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The United States’ Coronavirus Death Toll Is About to Hit 100,000. Donald Trump Went Golfing Today.

Mother Jones Magazine -

President Donald Trump, who in 2014 attacked Barack Obama for golfing during an Ebola outbreak that ultimately took the lives of two Americans, hit the links on Saturday as the number America deaths attributed to coronavirus neared 100,000.

That happens to be a total that Trump, in one of his frequently revised predictions of the virus’ expected toll, has said it will not exceed. “It looks like we’re headed to a number substantially below the 100,000,” he said on April 10. (He notoriously had opined on February 26 that 15 cases reported cases in the United States “within a couple of days is going to be down to close to zero.”) There are now more 1.6 million confirmed cases in the United States, according to the New York Times, though there is no way to know the actual number, because, despite Trump’s claim on March 6 that “anybody that wants a test can get a test,” most people can’t get tests.

One hundred thousand deaths is also likely an undercount. State mortality figures compiled by the Centers for Disease Control suggest the ongoing pandemic has caused the deaths of somewhere between 33 to 60 percent more Americans  than the official figure attributed to COVID-19. Though coronavirus continues to take the lives of around 1,200 Americans each day, Trump has recently amped up an effort to push for states and churches to reopen, a position nakedly aimed at aiding his reelection hopes by reversing an economic collapse that has left 38 million Americans unemployed. His outing Saturday appears aimed at signaling “the worst is behind us and that America is ready to return to normal,” as the Washington Post‘s Philip Bump wrote. Mission accomplished. Now watch this drive.

WATCH: President Trump golfs on Saturday at his Virginia golf club. pic.twitter.com/L8SJf0wKzo

— The Hill (@thehill) May 23, 2020

Trump traveled Saturday by motorcade from Washington, DC, to Sterling, Virginia, locales in which stay-at-home orders leave golf off limits to regular residents. It was his first golf outing since March 8, but also his 250th as president. As he often does, Trump played at one of his own courses, a practice that helps promote his floundering hospitality business and forces the Secret Service to spend taxpayer funds at Trump properties.

Some pundits have consistently argued that Trump’s golf, and hypocrisy over golf, is relatively unimportant amid his policy failures. And indeed, his coronavirus record would be ripe for criticism even if it included no golf. But symbolism matters. And as the death toll mounts, golf is the symbol Trump picked Saturday.

Hummingbird Break

Mother Jones Magazine -

Would a hummingbird make you feel better for the rest of the day? Of course it would. Everyone loves hummingbirds and I happen to have a very nice new picture of one. Enjoy.

Today’s Unpopular Opinion: Rand Paul Might Be Right About School Closures

Mother Jones Magazine -

Senator Rand Paul has some advice for how we should be fighting COVID-19 as we move forward:

“Below 25 years old the fatality rate of COVID-19 is 0.00008%, or roughly one in 1.25 million . . .” Open our schools now!https://t.co/Md3zGjDmVV

— Senator Rand Paul (@RandPaul) May 22, 2020


Is Rand Paul an idiot? Or does he have a point? It’s a hard question to answer. Schoolkids may not usually show many symptoms of COVID-19, but they can get infected and they can transmit their infections to others. On the other hand, closing schools and forcing parents to stay home can also cause an indirect increase in COVID-19 deaths. The question is, how does this net out?

The ideal way to find out would be a natural experiment. Find two counties that are similar but that closed their schools at different times and see how this affected things. Unfortunately, school closures are done on a statewide basis, and virtually every state closed their schools within about a week of each other around March 18. So that’s out. This leaves us with the dreaded models. But since that’s all we have, let’s do a quick scan of what our modelers think. First off, here’s the conclusion of a study of Wuhan and Shanghai in Science:

While proactive school closures cannot interrupt transmission on their own, they can reduce peak incidence by 40-60% and delay the epidemic.

I’m not super thrilled about modeling studies that use Wuhan as their data source, but the authors did find that the incidence of new infections went down during school vacation periods. Next up is a note published in JAMA:

Although no official data are available, to our knowledge, on the effectiveness of school closure during the COVID-19 epidemic, the poor relevance of this restrictive measure seems confirmed by the evidence that in Taiwan, the spread of COVID-19 was minimized without widespread planned school closures….The poor effect of school closure during coronavirus epidemics has already been evidenced in some studies carried out during the SARS epidemic. In China, it was found that school closure for 2 months was not significantly effective for disease prevention mainly because of the very low incidence of symptomatic disease among school-aged children.

Here’s another published in the Lancet:

Our model estimates that if the infection mortality rate of COVID-19 increases from 2.00% to 2.35% when the health-care workforce declines by 15.0%, school closures could lead to a greater number of deaths than they prevent.

And a study published in Health Affairs suggests that school closures are not only ineffective, but might be associated with more COVID-19 deaths:

Finally, here’s a “rapid systematic review” of studies that have investigated the effect of school closure:

Recent modelling studies of COVID-19 predict that school closures alone would prevent only 2-4% of deaths, much less than other social distancing interventions. Policy makers need to be aware of the equivocal evidence when considering school closures for COVID-19, and that combinations of social distancing measures should be considered

None of this is conclusive proof. But at the moment, there is no conclusive proof. That said, the best evidence we have seems to suggest that school closures have a fairly minimal effect taken on their own, and a zero or maybe even negative effect when you net out the increase in COVID-19 deaths that they cause indirectly.

When you take this into account and then add two things . . .

  • Schools know a lot more about effective social distancing practices than they did in March.
  • By September the infection rate of COVID-19 should be lower than it is today.

. . . the case for reopening gets even stronger. Obviously things might change between now and September, and new studies might provide better insight into the real-world effect of school closures on a disease like COVID-19. For the moment, though, I’d say the evidence suggests that school closures have (a) little effect and (b) are probably nowhere near worth the tremendous impact they have on both parents and kids.

A German Soccer Club Came Up With an Oddly Ingenious Way to Fill Its Empty Stadium

Mother Jones Magazine -

Germany’s professional soccer league has resumed play with fans banned due to coronavirus, so one team found an unusual way to fill empty stadium seats.

Borussia Mönchengladbach, currently in fourth place in the Bundesliga, reportedly placed more than 12,000 cardboard cutouts of fans in their 54,000 stadium. These are real likenesses of season ticket holders who shelled out 19 euros each to have their facsimiles present for the contest. According to the Associated Press, the cutouts are the brainchild of the team’s fan club, which is using some of the proceeds to maintain the jobs of seven of the club’s workers, whose jobs have been under threat due to the soccer shutdown. A small portion is also supposed to help pay for a boy to receive treatment for spinal muscular atrophy.

