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How the coronavirus is disrupting addiction treatment

Shawn Hayes was thankful to be holed up at a city-run hotel for people with COVID-19.

The 20-year-old wasn’t in jail. He wasn’t on the streets chasing drugs. Methadone to treat his opioid addiction was delivered to his door.

Hayes was staying at the hotel because of a coronavirus outbreak at the 270-bed Kirkbride Center addiction treatment facility in Philadelphia, where he had been seeking help.

From early April to early May, 46 patients at Kirkbride tested positive for the virus and were isolated. The facility is now operating at about half-capacity because of the pandemic.

Drug rehabs around the country have experienced flare-ups of the coronavirus or COVID-19-related financial difficulties that have forced them to close or limit operations. Centers that serve the poor have been hit particularly hard.

And that has left people who have another potentially deadly disease — addiction — with fewer opportunities for treatment, while threatening to reverse their recovery gains.

“It’s hard to underestimate the effects of the pandemic on the community with opioid use disorder,” said Dr. Caleb Alexander, a professor of epidemiology and medicine at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “The pandemic has profoundly disrupted the drug markets. Normally that would drive more people to treatment. Yet treatment is harder to come by.”

Drug rehabs aren’t as much of a COVID-19 “tinderbox” as nursing homes, Alexander said, but both are communal settings where social distancing can be difficult.

Shared spaces, double-occupancy bedrooms and group therapy are common in rehabs. People struggling with addiction are generally younger than nursing home residents, but both populations are vulnerable because they’re more likely to suffer from other health conditions, such as diabetes or cardiovascular disease, that put them at greater risk of having a severe case of COVID-19.

To keep clients safe, some addiction treatment centers employ safety precautions similar to hospitals, like testing all incoming patients for COVID-19, said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security. But drug rehabs must avoid some strategies, such as keeping potentially intoxicating hand sanitizer on the premises.

Adalja said he hopes safety measures make people feel more comfortable about seeking addiction help.

“There’s not going to be anything that’s zero risk, in the absence of a vaccine,” he said. “But this is in a different category than going to a birthday party. You don’t want to postpone needed medical care.”

Still, some people requiring drug or alcohol rehab have stayed away for fear of contracting COVID-19. Marvin Ventrell, CEO of the National Assn. of Addiction Treatment Providers, said many of its roughly 1,000 members saw their patient numbers fall by much as 40% to 50% in March and April.

Unlike many other centers, Recovery Works, a 42-bed treatment center in Merrillville, Ind., has seen more clients than normal during the pandemic. The facility had to close for a few days early on after a suspected COVID-19 case, but reopened after the person tested negative. It has since split its therapy sessions into three groups, staggered mealtimes and banned visitors, CEO Thomas Delegatto said.

It then had an influx of patients.

“I think there are a variety of reasons why,” Delegatto said. “A person who was struggling with a substance use disorder, and who was laid off and a nonessential worker, might have seen this as an opportunity to go to treatment without having to explain to their employer why they’re taking two, three, four weeks off.”

He also noted that alcohol sales went up at the beginning of the pandemic as anxiety and isolation rose, and sheltering in place may have made some families realize that a loved one needed help for an addiction.

Homeless and poor Americans who often live in close quarters have been particularly prone to catching COVID-19 — leaving drug rehabs dedicated to this population especially vulnerable.

Haymarket Center, a 380-bed treatment and sober living facility in Chicago’s West Loop that serves many people who are homeless, recently had an outbreak of 55 coronavirus cases among clients and staff members.

Two employees there tested positive for COVID-19 in late February, but testing was available then only for people showing symptoms, said Haymarket President and CEO Dan Lustig.

Haymarket worked with nearby Rush University Medical Center to test its clients. Twenty-six men, though asymptomatic, were found to be positive for COVID-19.

The center isolated those patients and eventually went from double- to single-occupancy rooms, improved its air filtration system and changed the way it served food. It now tests all new admissions.

“What we found was by doing serial testing we could tamp down the epidemic, not just at Haymarket but the whole city,” said Dr. David Ansell, senior vice president for community health equity at Rush, which partnered with the city and other health systems on a COVID-19 response for Chicago’s homeless population.

The pandemic’s economic fallout has also forced some facilities to scale back. The Salvation Army is shuttering a handful of its roughly 100 adult rehabilitation centers nationwide because of COVID-19-related revenue losses. Those rehabs were funded by the organization’s resale shops, which were forced to close during stay-at-home orders.

“A lot of what we do relies on donations or items that were donated and then sold in our stores,” said Alberto Rapley, who oversees business development for the Salvation Army’s rehab facilities in the Midwest. “When financially we struggle, that is then felt on the other side.”

For instance, the Salvation Army drug rehab in Gary, Ind., which is set to close in September, treated as many as 80 men at a time in its free, abstinence-based program. The next closest facility will be in Chicago, more than 30 miles away.

Philadelphia’s Kirkbride Center also serves a mostly homeless and low-income population. Dr. Fred Baurer, the facility’s medical director, said Kirkbride was “flying blind” early in the pandemic, with little testing capacity and personal protective equipment.

On April 8, the first COVID-19 case appeared on Kirkbride’s long-term men’s wing. Over the next week, six more men on the unit showed symptoms and tested positive, as did 12 of the remaining 22. All quarantined at a local Holiday Inn Express.

Kirkbride started requiring face masks, testing all new clients for COVID-19 and prohibiting people in its various units from mingling.

The rehab has been about half-full lately — it’s usually closer to 90% occupied — partly because it stopped taking walk-in clients and confined new admissions to single rooms.

“I’m starting to feel more confident we’re past the worst of this, at least for now,” Baurer said.

Hayes, who has recovered from COVID-19 without experiencing any symptoms, was discharged from the facility to a sober living house last month. He plans to attend 12-step meetings regularly. He hopes to get his GED and eventually enter the mental health field.

He recognizes the need to stay vigilant about his recovery now, at a time of increased anxiety and despair.

“Regardless of the coronavirus or not, the addiction crisis is still there,” Hayes said. “It’s bad. It’s really bad.”

Bruce writes for Kaiser Health News, a nonprofit news service covering health issues. It is an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation and is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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China detains prominent law professor Xu Zhangrun

Tsinghua University law professor Xu Zhangrun, one of China’s few remaining outspoken critics of Chinese President Xi Jinping and the Communist government, was taken from his home in Beijing by police on Monday morning.

Close friends of Xu’s who spoke with his family confirmed that he had been arrested and that they did not know where the police had taken him.

About 20 police officers surrounded Xu’s home Monday morning while more than 10 others entered, searched the residence, confiscated his computer and then took Xu away, according to a statement from friends of Xu, which has been widely circulated among Chinese activists.

Police did not make any public statement about Xu’s arrest or any charges.

The Chinese legal expert had taught jurisprudence and constitutional law at Tsinghua, one of China’s most prestigious universities, but was suspended in 2019 after publishing a series of essays that criticized Xi’s alteration of the Chinese constitution to remove presidential term limits.

Xu’s detention is the latest amid a crackdown on dissent and free speech in China that has especially targeted intellectuals and those who stray from the Communist Party narrative of state-led victory over the country’s coronavirus outbreak. Space for dissent continues to shrink under Xi’s regime, as those who voice challenges to the party’s authority are picked off one by one.

Novelist Fang Fang, whose published diary depicts everyday people’s suffering during lockdown in the city of Wuhan and seeks accountability for government missteps, has become the target of nationalistic attacks with implicit state support. Several professors who wrote essays supporting Fang Fang have been put under investigation or fired and stripped of their Communist Party membership.

Ren Zhiqiang, a real estate tycoon with powerful political connections — his father was among the generation of Communist revolutionaries who founded the People’s Republic of China — also disappeared earlier this year after he wrote an essay calling Xi a “clown” over his handling of COVID-19. The party later announced that Ren was under investigation for “serious violations of law and discipline.”

Several citizen journalists who tried to report on the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan have also been detained. They include lawyer Chen Qiushi, Wuhan local Fang Bin, and former CCTV employee Li Zehua, who reappeared in April after disappearing for two months. Li gave a video statement in which he said that the police had acted “civilly and legally,” demonstrating care for him while he was in detention and quarantine.

The others remain missing.

Earlier this year, human rights lawyer and activist Xu Zhiyong (no relation to Xu Zhangrun) was also arrested in southern China after he called for Xi’s resignation online. He had been part of a circle of dissidents, lawyers, intellectuals and civil society members who met in the port city of Xiamen in December to discuss how to build citizenship and rule of law in China.

More than a dozen attendees of those meetings have been detained or called to court, while others remain in hiding.

Others who have been jailed, vanished, put under house arrest or pressured into silence through threats to their families, jobs and lives in recent months include lawyers, poets, petitioners, COVID-19 survivors and their families.

Xu Zhangrun had been under pressure since 2018, long before the pandemic, for penning pointed criticisms of China’s current political state. His essays are both literary and analytical, at once striking at the heart of party authority and offering policy suggestions for change, all with a poetic flourish.

In his first 2018 essay, titled “Our imminent fears and hopes,” Xu criticized Xi’s erasure of term limits, suppression of intellectuals, overspending on foreign aid while inequality worsened at home, and pulling China back into a period of isolationism and personality cult-led politics.

