WH Says Economy Closed Until U.S. Is Safe : Politics Podcast : The NPR Politics Podcast In a White House briefing Friday, the top medical experts from the coronavirus task force said the social distancing measures appeared to be constraining the outbreak. President Trump said that he would not take any steps to reopen the economy unless he was sure Americans would be healthy.

Also, early data suggest that COVID-19 is disproportionately impacting African Americans.

This episode: White House correspondents Tamara Keith and Ayesha Rascoe, demographics and culture reporter Juana Summers, congressional correspondent Susan Davis, and science correspondent Allison Aubrey.
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Social Distancing Is Working, But Reopening Economy Will Take Time

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Social Distancing Is Working, But Reopening Economy Will Take Time

Social Distancing Is Working, But Reopening Economy Will Take Time

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Hey there. It's Tamara Keith. Before we start the show, I need to ask a favor. It is a tough time for a lot of people right now, and NPR will still be free and here every day with the news whenever you're ready to hear it. In fact, some stations have even canceled their fundraising drives to make sure you can get the latest news you need to keep safe. But those fundraising drives are the main source of money for many stations, and I was hoping that our NPR POLITICS PODCAST listeners might be able to help fill the gap. So just if you're able, please head to donate.npr.org/politics and pitch in anything you can. Thank you. And now here's the show.



ANDREW: This is Andrew and Gracie. Can you say hi?


ANDREW: We're here in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, where we are in lockdown, but I still go to work because I am a pastor. We're getting ready for a weird, new kind of Easter. But we're having lots of fun, aren't we?

GRACIE: Wee (ph).

ANDREW: (Laughter) This recording was made at...

KEITH: 2:53 p.m. on Friday the 10 of April.

ANDREW: You guys have a great day, and I'm looking forward to hearing you.


KEITH: Well, happy Easter. I guess maybe it'll be a Z-ster (ph) service on Zoom (laughter).

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Yes. And you can still do stuff in your backyard.

KEITH: And happy Passover to those who are celebrating Passover. I had a Zeder (ph). I had two nights of Zeders (ph) this week.



I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

RASCOE: I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I also cover the White House.

KEITH: And we have a special guest with us from the science desk - Allison Aubrey.

Hey, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Hey there. Thanks for having me.

KEITH: Thank you for being here with us virtually. So we all have been watching a White House press briefing, and what we were looking for is something that's been sort of playing out throughout the week, which is some amount of tension between big economic concerns and big public health concerns related to the coronavirus. At times, President Trump has seemed kind of impatient about getting things back into business. But today, Ayesha, he said he was going to listen to the doctors.

RASCOE: Yes. He made clear - and he was asked this, like, multiple times - like, if you're told on May 1, which is when the latest federal guidelines for social distancing, when they're up - if you're told that you cannot open large swaths of the country on May 1, will you listen to the experts? And he said, yes, I've been listening to them, and I'm going to listen to them. He says he's thinking about opening, but he is going to - he wants to make sure that it's done at the right time.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: If you look at what we're doing, we're looking at a date. We hope we're going to be able to fulfill a certain date, but we're not doing anything until we know that this country is going to be healthy.

RASCOE: The big question is what that actually will mean in practice and what that would look like, and Allison probably knows a bit about that.

AUBREY: Yeah, sure. I mean, I think it's worth pointing out here that there's not going to be some kind of switch that is suddenly flipped. It will happen slowly. It will happen gradually. It will likely happen at different times around the country with input from governors, mayors, public health officials. And they're going to be looking for three things. They're going to be looking for a decline in new cases and hospitalizations and ICU admissions - a sign that, you know, the viral spread is going down - and a decrease in the daily number of deaths. You know, the public health experts I talk to now are starting to think about how to safely lift the social distancing guidelines, but they say we certainly won't be going back to the way things were before. There's going to be a new normal.

KEITH: And let's just be clear. While we are talking about a possible, likely, eventual slow move towards some semblance of a new normal, we're not talking about that for, say, this weekend, when people will not be going to church - or should not be going to church, according to the guidelines. You know, no gatherings of 10 people or more and in most places, no gatherings at all.

