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U.S. sanctions Cuban officials over human rights abuses, protests

The U.S. Treasury Department announced Thursday that the United States imposed new sanctions on Cuban officials accused of “serious human rights abuse and corruption” amid ongoing protests calling for economic reform and COVID-19 relief.

The sanctions target Cuba’s Interior Ministry and Alvaro Lopez Miera, head of Cuba’s Ministry of the Revolutionary Armed Forces. The financial penalties come under the Global Magnitsky Act, which seek to fight human rights abuses. The Treasury Department said Lopez Miera and the MINFAR “have attacked protesters and arrested or disappeared over 100 protesters in an attempt to suppress those protests.”

The anti-government protests are the largest seen in decades in the communist country, as people took to the streets earlier this month in the capital of Havana and other locations as Cuba continued to suffer from a deepening economic crisis and the pandemic.

President Joe Biden released a statement Thursday said the Cuban people have the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, just as Americans do: “I unequivocally condemn the mass detentions and sham trials that are unjustly sentencing to prison those who dared to speak out in an effort to intimidate and threaten the Cuban people into silence,” he said.

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CDC stands firm on mask guidance despite surge of Delta COVID-19 variant

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told reporters on Thursday that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is standing firm for now with its guidance  that only unvaccinated people need to wear masks to be safe, and vaccinated people are able to go without. Last May, the CDC said that vaccinated people could safely go without masks indoors, citing evidence that people who are fully immunized are unlikely to get sick and unlikely to spread the virus. However since then, the new “Delta” variant of the virus has spread rapidly across unvaccinated pockets of the U.S., once again overwhelming health care workers who say victims of the delta variant are younger and have become sicker. On July 9 the CDC issued guidance for schools, which calls on any unvaccinated staff and students to wear masks. Kids under 12 don’t yet qualify for the vaccine.

Walensky said “we are always looking at the data as the data come in. But CDC mask guidance hasn’t changed and that — for now — there’s no need. Fully vaccinated people are protected from severe illness, and we’ve always said that communities and individuals to make the decisions that are right for them based on what’s going on in their local areas.”  She later added: “In areas that have high and low amounts of vaccination … if you’re unvaccinated, you should absolutely be wearing a mask. If you’re vaccinated, you have exceptional levels of protection from that vaccine, and you may choose to add an extra layer of protection by putting on your mask and that’s a very individual choice.”

Later on Thursday, President Joe Biden said:“We follow the science. What’s happening now is all the major scientific operations … are looking at all the possibilities of what’s happening now,” he said. “We have a pandemic among the non-vaccinated — those who are not vaccinated.”

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NFL planning to enforce forfeits in event of games cancelled due to COVID-19 outbreaks

The NFL announced Thursday it will not allow games to be rescheduled in 2021 in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak. The league’s new policy was announced in a memo sent to all 32 teams, in which it states that if a team is forced to cancel a game due to COVID-19 infections among its non-vaccinated players, the team will likely have to forfeit the contest, per the NFL’s memo. Organizations that cause cancelations in 2021 could also face discipline from NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

COVID-19 forced a number of postponements during the 2020 season, though all teams played the entire 16-game schedule. There were no postponements in the playoffs, and Super Bowl was held as scheduled on Feb. 7.

The 2021 season is slated to begin on Thursday, Sept. 9 when the Buccaneers host the Cowboys.

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Cardinals’ DeAndre Hopkins questions NFL future due to COVID-19 vaccine concerns in since-deleted tweet

In a since-deleted tweet, Arizona Cardinals wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins questioned his future in the NFL due to the COVID-19 vaccine.

Hopkins said in the tweet: “Never thought I would say this, But being put in a position to hurt my team because I don’t want to partake in the vaccine is making me question my future in the @Nfl.” The tweet was deleted about 30 minutes after it was posted; Hopkins then later tweeted: “Freedom?”

The tweets were posted on the same day the NFL announced that teams that had COVID-19 outbreaks among unvaccinated players could be forced to forfeit games. The NFL said more than half of its teams have COVID-19 vaccination rates greater than 80% of their players, and more than 75% of players are in the process of being vaccinated. Nearly all clubs have vaccinated 100% of their Tier 1 and 2 staff. Teams have appropriate protocols set up for staffers who have not been vaccinated, consistent with the guidance given last April.

Hopkins played the first seven seasons of his NFL career with the Texans before he was traded to the Cardinals prior to the 2020 season. He has 10,009 receiving yards, the 49th most in NFL history.

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Senate Republicans block vote to advance bipartisan infrastructure bill

On Wednesday, Senate Republicans blocked a procedural vote to advance a massive bipartisan infrastructure bill, saying it is premature to do so while negotiators are still ironing out its details. The infrastructure bill, ultimately expected to be worth $600 billion, has been a key priority of President Joe Biden.

GOP senators blocked consideration of the measure with 49 votes, voting down Sen. Chuck Schumer’s bid to move debate forward while negotiators from both parties have yet to find common ground over issues such as funding for transit and how to pay for the package. The bipartisan bill focuses on brick-and-mortar projects while Democrats prefer a version that seeks $3.5 trillion for wider related issues like climate change initiatives and “human infrastructure” such as childcare.

Republican Sen. Mitt Romney, who is part of that bipartisan group that worked on the framework of the bill, called on Schumer to delay Wednesday’s vote until Monday because negotiators are close to reaching a full agreement. Romney said: “Until we’ve ironed out all of the remaining issues, Wednesday is premature, but I think Monday would be sufficient time for us to get all the remaining issues solved, and socialize the legislation with our colleagues so they know how they want to vote.”

