15 July 2020

  • Fraudsters begin to emerge from COVID-19 emergency loan program that lacked ‘safeguards’
    Lyndsey Besser demonstrates the equipment used in the Ghostbusters Dimension at The Void in Lindon on Monday, April 3, 2017. The virtual reality playspace developer is among Utah businesses that have received COVID-19 emergency loans through the stimulus-backed Paycheck Protection Program. The Void is not under investigation nor has it been accused of any misdeeds related to its Paycheck Protection funding. | Alex Goodlett, Deseret News

    SALT LAKE CITY — Did a hurried process to make available hundreds of billions of dollars in federal emergency COVID-19 funding open the door for scammers in Utah and across the country?

    It’s not clear how much of the $5.2 billion in potentially forgivable Paycheck Protection Program loans disbursed in Utah may have gone to fraudulent applicants, but the first of those cases popped up in federal court last week.

    And the watchdog charged with overseeing how taxpayer money is doled out through federal efforts like the Paycheck Protection Program warned in a report released last month that the stimulus-backed $670 billion effort embraced an application process that made it ripe for grifters.

    “Because of the number of loans approved, the speed with which they were processed, and the limited safeguards, there is a significant risk that some fraudulent or inflated applications were approved,” wrote the U.S. Government Accountability Office. “In addition, the lack of clear guidance has increased the likelihood that borrowers may misuse loan proceeds or be surprised they do not qualify for full loan forgiveness.”

    In its review of the Paycheck Protection Program, an effort overseen by the U.S. Small Business Administration and U.S. Treasury Department, the GAO’s report titled COVID-19: Opportunities to Improve Federal Response and Recovery Efforts noted concerns about the program’s reliance on a self-reporting process that was not subject to verifications ahead of loan approvals.

    “As we note in the report, we have previously reported that reliance on applicant self-certifications can leave a program vulnerable to exploitation by those who wish to circumvent eligibility requirements or pursue criminal activities,” the GAO report stated.

    Officials from the Small Business Administration have disputed some of the report’s findings and claimed, according to the GAO, that the leap the oversight agency takes from streamlined obligations during the loan approval process to fraudulent applications is unsupportable.

    But, the fraud cases themselves are already appearing.

    Last week, a Utah trucking company owner already under federal indictment in a pay-to-play fraud case was charged with allegedly lying on an application to get a Paycheck Protection Program loan.

    Hubert Ivan Ugarte, of Draper, also illegally used more than half of the $210,000 he received to make lease or purchase payments on trucks rather than on employee wages, according to an indictment filed in U.S. District Court.

    According to the complaint, Ugarte, with help from Lisa Bradshaw Rowberry, of Provo, answered “no” to questions on the application asking whether he was under formal criminal charges in any jurisdiction. His answer was false because he had been indicted in a Utah fraud case when he answered the question, the complaint alleges.

    Ugarte, 52, also circled “no” on the loan application when asked if he had ever been placed on pretrial diversion. According to the complaint, he entered into a two-year pretrial diversion agreement in 1988 to resolve a felony drug possession charge.

    The filing also alleges Ugarte ignored the requirements stipulated for Paycheck Protection Program loan recipients to spend at least 60% of their funds on payroll expenses, and instead spent nearly $127,000 — or about 60% — to make payments on 13 Kenworth tractors, according to the indictment.

    According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the first case of alleged fraud was filed against a Paycheck Protection Program applicant on May 5 and, since then, numerous other cases have arisen around the country. The latest is a case filed Monday in Washington, D.C., in which a contractor there is accused of submitting several fake and fraudulent documents to a financial institution in support of two Paycheck Protection Program loan applications seeking more than $400,000 in forgivable loans for a construction firm that he owned.

    A representative of the Small Business Administration told the Deseret News in an email that data detailing the number of fraud cases pending or under investigation in Utah was not available. Nor was similar information on a national basis.

    Utah Bankers Association President and CEO Howard Headlee said it remains unclear how liability will be parsed when it comes to losses generated by fraudulent manipulation of the Paycheck Protection Program. Headlee said it was his belief that the U.S. Treasury will back those loans as long as local loan originators adhered to the process, one that relied almost entirely on self-reported information, as laid out by the federal backers. And, he noted, the failure to do so would have deep repercussions.

    “I think fraud allegations will be thoroughly investigated and especially the process by which it occurred,” Headlee said. “I believe that as long as the lender is found to have done everything the program required, which was a pretty minimal process, then you would assume Treasury is on the hook for it.

    “It would be devastating to our local communities if somehow the government... left the local banks on their own that were trying to do the best they could with what they were asked to do. I can’t imagine that would be the outcome.”

    Other potential misrepresentations in self-reporting were unveiled in reporting by the Washington Post Tuesday. A data check performed by the newspaper showed the number of U.S. jobs “supported” by Paycheck Protection Program loans, touted by President Donald Trump as 51 million, may be significantly lower, due to misreporting of “jobs retained” by Paycheck Protection applicants. In Utah, the total number of retained jobs, as reported by applicants, came in just under 800,000.

