Start your day here: Astroworld tragedy sparks lawsuits; U.S. threatens sanctions against Nicaragua; Kamala Harris travels to Paris

Published November 8, 2021 at 7:57 AM EST
Hannah Longoria attends a makeshift memorial Sonday at the NRG Park grounds where eight people died in a crowd surge at the Astroworld Festival in Houston, Texas.
Thomas Shea/AFP via Getty Images
Hannah Longoria attends a makeshift memorial Sunday at the NRG Park grounds where eight people died in a crowd surge at the Astroworld Festival in Houston, Texas.

Good morning,

Here's what we're following today:

Weekend stories you might have missed: Investigations and several lawsuits are underway in the Astroworld Festival tragedy; New York City celebrated the return of its marathon after a pandemic year off; Iraq's prime minister calls for calm after surviving an assassination attempt.

Nicaraguan elections: President Daniel Ortega won his fourth consecutive term after months of suppressing the opposition. U.S. officials have labeled the election a "sham" and warn that the country is edging toward dictatorship.

Harris to Paris: Vice President Kamala Harris travels to France today, where the White House is hoping that she can help patch up a major rift between Paris and Washington.

🎧 Also, on Up First, our daily podcast, advocates and protesters are demanding stronger action in the final week of the U.N. climate summit.

— The Morning Edition live blog team

(Carol Ritchie, Rachel Treisman, Nell Clark and Chris Hopkins)


SNL's Cecily Strong defended abortion rights in a powerful 'Weekend Update' segment

Posted November 8, 2021 at 11:30 AM EST

Saturday Night Live's Cecily Strong is garnering praise for a "Weekend Update" appearance in which she defended abortion rights and recalled her own experience getting one — while dressed as a clown so as to make the subject more "palatable," she says in the sketch.

The powerful segment came days after the Supreme Court heard arguments about the controversial Texas law banning most abortions after about six weeks, which is before many people know they're pregnant.

In the sketch, Strong was introduced as "Goober the Clown, who had an abortion when she was 23." She said she wished she didn't have to make such an appearance, since her abortion was her "personal clown business" and abortions have been legal in the U.S. since "Clown v. Wade" in 1973. Still, she acknowledged, it's all some people want to discuss.

"It's a rough subject, so we're gonna do fun stuff to make it more palatable," she explained to host Colin Jost. Her clownish antics included shooting water out of a flower pin, twirling her oversized bowtie, "honking" a horn and squeakily shaping a balloon animal (ultimately, it became a worm).

Using the word "clowns" as a stand-in for people who have had abortions, Goober-slash-Strong described how many people don't know how to talk to others about the experience, even though it's relatively common.

Then she shared part of her own story, including how her doctor "asked if I got pregnant on the way over to the clinic because I wasn't very far along" — which the comedian called "one of my favorite jokes to this day." The clinic waiting room had a guestbook where people could write their stories so that other clowns wouldn't feel so alone, she added.

And years later, at dinner with a big group of clowns, one will mention that they had an abortion, "and then like eight other clowns at the table say they've had an abortion too because that's how common it is, and then everyone's excited and relieved to be talking about it," she said.

Strong concluded by inhaling a big gulp of helium from a balloon and sharing what she described as her truth:

"I know I wouldn't be a clown on TV here today if it weren't for the abortion I had the day before my 23rd birthday," she said. "Clowns have been helping each other end their pregnancies since the caves. It's going to happen, so it ought to be safe, legal and accessible."

"We will not go back to the alley," she added. "I mean, the last thing anyone wants is a bunch of dead clowns in a dark alley."

Reproductive rights activists cheered the segment in the hours and days after it aired.

We Testify, an organization dedicated to the storytelling and representation of people who have had abortions, thanked Strong for sharing her story.

Renee Bracey Sherman, the group's founder and director, described the bit as "wonderful, joyful and powerful."

"For some people, sharing our abortion stories isn't the easiest thing — especially over and over and over again," she tweeted. "I appreciate the humor and truth that she conveys about her abortion story and journey."

Telling personal stories about abortions has become increasingly central to the abortion-rights movements in recent years, as NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben reports. For more on the push to destigmatize abortions,read or listen to her reporting.


