Wednesday, March 25, 2020

“We Have A Deal”

It took five days of marathon wrangling, but the coronavirus stimulus bill is ready for a vote.

Senate leaders and the Trump administration reached agreement early Wednesday on a $2 trillion stimulus package to rescue the economy from the coronavirus assault, setting the stage for swift passage of the massive legislation through both chambers of Congress.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) announced the breakthrough on the Senate floor around 1:30 a.m., after a long day of talks with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and other administration officials.

“At last we have a deal,” McConnell said. “After days of intense discussion, the Senate has reached a bipartisan agreement on a historic relief package for this pandemic. … I’m thrilled that we’re finally going to deliver for the country that has been waiting for us to step up.”

“Help is on the way, big help and quick help,” Schumer said. “We’re going to take up and pass this package to care for those who are now caring for us, and help carry millions of Americans through these dark economic times.”

The agreement capped five straight days of intensive negotiations that occasionally descended into partisan warfare as the nation’s economy reeled from the deadly pandemic, with schools and businesses closed, mass layoffs slamming the workforce and tens of thousands falling ill.

The legislation, unprecedented in its size and scope, aims to flood the economy with capital by sending $1,200 checks to many Americans, creating a $367 billion loan program for small businesses and setting up a $500 billion fund for industries, cities and states.

Other provisions include a massive boost to unemployment insurance, $150 billion for state and local stimulus funds, and $130 billion for hospitals. The bill more than doubled in size in just a few days.

As with any bill like this, there are bound to be a few turds in the giant punch bowl; loopholes and pork that got packed into the package, so we’ll see, but at least they did what we pay them to do.

Trump: Your Money Or Your Life

Via the Washington Post:

With President Trump saying he wants “the country opened” by Easter to salvage the U.S. economy, a fierce debate is now raging among policymakers over the necessity of shutting down vast swaths of American society to combat the novel coronavirus.

Health experts point to overwhelming evidence from around the world that closing businesses and schools and minimizing social contact are crucial to avoid exponentially mounting infections. Ending the shutdown now in America would be disastrous, many say, because the country has barely given those restrictions time to work, and because U.S. leaders have not pursued alternative strategies used in other countries to avert the potential deaths of hundreds of thousands.

But in recent days an increasing number of political conservatives have argued that the economic cost is too high. At a town hall broadcast Tuesday, Trump suggested dire consequences if at least some economic sectors aren’t restored.

You’re going to lose more people by putting a country into a massive recession or depression,” Trump said. “You’re going to have all sorts of things happen, you’re going to have instability. You can’t just come in and say let’s close up the United States of America, the biggest, the most successful country in the world by far.”

At the event, Trump amplified a message that has been bubbling among conservative pundits in recent days. Speaking of the economy, he said, “The faster we go back, the better it’s going to be.”

So what he’s basically saying is that it’s more important that Wall Street — located in the epicenter of the outbreak — gets rich again than have people survive and are healthy.  The Lieutenant Governor of Texas, Dan Patrick, said much the same thing: better that some old people fall off the perch so that the younger survivors can get back to work.  Or the beach.

The bottom line for Trump, of course, is to guarantee his re-election, and the longer the pandemic continues and he keeps on flailing at it, the worse it is for him.  So no wonder he wants America to return to work and that all the restrictions are eliminated.  He wants to make sure that his base can get out there and vote for him.  That’s kind of hard to do when you can’t leave your house, and it’s only in certain wards of Chicago that dead people vote.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Where Shopping Is An Adventure

Publix Supermarkets announced that they will have “special hours” on Tuesdays and Wednesdays between 7 and 8 a.m. for people over 65 to go shopping to avoid the crowds.  As a friend pointed out, it doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense to bring the most vulnerable population together under one roof, but I went anyway.  Here’s what I saw when I went to the store in Pinecrest, Florida, at 7:03 a.m. today.

As I noted on my Facebook page, I haven’t seen this long a line of people of my generation since they announced ticket sales for the CSNY reunion tour.

Inside, about half of the shoppers were wearing surgical masks, and they were doing their best to keep distances, but it didn’t stop the usual backup in the aisle when someone stopped to stare at a can of beans and block the entire aisle. You heard a lot of coughing, but it wasn’t the virus; it was an attempt to get their attention, as opposed to “Hey, move along.”

