American Workers Must Risk Infection Or Losing Unemployment Payments

 Some of the millions of American workers laid off because of the coronavirus are beginning to face a tough choice — return to work and risk infection, or stay home and risk losing unemployment payments.
The decision is most pressing in states where governors have started allowing businesses such as restaurants to reopen with social-distancing restrictions.
Tyler Price, 26, was called back to his job at Del Frisco’s Grille in the Nashville suburb of Brentwood. Tennessee allowed restaurants to open dining rooms at 50% capacity, with servers wearing masks and being tested for fever.
But Price, who has yet to receive any unemployment benefits, is wrestling with what do. He said he is “highly susceptible” to respiratory illness and was hospitalized with pneumonia as a child.
“I know what it feels like to be in a hospital, to be drowning in your own lungs,” said Price, who moved in with his mother near St. Louis after getting laid off. “It’s horrifying. It’s terrible. I don’t want to find myself there.”
He said waiting tables “is impossible to do under social distancing guidelines,” and he would prefer to draw unemployment payments.
On Thursday, the Labor Department reported that the business shutdowns and stay-at-home orders caused by the pandemic have led 30 million Americans to file for unemployment insurance, or roughly 1 of every 6 workers.
The design of the unemployment system adds to the pressure. If an employer calls back laid-off workers, they must report to work or are likely to lose their benefits.
That’s because unemployment insurance is designed to tide people over until they can get back to a job, said Michele Evermore, a senior policy analyst with the National Employment Law Project in New York.
“An unemployed worker cannot refuse suitable work and still continue to collect unemployment insurance,” Evermore said. “Presumably, the job you used to have is suitable.”
Fear of getting sick or worries that an employer isn’t providing adequate infection protection are generally not reasons someone can file for benefits. The latter concern is getting more complicated because some businesses are lobbying to keep employees and customers from suing them over coronavirus transmission.
Lacey Ward, a hairstylist in Omaha, Nebraska, filed for unemployment benefits in mid-March and is still waiting for the first payment. She’s been forced to drain her family’s savings and feels increasing pressure to return to work. Still, she is worried that Gov. Pete Ricketts’ decision to let salons reopen Monday could put her, her husband and two young sons at risk.
Ward, 38, said she would prefer to collect unemployment until the risk from the virus subsides and it’s clearer whether she can offer services like shampooing. She co-owns the salon but makes money only off her own clients.
“I would rather be safe than sorry,” Ward said. “We are not an essential field. I haven’t had my hair done in three or four months at this point. But what does it matter? Who are people seeing?”
Ward said she’s so concerned about spreading the virus that she plans to change clothes and wash her hair before she returns home.
“We’re playing with fire, physically touching another person,” she said.
Some workers are ready to go back. Kathryn Marsilli, 33, is a manager and server at The Collins Quarter restaurant in Savannah, Georgia.
She knows she may make less at work because of reduced business and would like a way for those with fears of the virus to stay home. But she said she wants to go back out of loyalty to the owner and because she’s not interested in trying to maximize her unemployment benefits.
“My future where I work is more important to me than trying to get what I can now,” Marsilli said.
Other workers may be tempted to hold on to unemployment. Especially in some low-wage regions, laid-off workers may receive more money with the state benefit and the additional $600 a week provided by Congress than they were on the job. The federal boost ends July 31.
Georgia labor officials are trying to balance the needs of business owners with the genuine concerns of workers. State Labor Commissioner Mark Butler said he’s telling businesses that are easing into reopening and don’t need all their employees to call in those who are willing to work and leave the others to the unemployment system.
Georgia also is allowing people to earn up to $300 a week before it begins to eat into their state unemployment benefit, meaning workers could earn more than $1,200 a week in total.
“It was a way we could get more people back to work at reduced hours,” Butler said. “Otherwise, why would you go back to work at all?”
Jennifer Holliday is a manager at a restaurant in Oklahoma City called Zio’s Italian Kitchen, which plans to reopen its dining room Friday. She said getting furloughed employees to return has been difficult. Many are not returning her phone calls or messages.
“There are some who want to just ride it out (until July) and take the unemployment,” Holliday said. “They don’t even have to apply” for other jobs.