Xu called for officials to disclose their personal assets and for an end to the system that provides access to better healthcare, vacation resorts and safe food for high-level cadres.

After that essay, Xu was suspended from teaching, put under multiple periods of house arrest and blocked from leaving China, according to his friends. But he continued to write.

In February, at the height of China’s coronavirus outbreak, as calls for freedom of speech swept the nation after a whistle-blowing doctor’s death, Xu wrote “The angry people are no longer afraid,” an essay lambasting Xi and the “ethically bankrupt” Communist Party for prioritizing their power above Chinese citizens’ lives.

“It is a system that turns every natural disaster into an even greater man-made catastrophe,” Xu wrote. “The coronavirus epidemic has revealed the rotten core of Chinese governance.”

After that essay, Xu was again placed under house arrest and periodically cut off from the Internet. He was aware of looming imprisonment: “This may well be the last thing I write,” he noted in the essay. “But that is not up to me.”

He was able to meet with friends and fellow professors for meals periodically, according to his colleagues.

In May, just before China’s national political meetings in Beijing, Xu wrote a final essay titled “China, a lone ship on the vast ocean of global civilization,” lamenting China’s continued slide toward totalitarianism and calling again for accountability, release of detained journalists, free speech, protection of property and transparency.

“Enough with this mold-infested god-making movement, this shallow worship of leaders,” he wrote. “Enough with this seven years of absurdity and confusion, the backwards step-by-step, this 70 years of mountains of corpses and oceans of blood…”

He signed it: “With outrage, worry, and sorrow.”

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Mississippi students demand halt to Confederate shrine

When Joshua Mannery voted last year to remove a statue of a Confederate soldier that has towered over the heart of the University of Mississippi for more than a century, he understood that change takes place slowly on this historic Southern campus.

The 21-year-old Black student and president of the Associated Student Body did not imagine, however, that after waiting 15 months for the 29-foot monument to be relocated to a nearby Confederate cemetery, he would be marching through campus holding a placard that said “ABANDON THE PLANS!”

Now that construction crews have arrived on campus to move the white marble figure, student leaders are demanding that the project be halted after learning that university administrators plan to spend more than $1.1 million in private funds to renovate the cemetery and erect headstones for the Confederate dead, install security cameras and shine new lighting on the memorial.

The Confederate soldier monument at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Miss., in 2019.

(Rogelio V. Solis / Associated Press)

“It just doesn’t seem normal that we have to protest the creation of a Confederate shrine — and yet here we are,” said Mannery, a fourth-year political science and English double major.

As the national conversation on race intensifies and Confederate symbols fall from prominent perches across the Deep South and beyond, this university that served as a makeshift hospital and morgue during the Civil War finds itself embroiled in yet another reckoning over its identity and traditions.

Black students — who make up just 12.5% of enrollment at the large public university, even though the state is about 38% Black — have become empowered to question deeply entrenched symbols on a campus that touts diversity and inclusion.

But even now, after weeks of national outrage over racism in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, they complain that university officials here are not listening.

“They’re like, ‘We hear you, but …,’” Mannery said. “We’re getting tired of ‘We hear you, but ….’”

The James Meredith statue on the University of Mississippi campus in Oxford, Miss., in 2014.

The James Meredith statue on the University of Mississippi campus in Oxford, Miss., in 2014.

(Thomas Graning / Daily Mississippian)

Opposition to the Confederate monument, erected in 1906 by the United Daughters of the Confederacy, has been building for years.

In 2014, after a freshman placed a noose around the neck of a bronze statue honoring James Meredith, the first Black student to enroll at the segregated university in 1962 after the intervention of the federal government, administrators announced a plan to offer more historic context to the Confederate statue and other landmarks.

But when a plaque was unveiled in 2016, the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People pointed out it did not mention slavery as the central issue in the Civil War. A new plaque was installed, but many say it is not sufficiently prominent.

Mississippi law prohibits the destruction or removal of war memorials, so last year students and faculty leaders came up with what they thought was a compromise: relocating the statue half a mile across campus to a cemetery near the football practice field.

When administrators expressed support, it seemed there was broad consensus that the statue should no longer occupy a prime position on the campus where nearly a quarter of students are minorities and about 45% are from out of state.

So students were shocked to learn that university officials had devised a plan — without their input — to raise donor money to renovate the cemetery.

“We asked for something simple,” Mannery said. “We didn’t ask for them to solve racism. We’re just asking for a Confederate statue to be relocated. … And the fact that they can’t do that, without adding to it and beautifying it, it’s painful.”

In addition to adding headstones for the Confederate soldiers — a move that critics say is historically inaccurate as the exact number and names of soldiers buried is unknown — the university submitted artist renderings that show a newly laid path leading up to the contentious statue, which would be surrounded by manicured landscaping and in-ground lighting.

“Instead of addressing the problem, we’re now magnifying white supremacy and ultimately glorifying lost cause ideology,” said Arielle Hudson, 22, a recent Black graduate who co-wrote the resolution calling for the statue’s relocation.

***

Mannery hardly gave the white stone infantryman a passing thought when he enrolled as a freshman three years ago. Like many Black students who passed the soldier high up on a pedestal as he went to class, he figured it was a fixed part of the landscape, like the white-columned fraternity houses and grove of stately oak, elm and magnolia trees.

But as Mannery learned more about the history of the monument and watched the campaign to remove Confederate symbols get more buy-in as some students said they made them feel uncomfortable, he decided he had been too compliant.

“We know what it stands for: white supremacy and the exclusion of people that look like me,” he said. “To have it at the heart of campus, it’s like telling people to turn away and saying, ‘You’re not welcome here.’ It represents our inability to separate ourselves from the worst part of our history.”

MoMo Sanogo, a Black 21-year-old linebacker on the football team who has led protests on campus and in downtown Oxford in recent weeks, said he had been bothered by the monument when he enrolled in 2017. But until last month, he had not wanted to speak out, fearing he would get cut from the team and eventually go undrafted by the National Football League.

He has been encouraged, he said, after NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell condemned racism in the wake of protests against police brutality and apologized for not listening to Black players.

Meanwhile, the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. and the Southeastern Conference successfully pressured Mississippi lawmakers to finally lower its state flag dominated by the Confederate battle emblem and retire it to a museum.

“Now we’re in a place where it’s acceptable for us to use our voice and our platform and it won’t affect our future,” Sanogo said.

Last month, the state board that oversees Mississippi’s eight public universities finally approved the relocation — and students were in the midst of celebrating when they learned of the $1-million-plus cemetery beautification plan.

***

A memorial marker standing in the University of Mississippi campus cemetery that has the graves of Confederate soldiers.

A memorial marker standing in the University of Mississippi campus cemetery, which has the graves of Confederate soldiers killed at the Battle of Shiloh.

(Rogelio V. Solis / Associated Press)

Debates about the meaning of Confederate statues have long raged across the South, with defenders insisting they are memorials to the dead while critics dismiss them as attempts to glorify the Confederacy and remind Black residents that whites were still in charge.

“This is a monument to boys who never came home,” said Starke Miller, a white local Civil War historian and tour guide, noting that a quarter of the men from Lafayette County who enlisted with the Confederacy died.

“We have over 20,000 students on campus,” he added. “If I told you 25% of those kids were dead, do you think we would put up a monument up for them?”

A new generation of historians, however, increasingly focus on how local politicians of the era fought to erect the monuments to bolster the cause of white supremacy.

Last month, Anne Twitty, a white associate professor of history at the university, uncovered the dedicatory address from the monument’s 1906 unveiling.

The soldiers’ “crowning glory,” a Mississippi attorney and candidate for governor told the crowd, was not during the war itself, but “during the nightmare called the Reconstruction” when they “boldly, aggressively and intentionally overrode the letter of the law, that they might maintain the spirit of the law and preserve Anglo-Saxon civilization.”

More than half a century later, white mobs opposing integration rioted in the shadow of the monument. Two civilians were killed.

As more Black students and faculty enrolled in subsequent years, the university has taken several steps to distance itself from offensive symbols.

In 1983, a year after the college’s first Black cheerleader refused to wave the Confederate battle flag, the school announced it would no longer hand out flags at football games. That didn’t stop fans from bringing their own, but in 1997, administrators banned sticks from athletic events, thus preventing game-goers from waving them anymore.

In the last decade, the college has also retired the Mississippi state flag, which until last week featured the Confederate battle emblem, asked its marching band to stop playing any variation of “Dixie,” the unofficial Confederate anthem, and renamed a street that was called “Confederate Drive.”

Some see the moving of the Confederate monument, along with the retiring of the state flag, as a historic climax.

“This is the last stage of great transformation in Southern symbolism and it’s a long time coming,” said Charles Reagan Wilson, professor emeritus of history at the university and former director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture.

“It’s like the civil rights workers used to say: If you can break Mississippi, you can break the South,” Wilson added. “It’s the most extreme of the Southern states.”

Others see the relocating of the Confederate monument as no more than a step in dismantling a legacy of racism.

“It’s a good first gesture,” said Ethel Young-Scurlock, a Black professor of English and director of African American studies, who has worked at the university for 24 years.