Actually, people were quite polite if not a little dazed at the concept of grocery shopping at that hour, and while there were noticeable gaps in the shelves — paper products were gone, as were a lot of the yogurt products — one thing follows the other, I suppose — but I was able to get everything I wanted: salad makings, milk, some dairy, fresh fruit (blueberries!) and chips and salsa.

And now I’m back home again for another day of social distancing.  One adventure a day is enough, thank you.

Virtual Community

It’s one thing to do social distancing; staying home, staying away from others.  But one thing that has blossomed is the virtual community I’m a part of, and that’s my fellow playwrights.  We’re all hunkered down, watching the world, and writing about it.

Through the social network, be it Facebook or some other app like Zoom, we’re keeping in virtual touch, sharing our work, supporting and attending virtual readings, and finding new works.  So an art form that depends on gathering people together in one place is, in its own way, thriving by being isolated.

The show must go on.  And it will.

Monday, March 23, 2020

Spring Break

This is technically the first day of Spring Break for the public schools in Miami-Dade County, but it actually started last week when the state said to close all the schools until April 15.  My part-time job continued on last week as the school where I work turned into a food and laptop distribution center for the families whose children attend the school.  I am not sure when I will go back to work; no one really is.

One of the elements of this new world that we are dealing with is the uncertainty principle.  No one can really say when this pandemic will be over; some say weeks, some say months, some say even with a vaccine there will be remnants that linger.  Our lives will change on a scale we cannot comprehend or imagine, and that, for a society and a civilization that needs order and certainty, is a very scary prospect.  We seek reassurance and action, not platitudes, and despite the attempt from everyone that they are doing their best and “we are all in this together” ads from everyone from the plumber to the federal government, this invisible menace’s biggest threat isn’t the disease itself but not knowing.

We are dealing with it in very human ways.  We look for humor, we look for solace, and even if we are told to keep our distance, we are finding new and inventive ways to cope without endangering our health or our sanity.  The one weapon we have is our natural instinct for hope and perseverance and even optimism.  As John Patrick noted in the play “The Curious Savage,” we are by nature optimists; otherwise we’d eat our young.  So instead of being upset that I can’t go visit my parents in person, I’ll do my best to reach out to them and re-book the flight and hotel for a time when I can.  I’m very sorry that the William Inge Festival and the Valdez Last Frontier Theatre Festival have been postponed until 2021, but I’m in touch with people from both of them and they’re finding ways to do virtual readings and sharing.  Meanwhile, the amount of writing that I know my fellow playwrights are doing is growing exponentially, and we are sharing our work and making it happen new ways.

So, since it is Spring Break, I am doing what I can to make it so.  I will do what I usually do: write, read, and be aware of my surroundings.  If you’re looking to me for great words of wisdom, all I can offer is what Bobby Cramer said: Hope is my greatest weakness.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Sunday Reading

It Could Take a While — Juliette Kayyem,  former Department of Homeland Security official and author of Security Mom, on how long will this last.

Get your battle rhythm, I keep telling myself, as I put on my oversize sweatpants for the third day in a row. Staying inside, away from our offices, routines, and community, feels jarring even for those who, on a rational level, understand the need for extreme social distancing. The good side is having more family time. But everything seems upended, even to homeland-security professionals who argued for upending everything to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Just as seasickness abates once you can see the shore, the disruptions that the country is now experiencing would be easier to manage if we knew they would end soon. The community-isolation effort happened remarkably fast—within days, whole communities all but closed down, and earlier this week the federal government finally recommended the same. On Thursday, Governor Gavin Newsom ordered the entire state of California to stay home “until further notice.” But the way the crisis ends will be far more muddled. There isn’t going to be one all-clear signal—and certainly not one anytime soon.

As the days and weeks in isolation go by, and the shock of What just happened? turns to Family time is overrated, people will become more insistent on knowing two things: When will the pandemic end? And when can we go back to normal? Those questions have different answers, and the answer to the latter—far from being a purely scientific decision—will be guided by ice-cold moral and political calculations that nobody wants to discuss out loud.