AUBREY: That's right. Absolutely not - certainly not this weekend, certainly not anytime before May 1. And eventually, as restrictions are gradually lifted, we're going to have a lot of new practices in place. We're hearing about potential temperature checks in public gathering spaces or at conventions. We likely won't go back to handshaking or hugging, so there will be sort of a cultural change. People in the habit of working remotely may continue to do so. Also, there's going to have to be special protections in place for people most at risk - so people who are 65 and older and the people with the conditions that we know make them more vulnerable to the disease.

RASCOE: So no hugging grandma or anybody else?


RASCOE: That seems like a hard life.

AUBREY: You know, I think we're, like a really huggy (ph) culture, right? I mean, we're very friendly people. And I do think that there will be a sort of cultural shift, certainly coming - you know, coming out in May or June, when we all start to sort of go back into public. I think, you know, handshaking will go to the wayside, and people will think twice before doing the hug or the kiss.

KEITH: Can we go back to where we are right now in the lifecycle of this pandemic? The death toll in the United States is now 17,000. Deaths are continuing to rise day after day. Though, Allison, there are encouraging signs below that number.

AUBREY: Yes. I think what we continue to hear today from Dr. Birx was, you know, look at the modeling. Look at what we're heading. There are glimmers of hope, is what we heard from Dr. Fauci last night. The idea is that even though we are at the apex - or say, the New York City area right now - is at the apex of deaths and it's so gruesome to watch this and witness it, what we're also hearing is that there are signs that this social distancing is beginning to work.

KEITH: Yeah. And Dr. Fauci, at the briefing, said those signs are there. Let's not mess this up.


ANTHONY FAUCI: But it's important to remember that this is not the time to feel that, since we have made such important advance in the sense of success of the mitigation, that we need to be pulling back at all.

AUBREY: He's saying, let's not blow it. He's saying, let's keep doing what we're doing. It's never been more important to, you know, shelter in place, to hunker down, to keep doing what we're doing because we've got to break the chains of transmission.

KEITH: Allison, you nodded to the idea that it isn't just the president who will be making these decisions. In fact, it's local officials and governors and mayors. Ayesha - yeah, what does that look like?

RASCOE: Well, and that's the thing. The president has these kind of federal recommendations, but they're not mandatory. Really, what we've seen on the ground - it's been those governors and mayors and local authorities who've made decisions and issued, like, shelter at home orders. And presumably - and shut down schools. And presumably, when those are the officials who will have to make the decisions to lift the shelter in place orders, to, you know, allow gatherings to happen again - so a lot of that's going to be happening at the local level and not necessarily coming just from whatever Trump says.

AUBREY: And the expression in public health is that all public health is local. So to your comment there, yes. Expect to see leadership at the local and the state level, and expect people to be taking their cues from public health officials in their own communities, their own mayors and governors.

KEITH: All right. Well, we are going to take a quick break. And, Ayesha, we are going to let you go until later, when we do Can't Let It Go. Talk soon.

RASCOE: All right. I'll see you soon - or not see you, but I'll talk to you.

KEITH: OK. And when we get back, we're going to take a look at which communities are most affected by the spread of the coronavirus. We'll be right back.

And we're back, with Juana Summers joining us. Hey, Juana.


KEITH: So both you and Allison have been looking into the demographics of the coronavirus outbreak, and there is a clear pattern in the early data. And it looks like it's simply disproportionately affecting communities of color.

SUMMERS: Yeah, that's right. I took a deep dive into the state of Maryland, where I live - I'm in Baltimore - for a story that aired yesterday. When I finished that story, 124 Maryland residents were confirmed to have died from COVID-19, and we just got new numbers today. The number has grown to 171 people. The limited data that we have from the state and from others shows that this virus is hitting black and brown communities at a disproportionate rate across the country. I spoke to Martin Camper here in Baltimore. He lost two family members to this disease in the span of a week, his great-aunt and his cousin.


MARTIN CAMPER: It was lonely, I guess, in the fact that - you know, you're kind of like, oh, I'm the only one I know who's experiencing this. But then also the fact that we can't get together as a family to grieve - right? - we can't - you know, I can't visit that side of the family. We can't have a funeral. We can't have a service.

SUMMERS: He was telling me that, instead, they've been connecting on Zoom calls. They've been having FaceTimes. He's been on the phone. But he's also worried because he has more family members that are sick.

KEITH: Wow. So I know that it is really tough to get a picture at this point or, at least, a clear picture. Is that because of the way the data are being collected?

