Halfway through the week and today’s update shares information about a new goal from President Biden on vaccines, the possibility of “herd immunity,” higher interest rates in our future, rulings on gig-workers & BIPA, and Amtrak plans.
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Biden Aims to Get 70% of Adults at Least One Covid-19 Vaccine Dose by July 4
The Biden administration said it would begin reallocating some Covid-19 vaccine doses to states with higher demand for shots and direct pharmacies to offer walk-in vaccinations, as the president aims to get 70% of the adult population at least one dose by July 4.
President Biden said Tuesday he also wants 160 million U.S. adults to have the full course of the vaccine by that point, which he said would mean administering about 100 million shots over the next 60 days. The U.S. administered about 220 million shots in Mr. Biden’s first 100 days, but the pace of vaccinations has fallen in recent weeks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Roughly 56% of U.S. adults had received at least one dose as of Monday, according to the CDC.
The new goals are part of the next phase of the Biden administration’s vaccination campaign, which will focus on addressing vaccine hesitancy and eliminating barriers that make it difficult for some Americans to access the shots, such as not knowing where to get the vaccine or difficulty signing up for appointments. The administration is also preparing to distribute shots to adolescents. The shift in policy regarding states’ allocations is intended to account for the fact that demand is higher in some states than others.
Officials said that Mr. Biden’s new goal was informed by infectious disease experts who believe a 70% vaccination rate would lead to a sharp decline in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths. A senior administration official said that isn’t the same as herd immunity—the stage when enough Americans would be protected from the virus that it can no longer spread through the community easily—which the official described as an elusive number.
The administration said Mr. Biden was ordering the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help with pop-up vaccination clinics and mobile units, in addition to directing pharmacies in the federal vaccination program to offer walk-in shots. CVS Health Corp. and Walmart Inc. on Tuesday said that they will allow walk-ins at all locations. CVS, along with several other retail pharmacies, had recently begun offering same-day appointments and several chains already allowed walk-ins on a limited basis.
Officials informed states of the new policy for allocating doses on a call with governors Tuesday morning. Many states are seeing vaccine appointments go unclaimed. Arkansas, Mississippi, and dozens of counties in Iowa recently cut back on vaccination orders because of drops in demand. Iowa declined 75,280 of 105,300 doses offered to its counties for the week of May 10, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Public Health said.
Jennifer Fulcher, director of immunization at Mississippi’s Department of Health, said the state didn’t order its full allotment of first doses for the current week. She said private providers have ordered 1,000 vaccine doses since the state received the last allotment, and none have been ordered for the state health department’s drive-through vaccination sites.
Meanwhile, other states have asked for more doses. Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer called on the Biden administration last month to send additional doses to the state amid a rise in cases there. At the time, the administration didn’t grant the request for additional doses.
Bobby Leddy, a spokesman for Ms. Whitmer, praised the Biden administration’s new vaccine reallocation decision. He said Michigan “continues to draw down every vaccine that we need to meet the needs of Michiganders, and we are grateful for the Biden administration’s actions to increase the availability of vaccines.”
Is Reaching ‘Herd Immunity’ Unlikely in the U.S?
Early in the pandemic, when vaccines for the coronavirus were still just a glimmer on the horizon, the term “herd immunity” came to signify the endgame: the point when enough Americans would be protected from the virus so we could be rid of the pathogen and reclaim our lives.
Now, more than half of adults in the United States have been inoculated with at least one dose of a vaccine. But daily vaccination rates are slipping, and there is widespread consensus among scientists and public health experts that the herd immunity threshold is not attainable — at least not in the foreseeable future, and perhaps not ever.
Instead, they are coming to the conclusion that rather than making a long-promised exit, the virus will most likely become a manageable threat that will continue to circulate in the United States for years to come, still causing hospitalizations and deaths but in much smaller numbers.
How much smaller is uncertain and depends in part on how much of the nation, and the world, becomes vaccinated and how the coronavirus evolves. It is already clear, however, that the virus is changing too quickly, new variants are spreading too easily and vaccination is proceeding too slowly for herd immunity to be within reach anytime soon.