From a public-health standard, the pandemic will not end for another 18 months. The only complete resolution—a vaccine—could be at least that far away. The development of a successful vaccine is both difficult and not sufficient. It must also be manufactured, distributed, and administered to a nation’s citizens. Until that happens, as recent reports from the U.S. government and from scientists at London’s Imperial College point out, we will be vulnerable to subsequent waves of the new coronavirus even if the current wave happens to ebb.

None of which means that people now hunkered down at home will keep doing so through late 2021. The economic consequences of an indefinite lockdown are unsustainable. And at a certain point, the emotional tensions that staying home imposes upon families, as spouses grate upon each other and children get bored and fall behind on their schoolwork, become a danger to domestic harmony, and maybe even to everyone’s sanity.

At the moment, we are just playing for time. Whether social distancing is working will be clearer in a month than it is now, but even then we will not know to a moral certainty when adults can safely go back to the office and children can go back to school. Which is partly why employers, university officials, and others have given such widely varying time frames for how long they are shutting things down—two weeks, until the end of April, until the end of the academic year, until sometime later.

Two weeks, for what it’s worth, is just a way of breaking the bad news easily. If anything, we are likely to see more draconian distancing measures if the data start to show success. The goal of social distancing, as everyone now knows, is to “flatten the curve”—to keep the number of COVID-19 cases from spiking faster than the medical system can mobilize to handle them. But a flatter curve is longer; a failure of social distancing would mean the peak comes sooner—at a horrifying cost of lives—but also that Americans are back outside sooner.

If entirely suppressing the coronavirus is a public-health ideal, crisis management is the homeland-security standard. The goal is to minimize risk, maximize defenses, and maintain social cohesion at the same time. In a society that must start moving again at some point, emergency-management planners looking at the metrics may seem heartless.

In the military, commanders must make calculations about acceptable losses; the benefits of a mission have to be weighed against the certainty that some soldiers will be lost. We don’t have such language in the homeland-security world, but trade-offs are still inevitable. The wrenching decision to open up again—to accept more exposures to the coronavirus as the price of an earlier economic revival—is simply a judgment call. It is too late to prevent tragedy entirely; our goal is to manage it within the limits of scientific progress and public tolerance.

In the weeks to come, we should see a surge not only of patients, but also of supplies. The federal government has two main jobs right now: to get testing kits distributed nationwide, and to quicken the flow of money and expertise to support state and local efforts and expand the capacity of the health system. Go big or go home—the classic warning against half measures—is an old emergency-management maxim, and current circumstances give it an ironic twist: Because Americans are at home, the federal government needs to go big.

Managing the pandemic well doesn’t mean eradication; it means that our ability to mitigate how many people die—our ability to isolate those sick, test their contacts, care for them in available intensive-care beds with available respirators—is working. Social distancing, currently our primary tool to manage the burdens on our health-care system, will eventually give way to efforts to quickly identify those infected, before they can expose others, and also to treat those already exposed. Even before a vaccine is available, the United States will fall into a steady-state suppression effort—which is to say, life will go on, even as public-health officials play whack-a-mole with individual outbreaks.

So, that’s the plan. Sometime between now and when a vaccine becomes available, restaurants and schools and offices will reopen. It won’t happen all at once, as if by official decree, but as individual households and workplaces conclude one by one that they’ve had enough—and that the surge in testing kits, intensive-care beds, and other resources is finally sufficient to meet the need. That won’t take a year and a half. But I expect to be in these sweats for at least another month—and I’m planning for two.

Richard Burr Has It All — Satire from Andy Borowitz.

WASHINGTON (The Borowitz Report) —In a new controversy ensnaring the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, forty per cent of the nation’s toilet-paper supply has been found in Senator Richard Burr’s garage.

The discovery of the coveted paper products occurred on Saturday morning, when Burr, who had been checking stock quotes on his phone, accidentally leaned against his garage-door opener.

The garage immediately disgorged the priceless cache of toilet paper, which tumbled into the street and snarled traffic for three blocks.

Picking through the mess, a sharp-eyed neighbor of Burr’s found a Costco receipt indicating that the senator had purchased the toilet paper in early January, shortly after he received classified information about the potential scope of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In an official statement, Burr angrily denied that there was “anything inappropriate” about the mountain of toilet paper he was hiding in his garage.

