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Senate to vote on $500 billion GOP coronavirus stimulus bill Wednesday



Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) walks to his office on Capitol Hill in Washington, September 10, 2020.

Joshua Roberts | Reuters

The Senate will vote on a $500 billion coronavirus stimulus bill on Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Saturday, as a larger bipartisan deal remains elusive despite continued talks between top Democrats and the Trump administration.

McConnell blamed his opponents across the political aisle for the current stalemate, arguing that the Senate has enough time to pass the GOP stimulus package and confirm Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barret if “Democrats do not obstruct this legislation.”

“Nobody thinks this $500B+ proposal would resolve every problem forever,” McConnell said in a statement on Saturday. “It would deliver huge amounts of additional help to workers and families right now while Washington keeps arguing over the rest.”

Democrats have accused McConnell of pushing ahead with Barrett’s confirmation instead of focusing on passing stimulus legislation. Democrats blocked a $500 billion Republican plan in the Senate last month and will likely dismiss the latest GOP proposal as insufficient.

The chances of Congress passing new aid before the Nov. 3 presidential election have dimmed as the Senate GOP plan is more limited than what the Trump administration or Democrats have proposed.

The GOP bill will include funding for schools, expanded unemployment benefits and a second round of the Paycheck Protection Program, McConnell said. The Senate will vote on the bill a day after a standalone vote on more PPP funds on Tuesday.

Earlier this month, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin offered House Speaker Nancy Pelosi a $1.8 trillion stimulus deal, about $400 billion less than the bill proposed by House Democrats earlier this month.

Pelosi, whose party passed a $2.2 trillion relief bill in the House, dismissed the White House proposal and said it “amounted to one step forward, two steps back.” Senate Republicans, on the other hand, oppose the White House package as too large.

Pelosi and Mnuchin continued their negotiations this week, though they were unable to reach an agreement. Both sides characterized the talks as productive but said major differences remain.

Congress hasn’t pushed through new relief legislation in months as the coronavirus worsens across the U.S. and millions of Americans remain unemployed.

— CNBC’s Jacob Pramuk contributed reporting

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Can California’s top wine region survive the era of megafire? | US news




The Silverado Trail, a two-lane road that weaves through the bucolic hillsides in the heart of California’s wine country, is the quintessential vision of Napa Valley. Home to dozens of wineries, it is a destination within a destination – one that welcomes both vacationing imbibers and oenophiles from around the world.

But recently the amber hillsides have been laced with the ashen aftermath of wildfires that have torn through the region, leaving behind charred rubble that is fast becoming as much a part of the landscape as the neatly trussed rows of vines.

It is a sign of an increasingly uncertain future for the crown jewel of California’s $43bn wine industry – one in which vintners must adapt to a changing climate and increasingly unpredictable fire seasons in order to survive.

Devastating wildfires have pummeled Napa and Sonoma over the last five years, most recently this summer’s Glass fire, which torched close to 67,500 acres and destroyed 1,555 structures, including damage to numerous wineries. Annual evacuations, smoke-filled skies and the existential threat posed by higher and drier temperatures have taken a toll. This year Covid-19 has compounded the impact on tourism, restaurants and labor, with losses from the crisis expected to total close to half a billion dollars.

Firefighters work on a vineyard to contain the Glass fire, which tore through the Napa region this summer

Firefighters work on a vineyard to contain the Glass fire, which tore through the Napa region this summer. Photograph: Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times/Rex/Shutterstock

Yet even with the risks, California’s wine industry is growing, with the market rising roughly 42% in retail value over the last decade. Napa has attracted a steady flow of newcomers who may not be willing to withstand the obstacles ahead. But many winemakers and growers, some with generational ties to the region and its industry, are counting on research, innovation and sheer determination in a race against the changing climate.

“We are resilient,” says Nicole Bacigalupi who runs Bacigalupi Vineyards with her twin sister, Katey.

Nicole Bacigalupi runs Bacigalupi Vineyards, a multi-generational wine operation.

Nicole Bacigalupi runs Bacigalupi Vineyards, a multi-generational wine operation. Photograph: Gabrielle Canon/The Guardian

Bacigalupi, the third generation in her family to farm the land, is finding ways to mitigate the threat of fires. Speaking under a giant oak tree, the sound of cow calls ring out from an adjacent pasture. The animals are there to help keep the vegetation down.

The vineyard is also building its own fire truck, she says, adding that a friend helped protect them when the Walbridge fire, which morphed into the sprawling LNU Lightning Complex fire, got close last month.

Bacigalupi admits that three terrifying fire seasons in a row have prompted tough questions about the future.

“You get to a point where you are so overwhelmed that you are not sure if it’s worth fighting for,” she says.