    The Small Business Administration has stated it will conduct reviews of every Paycheck Protection Program loan at or above $2 million. But, the agency did not respond to the GAO’s request for a policy decision on what, if any, review would be conducted of the sub-$2 million loans, which comprise the majority of the 4.9 million loans made across the country.

    The Small Business Administration did not respond to a Deseret News inquiry about whether those loan reviews have begun in Utah or elsewhere.

    Out of almost 51,000 loans to Utah businesses as of July 6, 281 were for amounts between $2 million and $10 million, and 547 were for amounts between $1 million and $2 million. Around 43,000 of the Utah loans were under $150,000.

    Stipulations for companies seeking funding through the Paycheck Protection Program limits access to for-profit and nonprofit businesses with fewer than 500 employees and for loan amounts up to 2.5 times the company’s monthly payroll expenses up to a $10 million ceiling. As to business types, the scope of loan recipients was wide-ranging.

    Utah Democrat Rep. Ben McAdams has been a vocal advocate on behalf of transparency and accountability issues related to the Paycheck Protection Program since its launch in early April. Many details of the program, like which businesses were getting loans and for how much, were out of public view until earlier this month when the Small Business Administration released a trove of information. McAdams told the Deseret News that every case of fraud takes money out of the hands of those businesses that legitimately needed help.

    “My concerns have always been that those who need and deserve these loans receive them and that taxpayers are able to see where their tax dollars are being spent,” McAdams said. “It’s important now to ask whether companies that received COVID relief funds followed the rules.

    “Every dollar that went to an undeserving or fraudulent company is a dollar that didn’t help a hard-working person struggling to get through this crisis. I expect everyone to play by the rules and where there are signs of potential fraud or abuse, those circumstances should be fully investigated by the proper authorities.”

    The path to forgiveness for Paycheck Protection Loan recipients has been eased somewhat through changes to the program since its launch, including an extension of the window to spend the money as well as how it can be spent. While initially limited to eight weeks, Congress approved changes last month that should help more businesses earn loan forgiveness.

    Those changes include granting businesses up to 24 weeks to spend loan money and allowing business owners to allocate 60% to payroll and up to 40% of the funding on other overhead expenses like utilities, rent, mortgage interest debt and other items. The original terms required borrowers to spend 75% of loan money on payroll to earn payback amnesty.

  • New commerce deal could be good for Utah firms trading with Canada and Mexico
    Kirk Aubry, left, president and CEO of Savage, chats with Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, at the Savage office building in Midvale on Tuesday, July 14, 2020, following a press conference highlighting the importance of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement to Utah’s economy and jobs. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

    MIDVALE — A new trade treaty could be very beneficial for Utah firms involved in international commerce between the United States and its two closest neighbors, officials say.

    On July 1, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA, officially took effect as a revamped free-trade agreement between the three nations designed to be the successor to the oft-criticized NAFTA. Numerous terms and conditions from NAFTA were incorporated into the latest trade compact.

    The North American Free Trade Agreement was enacted in 1994 to create a free-trade zone between Canada, Mexico and the United States, according to the International Trade Administration. In January 2008, the trilateral treaty also eliminated all tariffs and quotas on U.S. exports to Mexico and Canada.

    Key USMCA enhancements included provisions that protect intellectual property, digital trade, financial services and the environment, as well as thresholds to determine what lower-value goods can be shipped tax- and tariff-free over international borders or using regular customs forms.

    Speaking Tuesday at a news conference in Midvale, Rep. Ben McAdams, D-Utah, touted the economic advantages of the new deal for Utah companies and their trading partners north and south of the border.

    “USMCA is a major win for Utah farmers and ranchers, transportation and machinery suppliers, e-commerce companies and the thousands of Utahns they employ. Mexico and Canada are key trading partners and the economic relationship between Utah and those countries supports more than 120,000 Utah jobs,” he said. “At a time when Utah’s economy is struggling with ongoing effects of COVID-19, the certainty of this trade agreement gives employers a clear path forward to serve international markets and customers and keep employees on the payroll.”

    Speaking from his company’s Midvale headquarters, Kirk Aubry, president and CEO of Savage — a global supply chain and logistics service provider — highlighted the importance of the new deal.

    “We do supply chain, we run trucks, we run trains, we run boats all over the world,” he said. “We’re involved in the grain ag sector business in Mexico. We’re also importing or exporting finished fuel products as well — gasoline, diesel, those kinds of things into Mexico.”

    He said because of the focus Savage has in growth in Mexico, it’s important to know what the nature of the relationship is going to be over time. He said the new trade agreement provides the kind of long-term certainty that businesses need to operate most effectively.

    “So far, we have not had any interruptions (due to the pandemic). We run 100 cars, that’s a full train set a day, every day across that (southern) border,” Aubry said. “You would have thought that you could have some issues, but we have not had issues with disruption.”

    McAdams noted that Savage, a 75-year-old, Utah-based family-owned company with nearly 4,500 employees, is an example of a local firm that conducts business with clients in Canada and Mexico. At a time when the coronavirus pandemic has some countries discussing closing their borders, any disruption to the global supply chain potentially harms economies and threatens jobs for many U.S. companies, he said.