Borussia Mönchengladbach and Leverkusen are playing in front of 13,000 cardboard cutout fans pic.twitter.com/ySwOMCz5Xh

— ESPN (@espn) May 23, 2020

This is kind of thing that German soccer fan clubs, which are notoriously intense and well organized, do. It’s tough to imagine Astros season ticket holders, or any American sports fans, dispatching cardboard cutouts of themselves to games. But what about politics? As Republican and Democratic parties mull holding their nominating conventions this summer, they might want to take a note.

Imperial College Says the Most Dangerous States Are the Ones That Are Reopening

Mother Jones Magazine -

Our pals at Imperial College have released a state-level model showing which states have reduced their R0 below one. Without further ado:

For those of you who prefer a more visual approach, here’s a map:

Roughly speaking, any state that’s a shade of purple shouldn’t even be thinking about reopening yet. This mainly includes the South and the Great Lakes region, precisely the places that are most aggressively reopening right now. This does not bode well.

Jeff Sessions Would Like Alabama to Think Trump Can’t Push Him Around. He Just Proved That’s Wrong.

Mother Jones Magazine -

President Donald Trump has been bullying Jeff Sessions for more than three years. It started in March 2017, when Sessions, weeks into his tenure as attorney general, recused himself from involvement in an FBI investigation into Trump campaign contacts with Russia. This was a legal no-brainer. Sessions was key backer and adviser to the Trump campaign. He even had his own contacts which Russian officials and was under fire for apparently lying about them in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

But Trump, who has insisted with disturbing success that the Justice Department should promote his personal interests, was enraged. Trump argues that Sessions stepping aside allowed the May 2017 appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller, a development that led Trump to privately remark, “I’m fucked.” After Mueller launched his investigation, Trump publicly derided Sessions. The president also privately pushed for Sessions to reverse his recusal and restrict Mueller’s investigation. Mueller later said that effort may have constituted obstruction of justice.

Sessions, who was forced to resign in November 2016 and is now running to regain his former Senate seat in Alabama, has taken this punishment largely in silence. That changed Friday night, when Sessions responded to a tweet by Trump urging Alabama Republicans to back former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville over Sessions in a GOP primary. Following a July primary vote, the winner will be a favorite against Democratic incumbent Doug Jones in the conservative state.

.@realdonaldtrump Look, I know your anger, but recusal was required by law. I did my duty & you're damn fortunate I did. It protected the rule of law & resulted in your exoneration. Your personal feelings don't dictate who Alabama picks as their senator, the people of Alabama do. https://t.co/QQKHNAgmiE

— Jeff Sessions (@jeffsessions) May 23, 2020

Twelve hours later, Sessions was back at it:

.@realDonaldTrump: Mr. President, Alabama can and does trust me, as do conservatives across the country. Perhaps you’ve forgotten. They trusted me when I stepped out and put that trust on the line for you.

— Jeff Sessions (@jeffsessions) May 23, 2020

Sessions has previously avoided arguing publicly with Trump about his recusal. That is likely because he wanted Trump’s support, or at least to avoid being attacked by him. Sessions’ pushback came only after a poll that showed Tuberville has opened a 23-point lead over him. He may be speaking out in part because he’s all but dead in the primary.

But Sessions, despite headlines suggesting he is standing up to Trump, is still letting Trump bully him. Sessions tweeted that his recusal led to Trump’s “exoneration.” That’s false. Mueller did not exonerate Trump of anything, as the special counsel pointedly noted in his report and congressional testimony. In fact, Mueller suggested that Trump obstructed justice by pressuring Jeff Sessions. If Sessions ever really stands up to Trump, he would say that.

Coronavirus Growth in Western Countries: May 22 Update

Mother Jones Magazine -

Here’s the coronavirus death toll through May 22. Spain suddenly reported 688 deaths on Friday, causing a big spike in their death toll. France, conversely, reported zero deaths. I’m not sure what’s going on here. All the other countries are mostly on track, and even the two sets of numbers for Sweden are starting to look similar (with an expected lag of a few days). The United States has dropped below four deaths per million, which surprises me. This either means that the lockdown protocols have been more effective than I guessed, or that the lockdown protocols didn’t really matter at all. My money remains on the former.

The raw data from Johns Hopkins is here. The Public Health Agency of Sweden is here.

“It’s Catastrophe Upon Catastrophe”—Michigan Flooding Is One of Many Pandemic Weather Disasters

Mother Jones Magazine -

This piece was originally published in HuffPost and appears here as part of our Climate Desk Partnership.

Rivers swollen from days of record-breaking rain topped two dams in Michigan’s Midland County this week, flooding neighborhoods with enough brown, muddy water to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool every two seconds. The flooding sent 10,000 residents who had sheltered in place from the coronavirus pandemic scrambling for higher ground. 

Parts of the county 140 miles northwest of Detroit are facing 9 feet of flooding as nearly 5 inches of rain fell over 36 hours, the kind of deluge that takes place only once every 25 to 50 years, meteorologist Paul Gross said. The National Weather Service called the disaster “extremely dangerous” and urged drivers who encounter inundated roads to “turn around, don’t drown.” 

By Wednesday, fears mounted that the deluge could infiltrate a Dow chemical plant and endanger a nuclear research reactor. The company confirmed that floodwaters were “commingling with on-site containment ponds.” 

“This is unlike anything we’ve seen in Midland County,” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said at a press conference late Tuesday. “If you have a family member or loved one who lives in another part of the state, go there now.”

“If you have a family member or loved one who lives in another part of the state, go there now.”

The flooding marked only the latest immediate environmental threat amid the pandemic, which has a global death toll of almost 319,000, with nearly 90,000 lives lost in the United States. 

In India and Bangladesh, millions braced for Cyclone Amphan, which meteorologists described as the most powerful storm on record to hit the Bay of Bengal.

The southeastern United States, meanwhile, faced Tropical Storm Arthur, the eighth storm this decade to form before June 1, the historic start of hurricane season. Scientists say this is a symptom of warming oceans and a preview of what’s to come as temperatures increase globally. 

In the South Pacific, the island nations of Fiji, Tonga and Vanuatu are struggling to recover after the powerful Cyclone Harold destroyed homes in April and the pandemic hampered rebuilding efforts.   

The storms were hardly the only global warming-linked events to stir panic as public health officials struggled to contain the virus and prepare for another wave of infections.

The worst flooding in three generations displaced 100,000 Kenyans earlier this month as hundreds of billions of locusts swamped East Africa, threatening severe food shortages across the region.

Last week, an unusual heat wave settled over the Arctic, elevating temperatures to the highest levels for this time of year since record keeping began in 1958. That could jump-start Greenland’s melt season by two weeks, according to two reports in the Washington Post. One climate scientist in Denmark called the warming “quite extraordinary.” 

