Colorado Springs family wins Westminster Dog Show honors again

Connor, the Old English Sheepdog from Colorado Springs, won the Westminster Dog Show competition for herding breeds on Sunday. The second-longest continuously held sporting event in the United States has had a lot of ties to Connor’s family in recent years.

The sheepdog’s father, Swagger, also trained by Colton Johnson, was a winner. Connor’s sister, who is owned and trained by Colton’s wife, has also been a winner.

“I was born in this; my family has been doing this for 46 years,” Johnson, the owner of a multi-service kennel, said. “It’s the only job I’ve ever had, and I’m proud of it. I’ve been showing the dogs for our family for the last 24 years.”

Swagger won reserve best in show in 2013.

“It’s definitely labor intensive,” Johnson said. “It’s not like, you know, the dog just lays around on the couch, goes out in the backyard and goes to the bathroom, and then we just say okay, we’re going to a dog show. Let’s go and pack them up.”

Johnson and several family members are packed up and driving home to Colorado from New York after their win.

The Westminster Dog Show was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, moving the venue from Madison Square Garden to outdoors. The usual dry conditions of Colorado compared to New York outside in the spring only helped fluff up Connor’s coat.

“If you win the breed in that dog show, it’s an honor, let alone placed in the group, let alone win the group,” Johnson said. “So you know anytime through something like that, there’s obviously a high level of excitement.”

The dog show wrapped up late Sunday night, and Connor — whose real name for the dog show is Bugaboo Courage of Conviction — lost out to Wasabi the Pekingese for best in show. But Connor, still a good boy, spent the evening in bed with his family in the hotel room.

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Nuggets star Nikola Jokic announces he won’t play for Serbian national team at Olympics

Nuggets center Nikola Jokic announced Wednesday he wouldn’t be available for the Serbian national team in the upcoming Olympics because of the toll this past year of basketball has taken on him.

“With my great regret, this is the moment when I have to announce that despite my great desire, I am not able to play for the national team,” Jokic told Serbian news agency Tanjug. “Simply, the condition of my body requires a longer absence from the court for recovery.”

In the aftermath of the Nuggets Game 4 loss to Phoenix on Sunday, team officials expressed concern about Jokic potentially playing in the Olympics, a league source said. The Nuggets would’ve supported his decision regardless, but were concerned about how much basketball he’d played in the past year. Since August 1st of last season, Jokic had played in 109 of a possible 109 games.

He finished this season third in total minutes in the NBA at 2,488. By the end of Denver’s second-round series against Phoenix, Jokic was drained. In Game 3, he played 40 minutes and reached statistical marks only ever achieved by Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

And that historic night came several days after Nuggets coach Michael Malone described him as “physically and mentally exhausted” at the team’s MVP news conference.

Jokic, who is back home in Serbia following the Nuggets’ season-ending defeat, will get a full offseason for the first time since 2018.

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Combining work and pleasure, buyers snapped up vacation homes in a big way during pandemic

Housing markets across the country heated up during the COVID-19 pandemic, but demand for vacation homes, including in Colorado, sizzled, according to a new study from the National Association of Realtors.

For the purposes of the study, NAR defined a vacation-home county as one where seasonally vacant and recreational-use housing accounted for at least a fifth of the housing stock. Of the 1,250 counties in the U.S., 145 met the definition of a vacation-home county, and in Colorado 19 out of 64 counties met the definition.

Home sales in vacation-home counties last year rose 16.4%, outpacing a 5.6% gain for all home sales, according to NAR. In the Mountain West, which includes Colorado, sales rose 18.8% in vacation home counties versus 11.5% for non-vacation home counties. Median home prices also increased twice as fast in resort areas, 20% vs. 10.1%

Year-over-year through April, vacation-home sales are up 57.2%, compared to a 20% rise in existing-home sales overall. Colorado’s mountain counties are among those feeling the crush. Nationally, vacation home sales were 5% of all home sales in 2019, and their share rose to 5.5% in 2020. Through the first four months of 2021, they accounted for 6.7% of all home sales.

“As we enter the month of June, buyers and their agents are hopeful for more inventory — reminiscent of thoughts we have about snow — when it is going to come and how much we are going to get?” said Steamboat Springs-area Realtor Marci Valicenti, in separate comments provided by the Colorado Association of Realtors.

Before the pandemic, workers in vacation home counties worked from home at an above-average rate. And when employers opened the door wide to remote work last year, more people headed to their favorite vacation spots.