    McAdams said final negotiations on the trade deal last year resulted in stronger enforcement provisions on labor and environmental standards, ensuring U.S. companies are not undercut by weaker standards in other countries.

    “This is an agreement that makes sure that American companies are treated fairly in the global marketplace with Canada and Mexico,” he said. “

    World Trade Center Utah President and CEO Miles Hansen said the USMCA will be critical to the growth of Utah’s economy and jobs in the state.

    “What USMCA does is open up new market opportunities, particularly in Canada, and it reduces the inefficiencies of doing trade, whether it’s exporting to Mexico or Canada,” he explained. “That creates new opportunities for Utah farmers that can make it easier for them to export to Mexico and some areas — particularly in dairy, where they now can export competitively into Canada — where under NAFTA, that wasn’t the case.”

    NAFTA overwhelmingly helped support the U.S. economy, Hansen said, but there were certain industries that saw jobs being moved away from the United States. The new trade agreement provides more protections for American businesses and also allows for fair trade opportunities for all three nations involved in the partnership.

    “What’s important here is that the agreement has been renegotiated. It’s good for American companies, and now they have a certainty that they can go forward and that trade disputes can be settled expeditiously and in a favorable way,” McAdams said.

  • How much must Utahns earn to afford a two-bedroom apartment?
    A giant mural covers a portion of an apartment complex at 355 N. 500 West in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 14, 2020. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

    Typical renter earns $14.94 per hour, about $5 less per hour needed to afford modest 2-bedroom apartment

    SALT LAKE CITY — A typical renter in Utah earns $14.94 per hour, about $5 short of what’s needed to afford a decent two-bedroom apartment.

    And COVID-19 has made affordable housing more of an issue for people, including many for whom a stable place to live was out of reach before the pandemic.

    A new report the National Low Income Housing Coalition and the Utah Housing Coalition released Tuesday found workers in the state need to make $19.83 an hour to rent a modest two-bedroom apartment at fair market value or $1,031 a month.

    In Salt Lake County, where the affordable housing problem is most acute, the “housing wage” jumps to $22.62.

    About a third of Utahns rent their house or apartment.

    The annual report titled Out of Reach shows 90% of residents don’t earn enough for a two-bedroom unit. Utah has the 24th highest housing wage in the country, according to the report.

    “The time for housing support and for creating affordability both through our workers’ wages and housing costs has never been more poignant,” Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said at news conference Tuesday.

    The report does not take into account additional fees Utah renters must pay as part of their monthly leases for things such as garbage pickup or parking spaces. The fees may tack on an additional $200 to $400 a month.

    “This is not good for our hardest working individuals that keep our economy going and have been there for us during this pandemic,” said Tara Rollins, Utah Housing Coalition executive director.

    Many low-paid workers have been able to keep their jobs through the pandemic but still not afford where they live, she said. They don’t qualify for rental assistance, but those collecting unemployment, including an extra $600 a week through the federal coronavirus relief bill, can pay their rent despite not having a job, Rollins said.

    “COVID-19 has affected the people we depend on every day when we go out to do whatever we need to do. A lot of us are privileged and still working but yet being able to stay safe at home while we do that and they’re out on the frontlines. And these are the very people we don’t want living in our neighborhoods,” she said.

    Housing is more than just a shelter, she said.

    Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
    Bill Edwards and Bob Hallman move their friend into his affordable housing apartment at The Hub in South Salt Lake on Tuesday, July 14, 2020.

    “During this pandemic we’ve been depending on our housing for our health, to stay healthy. We’re depending on it for education, to teach our children during the school year. We have been depending on it for employment. Many people are working from home,” Rollins said. “But right now people can’t afford their housing.”

    Affordable housing advocates say Utah has not seen an uptick in people losing their housing since the state’s freeze on new evictions based on nonpayment expired in mid-May, despite pleas to extend it another two months. They attribute that to federal coronavirus relief fund for rental assistance, federal stimulus checks and added unemployment benefits.

    But when those subsidies end, advocates expect evictions to rise. Rollins said landlords need to be paid but hope they would allow tenants some flexibility.

    Salt Lake City is considering zoning changes to encourage affordable housing, noting it is harder to find in “high opportunity” areas, Mendenhall said. The city has set aside $3.5 million to help offset the cost of property for developers in those areas.

    The city also will look at “inclusionary zoning” along transit lines, including four bus lines that Salt Lake City pays the Utah Transit Authority to run so the routes remain intact, the mayor said.

    Housing for low-income people is becoming less affordable each year. Last year, Utah’s “housing wage” for a two-bedroom apartment was $18.30 an hour, $1.09 less than this year.

    Working at minimum wage of $7.25 an hour in Utah, a person must have 2.7 full-time jobs or work 109 hours per week to afford a two-bedroom unit.

    Income has not kept pace with rising rent, which has gone up 7% to 8%, said Patrice Dickson, chief operating officer of social services for Utah Community Action. In Salt Lake City, rent has ballooned 23.8% in the past five years, according to the Utah Rent Report.

    “We are seeing a large number of families and individuals who cannot keep up and are seeking rental assistance,” Dickson said.