Extreme droughts parched parts of Northern California, Oregon, South Texas, some Great Plains states and the Northern Mariana Island, a US territory in the Pacific, as of last week, according to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln national drought tracker

In Siberia, where flames charred the world’s largest forest for months last summer, the hottest April on record once again reduced the northern Russian region to a tinderbox.

In Canada, images of a wildfire spreading quickly across farmland showed a horizon glowing orange with flames and black with smoke.

Wildfires torched parts of the United States, too. In the Florida Panhandle, several fires forced hundreds to evacuate earlier this month. In Southern Utah, a fire sparked by a vehicle and spread by high winds forced the evacuation of nearly two dozen homes. 

It’s difficult to establish causal relationships between climate change and individual storms, heat waves and fires. But a study published Monday by researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the University of Wisconsin at Madison found that planetary warming over the last 40 years increased the likelihood of tropical cyclones becoming major hurricanes by 8 percent per decade.

NOAA’s annual Arctic report card, meanwhile, confirmed that the northern polar region is warming year after year roughly twice as fast as the rest of the world. And a growing body of research shows that fires are likely to be worse and more frequent as the planet heats up and governments fail to curb homebuilding near at-risk woodlands. 

The catastrophe in Michigan wasn’t just predictable at a moment when climate change abatement projects look increasingly uncertain and economic austerity paralyzes governments’ capacity to upgrade aging infrastructure. It was predicted.  

In 2018, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission revoked the license of the Edenville Dam, one of the two structures that failed Tuesday night. FERC cited numerous violations and concerns that the dam could not withstand flooding, The Detroit News reported. The commission first pressed the dam’s owner about inadequate spillways in 1999 and renewed its calls for upgrades in 2004 and 2017. 

“Thirteen years after acquiring the license for the project, the licensee has still not increased spillway capacity, leaving the project in danger,” Jennifer Hill, director of FERC’s division of hydropower administration and compliance, wrote in an order revoking the license in September 2018. “The spillway capacity deficiencies must be remedied in order to protect life, limb and property.”

In January, the local government in Midland and a neighboring county stepped in to buy Edenville and three other dams. But upgrades weren’t due to be completed for another three years.

Despite earmarking money for water infrastructure, none of the $3 trillion allotted in the economic stimulus bill House Democrats passed last week would go toward fortifying facilities vulnerable to extreme weather resulting from climate change.

Abdul El-Sayed, a progressive political commentator and 2018 gubernatorial contender in Michigan, said the flood showed the effects of “a broken politics of austerity … hitting us all at the same time right now.”

“It’s catastrophe upon catastrophe,” El-Sayed said by phone. “We needed infrastructure investment a long time ago.”

Come for the Pasta, Stay (Apart) for the Pool Noodles

Mother Jones Magazine -

Restaurants face a very long road ahead. “Because of social distancing, we are going to be impacted a lot more than other small businesses,” chef and Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio recently told my colleague Tom Philpott on Bite podcast. He continued:

And on top of that, who is going to go out to dinner where the bartenders and the servers are wearing face masks? And God forbid, even with social distancing, if you take out half your seats, if someone at a table coughs, do you clear out the entire restaurant? I don’t think the question is when we can open, I think the question is when do people feel comfortable going out in crowds, and I think that’s when we get a vaccine.

Even without a vaccine, restaurants in some states and countries are starting to reopen for dine-in service. And they are experimenting with creative ways to honor social distancing—some more appetizing than others:

Shower Curtains

A breakfast cafe called the Twisted Citrus in North Canton, Ohio, has installed shower curtains between tables in preparation for the state’s reopening of dine-in restaurants. “We can spray (the curtains) down with Lysol and COVID cleaner spray,” co-owner Kim Shapiro told the Akron Beacon Journal.

An unusual social-distancing solution already is in place at the North Canton breakfast cafe Twisted Citrus. They're using clear shower-cutain liners to separate tables. https://t.co/pBxtsGy02p

— Akron Beacon Journal (@beaconjournal) May 8, 2020

The Twisted Citrus seems absolutely delightful, actually. The cafe’s website shows bright orange placemats and cheery yellow booths, and the menu includes whimsical offerings like pancake tacos and a breakfast banana split. But do you want to eat your cannoli French toast, which frankly looks divine, behind a recently sanitized shower liner? Personally, I would stick with takeout.

Mannequins

The Inn at Little Washington in Rappahannock County, Virginia, is the kind of upscale restaurant that uses the word “amuse-bouche” on the menu unironically and charges $248 for a tasting platter. “Embellished to the last inch, the dining room resembles a jewelry box lined with patterned carpets, lush wallpaper, heavy drapes and bejeweled upholstery,” croons the Michelin Guide, which gave it three stars.

James Beard–award winning chef Patrick O’Connell, who majored in drama in college, wants the restaurant to still feel full with social distancing requirements. So he’s filling the empty tables with mannequins. Washingtonian reports that servers will be instructed to pour wine for and make conversation with the mannequins, which will don 1940s-era costumes and masks bearing the features of Marilyn Monroe and George Washington. According to DC Eater, the inn has contracted with an Arlington theater company to build the “sets.”

The Inn at Little Washington is using mannequins to make its socially distanced dining room feel full. No, not creepy at all. https://t.co/1LeAIrpSSO pic.twitter.com/YdE6Nur07J

— Jessica Sidman (@jsidman) May 12, 2020

Meet your dining companions… pic.twitter.com/J9ezrmgHx6

— Jessica Sidman (@jsidman) May 12, 2020

If you are freaked out, disturbed, or terrified in any way during your visit to the Inn at Little Washington, please be advised that you probably cannot call for help. According to the inn’s website: “We are located in a very rural area of Virginia, and as beautiful as it is, we have very limited cell phone coverage within a 30 mile radius of The Inn. Unless you are with Sprint, you probably will not have a cell phone signal.”

This is definitely, absolutely not the beginning of the plot to a horror movie. Please enjoy your amuse-bouche.

Pool Noodles

The Cafe & Konditorei Rothe, a pastry shop and open air cafe on the main square of Schwerin, Germany, partnered with a local TV station to provide pool-noodle hats for guests as a gimmick on the day of its reopening. 

Heute mal so ,, Abstandsnachvermessung“

Posted by Cafe & Konditorei Rothe on Saturday, May 9, 2020

It was a publicity stunt, not intended as a lasting solution. But could these actually be effective for keeping people apart? The longest pool noodles measure about six feet, which should make them a reasonable metric for social distancing. Except that if the pool noodle is balanced on the middle of your head, that means it’s sticking out for only about three feet in either direction.

