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City Council approves zoning change for development near canyon rim

TWIN FALLS — City Council approved a zoning district change Monday for a proposed residential development near the canyon rim.

The change creates a zoning development agreement for the lot to the west of Canyon Crest Dining and Event Center on Canyon Crest Drive. The developer, Federation Pointe, LLC., is proposing to build 25 single-family townhomes on this site.

These townhomes will be connected to one another in four rows, three of which are three stories, while a row of six homes nearest the canyon will be two stories tall.

The council’s unanimous approval of this zoning change allows the project to move forward, but it doesn’t authorize construction to commence. This is just a step in the development process.

In addition to the zoning change, the developer requested the council approve modifications to city code for the project. One of these modifications will allow decks and patios connected to the buildings to cross over the existing canyon rim setback line.

City planner Ian Zollinger said decks on only two of the six homes near the canyon would cross over this line, which is intended to keep distance between development and the canyon rim.

Mayor Suzanne Hawkins said she was concerned that if the council approves this modification, as this project moves forward, decks from the other buildings may also cross over this line. To prevent this from happening she proposed a condition to the project that allows only the two townhomes on each end of the row to have decks crossing the setback. Council approved this condition with a 4-3 vote.

City council member Greg Lanting also expressed some concern about potential parking issues he thinks could arise from this project.

According to the developer’s plans, each townhome would have its own garage as well as a driveway that could fit two cars. But Lanting encouraged the developer to find additional spaces.

Lanting said parking in the surrounding area is already tight. He noted the amount of street parking that already takes place on Canyon Crest Drive outside of Rivercrest Apartments, which is across the street from this proposed development.

“I’m going to be voting yes on this, but as this goes down the road, I think you might want to look and see whether there’s some additional spots of parking,” Lanting said.

Related to parking, David Gadd, an attorney representing Summit Dental Care, which is located next to the lot, said his client is concerned about increases in vehicle traffic attributable to this development.

Gadd said one of the planned ways to access this development would take drivers through the dental office’s parking lot.

“My client services patients of all ages, including the elderly and children, and has concerns about this becoming a main thoroughfare,” Gadd said.

Before this item made its way to the council, the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission approved the zoning change with some conditions. One of which stipulates that the developer must add another primary entrance to the townhomes directly connected to Canyon Crest Drive.

Gadd said his client appreciates this additional access point but speculated that residents will use whichever entrance is most convenient for them.

No other members of the public spoke in favor or against this project during the public comment period of the hearing.

Comings and Goings 2021: New coffee place and bar open up shop

National
AP
US tops 500,000 virus deaths

The COVID-19 death toll in the U.S. topped 500,000 Monday, a staggering number that all but matches the number of Americans killed in World War II, Korea and Vietnam combined.

The U.S. recorded an estimated 405,000 deaths in World War II, 58,000 in the Vietnam War and 36,000 in the Korean War.

President Joe Biden held a sunset moment of silence and a candle-lighting ceremony at the White House and ordered American flags lowered at federal buildings for the next five days.

“We have to resist becoming numb to the sorrow,” Biden said. “We have to resist viewing each life as a statistic or a blur.”

Monday’s grim milestone, as recorded by Johns Hopkins University, comes as states redouble efforts to get the coronavirus vaccine into arms after last week’s winter weather closed clinics, slowed vaccine deliveries and forced tens of thousands of people to miss their shots.

Despite the rollout of vaccines since mid-December, a closely watched model from the University of Washington projects more than 589,000 dead by June 1.

The U.S. toll is by far the highest reported in the world, accounting for 20 percent of the nearly 2.5 million coronavirus deaths globally, though the true numbers are thought to be significantly higher, in part because many cases were overlooked, especially early in the outbreak.

The first known deaths from the virus in the U.S. were in early February 2020. It took four months to reach the first 100,000 deaths. The toll hit 200,000 in September and 300,000 in December, then took just over a month to go from 300,000 to 400,000 and another month to climb from 400,000 to 500,000.

Average daily deaths and cases have plummeted in the past few weeks. Virus deaths have fallen from more than 4,000 reported on some days in January to an average of fewer than 1,900 per day.

But experts warn that dangerous variants could cause the trend to reverse itself. And some experts say not enough Americans have been inoculated yet for the vaccine to be making much of a difference.

