Protesters demonstrate at the state capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., on Monday demanding that Gov. Tom Wolf reopen Pennsylvania's economy even as new social-distancing mandates took effect at stores and other commercial buildings.

Protesters demonstrate at the state capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., on Monday demanding that Gov. Tom Wolf reopen Pennsylvania's economy even as new social-distancing mandates took effect at stores and other commercial buildings. Matt Rourke / AP

Coronavirus Roundup: GAO is Reviewing the Federal Government’s Pandemic Response

There's a lot to keep track of. Here’s today’s list of news updates and stories you may have missed.

Over the weekend protests erupted across the country over governors’ shelter-in-place orders. “People feel that way. You’re allowed to protest,” said President Trump during the coronavirus briefing on Sunday night. “I watched a protest and they were all six feet apart.” He added, “In the end, it's not going to matter because we're starting to open up our states.” On Monday morning, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and member of the White House coronavirus task force, said on ABC that the country’s real economic recovery won’t happen until the virus is fully under control. Here are some other headlines from over the weekend and today you might have missed.

President Trump can potentially avoid transparency rules as his coalition of business leaders advise him on re-opening the economy. “By contending that the 200-plus business leaders it is talking to are not developing any consensus recommendations—just offering their opinions—the effort might not have to comply with a core transparency statute, the Federal Advisory Committee Act,” Politico reported. “The law requires formal outside advisory committees to hold open meetings and issue public reports. Notably, the White House also avoided the term ‘committee’ in its announcement.”

Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, Banking Committee chairman, will lead the Senate’s $2.2 trillion CARES Act oversight efforts, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., announced on Friday.

Four of the five members of the congressional oversight commission created by the legislation had been selected as of Friday. McConnell said he picked Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D- Calif., chose Rep. Donna E. Shalala, D-Fla., and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy selected Rep. French Hill, R-Ark, Roll Call reported. Earlier in April, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., chose Bharat Ramamurti, a former economic adviser to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., on her presidential campaign. Pelosi and McConnell will pick the fifth member together.

By the end of this month, the Government Accountability Office will have started at least 30 reviews and audits related to the CARES Act, Politico reported on Monday. The topics will include the government’s testing rollout, distribution of medical supplies, the food supply, nursing home infections and issues in distributing stimulus checks. 

In a USA Today article on Sunday, Reps. Adam Schiff, D-Calif.; Bennie Thompson, D-Miss.; and Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., advocated for the creation of a 9/11-style commission for the coronavirus outbreak. “We have each proposed legislation to create an independent, bipartisan commission that would examine the outbreak and spread, the nation’s preparedness and our government’s collective response, and make recommendations for the future,” they wrote. “Although our proposals differ slightly, they are each based on the premise that the American people deserve to know the full truth about what happened.” 

The National Institutes of Health began enrolling adults over the age of 55 in a clinical trial for a potential coronavirus vaccine on Friday. The study is taking place in Seattle; Atlanta; and Bethesda, Maryland. 

As April 18-26 is National Park Week, the White House released a statement that touched on the coronavirus outbreak. “Where our national parks have been able to remain safely open, they continue to provide a respite for the American people,” said the statement. “Guidance from local health departments and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has led the National Park Service to determine that access to national parks must be temporarily curtailed, and that entire parks must be closed in some cases, to ensure the safety of visitors, employees, volunteers, and others.” Read Government Executive’s coverage on the calls for the NPS to mandate all locations to close during the pandemic. 

According to a new survey by Harvard and Harris Insights and Analytics, 72% of respondents supported conducting the presidential election entirely by mail. The poll was conducted from April 14 to April 16 among 2,394 registered voters. 

The survey also found that 84% of respondents were somewhat or very satisfied with the military’s handling of the coronavirus and 80% were somewhat or very satisfied with the CDC’s response. Meanwhile, 59% were somewhat or very satisfied with the federal government (which ranked below local and state governments). 

Contamination at the CDC’s Atlanta lab delayed the rollout of coronavirus testing, according to an investigation by The Washington Post. “The CDC facilities that assembled the kits violated sound manufacturing practices, resulting in contamination of one of the three test components used in the highly sensitive detection process.” said the paper. “After the difficulty emerged, CDC officials took more than a month to remove the unnecessary step from the kits, exacerbating nationwide delays in testing.”