But there’s something else going on in this German cafe. This public square is a pedestrian zone with no cars allowed, so the cafe has room to space out its tables outside. And studies increasingly show that the coronavirus is much less likely to spread in outdoor settings. 

Al fresco dining is going to be the summer’s hottest trend. But let’s hope the pool noodle hats are not.

Bumper Tables

In Ocean City, Maryland, a waterfront restaurant has unveiled tables shaped like inner tubes. “It’s like a bumper boat, but it’s actually a table,” Fish Tales owner Shawn Harmon told the Salisbury Daily Times. Each customer will stand in the middle of a table on wheels, which they can bump up against each other at a safe distance. It’s a fitting concept for a seaside pub that in normal times has a pirate ship playground and tiki boat rentals. The rubber barriers around the tables should keep customers socializing at a six-feet distance—until they stretch across their inner tubes to clink their glasses together.

Bumper Tables could be the answer to going to back to restaurants when they reopen — and maintain social distancing — https://t.co/c5au1HjJSJ pic.twitter.com/UqjI0EHTsd

— WBAL-TV 11 Baltimore (@wbaltv11) May 19, 2020

Greenhouses

In Amsterdam, a sustainable restaurant with its own aquaponic greenhouse is now creating miniature greenhouses for customers. The Mediamatic restaurant, which serves vegan pizza and locally caught fish, drew its inspiration for the greenhouses from the French concept of the chambre séparée, or separated room. “It suggests a sexy kind of intimacy, here things can happen that should remain hidden from plain sight and not be heard by all,” Mediamatic writes on its website. “Although what happens inside will be a lot more public…”

View this post on Instagram

Yesterday our latest test for Serres Séparée. Doesn’t it looks amazing and delicious? Unfortunately Serres Separées are totally sold out at the moment. The best you can do is to subscribe to our newsletter to be the first to know when new reservation can be made online. Visit : mediamatic.net . #restaurant #food #eatingexperience #plantbased #amsterdam #oosterdok

A post shared by Mediamatic ETEN (@mediamatic_eten) on May 13, 2020 at 1:18pm PDT

In the soft opening for the greenhouses, servers wearing black gloves and 3D-printed face shields presented the meals on long wooden boards.

As an arts center that specializes in design and science with a focus on “challeng[ing] the senses and tackl[ing] perceptions regarding food, waste and unconventional materials such as piss, bacteria and fungi,” may have a creative advantage when it comes to reengineering dining from a scientific perspective. One of its art installations, called “Pure Gold,” invites guests to provide “kindly donated urine,” which is then used as fertilizer in the aquaponic greenhouse. 

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Our staff is getting ready for the Serres Séparées dinner experiences. And we need some extra experienced staff to join the team. More info on our website mediamatic.nl Thanks to the non profit collective @makers4all for providing us with the 3d printed facial mask protection. #amterdam #restaurant #dinnerexperience #food #makers #oosterdok #hiring

A post shared by Mediamatic ETEN (@mediamatic_eten) on May 19, 2020 at 12:34pm PDT

Capybaras

When in doubt…stuffed capybaras?

The cafe at Izu Shaboten Zoo in Shizuoka, Japan uses stuffed Capybaras to enforce social distancing

(Photos by @chacha0rca) pic.twitter.com/g15HTL2IG0

— Spoon & Tamago (@Johnny_suputama) May 21, 2020

Grocery Workers May Be Called “Heroes,” But Their “Hero Pay” Is Disappearing

Mother Jones Magazine -

When Larry Franklin received an emergency coronavirus paycheck for $818.76 from the Ralphs grocery store where he’s worked for six years, he thought it was a sign of appreciation from his employer.

Franklin, a 39-year-old immuno-compromised cancer survivor, has been in quarantine since March. After working through the early pandemic days of panic-shopping, preparing carts for a deluge of customers lining up two hours before the store opened, his doctor ordered him to stay home. He received one week of paid sick time and a $300 bonus, but otherwise has been on unpaid leave. 

But two weeks after he received the emergency check, he got a letter from the store’s parent company, Kroger, asking him to pay the money back. He had already spent it, paying off bills and buying groceries from the same Los Angeles–area Ralphs store where he works.

“That’s when my jaw dropped,” Franklin says. “I cannot believe you would put a policy in place and retract it for people who are really in dire health need right now.” (According to Kroger, the check was an error, but the company has since backtracked on its plans to ask employees like Franklin to return what it calls “overpayments.”)

“As you must know, this pandemic is not over…every one of your food and grocery store workers are still being asked to risk exposure to this virus.”

Franklin is strategizing with his doctor about how to return to work safely. But even if he returns, he won’t be able to count on the “hero” pay his colleagues earned for the past two months: Kroger is one of more than 40 grocery companies ending the temporary pay boosts it implemented for workers at the beginning of the pandemic, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers union. Kroger’s subsidiaries, including Fred Meyer, Harris Teeter, Mariano’s, and Ralphs, ended their $2-an-hour “hero pay” increases on May 17. Instead of an ongoing wage hike, Kroger will pay a one-time “thank you” bonus of $400 to full-time employees and $200 to part-time associates.

The pay cuts come as states push to reopen after the initial coronavirus shutdown. Yet even as more businesses are reopening and restrictions are lifted, the pandemic shows no signs of slowing. According to the UFCW, at least 68 grocery workers have died from COVID-19 and more than 10,000 have been infected or exposed. Essential workers’ “hero” status is at a crossroads: While Congress considers raising pay for frontline workers, many companies are cutting back on their temporary hazard pay.

“As you must know, this pandemic is not over,” Marc Perrone, the international president of UFCW, wrote in a letter to the CEOs of 49 grocery companies ending their pay raises. “To the contrary, every one of your food and grocery store workers are still being asked to risk exposure to this virus and work in dangerous conditions that require them to wear protective equipment on the job.”

A Kroger spokesperson told Mother Jones that without the temporary pay raises, its average pay rate was more than $15 per hour. “We also provide our associates with health care and retirement benefits that many of our competitors do not offer their employees,” the spokesperson said. “This was true prior to the pandemic and remains true today.”

Some companies are rolling back their pay raises even as their profits soar. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ wealth has grown by $34.6 billion just since mid-March, according to a new report from Americans for Tax Fairness. “There’s no question that Amazon can afford to protect its workers and to provide hazard pay and paid sick leave,” former Labor Secretary Robert Reich told me this week. “But Amazon has chosen not to be a leader, even though it is making huge amounts of money off the backs of a lot of very, very hard working people who are risking their lives in warehouses and in Whole Foods stores.”