On International Tongue-Twister Day, a word about the sheik’s sheep

Posted November 8, 2021 at 11:02 AM EST
Four white sheep graze on some grasses.
A flock of sheep grazes in the Netherlands in May. These are not the sheik's sheep.

Today is International Tongue Twister Day and if you're looking for a mouthful, you could celebrate by talking about a sheik who isn't feeling well. He's sixth in line and has some livestock, it seems, and one of his sheep is also under the weather. To explain all this you could say:

The sixth sick sheik’s sixth sheep’s sick.

That phrase was featured by Guinness World Records as the most difficult tongue twister in the English language in 1974, the last year the organization tracked tongue twisters.

It's still pretty hard to say today, but you can try a hack recommended by Eliza Simpson, a dialect coach in New York.

"I look at the tongue twister and I think of an image for each word," Simpson told NPR's Steve Inskeep on Morning Edition. "And then as I'm going through the tongue twister, it's like, I'm in my mind literally swiping through flashcards of images. I go from image to image to image. And I find this is the way to get my muscles to do what my brain is asking."

Simpson says tongue twisters are challenging and beneficial for brains.

"Tongue twisters are important because they combine two things that help humans learn. They combine repetition and they can find an element of surprise and fun."

You can hear Inskeep give the sheik's sheep a go at this link.

Other ways to mark the day: Watch Ammonite, the 2020 movie about Mary Anning, a self-taught paleontologist who was known for her historic fossil discoveries and the possible inspiration for the tongue-twister "She sells seashells by the seashore."


Scenes from the 2021 NYC Marathon this past weekend

Posted November 8, 2021 at 10:43 AM EST

The athletes, the supporters and the electric energy returned to all five of New York City's boroughs this past weekend for the 2021 New York City Marathon.

After the 2020 in-person race was canceled due to the pandemic, this year organizers implemented added safety precautions. Competitors were required to show proof of at least one round of COVID-19 vaccination or a negative coronavirus test from the previous 48 hours.

For more on the road race, read here from NPR's Joe Hernandez. This is the historic marathon's 50th anniversary and NPR caught up with two men who were there for the very first.

International travel

Airlines prepare for a surge as the U.S. lifts travel ban from more than 30 countries

Posted November 8, 2021 at 10:10 AM EST
People wearing masks and holding luggage stand in a crowded airport, behind an Air France sign that reads "Flights departingto the United States."
Christophe Ena/AP
Travelers for the United States arrive at Air France desk at the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris on Monday, the day that the U.S. lifted restrictions on fully vaccinated travelers from dozens of countries.

Fully vaccinated travelers from Canada, Mexico, Europe and many other countries can enter the United States today, as the Biden administration lifts restrictions on non-essential travel that have been in place since the start of the pandemic. Airlines and airports are preparing for a huge surge in demand.

United Airlines says it will see an immediate 50 percent increase in the number of passengers on flights into the U.S. over last week. Other airlines expect their inbound flights to be nearly full, too, and homeland security officials warn that the pent-up demand from tourists and family members who haven't been able to visit loved ones in nearly two years could lead to long lines and longer-than-normal wait times at airports.

Read more about the new travel rules, including what they mean for the U.S.-Mexico border.


Big Bird got 'vaccinated' against COVID-19, and some Republicans are freaking out

Posted November 8, 2021 at 9:54 AM EST

Big Bird ruffled some conservatives' feathers this weekend by announcing that he had been vaccinated against COVID-19.

The beloved Muppet tweeted on Saturday that he had gotten the shot, which is newly available for Americans between the ages of 5 and 11. Big Bird has been a fixture of children's television since 1969 but is technically6years old.

"My wing is feeling a little sore, but it'll give my body an extra protective boost that keeps me and others healthy," he wrote.

Twitter users sounded off in the comments, with many thanking the character for doing his part to keep Sesame Street safe and set a positive example for kids. President Biden and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky were among those who offered their thanks and praise.

Others were not as appreciative.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) decried Big Bird's tweet as "government propaganda."