The nickname for the university’s athletic teams, she noted, is still the Rebels and the university itself still goes by Ole Miss, a term that slaves used to refer to the wife of a plantation owner.

While some Black students and faculty refuse to use such terms because of the “tyrannical nature of that history,” Young-Scurlock said, others embrace them. On campus, there is spirited debate on whether such symbols and language should be done away with or can be given new meaning.

“The way politics is shifting, we just don’t know what is going to happen,” she said.

Even now, not all Black voices on campus care if the monument is moved.

“What’s the big deal?” asked Sharron Holley, 57, a Black custodian, as she sat at a picnic table one morning on a lunch break from her 3 a.m. shift and watched a security guard patrol a 10-foot privacy fence that has been erected around the statue. “It doesn’t harm anyone.”

Holley said she is more concerned about getting a pay raise than fighting a marble statue.

“It really doesn’t matter to me,” said Jesse Mullin, 50, a Black cook at the Rebel Market as he waited outside a transit center in the rain for a ride to his second job. “It’s honoring soldiers who died in the war. I don’t see it as a prop for racial discrimination.”

On the other hand, after waiting so long for university officials to relocate the monument, some activists feel that it is now time to remove it altogether.

“The Confederate monument has no place anywhere on our campus anymore,” professor Twitty said, noting that last month, Birmingham, Ala., removed a monument that is protected by state law on the basis that it was causing civil unrest.

Relocating the statue to the cemetery near the football practice field is unlikely to be a long-term fix, Twitty said. In the future, it could lead to protests from footballers or even a decision by the NCAA to ban any playoff games on campuses where there’s a Confederate monument.

“What seemed acceptable before is not where we are now,” Twitty said. “There’s a lot of people who think you make one bargain about this, and then it’s over. And the thing is, it’s never over. This is an evolving conversation about the symbols that we want to represent us.”

After meeting with the university chancellor Thursday, Mannery said student activists plan to increase the pressure on the university to halt the project — even if it means the monument won’t be removed before students return to campus in August.

“We’re just getting started,” he said. “We don’t want to be outside protesting a Confederate cemetery in the middle of the pandemic — that’s something out of a book — but now that we’ve accumulated so much buy-in, we want it done right.”

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Mexico’s López Obrador goes to meet Trump amid controversy

Donald Trump notoriously kicked off his presidential bid in 2015 by disparaging Mexican immigrants as drug dealers, criminals and “rapists,” adding: “And some, I assume, are good people.”

During his own campaign two years later, future Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador assailed the U.S. president’s “politics of hate” and signature border wall project and likened Trump’s anti-Mexican tirades to Adolf Hitler’s attacks on Jewish people.

The two chief executives are scheduled to meet in person for the first time this week in Washington. For López Obrador, it will be his initial foreign trip as head of state since assuming the Mexican presidency in December 2018.

Much has changed since the two populists of contrasting political pedigrees — López Obrador is a long-time leftist and career politician, Trump a conservative Republican real estate mogul — tossed rhetorical Molotov cocktails during their respective campaigns.

The two presidents now regularly laud each other as “friends,” and their governments have collaborated closely on diverse thorny issues, including immigration, cross-border crime and bilateral trade. Their cordial but long-distance dealings to date have contradicted pundits’ expectations that López Obrador’s ascension would signal a more polarized era in U.S.-Mexico relations.

The stated purpose of this week’s visit is to mark the July 1 launch of the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which replaces the more than quarter-century-old North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that Trump labels a “job killing failure.” Trump has argued that NAFTA sent well-paying U.S. employment to low-wage factories in Mexico while critics say the new deal is basically a rebranded NAFTA that won’t return those jobs to U.S. soil.

But the planned trip — initiated by the White House in the midst of Trump’s reelection campaign — has ignited fierce controversy on both sides of the border. Trump’s incendiary language and style have transformed what might normally be a routine confab between neighboring heads of state into a raging political firestorm.

For weeks, political observers here have urged the Mexican president to reject the invitation, viewing it as a stunt designed to help salvage Trump’s flagging reelection effort, especially among U.S. Latino voters.

“There is no argument to deny that a visit by the Mexican president at this moment … implies an act of intervention that, albeit indirectly, will end up benefiting the campaign of Donald Trump,” wrote columnist Ricardo Raphael in Mexico’s Proceso news weekly.

The meeting, critics have argued, could also have long-term deleterious consequences should Democrat Joe Biden be elected, possibly souring a new White House on López Obrador’s leadership.

“If Biden wins the presidency, his antagonism towards Mexico will be evident in the bilateral policies that he adopts,” argued Bernardo Sepulveda, former Mexican ambassador to Washington and ex-foreign secretary, in an open letter published in La Jornada newspaper.

In the United States, Democratic lawmakers and party loyalists have denounced the trip as a Trump “photo op,” in the words of Tom Perez, who chairs the Democratic National Committee.

In a video message posted on Twitter, Perez suggested that the Mexican president ask his U.S. counterpart: “Does he still think Mexicans are rapists and murderers?”

Officials here label the visit as an agenda-packed work trip unrelated to U.S. politics, largely designed to improve trade and address other mutual concerns. While López Obrador has received many invitations in Washington, Mexican authorities have not detailed any plan for him to meet with Democratic lawmakers or representatives of the Mexican immigrant community.

In a July 4 message to the people of the United States and Mexico, López Obrador — who on the campaign trail was a free-trade skeptic — lauded the revised trade pact as “a great accord” that “will allow for the reactivation of the economy of our country, and generate jobs, and create well-being for our people.”

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has yet to commit to a Washington summit, expressing concerns about possible U.S. tariffs on Canadian aluminum. Mexican authorities say they are hopeful the Canadian leader will attend, in part to dilute attention from the Trump-López Obrador connection.

Looming over the visit is the specter of Trump’s campaign stop in Mexico to meet with López Obrador’s predecessor, ex-President Enrique Peña Nieto. That 2016 episode is widely viewed here as a catastrophic political blunder that shredded the ruling party’s electoral standing and helped propel challenger López Obrador into a landslide electoral victory. López Obrador was himself a harsh critic of the Trump visit.

“At the time,” noted columnist Raphael in Proceso, “the magnate [Trump] was a Republican candidate who had constructed his popularity by demonizing Mexico and Mexicans.”

The U.S.-Mexico relationship has long been a fraught one for Mexican leaders. They must straddle a sometimes fine line between cooperation and not appearing submissive to a neighboring superpower that in the distant past invaded and seized Mexican territory, and more recently has provided an economic “escape valve” for millions of impoverished Mexicans — whose remittances back home have helped prop up the country’s economy.

López Obrador does not appear to have pushed for a personal meeting with Trump, who remains a lightning rod for criticism in Mexico. The Mexican president may be a reluctant visitor to Washington, but analysts say turning down a request to celebrate a pact that Trump calls a major foreign policy accomplishment could potentially have risked offending the president, something that López Obrador has gone all-out to avoid.

Throughout his tenure in office, the Mexican president has had to fend off allegations of being overly acquiescent to Trump, especially on the provocative issue of immigration. He has studiously sidestepped confrontation with the White House, and hosted Ivanka Trump at his inauguration, while meeting with Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, in Mexico City. Last month, Trump said López Obrador was “really a great guy.”

López Obrador, 66, took office vowing to help multitudes of Central American immigrants and other non-Mexicans who routinely traverse Mexican territory en route to the United States. But those promises were quickly tempered as Trump threatened potentially ruinous tariffs on Mexican imports to the United States, long a key engine of the Mexican economy, if Mexico did not move to halt U.S.-bound immigration.

Last year, responding to U.S. arm-twisting, Mexico agreed to dispatch troops to help curb illegal immigration, and also acceded to U.S. demands to house tens of thousands of U.S. asylum-seekers on Mexican soil.

López Obrador often says that the “best foreign policy” is based on sound domestic leadership. While his predecessor, Peña Nieto, made more than a dozen foreign trips during his first year in office, López Obrador has insisted that he was too busy with his pledged “transformation” of Mexico to travel abroad.

Still, he has called Mexico’s relationship with the United States “fundamental,” citing the two nations’ brisk trade, cultural links and the presence of millions of Mexicans in the United States.

López Obrador heads north at a difficult juncture: At home, he is dealing with multiple crises — a cratering, coronavirus-ravaged economy; an ever-increasing curve of coronavirus cases and related deaths; and an escalating series of gang-related attacks, including the execution-style killings of 26 young men last week at a drug-rehab center, and the brazen attempted assassination of the capital’s security chief.

His popularity is down from 80% highs, but López Obrador still maintains a respectable 56% approval rating some 19 months into his six-year term, according to a recent poll from El Financiero newspaper. His frugal lifestyle, denunciations of corruption and folksy manner help maintain his popularity among many Mexicans, despite the country’s struggles.

In a signature austerity move, the Mexican president has tried to sell off the plush presidential jet — calling it “haunted” — and always travels on commercial airlines, a practice he says he plans to follow when departing Tuesday for Washington.

Since news of the trip surfaced, López Obrador has denied allegations that he is succumbing to U.S. demands that he come to Washington and demonstrate obeisance to Trump at an especially inopportune moment.

