News Brief: Pandemic Relief, COVID-19 Cases Rise, Portland Protests Congress struggles with another pandemic relief package. Forty states report coronavirus cases are rising. And, Oregon officials lash out at President Trump for sending federal officers to Portland.
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News Brief: Pandemic Relief, COVID-19 Cases Rise, Portland Protests

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News Brief: Pandemic Relief, COVID-19 Cases Rise, Portland Protests

News Brief: Pandemic Relief, COVID-19 Cases Rise, Portland Protests

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

In a pandemic economy, Americans are struggling to do basic things, like pay the rent.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Lawmakers are back in Washington working out the details of a fifth coronavirus relief package to try to help.

GREENE: And let's bring in NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis to see where things stand. Good morning, Sue.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So are lawmakers close to a deal here? Is this going to be fairly quick and easy?

DAVIS: Ah - they are not close at all, but they have about three weeks to cut a deal, which is a long time on Capitol Hill. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says he wants to get a deal before the next Congress break, which starts on August 10. And he wants it to stay in around the price tag of about a trillion dollars, and that's kind of really all we know for certain about it right now. Democrats have wanted to go much bigger than Republicans have. The House Democrats already passed a $3 trillion package back in May. But Republicans say that just costs too much, and they want to keep the price tag down.

The question is, obviously, what are Republicans in the Senate going to put forward? McConnell's expected to unveil a proposal this week, probably on Tuesday. And he said their package will focus on, in his words, kids, jobs and health care. In particular, McConnell says he wants there to be a big emphasis on money to help schools that want to do in-person learning for the upcoming school year.

You know, a couple months back, McConnell said he wanted to have sort of a wait-and-see approach to see what we needed to do at this point in time. And there had been hope that the virus would be more contained and the economy would be doing better. But with the virus surging and unemployment still around 11%, obviously Congress has a lot to do.

GREENE: Yeah. And they feel like they have a lot of work to do with this, it sounds like. So where are the sticking points going to be, do you think?

DAVIS: You know, one of the biggest questions that I think one of the things most Americans are watching are, what are they going to do with expanded unemployment benefits? Several months back, Congress passed the first piece of legislation to address the pandemic that included this additional $600 benefit on top of traditional unemployment benefits. That runs out at the end of the month. And Republicans have opposed it in part because they say it disincentivizes people from going back to work if they're making more money on unemployment and it's hard for employers to get their workers back to work. But it's also been a stimulus. And it's also been money being pumped back into the economy and helping a lot of people stay afloat. So that's one issue that they're going to have to work out that people are watching closely.

Another one is a red line that McConnell has drawn. He's saying he will not allow anything to pass the Senate unless it'd have changes to liability laws to protect businesses and health care workers from lawsuits. And one other thing - a payroll tax cut - no one on Capitol Hill really wants it, but President Trump does. And he has said he would be unlikely to sign a package unless it has that included in it.

GREENE: Well, I mean, we're late summer now in an election year (laughter). It seems like anything Congress does in a year like this - at a moment like this, politics is just the context for all of it. Does that remain the case even when we're dealing with something like a pandemic?

DAVIS: It does, and I think this is legislation that people are watching very closely. And it's hard to separate it from the political moment. The president's approval is down. It has stayed down over the handling of the pandemic. He's trailing former Vice President Joe Biden. It's having an effect down the ballot. The Senate is in play. Republicans control it by just three seats. One example of where the political winds are blowing - the Cook Political Report shifted 20 House races in favor of Democrats just a couple days ago. They said they've never moved that many races in that short a period of time. So I think it speaks to the fact that Democrats have some leverage right now. And while Republicans might oppose more spending and more benefits, they'd also like a win to be able to go home and campaign on. And this is likely the last bill that they will pass addressing the pandemic before that election.

GREENE: NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis. Sue, thanks so much.

DAVIS: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: All right. So, 40 states are reporting coronavirus cases on the rise. The U.S. is setting and breaking new records each and every day.

MARTIN: And with outbreaks surging, many states are weighing the public health value of things like mandatory face masks and whether or not to send kids back to school.

GREENE: Let's bring in NPR's Allison Aubrey, who's been following all of this for us. Hi, Allison.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: I feel like I've asked you this on a lot of Mondays as we begin a new week. Just give us a picture of where things stand in the United States right now when it comes to this pandemic.

AUBREY: Sure. Well, as a nation, cases are climbing. We were up to about 74,000 new cases in one day over the weekend. Georgia set a new record for its number of new cases. Florida is at about 10,000 cases a day. And hospitalizations, David, are now nearly as high as they were back in April - deaths rising, too. Remember, fatalities were trending down in May and June. But in recent days and weeks, they've risen. We've surpassed 140,000 deaths, which is about a quarter of the globe's COVID-19 fatalities. So the big picture, David, is quite concerning. Here's former CDC Director Tom Frieden.

TOM FRIEDEN: We are losing our battle against COVID. We already have a death rate that's six times the global average and one of the highest in the world, and cases and deaths are still increasing. Our economy and our educational systems will not be able to recover until we get the virus under control.

AUBREY: And all of this comes amid reports the Trump administration aims to limit more funding to states to pay for things such as contact tracing and testing, which we know is so important. And the president has resisted calls for a national mask mandate.

GREENE: Well, even without a mask mandate nationally, I mean, states are moving in that direction more and more. Right?