Amazon is ending its workers’ temporary $2 hourly pay raises at the end of May. “With demand stabilized, next month we’ll return to our industry-leading starting wage of $15 an hour,” an Amazon spokesperson wrote in an email. “We’re proud that our minimum wage is more than what most others offer even after their temporary increases in recent months, and we hope they’ll do the right thing for the long term and bring their minimum pay closer to ours.” 

As more companies end temporary pay raises, Congress is considering boosting pay for frontline workers. On May 15, the House of Representatives passed a $3 trillion package that includes many of the provisions from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.)’s Essential Workers Bill of Rights. The bill, called the Heroes Act, includes a $13 per hour pay raise for essential workers during the public health emergency, as well as personal protective equipment and support for child and elder care.

Mitch McConnell called the Heroes Act “an 1,800-page seasonal catalog of left-wing oddities.”

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) has expressed support for a similar pay bump of an additional $12 an hour for frontline workers. But the Senate has yet to take up the bill. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called it “an 1,800-page seasonal catalog of left-wing oddities.” On Fox News, Sen. John Kennedy (R-La.) told Sean Hannity the Heroes Act was “grandiose” and said he didn’t think the Senate would pass it in any form. “It’s not a coronavirus bill,” he said. “It’s basically a ‘remake Western civilization’ bill.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi accused the Senate Republicans of prioritizing “political retribution” over the needs of working families. “McConnell and the Senate GOP need to come to the negotiating table to help deliver the relief that families desperately need,” she said in a statement.

Many frontline workers never received hazard pay at all. For some, the recognition as “heroes” makes them feel like their work is seen for the first time—but they’re still not getting properly compensated for it. 

“When this moment is over, will you continue to call us essential?”

“The part that really bothers me and angers me to the core of my soul is that now all of a sudden we’re essential workers when we’ve been doing this all along,” said Steve Kelley, a commercial cleaner from Pittsburgh, in an April Zoom rally for the proposed Essential Workers Bill of Rights with Reps. Warren and Khanna. “All along we’ve been cleaning your bathrooms and you never noticed. When this moment is over, will you continue to call us essential? Will you provide us with essential worker pay?”

Reich told me the absence of protections for workers who are risking their lives every day could fuel an increase in labor strikes, already on the rise before the pandemic. “After risking their lives in the way they have been and after putting up with the lack of paid sick leave, a lack of paid family leave, lack of hazard pay, I think workers have had enough,” he said. “Frankly, I think that we’re going to see a wave of labor activism such as we haven’t seen in this country in decades.”

Since the pandemic began, workers have gone on strike at big tech companies like Amazon and Instacart, retailers like Whole Foods and Target, fast food restaurants, and clothing factories. In some industries, workers have won protective gear and the right to paid sick time. Through the Families First Coronavirus Relief Act passed in March, Congress extended coronavirus-related paid sick and family leave to workers across the country. But because of a loophole that exempted big companies, 85 percent of workers in essential grocery, pharmacy, and retail jobs remain unprotected, according to the University of California–Berkeley’s Shift Project. The Heroes Act would close this loophole.

With or without more protections from Congress, Steve Kelley has no intention of returning his janitorial work to the shadows. “No longer should we be considered invisible,” Kelley said during the Zoom rally, “because now you realize how much you need us.”

Warren agreed. “You’ve always been an essential worker, and now people are beginning to notice,” she told Kelley. “This is about building an America that recognizes your worth.”

William Kristol, the Flaming Neocon, Is Looking To Reinvent Himself as a Dissenter

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“A ‘Neocon’ is neither new or conservative, but old as Babylon and evil as Hell.” – Edward Abbey Being an unrepentant Neocon, such as William (Bill) Kristol, means having never to say you’re sorry. To qualify, you need to be an ideologue, who also has paid no price for recklessly cheerleading 4,488 U.S. troops to … Continue reading "William Kristol, the Flaming Neocon, Is Looking To Reinvent Himself as a Dissenter"

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The Week In Review

Mother Jones Magazine -

Let’s take a look back over the past week:

Monday: Trump announces that he is taking hydroxychloroquine. “I was just waiting to see your eyes light up when I said this,” he tells the assembled reporters. Sure enough, that’s exactly what happens.

Tuesday: Trump goes on a Twitter rampage over Obamagate.

Wednesday: Trump says that he will “ask” to withhold federal funds from states that adopt mail-in ballots, even though he has no authority to do this and everyone knows it. Many thumbsuckers follow.

Thursday: Trump plays coy about wearing a mask in a Ford factory he’s visiting. “I wore one in the back area,” Trump tells reporters, “but I didn’t want the press to get the pleasure of seeing it.” The press can’t resist chasing after him anyway.

Friday: In an effort to prove that they can be as stupid as Trump, liberals go ballistic over a lame joke that Joe Biden told on air. Republicans join in, naturally, which makes it a “bipartisan condemnation.” This is catnip for the press.

Writing about Monday’s revelation, media critic Jack Shafer says the press needs to stop playing along with this nonsense:

I’d like to think that calling attention to Trump’s decoy move might reduce its effectiveness. But I’d be wrong. In Trump’s book, any mention—neutral, praiseful or critical—is a win because it takes our eye off of what really matters. When it comes to obvious Trump provocations like self-dosing of hydroxychloroquine, the only way to blunt such media manipulation is to ignore him as much as possible. Do your part. Flush Trump’s crap from public mention.

Maggie Haberman of the New York Times responds:

Oh no not you too @jackshafer https://t.co/437djbTH4X

— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) May 19, 2020

Yep, even Jack. The key thing here is that no one is suggesting the Times not cover this at all. Everything a president does gets covered. But stuff likes this needs to be a blurb on A17. On TV it needs to be a 15-second segment at the end of the news block. Online it should be a throwaway mention or less.

After three years, we should all know that it’s pointless to demonstrate that Trump is stupid. The people who care already know it, and the people who don’t care won’t be swayed. So just give his shiny objects the coverage they truly deserve. In most cases, that’s almost nothing since they’re obviously substance-free and designed solely to play the media. Why go along with Trump’s almost contemptuous—and quite public—strategy of “flooding the zone with shit” as a way of keeping the press under control?

Biden’s “Breakfast Club” Comment About Black Voters Was Off. So Were These 5 Claims About the Crime Bill.

Mother Jones Magazine -

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden went viral in a bad way Friday morning, when, at the end of a radio interview with The Breakfast Club, he told host Charlamagne tha God that “you ain’t Black” if you “have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump.”

Progressive activists quickly slammed the former vice president for trying to act like an arbiter on Blackness, while the Trump campaign and the president’s supporters cynically seized the comment, even selling T-shirts featuring it. Later in the day, Biden apologized. “I’ve never, never, ever taken the African American community for granted,” he said on a call with members of the US Black Chambers Inc., an organization promoting Black-owned businesses. He added that he “shouldn’t have been such a wise guy.”