Another Washington Post investigation found that CDC staff, along with other experts, at the World Health Organization’s Geneva headquarters were sending real-time information to the Trump administration about the coronavirus’ spread in China late last year. The president has repeatedly asserted the WHO is to blame for failing to communicate about the virus. Health and Human Services spokesperson Caitlin Oakley “confirmed that in January, HHS had 17 staff members, including 16 from the CDC, at the WHO, ‘working on a variety of programs, including COVID-19 and Ebola,’” said the paper. “She emphasized that the staff members were not ‘decision-makers.’” 

The first Federal Bureau of Prisons staff member died from coronavirus, CBS reported on Saturday. Robin Grubbs was a 39-year-old case manager at the United States Penitentiary in Atlanta. As of April 19, there were 495 federal inmates and 309 BOP staff who tested positive for coronavirus (155 inmates and 29 staff have recovered). There have been 22 inmate deaths, according to the agency’s online tracker. 

The federal prison camp in Otisville, N.Y., closed due to the coronavirus outbreak. “Sources tell [Yeshiva World News] that inmates have been sent home for 30 days, after which their release will be reviewed. It is likely this will last at least 60 days,” the outlet reported. Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen and former New York State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos are among the inmates. 

During the White House briefing on Sunday, Trump confirmed the exclusion of Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, from the bipartisan "Opening Up America Again Congressional Group,” was the result of a grudge. Romney was the only Republican senator not asked to be on it. He was also the only Republican senator to vote for one of the articles of impeachment against President Trump earlier this year, but “the bad blood goes back years,” as The Hill reported

The Internal Revenue Service said on Friday that recipients of Veterans Affairs benefits would automatically receive their stimulus checks. "Since many VA recipients typically aren't required to file tax returns, the IRS had to work with these other government agencies to determine a way to quickly and accurately deliver [payments] to this group," IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig said in a press release. "We deeply appreciate the sacrifices and service to our country by each and every veteran and their families, as well as the assistance of VA and the Bureau of Fiscal Services in this effort."

As many IRS employees are teleworking during the pandemic and cannot receive mail, “millions of individual taxpayers and businesses could face lengthy delays before they receive refunds they desperately need as the coronavirus halts their incomes,” Politico reported on Monday. The agency is simultaneously dealing with an extended tax season and distribution of stimulus checks while its staff is working remotely. 

On Sunday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on CNN that paper checks have not gone out yet because the Trump administration wants people to use direct deposit through the IRS’s website. He also said that it was his idea to put the president’s name on the checks, which has led to speculation over whether or not this caused a delay in distribution of funds. 

During the coronavirus briefing on Sunday, the president said he’s using the 1950 Defense Production Act to increase production of coronavirus testing swabs. An unnamed company willincrease swab production in one U.S. facility by over 20 million additional swabs per month.”

The Pentagon said on Saturday it's extending the ban on domestic and international travel for military service members from May 11 to June 30. However, there will be  “increased flexibility for exemptions in the new order as the military enters its busy summer [permanent change of station] season,” Military Times reported

The Navy is starting an investigation on Monday into the coronavirus outbreak on the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt, Politico reported. Read Defense One’s full coverage of the spread of disease on the aircraft carrier that led to the captain asking for help, followed by his removal and the acting Navy secretary’s resignation. 

During a briefing on Monday, Defense Acquisition Chief Ellen Lord said the department ordered face coverings for its workforce and expects to receive 135,000 by the end of the month. 

The National Science Foundation has 100% telework for its 2,100 person workforce, including permanent, contract and temporary employees, Meritalk reported on Friday. “Your work is also crucial to our future success,” NSF Director France Cordova wrote in a community letter on March 23. “When this pandemic passes, basic research will still be an engine of our economy, it will still underpin our national defense, and it will still be the main driver of innovations and technology that enhance every aspect of our lives.”

The VA said on Monday it acquired a community hospital in Texas to care for veterans diagnosed with coronavirus. “Initially, the facility will be set up as an inpatient overflow unit with capacity for 100 beds to treat [coronavirus cases],” said a press release. “Later care will expand care for the 184,000 North Texas Veterans, to meet the growing demand for VA healthcare in that area.”

Today’s GovExec Daily podcast episode is about the Pentagon inspector general’s report on the huge defense cloud contract the Defense Department gave Microsoft in October over Amazon Web Services in the fall. Amazon filed a legal protest, citing political influence in the decision.

Upcoming: The White House coronavirus task force will have a briefing at 5 p.m. 

Help us understand the situation better. Are you a federal employee, contractor or military member with information, concerns, etc. about how your agency is handling the coronavirus? Email us at newstips@govexec.com.

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