“I have no problems of conscience going to the United States because … I have always maintained that Mexico is a free, independent and sovereign country,” López Obrador said in late June. “I want to state clearly: I am not selling out my country.”

Special correspondent Cecilia Sánchez contributed to this report.

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During July 4 events, Trump stokes the divisions within U.S.

White House surrogates and GOP lawmakers struggled Sunday to defend President Trump after he spent the Fourth of July holiday weekend denigrating the racial-justice movement galvanized by George Floyd’s killing and playing down a deadly pandemic by claiming that 99% of coronavirus cases are “completely harmless.”

In a pair of divisive speeches delivered against backdrops meant to invoke traditional images of patriotism and national pride — the massive presidential monument at Mt. Rushmore in South Dakota on Friday and a fireworks-and-flyover celebration in the nation’s capital the next day — Trump hewed to a message aimed at his hard-line base, with little in the way of outreach to the country as a whole.

Even some Trump strategists acknowledge it’s a risky gambit.

At a time when multiple opinion polls show the president trailing his presumptive Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, by double-digit margins, Trump is diverging ever more sharply from mainstream voters’ views on race, justice and history as well as how to cope with a raging pandemic.

Among those who work for Trump or hope to ride his election coattails, however, avoiding criticism of him even in the face of false or ahistorical statements remains a seemingly mandatory practice.

Sunday, for example, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Stephen Hahn repeatedly refused to contradict the president’s contention that 99% of coronavirus cases are “completely harmless.”

Infectious disease specialists say about one-third of coronavirus cases are asymptomatic. But for many others who contract it, the effects can be serious or catastrophic. Even those who survive the illness often face dangerous, long-term health problems.

Hahn, a medical doctor who serves on the White House coronavirus task force, faced repeated questions about Trump’s claim during television interviews Sunday. He avoided direct answers.

“I’m not going to get into who’s right and who’s wrong,” Hahn said during an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union.” He acknowledged that “cases are surging in the country” and urged Americans to follow CDC guidelines on mask wearing, physical distancing and hand washing.

On ABC’s “This Week,” Hahn deflected when asked how many cases he believed were harmless, replying: “Any case, we don’t want to have … and any death, any case is tragic.”

Hahn also declined to address Trump’s often-made statement, repeated last week in an interview on Fox, that the virus would “sort of just disappear, I hope.”

Those with similar credentials, but unbeholden to Trump, were more forthright.

Hahn’s predecessor at FDA, Scott Gottlieb, who headed the agency for the first two years of Trump’s tenure, said he did not know where Trump had gotten the 99% statistic, but that it was incorrect.

“Certainly more than 1% of people get serious illness from this,” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

Gottlieb said the current surge of new infections would soon begin yielding more deaths despite the fact that younger people made up a greater share of newly uncovered cases and that treatments had improved.

“We’re going to see deaths creep up,” he said on CBS. “You’re going to have more deaths, tragically.”

Trump has consistently touted his own performance in confronting the pandemic, and Republican lawmakers — especially those up for reelection this year — are increasingly being put on the spot as to whether they agree.

On CNN’s “State of the Union,” one of the Republican incumbents facing a tight race, Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, was asked whether Trump was exhibiting “failed leadership” in the coronavirus crisis.

“No,” she said. “I think that the president is stepping forward.”

Trump’s speech Friday at Mt. Rushmore, and his Fourth of July remarks the next day in Washington, appeared aimed at stoking culture wars stemming from the George Floyd protests, including the drive to take down statues of Confederate-era figures.

In his Washington speech, the president declared that the largely peaceful protesters who rallied for weeks in cities across America were “not interested in justice or healing.”

“We will never allow an angry mob to tear down our statues, erase our history, indoctrinate our children, or trample on our freedoms,” Trump said.

Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, a potential Democratic vice presidential nominee, said the president’s takeaway on weeks of protests flew in the face of broad public support for the aims of the Black Lives Matter movement and a reevaluation of public monuments to the Confederacy.

Duckworth, a military veteran who lost both her legs while serving in Iraq, said Trump’s emphasis was particularly jarring against the backdrop of the pandemic and White House inaction in the face of intelligence assessments that Russia offered bounties to militants in Afghanistan for killing U.S. troops.

“He spent more time worried about honoring dead Confederates than he did talking about the lives of our American — 130,000 Americans — who lost their lives to COVID-19, or by warning Russia off of the bounty they’re putting on Americans’ heads,” Duckworth said on “State of the Union.”

“I mean, his priorities are all wrong here.”

Even some Republican appeared to be edging away from Trump on the full-throated defense of honors for those military figures who took up arms against the United States to defend slavery.

Ernst, also a military veteran, was asked about the president’s threat to veto a military-spending bill if it includes a proposal for a process to weigh renaming U.S. military bases that bear the names of Confederate generals.

She said she thought he should sign the measure.

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The dark side of the South’s Mexican combo-plate dream

Gregorio Leon drove to the outskirts of Lexington, S.C., the night of Feb. 14, 2016, with a gun by his side and rage in his heart.

Hours earlier, the 49-year-old had enjoyed a couple’s dinner with friends, his children and his wife of 26 years, Rachel. The two were taking time off from running Gregorio’s eight Mexican restaurants, where combo plates ruled and the decor looked like an El Torito circa 1992.

It didn’t matter: His San Jose Mexican chain was a local smash. Tall and stocky with intense brown eyes, Gregorio was, as a South Carolina Spanish-language newspaper described him, “un orgullo Hispano” — a Hispanic to be proud of.

Banners with San Jose’s logo — an illustration of a mustachioed Mexican peasant boy in sombrero and serape, pulling on a stubborn burro — hung on the fences of baseball and soccer fields across Lexington, a well-kept suburb. Gregorio was the type of guy who paid the medical bills of a worker struck with brain cancer, who hosted epic barbecue tailgates at University of South Carolina football games and donated thousands of dollars to his home village in Mexico.

But legal problems always seemed to swirl around him. Most recently, he had just finished probation for his role in a bribery scheme that sent a Lexington County sheriff to prison, and he was now under a separate probation for hiring undocumented workers.

Now Gregorio was about to violate that probation in a dramatic, bloody way.

Rachel had slipped away from her family after their meal. Three days earlier, she had bought a man a $40,000 truck and told the car dealer “she was preparing to move in with” her paramour, according to a statement the dealer gave to Lexington police.

Gregorio drove for about 10 minutes to a secluded parking lot. There, Rachel’s Mercedes — which he had bugged with a tracking device that detectives found afterward, according to a police report — stood empty.

He touched its hood, approached a nearby silver Toyota Tundra and opened its passenger door. Inside, 28-year-old Arturo Bravo, wearing only socks, was with Rachel.

Gregorio fired four shots into the Tundra’s cab. Two missed; two didn’t, according to police investigative notes.

The restaurateur called 911 and identified himself as “Greg.”

“I shot my wife’s lover,” he told the dispatcher, according to a sworn police affidavit. Bravo lay dying on the asphalt; Rachel remained in the Tundra. Gregorio left her at the scene. He tossed the gun in the woods near one of his San Joses before turning himself in to Lexington police three hours later.

The regional solicitor (South Carolina’s version of a district attorney) charged Gregorio with four felonies: murder, attempted murder, discharging a weapon into a vehicle and possession of a firearm during a violent crime.

(Felipe Flores / For The Times )

He has pleaded not guilty to all charges. A December memorandum filed in court by his attorney, Dick Harpootlian, claims the “so-called victim,” Bravo, had ties to the Zetas drug cartel and repeatedly and secretly had forced sex with Rachel for nearly two years.

The presiding judge has placed a gag order over the parties in the case, so Gregorio was unavailable for comment, according to Harpootlian, a South Carolina state senator. But the scandal has sent tongues wagging across South Carolina, and not just because of the tawdry details of the case.

Gregorio was almost royalty in the dynasty of transplants from San Jose de la Paz, Jalisco, a village of about 1,000 in the Mexican tequila-growing region that dominates the South’s Mexican restaurant scene. In the last 45 years, its residents have established a network of restaurants across the region that now number more than 700. Families lord over fiefdoms that span big cities and small towns, with gentlemen’s agreements keeping competitors away and marriages entered into as much to solidify and expand holdings as for love.

It’s like “Game of Thrones,” except with more cheese sauce.

Gregorio had to give up his passport, but his siblings and children continue to return to their ancestral hometown and live it up. Like hundreds of their fellow Southern paisanos, they go back to Mexico often to enjoy a pueblo transformed by their entrepreneurial accomplishments.

Politicians and the press have praised the San Jose de la Paz migrants as a model of integration and success in a new, diverse South. Now Gregorio has become the most prominent example of the dark side of their Mexican combo-plate dream.

::

Five days after Bravo’s killing, Gregorio sat in a Lexington County courtroom. Rachel, their six children, Gregorio’s father and nine siblings, and other family members were among the 75 or so people who showed up in support of the accused murderer. Only seven people appeared for his victim.

Through an interpreter, Rachel asked presiding Judge Knox McMahon to allow Gregorio out on bond so he could run his business. Attorney Eric Bland argued that nearly 120 people in the Lexington area relied on his client for their livelihood, while families in Mexico depended on his charity.