Instead, the drop-off in deaths and cases has been attributed to the passing of the holidays; the cold and bleak days of midwinter, when many people stay home; and better adherence to mask rules and social distancing.

Dr. Ryan Stanton, an emergency room physician in Lexington, Kentucky, who has treated scores of COVID-19 patients, said he never thought the U.S. deaths would be so high.

“I was one of those early ones that thought this may be something that may hit us for a couple months … I definitely thought we would be done with it before we got into the fall. And I definitely didn’t see it heading off into 2021,” Stanton said.

Kristy Sourk, an intensive-care nurse at Hutchinson Regional Medical Center in Hutchinson, Kansas, said she is encouraged by the declining caseload and progress in vaccinating people, but “I know we are so far from over.”

People “are still dying, and families are still isolated from their loved ones who are unable to be with them so that is still pretty heart-wrenching,” she said.

Snow, ice and weather-related power outages closed some vaccination sites and held up shipments across a large swath of the nation, including in the Deep South.

As a result, the seven-day rolling average of administered first doses fell by 20 percent between Feb. 14 and Feb. 21, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The White House said that about a third of the roughly 6 million vaccine doses delayed by bad weather were delivered over the weekend, with the rest expected to be delivered by mid-week, several days earlier than originally expected. White House coronavirus response coordinator Andy Slavitt on Monday attributed the improved timeline to an “all-out, round-the-clock” effort over the weekend that included employees at one vaccine distributor working night shifts to pack vaccines.

In Louisiana, state health officials said some doses from last week’s shipments were delivered over the weekend and were expected to continue arriving through Wednesday. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said last week’s supply arrived Monday. And in Nashville, Tennessee, health officials were able to vaccinate more than 2,300 senior citizens and teachers over the weekend after days of treacherous weather.

“We’ll be asking the vaccine providers to do a lot,” said Louisiana’s top public health adviser, Dr. Joe Kanter, who expects it to take a week or two to catch up on vaccinations after a storm coated roads with ice and left many areas without running water.

Some hospitals, clinics, community sites and pharmacies that are in Louisiana’s vaccination network will get double allocations of doses this week — just as Gov. John Bel Edwards starts offering shots to teachers, daycare workers, pregnant women and people age 55 to 64 with certain preexisting conditions.

New York City officials expected to catch up on vaccinations after being forced to delay scheduling tens of thousands of appointments last week, the mayor said Monday.

“That means we’ve basically lost a full week in our vaccination efforts,” DeBlasio said.

More than 44 million Americans have received at least one dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, and about 1.6 million per day received either first or second dose over the past seven days, according to the CDC.

The nation’s supply could expand significantly if health regulators approve a single-shot COVID-19 vaccine developed by drugmaker Johnson & Johnson.

The company said it will be able to provide 20 million U.S. doses by the end of March if it gets the green light, and would have capacity to provide 100 million vaccine doses to the U.S. by the end of June.


National
AP
Court won't halt turnover of Trump's tax records

WASHINGTON — In a significant defeat for former President Donald Trump, the Supreme Court on Monday declined to step in to halt the turnover of his tax records to a New York state prosecutor.

The court’s action is the apparent culmination of a lengthy legal battle that had already reached the high court once before.

Trump’s tax records are not supposed to become public as part of prosecutors’ criminal investigation, but the high court’s action is a blow to Trump because he has long fought on many fronts to keep his tax records shielded from view. The ongoing investigation that the records are part of could also become an issue for Trump in his life after the presidency.

In a statement, Trump blasted prosecutors and said the “Supreme Court never should have let this ‘fishing expedition’ happen, but they did.” The Republican claimed the investigation is politically motivated by Democrats in “a totally Democrat location, New York City and State.” And he said he would “fight on” and that “We will win!”

The Supreme Court waited months to act in the case. The last of the written briefs in the case was filed Oct. 19. But a court that includes three Trump appointees waited through the election, Trump’s challenge to his defeat and a month after Trump left office before issuing its order.

The court offered no explanation for the delay, and the legal issue before the justices did not involve whether Trump was due any special deference because he was president.

The court’s order is a win for Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., who has been seeking Trump’s tax records since 2019 as part of an investigation. Vance, a Democrat, had subpoenaed the records from the Mazars accounting firm that has long done work for Trump and his businesses. Mazars has said it would comply with the subpoena, but Trump sued to block the records’ release.