Valicenti said it comes down to basic supply and demand, and supply is struggling to keep up. Although new construction normally provides relief by boosting supply, most homes built in resort towns are custom-made.

“It will be interesting to see how many buyers who purchased land in the last nine months are going to be patient enough to wait for an available contractor or decide it is too expensive to build,” she said.

The NAR ranked vacation-home counties based on how active or hot their housing markets were last year. Lee County in Florida, which counts 90,792 vacation homes and had a median sales price of $247,000, was the top county.

Colorado’s highest-ranked county on the list was Routt at 38th, followed by Huerfano at 43rd and Park at 69th. Huerfano and Park counties may not be the state’s most well-known vacation destinations, but their relative popularity during the pandemic reflects a larger trend of buyers seeking out more affordable options when it came to second homes.

Although Colorado counties weren’t among the hottest in terms of activity, several rank highly for the share of homes that are seasonal. They include Mineral County, where 67.1% of homes are not used full-time; Hinsdale County at 64.1%; Summit County at 63.7%; and Grand County at 54.7%.

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Metro Denver, Fort Collins rise up the list of worst U.S. cities for air pollution

Metro Denver and Fort Collins rank increasingly high on a notorious list that comes out each year — the worst U.S. cities for air pollution.

Only the Los Angeles area and parts of California’s Central Valley now consistently outperform Colorado’s Front Range cities with their levels of ground-level ozone, which is linked to hospitalizations, ER visits and thousands of premature deaths.

Metro Denver ranked eighth-worst for ozone, up from 10th in 2020 and 12th in 2019, according to a compilation of federal data by the American Lung Association. (Denver is tied with the Salt Lake City metro area.) Fort Collins jumped to 17th-worst, up from 19th in 2020 and 24th in 2019.

“We’re failing. It is not necessarily an easy problem to solve. A lot of the easy juice to squeeze, that’s already been done,” said National Jewish Health pulmonologist Dr. Anthony Gerber, who also serves on the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission, which guides state policy on air pollution.

For the second week in a row, residents of metro Denver and other northern Front Range cities are facing air quality alerts as ozone levels spike above the federal health limit of 70 parts per billion — 89 ppb in Golden, 74 ppb in Rocky Mountain National Park, 81 ppb at the Rocky Flats National Wildlife Refuge, 76 ppb in Fort Collins and 73 ppb in Chatfield State Park southwest of Denver.

The American Lung Association advocates a health limit for ozone of 60 ppb, in line with World Health Organization recommendations.

And Colorado has failed to meet the existing national health standards so frequently over the past decade that Environmental Protection Agency officials last year reclassified the state as a “serious” violator. That put a nine-county area along the Front Range in the same league as Phoenix, the Los Angeles area, Dallas, Chicago, Houston and Salt Lake City. The Environmental Protection Agency classifies parts of California’s central valley and metro Los Angeles as “extreme” violators.

Across the West, ozone pollution has intensified, driven by a combination of factors that air quality authorities warn may no longer be controllable: a warming climate, aridity and wildfires. When fires burn across larger areas in forests, they churn up particulate pollution that is spread in smoke, which can accelerate formation of ozone. Population growth, meanwhile, brings more vehicles that, along with industry, churn out ozone-forming pollutants.

Colorado health officials are mulling measures — short of public transit overhauls that cost billions — in an effort to address ozone pollution. These include:

  • More aggressively encouraging landscaping companies and homeowners to stop using gas-powered lawn mowers, weed cutters and other tools;
  • Getting high-pollution vehicles off roads by giving incentives to residents for shifting to zero-emission electric vehicles;
  • Plugging regulatory holes to target major polluters inside Colorado but outside of the Front Range such as oil and gas facilities and unregulated trucks.

“Otherwise,” Gerber said, “we’re going to be facing this pollution for the foreseeable future.”

Ozone pollution forms when chemical gases, including volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides, mix in sunlight. It causes breathing problems and triggers asthma attacks.

“If your air is bad for two to six weeks,” Gerber said, “you’ll start to see chronic effects on your lung functioning.”

American Lung Association doctors have been pressing President Joe Biden’s administration to make bigger investments to install electric vehicle charging stations and offer sufficient incentives for drivers, including tax credits, rebates and free use of charging stations and highway express lanes.

