New York lifts indoor mask mandate as California is set to do same

Published February 9, 2022 at 8:07 AM EST
A man wearing a medical face mask stands behind a sign directing New Yorkers to wear masks regardless of vaccination status.
Seth Wenig
/
AP
A sign reminds customers that masks are required in their store in New York in December 2021.

Good morning.

We're following these stories today:

New York lifts its mask mandate: Gov. Kathy Hochul said masks will no longer be required in most indoor public settings, but they will still be required in schools and health care facilities.

Mitch McConnell criticizes the RNC over censures: Days after the national Republican Party censured the only two of its members on the panel investigating the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection, the Senate minority leader made a rare break with his party.

Tensions between Russia and Ukraine: Russian warships were making their way from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea and Ukraine's southern coast, raising more worries about Russian aggression in the region.

🎧 Also on Up First, our daily podcast, U.S. Olympic ski slalom star Mikaela Shiffrin failed to finish her second race, costing her another chance at gold.

— The Morning Edition live blog team

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

Sports

Washington Spirit soccer team has a new owner following a leadership battle

Posted February 9, 2022 at 11:57 AM EST
Washington Spirit players celebrate after defeating Chicago Red Stars in the NWSL Championship soccer match in November 2021, in Louisville, Ky.
Jeff Dean/AP
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FR171800 AP
Washington Spirit players celebrate after defeating Chicago Red Stars in the NWSL Championship soccer match in November 2021, in Louisville, Ky.

The Washington Spirit has a new leadership structure, settling a months-long battle over control of the professional women’s soccer club.

Local business leader Michele Kang, previously a minority owner of the Washington, D.C., team, is now the National Women’s Soccer League club's majority owner, acquiring the interests of Spirit former co-owners Steve Baldwin and Bill Lynch, the club announced on Tuesday.

“I personally appreciate, and want to publicly recognize Bill Lynch’s pivotal work as the founding owner of the Spirit bringing women’s professional soccer back to our nation’s capital, and also Steve Baldwin’s leadership, vision and formidable drive in building the Spirit and the outstanding roster that won the 2021 NWSL Championship,” Kang said in a statement. “I can’t wait to begin work with our talented, resilient players and staff.”

The news follows mounting pressure on Baldwin to hand over control after allegations of harassment against former head coach Richie Burke surfaced in August 2021. Under Burke, current and former employees described a misogynistic environment in which they were subject to verbal abuse.

The team's players called on Baldwin to sell ownership and backed Kang.

Baldwin said he and Lynch told Kang on Tuesday morning that they had decided to sell her the team.

“I am incredibly proud of what the Spirit has accomplished over the past few years, culminating in the 2021 NWSL championship,” Baldwin said in the same statement. “I am pleased that someone with Michele’s commitment to the Spirit will lead the team in its next chapter.”

World

Dutch locals vow to pummel Jeff Bezos' yacht with eggs if famed bridge is dismantled

Posted February 9, 2022 at 11:48 AM EST
A large steel bridge sits over a body of water against a gray cloudy sky.
Remko De Waal
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ANP/AFP via Getty Images
Rotterdam residents appear to be up in arms over a plan to temporarily dismantle the Koningshaven lift bridge, popularly called "De Hef."

It's not exactly smooth sailing these days in the Dutch port city of Rotterdam, where locals are voicing their objection to a plan that would temporarily dismantle a historic bridge to enable the passage of a record-breaking yacht reportedly owned by former Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

In fact, some are already making plans — albeit in jest — for what they will do if the project comes to fruition: throw eggs at the yacht as it traverses the water under the Koningshaven Bridge, known locally as "De Hef."

Some 13,000 people are "interested," and nearly 4,000 have said they will attend a Facebook event titled "Throwing eggs at superyacht Jeff Bezos," which has been shared more than 1,000 times in the week since its creation.

"Calling all Rotterdammers, take a box of rotten eggs with you and let's throw them en masse at Jeff's superyacht when it sails through the Hef in Rotterdam," wrote organizer Pablo Strörmann.

He told the NL Times that the protest started as a joke among friends but has quickly gotten "way out of hand." (The English-language news site also notes that this isn't Strörmann's first campaign to go viral.)