Vance’s office had said it would be free to enforce the subpoena and obtain the records in the event the Supreme Court declined to step in and halt the records’ turnover, but it was unclear when that might happen. In a three-word statement Monday, Vance said only: “The work continues.”

The court’s action Monday wasn’t the only defeat for Trump, the court also declined to get involved in a handful of cases related to the 2020 election.

The records Vance has been after are more than eight years of Trump’s personal and corporate tax records. Vance has disclosed little about what prompted him to seek them. In one court filing last year, however, prosecutors said they were justified in demanding the records because of public reports of “possibly extensive and protracted criminal conduct at the Trump Organization.”

Part of the probe involves payments to two women — porn actress Stormy Daniels and model Karen McDougal — to keep them quiet during the 2016 presidential campaign about alleged extramarital affairs with Trump. Trump has denied the affairs.

In July, the justices in a 7-2 ruling rejected Trump’s argument that the president is immune from investigation while he holds office or that a prosecutor must show a greater need than normal to obtain the tax records.

Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, whom Trump nominated to the high court, joined that decision. It was issued before Trump’s third nominee, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, replaced the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the court.

As part of its July decision, the high court returned the Vance case and a similar case involving records sought by Congress to lower courts. And the court prevented the records from being turned over while the cases proceeded.

Since the high court’s ruling, in the Vance case, Trump’s attorneys made additional arguments that his tax records should not be turned over, but they lost again in federal court in New York and on appeal. It was those rulings that Trump had sought to put on hold.


President Donald Trump gestures to the crowd as he arrives to speak at a campaign rally July 17, 2019 at Williams Arena in Greenville, N.C.


Local
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Idaho’s COVID-19 cases are dropping. Why? Everyone has a theory. Is yours right?

Rarely has the term “cautiously optimistic” been more fitting than when Idaho leaders talk about the state’s coronavirus cases in 2021.

From local public health experts to the governor, the people responsible for Idaho’s COVID-19 pandemic battle see a light at the end of the tunnel.

All of Idaho’s COVID-19 numbers are looking better than they have in months.

The daily cases for Idaho are a fraction of their fall peak — dropping from a high of 2,298 on Dec. 9 down to 314 on Friday, according to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare’s statistics. Hospitalizations of people with COVID-19 have stubbornly remained above 140 people a day, but they’re now at levels unseen since late September. The same is true of people needing ICU care for coronavirus complications — about a third the ICU admissions Idaho hospitals were reporting in December.

“We’re delighted,” Idaho Gov. Brad Little said in an interview Friday.

“People have just got to continue to be careful,” he said. “Right now, we’re in a race to get the vaccine into as many arms as possible.”

BUT WHY ARE IDAHO’S CORONAVIRUS CASES FALLING?

The Statesman talked with public health experts and Little about what they’re hearing — and their theories about what’s causing the situation to get better in Idaho and across the country. They said it’s probably a mix of a few factors.

They also stressed that, while it’s worth celebrating, it’s not a cue to throw away your mask and hang out in packed bars.

There are wild cards in the future. Students and teachers are going back to face-to-face classrooms with full classes. A public health board on Friday lifted the mask mandate for Ada County. (Boise’s mask mandate remains.) And this week, one of the most concerning variants of the coronavirus was confirmed in the Treasure Valley, while two other variants were found in Boise-area wastewater.

“People think we are in the home stretch — cases down, hospitalizations down, vaccines rolling out,” state coronavirus working group member Dr. David Pate said on Twitter. “They have no idea what is coming, and now our school boards and (Central District Health’s board) are reinforcing those beliefs by their actions. I am trying to sound the alarm, but apparently no one is within earshot.”

ARE PEOPLE GETTING BETTER AT COVID-19 PROTOCOLS?

Idaho has seen two major surges of COVID-19. The worst kicked off in October and peaked in early December. Public health officials begged people not to travel or host large gatherings for the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, fearing the worst.

But a third surge never materialized. The opposite happened. Cases went down.

“Everybody from the CDC to almost all the experts have not gotten everything right, because there’s a myriad of things” involved in the pandemic, Little said. “Obviously one of them is behavior. Part of that, we believe, is awareness we did through ONE Idaho (COVID-19 prevention campaign), but we also think … as time went on, (more Idahoans) knew someone who was really sick” or who died from COVID-19.

