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Storm clouds hang over Trump's attempted campaign reboot

MIAMI — Friday was supposed to be the day President Donald Trump's campaign reboot itself got a reboot. Instead, it hit another snag.

Amid uncertainty over whether he can still draw big and enthusiastic crowds to his signature rallies in the coronavirus era, Trump postponed a planned Saturday rally in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, citing a tropical storm expected to hit a swath of the Eastern United States.

“With Tropical Storm Fay heading towards the Great State of New Hampshire this weekend, we are forced to reschedule our Portsmouth, New Hampshire Rally at the Portsmouth International Airport at Pease,” Trump tweeted. "Stay safe, we will be there soon!”

The latest setback came as the Trump campaign casts about for ways to reverse its recent downward slide in the polls at a time when the president is facing widespread criticism over his handling of the pandemic and his harsh stance against those protesting racial injustice.

With growing whispers of a staff shakeup and behind-the-scenes finger-pointing among White House, campaign and Republican Party officials, the campaign has been looking for something to reverse the negative momentum.

But attack lines against Democratic rival Joe Biden have failed to get traction and attempts to get Trump back on the road have faltered. His rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma, three weeks ago was intended to mark his triumphal return to the trail, but it produced a surprisingly sparse crowd and campaign travel again was put on hold.

Trump’s visit to Florida was supposed to launch back-to-back days of high-profile campaigning but instead wound up being a one-off. He did fit in a campaign fundraiser in South Florida and events focused on government counternarcotics efforts and support for the Venezuelan people.

At his Doral event with Venezuelan expatriates, Trump courted a segment of Florida’s diverse Hispanic population by sharpening an emerging attack line: Biden might not be a socialist, but he is running past his expiration date and controlled by an ascendant liberal wing of the Democratic Party.

“Republicans are the party of freedom, and Democrats are the party of socialism and worse,” Trump said.

His visit to Florida took him to terrain where COVID-19′s surge threatens his hold on a must-win state and raises questions about Republican aims to hold their nominating convention in Jacksonville next month.

Biden pointed to Florida’s rising coronavirus cases, saying, “It is clear that Trump’s response — ignore, blame others, and distract — has come at the expense of Florida families.”

But Saturday's New Hampshire visit was more problematic. Campaign officials privately acknowledged there had been fears all along about how many people would attend the Portsmouth rally. After the disappointing turnout in Tulsa, aides were intent on avoiding a repeat.

Once the storm entered the forecast, even if the rain was expected to stop in the hours before the rally, concerns about turnout only grew. For the event’s scheduled start time Saturday evening, Weather.Com forecast a 15% chance of rain.

But there was also strong opposition to Trump’s rally among some prominent New Hampshire Republicans. Judd Gregg, who previously served New Hampshire both as a governor and senator, bluntly called Trump’s planned appearance “a mistake.”

“New Hampshire has been extremely aggressive under the governor in containing the virus,” Gregg said in an interview with The Associated Press, confirming that he had not planned to attend. “People are concerned about folks bringing the problem to us.”

Trump, with just months left before voters decide whether to reelect him, has been eager to signal that normal life can resume despite a rampaging virus that has killed more than 130,000 Americans.

Unlike the rally in Tulsa, which was held indoors where the virus more easily circulates, the rally in Portsmouth was to be partially outdoors, held in an airplane hangar open on one side with the crowd spilling out onto the tarmac before Air Force One.

Moreover, while masks were distributed in Tulsa, few rallygoers wore them after weeks of Trump deriding their use. This time, the campaign had strongly encouraged their use.

The venue was to be significantly smaller than the cavernous Tulsa arena, and aides had deliberately set lower expectations for crowd size. Before the Oklahoma event, which spurred days of protests, campaign manager Brad Parscale boasted that a million ticket requests had been received. The Tulsa fire marshal said 6,000 people attended.

New Hampshire has had a relatively low number of COVID-19 cases, while those in Oklahoma were rising before Trump arrived. Oklahoma health officials said the rally and accompanying protests “likely contributed” to a surge in infections in the city. Several campaign staffers and Secret Service agents tested positive for the virus.

Laboratory did not report infections to Nashville for weeks

NASHVILLE — A laboratory processing Nashville coronavirus tests did not report the results of 312 infections to the city for weeks, the Tennessean reported.

The delay hampered the city's contract tracing efforts and led to an artificial case spike as the results were added to Wednesday and Thursday's totals.

Dr. Alex Jahangir, the leader of Nashville’s coronavirus task force, said the city doesn't know if the test results were reported more quickly to the infected individuals.

The city sends test samples to labs, then the lab sends results to the Tennessee Department of Health which relays them to the Nashville Metro Public Health Department. People who are tested get their results directly through a web portal updated by the lab.

“It could be that part of those people got delayed results and they weren’t aware they were positive,” he said. “Our hope is, if somebody was getting a test … they would self-isolate until they get results.”

