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Biden to unveil actions on guns, including new ATF boss

WASHINGTON

President Joe Biden will unveil a series of executive actions aimed at addressing gun violence on Thursday, according to a person familiar with the plans, delivering his first major action on gun control since taking office.

He’s also expected to nominate David Chipman, a former federal agent and adviser at the gun control group Giffords, to be director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

Two people familiar with the matter told The Associated Press that Chipman’s nomination is expected to be announced Thursday. The people could not discuss the matter publicly ahead of an official announcement and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity. If confirmed, Chipman would be the agency’s first permanent director since 2015.

Biden has faced increasing pressure to act on gun control after a spate of mass shootings across the United States in recent weeks, but the White House has repeatedly emphasized the need for legislative action on guns. While the House passed a background-check bill last month, gun control measures face slim prospects in an evenly divided Senate, where Republicans remain near-unified against most proposals.

Biden is expected to announce tighter regulations requiring buyers of so-called “ghost guns” to undergo background checks. The homemade firearms — often assembled from parts and milled with a metal-cutting machine — often lack serial numbers used to trace them. It’s legal to build a gun in a home or a workshop and there is no federal requirement for a background check.

The president’s plans were previewed by a person familiar with the expected actions who was not authorized to publicly discuss them. Biden will be joined by Attorney General Merrick Garland at the event.

The ATF is currently run by Acting Director Regina Lombardo. Gun-control advocates have emphasized the significance of the ATF director in enforcing the nation’s gun laws, and Chipman is certain to win praise from them. During his time as a senior policy adviser with Giffords, he spent considerable effort pushing for greater regulation and enforcement on “ghost guns,” reforms of the background check system and measures to reduce the trafficking of illegal firearms.

Prior to that, Chipman spent 25 years as an agent at the ATF, where he worked on stopping a trafficking ring that sent illegal firearms from Virginia to New York, and served on the ATF’s SWAT team. Chipman is a gun owner himself.

Chipman and a White House spokesman both declined to comment.

During his campaign, Biden promised to prioritize new gun control measures as president, including enacting universal background check legislation, banning online sales of firearms and the manufacture and sale of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. But gun-control advocates have said that while they were heartened by signs from the White House that they took the issue seriously, they’ve been disappointed by the lack of early action.

Biden himself expressed uncertainty late last month when asked if he had the political capital to pass new gun control proposals, telling reporters, “I haven’t done any counting yet.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said last month, however, that executive actions on guns were coming as well, calling them “one of the levers that we can use” to address gun violence.

For years, federal officials have been sounding the alarm about an increasing black market for homemade, military-style semi-automatic rifles and handguns. Ghost guns have increasingly turned up at crime scenes and in recent years have been turning up more and more when federal agents are purchasing guns in undercover operations from gang members and other criminals.

It is hard to say how many are circulating on the streets, in part because in many cases police departments don’t even contact the federal government about the guns because they can’t be traced.

Some states, like California, have enacted laws in recent years to require serial numbers be stamped on ghost guns.

The critical component in building an untraceable gun is what is known as the lower receiver, a part typically made of metal or polymer. An unfinished receiver — sometimes referred to as an “80-percent receiver” — can be legally bought online with no serial numbers or other markings on it, no license required.

A gunman who killed his wife and four others in Northern California in 2017 who had been prohibited from owning firearms built his own to skirt the court order before his rampage. And in 2019, a teenager used a homemade handgun to fatally shoot two classmates and wound three others at a school in suburban Los Angeles.


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Working from home is here to stay but likely in a hybrid model, experts say

LEAGUE CITY

Home might forever be where the heart is, but will it increasingly be where the job is for greater numbers of U.S. workers? Some experts argue remote working is here to stay and predict the rolls of virtual employees are likely to swell; but others, including some major local employers, aren’t sold yet.

The pandemic drove record numbers of the workforce home starting in late March and early April 2020, including many in Galveston County. In the ensuing months, businesses used the pandemic to reevaluate how they operated and rethink their relationships with employees.

As more and more people receive the vaccine, some are finally dreaming of what life might look like once the pandemic no longer calls the shots.

Might more people work from home in the future? The answer, according to a host of employers, employees and experts, is complicated, but it appears remote work is here to stay.

“I refrain from making specific predictions, but the trend of more people working remotely over the next five to 10 years will increase,” said Prithwiraj “Raj” Choudhury, an associate professor at Harvard Business School, who has studied working from home since 2012.