Continued immunizations, especially for people at highest risk because of age, exposure, or health status, will be crucial to limiting the severity of outbreaks, if not their frequency, experts believe. “The virus is unlikely to go away,” said Rustom Antia, an evolutionary biologist at Emory University in Atlanta. “But we want to do all we can to check that it’s likely to become a mild infection.”
The shift in outlook presents a new challenge for public health authorities. The drive for herd immunity — by the summer, some experts once thought possible — captured the imagination of large segments of the public. To say the goal will not be attained adds another “why bother” to the list of reasons that vaccine skeptics use to avoid being inoculated. Yet vaccinations remain the key to transforming the virus into a controllable threat, experts said.
Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the Biden administration’s top adviser on Covid-19, acknowledged the shift in experts’ thinking. “People were getting confused and thinking you’re never going to get the infections down until you reach this mystical level of herd immunity, whatever that number is,” he said. “That’s why we stopped using herd immunity in the classic sense,” he added. “I’m saying: Forget that for a second. You vaccinate enough people, the infections are going to go down.”
Once the novel coronavirus began to spread across the globe in early 2020, it became increasingly clear that the only way out of the pandemic would be for so many people to gain immunity — whether through natural infection or vaccination — that the virus would run out of people to infect. The concept of reaching herd immunity became the implicit goal in many countries, including the United States.
Early on, the target herd immunity threshold was estimated to be about 60 to 70 percent of the population. Most experts, including Dr. Fauci, expected that the United States would be able to reach it once vaccines were available. But as vaccines were developed and distribution ramped up through the winter and into the spring, estimates of the threshold began to rise. That is because the initial calculations were based on the contagiousness of the original version of the virus. The predominant variant now circulating in the United States, called B.1.1.7 and first identified in Britain, is about 60 percent more transmissible.
As a result, experts now calculate the herd immunity threshold to be at least 80 percent. If even more contagious variants develop, or if scientists find that immunized people can still transmit the virus, the calculation will have to be revised upward again.
Polls show that about 30 percent of the U.S. population is still reluctant to be vaccinated. That number is expected to improve but probably not enough. “It is theoretically possible that we could get to about 90 percent vaccination coverage, but not super likely, I would say,” said Marc Lipsitch, an epidemiologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Though resistance to the vaccines is a main reason the United States is unlikely to reach herd immunity, it is not the only one. Herd immunity is often described as a national target. But that is a hazy concept in a country this large.
“Disease transmission is local,” Dr. Lipsitch noted. “If the coverage is 95 percent in the United States as a whole, but 70 percent in some small town, the virus doesn’t care,” he explained. “It will make its way around the small town.”
Yellen Says She Isn’t Predicting Higher Interest Rates
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said Tuesday she is neither predicting nor recommending that the Federal Reserve raise interest rates as a result of President Biden’s spending plans, walking back her comments earlier in the day that rates might need to rise to keep the economy from overheating.
“I don’t think there’s going to be an inflationary problem, but if there is, the Fed can be counted on to address it,” Ms. Yellen, a former Fed chairwoman, said Tuesday at The Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council Summit.
Ms. Yellen suggested earlier Tuesday that the central bank might have to raise rates to keep the economy from overheating if the Biden administration’s roughly $4 trillion spending plans are enacted.
Ms. Yellen’s remarks come as lawmakers debate the merits of the administration’s spending proposals, which many Republicans have said are too costly and risk stoking inflation. Consumer prices jumped 2.6% in the year ended in March, compared with a 1.7% rise in February. And long-term Treasury yields have risen on signs of economic strength and expectations that the Fed will have to raise rates sooner than officials have signaled.
“It may be that interest rates will have to rise somewhat to make sure that our economy doesn’t overheat, even though the additional spending is relatively small relative to the size of the economy,” she said in a prerecorded interview at the Atlantic’s Future Economy Summit.
Ms. Yellen told The Wall Street Journal that she expects any near-term increases in inflation will be temporary. She echoed remarks from Fed Chairman Jerome Powell last week that the central bank isn’t worried about a persistent rise in inflation and that he expects that price increases over the coming months will subside.