AUBREY: Absolutely - and national retailers, too. I mean, if you look at all the big retailers - Home Depot, Walmart, Target, CVS, Walgreens - you don't wear one, you can't come in and shop. And as you point out, the number of states has increased, too. Governor Asa Hutchinson in Arkansas said he didn't want to have a mask mandate. But given the number of new cases in his state and the data showing that they're effective, he did it. Also, Colorado Governor Jared Polis kind of flipped the argument on freedom. He said yesterday, it was an easy decision to go with a mandate after he saw the data showing that, in his state, places with more masking had lower spread of the virus.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JARED POLIS: Masks are a ticket to more freedom. It makes it less likely that businesses will be shuttered. It makes it less likely that people will die. It makes it more likely school will return. If we care about those things, you're going to take that as a matter of personal responsibility to wear a mask, protect yourself, protect others, protect our economy.

AUBREY: So you hear him saying there, we all have a role here, David. By you wearing a mask, you could help reduce spread in your community and make it more likely schools could open in your area.

GREENE: Well, I mean that question - schools reopening - is one on the minds of so many people, so many parents obviously.

AUBREY: Yes.

GREENE: Key question about to what extent kids can spread the virus - do we know more now than we did, like, five months ago?

AUBREY: Sure. We know that kids get infected, though they usually have mild cases. The bigger question is to what extent they spread it. And there's still some uncertainty here. But increasingly, the evidence suggests that older kids - say, 10 and up, including teenagers - are more likely to spread it - not clear why. A new study from South Korea shows this. Contact tracers there documented thousands of contacts of people who got the virus. They found older kids 10 to 19 were more than twice as likely to spread it to others in their household compared to younger children.

GREENE: NPR's Allison Aubrey. Allison, thanks as always.

AUBREY: Thanks, David.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: This is the sound of protests in Portland, Ore. over the weekend.

(SOUNDBITE OF FIREWORKS, TEAR GAS FIRING)

MARTIN: Fireworks were set off, and tear gas canisters were fired at protesters. Demonstrators are still on the streets despite what happened last week when unidentified federal agents started arresting people without telling them the charges and then taking them away in unmarked cars. Oregon's governor, Kate Brown, is taking action. She ordered her state attorney general to file a lawsuit to block the federal government from taking similar actions again.

Jonathan Levinson of Oregon Public Broadcasting has been covering the protests since they started and joins us now on Skype. Jonathan, thanks for being here.

JONATHAN LEVINSON, BYLINE: Thanks for having me Rachel.

MARTIN: I mean, it was OPB that broke this story in the first place about how federal agents there were arresting people in this manner. Can you just get us up to speed? Give us a sense of how things have evolved over the last month.

LEVINSON: Protests have been going on here every night for weeks since George Floyd's killing. And the police, right off the bat, were responding with significant violence. They were using tear gas, which is an agent that makes you cough, that makes your nose run, your eyes and your skin burn. And they were using rubber bullets with protesters. An activist group and protesters sued the city. And last month, they won a temporary restraining order limiting law enforcement's use of tear gas and rubber bullets. But significantly, it didn't apply to federal law enforcement.

MARTIN: So Jonathan, how's the Trump administration explaining the presence of federal agents there?

LEVINSON: So President Trump has called the protests here out of control. And last Friday, Ken Cuccinelli, the acting deputy secretary of Homeland Security, seemed to place the blame for the restrictions on Portland police at Mayor Ted Wheeler's feet when he was interviewed on NPR's All Things Considered.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

KEN CUCCINELLI: It's not made any easier when you have somebody like Mayor Wheeler who holds back, to a certain extent, his own law enforcement.

LEVINSON: So that's Cuccinelli on NPR basically blaming the mayor for the restrictions in the temporary restraining order. The officers that are here are from the U.S. Marshals Special Operations Group, a SWAT-like unit from Customs and Border Protection and the Federal Protective Service. They started taking a more active role clearing protesters from around the courthouse on July 1.

MARTIN: And - I mean, it's my understanding they're there because - their justification, anyway, is that they're protecting federal property. Explain that.

LEVINSON: Yeah, that's right. They were sent here to protect federal property is what we've been told. But on the Fourth of July, there was a really big turnout at the protests. A lot of people were setting off fireworks, and the federal police made this really big show of force. They came out in large numbers, dispersed the crowd. But this time, they continued across the street into the park and then continued for blocks into the city, right alongside the Portland police. And then a week ago, a protester was shot in the head with a less lethal round, and he was severely injured. The U.S. Marshals say they're investigating that.

Last week, we found out federal police are using unmarked vehicles to grab people off the street. Cuccinelli confirmed in an NPR interview that that is a tactic that they're using. And on Saturday night, they beat a 53-year-old Navy veteran with a baton and fractured his hand. On Weekend Edition yesterday, the mayor blamed the federal police for actually making things worse.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TED WHEELER: We believed a week ago it would be over by this weekend. But what happened instead is the feds stepped in with a very heavy-handed approach, and it blew the lid off the whole thing.

MARTIN: So we heard what the governor is doing. What about other state and local leaders - what's their response?

LEVINSON: Yeah, officials are pushing back. Oregon Senators Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden say they plan to introduce an amendment to the defense bill preventing what Merkley called paramilitary squads from being sent onto American streets. And the Oregon Department of Justice is suing federal agencies. And the attorney general may pursue criminal charges against the officer who shot the protester.

MARTIN: Jonathan Levinson of OPB. Thank you.

LEVINSON: Thank you.

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