“Denver and Colorado have good climate strategies in place,” ALA advocacy director JoAnna Strother said, “but every state needs to do more because temperatures are rising and some of these things are out of our control.”

If Colorado’s consistent violations of health limits lead the EPA to downgrade the state more — to  “severe” violator status — health officials would be forced to do more to reduce air pollution. Beyond vehicles, they’d have to impose tougher restrictions on oil and gas facilities and other industrial sources.

“The EPA is working closely with the CDPHE as they implement and revise plans to achieve Clean Air Act standards and reduce ozone,” said Carl Daly, acting director of the EPA’s regional air division. “The EPA will also determine, by early next year, whether further measures will be required for the Front Range.”

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Colorado’s newest wildfire, Collom fire, spreads near Craig

A fire sparked and spread fast in northwest Colorado on Tuesday. The Collom fire, burning between Craig and Meeker is 400 acres big with officials working to establish control lines around parts of the fire’s perimeter.

The fire is located off of Colorado Highway 13, near Moffat County roads 17 and 13 and has closed Moffat County Road 51. A large coal mine, the Colowyo Mine, is in the near vicinity of the fire.

So far, the fire has burned sage and oak brush on private lands with several entities fighting the blaze. The Moffat County Sheriff’s Office reports that the fire moderated overnight, with crews working on aerial mapping of the area.

The fire burns in the hardest-hit drought region of the state while excessive heat warnings have been placed for parts of the Western Slope due to a heatwave.

The entire Southwest is struggling with fires as the country’s biggest fire by acreage, the Telegraph Fire, jumped its containment and merged with the second-largest fire in the country, the Mescal fire on Tuesday. The dire conditions in eastern Arizona are mirrored in New Mexico which has five large fires burning, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.

“Currently, 33 large fires have burned more than 360,000 acres in 10 states,” the NIFC released in a statement on Wednesday. “Eleven new large fires were reported yesterday. Wildland fire activity increased in the Northern Rockies and Rocky Mountain areas where seven new large fires were reported. More than half of the 33 uncontained large fires are in the Southwest and Great Basin areas.”

The NIFC also reports the Collom Fire as 5% contained. The cause of that fire is under investigation.

Before the blaze even sparked on Tuesday the Moffat County Sheriff’s Office released Stage I Fire Restrictions that went into effect Wednesday.

Several other wildfires have burned in or are right up against Colorado. The largest active one is the Pack Creek Fire at 8,453 acres and 26% containment, 14 miles southeast of Moab, Utah and about eight miles west of the border with Colorado.

Most smoke in the Centennial State on Wednesday, causing poor air quality, is coming from the fires in Arizona and New Mexico.

Wildfire map

Click markers for details, use buttons to change what wildfires are shown. Map data is automatically updated by government agencies and could lag real-time events. Incident types are numbered 1-5 — a type 1 incident is a large, complex wildfire affecting people and critical infrastructure, a type 5 incident is a small wildfire with few personnel involved. Find more information about incident types at the bottom of this page.

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Colorado bills to reduce cost of health insurance, prescription drugs signed into law

As part of Colorado Democrats’ plans to reduce health care costs, Gov. Jared Polis signed two bills Wednesday meant to create a more affordable health insurance option and a prescription drug review board.

“You know what, Coloradans are sick and tired of getting ripped off on the high cost of prescription drugs,” Polis said, adding later that both bills faced heavy lobbying, which in his mind indicates they will bring real change.

“These are more than just nibbling around the margins of saving people money on health care,” he said.

HB21-1232 is the result of the long-anticipated “Colorado Option” benefit plan — initially meant to be a true public option. The new law would require insurance companies to work with providers and the state to create a new health insurance plan for the individual and small-group markets by Jan. 1, 2022. Premium costs must be 15% cheaper than their 2021 rates within three years (adjusted for medical inflation), and the plan must cover specific benefits like pediatric care and other benefits that are considered essential.

About 15% of Coloradans buy their health insurance on the small group and individual marketplaces combined, but the bill sponsors hope people who are uninsured can afford the new option and will boost the percentage of insured people.

The bill was backed only by Democrats, with Republicans saying the bill is too much government involvement in the private sector and a step toward free government-provided health care.

The new law also specifies that insurance companies should create networks to help reduce health disparities.

“Health care equity and access to quality care will now be the standard in Colorado for all people,” Aurora Democratic Rep. Iman Jodeh said. “This will be especially true for (Black, Indigenous and people of color) communities who have been traditionally marginalized, overlooked, and undermined when it comes to their health while having a seat at the table, giving voice to the services they need at the cost they can afford.”