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This Time, Pence Wears Mask as He Tours Indiana Plant

This time, he wore a mask. Vice President Mike Pence donned a face covering Thursday as he toured a General Motors/Ventec ventilator production facility in Indiana after coming under fire for failing to wear one earlier this week in violation of Mayo Clinic policy. The facility in Kokomo had been closed because of the coronavirus but was brought back online in mid-April to produce critical care ventilators for hospitals around the country. General Motors requires workers to wear masks in the plant’s production area, according to spokesman Jim Cain.  Pence removed the mask, however, for a roundtable with top officials, including General Motors CEO Mary Barra and Ventec CEO Chris Kiple. None of the participants wore face coverings. Pence’s visit to the factory came hours after his wife, Karen Pence, defended her husband’s decision to not wear a mask during a Tuesday visit to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Vice President Mike Pence participates in a round table following a tour of the General Motors/Ventec ventilator production facility with GM CEO Mary Barra and Elaine Chao Secretary of Transportation in Kokomo, Ind., April 30, 2020.Mrs. Pence told Fox News Channel that he had been unaware of the hospital’s coronavirus policy during the visit and that the vice president has been following the advice of medical experts. Pence, like other senior White House staff, is tested for the virus at least once a week. “As our medical experts have told us, wearing a mask prevents you from spreading the disease. And knowing that he doesn’t have COVID-19, he didn’t wear one,” Mrs. Pence said, adding that it “was actually after he left Mayo Clinic that he found out that they had a policy of asking everyone to wear a mask.” “So, you know, someone who’s worked on this whole task force for over two months is not someone who would have done anything to offend anyone or hurt anyone or scare anyone,” she said. The Mayo Clinic had earlier tweeted — then deleted — that it had informed the vice president of its “masking policy prior to his arrival.” “Mayo shared the masking policy with the VP’s office,” the health care system later said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that Americans wear cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain, such as in supermarkets, especially in areas of significant community-based transmission. But President Donald Trump has repeatedly expressed discomfort about mask-wearing, saying he did not intend to wear one when the CDC’s recommendations were unveiled. Most senior staff, who are regularly tested, have followed his lead, at least when they’re in the White House. Pence’s responseFootage of Pence’s tour of the Mayo Clinic showed him bare-faced as he met with an employee who had recovered from the virus, even though everyone else in the room appeared to be wearing one. He also participated in a roundtable discussion in which every participant, from Food and Drug Administration chief Stephen Hahn to the state’s governor, wore a mask except for him. FILE – Vice President Mike Pence, center, visits Dennis Nelson, a patient who survived the coronavirus and was going to give blood, during a tour of the Mayo Clinic, in Rochester, Minn., April 28, 2020.Pence explained his decision that day by stressing that he has been frequently tested for the virus. “As vice president of the United States I’m tested for the coronavirus on a regular basis, and everyone who is around me is tested for the coronavirus,” Pence said. “And since I don’t have the coronavirus, I thought it’d be a good opportunity for me to be here, to be able to speak to these researchers, these incredible health care personnel, and look them in the eye and say ‘thank you.'” But even with a mask, Pence would have been able to look health care workers in the eye because one only covers the nose and mouth. People who enter the White House complex have their temperature taken, and those who will be in close proximity to the president and the vice president are given rapid COVID-19 tests to ensure they’re not infectious. Senior staff also are given tests on a rolling basis so that infections are quickly detected. 
 

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Spokesman: 10 Egyptian Army Members Killed or Wounded in Bomb Attack

Ten Egyptian army members including an officer were killed or wounded on Thursday when a bomb exploded in an armored vehicle south of Bir al-Abd city in the Northern Sinai region, a military spokesman said in a statement.He did not specify how many had been killed in the attack, which not immediately claimed by any group. Militants loyal to Islamic State are active in the strategic border region.Egypt has been fighting Islamist insurgents who have killed hundreds of police and soldiers in the northern part of the Sinai Peninsula since the ousting of Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood in 2013 following mass protests against his rule.Militants have also carried out attacks elsewhere in the country.An Egyptian policeman and seven suspected militants were killed on April 14 in an exchange of gunfire after the ministry of interior received information about potential Easter attacks against Coptic Christians, the ministry said, adding that three other policemen had also been wounded.The military and police launched a major campaign against militant groups in 2018, focusing on the Sinai Peninsula as well as southern areas and the border with Libya. 