Fox News contributor Lisa Boothe accused the Muppet of "brainwashing children," while Newsmax host and former Trump adviser Rob Cortes slammed the announcement as "evil" propaganda.

Both made false claims that children are not at risk of COVID-19 — while most children infected with the virus exhibit only mild symptoms, experts say vaccines can prevent many infections and hospitalizations, as well as disruptions to schooling.

Other commenters denounced Big Bird as a puppet (literally) and communist. Lavern Spicer, a congressional candidate in Florida, wrote that "Big Bird & Elmo are at least a step UP from [Dr. Anthony] Fauci, but using them to push the drug is just as reprehensible nonetheless."

And some went much darker, like Tennessee congressional candidate Robby Starbuck and alt-right social media personality Mike Cernovich.

Many observers noted the irony of the pile-on, given that Big Bird is both a fictional character and one known for spreading messages of kindness and curiosity. Plus, they pointed out, this isn't the first time he's gotten vaccinated.

Big Bird himself even said he had learned that he had been getting vaccines since he was "a little bird."

An account called "Muppet Wiki" backed up those claims with a series of video clips from a 1972 episode in which Big Bird gets vaccinated against measles.

Big Bird isn't the only young resident of Sesame Street to get the COVID-19 jab. The turquoise, bilingual muppet Rosita (who is apparently 5) also got vaccinated recently.

The two appeared on CNN — with Granny Bird too — over the weekend to share their questions, experiences and tips about getting the shot.


COVID-19 vaccines for kids 5-11 are finally here, but some parents aren't ready

Posted November 8, 2021 at 9:14 AM EST
A child in a lemon print shirt had a Band-aid on their arm and a "Vaccinated" button with a bear on their shirt.
Jeff Kowalsky/AFP via Getty Images
A child wears a pin she got after receiving her first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at the Beaumont Health offices in Southfield, Mich., on Friday.

The rollout of coronavirus vaccines for kids ages 5 to 11 is in full swing this morning.

On Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended all children 5 through 11 get a low dose of Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine. Some children got shots last week, but the federal program aimed at making the shots widely accessible wasn't fully operational till today.

First Lady Jill Biden will visit Franklin Sherman Elementary in McLean, Va., today. It's the school where the first children in America got the polio vaccine in 1954. She'll be joined by Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy to kick off the nation's coronavirus vaccine efforts for younger kids, as they draw a parallel to the historic polio vaccination campaign, reports NPR's Tamara Keith.

The White House reports the federal program now has about 20,000 providers at sites across the country offering vaccinations for kids ages 5 through 11. The Biden Administration also rolled out a website that allows families to search for locations where the Pfizer kid's vaccine is available in their community.

For many families, the authorization of the vaccine is a very welcome step in the nation's ongoing coronavirus crisis. 9-year-old Clay Anders got his vaccine this weekend at a site in Washington, D.C., andtold NPR'sWeekend Editionwhat it meant to him to be vaccinated.

"I'm excited. And since my sister got vaccinated, I've been waiting for them to approve the COVID vaccine for 5 to 11," Anders said. "She's been hanging out with her friends a lot. And after I get vaccinated, I'll be able to hang out with my friends in other spaces because I'll be vaccinated."

Jonathan Kealing's 6-year-old son William participated in clinical trials for the Moderna COVID vaccine this past summer. Kealing says now that COVID-19 vaccines are available for kids his son's age, William is excited about new opportunities.

"You know, [William] was on a hike with some friends this morning. And he was pumping the kids up and checking, 'OK, who's got your vaccine appointments?' and telling everyone about his experience because he's excited, you know? He wants to be able to do more indoor playdates. And so he's really excited for his friends to get vaccinated, too," Kealing told Weekend All Things Considered.

But some families say they'll wait to get their kids the vaccine. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll found only 27% of parents say they plan to get their children aged 5 to 11 vaccinated right now, with families citing worries about the vaccine's safety.

Data shows the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine is safe for kids and about 91% effective at preventing symptomatic COVID-19 in kids ages 5 to 11. NPR spoke with pediatricians and looked at the data to answer some families' lingering questions about efficacy and side effects.