The news of De Hef's potential disassembly, however briefly, has clearly struck a chord with both locals and international observers. Here's what to know.

It all started last week when Dutch broadcaster Rijnmond reported that the city appeared willing to grant a request to dismantle the centuries-old steel bridge so that Bezos' yacht could pass through.

De Hef was built in 1927 as a railway bridge, with a midsection that can be lifted to allow ship traffic to pass underneath, according to The Washington Post. It was replaced by a tunnel and decommissioned in 1994 but was saved from demolition by public protests and later declared a national monument.

The ship's three masts are apparently too high for the bridge's roughly 130-foot clearance.

The sailing yacht in question was reportedly commissioned by the billionaire Amazon founder and is currently being built at the Oceanco shipyard in the Netherlands, according to Boat International. It will consist of three masts with aluminum and steel construction and will measure more than 415 feet in length.

"Once delivered, not only will she become the world's largest sailing yacht but she will also hold the title for the largest superyacht ever built in the Netherlands," it added.

The waterway where the bridge sits is the only way the ship can get from the shipyard in Alblasserdam to the open seas, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. So Oceanco asked Rotterdam officials to temporarily remove the middle section of the bridge.

City spokesperson Netty Kros told the CBC that "the applicant" would cover the costs of the project but did not clarify whether that refers to the yacht's owner, the shipbuilder or both. Bloomberg reports that Oceanco will foot the bill. NPR has reached out to Amazon and Oceanco to confirm these details.

The city appeared to agree to the arrangement last week, with municipal project leader Marcel Walravens telling Rijnmond that the project would proceed for logistical and economic reasons. He said an exact plan was being developed but estimated that it would take about a week to prepare and another week to "put everything back in place."

"At the Koningenne Bridge, we can press a button, and it opens. That's not possible here because De Hef has a maximum height," Walravens said, according to a translation from the NL Times. "The only alternative is to take out the middle part."

That prompted an immediate backlash from locals, lawmakers and social media users, with the Rotterdam Historical Society pointing out that city officials had promised never to dismantle the bridge again after completing a major restoration in 2017.

Officials then walked back the reports, with Rotterdam's mayor telling a Dutch newspaper on Thursday that "no decision has yet been taken, not even an application for a permit," according to The Guardian.

He said the municipality would consider an application and assess the potential impacts, like whether the dismantling can be done without damaging the bridge and who would cover the costs.

Proponents of the plan say the project will bring more economic opportunities to the region, while critics say there's a double standard at play.

"Normally it’s the other way around: If your ship doesn’t fit under a bridge, you make it smaller," Strörmann told the NL Times. "But when you happen to be the richest person on Earth, you just ask a municipality to dismantle a monument. That’s ridiculous."

With a net worth of more than $188 billion, Bezos is the third-richest person in the world behind Tesla founder Elon Musk and French businessman Bernard Arnault, according to Forbes' real-time list.

Hypothetically, if the project does come to pass, and locals do show up with eggs, just how hard of a moving target would the yacht be? The website Curbed set out to find out.

After examining several studies and making a few calculations, reporter Clio Changsays an egg would have to travel about 238 feet to hit the hull — "a difficult, but not impossible, feat."

International

Landslides in Colombia have killed at least 14 people and injured dozens more

Posted February 9, 2022 at 11:43 AM EST

Drone footage captured the scale of destruction in Colombia after a landslide buried homes and killed and injured dozens of residents.

At least 14 people were killed and 35 injured in central Colombia on Tuesday, the country’s disaster management agency said.

The incident in Dosquebradas, close to the city of Pereira, followed heavy rains in the surrounding coffee-growing province.

Authorities evacuated dozens of nearby homes as the Otún River overflowed.

May we join?

A Welsh company is taking its whole staff on vacation as a reward for pandemic work

Posted February 9, 2022 at 11:28 AM EST
Colorful flags frame a view of a sandy beach with people under umbrellas and standing in the blue water.
Desiree Martin
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AFP via Getty Images
Tourists enjoy a day at the beach on the Canary Island of Tenerife. A Welsh recruitment company is treating its entire staff to a vacation on the island.