SUMMERS: Yeah. To some degree, that's right. There is certainly an issue around transparency in some places, although that's changing a little bit. Maryland started reporting racial and ethnic data on who's been diagnosed and treated for and dying from COVID-19 yesterday. But as I understand, there are still a lot of states that are not actively ensuring that that data is collected, and some of that data isn't being released. I talked to a lot of lawmakers and some public health experts, and they made the case to me that that will ultimately make it harder to make sure these communities will have the resources they need.

And we heard Maryland's Gov. Larry Hogan make the point this week that there's another challenge, and that's how the testing itself is done. He estimated in a press conference that 90% of testing here is done by private labs outside the state of Maryland who aren't being mandated to collect and report that data. So we simply just don't have a full picture of the impact yet.

KEITH: And, Allison, the CDC, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - they've started looking at this now, too. What are they finding?

AUBREY: Sure. Well, the CDC did release data this week looking at hospitalizations and breaking down hospitalizations by race and age. And what they found is that about 1 in 3 people who become sick enough to require hospitalization were African American. Now, keep in mind that just 13% of the U.S. population is African American. So people of color are disproportionately becoming sick enough to need hospitalization after they get COVID-19. I spoke to Jerome Adams by email. He's the U.S. surgeon general. And he said, while we know of no genetic or biological susceptibility, no sort of inborn vulnerability by race or ethnicity, these data really raise questions about social, economic and medical factors that put African Americans and other people of color in greater jeopardy.

KEITH: Yeah. That is the big question here, is...

AUBREY: Absolutely.

KEITH: ...Why? Why are communities of color being affected more severely than others? Dr. Anthony Fauci from the National Institutes of Health, who's sort of the lead voice for public health in the White House Coronavirus Task Force, he was asked about that this week. He talked about it at one of the briefings at the White House. And this is how he explained it.


FAUCI: Health disparities have always existed for the African American community. But here, again, with the crisis, how it's shining a bright light on how unacceptable that is because, yet again, when you have a situation like the coronavirus, they are suffering disproportionately. As Dr. Birx said correctly, it's not that they're getting infected more often; it's that when they do get infected, their underlying medical conditions - the diabetes, the hypertension, the obesity, the asthma - those are the kind of things that wind them up in the ICU and, ultimately, give them a higher death rate.

So when all this is over - and, as we've said, it will end. We will get over coronavirus, but there will still be health disparities, which we really do need to address, in the African American community.

AUBREY: So the three leading conditions linked to serious illness and hospitalizations from COVID are hypertension, diabetes and obesity. And there is just simply a higher prevalence of all three of these among African Americans compared to white Americans.

You know, there's another element to this, too. I spoke to Marc Morial of the National Urban League, and he points out that black workers are more likely to hold the kind of jobs that can't be done from home, so they may be more likely to be exposed to the virus without proper personal protective gear and more likely to contract it because of that. He also just points to the fact that African Americans have traditionally had less access to health care and higher poverty rates. And so, look - when you talk to health experts, anybody who's ever looked at the social determinants of health, it is not a surprise. It's a great disappointment, but not a surprise what's happening here.

KEITH: I mean, there was this idea that, you know, this pandemic is the great equalizer. And, no, it's just highlighting the inequality that existed before.

SUMMERS: So one of the conversations I had recently was with Dr. Stephen Thomas, who heads up the University of Maryland Center for Health Equity. And he essentially made the point that the policies that are being made surrounding coronavirus cannot be colorblind. The messaging he's hearing is that we're saying, hey, we're all in this together.

And he made the point to me that if that's the continued message, that the country will be left with an explosion of COVID-19 that is concentrated in racial and ethnic minority communities, he is essentially saying that we may be all in this together in terms of a needing to come together and socially distance and take the same steps. But the data that we have now shows - as it has in past crises - that it doesn't look the same, it doesn't have the same impact in every community.

KEITH: All right. We are going to leave it there. Thanks to both of you. I'm going to say goodbye to both of you, too.

AUBREY: OK. Thanks so much. Take care. Bye-bye.

SUMMERS: Thanks. Stay well.

KEITH: And when we get back, Can't Let It Go.