“The arms and the tentacles that spring from this San Jose restaurant are extraordinary,” Bland said.

Judge McMahon deliberated for some minutes before granting the request, setting bail at $500,000. A teary Gregorio waved to onlookers as bailiffs led him away in handcuffs. Soon after, he served six months in federal prison for violating probation and has been under house arrest ever since.

Gregorio’s trial was scheduled for this month but has been delayed because of the coronavirus. He is allowed out only to work and to attend marriage counseling under the watch of a priest and security. Rachel, for her part, said in a sworn affidavit, “Notwithstanding the charges, I still love him.”

::

The relationship between San Jose de la Paz and el Sur began in 1973 in downtown Atlanta, where friends Raul Leon and Jose Macias — both distant relatives of Gregorio — opened a Mexican restaurant.

The partnership lasted only a year, and each subsequently opened his own spot — El Toro for Macias, Monterrey Mexican Restaurant for Leon — in the Atlanta suburbs of Doraville and Chamblee. The rivals brought over relatives and friends to staff them. Soon those employees opened so many places around Atlanta that new arrivals from San Jose de la Paz sought out parts of the South where Mexican food was still a novelty.

Owning your own eatery in el Norte became such a part of San Jose’s identity that residents nicknamed themselves “restauranteros.” Nearly everyone stuck to the El Toro-Monterrey model: menus with the same misspellings and same number for combo platters. The same photo or painting of San Jose’s main plaza and church hung somewhere as a reminder of home. Large spaces, the better to pack in white families looking for a night out. Even the same specials, with gringo-pandering names like the Speedy Gonzales (taco, enchilada, rice or beans) and Yolandas (three enchiladas slathered in sour cream).

Food critics and Mexican eaters gagged at the paint-by-numbers approach to Mexican food. But it made millionaires out of many San Jose de la Paz migrants, and their chains are now staples of the Southern landscape and beyond. El Nopal has 27 locations in Kentucky and Indiana. Plaza Azteca, started in Virginia Beach in 1994, now has 46 locations from North Carolina to Connecticut. In Nashville, there are nine Las Palmas restaurants.

They’re “not at all exotic” anymore, said Hanna Raskin, food critic for the Post and Courier in Charleston. She first covered the South’s San Jose de la Paz phenomenon in Asheville, N.C., 10 years ago. “Many of these combo-plate restaurants have now been in place for decades, so customers know the owners as fellow soccer team parents.”

In the Midlands region of South Carolina, Gregorio Leon was the soccer dad-restaurantero everybody knew.

::

As a child, Gregorio and his family migrated to Atlanta to join his father, who opened the first San Jose Mexican Restaurant in 1981. The Atlanta Constitution reported the following year, “If it keeps going this well maybe [Gregorio Sr. will] turn it into a chain.”

Instead of Georgia, the Leon clan set up their kingdom in 1989 in Columbia, S.C. Times were initially hard.

“People were used to country cooking,” Gregorio Jr. told a South Carolina lifestyle magazine in 2015. “They were not willing even to experiment and taste [our dishes]. We’d ask, ‘Do you like Mexican food?’ They’d say, ‘No, I don’t like it.’ So we would say, ‘Have you ever had it?’ And they’d say, ‘No, but I don’t like it.’”

Today the family runs 14 San Joses and is such a part of the state that it regularly sets up a booth at the South Carolina State Fair. Gregorio also opened two bars named after his son, Pancho.

His hard work won entry into the Palmetto State good life. Gregorio owned multiple properties, including a 30-acre farm where he raised Andalusian and Friesian horses. During football season, “Greg” was a regular at University of South Carolina games. Sometimes he tailgated; sometimes he worked sideline security. Some years, Gregorio perched one of his roosters (all named after the team’s mascot, Cocky) on a railing at the end zone to honor his beloved Gamecocks.

Graphic novel illustrations of a combo plate

(Felipe Flores / For The Times )

Gregorio became so thoroughly assimilated to South Carolina society that he regularly donated to Republican political candidates and steered clear of progressive politics. On May 1, 2006, while millions of Latinos staged a nationwide boycott to protest for amnesty for undocumented immigrants, Gregorio told the Associated Press: “I don’t think everybody closing down for one day solves anything.”

As the years went on, though, his notoriety around town was increasingly associated with running afoul of the law. In 2002, he was caught up in a cockfighting scandal that brought down South Carolina’s then-agricultural commissioner. In 2012, Gregorio, his father and two of his brothers collectively paid more than over half a million dollars in back wages. Two years later, a state grand jury indicted him for paying off Lexington County Sheriff James Metts to release some of San Jose’s undocumented workers arrested by his deputies.

Gregorio collaborated with prosecutors to nab Metts; for his service, he received a punishment of 200 hours of community service and five years of probation.

He wept during his October 2015 sentencing. “If I had known all this would have happened, I never would have done it,” Gregorio told the judge.

::

No one in Lexington contacted for this story agreed to talk on the record; all were afraid of crossing Gregorio for one reason or another.

But the mystique of the San Jose de la Paz narrative is beginning to fray.

Among other Mexican restaurant owners in the South, retauranteros have a reputation as “showoffs,” said Charlie Ibarra, owner of Southern-Mexican hybrid The Cortez in Raleigh. His family, originally from a village about 45 minutes south of San Jose de la Paz, established its own mini-empire in the Raleigh-Durham area during the aughts, eclipsing their Jalisciense rivals.

“They had the work ethic to make it big,” Ibarra said. “But they use that restaurantero money to go back to Mexico for over-the-top parties, flaunt their cars and their houses, and constantly try and one-up each other.”

In recent years, that quien-es-más-macho spirit has included worker exploitation.

U.S. Department of Labor records show that Mexican restaurants with ties to San Jose de la Paz — including some operated by Gregorio and his family — have paid out over $10 million in back wages and fines over the last decade. Among the charges: overtime violations and forcing employees to work just for tips and sometimes nothing at all.

In one ruling, a judge rejected a restaurantero’s argument that a former employee who was suing for back wages had no legal standing to pursue a class-action suit because she was an undocumented immigrant. In another, a Georgia appelate judge criticized the San Jose system as one reliant on “a person who gives instructions and tells people what to do, a boss to be followed without question.”

Gilda A. Hernandez is a labor lawyer in Cary, N.C., who won a settlement against one San Jose de la Paz restaurant group (not affiliated with Gregorio’s chain) and is pursuing class-action lawsuits against two others. The daughter of Mexican immigrants wasn’t familiar with Leon’s case but sees it as a sad metaphor for what has become of the restauranteros.

“While it is one thing to see people pursue the American dream by coming from nothing and doing something amazing, it’s quite another when that success is not achieved within the parameters of the law,” Hernandez said. “I’m not sure why they think it’s OK to grow exponentially off the backs of workers. It simply cheapens their success story.”

Despite his impending trial, Gregorio Leon seems at ease. He hasn’t violated his bail, and social media posts in the years since he killed Bravo show him smiling at birthday parties and high school graduations with his children. In a video posted to Facebook just four months ago, Gregorio cooks camarones al mojo de ajo from a flattop stove at one of his San Joses, adding the caption in Spanish, “With feeling, my friends … arre [hell ya].”

It’s a contrast to the man described by Bravo’s friend the day after his death, who told a Lexington police investigator that she had been “afraid for Arturo because Mr. Leon is very well known around the Hispanic community for what he does and is involved in.”

She didn’t elaborate.

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Scientists challenge WHO on risk of coronavirus aerosols

Six months into a pandemic that has killed over half a million people, more than 200 scientists from around the world are challenging the official view of how the coronavirus spreads.

The World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention maintain that you have to worry about only two types of transmission: inhaling respiratory droplets from an infected person in your immediate vicinity or — less commontouching a contaminated surface and then your eyes, nose or mouth.

But other experts contend that the guidance ignores growing evidence that a third pathway also plays a significant role in contagion.

They say multiple studies demonstrate that particles known as aerosolsmicroscopic versions of standard respiratory droplets — can hang in the air for long periods and float dozens of feet, making poorly ventilated rooms, buses and other confined spaces dangerous, even when people stay six feet from one another.

“We are 100% sure about this,” said Lidia Morawska, a professor of atmospheric sciences and environmental engineering at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia.

She makes the case in an open letter to the WHO accusing the United Nations agency of failing to issue appropriate warnings about the risk. A total of 239 researchers from 32 countries signed the letter, which is set to be published next week in a scientific journal.

In interviews, experts said that aerosol transmission appears to be the only way to explain several “super-spreading” events, including the infection of diners at a restaurant in China who sat at separate tables and of choir members in Washington state who took precautions during a rehearsal.

WHO officials have acknowledged that the virus can be transmitted through aerosols but say that occurs only during medical procedures such as intubation that can spew large quantities of the microscopic particles. CDC officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Dr. Benedetta Allegranzi, a top WHO expert on infection prevention and control, said in responses to questions from The Times that Morawska and her group presented theories based on laboratory experiments rather than evidence from the field.

“We value and respect their opinions and contributions to this debate,” Allegranzi wrote in an email. But in weekly teleconferences, a large majority of a group of more than 30 international experts advising the WHO has “not judged the existing evidence sufficiently convincing to consider airborne transmission as having an important role in COVID-19 spread.”