A Welsh recruitment company is treating its entire staff to an island vacation, imbuing the phrase "work-life balance" with a whole new meaning.

Cardiff-based Yolk Recruitment Ltd. announced on LinkedIn that it's taking more than 50 employees across all divisions to Tenerife in the Canary Islands, saying it's likely among the first area businesses to offer a companywide, all-expenses-paid employee vacation.

"Our purpose is building a culture where everyone wins! Which means no one can be left behind on this all-inclusive company holiday," it wrote.

The offer applies even to new employees hired in January and February, and the company is evidently hoping to bring even more people on board by then. It advertised more than 20 open positions in that same post.

The four-day trip will take place over a long weekend starting on April 1, the company told the BBC. It will cost more than £100,000 (or $135,515).

Chief Commercial Officer Pavan Arora described the initiative as "employee care," telling the BBC that the company wants to make sure employees feel appreciated for their hard work during the pandemic.

"2020 was a really tough time on our whole industry — we went from the jobs market being put on hold to going into overdrive," Arora explained. "Our staff have been on a journey, from going to remote working to hybrid back to remote ... so we just wanted to put our arms around everyone and say thank you for the last two years."

The pandemic has pushed workers across industries to their limits, with burnout widespread and resignations piling up.

In one (interesting) attempt to solve the problem, some companies have turned to creative attempts to encourage their employees to use their time off, The Wall Street Journal reported last year.

For instance, Citigroup has offered companywide days off with the aim of getting everyone to take a break at the same time, and PricewaterhouseCoopers is offering U.S. staffers $250 for every full week of vacation booked, up to $1,000 a year.

Education

Florida’s 'Don’t Say Gay' law would limit discussions of sexuality, gender in schools

Posted February 9, 2022 at 11:02 AM EST
Supporters gather for a Safe Schools South Florida & Friends rally to push back against the so-called "Don't Say Gay" bill (HB 1557/SB 1834) at the Pride Center in Wilton Manors on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2022. The bill would ban classroom discussions related to sexual orientation and gender identity in schools.
Mike Stocker
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Sun Sentinel/TNS/ABACA via Reuters
Protesters gather for a Safe Schools South Florida & Friends rally against the so-called "Don't Say Gay" bill at the Pride Center in Wilton Manors, Fla., on Tuesday.

Proposed legislation in Florida would restrict how teachers can discuss sexuality and gender in the classroom, the latest effort by Republican lawmakers toward remove the teaching of LGBTQ issues from schools.

Supporters say the measure empowers parents, who deserve to have a say in what their children learn, but critics — who have dubbed the proposal the “Don’t Say Gay” bill — argue that it will strip protections from LGBTQ kids.

Under the bill, a Florida school district “may not encourage classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in primary grade levels or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students.”

Versions of the so-called "Parental Rights in Education" bill passed a Florida House committee in January and cleared a Senate committee this week. The bills would also give parents the ability to sue schools if they believed the schools violated any provisions of the law.

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis signaled his support for the measure during an event on Monday but didn’t say whether he would sign the bill if it reached his desk.

“We’ve seen instances of students being told by different folks in school, ‘Oh, don’t worry, don’t pick your gender yet, do all this other stuff.’ They won’t tell the parents about these discussions that are happening. That is entirely inappropriate,” DeSantis said.

“The larger issue with all of this is parents must have a seat at the table when it comes to what’s going on in their schools,” he added.

But LGBTQ advocates have slammed the measure, and President Biden weighed in this week, panning the proposal and reiterating that his administration would work toward greater protections for LGBTQ people.

“I want every member of the LGBTQI+ community — especially the kids who will be impacted by this hateful bill — to know that you are loved and accepted just as you are,” Biden tweeted on Tuesday. "I have your back, and my Administration will continue to fight for the protections and safety you deserve.”

Russia-Ukraine crisis

U.S. deploys troops to Poland to help Americans leaving Ukraine

Posted February 9, 2022 at 10:30 AM EST

A U.S. official has confirmed to NPR that the White House has approved a plan to help Americans who choose to leave Ukraine if Russia invades.

The U.S. troops would provide that assistance in neighboring Poland, where President Biden is sending some 1,700 troops from the 82nd Airborne Division.