Polis also signed SB21-175, which would create a Prescription Drug Affordability Review Board  tasked with assessing the cost of drugs. The board also can set new price limits for 12 drugs per year, and make additional recommendations for other drugs as well.

Work to establish the board can begin immediately and board members have to be appointed by Jan. 1, 2022.

Other states like Maine and Vermont have these types of boards, but Colorado is the only state so far to allow the board to set price ceilings for certain drugs.

“Whether it’s in clinic or whether we’re talking to my constituents, Coloradans are incredibly alarmed by the prices of prescription drugs and health care overall, so I think that by putting pressure on a system that has just kind of been able to charge whatever they want in the United States, that will be making a difference for for health care prices in the future,” said sponsor Rep. Yadira Caraveo, a Thornton Democrat and a pediatrician.

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Japan looks to ease virus emergency ahead of Olympics

TOKYO — Japan is expected to ease a coronavirus state of emergency in Tokyo and most other areas this weekend, with new daily cases falling just as the country begins making final preparations for the Olympics starting in just over a month.

Japan has been struggling since late March to slow a wave of infections propelled by more contagious variants, with new daily cases soaring above 7,000 at one point and seriously ill patients straining hospitals in Tokyo, Osaka and other metropolitan areas.

Daily cases have since subsided significantly and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is expected to downgrade the state of emergency when it expires on Sunday to a less-stringent quasi-emergency for several weeks.

Despite concerns raised by medical experts and the public over the potential risks of holding the Olympics, Suga has said he is determined to hold a “safe and secure” games starting July 23.

Holding the Olympics before elections in the autumn is also a political gamble for Suga, whose support ratings have tumbled due to public dissatisfaction over his virus measures, a vaccination drive criticized as being too slow, and lack of a clear explanation of how he will ensure the virus doesn’t spread during the Olympics.

Government-appointed experts met Wednesday to analyze the situation ahead of Suga’s decision on the emergency measures and expressed concern about the potential for infections to climb again after measures are eased. Suga is expected to make a final decision Thursday after more meetings.

Suga placed Tokyo, Osaka and two other areas under a state of emergency in late April and has since expanded the area to 10 prefectures and extended the measures twice. Japan does not enforce hard lockdowns and the state of emergency allows prefectural leaders to order closures or shorter hours for non-essential business in return for compensation to those who comply and fines for violators. Stay-at-home and other measures for the general population are only requests and are increasingly ignored.

Ryuji Wakita, the director-general of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases who heads a government COVID-19 advisory board, said infections have decreased in many areas, but the slowing has bottomed out in the Tokyo region. He warned that infections could increase after an easing of the measures. He said signs of a rebound are already seen among younger people.

Even as more people are vaccinated and most of the country’s 36 million senior citizens are expected to be fully inoculated by the end of July, younger people are largely unvaccinated and infections among them could quickly burden hospitals, Wakita said.

“In order to prevent another upsurge, it is crucial to prevent the people from roaming around during the Olympics and summer vacation,” he said.

Experts say it is crucial to accelerate the vaccine rollout to hold the Olympics safely in one of the world’s least vaccinated developed countries, .

Suga has opened up mass inoculation centers and started vaccinations at major companies, while setting an ambition target of as many as 1 million doses per day.

As of Tuesday, only 5.6% of Japanese were fully vaccinated.

With vaccination rate still low, experts are concerned about the increased flow of the people in Tokyo despite the emergency. Many residents have become impatient and are less cooperative with social distancing requests, they say.

In hard-hit Osaka in western Japan, hospital capacity has improved and new infections dropped to 108 on Tuesday, significantly down from more than 1,200 a day in late April.

In Tokyo, new infections are down to around 500 per day from above 1,100 in mid-May. Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike has said effective virus measures need to be kept in place.

At a parliamentary health and labor committee last week, Dr. Shigeru Omi, head of a government COVID-19 panel, cautioned that holding the Olympics in the middle of the pandemic is “abnormal” and warned that it would increase the risk of infections.

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AP source: Kawhi Leonard has knee issue, status unclear

All-NBA forward Kawhi Leonard has a right knee injury that may keep him out of the Los Angeles Clippers’ lineup for Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals on Wednesday night, according to a person with knowledge of the matter.

