. The state's local governments are bracing for a hit ranging from $109 million to $451 million in the coming year, and those figures could grow.
The relief fund also includes $200 million for Wyoming public hospitals, which are facing serious revenue hits brought on by the virus.
A second bill would allow the Wyoming Community Development Authority to assist landlords who hold off on evicting tenants unable to pay rent due to the pandemic. The money would be available to landlords who have lost at least 25% of their rental income and have tenants who have lost pay due to the pandemic.
Another section of the second bill would expand the state's workers' compensation program to allow employees to make claims if they contract COVID-19.
Western coal miners laid off amid drop in electricity use
CASPER — Three hundred miners and other workers are losing their jobs as the struggling western U.S. coal industry contends with diminished electricity use during the coronavirus pandemic.
Seventy-three workers at the Spring Creek mine in southeastern Montana and 57 at the Antelope mine in northeastern Wyoming are losing their jobs, Navajo Transitional Energy Company said April 23.
St. Louis-based Peabody Energy, meanwhile, announced it was laying off 170 at Wyoming's largest coal mine, North Antelope Rochelle.
Both companies cited economic conditions and declining coal demand, the Casper Star-Tribune reports.
All three mines are located in the Powder River Basin, which accounts for about 40% of U.S. coal production. Coal demand has declined over the past decade due to competition from natural gas-fired power and renewable energy sources.
School and business shutdowns and stay-at-home orders to contain the coronavirus have reduced electricity use over the past month, further dimming the outlook for coal-fired electricity and coal mining.
State sets all-mail June primary due to virus fears
BISMARCK — North Dakota's June 9 primary will be conducted entirely by mail after all 53 counties chose to avoid in-person voting due to the coronavirus.
Gov. Doug Burgum, a Republican, signed an executive order in March to let counties opt out of a requirement that they open at least one physical polling location. On April 23, the state announced that every county commission had authorized voting by mail only.
The state said it would mail ballot applications to every eligible voter.
The challenge of conducting elections safely amid the coronavirus crisis became a national flashpoint in the lead-up to Wisconsin's April 7 presidential primary, where Republicans went to court to force in-person voting. Thousands of voters were forced to congregate for hours in long lines, some without protective gear, and thousands more stayed home rather than risk their health.
Burgum issued his executive order at the request of the North Dakota County Auditors Association, which had also requested that no polling locations be open during the primary for safety reasons.
GOP attacks mount over Trump support in US House race
RIO RANCHO — Two Republican candidates vying to challenge Democratic U.S. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small for a crucial southern New Mexico seat have released dueling ads disparaging the other for being a fake supporter for President Donald Trump.
With more than a month to go before the June 2 primary, oil executive Claire Chase and former lawmaker Yvette Herrell unveiled television commercials in late April that mock each other in their ongoing feud over who is a better Trump ally.
The Chase campaign made public an ad that charges Harrell with “betraying New Mexico families” and calls her a "career politician" who worked to undermine Trump's campaign in 2016.
The ad also a March 11 story by The Associated Press about Herrell making comments on a podcast about the Republican-controlled Congress and the Trump administration's "lack of leadership" during Trump's first two years in office. It then goes on the refer to Chase as the true "pro-Trump conservative" who supports building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Herrell responded by releasing two videos: one attacking Chase over old anti-Trump Facebook posts and another seeking to highlight Herrell's connection to the Tea Party.
In the anti-Chase ad, a voice in a stereotypical cheerleader's voice reads Chase's 2016 rants against Trump, where she wrote he was "unworthy of the office of the president" and "beyond offensive." The ad said Chase changed her views on Trump only after running for Congress.
Claire has since apologized for her old posts and said she was wrong.
Another Herrell ad uses Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio to promote Herrell as a tea party conservative. The Ohio Republican has faced allegations from former wrestlers at Ohio State University, where he used to coach, that he knew a now-deceased team doctor inappropriately groped them. He has denied the claims.