She added that such transmission “would have resulted in many more cases and even more rapid spread of the virus.”

Since the coronavirus was first detected in China in December, understanding of how it spreads has evolved considerably, resulting in shifting guidelines regarding the use of masks.

At first, the WHO and CDC said masks were overkill for ordinary people and should be conserved for health workers. Later, the CDC recommended masks only for people with COVID-19 symptoms.

Then in April, after it became clear that people without symptoms could also spread the virus, the CDC suggested masks for everybody when physical distancing was difficult, a position the WHO eventually adopted.

Now as outbreaks proliferate and governors order a new round of closures, nearly all U.S. states have made face coverings mandatory or recommended them, primarily to prevent wearers from spreading the disease.

The proponents of aerosol transmission said masks worn correctly would help prevent the escape of exhaled aerosols as well as inhalation of the microscopic particles. But they said the spread could also be reduced by improving ventilation and zapping indoor air with ultraviolet light in ceiling units.

Jose Jimenez, a University of Colorado chemist who signed the letter, said the idea of aerosol transmission should not frighten people. “It’s not like the virus has changed,” he said. “We think the virus has been transmitted this way all along, and knowing about it helps protect us.”

He and other scientists cited several studies supporting the idea that aerosol transmission is a serious threat.

As early as mid-March, a study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that when the virus was suspended in mist under laboratory conditions it remained “viable and infectious” for three hours, which researchers said equated to as much as half an hour in real-world conditions.

It had already been established that some people, known as “super spreaders,” happen to be especially good at exhaling fine material, producing 1,000 times more than others.

A recent study found coronavirus RNA in hallways near hospital rooms of COVID-19 patients. Another raised concerns that aerosols laden with the virus were shed by floor-cleaning equipment and by health workers removing personal protective gear.

Researchers in China found evidence of aerosols containing the coronavirus in two Wuhan hospitals.

It was the outbreak among choir members in Mount Vernon, Wash. — and a report about the incident in The Times — that first piqued the interest of several of the aerosol proponents. Of 61 singers at a March 10 rehearsal, all but eight became sick, despite the members using hand sanitizer and avoiding hugging or shaking hands. Two people died.

Researchers analyzed ventilation in this church hall, where Skagit Valley Chorale members met for a rehearsal that led to a fatal outbreak of COVID-19.

(Karen Ducey / For The Times)

A team led by Shelly Miller, a University of Colorado professor of mechanical engineering, dug into church-hall blueprints, furnace specifications, locations of choir members and hours of attendance. The researchers diagrammed movements of the singer who was identified as the person who unwittingly brought the virus to practice.

Inhalation of aerosols “most likely dominated infection transmission during this event,” the researchers wrote in a paper undergoing peer review, concluding that the ill person, who had symptoms similar to a common cold, was unlikely to have spent time within six feet of many singers or to have touched surfaces in common with them.

“We believe it likely that shared air in the fellowship hall, combined with high emissions of respiratory aerosol from singing, were important contributing factors,” the paper said.

Eventually researchers from a broad spectrum of disciplines, including several who have studied the role of aerosols in the spread of the flu, SARS and other infectious diseases, joined forces to campaign for greater recognition of aerosol transmission.

They said that the coronavirus is less contagious through the air than measles but that the risk of transmission goes up the longer air remains stagnant and the longer people continue to breathe it.

In interviews, they said WHO officials had unfairly set a higher bar for showing aerosol spread than was required for acceptance of the other two pathways. “For them, droplets and touch are so obvious that they’re proven, but airborne is so outlandish that it needs a very high level of evidence,” Jimenez said.

Proof would require exposing large numbers of healthy people to aerosols emitted by COVID-19 patients, a study that scientists said would be unethical.

Donald Milton, a University of Maryland environmental health professor and an expert on aerosols who co-wrote the letter, said the average person breathes 10,000 liters of air each day.

“You only need one infectious dose of the coronavirus in 10,000 liters, and it can be very hard to find it and prove that it’s there, which is one of the problems we’ve had,” he said.

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As coronavirus spiked, Texas waited to impose protocols

As COVID-19 infections spiked in South Texas, officials closed beaches and the governor ordered the wearing of masks, but crowds still descended on Galveston’s restaurants and Pleasure Pier amusement park on Friday.

At The Spot, a popular three-story beachfront restaurant on Seawall Boulevard, signs warned that patrons had to wear masks or the business could be fined $1,000. Staff patrolled the parking lot, making sure several dozen customers waiting in line were social distancing. Nearby, police warned passersby they faced $250 fines for not masking up. Some listened, some didn’t.

This was Texas — and much of America — in the strange, scary, defiant age of the virus. Skies were sunny and people needing escape pushed the limits on a breezy holiday weekend. Mask-less children darted toward a roller coaster while health officials cautioned that infections could spiral further upward — those were the conflicting images of a nation.

Jimmy, center, and Rachel Kinder, right, brought their daughter Arabella, 5, to the Pleasure Pier on Galveston Island. “The whole mask thing should be a personal choice,” Jimmy Kinder says.

(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

“I don’t really see too much sense in it,” said Randy Clark, 49, who was visiting from North Texas with a dozen relatives. “There’s no continuity to the rules. They closed the beaches and canceled the light show, but you can still go in a restaurant or the Pleasure Pier.”

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott resisted requiring masks until Friday, after Houston — a metro area that’s home to 4 million less than an hour’s drive from the island — had become a national hot spot with hospitals full of COVID-19 patients. Galveston officials waited until Friday to announce beach closings, blocking parking along Seawall and canceling the annual fireworks show.

Galveston County leaders relented a bit on Friday by allowing foot traffic on Bolivar Peninsula. In the Galveston area, about 14% of those tested had the virus this week, up from 0.6% in May, when Abbott allowed businesses to start reopening, according to Dr. Philip Keiser, Galveston County’s health director.

“Right after the reopening, people came down to Galveston and were not paying much attention to the rules” about social distancing and wearing masks at bars and restaurants, he said. “People were just gathered around, acting like it was a big party.”

Nila White, left, and Brooklin Lafong make cocktails to go at The Spot, a restaurant and bar in Galveston, Texas.

Nila White, 20, left, and Brooklin Lafong, 22, stay busy making cocktails to go at The Spot, a popular restaurant and bar in Galveston, Texas.

(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

The average age of those testing positive dropped from 60 in April to 29 last week, Keiser said. One of the biggest hot spots in the county is an inland area on Galveston Island where service workers live.

“The business owners are in a terrible situation: They need to stay open to make money, but they don’t want their employees to get infected. The problem is, there are chokepoints: Is there a line going in? Is there a way to keep people from gathering as they move through the establishment?”

Keiser planned to mostly stay home on the Fourth of July, except for a drive down Seawall, “just to see what it looks like.”

At the Pleasure Pier, tables were full at Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. restaurant and families were flowing onto the rides and into the souvenir shop. They passed a Duck Tour boat about to depart with a dozen people aboard, all masked, with seats in between.

“Businesses need to stay open or they’re just going to shut down,” said the tour boat’s captain, Raymond Smith, a father of eight who wore a shark mask. “What do you do, cower in your house and don’t feed your children?”

Gemma Pastor, 7, left, and Sykora Pastor, 9, look at their live pet crabs they bought at Galveston Beach.

Visiting from San Diego with their mother Shadley Pastor, Gemma Pastor, 7, left, and Sykora Pastor, 9, look at their live pet crabs they bought at Galveston Beach, along with their cousin Macie Hartz, 9, of Texas.

(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Jimmy and Rachel Kinder bought T-shirts and mermaid toys for their 5-year-old daughter Arabella at the Pleasure Pier before leaving to grab lunch at the Rainforest Cafe just before the mask order took effect. Rachel Kinder, 27, a stay-at-home mom, had a mask around her neck. Her husband did not.

“The whole mask thing should be a personal choice,” said Jimmy Kinder, 29, a welder from Tulsa, Okla., who’d recently been working in East Texas. “It doesn’t make sense to close the beach and have the pier open — you can distance a lot better there.”

Kinder agreed with President Trump that people should have the right to choose not to wear masks, but he said he disagreed with the way the president had downplayed the severity of the pandemic.

“I probably should be more worried,” he said.

Raymond Smith, owner of Duck Tours on Galveston Beach, wears a shark scarf on his face.

Raymond Smith, owner of Duck Tours on Galveston Beach, wears a shark scarf around his face, as he waits for customers.

(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Shadley Pastor, 40, a Houston native, was visiting with her two young daughters from San Diego. She noticed a sharp contrast between residents’ response to the pandemic.

“It’s more strict in San Diego, more masking — even my kids noticed it,” said Pastor, a stay-at-home mom, as she walked Seawall with 9-year-old Sykora and 7-year-old Gemma.

Over at The Spot, Graham Gemoets, 50, of Houston was finishing lunch with his husband and said he wished officials had announced pandemic restrictions sooner.

“It just wasn’t handled very well,” he said.