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US Intel: Coronavirus Not Manmade, Still Studying Lab Theory

U.S. intelligence agencies are debunking a conspiracy theory, saying they have concluded that the new coronavirus was “not manmade or genetically modified” but say they are still examining a notion put forward by the president and aides that the pandemic may have resulted from an accident at a Chinese lab. The statement from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the clearinghouse for the web of U.S. spy agencies, comes as President Donald Trump and his allies have touted the as-yet-unproven theory that an infectious disease lab in Wuhan, the epicenter of the Chinese outbreak, was the source of the global pandemic, which has killed more than 220,000 people worldwide.In recent days the Trump administration has sharpened its rhetoric on China, accusing the geopolitical foe and vital trading partner of failing to act swiftly enough to sound the alarm to the world about the outbreak or to stop the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19. U.S. officials have said the Chinese government should “pay a price” for its handling of the pandemic.The new statement says, “The Intelligence Community also concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not manmade or genetically modified.” “The IC will continue to rigorously examine emerging information and intelligence to determine whether the outbreak began through contact with infected animals or if it was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan.” President Donald Trump speaks about the coronavirus in the Rose Garden of the White House, April 27, 2020, in Washington.Trump on Thursday again blamed China for not doing enough to contain the coronavirus. “We just got hit by a vicious virus that should never have been allowed to escape China,” he said during an Oval Office meeting with New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy. Earlier this month, Trump addressed the lab theory saying, “More and more, we’re hearing the story.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo added at the time, “The mere fact that we don’t know the answers — that China hasn’t shared the answers — I think is very, very telling.” Pompeo also pressed China to let outside experts into the lab “so that we can determine precisely where this virus began.” While Trump and Pompeo have made public statements speculating about the lab, a U.S. intelligence official disputed the notion that there was any pressure on agencies to bolster a particular theory. The intelligence official was not authorized to publicly discuss the issue and spoke only on condition of anonymity.  Scientists say the virus arose naturally in bats. Even so, Pompeo and others have pointed fingers at an institute that is run by the Chinese Academy of Sciences. It has done groundbreaking research tracing the likely origins of the SARS virus, finding new bat viruses and discovering how they could jump to people. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo addresses a news conference at the State Department in Washington, April 7, 2020.”We know that there is the Wuhan Institute of Virology just a handful of miles away from where the wet market was,” Pompeo said two weeks ago. The institute has an address 8 miles, or 13 kilometers, from the market that is considered a possible source. U.S. officials say the American Embassy in Beijing flagged concerns about potential safety issues at the lab in Wuhan in 2018, but they have yet to find any evidence the virus originated there nearly two years later. The Chinese government said Thursday that any claims that the coronavirus was released from a laboratory are “unfounded and purely fabricated out of nothing.” Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang cited the institute’s director, Yuan Zhiming, as saying the lab strictly implements bio-security procedures that would prevent the release of any pathogen. “I would like to point out again that the origin of the virus is a complex scientific issue, and it should be studied by scientists and professionals,” Geng said. The U.S. was providing funding to the Wuhan lab for its research on coronaviruses, Michael Morell, former acting director and deputy director of the CIA, said Thursday. He said State Department cables indicate that there have been concerns in past years among U.S. officials about the safety protocols at that lab. If the virus did escape from a Chinese lab, it not only reflects negatively on China but also on the United States for providing research funding to a lab that has safety concerns, Morell said during an online forum hosted by the Michael V. Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy and International Security at George Mason University. “So if it did escape, we’re all in this together,” Morell said. “This is not a gotcha for China. This is a gotcha for both of us.” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng also criticized U.S. politicians who have suggested China should be held accountable for the global pandemic, saying they should spend their time on “better controlling the epidemic situation at home.” But another government spokesman, Zhao Lijian, demonstrated that China was not above sowing confusion in the face of the pandemic. He tweeted in March the falsehood that the virus might have come from the U.S. Army. Trump, whose early response to the outbreak has been questioned, also pushed back on news reports that he was repeatedly warned about the virus by intelligence agencies. Trump said he was given the first intelligence briefing in “later January.” Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar also briefed Trump on the threat by phone on Jan. 18.   