    Housing is no longer a shelter but an investment, Rollins said.

    “A portfolio has to perform,” she said. “That’s why rents keep going up.”

    The COVID-19 pandemic has also shown that housing is health care as officials across the country issued stay-at-home orders. But having a stable place to live was already out of reach for millions of people before the pandemic, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

    More than 7.7 million extremely low-income renters were spending more than half of their limited incomes on housing costs, sacrificing other necessities to do so. The compounding of high job losses and the lack of access to proper health care and resources considerably depleted already limited resources and access, the coalition says.

    Millions of households have dealt with a decline in wages through layoffs, furloughs or decreased work hours the past few months, and many struggle to afford rent. There are no states, metropolitan areas, and ZIP codes in the country where renters can afford a home without spending more than 30% of their income on housing, according to the coalition.

    “Housing is a basic human need, but millions of people in America can’t afford a safe, stable home,” Diane Yentel, national coalition president and CEO, said in a statement. “The harm and trauma of this enduring challenge is laid bare during COVID-19, when millions of people in America risk losing their homes during a pandemic. The lack of affordable homes for the lowest-income people is one of our country’s most urgent and solvable challenges, during and after COVID-19.”

  • ‘I don’t want to leave Centerville’: Mobile home residents protest developer in hopes of keeping their homes
    Centerville residents gather outside the offices of CW Land on Monday, July 13, 2020, to protest the proposed sale of Centerville Mobile Estates, a small mobile home community that CW Land intends to turn into modern town homes. | Kyle Dunphey, Deseret News

    CENTERVILLE — A different kind of protest hit the Beehive State on Monday as residents lined the street outside the offices of CW Land, a developer with plans to build a modern community laden with town homes, tennis courts and racquetball in the Davis County town.

    But the property CW Land is hoping to buy is currently home to the Centerville Mobile Estates, a small community just off of I-15 that roughly 45 people call home. One of the only affordable housing options in Centerville, residents have spent much of the past two months voicing opposition to city officials, starting petitions and pleading with CW Land to reconsider the purchase.

    Just shy of 40 people braved the 90 degree heat Monday, cheering as passing cars honked and holding signs that read “Trailer park people matter too!” “CW Land has devastated our community” and “Don’t make us homeless.”

    “I don’t think it’s right for them to come in and take everyone’s homes,” said Shaunna Summers, who has lived on and off at the Centerville Mobile Estates her entire life.

    An office assistant at nearby Steward Elementary School, Summers told the Deseret News she can’t afford to live anywhere else in Centerville.

    “I don’t want to leave Centerville, but if we can’t save our home we’ll have to move,” she said.

    Kyle Dunphey
    Centerville residents gather outside the offices of CW Land on Monday, July 13, 2020, to protest the proposed sale of Centerville Mobile Estates, a small mobile home community that CW Land intends to turn into modern town homes.

    Tess Hoskins, who has lived in the park for the past 30 years, echoed Summers’ concerns, saying she was there to support her neighbors who she fears will be homeless if forced to move.

    Hoskins spent the past 15 years tied to a $70,000 mortgage for her double-wide trailer, and in 2018 she finally paid it off. But now, unable to afford the cost of moving the trailer, she would have to leave it behind and move in with her mother. But Hoskins was far more concerned about the well-being of her neighbors.

    “I’m here for my neighbors that don’t have anywhere to go,” she said. “At least we have somewhere we can go, but some of my neighbors don’t.”

    The residents first learned of the proposed acquisition in March when they received a notice from an attorney representing Centerville Mobile Estates LLC telling them they had nine months — the allotted time required under the Mobile Home Park Residency Act — to leave.

    “I immediately lost it,” Jennifer Pace told the Deseret News in May. “I thought, ‘What are we going to do?’”

    On Monday Pace held a sign reading “My family is worth more than $2,000,” a reference to CW Land’s offer to each resident who moves out on Oct. 1 — the designated early move-out date.

    Darlene Carter, CW Urban president, said in a statement residents will receive more information as the company lays out plans in the coming weeks.

    “We are sensitive to the plight of the residents who will need to relocate. We realize the seriousness of the situation and, following our purchase of the real property, we will be fully committed to assisting the residents, logistically and financially, to find new housing arrangements,” the statement reads.

    A representative from CW Urban did not elaborate as to how the company will help, and many residents protesting Monday expressed frustration that the company has not reached out.

    “We’ve heard nothing from that company,” Summers said. “They say they’re going to communicate, but we’ve heard nothing.”

    Wednesday the park’s owners and CW Land will enter mediation over whether the park can actually be sold. Rulon Harrison, one of the park’s owners, “didn’t consent to the sale, and he opposes the sale,” his attorney Jordan Bledsoe said Monday.

    Instead, Bledsoe said, Harrison’s siblings are the driving force behind the sale, two of whom have sold their membership. Whether Harrison’s siblings have the authority to sell should be determined during Wednesday’s mediation.

    “Rulon’s primary goal here is to keep this a mobile home park,” Bledsoe said. “He’s the only sibling that really knows the tenants well. He’s gotten to know them... he’s grown close to them and he really likes them. He tells me he thinks they’re all great people and he really does not want them to lose their homes.”