The U.S. economy is poised for a rapid recovery this year, as newly vaccinated Americans flush with hundreds of billions of dollars in federal stimulus money increase spending. Gross domestic product climbed at a 6.4% seasonally adjusted annual rate in the first quarter, bringing the U.S. economy within 1% of its pre-pandemic peak.
Despite an improving economic outlook, most Fed officials expected to maintain ultralow interest rates through 2023, according to projections submitted at their March policy meeting. Just seven of 18 policy makers anticipated lifting rates in 2022 or 2023.
Some economists, including former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, have warned that a burst of federal spending this year stemming from the $1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief package enacted in March could prompt unwelcome inflation.
Ms. Yellen said she expects to see some price pressures over the next six months, largely because of supply-chain bottlenecks, higher energy prices and a near-term demand for workers, as normal economic activity resumes. But she said she disagreed with Mr. Summers that the relief package would overheat the economy.
“It’s something we’re watching very carefully, and there are tools to address it in the event that that occurs,” she said at the Journal summit. “But I really feel that this is necessary to make sure that the pandemic doesn’t result in permanent scarring of workers and families in our economy, that we’re able to get back on track quickly.”
She also played down concerns that Mr. Biden’s two new economic plans—one focused on infrastructure spending and another on families—would spur uncontrolled inflation. The spending, while large, would be spread out evenly over eight to 10 years, she said. The Biden administration has also proposed tax increases on corporations and the wealthy that officials say would pay for the plans over 15 years.
She emphasized that Mr. Biden’s proposed spending plans—such as on worker training, free community college and research and development—would help make the U.S. economy competitive and more productive.
Ms. Yellen’s remarks were unusual because White House officials typically refrain from commenting on monetary policy. Such was the norm for decades, starting in the Clinton administration, until President Trump began weighing in on the Fed’s actions and urging Mr. Powell to cut rates before the pandemic.
“If anybody appreciates the independence of the Fed, I think that person is me,” she told the Journal, adding that it is entirely up to the central bank how it manages monetary policy. “It’s not something I’m going to give opinions about.”
Biden Blocks Trump-Era Gig-Worker Rule
The Biden administration is blocking a Trump-era regulation that would have made it easier to classify gig workers and others as independent contractors, a policy that had been sought by companies such as food-delivery and ride-sharing services.
The Labor Department said Wednesday it is nullifying a rule it completed in early January that sought to make it more difficult for a gig worker, such as an Uber or DoorDash driver, to be counted as an employee under federal law. Having status as an employee, rather than a contractor, means those workers are covered by federal minimum-wage and overtime laws. Employees are also better positioned than contractors to organize into labor unions. The Biden administration has made creating union jobs a priority.
The Labor Department acted this week to block the rule before it was implemented Friday, following a common practice of presidents of different parties undoing the prior president’s pending rules early in a new administration.
Nullifying the Trump rule maintains the decades long status quo, which has largely allowed app-based services to not count drivers and other providers as employees. But Wednesday’s action removes an extra layer of assurance gig-economy companies had sought as a way, they said, to modernize labor laws.
The Labor Department isn’t planning to offer new regulations for independent contractors in the near future, said Jessica Looman, principal deputy administrator for the department’s Wage and Hour Division. “We are going back to the decade’s old analysis, and we really feel that this is the space where we can best protect workers,” she said on a call with reporters. “When it comes to digital workers…we want to make sure that we continue to look at their needs, how they are interacting with their individual employers and whether or not they have the protections of the Fair Labor Standards Act.”
By blocking the Trump rule, the Labor Department will continue to use its previous regulation to enforce the Fair Labor Standards Act, which was enacted in 1938. While Wednesday’s action doesn’t immediately change how gig workers are classified, it leaves ambiguity about how a Depression-era law will be applied to a smartphone economy. Ms. Looman said the department will look for opportunities to enforce existing laws, especially as they apply to lower-wage workers.
She said Wednesday’s announcement shouldn’t dramatically change how the department regulates app-based services but said the department is engaging with those companies and others about labor-law enforcement. “The fact that we are moving and are embracing a pro-worker position doesn’t mean that we’re anti-employer,” Ms. Looman said.