Winemaking in the era of wildfires

Since 2015, California Alcohol Beverage Control has received roughly 170 new wineries registries a year – up from roughly seven registered annually in the 1990s. Some critics have called for crackdowns on the continuing expansion, and have concerns about how crowding affects safe and sustainable land use practices, especially in the face of faster-moving flames.

“It has gotten to the point of absurdity now, there are so many wineries in that little valley,” says James Conaway, the author of Napa: The Story of an American Eden. “Global warming is here and the changes are not going to turn around in anybody’s lifetime,” he adds. “Napa is going to have to alter what it is doing.”

Charred bottles of wine from the Castello di Amorosa winery sit in the debris of the Glass fire, which gutted part of the property.

Charred bottles of wine from the Castello di Amorosa winery sit in the debris of the Glass fire, which gutted part of the property. Photograph: Samuel Corum/AFP/Getty Images

He champions the idea that newcomers might move out, and make room for those most dedicated to sustainable winemaking. “Some of the people who have been there a long time are doing it – there are some really nice wines still being made in Napa,” he says. “But, it is not the nice sociable agrarian dream that it was back in the 80s.”

Kirk Venge, a third-generation veteran of the wine industry who was born and raised in Napa Valley, is optimistic, and says he’s not going anywhere. “We just have to be patient and not give up,” he says with a smile during a bustling day on his namesake vineyard, Venge, housed on the Silverado Trail. He has faced the dangers of Napa Valley’s new normal up close.

On this sunny afternoon in October, it would be hard to tell just how close the Glass fire came to his property, were it not for the surrounding scorched hillsides. Venge describes watching embers rain down from the sky and treetops and explode on the horizon, feeling certain he’d say goodbye to his winery that morning.

“The whole valley was starting to go up,” he says, pointing at the blackened landscape.

But his vineyard was spared and within hours, Venge and a small crew got back to work. “We have to keep making the wine,” he says. “People depend on us for their livelihood and we can’t just stop, we can’t run away.”

Now, he’s better preparing the property by increasing its “defensible space” – areas without debris or vegetation that can serve as a natural fire break. “No more bark around the building!” he laughs.

Venge is also dealing with another major challenge – the effects of persistent wildfire smoke, which is dangerous for workers to breathe and can also be absorbed by the grapes, altering the feel and flavor of the wine produced from them. A 2015 study by the Australian Wine Research Institute found that just a half-hour of smoke exposure was enough to have an impact. This year, some areas were cloaked in the grey haze for weeks on end.

So-called ‘smoke taint’ from wildfires can destroy a harvest of grapes.

So-called ‘smoke taint’ from wildfires can destroy a harvest of grapes. Photograph: Samuel Corum/AFP/Getty Images

“Smoke taint” has affected harvests in Napa already after bad fire seasons, and this year’s was no different. Venge says he lost more than two dozen tons of grapes as a result. “We didn’t pick any pinot this year at all,” he says. “Anything picked after the Glass fire is going to have smoke taint.”

To make up for the loss, Venge and his team are getting creative, replacing the unusable year with new products from the 2018 and 2019 stock, and hoping they are spared in 2021.

Searching for solutions

California’s wine country has always been disaster-prone, the land primed for floods, fires and earthquakes. Now, with winemakers around the world facing similar climate-related issues, the region is looking elsewhere for answers.

California has already benefited from lessons learned in fire-prone areas such as Australia and Chile. Resources are being shared up and down the west coast – Oregon and Washington are dealing with the same threats – and the winegrowing associations are collaborating on a taskforce to study smoke taint. There are also robust research centers based locally, including UC Davis, where viticulturalists are working to develop more resilient vines, and Sonoma State University, where there are studies into strategies for better sustainability and risk mitigation.

“The one thing we know about California farmers and ranchers – and I view the wine sector as a real leader in this – is they are all trying to look around that curve and trying to get ahead of that curve,” says Karen Ross, the secretary of the California department of food and agriculture, who also spent more than a decade serving as the president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers, and helped usher in a sustainable winegrowing program.

Ross admits that the effects of the climate crisis have descended on the region sooner than anticipated. “We have always talked about these kinds of impacts as the future – but the future is now,” she says, adding that Golden State growers are relying on research and science to navigate new obstacles. “It may look different but I think it will still be an important and leading part of what California agriculture is all about.”

Kirk Venge, a winemaker in Napa, is having to use wine from previous years to cover for grapes lost to smoke taint in 2020.

Kirk Venge, a winemaker in Napa, is having to use wine from previous years to cover for grapes lost to smoke taint in 2020. Photograph: Gabrielle Canon/The Guardian

Still, there is a long road ahead, and adjustments will have to be made quickly. Already, winemakers are predicting warming weather will mean the end for some wines in the region in the future, including favorites like pinot and chardonnay. Even cabernet, the valley’s most prized varietal, is under threat from the changing climate.