  • Know thy enemy: Biotech startup joins fight against COVID-19 with cutting-edge genetic testing

    SALT LAKE CITY — A biotech company with a big Utah footprint is among the leading innovators of a cutting-edge technology for assessing the genetic footprint of pathogens like COVID-19.

    And the tool could become the new frontline defender when, inevitably, a mutated version of SARS-CoV-2 evolves or another pandemic-potential superbug arises.

    University of Utah’s Research Park plays host to the lab operations of San Francisco-based IDbyDNA, a clinical metagenomics startup up co-founded by Dr. Robert Schlaberg. While Schlaberg earned his M.D. and Ph.D degrees in Germany and at Columbia University, he has strong Utah ties with a resume that includes teaching pathology at the University of Utah School of Medicine and a directorship at U. Health system’s ARUP Laboratories,

    Schlaberg explained that metagenomics takes a sample — say a nasal swab — and breaks down the genetic sequences of every microbe in the sample. These could be viruses, bacteria, fungi or parasites and, unlike previous approaches to diagnostic testing, doesn’t require different methods to weed out whatever nonhuman DNA or RNA is present.

    Dr. Robert Schlaberg is the co-founder and chief medical officer of biotech startup IDbyDNA. His company is on the leading edge of using genetic sequencing to identify and track pathogens like COVID-19.

    “The strength of this technique is how can you use it,” Schlaberg said. “You don’t have to know what you’re looking for. This has the ability to detect and identify over 50,000 microorganisms and 3,000 known common and rare pathogens.

    “In other methods, you have to come with a specific question.”

    Schlaberg said a metagenomic test (though not his company’s version) was the method that led to the initial discovery of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and is a technique IDbyDNA has been advancing since it was founded in 2015. (SARS-CoV-2 is the virus responsible for COVID-19.)

    The company’s innovative approach combines super-fast next-generation genetic sequencing processes with a machine learning engine that can assess and compare that genetic information against an enormous database.

    One of the ways IDbyDNA’s technology is being leveraged in the fight against the novel coronavirus is identifying particular strains that help epidemiologists track its spread.

    Schlaberg said an example might be a parent and child who both tested positive for COVID-19. Determining where the virus was contracted — by the parent at work or the child in a school or social setting — is important information for public health officials working to mitigate the pandemic.

    Use of the IDbyDNA process in this case would unveil the specific genetic footprint of the virus strain contracted by the parent and child and using that information in comparison with contact tracing data, would determine who brought the virus into that household and from what pathway it came.

    “This virus has about 30,000 letters in its genome,” Schlaberg said. “Every time it makes a copy of itself, with every generation, there can be some changes. Though this particular virus doesn’t change that much, there are a couple dozen or so letters and positions that change repeatedly.

    “That allows you to generate a fingerprint... with a particular combination of changed letters that identify a specific strain.”

    This strain identification is critical information, Schlaberg said, when it comes to monitoring how the virus is changing as it moves through communities as well as aiding public health officials in tracking infection sources.

    This technique can also be used to quickly and efficiently assess whether a sudden cluster of infections is the result of a so-called super-spreader event that tracks back to single modern-day Typhoid Mary or just a group of unrelated positive results.

    Clinical samples are loaded into a bead-beating homogenizer for nucleic acid extraction at IDbyDNA’s lab in Salt Lake City. The biotech startup is advancing the realm of metagenomic testing and playing a role in the fight against COVID-19.

    Physician and researcher Dr. Lauge Farnaes is the assistant medical director at Rady Children’s Institute for Genomic Medicine in San Diego and an attending physician specializing in pediatric infectious diseases.

    Farnaes has used the IDbyDNA testing procedure in clinical trials and research projects and said technology that was once out of reach from both a cost and time perspective is now moving toward the realm of everyday diagnostic tools.

    “Molecular epidemiology has been something limited to use by hospitals in crisis management situations,” Farnaes said. “IDbyDna could allow you to do molecular epidemiology on everything, all the time.

    “With unbiased sequencing, you can find things that you don’t even know you were looking for.... You see it even before it showed up.”

    That power of detection in metagenomics testing is one Farnaes has been exploring in his pursuit of advancing early and accurate detection of infection and pathogens in his young patients.

    Farnaes said the combination of fast and accurate gene sequencing melded with the power of a self-evolving database is still in its developmental stages and that a good deal of professional human medical interpretation is still required, But he noted that as the technique continues to evolve, it will have ever growing, and positive impacts on the detection and treatment of infection and disease.

    “Like quantum computing, it’s hard to do but it’s possible,” Farnaes said. “Where we are right now is on the cusp of an enormous way to change health care for the entire word.

    “You can see the potential,” he said. “A comprehensive diagnostic microbiome lab in a suitcase that could deliver results in, say, four hours. We’re not there yet, but we can see that it is possible.”