The Trump rule, announced on Jan. 6, was to be implemented on March 8, but the Labor Department delayed it from going into effect until Friday, as part of President Biden’s broader freeze on pending regulations.
Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, in an April interview with The Wall Street Journal, said that legitimate independent contractors are an important part of our economy, but the Trump-era rule made it too easy to deny workers employee status. “We’ve seen employers are increasingly misclassifying their workers as independent contractors in order to reduce labor costs and take a lot of protections away from workers, including minimum wage and overtime,” Mr. Walsh said.
The back-and-forth contractor regulations are in part a response to California rules applied to gig companies. In November, voters in California exempted Uber, Lyft, DoorDash and others from a state law that would have forced them to reclassify their drivers as employees, eligible for broad employment benefits. While the exemption allowed the companies to preserve their business models in the most populous U.S. state, they did concede some new benefits such as health insurance for drivers who worked 15 hours or more a week, occupational-accident insurance coverage and 30 cents for every mile driven.
At the time, the companies said they would lobby to make this model—flexibility for drivers with limited benefits—the national standard.
BIPA’s Statute of Limitation and Claims Accrual – Two Anticipated Decisions in State and Federal Courts
For the past several years, we have periodically seen the proliferation of class actions and other litigation under the Illinois Biometric Information Privacy Act (BIPA).
Under BIPA, entities may not “collect, capture, purchase, receive through trade or otherwise obtain” or store a person’s biometric information without informing an individual in writing about the collection or storage of said information. Entities collecting biometric information must also specify the purpose for its collection and storage and how long it will be kept. Finally, entities must obtain a written release signed by the individual whose information has been collected.
While it has been approximately 13 years since BIPA was enacted, there are still a number of issues being litigated. One thing is certain: BIPA packs a punch with eye-popping statutory damages and monetary awards that can lead to anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000 per violation plus attorneys’ fees. Moreover, considering that an alleged violation is enough to bring a suit, BIPA is a class action dream – bearing in mind that if an employer is collecting biometric data on one individual, it is likely collecting it on many individuals.
Two critical questions will soon be addressed. First, at the Illinois appellate level, clarification is expected on the applicable statute of limitations. While a federal court in the Southern District of Illinois seemed prepared to accept a five-year statute of limitations as controlling, that court acknowledged that BIPA precedent was still “developing.” Indeed, two pending cases, namely Tims v. Black Horse Carriers, Inc., and Marion v. Ring Container Techs, will likely decide “whether BIPA claims are potentially subject to a one-, two-, or five-year statute of limitations.”
Secondly, the Seventh Circuit is expected to rule on the issue of whether or not claims accrue with each scan as opposed to only the first collection of biometric information. In Cothron v. White Castle, the district court found that each biometric scan was a “discrete, individual act and not an accumulated course of conduct” and not a “continuing violation.” The court fully acknowledged that such interpretation might lead to large damages. However, citing Illinois precedent, the court added that where the statutory language is clear, it must be given effect even though the consequences may be “harsh, unjust, or unwise.”
In light of these risks and ongoing filings, employers must remain vigilant and ensure compliance with BIPA requirements by:
- Analyzing the type of biometric information being collected
- Evaluating what BIPA compliant disclosures are in place
- Ensuring that a BIPA policy is in effect and properly applied
- Staying alert and on top of court decisions and pending regulations
Amtrak Expansion Plan Receives Backing in Illinois
An unusual coalition of labor, business and civic groups is getting behind President Joe Biden’s plan to expand Amtrak service as part of his big infrastructure plan, saying it offers “tremendous benefits to our state and region.”
In a letter sent to all members of the state’s congressional delegation—Democrats and Republicans—groups including the city and state chambers of commerce, the Chicago Federation of Labor and the Civic Committee of the Commercial Club say better connecting Chicago with other Midwest cities will pay off in the long term.
“Chicago is the hub of the Midwest,” one signer, Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce President Jack Lavin, told me in a phone interview. “If we get high-speed rail and more investment, it’s good for us.”
The letter specifically endorses a “vision statement” Amtrak released after Biden included $80 billion for the passenger carrier and other railroads in his $2 trillion infrastructure plan. Also signing the letter were the Environmental Law & Policy Center and the Illinois AFL-CIO.