Because vines can take years to cultivate, the wine business is by nature future-facing, but Dr Judith Ford, a sustainability and resilience fellow at Sonoma State University hopes the latest fire season spurs a sense of urgency.

“There is a saying to never let a good crisis go to waste,” says Ford, who evaluated the wine industry’s preparedness following 2017 North Bay Fires, which hammered the region, and found that those who were directly affected were more likely to make changes.

“Right after 2017 there was a real drive to do some things and then it got back to business as usual,” she says.

Speaking at a wine industry conference at the beginning of this year, she was dismayed to see that only a dozen people showed up for a panel on disaster preparedness. “Our region feels like it has been hit with crisis after crisis after crisis – and that can really freeze you,” she says. “But this is escalating and it is important to keep moving forward.”

Despite the obstacles, many longtime residents like Bacigalupi are determined to stick it out. She says she could see how less-dedicated hobbyists might be driven away from the crisis-stricken area, “but we will stay”, she says, resolutely.

Her 95-year-old grandmother is still alive to see the legacy she built continue to grow. Bacigalupi says that is a big part of what keeps her going. “I feel strongly that you are given a gift in a generational family,” she says. “You are supposed to take the land, make it better, revive it if you need to and continue to make it healthier to pass down to the next generation.”

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Tenants are facing eviction again, despite the UK government’s promises | David Renton | Opinion




After a seven-month gap, the housing courts are open. Although many of them will not be operating at any capacity until early November, some cases are starting to be heard. In mid-October I represented a typical couple, Monty and Lola (not their real names). They were in court to prevent a bailiff’s appointment that had been scheduled for the Friday.

The government has insisted that such hearings should continue. It has set in place two main protections for tenants. First, in the majority of cases, landlords have to wait several months after serving notices on tenants before issuing proceedings. Second, where cases were begun during the first lockdown, landlords must serve a “reactivation notice”, telling the courts whether a tenant has been affected by Covid. The idea of both provisions is to filter out the cases where the justification for eviction is clearest.

Monty and Lola were excluded from either protection because a final possession order had already been made against them before Covid. In drafting the rules, the government refused to include any safeguards for people in that situation.

Eighteen months earlier, their landlord had served a section 21 notice, a document that requires a tenant to leave without the landlord needing to show the tenant has done anything wrong. Monty and Lola went to their local Citizens Advice office and were told that the landlord could not win. He had taken a deposit from them but had not registered it within the statutory time and any section 21 notice would be invalid.

The government has promised, many times, to repeal section 21 – however, it has indefinitely postponed acting on that promise.

Although Monty and Lola had been in a strong position, they tried to be fair. They told the landlord’s solicitor they just needed to stay in their home until June 2020 when their son was due to leave school. The solicitor offered Monty and Lola a compromise: they could stay till the summer so long as they promised to leave then. They signed a consent order granting the landlord outright possession against them, never imagining that the pandemic would destroy all their plans.

The issue before the court was simply whether that order had been properly made. The hearing was supposed to start on the Wednesday at 2.45pm using the court’s cloud video platform. Fifteen minutes beforehand, I logged into an online waiting room. I could see an icon representing me and one for my opponent. I could see a blue dot by the names of the people in the hearing, as the judge invited each of them to speak. But I could not hear them, and nor could they hear me. By now, my pulse was racing at around 200 beats a minute – think what it was like for my clients.

The hearing was stopped and began again by telephone at 3.30pm. The judge had promised us a decision that day, but I needed to explain my client’s case, and the landlord’s barrister had to reply. Time wore on: past four, four thirty … We stopped at five, with no decision but the promise of a judgment on the Thursday.

On Thursday morning, I spoke to my clients and asked how they were. “Terrible,” said Monty. “We couldn’t sleep,” added Lola. Monty was focusing on their son who is in year 12. He suffers from dyslexia and has a statement of special educational needs. They had been expecting to take him out of school after his GCSEs. But his mock grades had been so poor (and, because of Covid, they had become his final results) that he had been forced to stay at school another year to re-sit his exams. That was why they were trying so hard to stay in a home they had previously been planning to leave.

Lola was focusing on the practicalities: they would not be able to find a moving company in the short time available to them. She and her husband had already driven more than 20 times to storage, they had moved everything they could. What they had left was heavy furniture, things they could not move without someone else’s assistance. They had asked the local authority to help, but it had refused. She could not imagine how they would move everything before the bailiffs arrived.

“We can’t do it,” she told me, “we just can’t.”

I had my telephone on speakerphone as the judge gave us her decision. She spoke gently and softly, but with urgency. The judge noted the decision of the higher courts that I had quoted. She referred to the cases my opponent had cited.