COVID-19 in kids can be a serious illness with long-lasting symptoms. Public health officials point out that while kids often only get mildly ill, there have been more than 8,000 COVID hospitalizations and nearly 200 deaths in this age group since the pandemic began, NPR's Selena Simmons-Duffin reports. She joined Morning Edition to recap the safety data, listen here.

The White House is asking school leaders to host vaccine clinics on-site and hold Q and A sessions for parents with local pediatricians as well, in efforts to break through with families who may have questions or concerns, Tamara Keith reports.

Approximately 28 million children ages 5 through 11 in the U.S. are now eligible for the shots.


The U.S. is threatening sanctions after the 'sham' reelection of Nicaragua's president

Posted November 8, 2021 at 8:30 AM EST
A person walks past a mural on the side of a building, showing Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega wearing a white shirt with his fist raised, against a blue background.
Orlando Valenzuela/Getty Images
Getty Images South America
A woman walks past a mural with the image of Daniel Ortega, president of Nicaragua, on election day Sunday in Managua, Nicaragua.

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega was reelected for the fourth consecutive time on Sunday, in an election that the U.S. says was neither free nor fair.

And it wasn't exactly a surprise: Ortega has jailed dozens of opponents, critics, journalists and businesspeople in recent months, and passed a series of laws criminalizing dissent. The candidates that remained on the ballot were members of small, Ortega-aligned parties, leaving voters without much choice.

Observers say they haven't seen this level of repression in Latin America since the military dictatorships of the 1970s and 1980s, reports NPR's Carrie Kahn. She's been covering the election from neighboring Costa Rica (as foreign journalists are barred from the country), and spoke to Morning Edition about Nicaragua's slide towards dictatorship. Listen to that conversation and read more from Kahn here.

Who is Ortega?

Ortega, 75, has "slowly been eroding democratic institutions for more than a decade," as Kahn put it. He was a leader of the left-wing Sandinista revolution in the 1970s, and became the country's first president after the overthrow of a U.S.-backed dictator in 1979. He lost reelection in 1990, and many people say he hasn't shaken the sting of that defeat, adds Kahn.

Ortega returned to the presidency in 2007, and has since changed the constitution to allow for endless reelection. He famously also brutally suppressed massive student-led protestsin 2018, which left hundreds dead and hundreds in prison.

In the runup to the election this spring, Ortega jailed dozens of opponents — including seven people who said they wanted to challenge him for the position — and rounded up student leaders, businesspeople and journalists. Tens of thousands of Nicaraguans have gone into exile.

What was turnout like on Sunday?

It appears state workers took to the polls in the morning, with voting centers pretty quiet for the rest of the day. Kahn was watching state TV, and says even on official channels it didn't look like a bustling, regular election. NPR also hired a local independent journalist to speak with voters there.

Critics of Ortega had asked voters to boycott the elections. Many people the reporter spoke to were conflicted about whether to do that, and fearful that if they didn't vote, government poll workers would mark an "X" by Ortega's name instead. The five other candidates on the ballot were members of small Sandinista-aligned parties — and Nicaraguans call them "zancudos," or mosquitoes.

"I was going to vote a few months ago, but now all the candidates I wanted are in jail," said 21-year-old taxi driver Jose Leyva.

What is the U.S. saying?

President Biden released a statement Sunday night practically calling Ortega a dictator, dismissing the election as a "pantomime" and undemocratic.

"We call on the Ortega-Murillo regime to take immediate steps to restore democracy in Nicaragua, and to immediately and unconditionally release those unjustly imprisoned for speaking out against abuses and clamoring for the right of Nicaraguans to vote in free and fair elections," Biden said. "Until then, the United States, in close coordination with other members of the international community, will use all diplomatic and economic tools at our disposal to support the people of Nicaragua and hold accountable the Ortega-Murillo government and those that facilitate its abuses."

U.S. officials say that Ortega's family will face additional sanctions. Congress passed a billincreasing those sanctions and punitive measures just days ago, Kahn said, and plans to review "free trade perks" that Nicaragua currently has.


Harris goes to Paris, hoping to smooth over tense U.S.-French relations

Posted November 8, 2021 at 7:56 AM EST
Vice President Harris speaks at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on Friday.
Ting Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Vice President Harris speaks at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., on Friday.