The couple usually rent out their second home on the island through Airbnb, but have seen a slew of cancellations. Gemoets’ catering business has also been decimated by the pandemic. On Friday, they were dismayed to hear fellow diners curse out someone busing tables for taking too long to clean (they left her a tip).

With bikinis and T-shirts hanging in the window, Elad Amsalem looks through the front of his store, Beach Break Surf Shop.

With bikinis and T-shirts hanging in the window, Elad Amsalem looks through the front of his store, Beach Break Surf Shop, while waiting for customers on Friday.

(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

“People don’t realize all the background work, having to wipe down tables and testing,” Gemoets said.

The Spot’s owner, Dennis Byrd, said he’s instituting new protections every day for patrons and staff, including two weeks’ paid leave for any employee with symptoms.

“I feel like I’ve converted my restaurant into an airport,” said Byrd, 40.

Despite the new pandemic orders, Byrd said business was steady. He also owns two hotels, which were 75% occupied for the holiday weekend, typical of the island now. He said the mask and beach closure orders were helpful, but he wasn’t sure how officials would prevent crowds from forming over the weekend, especially along Seawall.

Violating the beach closure carries a $500 fine, but Galveston is known for its raucous parties, beach weddings, open-air bars, biker rallies and Go Topless Jeep Weekend.

“They say there’s going to be no loitering, but how are you going to enforce that?” Byrd said. “We’re going to find out.”

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Lebanon’s currency crash hits its cuisine, especially meat

For the Lebanese, red meat is king. They eat it in the morning, in delicately spiced lahm bi ajeen pastries with ground beef. They have it on the run, carved from gargantuan spits marbled with fat for their shawarma, or in leisurely Sunday lunches replete with skewers of barbecued lamb. They even take it raw, be it in their version of steak tartare or glistening chunks of sawdah, or sliced uncooked liver.

But it’s less on offer these days, said Hassan Bdeir, a 48-year-old trader polishing off his breakfast in a neighborhood cafe.

“Usually I’d have meat pastries. Now? No way,” he said, pointing to a half-finished bowl of ful, stewed fava beans with a side of vegetables.

“This is what we eat now. And even this, not just anyone can afford it.”

Bdeir’s meatless meal was another example of the fraught calculus that has become daily life for most Lebanese as they face a crumbling economy, dwindling savings and a political class seemingly intent on stopping reform and beggaring the country.

That economic implosion, which began in September but was accelerated by the coronavirus crisis, has seen the national currency lose almost 85% of its value against the dollar, despite an official peg that kept the Lebanese lira at 1,500 against the greenback for more than two decades. It now stands at almost 10,000, spurring a cataclysmic rise in prices for a country that imports 80% of its food.

The sticker shock has forced many here to cut back, and turned basic goods into luxuries few can afford. That includes red meat: Before the crisis, two pounds of it cost roughly $9, or 14,000 Lebanese lira. Today the same amount costs roughly 65,000 lira — the equivalent of more than $43 at the official exchange rate.

That has spurred a rapid adjustment. Many restaurants have canceled red meat options on the menu; others have modified signature dishes to use chicken or vegetarian substitutes. Even the army eschews meat in the food it serves to soldiers, Lebanon’s ministry of defense said this week.

“People come in, buy five kilos [11 pounds]. That was the standard,” said Ahmad Mallaah, 42, who co-manages his family’s butcher shop in Beirut’s Msaytbeh neighborhood. “Now they barely take one, and even that they’re dividing over five meals.”

Demand has plunged to the point, he said, that he doesn’t bother stocking up. In his window display were four sheep carcasses suspended from hooks, but two of his three fridges stood empty.

“What you see in there now costs 5 million Lebanese lira,” he said — more than $3,000 at the official exchange rate.

“I’m literally seeing women crying in front of the shop window when they see the prices. Some come in and ask for less than a quarter pound of meat for the week. I give them a bit more out of charity.”

Mallaah isn’t alone. In recent weeks, said Maarouf Bakdash, head of the butchers’ and livestock traders’ union, almost three-quarters of the country’s butchers have stopped working altogether. Imports of meat, which in 2018 reached approximately $155 million, according to U.N. data, have been halved. There are still three to four more shipments of livestock arriving this month; without government guarantees of assistance, they will be the last.

“Even if we butchered the ones we have, who has enough money to buy?” Bakdash said.

That has become an existential question in recent days, with the Lebanese contemplating not only the collapse of their country but also the end of the hallowed status it enjoyed in the Middle East.

Despite decades of regional turmoil, a vicious civil war and the effects of nearby proxy conflicts playing out on its soil, Lebanon, a tiny nation of some 5.4 million people, has long been held up as an example of resilience. There were daily power cuts, and the government was almost ludicrously corrupt, but the Lebanese had a joie de vivre, the cliche went, with a lifestyle befitting the country’s status as a Mediterranean playground.

One reason for that was the fixed exchange rate with the dollar, which authorities maintained using inflows of U.S. currency from tourism, foreign aid and remittances, not to mention loans that made Lebanon the third-most indebted country in the world. Those revenue streams dried up as upheaval continued in neighboring Syria; that pushed officials to engage in what they called “financial engineering.” They offered stratospheric interest rates to attract depositors’ dollars, which in turn required more deposits to pay off the gains. Critics described it as a giant Ponzi scheme.

Matters came to a head last September. Facing a shortage of dollars, banks began to limit withdrawals even as protests bloomed across the country and toppled the government.

Though a new Cabinet took over promising reform, the crisis has deepened as the political class continues to bicker. Inflation, said Steve Hanke, an expert in troubled currencies at Johns Hopkins University, has now reached a monthly rate of 135%, with the lira on the way to hyper-inflating. Demonstrations, which had stopped because of COVID-19 lockdowns, have now returned in increasing force.

Anti-government protesters July 2 in Beirut, Lebanon.

(Hassan Ammar / Associated Press)

Still, officials have been unable to agree on the extent of the damage, let alone achieve the consensus needed to unlock $20 billion in funds from the International Monetary Fund. But it seems clear that any solution will mean austerity, turning Lebanon from a land of plenty into one of privation.

In many ways, that transformation has already begun, making Lebanon’s contrasts more jarring. Lines form outside bakeries even as crowds swarm a local Louis Vuitton store selling its merchandise at a lower exchange rate to the dollar. Porsches, Maseratis and Ferraris line the street before a fancy hilltop restaurant, with parking valets navigating past ever-more-desperate panhandlers. Hunger is a growing problem.

Meat is an example of what may soon be an impossible luxury. Though to many foreign palates Lebanese cuisine can seem a vegetarian extravaganza, its meat dishes occupy pride of place in the Middle East, a marker of the karam, or generosity, to be shown a guest.

With so much of the country’s food supply imported, even non-meat staples have also been affected. The cost of making humbler dishes — like those involving lentils or green beans — has increased by more than half, according to a report released in May by Triangle, a Lebanese think tank.

Some political leaders and other voices insist that the crisis presents an opportunity for Lebanon to take charge of its own food supply and develop its agricultural industry. But farmers have been affected by the same financial woes affecting the rest of the country, said Imad Bissat, an agricultural expert and farm owner.

“You want to buy seeds; sellers only take dollars. You want fertilizers and chemicals for the crops; you can’t get them on credit but have to pay up front,” Bissat said, adding that he didn’t have enough funds to plant all the fields on his farm.

Even if conditions were better, he said, the country would still not be able to fulfill all its needs.

“Lebanon is self-sufficient in fruits and legumes, but not in dairy, meat and grains. Plant all of Lebanon with wheat and you still won’t achieve self-sufficiency,” he said.

For many, the only solution seems to be to leave — if they can.

“I came back from Germany 30 years ago because I love my country,” said Samir Fadhel, a 66-year-old cafe owner. “But now I hate it. It’s time to go.”

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July 4 speeches that shaped what America is or should be

Generations ago, America’s leading political figures delivered many of their most eloquent orations not in the chambers of the Capitol but from local gazebos and bandstands on Independence Day. Before large crowds on town greens or in front of fire halls, they would harken back to the lessons of the nation’s Founders, often holding their audiences spellbound for an hour, perhaps even more.

American presidents still deliver pro-forma July Fourth messages; last year President Trump, in a remarkable personal version of history and the capabilities of George Washington’s Revolutionary War forces, said that “our Army manned the air, it rammed the ramparts, it took over the airports.

But the grand tradition of the Independence Day oration has largely disappeared. Today’s audiences are unaccustomed to the patriotic rhetoric that once commanded attention. Indeed, the standard themes of July Fourths past — paeans to the wisdom of Washington, suggestions that his Revolutionary comrades were soldiers in God’s own cause — now possess an antiquarian, almost alien air.

“A politician’s Fourth of July speech may seem anodyne and clichéd,” said Rutgers historian David Greenberg. “But it also contributes in some way to understanding and perhaps subtly redefining, in that moment and from that political perspective, what Americanism is or should be.”

And there are lessons in these orations of a long-ago age. They are period pieces, and yet they underline in the 21st century how the 18th century Enlightenment values embedded in the Declaration of Independence have not been redeemed or realized.