The tension was so great, my hands clawed up. I could not type.

She said that she agreed with me on the law – a consent order is binding in possession cases only if both parties had been absolutely clear in recording the factual admissions that would justify granting possession. That hadn’t happened in this case. Accordingly, she set aside the possession order and dismissed the warrant. Court officers would call the bailiffs and tell them the appointment was cancelled.

When I rang Lola and Monty later, they sounded drunk with relief.

Covid made everything rushed. It meant my clients had no proper warning of the bailiff’s appointment. It caused the hearing to be listed just days before the bailiff’s date. It meant that if we lost there would be no time to appeal to another judge. If the local authority had ended up moving my clients to emergency housing, it would have been shared accommodation – including possibly with people who might be ill.

The government is aware that there is a problem, and has recently begun a process of negotiating with the bailiff’s bodies, inviting them to hold back from evictions in tier 2 and tier 3 areas. While this is to be welcomed, it doesn’t go far enough. There isn’t any proper legal basis on which bailiffs can refuse to carry out court orders, even at the government’s request. The new measures also are not being properly publicised, when (as we saw in Monty and Lola’s case) the problem in evictions is repeatedly that tenants don’t know their rights, and landlords rely on their ignorance.

Much better would be a return to the summer’s ban on evictions. That system worked well and protected people who needed it. Until we do, many tens of thousands of people like Monty and Lola are going to suffer unnecessarily.

David Renton is a housing barrister at Garden Court Chambers

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Serco staff told to wear masks in courts and cells after complaints | Serco




Escort and security officers working for Serco and other firms have been told to wear face masks in courts and cells amid complaints about inadequate social distancing in the criminal justice system.

The abrupt policy change, which comes into force on Monday, has been imposed by the Ministry of Justice on the outsourcing company, which also runs a widely criticised contact-tracing service for the government that is supposed to limit the spread of coronavirus infections.

The MoJ instruction also requires all security staff, including those working for GeoAmey, another outsourcing company that carries out similar prisoner guarding and transporting duties, to wear masks when on duty.

Until recently it was assumed by the court service that work inside courtrooms was sufficiently socially distanced or individuals adequately protected by perspex screens.

But the rapid rise in infections during the pandemic’s second wave has forced a review of health safety measures. The Guardian has been told of one incident in a criminal trial where a judge requested security staff to put on face masks but they declined to do so.

Concern has been expressed by lawyers and other court staff over the more relaxed regulations inside court buildings compared with compulsory mask wearing in shops.

Last week, the barrister Sarah Forshaw QC tweeted that mask-wearing for security at court would be desirable.

Another barrister tweeted: “Well, none of us could have predicted this. Also, why are GeoAmey etc not telling the cells staff to wear masks or providing PPE? In every cell area I’ve been in during the pandemic, gaolers have been maskless.”

Concerns have also been expressed by Intermediaries for Justice, the experts who sit alongside vulnerable witnesses and defendants in court, helping them to understand and communicate during proceedings.

Catherine O’Neill, the chair of the charity, said: “Our members are concerned that dock officers are not wearing masks. The conference rooms are extremely small and intermediaries throughout the country are reporting concerns that when they visit the custody suites there’s poor ventilation but no one seems to be wearing PPE [personal protective equipment].

“I have seen barristers wearing visors and masks. One judge used gloves. But the dock officers in Serco uniforms were not wearing any PPE. Serco is running the test-and-trace contract. I cannot understand why they do not have a duty to look after their employees and to the prisoners who will be the last to have a voice.

“After being in court the other day where no masks were worn in the building, it felt like a different world when I stepped outside and all the cafes and shops were compliant and doing their best.”

A Serco spokesman said: “As of 21 October [the date the MoJ letter arrived], all Serco officers have been mandated to wear PPE face masks by our customer, the MoJ.

“Prior to that date, safe systems of work were in place which were endorsed by the MOJ, where a risk assessment process determined whether a mask was to be worn; for instance for confirmed or suspected Covid cases only or where the 2-metre rule could not be met.

“All safe systems of work and risk assessments were aligned to PHE guidance; this has clearly now changed to reflect more stringent measures.”

A spokesperson for GeoAmey said: “With limited exceptions, from Monday 26 October it will be mandatory for GeoAmey employees to wear GeoAmey-provided medical-grade PPE face masks when entering an HMPPS establishment, within the court custody suite and associated docks, and aboard vehicles and in offices where social distancing cannot be maintained.”

An MoJ spokesperson said: “All custody and security staff are required to wear masks where social distancing is not possible. Following consultation with partners this will be extended to all circumstances.”

Judges are understood to have been given discretion to decide whether security staff need to wear them while sitting in the dock alongside a defendant.

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