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NASA Awards US Companies Contracts for Human Moon Landing

The U.S. space agency NASA has awarded contracts to three American companies to develop spacecraft to land humans on the moon by 2024. In a remote news conference Thursday, NASA announced it had selected Blue Origin, the space exploration company owned by Jeff Bezos, owner of The Washington Post, and owner and founder of Amazon; Dynetics, a subsidiary of research company Leidos that is based in the city of Huntsville, Alabama; and SpaceX, based in Hawthorne, California, and owned by businessman Elon Musk. NASA says the companies will compete to design and develop systems for the agency’s Artemis program, which has the goal of landing men and women on the surface of the moon for the first time since the 1970s. The project would also develop systems by 2028 that could be used for people to explore the solar system. NASA’s statement says the three commercial partners will refine their moon lander concepts through February 2021. The agency will evaluate which of the contractors will perform initial demonstration missions, and from those missions, NASA will select the final lunar lander. The Washington Post reports both NASA and the White House must still convince Congress to fund the program, which is projected to cost $35 billion through 2024. 

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China Plans to Hold Long-Delayed Leadership Meetings in Late May

China has decided to convene its much-delayed Two Sessions — the annual meetings of the national legislature and the top political advisory body — in late May amid signs that the ruling Communist Party believes it has made strides to contain the COVID-19 outbreak.
 
Both meetings will be halved to last only one week, with the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) opening on May 21, and the National People’s Congress (NPC) on May 22, state-run Xinhua News Thursday reported.
 
It remains unclear if some 3,000 lawmakers and 2,000 political advisers from across the country will attend the meetings in person or virtually.
   
Convening the meetings sends a political signal that China, the country where the pandemic began, has brought the coronavirus under control, observers say.
 Challenges ahead
 
But challenges remain for the top leadership to address the economic fallout from the global pandemic and growing confrontations with foreign powers, including the United States, observers add.
 
The meetings will set out programs for the continued containment of the pandemic and its economic and social fallout, Steve Tsang, director of SOAS China Institute at the University of London, said in an email to VOA.
 
Tsang believes there will not be any political fallout to address since President Xi Jinping will be presented as having triumphed and done well against the public health crisis.
 
That is because both meetings often work as rubber stamps to endorse the top leadership’s policies and thus leave little room to challenge its authority or for free flow of ideas, said Fan Shih-Ping, a professor of political science at National Taiwan Normal University in Taipei.FILE – Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives for the closing session of the National People’s Congress in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, March 15, 2019.Focus on the economy
 
According to Xinhua News, the Two Sessions will roll out a series of policies and measures to spur development at home and help reactivate the global supply chains and economy.  
 
China will also reconfirm its goal to achieve the building of a moderately prosperous society as slated by 2020, despite the epidemic, Xinhua reported.
 
The country will further transform external pressure into motivation for deeper reform and opening up and focusing on running China’s affairs well, it added.
 
Drew Thompson, a visiting senior research fellow at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, said the annual meetings are often inward-looking when discussing China’s domestic affairs.
 
This year, restarting the economy is no doubt the primary focus, in addition to public health issues.
 
Thompson expects key issues on the agenda will include setting a new economic growth target, down from its previously earmarked 6%; giving a clear guidance of economic priorities; and appropriating resources efficiently without creating any morale hazard while building more infrastructure to improve both consumption and productivity.
 
He says the goal to build a moderately prosperous society by 2020 will be in doubt and will require adjustments.
 Political undercurrents  
 
While the inward-looking meetings provide a venue for Chinese officials to fine-tune their top domestic policies, it is also a time when political undercurrents and key concerns surface, for example, criticism over Xi’s role in China’s initial cover-up of the virus outbreak.
 
However, as Xi still has firm control of China’s propaganda apparatus, and those who were affected during the outbreak have been marginalized, it looks like “there is no organized opposition to Xi” this year, Thompson said.    
 