Leonard’s status hinges on what he and the Clippers learn after additional examination and treatment, said the person, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the team had not divulged the injury.

Leonard was not listed on the injury report that the Clippers filed with the league Tuesday night. That report is scheduled to be updated Wednesday.

ESPN first reported that Leonard is dealing with the knee injury.

Leonard, a two-time NBA Finals MVP, is averaging 30.4 points on 57% shooting in the playoffs.

The injury appeared to occur with about 5:20 left in Game 4 of the series against Utah on Monday night, when he was fouled on a drive by Utah’s Bojan Bogdanovic. Leonard was dribbling into the lane when he was bumped, and his right knee appeared to buckle slightly. He grimaced in some discomfort, missed the two free throws that were awarded following the foul, but remained in the game for 45 more seconds.

He checked out with 4:35 remaining and did not return; the Clippers led by 16 points when he checked out and the lead remained in double figures the rest of the way.

The Clippers-Jazz series is tied 2-2, with Game 5 in Salt Lake City on Wednesday and Game 6 back in Los Angeles on Friday night.

Game 7, if necessary, would be back in Salt Lake City on Sunday. If the Clippers-Jazz series ends Friday, Game 1 of the Western Conference finals between the LA-Utah winner and Phoenix will be Sunday.

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AP source: Paul in protocols, status for West finals unclear

Phoenix guard Chris Paul has entered the NBA’s health and safety protocols and it is unclear whether he’ll be available for the start of the Western Conference finals next week, a person with knowledge of the situation said Wednesday.

The Suns are not certain exactly how long Paul will have to be away from the team, the person said, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because neither the player nor the team have publicly released anything. It is unclear whether Paul has been vaccinated.

The Athletic first reported that Paul was entering the protocols.

The earliest the West finals would begin is Sunday. It depends on how long the other West semifinal series between Utah and the Los Angeles Clippers lasts; if the Jazz-Clippers matchup ends Friday, then Game 1 between the winner of that series and the Suns will be Sunday afternoon.

Otherwise, the likely start date for Game 1 of the West series is Tuesday.

The protocols are the league’s playbook for handling all matters related to the coronavirus this season. There have been examples of players missing multiple weeks following positive COVID-19 tests; there have also been examples of players missing very short amounts of time for matters such as contact tracing investigations.

In March, the league also relaxed some of the protocols that were put into place last fall, doing so in response to players and coaches choosing to receive the vaccine that protects against the coronavirus.

But the league also cautioned at that time that “if an individual has symptoms consistent with COVID-19, the previous protocols apply” — which would still mean that anyone with those symptoms “may be subject to quarantine” regardless of their vaccination status.

Paul scored 37 points in Game 4 of the West semifinals against Denver, helping Phoenix finish off a four-game sweep. He has only played in the West finals once in his career, doing so in 2018 with Houston against Golden State. The Rockets held a 3-2 lead in that series when Paul injured a hamstring and had to miss Games 6 and 7; Houston lost both and the Warriors went on to win the NBA title.

He is averaging 15.7 points and 8.7 assists per game in these playoffs, shooting 51% from the field, 44% from 3-point range and 91% from the foul line.

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Denver weather: It’s another record-breaking hot day

The exceedingly hot weather that brought Denver over 100 degrees for the first time in 2021 on Tuesday will stick around another day. The record high was 101 degrees, and it’s expected to be about the same on Wednesday.

The National Weather Service in Boulder forecasts Wednesday will be 100 degrees under sunny skies. There’s a 10% chance that a shower or thunderstorm pops up in the evening as temperatures will drop to a 67-degree low. The isolated thunderstorms are more likely to develop over high terrain in the afternoon and move southeast over the plains, generating some gusty winds in parts of Colorado.

Douglas, Jefferson, Denver, western Arapahoe, western Adams, Broomfield, Boulder, Larimer, and Weld counties are still under poor air quality conditions due to several wildfires in the southwest.

Thursday is another chance for triple digits with a high of 99 degrees under sunny skies. There is a 20% chance of showers after lunch. Thunderstorms with gusty winds will once again be the main threat. Gusts near 20 mph are possible as the low dips to 65 degrees.

The possible storms signal a cool front, bringing the heat down a few notches come Friday. The weather will be 90 degrees with a 30% chance of thunderstorms to end the week with a low of 63 degrees. Moisture will build throughout the day and into the weekend, possibly bringing the return of more consistent scattered showers. Highs will be in the 90s through the weekend.

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