And we're back. And it's time for Can't Let It Go, the part of the show where we talk about the things we can't stop thinking about, politics or otherwise. And Ayesha is back. Hey, Ayesha.


KEITH: And Sue Davis is here.


KEITH: And Sue Davis is here because, even though she isn't in the rest of the podcast, there is something she really can't let go of.

RASCOE: Oh, I want to hear this.


KEITH: It's going be good. It's going to be good. So we'll save that - save the best for last. I'm going to start. The thing I can't let go of - and you may have already seen this, but I'm loving it - is Fox 8 News in Cleveland, Ohio. You know, a lot of people are not going into the office. Saturday is no different than Wednesday. Everything is a blur. And so Fox 8 and anchor Todd Meany have a very important segment on their morning show every day now.


WAYNE DAWSON: Time now for the most important question of the morning.

KRISTI CAPEL: What day is it with Todd Meany.


KEITH: And it's got this song.

DAVIS: It's, like, a game show song.

KEITH: Yes. And then graphics.


KEITH: What day is it, Todd Meany?


TODD MEANY: Apparently, it's Thursday.


RASCOE: No, that's great.

DAVIS: This is public service journalism.

KEITH: It is totally public service journalism.

RASCOE: I never know what day it is or what's going on or what's happening (laughter).

KEITH: Is it sweatpants day, or is it yoga pants day? I don't know.


KEITH: He's pretty wry. A lot of times it's, like, pretty deadpan. He's like, oh, Monday.


MEANY: Monday.


KEITH: Today was great. Today - well, of course, it was Friday. I mean, the correct answer to all of this in these times is, every day is blurred day.

RASCOE: (Laughter).

KEITH: Every day is blurred day. It doesn't matter what day it is, guys. It doesn't matter. It all just blends one into the other. But why is this Friday all different than other days? Because Todd Meany had a little bit of confetti in his pocket, and he says Friday and throws - just, like, throws a little bit of confetti out of his pocket.


MEANY: It's Friday.


KEITH: I'll take the win when I can.

RASCOE: Yes. Because Friday - you know, thank God it's Friday, right? Even though it's not much different from every other day at this point.

KEITH: It's a day.

RASCOE: Yeah. It's a day (laughter).

KEITH: Ayesha, what can't you let go of?

RASCOE: So what I can't let go of - and this is one of the things that I really love, and so it connects a lot of stuff that I really like. So there was this interview with Maureen Dowd - you know, of the New York Times, the famous columnist - with Larry David, who I love because I love "Curb Your Enthusiasm." That is, like, one of my top 10 shows ever. I love the humor. And whenever I need to get cheered up, which is kind of around right now, I listen to or I watch Larry David on "Curb Your Enthusiasm."

So she has this great interview with him, and he says a lot of great Larry David things, like, if he finds out someone's been hoarding toilet paper, he'll never be friends with them again. He said it's like the Wild West. You don't steal horses, so you don't hoard toilet paper during this time.

But one thing that I really liked about this interview was Maureen Dowd, because I need to get on her level, because she said she had never FaceTimed before. And so she said she had to talk to lighting sensei - her help, Tom Ford.

KEITH: What?


RASCOE: Yeah. So she had to talk to Tom Ford, and he sent her instructions on how to FaceTime. He said, you've got to put the computer on a stack of books so the camera's slightly higher than your head.

KEITH: I'm doing that.

RASCOE: Say, about the top of your head. Then point it down at your eyes so the computer is on the side of you - and make sure that you get a tall lamp. Set it on the side of your face that you feel is best. You know, everybody has their best side. And then, he says, you've got to have - the lamp should be in line with and slightly behind your computer so the light falls nicely on your face. Then put a white paper or white tablecloth on a table you're sitting at. But make sure it can't be seen in the frame...


RASCOE: ...And it will give off a bit of feel and bounce.

KEITH: Oh, it'll, like, radiate up on you. So it'll, like, light you.

RASCOE: Yes. It will radiate up. And he said lots of powder, and voila (laughter).

KEITH: I could have used - honestly, I could have used this advice before we started talking (laughter).

RASCOE: Yes, I could have used it, too. I have not taken up this advice, but I'm like, this is really amazing advice. And now we're having to do all these FaceTime calls.

KEITH: Yeah.