Included on Amtrak’s wish list are improvements on existing service from Chicago to St. Louis, faster speeds, and decreased travel time between Chicago to the home of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, upgrades on lines to Milwaukee and Detroit, and new service to the Quad Cities and Rockford.
Adding links state by state eventually would allow train travel between Chicago and Columbus; Ohio; Madison, Wis.; Duluth, Minn.; and Iowa City, Iowa, the letter says. “When paired with ongoing efforts in Illinois and Michigan to increase train speeds to 110 mph, a bold vision of modern, fast, comfortable and convenient passenger rail service for the Midwest emerges.” That’s already the case on parts of the St. Louis line.
What’s not clear, even if Biden’s bill is approved, is whether the federal government will provide any operating funding and not just capital funds for the new and expanded service, which likely will lose money on an operating basis. Biden’s bill also offers huge funding for non-transportation items that are not normally considered infrastructure, such as home health care for seniors. A smaller, $568 billion plan offered by Senate Republicans does include money for railroads but $20 billion, not nearly as much as Biden’s bill.
The two parties, including Republicans in Illinois’ delegation, also are split on how to pay for the plan, with President Biden proposing to hike the corporate income tax rate from 21 percent now to 28 percent, undoing most but not all of the Donald Trump cuts.
Program Notices & Reminders – Expanded Information
Small Business Administration Restaurant Revitalization Fund
SBA began accepting applications via the application portal Monday 5/3 at 11 AM. The application portal will remain open to any eligible establishment until all funds are exhausted.
In preparation, qualifying applicants should familiarize themselves with the application process in advance to ensure a smooth and efficient application. Follow the steps below.
- If you haven’t already, register for an account on the application portal at restaurants.sba.gov. If you are working with Square or Toast, you do not need to register.
- Review the sample application, program guide and cross-program eligibility chart on SBA COVID-19 relief options. SBA also added screenshots of the application portal that are available here.
- Applications must be submitted in English or Spanish. SBA has documents in additional languages to help you understand eligibility requirements, fill out applications, and answer frequently asked questions. See the additional languages and materials here.
- If you were unable to attend one of the webinars held last week which covered program details and a demonstration of the application portal, you can watch the recording here.
For more information, visit sba.gov/restaurants.
As the SBA builds and prepares to roll out the program, this dedicated SBA website is the best source for up-to-date information for eligible restaurants interested in the RRF.
Small Business Administration Shuttered Venue Operators Grant Program
The SBA has completed rigorous testing and the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant application portal reopened on Saturday, April 24 at 12:30pm ET. Updated guidance documents have been posted below. Applicants may continue to register for an application portal account.
- FAQ regarding Shuttered Venue Operators Grant
- SVOG preliminary application checklist
- Cross-program eligibility on SBA COVID-19 relief options
- SVOG-specific version of IRS Form 4506-T
- SVOG applicant user guide
Comment on Joliet Intermodal Master Plan by May 17
Will County and the City of Joliet have developed the Joliet Intermodal Master Plan for the Elwood/Joliet subregion of Will County. The plan’s purpose is to identify transportation needs that support anticipated development of the area’s intermodal industry while simultaneously working to improve quality of life for area residents. The study area boundary is Interstate 80 on the north, U.S. 52 on the east, West Hoff Road on the south, and Interstate 55 on the west.
Public input is being sought on the draft Transportation Improvement Program that identifies transportation priorities. All members of the public are invited to comment through Monday, May 17. Visit the Joliet Intermodal Master Plan website, and provide your input on the public involvement section of the webpage.
Finally, make plans to join us for our May member luncheon on Thursday, the 13th and meet Dawn Malec, Chief of the Joliet Police Department and Greg Blaskey, Chief of the Joliet Fire Department. For more info and to register, click here – http://jolietchamber.chambermaster.com/events/details/2021-member-lunch-may-13-meet-greet-with-joliet-police-fire-chiefs-6046
Joliet Region Chamber of Commerce & Industry Staff and Board of Directors
Vice President – Government Affairs
Joliet Region Chamber of Commerce & Industry