But that comment wasn’t the only problematic part of his appearance on The Breakfast Club. Biden also made several misleading or downright false statements about his role authoring the 1994 crime bill and the impact it had on mass incarceration. The much-derided law contained a host of measures to prevent crime—including “three strikes” mandatory life sentences, extra funding for policing and prisons, an assault weapons ban, and the Violence Against Women Act—and is often pointed to as a factor that fueled the disproportionate imprisonment of Black and brown people in the United States.

During the interview, Charlamagne asked Biden about this criticism head on, pushing him on why he has been reluctant to admit that the law “was damaging to the Black community.” The host noted that Hillary Clinton went on the radio show during her presidential run and acknowledged the bill contained mistakes. Biden, though, doubled down. “She’s wrong,” he said. “It wasn’t the crime bill. It was the drug legislation. It was the institution of mandatory minimums, which I opposed.” 

Eh. That assertion is only sort of true. Here, we fact-check five of his claims to set the record straight. 

1. “The crime bill didn’t increase mass incarceration. Other things increased mass incarceration.”

During his campaign, Biden has repeatedly argued that mass incarceration began before the 1994 crime bill passed. On The Breakfast Club, he reiterated that states lock up the vast majority of incarcerated people in this country, not the federal government. This is all true, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. And it’s not correct to say the 1994 bill played no part in fueling mass incarceration.

As Biden suggests, incarceration rates grew enormously before his bill passed—by 400 percent from 1970 to 1994, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. But they continued to climb afterward, too, doubling between 1994 and 2009. States did enact tough-on-crime laws and incarcerated many more people than the federal government did during that time. But Biden’s bill encouraged them to do so. As the Brennan Center’s Lauren Brooke-Eisen points out, the 1994 crime bill offered states $12.5 billion to construct prisons if they passed “truth in sentencing” laws, which required incarcerated people to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. “By dangling bonus dollars,” she wrote, the law “encouraged states to remain on their tough-on-crime course.” As Vanita Gupta, who led the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division under President Barack Obama, put it to the New York Times, the bill “created and calcified massive incentives for local jurisdictions to engage in draconian criminal justice practices that had a pretty significant impact in building up the national prison population.”

2. “I opposed that ‘three strikes and you’re out.'”

This, too, is only sort-of true. As the Annenberg Public Policy Center explains, there’s evidence that Biden did not support the three-strikes provision that made it into the final 1994 bill, because he worried it could put someone in prison for life for a relatively minor crime. In fact, Biden described the provision as “wacko” in 1994. But before the bill passed, he also went on the Today show and said he did support a three-strikes provision that would incarcerate people for life who committed “serious felonies…that are violent.” “We should take those predators off the street,” he said.

3. “I opposed…any mandatory sentences.”

The reality here is more complicated than he made it seem. Biden may have spoken out against mandatory minimum sentences by the time the 1994 crime bill passed, but he was instrumental in pushing for them in the years before. As early as 1977, Biden advocated mandatory minimums that would force judges to send people to prison for a certain length of time, according to a New York Times investigation. Then in 1984, he spearheaded the Comprehensive Crime Control Act, which “added significant mandatory minimums for many federal crimes and abolished federal parole,” as the Brennan Center points out. (On The Breakfast Club, Biden argued that his intention with that bill was to erase disparities in sentencing lengths for Black and white people, “so nobody based on their color could go to jail longer than anybody else for the same crime.”) In 1986, he co-sponsored the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which set mandatory minimums for crack cocaine offenses that were significantly harsher than sentences for powder cocaine offenses and disproportionately targeted Black Americans.

By 1993, Biden was starting to change his tune on sentencing. “I think we’ve had all the mandatory minimums that we need,” he noted during an event hosted by the US Sentencing Commission. He said some of the mandatory minimum sentences he helped pass previously were “not positive” and were “counterproductive,” according to the New York Times. While the 1994 crime bill did contain more mandatory minimums, it also included a “safety valve” provision that Biden backed, allowing judges to waive these sentences for certain types of offenders.

In 2008, Biden said the 100-to-1 ratio between crack and powder cocaine sentences was “arbitrary, unnecessary, and unjust,” and admitted that laws he helped pass were “part of the problem that I have been trying to solve since then.” In 2010, when Biden was vice president, the Fair Sentencing Act reduced the crack sentencing disparity.

4. “On balance the whole bill…it did in fact bring down violent crime.”

Crime was actually already dropping before the bill passed, by 10 percent in the three years before. Then, from 1994 to 2000, it fell another 23 percent, with violent crime dropping by almost a third.

But criminologists aren’t sure what exactly led to this change and if it can be attributed to the ’94 law. Brooke-Eisen of the Brennan Center argues the crime bill likely helped reduce crime to some extent—”not by locking people up, but by putting more cops on the street,” she writes. The bill “provided funding for 100,000 new police officers and $14 billion in grants for community-oriented policing, for example.” But she adds that “social and economic factors—like an aging population and decreased alcohol consumption—played a role in the crime decline as well.” John Worrall, a criminologist at the University of Texas at Dallas, told the Annenberg Public Policy Center that “the jury is very much still out” on what caused the drop in crime after the bill passed. “Criminologists and economists are in no agreement,” he said, citing theories ranging from economic and demographic changes to tougher sentencing.

5. “The one thing I opposed in that bill was people wanting to give money to state prisons to build more prisons. I opposed it.”

This is just false. Biden was clear in 1994 that he supported offering billions of dollars in funding to build state prisons. “We have not built new prisons to keep up with the increase in violent crime in America,” he said at a June 1994 committee hearing, according to CNN. And the bill, he said, “is partially our attempt to help the states and localities try.” At the time, he did say that Republicans were going overboard by proposing $10 billion in funding for state prisons. But he said $6 billion was an acceptable amount.

And that funding, of course, came with a catch. In order to get it, states had to pass those “truth in sentencing” laws mentioned above. Within three years, 27 states and DC had done so, paving the way to drastically expand their prison populations.

Media Take a Pass on Pentagon’s Systematic Undercount of Civilian Deaths

Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting -

 

The Intercept (5/8/20) was the only outlet FAIR found that gave serious coverage to the Pentagon report on civilian deaths.

The Pentagon released  in early May its congressionally mandated annual report on the number of civilians the US military has killed. The report concluded that the military was responsible for 132 civilian deaths in all theaters of war, including Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Somalia.