Two public health experts think that might be part of the calculus that put Idaho’s case counts on a downward slope. But how much? They’re not sure.

“We’ve been living with COVID for about a year now,” said Kimberly Link, communicable disease control manager for Central District Health in Boise. There are “more permanent changes in how we’re interacting with one another, both in our homes and in public, that are safe practices. … Masking and physical distancing have become part of the way we live, and that is going to impact the way the illness is transmitted.”

Little said Idahoans have sacrificed during the pandemic — staying home, postponing trips, not visiting loved ones, losing a business or their job because of the economic toll of COVID-19. Thousands of Idahoans also lost loved ones to COVID-19.

People whose sacrifices prevented more deaths and helped to slow the spread of the virus “are part of the reason we are where we are” with better control of outbreaks, Little said.

LESS TESTING = FEWER CASES?

Dr. Sky Blue, an epidemiologist and infectious disease specialist in the Treasure Valley, says some people have floated this theory. It doesn’t hold up.

A lower positivity rate means a community’s infection rate is low enough that it can catch many of its infections by testing people. When cases are raging out of control, the positivity rate goes up — because there are so many people catching and spreading the virus, the health care workers and laboratories that do the tests can’t keep up with demand.

The percent of Idaho COVID-19 tests coming back positive now is inching close to 5% — the upper limit recommended by the World Health Organization. Three months ago, Idaho’s positivity rate was nearly 20%.

“Essentially, we’re reaching that point where the amount of testing that’s being done is adequate to the amount of illness in the community, because the amount of illness in the community went down,” Link said.

WHAT ABOUT VACCINES? DO THEY DESERVE CREDIT?

Yes, but it will be weeks or months before Idaho sees the full effect of vaccines in controlling the spread of the coronavirus.

Many public health experts see vaccination as the clearest path to something approaching “herd immunity” from the COVID-19 virus.

People start to build immunity against COVID-19 after their first dose of the vaccine. But getting 90% or better protection requires a second dose three or four weeks later (for the current vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer), plus a few weeks for the body to build up immune cells.

Idaho’s first vaccinated frontline health care workers, long-term care facility residents and staff have only reached that point in the past few weeks. As more people get vaccines, the “herd” will grow.

A recent decline in outbreaks at long-term care facilities in Idaho underscores that timing, Link said.

“That’s one area where the vaccine has definitely had an impact,” she said. “If we see 70% to 80% of those residents being vaccinated,” that can keep vulnerable Idahoans from getting infected and, in some cases, dying.

More vaccines are on the way. The federal government is accelerating its vaccine rollout, shipping out more vials to Idaho and to retail pharmacies including Idaho Walmart and Albertsons stores.

Those factors — plus reclaiming doses that were sitting unused in a special federal program — has given Idaho a boost. The state ranked 18th in the U.S. for administering its vaccines, the state’s Coronavirus Vaccine Advisory Committee chairperson said on Friday.

Little is optimistic about vaccines. He said a hospital leader in Cascade just reported vaccinating 500 people — a number equal to almost 5% of the population of the entire county — in one day.

IS THE CORONAVIRUS CHANGING?

Little said his public health team has always told him, “Viruses do what viruses do, and that they change.”

Those changes are a normal part of the evolution of a virus. It mutates as it makes copies of itself inside a person’s body.

Some mutations can make the virus more infectious — as scientists believe happened with a few “variants of concern,” such as the B.1.1.7 variant first discovered in England.

Little said those variants are under the world’s microscope now, “but we think maybe the existing coronavirus (that has dominated in Idaho) may be getting less infectious,” he said.

IS IT SEASONAL? THE FLU COMES AND GOES, RIGHT?

Maybe. Maybe not.

“We’ve seen these waves or spikes in illness happen,” Link said. “There is some nature of coming and going and what ultimately causes it is, I think, a little bit speculated about, but it’s not uncommon.”

But epidemiologists have their doubts about COVID-19 easing up because it’s going out of season. That’s because the other classic seasonal virus — influenza — usually arrives in Idaho in the fall. And it usually peaks right about now.

DID THE VIRUS RUN OUT OF IDAHOANS TO INFECT?