“If there’s one weak spot that Xi Jinping has it is that he has not managed foreign relations well. He’s antagonized relationships between China and many other countries, particularly critically important countries. Those relationships have deteriorated, and rivals to Xi Jinping can hold that against him,” he said.FILE – Delegates leave the Great Hall of the People after the closing session of China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) in Beijing, March 15, 2019.Such criticism is echoed within party circles, but not repeated loudly, Thompson noted.
 
On top of that, China has often looked at foreign affairs as a secondary priority unless they are for the benefit of improving domestic development, which suggests the Xi administration may not need a strong international relationship, according to Thompson.
 
Fan, of National Taiwan Normal University, agreed that Xi looks set to continue to tighten his grip, as his rivals inside the party’s top echelon have been weakened and are leaderless. And Xi’s firm control of the military helps boost his power.
 Desinicization
 
Fan says the global trend of desinicization is solid and that deteriorating foreign relations will hurt China’s chance of getting international cooperation.
 
Fan defines the trend as growing anti-China sentiments, a lack of trust in the Communist leadership and negative views toward China’s propaganda campaign.
 
“I doubt that it will substantially hurt China’s diplomatic relations. But with mutual trust being weakened, there will be limited opportunities for (international) cooperation. Take his One Belt, One Road initiatives as an example. There’s a big challenge ahead, as some African countries may be quitting,” Fan said.
 
Yuan Nansheng, who formerly served as a Chinese diplomat in India and the United States, warned in an interview with a Beijing-based magazine that the coronavirus pandemic would change the world order and that China, which has enjoyed decades of strategic opportunities, would next experience a certain degree of desinicization.
 
He said that some Chinese have shown “misguided national pride” in viewing the spread of the virus overseas with a condescending attitude.
 
Yuan expects the trend of globalization to reverse to a certain degree, further straining U.S.-China relations, although he thinks it is impossible for both economies to decouple.   
 
He also warned that the World Trade Organization, the World Health Organization and other international organizations were likely to weaken and falter, which will allow the U.S. and its allies to establish new global agencies as they distance themselves from China. 

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Top Russian Diplomat Dismisses Czech Claims of Poison Plot 

Russia’s top diplomat on Thursday angrily dismissed media reports alleging a Russian plot to poison the mayor of Prague and another official in the Czech capital. Prague’s mayor Zdenek Hrib and Zhanna Nemtsova, daughter of Russian opposition figure Boris Nemtsov smile after unveiling a sign renaming the square where the Russian Embassy is located in Prague, Feb. 27, 2020.Respekt weekly said in its latest edition published on Monday that Czech intelligence services suspected a Russian agent was sent to Prague three weeks ago to poison Prague Mayor Zdenek Hrib and Prague 6 mayor Ondrej Kolar. The story was based on anonymous sources.  Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov ridiculed the claims, saying that the notion that Czech authorities spotted a Russian man with powerful poison ricin and let him through doesn’t make any sense. Czech officials didn’t comment, but Kolar said in a television interview Tuesday that he has been under police protection because of “some facts that have been found, the fact that there’s a Russian here whose goal is to liquidate me.” He added that the alleged assassin was also targeting Hrib and Pavel Novotny, Prague’s Reporyje district mayor. Lavrov scoffed at the allegations. “They found a deadly poison and let him into the country?” he said at Thursday’s briefing. “Would any sound person believe in these fabrications.” Moscow and Prague have been at loggerheads for weeks after Kolar’s district removed the statue of Soviet World War II commander Ivan Konev whose armies liberated Prague from Nazi occupation. Officials in Prague 6 said the statue will be moved to a museum and a new monument honoring the city’s liberation will be installed in its place. The statue’s removal caused outrage in Russia, which has angrily lashed out at any attempts to diminish the nation’s decisive role in defeating the Nazis. Lavrov charged Thursday that the Prague authorities’ action violated a 1993 friendship treaty that carried a Czech pledge to protect memorials to Russian World War II heroes. 
 

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‘Box It In’ — A Plan to Contain COVID-19

New York City’s health department is one of the best in the world. Yet it was overwhelmed by the number of cases of COVID-19. Dr. Tom Frieden, a former NY health commissioner, later the head of the CDC, and now the president of a global program based in New York spoke to VOA’s Carol Pearson.

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