“My wife buys all of the toilet paper in our house and has done so since we wed, in 1984,” he said. “I have never been a part of those decisions, and any attempt to imply otherwise is a malicious hit job.”

Burr said that, in order to dispel any suspicions about his actions, he was offering to donate the toilet paper to U.S. citizens for only thirty dollars a roll.

Doonesbury — Good eye.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Random Youtubery

While we’re under siege from COVID-19, a lot of museums and art galleries are closed.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t take a virtual tour and see what goes on backstage to keep them alive and ready for viewing once the pandemic has passed.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Vernal Equinox

Spring arrives in the Northern Hemisphere at 11:48 p.m. EDT.  It’s the earliest equinox in 124 years.

Most years, the spring equinox falls between March 20 and 22. But for those in the United States, not this year. In fact, space.com reports that the March 19 equinox is earlier than any in the past 124 years.

Perhaps the early equinox is fitting in a year during which springlike weather arrived weeks in advance in many parts of Lower 48. The USA National Phenology Network, which tracks the timing of plants, reported that trees were leafing up to three to four weeks early in many parts of the southern and eastern United States due to the mild weather, starting in February.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Big Bucks

From the Washington Post:

Americans could get a check for $1,000 or more in the coming weeks, as political leaders coalesce around a dramatic plan to try to prevent a worse recession and protect people from going bankrupt.

The idea took off Monday when Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) called for every American adult to receive a $1,000 check “immediately” to help tide people over until other government aid can arrive. By Tuesday, there was bipartisan support for the idea, including from President Trump. The White House even suggested the amount could be over $1,000, an acknowledgment of how big the economic crisis is becoming.

“We’re looking at sending checks to Americans immediately,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said, adding that Trump wants checks to go out “in the next two weeks.”

Great idea.  I’m all for it, especially since I work hourly and only get paid when I show up, and my job is shutting down for at least two weeks, if not more.  And even if I was on contract like I was before I retired, I’d still be in favor of it because that’s what government is supposed to do: support the people it works for.  After all, those are our tax dollars.

What’s ironic is that this plan and the rest of it — bailing out the airlines and other industries hit hard by the pandemic and shut-down — is socialism with a big red capital S.  This is what happens in places like Sweden and Denmark when catastrophe hits and the people are in need.  And it’s what the preamble of the United States Constitution promised We The People.

Adding to the irony is that when Republicans, especially those from the heartland who are so proud of how they are so independent and don’t need the guvamint coming in with all their pointy-headed liberal ideas about sharing the wealth and all that commie pinko nonsense, are the first hogs to the trough when it comes to farm subsidies and giving out money to farmers hit hard by the tariffs against the Chinese or the Russians, even if they are imposed by their guy in the White House.  And now you have whooping bipartisan support to give out free money to just about everyone whether they need it or not.  But it’s an emergency, isn’t it?  Yes.  But then again, for a lot of people who work three jobs and can’t afford health insurance, even Obamacare, every day life is an emergency, and one check for $1,000 during a global pandemic isn’t going to pay the rent in July.

It’s hard not to be cynical and wonder out loud if this isn’t a rather naked ploy to get Trump back in the good graces of the electorate.  That’s how he’s run his business and his life: he thinks he can throw money at it — or at least say he will — and that will solve the problem, at least in his way of thinking.  Oh, I do believe it’s a good idea, and when the check arrives, I’ll take it and deposit it.  But that doesn’t mean I will vote for him.

Thanks, Bernie

They weren’t even close.

Former vice president Joe Biden swept to decisive wins in Florida, Illinois and Arizona on Tuesday, extending his run of victories on a primary election day in which the growing national response to the coronavirus pandemic complicated voting as it threatened to disrupt future contests.

The emphatic wins raised further questions about the viability of the campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). It set Biden, who began the day leading the contest by more than 100 delegates, on a clear course to a first-ballot victory at the Democratic National Convention in July barring a seismic shift in the race’s dynamics.

I think it’s time for Bernie Sanders to call it a day, concede gracefully, and focus on his job in the Senate and defeating Trump.  As it is, he’s already brought his ideas to the table, and while some of them appeal broadly to the Democrats, not just his base, it’s more about the messenger rather than the message, and the voters aren’t buying it from him.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020