No preparations have taken place yet.

President Biden has been adamant that no U.S. troops would play a combat role should Russian launch an invasion. No U.S. troops are authorized to enter Ukraine or to go to that country to help evacuate Americans.

Instead, U.S. forces would assist the Americans once they have arrived in Poland from Ukraine. The Wall Street Journal, which first reported the story, said the U.S. troops would likely set up tent camps to assist the Americans arriving overland.

U.S. officials estimate about 30,000 American citizens are currently living in Ukraine.

International Dispatch
From Rawalpindi, Pakistan

The cargo trucks in Pakistan are also dazzling works of art

Posted February 9, 2022 at 9:56 AM EST
Claire Harbage
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NPR
Irfan Muhammad, 40, has been painting trucks for 20 years, using a dizzying array of colorful paints. But his favorite subject is peacocks.

Everything about Pakistani trucks is exuberant and over-the-top, from the colors to the boisterous designs to the intricate wood carvings on the doors. Each one is elaborately decorated, and no two are alike.

Just off the main commercial road between Islamabad and Rawalpindi, there’s a sprawling truckyard where artists, welders, metal workers, horn sellers and electricians refurbish and decorate vehicles. These artists and tradesmen take pride in ensuring that trucks transport cargo while looking and sounding as impressive as possible. Every driver wants his truck to be the most admired on the road.

"When we decorate it, we hope people will look at our truck with love," says longtime truck artist Muhammad Ijaz Mughal.

Pakistani trucks are covered with colorful stickers and fanciful paintings — hearts, flowers, peacocks, movie stars, folk singers, animals, politicians, angels and army generals. Poetry is written in swirls of calligraphy. Mirrorwork shimmers, and chains jingle and sway with the trucks’ movement.

A kneeling man paints a large red truck with intricate, colorful designs.
Claire Harbage
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NPR
Painter Irfan Mohammad works on a truck at a sprawling workshop in Rawalpindi, Pakistan.

"Our work has a certain level of perfection when we do it," says Barkat Ali, who introduces himself as "Barkat Ali, Body Maker" — a reference to his expertise in maintaining, building and decorating truck bodies.

Pakistani anthropologist and filmmaker Samar Minallah Khansays Pakistan's tradition of truck art is special in part because it overturns assumptions about truckers.

"It just celebrates their culture, their way of life," she says. "You see that they are artists. They are poets. They have a sense of humor. They are fond of nature. They are fond of, you know, so many things that need to be celebrated."

For more on Pakistan’s blinged-out trucks — and how truck art has helped bring some missing children home — read on.

The patterned, red interior of a painted truck.
Claire Harbage/NPR
The interior of a truck in Rawalpindi. For the drivers and the artists who decorate their vehicles, Pakistani trucks are more than just trucks.

Russia-Ukraine

Russia sends warships to the Black Sea as diplomatic talks over Ukraine ramp up

Posted February 9, 2022 at 9:17 AM EST
Putin and Macron sit across from each other at at extremely long formal table. The table could seat 15 people comfortably but it is just the two of them on opposite sides.
AP
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Pool Sputnik Kremlin
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday.

The first group of Russian warships passed through the Turkish straits into the Black Sea on Tuesday on their way to waters near Ukraine.

The ships continue the buildup of forces by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has stationed more than 100,000 troops near Ukraine's borders in recent weeks.

"Ukraine is basically surrounded," said retired Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

He joined Morning Edition to analyze what Putin's naval movements signal for the conflict's next turn. Listen here.

The three warships are designed for beach landings and can carry heavy tanks. Russia insists the ships are part of a planned naval exercise, but Mullen says that probably isn't true.

"For the Russians to have forces in the Black Sea, ready to go ashore in a key port like Sevastopol, makes a lot of sense if in fact he is going to pull the trigger," Mullen says.

Putin's current movements seem to mirror the steps he took to invade Georgia in 2008 — when he staged a military exercise that turned into an invasion — but it isn't clear whether Putin will do the same with Ukraine, Mullen says.