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi vetoes two GOP recommendations for Jan. 6 committee

On Wednesday, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi vetoed two choices to serve on the committee set to investigate the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Reps. Jim Banks on Indiana and Jim Jordan of Ohio, chosen by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, were rejected by Pelosi to sit on the panel, which will investigate the riot at the U.S. Capitol. Banks and Jordan both voted against certifying the election results.

Pelosi said that the unprecedented decision was driven by the unprecedented nature of the Jan. 6 attack:
“We need a comprehensive investigation as to who organized this attack, who paid for it, how they nearly succeeded in overthrowing a presidential election, why they did it and how we must organize ourselves to prevent anything like it from ever happening again,” reads Pelosi’s statement.

Pelosi said she’s prepared to appoint Reps. Rodney Davis, Kelly Armstrong and Troy Nehls, and requested McCarthy to appoint two other members. The committee will have a total of 13 members, eight of those being appointed by Democrats and five appointed by Republican leader McCarthy. The panel is expected to hold its first hearing next week.

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San Francisco 49ers sign linebacker Fred Warner to five-year, $95M extension

The San Francisco 49ers and linebacker Fred Warner agreed to a five-year, $95 million contract extension on Wednesday. Warner will earn $40.5 million in guarantees, making him the highest-paid inside linebacker in the NFL.

The 24-year-old Warner was named first-team All-Pro this past season, after notching 125 combined tackles and two interceptions in the 2020 season. He tallied 125 tackles in 2020, adding a pair of fumble recoveries and two interceptions, and has finished with 100-plus tackles in each of the last three seasons, including 124 as a rookie in 2018.

The 49ers finished last in the NFC West last season at 6–10 after reaching the Super Bowl in 2019.

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Texas and Oklahoma look to potential conference move to SEC, leaving Big 12

Texas and Oklahoma have reached out to the SEC regarding a potential conference move. The addition of the Big 12 powers would give the SEC 16 schools, creating the nation’s first “super-conference” though Texas and Oklahoma’s induction into the SEC will be dependent on a “majority vote.”

Texas and Oklahoma both nearly left the Big 12 conference after the 2010 season, but stayed put as Missouri and Texas A&M left for the SEC.  Texas A&M president Ross Bjork said Wednesday he hopes the Aggies remain “the only SEC team from the state of Texas.”

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey declined to comment on Wednesday’s report. A Texas spokesperson told the Austin-American Statesman’s Brian Davis that “Speculation swirls around college athletics. We will not address rumors and speculation.”

Oklahoma State released a statement critical of any move: “We have heard unconfirmed reports that OU and UT approached Southeastern Conference officials about joining the SEC. We are gathering information and will monitor closely. If true, we are would be gravely disappointed.”

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Contagious Delta variant of COVID-19 making up 83% of new coronavirus cases

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director, said on Tuesday that the more contagious delta variant of COVID-19 now makes up 83% of sequenced samples in the United States. Walensky said in a Senate committee hearing: “This is a dramatic increase, up from 50% for the week of July 3.”

Health experts confirm that the delta variant is more transmissible than any other identified COVID-19 variant so far.  Recent data from Israel, evaluating effectiveness of the Pfizer/BionTech mRNA vaccine against the delta variant, found the vaccine to be 64% protective against infection, and that the vaccine is 93% effective in preventing severe disease and hospitalizations. Other studies indicate that the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are also effective against the delta variant.

However according to the CDC, more than half of the U.S. is not yet fully vaccinated, which is becoming increasingly worrisome to health experts. If many of these people do not get inoculated, Dr. Anthony Fauci said the U.S. can expect a “smoldering” outbreak for “a considerable period of time.”

The rise of the delta variant comes as the U.S. sees a new uptick in COVID-19 cases and an increase in hospitalizations and deaths. The average of new daily cases this week is up 66% from last week and 145% from two weeks ago, as cases surge in 44 states, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. In addition, hospitalizations are up 26% from last week. 99.5% of deaths are among the unvaccinated.

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Jeff Bezos and Blue Origin crew soar successfully into space, landing safely

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and three crewmates soared into space aboard a Blue Origin rocket from Texas, landing safely in the desert about 10 minutes later.  The New Shepard suborbital rocket lifted off about 9:12 a.m. EDT from the company’s Corn Ranch launch site 160 miles east of El Paso.

Bezos’ brother, Mark Bezos, rode into space with crewmates Wally Funk, an 82-year-old aviation pioneer from Texas, and 18-year-old Oliver Daemen — the youngest and oldest to ever fly in space. Daemen also became the first paying customer on a private company’s spacecraft, after a Blue Origin auction June 12.  The four crew members ascended the launch tower and reached the capsule via a walkway about 30 minutes before liftoff, where they were strapped into seats in the capsule for the countdown. The rocket, about five stories tall, accelerated to about 2,200 mph emitting 110,000 pounds of thrust, creating gravity forces of about three times the normal pull on Earth. After reaching space, the crew experience a few minutes of weightlessness before returning to Earth.

Bezos became the second person to reach space aboard his own company’s private spacecraft, the Blue Origin capsule. Just nine days earlier, Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, launched from the public Spaceport America, which is owned by the state of New Mexico. Bezos said he chose July 20 for the launch because it is the anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969. Bezos said at a news conference that his company plans two more flights this year with people on board, and that he hopes Blue Origin can eventually build orbital rockets and facilities on the moon — and even asteroids or Mars.

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