“If democracy is America’s civic religion, then its sacred text is the Declaration of Independence,” said Martin Kaplan, a USC expert on media and society. “What better occasion for a secular sermon about our founding values than the anniversary of our birth certificate? The first time many Americans heard their unalienable rights proclaimed was with their own ears, listening to its text. In a way, every Fourth of July speech since then has been a reenactment of that first declaration, renewed and recommitted in the terms of its changing times.”

So as the 244th celebration of American Independence draws near, let us pause and draw inspiration, and perhaps wisdom, from this holiday sampler of Fourth of July addresses of the past:

Daniel Webster, July 4, 1800

“It becomes us, on whom the defence of our country will ere long devolve, this day, most seriously to reflect on the duties incumbent upon us. Our ancestors bravely snatched expiring liberty from the grasp of Britain, whose touch is poison… Shall we, their descendants, now basely disgrace our lineage, and pusillanimously disclaim the legacy bequeathed to us? Shall we pronounce the sad valediction to freedom, and immolate liberty on the altars our fathers have raised to her?”

Daniel Webster, circa 1855 and 1865.

Of all the remarkable elements of Webster’s life, what might be most remarkable was that the citizens of Hanover, N.H., invited him as a Dartmouth junior to deliver a speech at the tiny college town’s Independence Day commemoration. At age 18, Webster consciously looked to the past (by invoking the greatness of Washington, who had died earlier that year) and eerily foreshadowed the future (by providing a direct antecedent to the message John F. Kennedy would offer when he bid Americans to “ask what you can do for your country”).

These words also remind us that these moral principles are at the heart of the American creed, a theme that John Quincy Adams would return to on July 4, 1821, when he spoke of how the American Revolution “swept away all the rubbish of accumulated centuries of servitude” and “proved that the social compact was no figment of the imagination, but a real, solid, and sacred bond of the social union.”

~~~

Charles Sumner, July 4, 1845

“Nothing resembles God more than that man among us who has arrived at the highest degree of justice. The true greatness of nations is in those qualities which constitute the greatness of the individual. It is not to be found in extent of territory, nor in vastness of population, nor in wealth; not in fortifications, or armies, or navies; not in the phosphorescent glare of fields of battle; not in Golgothas, though covered by monuments that kiss the clouds; for all these are the creatures and representatives of those qualities of our nature, which are unlike any thing in God’s nature.”

Charles Sumner, pictured in 1870, would become known as one of the Senate’s most ardent opponents of slavery.

Charles Sumner, pictured in 1870, would become known as one of the Senate’s most ardent opponents of slavery.

(Library of Congress)

These remarks by Sumner, who would become known as one of the Senate’s most ardent opponents of slavery, are part of a larger speech delivered six months before Texas joined the Union. In summoning an image of Golgotha, the Jerusalem hillside where Christ was crucified, and in decrying the prospect of war with Mexico, Sumner offered a vivid celebration of the concept of justice. This is a meditation on eternal truths that we might embrace in our own time, when the killings of men in Minneapolis and Atlanta remind us that we have not yet arrived at “the highest degree of justice.”

~~~

Frederick Douglass, July 5, 1852

“The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn…”

Frederick Douglass in 1870. Photo from Library of Congress

Frederick Douglass in 1870. Photo from Library of Congress

(Schreiber)

Speaking in Rochester, N.Y., the Black abolitionist and statesman opened by asserting that he was “not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic.” Douglas, perhaps the greatest orator in our history, escaped slavery and in in his freedom spoke across the country, assuring that Americans could not escape the moral questions inherent in human bondage nor the hypocrisy of Americans’ rhetoric about human freedom.

In this speech he went on to ask the preeminent question of the age, and of ours: “Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us?”

Douglass’ speech came on July 5, not the Fourth, because he refused to celebrate American independence on the usual day until the enslaved were free. July 5 was not without meaning; on that date in 1827, 4,000 Blacks people had marched through New York to mark the end of slavery in that state.

~~~

Edward Everett, July 4, 1861

“We contend for the great inheritance of constitutional freedom transmitted from our revolutionary fathers. We engage in the struggle forced upon us, with sorrow, as by our misguided brethren, but with high heart and faith….”

Edward Everett, pictured in 1905

Edward Everett, pictured in 1905, possessed a voice that was, in the words of his protege, Ralph Waldo Emerson, “most mellow and beautiful, and correct of all the instruments of the time.”

(Library of Congress)

Few Americans ever assembled a resume quite like that of Everett, who served as governor of Massachusetts, member of both the U.S. House and Senate, secretary of State — and president of Harvard University. But he is remembered most for a speech he delivered whose content, ironically, is not remembered at all — a two-hour stemwinder with allusions to classical antiquity, references to the War of the Roses and quotes from the philosopher David Hume that turned out to be merely the warm-up act to the two minutes of what is now known as Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

Everett possessed a voice that was, in the words of his protege, Ralph Waldo Emerson, “most mellow and beautiful, and correct of all the instruments of the time.” In the speech excerpted above, delivered in the early months of the Civil War, he spoke of the primacy of freedom in the Constitution and, by employing the powerful verb “contend,” he underlined the enduring struggle that has animated all of our history — and our own time: the debate over the nature, and the extent, of freedom in the nation.

~~~

Oliver Wendell Holmes, July 4, 1863

“It is easy to understand the bitterness which is often shown toward reformers. They are never general favorites. They are apt to interfere with vested rights and time honored interests. They often wear an unlovely, and forbidding, aspect.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes, pictured in 1924, was a physician and poet.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, pictured in 1924, was a physician and poet.

(Library of Congress)

Physician and poet, Holmes was both one of the leading literary figures of a period with a surfeit of cultural giants and the father of the famous Supreme Court justice (1902-1932) who bore his name.

These remarks came as Union troops were surging to victory at Gettysburg in Pennsylvania and Vicksburg in Mississippi, and they anticipated a period when the country, rent by the Civil War, would need to be reconstituted on a new, reformed basis — in essence the “new birth of freedom” that Lincoln spoke of in his Gettysburg Address and that we seek in this hard year of contention and conflict.

~~~

Susan B. Anthony, July 4, 1876

“Our faith is firm and unwavering in the broad principles of human rights proclaimed in 1776, not only as abstract truths, but as the corner stones of a republic. Yet we cannot forget, even in this glad hour, that while all men of every race, and clime, and condition, have been invested with the full rights of citizenship under our hospitable flag, all women still suffer the degradation of disfranchisement.”

Susan B. Anthony

Susan B. Anthony became the first woman portrayed on an American coin.

(Getty Images)

The official celebration of the centenary of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia included no remarks by women. But a group of determined feminists distributed a Declaration of Rights for Women to the crowd assembled outside Independence Hall and then, at a stand erected for a group of musicians, Anthony read that document aloud.

“It is with sorrow we strike the one discordant note’’ at the anniversary commemoration, she said, but went on to assert, “The history of our country the past hundred years has been a series of assumptions and usurpations of power of woman, in direct opposition to the principles of just government…’’

With Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Anthony founded the National American Woman Suffrage Assn. It took 44 more years for the passage of the 19th Amendment, guaranteeing all women the right to vote — a measure known as the “Susan B. Anthony Amendment” — and a century and a half later there remains a pay gap between men and women in the workplace and a representation gap in Congress. Anthony, an important ally of Douglass in the abolitionist movement, became the first woman portrayed on an American coin.

~~~

Charles Francis Adams, July 4, 1876

“Let us labor continually to keep the advance in civilization as it becomes us to do after the struggles of the past, so that the rights to life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness, which we have honorably secured, may be firmly entailed upon the ever enlarging generations of mankind.”

Charles Francis Adams at CBS microphone in 1931.

Charles Francis Adams at CBS microphone in 1931.

(Harris & Ewing)

The son and grandson of presidents, Adams was a state senator, a congressman, twice an unsuccessful vice presidential candidate, and the American ambassador to London. In this excerpt, delivered pointedly on the 100th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, he speaks of the fragility of liberty and the threat that it might not be extended to all in the future. This sentence is a vow that any contemporary American political figure could, and perhaps should, quote in a speech this Independence Day.

~~~

John F. Kennedy, July 4, 1946

“Our idealism, [a fundamental] element of the American character, is being severely tested. Now, only time will tell whether this element of the American character will be true to its historic tradition.”

John F. Kennedy examined several elements of the American creed in a 1946 speech.

John F. Kennedy examined several elements of the American creed in a 1946 speech.

(NASA / EPA)

In an evocative setting where Daniel Webster thundered about the Union and Frederick Douglass lectured about the evils of slavery, a first-time congressional candidate delivered a thoughtful analysis of what it means to be an American. In Boston’s Faneuil Hall, the meeting place for colonial rebels built by a slave trader and slave owner, Kennedy examined several elements of the American creed.

“JFK’s speech couldn’t be more timely,” said Robert Dallek, a prominent historian and Kennedy biographer. “With a current president, whose character defects cast a shadow across the presidency and the nation’s reputation for human decency, Kennedy’s speech reminds us that the country is better than what Donald Trump represents.”

Yet the Kennedy speech is more than an answer to the Trump presidency. As president he would weaponize the rhetoric of idealism, but as a recent war veteran and fledgling politician he set forth the ultimate American challenge, as fresh on the Fourth of July in 1946 as it would be three-quarters of a century later: for the United States to be true to its historic traditions.