Russia has a robust history of modern aggression toward its neighboring countries, but Mullen says what's different now is the international response. President Biden and NATO have said that significant financial consequences will hit Russia if Putin were to invade Ukraine, including potentially canceling the Nord Stream 2 Russia-to-Germany gas pipeline, which would cost Russia economic and regional power.

What Putin may ultimately be angling for is a regime change in Ukraine, says Mullen.

World leaders continue to pursue diplomatic meetings to try to calm the crisis.

French President Emanuel Macron spoke one-on-one with Putin during a five-hour meeting Monday. The meeting, although long and much talked about online for its comically large table, hasn't yielded any tangible successes so far, reports NPR's Eleanor Beardsley.

Even as NATO warns of severe repercussions and world leaders meet with Putin directly, whether Russia will invade is unknown.

"I don't know if anyone really knows if he's going to go in, other than Putin himself," Mullen says.

Beijing Games

The medal ceremony for Valieva and Russian team is postponed, with vague explanation

Posted February 9, 2022 at 8:58 AM EST
Members of the Russian Olympic Committee team celebrate at the flower ceremony after the figure skating team event. The team won gold in the event, but the medal ceremony has been delayed for unspecified legal reasons.
Sebastien Bozon
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AFP via Getty Images
Members of the Russian Olympic Committee team celebrate at the flower ceremony after the figure skating team event. The team won gold in the event, but the medal ceremony has been delayed for unspecified legal reasons.

The Olympic team figure skating event ended Monday -- but the medals haven’t yet been given out because of what officials describe as a legal issue. The ceremony was planned for Tuesday night, but it didn’t happen. There are reports, not yet confirmed by NPR, that doping is involved.

The U.S. won silver and Japan won bronze in the competition. The Russian Olympic Committee team won gold in a performance that made history, as teenager Kamila Valieva landed two quadruple jumps.

But two days later, none of the skaters have received their medals. Providing only the barest of details, Olympic officials say they’ve been consulting with the International Skating Union.

“The situation arose … at short notice, which requires legal consultation with the ISU,” Olympics spokesman Mark Adams said on Wednesday.

Adams said he couldn’t comment at length, citing “legal implications involved” in what he said was an emerging issue.

A report from the Inside the Games site suggests that an athlete might have tested positive for doping. Adding more intrigue to the mix, several Russian skaters apparently didn’t appear at a scheduled practice on Wednesday -- and Valieva was reportedly among them.

The delayed medal ceremony quickly triggered questions in Moscow, where the Kremlin says it’s awaiting a full explanation.

"As of now, we heard no official statements," Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, urging observers not to make a judgment based on media reports only, according to official news outlet Tass.

Peskov urged people to wait for explanations from Russian sports officials and the International Olympic Committee.

When Adams was asked whether the skaters might face a limbo, in which they leave China with the issue unsettled, he said officials are working to prevent that from happening.

“We have athletes and medals involved,” Adams said. “I can't give you any more details because I don't actually know. We will do our level utmost to make sure it is resolved as quickly as possible. As you know, legal issues can drag on."

Politics

McConnell breaks with RNC over censure of Cheney and Kinzinger, underscoring party divisions

Posted February 9, 2022 at 8:39 AM EST
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell stands in front of an American flag.
Drew Angerer
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Getty Images
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says it is not the job of the national committee to single out members with different views from the majority.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has criticized the Republican National Committee over its recent censure of two House Republicans, in a rare break with his party.

In remarks on Tuesday, McConnell criticized the way the RNC's resolution had described the Capitol riot and said the national party's role has traditionally been to support all of its members regardless of their positions. However, when asked, he said he continues to back RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel.

"The issue is whether or not the RNC should be sort of singling out members of our party who may have different views from the majority," he said. "That's not the job of the RNC."

On Friday, the RNC censured Reps. Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Adam Kinzinger of Illinois for their participation on the House panel investigating the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection.

The censure resolution says the RNC shall "immediately cease any and all support" of Cheney and Kinzinger as members of the Republican Party. McDaniel said in a statement added to the original resolution that the two "crossed a line" in their roles as committee members.

"They chose to join Nancy Pelosi in a Democrat-led persecution of ordinary citizens who engaged in legitimate political discourse that had nothing to do with violence at the Capitol," she wrote.