“It will become a substantial part of the workforce,” Choudhury said.

But whether Galveston County businesses and residents will continue to work entirely from home or return en masse to an office once the pandemic ends is more complicated than a simple dichotomy.

‘NOT THE SAME’

Shane Dickson, for instance, made the decision some years ago to make his home in League City, where he’d grown up, and commute an hour each direction every morning to a job at an engineering firm near the intersection of Beltway 8 and Westheimer Road in far west Houston, he said.

The pandemic changed all that, forcing Dickson to convert two rooms in his League City home into personal office spaces for himself and his wife, where he has been working since early April 2020, he said.

Not commuting so far each day has been nice, and Dickson is enjoying spending time with his young daughter, who will turn 2 soon, he said.

“When you take those 15-minute breaks and just move around, I feel blessed to be able to see her and spend more time with her,” he said. “You can really enjoy seeing her grow, when you wouldn’t normally get that exposure.”

But Dickson is less fond of not seeing his coworkers each day and building relationships with them outside of Zoom or online messaging systems, he said.

“Even though we still talk, it’s not the same,” he said.

Company officials haven’t decided when they might shift out of pandemic mode, but they have announced tentative plans once they do, Dickson said. Their intention is to transition to a 50-50 schedule model permanently.

“Most of us had already worked a 4-10 schedule, where we worked 10 hours for four days each week,” he said. “This would be sort of a two day in the office and two days at home per week.”

That would give Dickson the best of both worlds, he said. He’d be able to avoid a lot of commuting and spend more time with his daughter some of the week, while also getting in-person interaction with his colleagues as well.

BEST OF BOTH WORLDS

Dickson’s future appears to stand somewhat in the middle of the spectrum between two extremes when it comes to post-pandemic plans for the workforce.

“If you’re asking if working from home is as efficient, I’d have to say no,” said Chris Doyle, the president and CEO of Texas First Bank. “I think it was a good alternative, in light of the fact that it protected our customers and employees. But if I had a choice, I’d rather everyone work from the office.”

During the height of the pandemic, as many as two-thirds of Texas First Bank’s employees worked from home, mainly those who weren’t retail employees directly serving customers, Doyle said.

Almost everyone, about 98 percent, has returned to an office or banking center, Doyle said.

Doyle is more open than he was before the pandemic to people with a compelling reason to work from home, but he remains largely dedicated to the idea of all employees returning once the pandemic is over, he said.

Officials with the island-based American National Insurance Co., which has hundreds of employees in League City’s South Shore Harbor office and in its downtown Galveston tower, still are formulating a specific policy that likely will be announced sometime in the next six to eight weeks, President and CEO James E. Pozzi said.

Management is considering the fact some productivity dropped off for some positions, while working remotely made sense for others, Pozzi said.

During the height of the pandemic, about 75 percent of its workforce was working remotely and 20 percent to 25 percent in buildings on a regular basis, Pozzi said.

NO GOING BACK?

Still, there are other extremes in the trend toward working from home.

Michelle Anderson had been working as the director of recruiting and human resources for a Dallas-based life insurance company for six years before the pandemic hit, she said. The company in late March 2020 went entirely virtual.

Anderson began working from home and then learned her position was going to become permanently remote, even after the pandemic ended, she said. So, she moved back to the area to be near family in League City.

“I just loved League City,” Anderson said. “It’s where I grew up and went to school.”

Anderson misses some of the social parts of working in an office but said she feels self-motivated and hasn’t been less productive during the pandemic. Most employees are contract workers whose salaries are based on commissions, making them self-motivated and hard working, she said.

“It all boils down to how you feel about your job,” she said.

DOES IT PRODUCE?

About 20 percent of workers reported working from home either all or most of the time before the pandemic began, according to data compiled by the Pew Research Center in December. That increased to about 71 percent of respondents working from home during the pandemic.

About 54 percent of all respondents said they wanted to work from home after the pandemic ends, according to the Pew Research Center.

Choudhury has studied different working-from-home measures for years and expects the hybrid model of working some percent of the time in the office and some percent outside the office to become the dominant model, he said.

In particular, Choudhury measured productivity levels during two working transitions at the U.S. Patent Office in Virginia, he said. The first, in 2007, came when workers moved from a five-day office schedule to four days at home and one in the office.