Multiple NGOs have published evidence indicating that the real numbers are several times what the Pentagon admitted to. In Afghanistan, for instance, the Pentagon report found that the US was responsible for 108 civilian deaths; a United Nations report (2/22/20) on civilian casualties in Afghanistan found 559 deaths had been caused by “international forces” in the country. As the New York Times (5/7/20) pointed out, the United States is the only foreign country in Afghanistan with soldiers and aircraft that actually conduct offensive operations. This means the Pentagon could be undercounting civilian deaths in Afghanistan by a factor of five.

In Syria and Iraq, the US military said it had killed 22 civilians during its operations against ISIS. Airwars, an organization that tracks civilian harm from military air power, found the US responsible for up to 72 deaths in Iraq and Syria. Here, the Pentagon’s numbers could be off by more than a factor of three.

As Murtaza Hussain, writing for the Intercept (5/8/20)—the only outlet that covered this story with any seriousness—points out, “All this raises the question of who exactly the military has been killing over nearly two decades of war.”

In the days following the release of the report—when the story would be most newsworthy—US media were largely silent on the matter. The Washington Post, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, New York Post, LA Times and Boston Globe all neglected to report on or publish editorials regarding the report, according to searches on these papers’ websites. A review of three days’ worth of transcripts from CNN and MSNBC, and searching the sites of ABC, NBC and CBS, shows that none of these TV outlets thought that US responsibility for civilian deaths was worth a brief pause in Covid-19 coverage.

Neither the New York Times‘ headline or subhead (5/7/20) gave any indication that the Pentagon’s numbers were challenged by independent sources.

Among major US print and TV outlets, the New York Times (5/7/20) published the only story we could find on the subject, consisting of just 538 words. Though the headline, “US Military Killed 132 Civilians in Wars Last Year, Pentagon Says,” took the military’s numbers at face value, the piece largely consists of dissenting opinions, including the United Nations, Amnesty International and Airwars. For example, Daphne Eviatar, head of the Security With Human Rights program at Amnesty International, told the New York Times that the Pentagon needed to develop “reliable means for investigating and reporting on who it has killed and injured” during lethal operations.

Unfortunately, the paper failed to treat the serious discrepancies in the numbers as anything important. Why, for example, does the headline feature the Pentagon’s dubious line, rather than call attention to the stark differences from independent numbers? And why did no opinion columnists have anything to say about it?

Yahoo! News (5/7/20) also reported on the story, carrying an AFP story that cited NGO dissenters, but decided it was best consigned to the Sports section.

Perhaps the constant stream of death from our military has made media figures and politicians jaded;  the subhead of the New York Times piece noted that “the tally has changed little since the previous year’s report.” As the country approaches two decades of endless war, however, it is more necessary than ever for the public to have a full accounting of the human costs. The media institutions set the agenda for the national conversation, but none of them seem to think that the number of civilian lives claimed in America’s forever wars is a priority, or that the public should give those deaths much thought.

Featured image: The Intercept‘s depiction of the aftermath of a US airstrike in Bagouz, Syria. (photo: Chris McGrath/Getty Image)

“A Petulant Child Who Refuses to Follow the Rules”: Michigan AG Slams Trump for Maskless Ford Plant Tour

Mother Jones Magazine -

President Trump on Thursday continued to defy public health experts by refusing to wear a mask during a visit to a Ford plant in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Afterward, in an interview, the state’s attorney general likened him to “a petulant child who refuses to follow the rules.”

During his appearance at the plant, which is producing ventilators, Trump told reporters that he had worn a mask on other parts of his tour, but that he “didn’t want the press to get the pleasure of seeing it.” An executive order in Michigan mandates the use of face coverings in enclosed public spaces, and Ford’s company policy requires the use of personal protective equipment.

“This is not a joke,” Dana Nessel told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Thursday, adding that 23,000 people had died in Wayne County, near Ypsilanti. “He’s conveying the worst possible message to people who cannot afford to be on the receiving end of terrible misinformation, and it’s very, very concerning.”

Watch the video below:

Michigan AG @dananessel, on Donald Trump's refusal to wear a mask: "The president is like a petulant child who refuses to follow the rules…He's conveying the worst possible message to people who cannot afford to be on the receiving end of terrible misinformation." pic.twitter.com/1tlfG6y2sz

— Mother Jones (@MotherJones) May 22, 2020

The Ambient Escapism of Normal People’s Real Playlists For Imaginary Characters

Mother Jones Magazine -

After about eight episodes of Normal People I noticed that I had been looking up songs from the episodes more than I did with most shows. Unsurprisingly, I wasn’t alone. On Spotify, at least people 37,000 follow the Normal People Official Soundtrack playlist. The follower isn’t unprecedented. But it is solidly higher than other shows.

What did seem a little unprecedented was what I stumbled on next: both the fictional protagonists, Connell and Marianne, had playlists.

The college students—whose meandering and fluctuating but the persistent relationship is the center of the show—had their own  “specifically curated” lists of songs that weren’t even in the Hulu series. Marianne’s playlist alone is doing about as well the show’s, at over 35,000 followers. Connell’s playlist is more popular than the show’s at over 48,000 followers.

The music is good, and the playlists are interesting views into the minds of characters. But, still, it is weird.

There are at least two layers of fiction people have to pass through want to listen to the playlists. (Let’s put aside, for a moment, each character was first portrayed in a novel by Sally Rooney before we overdose on metafiction.) There is the fiction of the show itself. And then an even deeper fiction that gives Marianne and Connell a weird sentience—as though they’re out in the world doing things like listening to music and making playlists, even when they’re not on screen.

And yet, despite being bizarre, it also made sense. I almost expected to find them. I don’t think anyone would be interested in Tim Riggins’s, Tony Soprano’s, or Carrie Mathison’s playlists. (Maybe just Soprano’s, but purely for the novelty of it.) Yet, Marianne’s and Connell’s seemed natural, by comparison.

Part of it just who they are. For a lot of people, there’s something more enticing about the music taste of young, aspiring European writers, than for a high-school tailback, mobster, or CIA agent. Semi-artsy college kids have better taste in music than the type of person who thinks CIA torture black sites are good.

Some of it may lie in the potential fact that Rooney wrote the characters with their own playlists, almost designing them to be accompanied by music. Vogue noted that “Spotify playlists believed to have been compiled by Rooney herself while she was writing the novel have been circulating online” among “super-fans.” BuzzFeed appears to have found them, (music was added to them before the book came out, and a Spotify account that appears to be her partner’s, John Prasifka, follows the account). They’re a bit more vanilla than the official Hulu product, but they show that Rooney intended for the characters to live off the page. 