McConnell (and many others, including Cheney) publicly disagreed with that characterization of Jan. 6.

"We all were here. We saw what happened," he said. "It was a violent insurrection for the purpose of trying to prevent the peaceful transfer of power after a legitimately certified election from one administration to the next."

The censure is largely symbolic for Kinzinger, who announced last year that he won't be seeking reelection. The situation is more complicated for Cheney, who has faced mounting attacks from her party — and was already removed from her House leadership role — over her public criticism of former President Donald Trump.

While the RNC passed the censure resolution with overwhelming support, it has gotten mixed reviews from Republicans on Capitol Hill.

"A lot of rank-and-file Republicans I talked to on the Hill said they were fine with the censure but didn't want to get into the details about how the resolution characterized the attack," NPR congressional reporter Deirdre Walsh toldMorning Edition.

Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley said the RNC vote "reflects the view of most Republican voters," underscoring just how much of the party's base continues to support the former president.

Others disagree, with some Senate Republicans viewing the censure resolution as a distraction and a mistake.

They want to focus on President Biden's performance while his approval ratings are down, Walsh said, and think the party should spend more energy on the midterms as a referendum on his economic record.

Coronavirus

New York ends its indoor mask mandate, joining California and New Jersey

Updated February 9, 2022 at 12:45 PM EST
Posted February 9, 2022 at 8:06 AM EST
A man wearing a medical face mask stands behind a sign directing New Yorkers to wear masks regardless of vaccination status.
Seth Wenig
/
AP
A sign reminds customers that masks are required in their store in New York in December.

New York is lifting part of its indoor mask mandate, joining a growing list of states that are making similar adjustments.

Gov. Kathy Hochul announced at a briefing Wednesday that the statewide vaccine-or-mask requirement for businesses will end on Thursday, though masks will still be required in schools and some other places where people congregate, including health care facilities, shelters and public transit stations. Counties, cities and businesses can still choose to require masks, she added.

She said declining COVID-19 infection rates — as well as rising hospital capacity and vaccination rates — have made it possible to rescind the statewide mandate, which was reimplemented as omicron cases surged in December.

For reference, the seven-day average of cases in New York was less than 35 per 100,000 on Wednesday, compared to nearly 382 per 100,000 on the Jan. 9 peak.

"We are not where we were in early December," Hochul said. "New Yorkers did the right thing to get through the winter surge, and we can now lift the statewide mask-or-vaccine requirement for indoor businesses starting tomorrow."

Hochul also said the state will reevaluate the mask mandate for schools in early March.

New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, Oregon and California have all announced plans this week to lift their indoor mask mandates in February and March, pointing to the dramatic drop in daily new COVID-19 cases as the omicron surge recedes.

The move is being welcomed by some as a sign that states are learning to live with the virus, though it goes against Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance encouraging universal mask-wearing in schools. It also comes as high-quality masks are, at least theoretically, more accessible to all Americans.

CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said the CDC is not changing its mask guidance. The CDC recommends masking in doors in areas of high transmission, which includes most of the country. While cases and hospitalizations are decreasing and the numbers are "encouraging," Walensky said at a briefing Wednesday that it's not time to change CDC guidance. "Uur hospitalizations are still high, our deaths are still high," she said. "We are encouraged by the trends but we are not there yet."

Other public health experts also say it's too early to be lifting mask mandates altogether.

"I think the science is pointing us in a number of directions," said Mercedes Carnethon, epidemiologist and vice chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Northwestern University. "And if we use our past experience as a guide, I think it's premature in many regions of the country to consider lifting these mask mandates."

Carnethon told NPR'sAll Things Considered that she believes certain conditions — like the community's rates of transmission and vaccination — must be met before mask mandates can be lifted.

Here are the fast facts for each state:

  • New York: The decision to lift the indoor mask mandate should bring an end to a long-running series of legal challenges against it, and the confusion and abrupt changes they have wrought.
  • Connecticut: Gov. Ned Lamont recommended that the state end its statewide mask mandate on Feb. 28 and said it will be up to local leaders to make decisions on mask requirements after that point.
  • New Jersey: The state will lift its mask mandate in schools (for students and employees) starting March 7, though districts can still require masking to control spikes in infections, and anyone who wants to wear a mask can still do so.
  • Delaware: The state's universal indoor mask mandate will expire, and its indoor mask mandate for public and private K-12 schools and child care facilities will end on March 31.
  • Oregon: The state will lift its indoor mask requirements for schools and public places on March 31.