RASCOE: And how do you look good? And Tom Ford told Maureen, and she told everybody else. And that's very nice because, I mean, I don't have lighting sensei Tom Ford in my back pocket like that.

KEITH: You can't just text him and ask him the best way to make your house parties look better?


RASCOE: Just the thought of it. Like, you know what? I need to FaceTime for the first time. Let me reach out to Tom Ford (laughter).

KEITH: Yeah. Let me just text Tom and see what he thinks. Also, I'm kind of surprised, but not surprised because he's Tom Ford. But he's, like, a clothing designer. I'm not sure I would have also thought of him as, like, a lighting god. But is there anything he can't do?

DAVIS: Apparently not.

RASCOE: Yeah, well, you know, look; he's ready - he's ready for - and lots of powder, which I didn't do that either today. I haven't done that in...

KEITH: Next time.

RASCOE: Next time.

DAVIS: We're going to look amazing on our next Zoom happy hour.

RASCOE: Yes, I am.

KEITH: Oh, yeah. We are so ready.

RASCOE: I'm going to really start working on it. I'm going to really start working on it. And, you know Tam, she looks - I know she looks good wherever she's at (laughter).

DAVIS: Yeah. Tam don't play. Tam don't play. Tam's ready.

KEITH: It's because Tam, right at the beginning of quarantine, went on Amazon and bought a ring light...


KEITH: ...Because Tam knew there was going to be a lot of video. And I actually went back on Amazon, and they have doubled the price.

RASCOE: Really? Oh. See?

KEITH: Price went way up because...

DAVIS: People are hoarding them.

KEITH: ...Everybody needs a ring light now.

DAVIS: Everyone's hoarding the ring lights now, because everyone wants to look fantastic.

RASCOE: And if I see someone hoarding ring lights, I'll never be your friend.


KEITH: Sue, what couldn't you let go of?

DAVIS: So the thing that I came on this podcast to talk about today is a love story.


DAVIS: It's a love story that I read about in the New York Times this week of two pandas who, after 13 years together in captivity, finally, during this pandemic, decided to get it on.




DAVIS: In Hong Kong - the story in The New York Times this week, finally some privacy. After 10 years, giant pandas mate in shuttered zoo. So if you know anything about pandas - we talk about them a lot in the D.C. area because we've got D.C. panda zoos. Everybody always wants to see the pandas. There's always panda cams. We're, like, we're watching pandas all the time everywhere.

Well, these pandas - Ying Ying and Le Le in Hong Kong - they have been together in captivity. And they've been trying to breed them all this time. But you have to do it, like, forced with pandas. You have to do it, like, inseminations and all this stuff to try to breed pandas so they don't go extinct. Finally, we realized that all it took - we've just got leave these pandas alone.


RASCOE: They need some privacy.

KEITH: Give them some time.

RASCOE: They wanted time alone.

DAVIS: And it was only after they were forced to shutter the zoo because everything's been closed because of the pandemic they kind of, like, looked at each other, and were like, OK.

RASCOE: And they were probably bored...

KEITH: Yeah.

RASCOE: ...And they're like, look.

KEITH: Yeah. Pandemic.

RASCOE: What else can we do?

KEITH: Panda-demic (ph).


DAVIS: The zookeepers were, like, you know, we don't know if this will lead to a pregnancy, but we'll take the good news where we can, and we wish them luck. So, Ying Ying and Le Le, I'm here for you. I'm rooting for you. I hope that if some good news can come out of this pandemic, maybe we'll get a whole slew of panda cubs - I don't know if you call them cubs, cubs, panda cubs - because we're finally leaving the pandas alone.

RASCOE: Leave them alone.

DAVIS: Leave the pandas alone.


KEITH: All right. Well, that is a wrap for today. Our executive producer is Shirley Henry. Our editors are Muthoni Muturi and Eric McDaniel. Our producers are Barton Girdwood and Chloee Weiner. Thanks to Lexi Schapitl, Brandon Carter, Maya Gandhi and Meredith Roaten.

I'm Tamara Keith. I cover the White House.

RASCOE: I'm Ayesha Rascoe. I also cover the White House.

DAVIS: And I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

KEITH: And you just show up for Can't Let It Go was the joke, but...

DAVIS: Just got to crash the podcast some weeks to talk about the things that are making me happy.


RASCOE: You've just got to burst in there.

KEITH: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


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