    IDbyDNA is a venture backed effort that’s raised some $29 million in investment thus far. The company looks set to expand its user base following the March announcement of a strategic partnership with next-generation sequencing innovator Illumina. Following the partnership announcement, IDbyDNA Chief Commercial Officer Jeff Field said the effort could set the worldwide standard for infectious disease diagnosis and surveillance.

    “Metagenomic (next-generation sequencing based) testing enables the most comprehensive detection of hundreds to thousands of pathogens, both for routine testing and for emerging public health threats like SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for the COVID-19 outbreak,” Field said in a statement.

    “Importantly, we are able to determine not only the presence of this emerging virus but also decipher the genetic makeup of individual strains allowing us to compare strains, differentiate them from other coronaviruses and perform surveillance activities right at the time of diagnosis.

    “With the increase in global travel and economic integration, the ability to monitor and track the spread of pathogens such as the novel coronavirus is a critical public health challenge. Working with a next-generation sequencing leader, we plan to rapidly make the Explify Platform the new standard for worldwide infectious disease diagnostics and surveillance.”

  • Amid pandemic, many value control over their vacation: Are RVs the answer?
    Sharon Ginger and her husband, Joel Owsen, of San Diego, set up their Airstream trailer at the KOA campground in Salt Lake City on Thursday, July 9, 2020. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

    SALT LAKE CITY — Utahns eager to find alternatives to vacations that heighten the risk of exposure to coronavirus are turning to recreational vehicle rentals in droves, spilling into RV parks for socially distant vacations.

    Tempted by the level of control they offer, first time RVers — people who’ve never rented or owned an RV before — in particular are trying it out, according to Kampgrounds of America Vice President of Communications Mike Gast.

    “A phenomenal amount of people — and most of those first timers — are flocking to rent RVs from other people and give that lifestyle a try or have decided that’s going to be their vacation this year,” Gast said. “We are seeing a huge bump in business right now.”

    It’s a trend that’s been reflected in a number of different RV parks, according to Ben Imlay, operations manager for the popular McArthur’s Temple View RV Resort in St. George. He said the business has seen a “very large increase of first time RVers” at the park, in addition to a surge of same-day reservations.

    “There have also been a lot of people traveling from other states that have been locked down coming here because RV travel is one of the safest ways to travel because you have your own bed and living quarters,” he said. “There were also a lot of people who stayed here longer in Utah primarily because the areas they were heading home to were impacted by COVID much more and they didn’t want to travel to that.”

    While travel restrictions, financial restraints and other travel-related fears brought down the number of stays overall this year, Gast said KOA sites are “clawing their way back,” and each week gets a little bit better. Recently, weekends have seen “phenomenal numbers” and there’s been advance reservations at the end of the June that were higher than the number of bookings at that same time in 2019.

    “We know that demand is there. We know that people were quick to return to the camping lifestyle, and we certainly aren’t going to recover to the end of last year, it’s just too much of a gap there,” Gast said. “But it certainly did come back strong, and we also understand that there’s likely going to be surges in certain areas.”

    Gast said one of the more encouraging things is that customer satisfaction is up. This coupled with the fact that more people are turning to camping and renting an RV for the first time, makes him feel positive about KOA’s future.

    “We think the net result of COVID is we probably have been able to increase the audience for camping. We’ve got more people interested in it, more people giving it a try, and we know that once they give it a try they are going to want to do it again,” he said.

    Chris Clark, of Orlando, Florida, is also staying at the Salt Lake City KOA site. She’s currently on a six-week trip with her husband and daughter.

    She said she understands why traveling by RV is such a popular thing these days.

    “Camping is naturally socially distancing,” Clark said. “It was easy for us because it gives us the flexibility of you can go and do. There are so many advantages of traveling by RV.”

    Peer-to-peer rentals like RVshare and Outdoorsy have seen a considerable surge in public interest. Similar to Airbnb, these companies allow people to rent out or find an RV all over the country.

    RVShare CEO Jon Gray said stays in Utah specifically have doubled in June compared to the previous year. While the service exists all over the country, the Western metro area is a big market — Salt Lake City being one of the top cities.

    Gray said RVshare’s rentals have shifted quite a bit since mid-March when the coronavirus began heavily impacting life in the U.S. Initially, the company pivoted business to service health care workers so they could have access to an RV in their driveway in order to lessen the odds of potentially infecting family members, and to other critical workers who needed to isolate themselves.

    As states have steadily loosened restrictions, RVshare has seen surges in rentals in those areas and “a pretty high percentage of new bookings coming from first timers,” Gray said, explaining the numbers are “pretty astounding.”

    He credited this to the aspects of the RV business that are attractive to people where “control is a premium” when there are so many unknowns because of the pandemic.

    “RVs allow you to have your own bathroom and your own kitchen. They allow you to stay away from crowds. They allow you the flexibility to stay where you want to control the environment around you,” Gray said. “These things cast in the light of COVID have become even more important.”

    He pointed to a recent RVshare survey that found 93% of respondents are aiming to avoid crowds this summer on their vacation.

    “You have the RV and you can drive it to where you want. If you come upon a campground that you feel is too crowded, you don’t have to go there. You can go to the next one,” Gray said.