The Magic Valley could be one case study for what makes a virus surge and retreat.

Twin Falls saw a massive surge in October. The regional hospital got so overwhelmed, it had to send patients to the Treasure Valley. That lasted for weeks.

Local officials declined to clamp down on activity while the virus spread. They voted down mask mandates.

And then, in mid-November, something changed. Cases fell. Hospital beds opened up. The positivity rate got better.

Was it because people heeded the call for personal responsibility, donning masks and keeping their distance?

“If you’ve ever walked through anywhere in Canyon County or Twin Falls, you know that’s not true,” Blue said.

What he and others suspect — noting that all of this is speculation — is an odd kind of isolated herd immunity.

“We have some folks who have been so diligent with masking and isolation, they’re probably not being exposed,” Blue said. That group has self-selected out of the herd.

“Then you have the others who wouldn’t put a mask on if their life depended on it,” he said. That group is COVID-19’s free ticket into the herd.

For the past year, those groups haven’t been mixing like they would before the pandemic, Blue said.

While the first group stays home, the virus spreads through the second group. Most people in the second group recover with some immunity. Eventually, the virus runs out of new bodies to infect.

“So you don’t see that taking off quite like the wildfire it was for a while,” Blue said.

But those who haven’t been infected cannot stay home forever. And those who recovered from COVID-19 won’t be immune forever.

Idaho cannot reach a true “herd immunity” without many more people dying and being hospitalized.

That’s why Blue and others hope Idahoans will take the vaccine.

Blue believes the virus will become “endemic,” bouncing around forever like the flu. Vaccines and post-infection immunity would likely make the disease less severe as time goes on, he said.

CAN IDAHOANS RELAX ABOUT COVID-19 NOW?

This question prompted a few seconds of silence on the other end of the phone during interviews.

While the board that governs her agency voted Friday to lift Ada County’s mask mandate, Link said the importance of the public health guidance to keep wearing masks has not changed.

“Masking and physical distancing, I really do truly think that those are going to be — above anything else — the things that really get us through all of this,” she said. “Those are the first things that came on board, and they should be the last to go.”

If the virus starts to spread uncontrollably again, it could go from 500 cases in Ada County this week to 2,000 cases a week in March, she noted. That’s what happened in previous surges.

Her advice to everyone? Be careful.

“I think that anytime somebody is going out outside of their home and spending time with people they don’t live with, masking and physical distancing need to be a cornerstone,” she said.

PHOTOS: Hundreds to receive vaccine in Jerome
PHOTOS: Gov. Little talks vaccine response
Everything you need to know about COVID-19 vaccination

Business
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Mr. Gas in Jerome ranked No. 5 in the country

TWIN FALLS — Truckers have ranked a Magic Valley-owned truck stop the fifth-best in the nation.

Mr. Gas Travel Center in Jerome earned the No. 5 “Chain Truck Stop” spot in a Trucker Path poll this month. Trucker Path is a popular app that hundreds of thousands of truckers use to find wash locations, weigh stations and places to stop.Bruce Jensen, the general manager at the Mr. Gas truck stop, said it’s a big deal for the business to be recognized as one of the country’s best. It’s especially impressive when you consider that Mr. Gas is both new to the truck stop game and has locations exclusively in the Magic Valley, Jensen said.

“We’re competing against Love’s and Pilot,” he said. “It is a prestigious list and for some guys out of Burley, Idaho to make a list like that, it’s just pretty cool.”

Mr. Gas might technically be a chain, but it’s about as small and local a chain as you’ll find. The Burley-based gas station and convenience store company began in 1923. Today there are three Burley locations and one each in Paul, Twin Falls and Jerome. The Jerome location, which opened in March 2018, is the company’s first truck stop. The company has a second truck stop planned for Boise.

There isn’t any secret to getting good reviews from truckers, Jensen said. But he guesses there are a few reasons drivers like the Mr. Gas truck stop so much.

For one, the place is “super clean,” Jensen said. The staff is friendly as well. Jensen also noted that the Mr. Gas is well designed and has a good location.

There are about 6,000 truck stops in the U.S. and truckers have options for where they pull over and sleep. Jensen said it’s a big deal to be recognized as one of the best.

“For us to be ranked fifth out of 6,000,” Jensen said. “That’s pretty amazing.”

PHOTOS: Building up Bliss

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