Vice President Kamala Harris travels to France today, where the White House is hoping that she can help patch up a major rift between Paris and Washington involving a U.S. deal to provide nuclear submarine technology to Australia.

Harris is expected to meet with French President Emmanuel Macron in an effort to assuage anger in Paris over an Asia-Pacific security pact that gives Australia access to nuclear submarines for the first time. The September agreement, which also involved the United Kingdom, resulted in the scuttling of a potentially lucrative deal for France to sell diesel-powered submarines to Australia.

In protest, France recalled its ambassadors from the U.S. and Australia.

Last month, while Macron and President Biden were in Rome for the G20 summit, the two leaders met in their first face-to-face since the controversy erupted. Biden told Macron that the U.S. handling of the submarine deal had been “clumsy.” Biden stopped short of apologizing but acknowledged that the U.S. shouldn’t have blindsided its oldest ally.

Harris, on her third overseas trip since becoming vice president, is expected to spend five days in France, giving her a chance to burnish her foreign policy credentials.

In addition to performing damage control on U.S-France relations, she is scheduled to tour the Institut Pasteur, where she will meet with scientists working on pandemic preparedness.

On Thursday, Harris is expected to deliver an address to the Paris Peace Forum. The conference focuses on global governance issues, and she will address the challenge of rising inequality.

Harris will also participate in an international conference aimed to show support for upcoming national elections in Libya. Among the world leaders expected to attend the Libya conference are German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi.

Weekend wrap

3 stories you may have missed this weekend

Posted November 8, 2021 at 7:48 AM EST
A person stands in front of a chain-link fence covered in t-shirts and balloons, with a row of flower bouquets propped up against it.
Alex Bierens de Haan/Getty Images
Getty Images North America
A visitor leaves a note at a memorial outside of the canceled Astroworld festival at NRG Park on Sunday in Houston, Texas.

Daylight savings time is officially over — as is the weekend (sorry). Here are some of the developments we're watching as the week begins:

An investigation and several lawsuits are underway after the Astroworld Festival tragedy

Houston authorities are investigating a rap concert that turned deadly after the crowd surged at rapper Travis Scott's Astroworld Festival on Friday — killing eight people and injuring many more. Here's what we know so far about the victims, who range in age from 14 to 27 years old.

Officials said they will review video footage, examine security plans and interview witnesses as part of an investigation that includes both the police department's homicide and narcotics divisions. And at least two lawsuits have already been filed against festival organizers (including Scott and promoter Live Nation) — one on behalf of an attendee who died, and another on behalf of one who was injured. Learn more here from Houston Public Media's Paul DeBenedetto conversation with Morning Edition.

The tragedy calls to mind other rare but traumatic incidents at concerts and festivals in the last half-century. Read more about those here.

The New York City marathon returned, with pandemic precautions

Runners and spectators hit the streets on Sunday for the 50th New York City marathon, which returned in person with new health and safety measures after a two-year pandemic pause.

Kenya's Albert Korir and Peres Jepchirchir won the men's and women's divisions, respectively. Korir clocked in at 2 hours, 8 minutes and 22 seconds. Jepchirchir — who took home gold in the women's marathon at the Tokyo Olympics this summer — finished in 2 hours, 22 minutes, 39 seconds. Read more about the race here.

Required reading: 67-year-old Larry Trachtenberg completed the first New York City Marathon in 1970. He's the only original finisher to run in the 50th — but says there should have been one more.

Iraq's prime minister calls for calm after surviving assassination attempt

Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhim survived an assassination attempt after armed drones targeted his residence early Sunday, injuring several security guards and rattling the heavily fortified Green Zone area of Baghdad.

"Cowardly rocket and drone attacks don't build homelands and don't build a future," he said in a television appearance later that day. The U.S. State Department denounced the attack as an apparent act of terrorism.

No one has claimed responsibility for the attack. The Associated Press says it follows a stand-off between security forces and pro-Iran Shiite militias, whose supporters have been camped outside the Green Zone for almost a month after losing most of their seats in Iraq's parliamentary elections (and rejecting the results). Read more about the tensions here.