    Sharon Ginger, of San Diego, echoed these sentiments. She and her family are staying in the Salt Lake City KOA campground while embarking on a 17 day trip.

    “It’s our space. Nobody is coming into our space unless we invite them into it. It’s our bed every night, it’s our sheets and our pillows. We can cook in our camper if we want to,” Ginger said. “You can be fully self-contained.”

    Ginger said she has a compromised immune system because of her history with a rare form of cervical cancer. She explained she feels “totally safe” camping, and said her diagnosis actually helped encourage her to get out and live — including selling her home four years ago and embarking on a six-month trip with her family’s first camper.

  • Jobless claims in Utah remain at high level despite 3% drop in new applicants
    The Utah Department of Workforce Services’ main administration building in Salt Lake City. | Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

    SALT LAKE CITY — Despite a 3.1% decrease in filings for traditional benefits, requests for unemployment assistance continue at historic levels in the Beehive State.

    The Department of Workforce Services reported Thursday the number of total new claims for unemployment compensation in Utah was 7,249 for the week of June 28 to July 4, while a total of $80.4 million was paid out in benefits.

    The number of people receiving traditional unemployment benefits for the week was 81,545, representing a 2.9% drop in weekly claims.

    “The amount of unemployment claims during this pandemic has certainly been historic, as has the amount of benefits paid,” said Unemployment Insurance Division director Kevin Burt. “Moving forward, ongoing financial stability will only be found in employment, as the unemployment insurance $600 weekly stimulus is set to expire on July 25, 2020, for all unemployment programs.”

    He said the number of claims processed in the time since stay home orders largely began in March has been staggering.

    “It’s been 16 weeks and what we’ve received so far (is) 241,000 claims for unemployment benefits. That is four years of claims that we’ve received in the last 16 weeks or less than four months,” Burt said during a weekly news conference.

    “We’ve also paid out cumulatively $985 million in unemployment benefits over that 16-week period. That is more than five years of benefits. … Over the last five years, we paid out $824 million.”

    He also noted that some of the (weekly) federal stimulus payments approved by Congress weeks ago are scheduled to sunset later this month, leaving thousands of unemployed individuals with less income.

    “That $600 stimulus is set to expire on July 25 for all unemployment insurance programs,” he said. “Remember that the state unemployment benefit will continue, so individuals that are unemployed past July 25 can stay on unemployment insurance but they will receive an approximately 40% replacement wage.

    He advised Utahns still without a job to consider taking positions in alternate career fields as a way to help themselves financially until their preferred industry is able to rebound sufficiently.

    Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has approved Utah’s application to take part in the Pandemic-Electronic Benefit Transfer program — a federal food assistance effort for school-age children created by Congress through the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. The Department of Workforce Services is currently developing the application process, which should begin later this month, said Nate McDonald, assistant deputy director of the department and communication director.

    The department is scheduled to issue eligible families a one-time benefit for each child in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade who qualifies for free or reduced-price school meals, he said. The benefit will include the cost of what would have been school meals from March 16 through May 29, with every eligible child receiving $308.

    “As with many states throughout the country, Utah faced initial difficulty in gathering the necessary data to determine eligibility when distributing this program,” said Dale Ownby, director of the state Eligibility Services Division. “In collaboration with the Utah State Board of Education we have found solutions and are grateful to receive this approval in order to implement the program for our state.”

    Program eligibility is determined using the date of March 16 — when students were initially asked to stay home, McDonald said. Families who received Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits on March 16 will not need to apply for Pandemic-Electronic Benefit Transfer assistance as those benefits will automatically be included with their monthly benefits in July, he said.

    Contrarily, parents of eligible children who did not accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits on March 16 are required to apply for Pandemic-Electronic Benefit Transfer aid, he added. Prospective participants can apply online at the end of July.

    “Utahns Against Hunger will continue working with Workforce Services and the State School Board in implementing (Pandemic-Electronic Benefit Transfer assistance),” said Gina Cornia, director of Utahns Against Hunger. “These benefits will help many Utah families who have faced job loss and may be struggling to afford food for their families.”

    Despite the closure of schools, free meals have continued to be provided to students in every Utah school district through the entirety of the pandemic to ensure children have access to food, McDonald noted.

    “We’ve actually been very pleased with how our State Board of Education has worked closely with every school. Once the pandemic hit, after March 16, the schools still provided breakfast, lunch and also weekend backpacks for students who are in need of food assistance. That continues,” he said.

    “This is a benefit that is on top of that and it is something that we believe will be providing additional support to these families that are in need of additional assistance. We’re pleased that we’re able to move forward with this program, and have this up and going for these families.”

  • Will the battle against child pornography close the doors to an open internet?
    Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, left, speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, in this Dec. 19, 2018, file photo. Lee voted to move the EARN IT Act to the full Senate last week, but has concerns over the effort to compel internet companies to better police child sexual abuse materials. | Susan Walsh, Associated Press

    SALT LAKE CITY — Working to control the massive distribution of child sexual abuse imagery on the internet — without trouncing on the very protections that keep the internet an open forum — is proving to be an uphill task for federal lawmakers.