On the official playlists, the music supervisors (and possibly the actors, who they worked on the curation with) took strange liberties. Nothing about Connell, a jocky character with no hint of a subversive or counter-culture edge besides liking literature (a low bar, I know) suggests that he would particularly enjoy or ever seek out experimental artists like Tirzah or Holly Herndon. I expect that Marianne would not have the patience to put up with Mac DeMarco, but he’s on her playlist anyway.

I wondered if there was just something about the soundtracks for dreary, dreamy, European romance that attracted listeners. Sufjan Steven’s, who has been putting out indie bangers for almost two decades now, most popular songs on Spotify are dominated by the stuff he made for the soundtrack to Call Me By Your Name—another engrossing love story with deeply fleshed out and empathy inspiring characters set in the beautiful Italian countryside. Yann Tiersen, who has been doing the same thing for a little longer is in the same boat. His songs on the soundtrack to Amelie, a whimsical 2001 movie set in Paris, dominate his top ten most-played on Spotify. Midnight In Paris playlists have an impressive number of followers; the successful indie trilogy of Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight have solid numbers.

But there’s more to it though than just simulating a cavort through Europe.

The top playlist for In Bruges, a moderately successful surreal, dark comedy set in Bruges, Belgium had few followers (276). The most popular playlist for The Grand Budapest Hotel—which is set idyllic Eastern European mountain town only has around three thousand. Which is a lot, but still an underperformance given that it comes with the Wes Anderson brand, know for curated, tasteful music. Plus, other playlists of popularity were solidly American: Atlanta, a show about rap in Atlanta; Mid-90s, a skateboarding movie set in L.A. in the 90s; and Big Little Lies, a drama about rich people in Carmel, California.

Drawing conclusions from these numbers feels like a Rorschach test. But I think the thing that runs between these shows and movies and Normal People is that they’re set in worlds we deeply want to be in, with people we want to mingle with.

People on the internet stan Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern with fervor, and anyone doesn’t think Northern California is paradise is a maladjusted sadist. Skaters idealize the 90s as a hallmark era of fashion and music. If you even vaguely like rap, wouldn’t you want to spend a night each week in Donald Glover’s Atlanta, Georgia?

The same goes for Normal People. I suspect that a lot of people who watch the show see Marianne and Connell as people that they would want to be friends with if they existed in real life. They are decent, well-meaning, agreeable, attractive, and talented people with vaguely cool taste.

Making parasocial relationships with fictional people on a screen as a form of escapism isn’t a novel way for people to consume media. What’s new are the options to indulge. Hulu, the creator of the series, made the Spotify playlists for Marianne and Connell. In the past, one would have to make up a playlist themselves, imagining what Connell would choose. No more.

The playlist goes one level deeper than fan-boying. It brings the escapism into the real world. It creeps into our bedrooms, home offices, and kitchens after we turn the TV off. The reprieve from reality continues ambiently during reality. 

“I’ve said it loads of times, Connell and Marianne don’t feel fictional to me,” Paul Mescal told the New Yorker. In some ways, if the story can be constantly read—after the TV there is a playlist—there’s a way of wondering where the fiction ends.

That feels acute right now. We can’t see our friends or go anywhere or do anything. It makes sense that people want to peer into what it would be like to hang out with people that they’d want to be friends with, in Europe. And when the show ends, having their playlists on in the background keeps them in our lives and helps keep us their world— which is so much more pleasant than the one we’re working through now—just a little bit longer.

Atlantic Hurricanes Will be More Frequent and More Severe This Season

Mother Jones Magazine -

As if 2020 hasn’t been difficult enough, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration just released its prediction for the Atlantic coast’s hurricane season. They estimate that there’s a 60 percent chance that the number of tropical storms and hurricanes will be “above-normal.” In terms of actual weather events, that translates to between 13 and 19 storms severe enough to be named and up to six major hurricanes. The chances that the coming hurricane season, which runs from June to November, will be less active than normal are 10 percent by NOAA’s count.

The forecast, which was announced on Thursday, was made by NOAA Climate Prediction Center, a part of the National Weather Service. In a press release announcing the forecast, Neil Jacobs, the acting head of NOAA, said, “NOAA’s analysis of current and seasonal atmospheric conditions reveals a recipe for an active Atlantic hurricane season this year.”

“NOAA’s analysis of current and seasonal atmospheric conditions reveals a recipe for an active Atlantic hurricane season this year.”

Over the last few decades, hurricane seasons have become increasingly severe, in part due to climate change, and some of NOAA’s reasons for its prediction about the jump in severity this year seem to point in that direction. It cites “warmer-than-average sea surface temperatures in the tropical Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea, coupled with reduced vertical wind shear, weaker tropical Atlantic trade winds, and an enhanced west African monsoon.” 

Also inserted into NOAA’s announcement was a suggestion that the public’s emergency evacuation plans be reassessed to consider the COVID-19 pandemic. “Social distancing and other CDC guidance to keep you safe from COVID-19 may impact the disaster preparedness plan you had in place, including what is in your go-kit, evacuation routes, shelters and more,” said Carlos Castillo, FEMA’s acting deputy administrator for resilience.

The danger of hurricanes isn’t limited to the damage done during the event itself, but also in what comes later, especially flooding, which causes an average of $8.2 million in annual damage in the US. Despite this, according to 2018 study by Governing, population and development growth in 100-year flood zones have outpaced growth outside of them since at least 1990. Another study, published from the University of Bristol also in 2018, suggested that FEMA’s flood zone boundaries, in which 13 million people live, were too small, and that approximately 40 million people are potentially exposed to a 100-year flood. That’s the kind of flood severe enough that it only has a one percent chance of happening; in other words, is likely to come only once a century.

The combination of growing populations facing more severe natural disasters is further complicated by the fact that the National Flood Insurance Program, which provides more than 90 percent of flood insurance, is $20 billion in debt.

If the Atlantic hurricane season this year lines up with NOAA’s projections, it will be the fifth severe hurricane season in a row. That’s in no small part due to the warming of the earth. A joint NOAA-University of Wisconsin at Madison study released this week found that temperature rise increased the likelihood of storms growing to the severity of hurricanes by eight percent each decade for the last 40 years.

This year follows a decade of devastating storms that some communities are still recovering from. As of late 2019, two years after Hurricane Maria, which ravaged Puerto Rico and killed about 3,000 people, 25,000 homes on the island still rely on blue FEMA tarps for roofing. As the damage of hurricanes compound and their incidence becomes more frequent, full recovery gets more difficult.

Last year, in the aftermath of the devastating Hurricane Dorian, Penn State University meteorologist Michael Mann spoke the USA Today about the worsening conditions. “As we continue to warm the planet, hurricane intensities will increase further,” he said. “There’s no new normal. It’s an ever-shifting baseline toward more destructive storms.”

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