The second shift came in 2012 when the office allowed employees working for more than two years to move and work from anywhere, he said.

Data showed productivity increased about 4.4 percent, he said.

‘DOMINANT FORM OF WORK’

But the change also allowed the office to save millions in real estate costs and it opened up the talent pool to anyone in the country, Choudhury said.

“This model is much more inclusive for women and people with disabilities,” he said. “They tend to have less freedom relocating for a job.”

Organizations that fail to adopt at least some amount of working from home after the pandemic risk losing their best employees to companies more willing to adopt flexible schedules, Choudhury said.

“This is going to be the dominant form of work,” he said. “This is really an opportunity to figure out how to make this successful.”

Major technology companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Spotify made announcements during the pandemic that they’d keep some or many employees working from home even after the country reached herd immunity against COVID-19.

But not all have been as effusive in their praise of working from home. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, for instance, said he saw nothing positive in working from home, according to an interview in The Wall Street Journal.

For starters, debating ideas in the office was more difficult, Hastings said of working from home.

“Not being able to get together in person, particularly internationally, is a pure negative,” Hastings told The Wall Street Journal. “I’ve been super impressed at people’s sacrifices.”


FILE — In this Feb. 21, 2021, file photo, Tiger Woods looks on during the trophy ceremony on the practice green after the final round of the Genesis Invitational golf tournament at Riviera Country Club, in the Pacific Palisades area of Los Angeles. Authorities said Wednesday, April 7, Woods was speeding when he crashed leaving him seriously injured. (AP Photo/Ryan Kang, File)

Tiger Woods was driving more than 80 mph when he crashed SUV


Anthony Louviere gets an honorable mention in the fourth week of the annual FeatherFest PhotoFest Contest for his photo of a Yellow Warbler titled “Touch of Yellow.”

FeatherFest Photo Contest winners for week four (copy)


Free
School administrators say COVID mitigation methods working

GALVESTON

Public school districts across Galveston County have employed methods such as social distancing, face coverings and even in one case high-tech air filters to reduce the spread of COVID-19 this year. No matter the mix, they seem to have performed about the same.

District officials argue virus-fighting techniques are working to keep COVID-19 cases low and are preventing virus transmission within the school buildings. They argue schools are some of the safer places to be. The numbers indicate public schools are doing better than the general population in preventing virus spread.

Across the districts, the rates at which students are contracting COVID are relatively uniform — on average 5 percent of the student population.

That’s compared to roughly 9.4 percent of the Galveston County population having contracted COVID-19, according to Galveston County Health District data.

At the low end, 1,021 of Clear Creek Independent School District’s 40,588 students, 2.5 percent, have tested positive for COVID-19, according to Texas Education Agency and district data.

About 5 percent of students have tested positive for the virus at districts including Dickinson, Friendswood, Galveston and Santa Fe, according to Texas Education Agency and district data.

Although most districts are following common protocols, Galveston took an extra step of buying 116 biodefense air filters for its schools in October. The devices, which can be rotated through classrooms, are meant to clean viruses and bacteria out of the air using a heated filter.

The district spent $100,000 on the filters, called Integrated Viral Protection, according to district records.

The filters are one piece of multiple efforts — such as mask wearing, sanitizing stations, social distancing and hand washing — to ensure that students and staff members remained safe, spokesman Billy Rudolph said.

“All of it together is a huge peace of mind for our parents who are sending our kids here,” Rudolph said.

The district got the devices at discount prices as part of a pilot program, he said. About 343 of the district’s 6,664 students, 5.15 percent, have tested positive for COVID-19, according to district data.

The company that makes the filters, Integrated Viral Protection, has said the devices can kill COVID-19 because they have a filter to trap viral and bacterial particles and a heating element to kill them, co-founder Dr. Garrett Peel said.

“We have seen a decreased incidence of school closures and many without any contact tracing to classrooms with IVP,” Peel said in a statement.

Across Galveston County, districts — even those without new filtration systems — argue schools are some of the safest places students can be.

Hitchcock’s school district hasn’t had to shut down a campus because of cases or quarantines, Superintendent Travis Edwards said.

The district has been enforcing mask wearing and social distancing and is handing out bottled water to keep fountains shut down, he said. The district also had added a room in the nurse’s office for students who are feeling sick so they can stay separated from other students, he said.