    Materials related to online child sexual abuse grew by more than 50% in the past year with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reporting nearly 70 million videos and images on the internet, according to a February New York Times report.

    Last week the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee voted unanimously to move a proposal, the Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies Act of 2020, or EARN IT Act, to the full Senate for consideration. But the proposed legislation has been under near constant scrutiny and revision as the bill, according to civil rights groups and open internet advocates, proposes legal changes that could create a chilling effect on the openness of digital communication tools and the platforms that host them.

    Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, sits on the Judiciary Committee and voted to support the proposal last week, even as two amendments to the bill in his name went undiscussed by the committee. Lee called the continued proliferation of child sexual abuse materials a “scourge on our society” and said he would support the bill moving to the full body, even though he had reservations about potential, negative downstream impacts of the proposed changes.

    Lee said the legislation could lead to an untenable hodgepodge of state regulatory responses and also shared his concerns that the proposal, if adopted, could undermine one of the most essential pieces of federal code when it comes to protecting free speech in the digital realm.

    “We can’t base a federal protection on a patchwork quilt of inconsistent state laws that may be at odds with each other,” Lee told committee members. “That... might allow for the most aggressive states to set the standard required for a particular service provider.

    “This would essentially do the work of ending Section 230 protections entirely.”

    The protections expressed in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 are widely believed to be the basis on which social media and internet communications companies have been able to survive and flourish. It reads, in part, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

    The clause shields platforms from legal liability for content created by users, however it does not provide blanket immunity. While protections extend to most civil lawsuits and state criminal law, it does not shield against enforcement of federal criminal laws. Industry watchers have characterized the rule as the very basis on which the modern internet was built and have noted without this rule, that version of the internet would simply not exist.

    An earlier version of the EARN IT Act proposed a mechanism that would have compelled online platforms to “earn” liability protections by following yet-to-be-constructed best practices from a commission of nonelected participants that would include some partisan political appointees. The bill also provided no hindrance to future requirements for platforms to build digital “back doors” to allow law enforcement access to private, encrypted communications.

    The retooled proposal that the Judiciary Committee passed included a modification to the proposed, 19-member commission to instead function as an advisory panel and, through an adopted amendment from Democratic Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, established that a platform or provider cannot be held liable just for having end-to-end encryption functions.

    The American Civil Liberties Union has railed against the potential impacts of the EARN IT Act on privacy protections and civil rights.

    In a blog post, ACLU senior legislative counsel Kate Ruane noted that there are already tools in place to pursue criminal prosecutions of those who generate and/or distribute child sexual abuse material and points to the bill’s failure to address associated root issues.

    “To be clear, child sexual exploitation is a serious problem that Congress should address,” Ruane wrote. “But this bill is not a solution. For one thing, the existing law does not protect platforms from liability for federal crimes like child sexual exploitation.

    “Also, the bill does not at all tackle known deficiencies in our response to this problem. For instance, it provides no assistance for prevention programs and makes no attempt to address the root causes of the problem. Rather than provide measured solutions that would protect children, the EARN IT Act instead needlessly threatens our privacy and online speech rights.”

    Nonprofit civil rights and internet free speech advocates Electronic Freedom Foundation said while revisions and amendments made prior to the Judiciary Committee’s vote on the bill addressed some issues, the revised proposal was still problematic and still a likely threat to privacy protections.

    “It’s certainly an improvement, but we’re still concerned that the amended bill could be used to attack encryption,” wrote foundation policy analyst Joe Mullin in a blog post. “Sen. Leahy’s amendment prohibits holding companies liable because they use ‘end-to-end encryption, device encryption, or other encryption services.’ But the bill still encourages state lawmakers to look for loopholes to undermine end-to-end encryption, such as demanding that messages be scanned on a local device before they get encrypted and sent along to their recipient.

    “We think that would violate the spirit of Sen. Leahy’s amendment, but the bill opens the door for that question to be litigated over and over in courts across the country.”

    Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., characterized the bill as “tailored” and “targeted” and said the protections provided to high-tech companies by Section 230 in the mid-’90s are no longer appropriate.

    “There’s no reason for these platforms to have blanket immunity,” Blumenthal said. “A shield against any accountability that is not enjoyed by any other industry in the same way, that’s Section 230. It was appropriate perhaps in this breadth and magnitude at one point in the internet’s history, but no longer.”

    And while Facebook, Google and other providers have mechanisms in place to screen for child sexual abuse materials and last year reported tens of millions of incidents to law enforcement, Blumenthal said the EARN IT Act legislation is aiming at tech platforms that are “knowingly” distributing these materials.

    “The Leahy amendment... clarifies that encryption is compatible and consistent with this targeted approach to provide incentives for the tech companies to police their platforms,” Blumenthal said. “That’s what we’re doing. Imposing accountability for platforms that knowingly enable this distribution of filth and misery.

    “It is not a meat ax executive order that endangers free speech, it is targeted to help the victims and survivors of this absolutely hideous and insidious torture, rape, exploitation that haunts these survivors for decades, for their whole lifetimes after it initially appears. That is the nature of the internet.”

    The EARN IT Act currently awaits further action from the full Senate.