In California, the state is ending indoor masking requirements for vaccinated people starting Tuesday but has not said when it will lift its statewide mandate for K-12 schools or high-risk settings like nursing homes and hospitals.
Unvaccinated people will still be required to wear masks indoors throughout the state, and individual businesses can still require masks if they want to.

Notably, counties and municipalities in California are allowed to have stricter rules than the state does, and areas like Los Angeles County are choosing to keep their indoor masking requirements in place for now.

That creates a patchwork of COVID-19 rules across the state, as KPCC's senior health reporter Jackie Fortier toldMorning Edition. Such a system could be especially confusing for people who live in one county and work in another, like commuters from San Bernardino who work in Los Angeles.

Health officials in LA County say that there are still too many people getting infected and that essential workers — who have had the highest case, hospitalization and death rates throughout the pandemic — "will pay the price for lifting the mask mandate too early," according to Fortier.

Under new criteria announced last week, masks will come off in LA County as community transmission declines, starting outdoors at schools and then indoors at offices and restaurants. As Fortier notes, that means the thousands of fans attendingSunday's Super Bowl game in Inglewood will have to mask up.

International Dispatch
Winter Olympics

A fluffy panda is the mascot of the Beijing Winter Olympics

Posted February 9, 2022 at 7:52 AM EST
A fan poses with an image of the Winter Olympics mascot in Beijing.
Aowen Cao
/
NPR
A fan poses with an image of the much-beloved Winter Olympics mascot in Beijing.

BEIJING — One of the stars of this year's Winter Olympic Games is its mascot: a fluffy panda named Bing Dwen Dwen.

The stuffed animal version has become so sought after that people are camping overnight to buy it.

Outside one of Beijing’s largest official Olympic merchandise store on a recent day, the line is long and growing longer -- despite a loudspeaker blaring the same line over and over: All Bing Dwen Dwen stuffed animals have sold out for the day.

Li Zhaoyang's still on his Lunar New Year break from high school, and he says he joined the line just to get in on all the buzz around Bing Dwen Dwen. He wants to collect the panda mascot as an Olympics memento.

One small problem, I tell him: Bing Dwen Dwen is sold out. Even the 500 pandas allotted for pre-sale orders have been nabbed by people who lined up outside the store the night before.

Even those customers aren’t so lucky. They will only be able to pick up their orders during the last week of February, after the Olympics Games have ended.

Bing Dwen Dwen, or "ice chubster" as his name roughly translates to, has skyrocketed in popularity all of a sudden, in part due to scarcity. Factories churning soft collectibles are limiting production. The shortage has fueled a kind of mindless mania on social media for all things Bing Dwen Dwen.

Outside the Olympics store, Rose Ling and her young daughter also say they are in line simply to see what all the fuss is about.

“The line was huge just a few minutes ago,” she says. “It wrapped around the corner just a few minutes ago, so we jumped in only to find out Bing Dwen Dwen is sold out.”

For the more open-minded, there are other options. The Beijing Olympic Committee designed a Paralympics mascot named Shuey Rhon Rhon, a dancing red lantern available in cute, stuffed animal form as well.

But no one seems very eager.

“Xue Rongrong is just too ugly,” says Roger Li, who's come with his friend to see what other Olympics-themed tchotchkes they can buy given Bing Dwen Dwen is beyond their purchasing power.

Scalpers are selling the swaddled up panda for up to Rmb2000 (about $300) he says, but then catches himself: “Am I allowed to say that for broadcast? Do you need an answer that's more in line with Chinese socialist values?” he asks NPR.

By the time I got into the Olympic souvenir shop, only a few gold bracelets and pins were left. No Bing Dwen Dwen. I could, however, sign up for a new credit card to enter a lottery for a chance to win one of the coveted bears.

Aowen Cao contributed research from Beijing.