It was the third time Nashville test results were delayed by American Esoteric Laboratories, a company that until recently processed samples from test sites run by the city. Jahangir said the delay was one of the reasons the city recently replaced AEL with a new company, Pathgroup, which had “tremendously” reduced the wait times.

The delayed reporting from tests dating as far back as mid-June may have set back the city's efforts to slow an escalating outbreak. Nashville employs contact tracers to investigate the source of infections and identify clusters, but they can’t trace infections if they don’t know they exist. And those infected individuals may have been spreading the virus unknowingly for weeks.

The error also represents the larger challenge of an U.S. outbreak that has strained testing and tracing efforts across the country. Coronavirus is surging in many states, and most of them depend on a small group of laboratories to process millions of tests.

“We have heard of delays of seven, 10, and sometimes even 12 days to get results back from a test. That’s unacceptable,” Tennessee Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey said on Wednesday. “We can’t get patients back to work and we can’t get contact tracing started until we get that result back in.”

The delayed cases on Thursday contributed to a single-day total of 688 new infections, the highest ever reported in the city.

During a call with Metro Council members, Nashville Health Director Michael Caldwell said the escalating virus had challenged the city’s team of 125 contact tracers. The team will respond to recent surge of infection with a “blitz” of emergency tracing, he said.

Maryville allows employees to make benefit plan changes mid-year, denies single-property annexation

A fully masked Maryville City Council met Tuesday in its first public session since the 2021 fiscal budget took effect, addressing a variety of policy changes, planning requests and local appointments.

Council members tackled 17 items in their July 7 meeting with unanimous votes on all. These included a change in city employee policy regarding flexible benefit plans during COVID-19, an annexation request and rezoning of property on Sandy Springs Road.

Mid-year changes to benefit plans

The city is now allowing its employees to change their flexible benefits plans mid-year due to COVID-19.

Leaders approved an ordinance to give employees the ability to change benefit plan elections in the middle of the year, giving them the ability to decrease the amount of money coming out of their paychecks for things like health care and dependent care.

Notes on the ordinance stated this move comes because “there may be some effect on amounts spent” as the virus changes local health care landscapes.

“The IRS has given employers the option this year due to COVID to allow employees to make election changes,” Administrative Services and Communications Director Jane Groff explained to council members Tuesday. “There probably was a reduction of dependent care costs over the past few months.”

With the lack of medical facilities open to procedures for more than a month in Blount, Groff said the city wanted to give people the option to reduce how much they were paying.

A number of city employees wanted to do this for both dependent care and flexible spending arrangements, Groff said, leading to the decision to amend the ordinance.

Annexation request denied

Council members also chose to deny an annexation request by a family that lives on the corner of Ludwick Drive and Kensington Boulevard, mere feet outside Maryville city limits on Blount County land.

The family’s father explained to council he and his wife wanted their 4-year-old — diagnosed with autism in 2019 — to be able to get services from the city’s school system.

Notes on the request showed it would have netted the city $1,016.39 in property taxes, but council members unanimously decided against the move, noting though they understood the family’s difficult situation, it wasn’t good planning practice to annex one house at a time.

City Manager Greg McClain said the family had called him and though he informed them the city’s planning staff didn’t usually allow those types of annexations, it was within their rights to make the request to council.

McClain said in an interview after the meeting the last large annexation the city made was for the Robert C. Jackson extension project near Morganton Road: It was for the road, but the city also ended up annexing residential properties, McClain said.

Caterer permits altered, SunTrust bank land rezoning approved, six reappointments approved

In other action during the July 7 meeting, council members:

• Approved rezoning property on West Broadway Avenue behind the SunTrust bank from Mixed Use to Business and Transportation District. Notes on this move state there is a site plan for a 4,400-square-foot building on the land, which fronts Old Niles Ferry Road: The whole property may ultimately be redeveloped.

• Approved changing code governing caterers’ permits to align with Tennessee state law.

• Approved the renewal of Blount Taxi’s franchise.

• Approved an ordinance on first reading to amend rules governing the Historic Zoning Commission and allowing them to have more freedom in design-criteria decisions.

• Approved the abandonment of a portion of Highland Avenue near the old Kizer & Black property to make way for new greenway development planned for that area.

• Approved a resolution to contract with the Municipal Technical Advisory Service to do a legal review of city code.

• Approved establishing a speed limit of 25 mph for the Windridge and Worthington Boulevard neighborhoods.

• Approved the declaration of around 30 items as surplus — many being vehicles.

• Approve mayoral and council reappointments for six people: Ben Cate to the Maryville Housing Authority board of directors, Dan Monat and Steve Greene to the Planning Commission, Clint Woodfin to the Board of Zoning Appeals, Brian Keyl to the Tree Board, Joseph Dawson and Jeff Caylor to the Maryville Public Building Authority and Dallas Monroe to the Maryville/Alcoa/Blount County Parks and Recreation Commission.