Like many county districts, Hitchcock also has increased the frequency of custodial cleaning throughout the day, he said.

Erich Kreiter, Friendswood’s executive director of safety and operations, is convinced students aren’t contracting COVID in district facilities, he said.

Of 1,485 students the district told to quarantine because they’d been exposed to a student or staff member with COVID-19, only one became sick with the coronavirus, Kreiter said.

Kreiter also has noticed a spike in COVID-19 cases in the weeks after breaks, instead of the weeks following continuous school, he said.

“When kids are in school, the numbers are down,” Kreiter said.

Throughout the pandemic, some parents and teachers have raised concerns about in-person learning, including some Galveston virtual teachers who two months ago raised issue with being told to return to educating from a classroom instead of home.

At least in Friendswood, where almost all students attend in-person classes, schools are a safe place for students, he said.

Friendswood has been training staff members and students on proper hand washing, enforcing mask wearing and social distancing and fogging every building with disinfectant spray once a week, he said.

The district also altered its custodial scheduled for more frequent cleaning throughout the day, rather than mainly at night, he said.

“School is the safest place someone could possibly be,” Kreiter said. “I would encourage parents to get their kids in school.”


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Coming Friday

The popular ArtWalk is returning to Galveston later this month. Could this be a sign of more events to come?


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Galveston County turns to GOP consultant for redistricting help

GALVESTON

Galveston County will turn to a controversial political consultant to help commissioners redraw voting precinct lines later this year.

In a 4-1 vote Monday, commissioners agreed to hire Dale Oldham, a Washington-D.C.-based political consultant, to help redraw the county’s precinct map. Oldham helped the county with that process during 2011 and 2020, and the new maps landed the county in a legal fight with the U.S. Department of Justice.

The Justice Department argued the county’s new maps were set up to dilute minority voting powers and to favor Republican candidates.

Like other political subdivisions across the country, the county will redraw voting lines based on results of the U.S. Census later this year. It’s unclear how, exactly, commissioners court precinct lines might change.

Oldham and his firm helped redraw the county’s precincts after the 2010 Census, officials said. That’s the reason officials gave for hiring Oldham again this year.

Oldham is a nationally recognized and, to some, controversial figure when it comes to redistricting. He was a business partner to the late Thomas Hofeller, a Republican strategist, who helped engineer computer-generated voting maps across the country.

Hofeller has been accused of creating gerrymandered maps that favor Republican candidates.

Hofeller and Oldham also were connected to former President Donald Trump’s efforts to exclude non-citizens from the 2020 Census. Hofeller died in 2018.

Paul Ready, the county’s general counsel, Monday urged commissioners to spend $80,000 to retain Oldham and the Washington-based law firm he’s associated with, Holtzman Vogel Josefiak Torchinsky.

Oldham isn’t a demographer, Ready said.

He’s “an attorney with subject matter expertise,” Ready said.

Commissioners asked Ready whether there was a Houston-based firm that could do the work. Ready said Oldham would provide a “more efficient” path to drawing a new map because he helped draw the county’s maps 10 years ago.

Census numbers are scheduled to be released in September, later than originally planned because of delays caused by the pandemic and the political fights. Galveston County Judge Mark Henry didn’t see any value in waiting until closer to the release of data to hire a consultant, he said.

Ready told commissioners it had been very difficult for him to get Oldham’s attention and agreement to help the county this year. Waiting would making retaining him “even harder,” Ready said.

Oldham’s connection to Republican causes didn’t come up during Monday’s meeting.

The last time the commissioners created new precinct maps, the county ended up in federal court over accusations that proposed maps infringed on the rights of minority voters in the county.

The county eventually reached a compromise with the Justice Department to create the precinct maps as they exist today.

At the time, redrawn voter maps needed to be approved by the U.S. Department of Justice, under a process known as pre-clearance that required the federal government to approve maps in southern states that have a history of racial discrimination.

In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court abolished pre-clearance requirements, meaning the county’s maps wouldn’t need federal approval. In 2019, the Supreme Court ruled some redistricting complaints, including claims about partisan gerrymandering, are not something that can be reviewed by federal courts.

Commissioner Stephen Holmes, the only Democrat on the commissioners court, was the lone vote against hiring Oldham. Holmes said he voted against the hiring because commissioners had not been given enough information about Oldham and the firm before the vote.


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