Schools, Voting, Coronavirus : The NPR Politics Podcast As Congress stagnates on aid and Biden's convention duties go virtual, states are feeling the pain of the coronavirus. More than 150 thousand Americans have died and that number is growing by more than a thousand a day.

In Georgia, schools are reopening — many in person. In California, disagreements abound about the best path forward. And, what will the election look like under these conditions?

This episode: campaign correspondent Asma Khalid, campaign correspondent Kelsey Snell, Scott Shafer of KQED, and Emma Hurt of WABE.

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Different Approaches, Same Pain: Georgia And California Struggle To Curb Covid-19

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Different Approaches, Same Pain: Georgia And California Struggle To Curb Covid-19

Different Approaches, Same Pain: Georgia And California Struggle To Curb Covid-19

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SUSAN: (Speaking Korean). Hello. This is Susan (ph) from South Korea. I'm recording this to welcome my lovely husband to this amazing pod. After years of boring him with all the details I've learned from the POLITICS team, he's finally started listening to the pod. This podcast was recorded at...

ASMA KHALID, HOST:

2:12 p.m. on Wednesday, August 5.

SUSAN: Things may have changed by the time you hear this. OK, here's the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIG TOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: That's exciting. That is some devoted recruitment effort right there.

KHALID: I was going to say - that's a good word, recruitment. I was like, are we indoctrinating new listeners?

SNELL: (Laughter).

KHALID: Whatever it is, thank you for joining us. Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the presidential campaign.

SNELL: I'm Kelsey Snell. I cover Congress.

KHALID: And today, I thought we ought to talk about the coronavirus. The pandemic continues to grow more dire. Here in the United States, 1,000 or more people die every day, and the total death toll is now more than 150,000. President Trump continues to tell the country that the virus will just disappear. But the truth is, it won't. And that doesn't mean just changes in all of our day-to-day lives, but also in the political world. In fact, just today, I got word that Joe Biden will no longer be traveling to Milwaukee to accept the Democratic nomination in person. He intends to just give a speech in Delaware instead. And, in fact, the convention will have no in-person speakers traveling to Wisconsin at all. I mean, it's going to essentially be an all-virtual convention.

SNELL: I guess we sort of expected that there would be some modifications. But it is kind of wild if you think about it to be in an election year and to have essentially a party for a political party that's happening on Zoom. Like, that's crazy.

KHALID: So, Kelsey, you know, in terms, though, of Congress, I mean, that's not virtual. It is still here in Washington, and people are still debating issues, and, you know, most notably another coronavirus package.

SNELL: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer have been meeting with Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, and Steven Mnuchin, the Treasury secretary, for a couple weeks now. And they have been having these lengthy meetings, mostly in Speaker Pelosi's office. And they say that they're inching forward, but they're really far apart on some pretty major elements, particularly how to handle the unemployment insurance portion of this.

So just as a reminder, the $600 in extra federal unemployment benefits that unemployed people had access to each week, those expired. This has real human consequences because the number of people estimated to be receiving those additional $600 in benefits is about 30 million people. So there are a lot of people out there who are waiting for Congress to do something.

KHALID: That's a lot. That is a lot. So, you know, Kelsey, I think that it would be helpful for us to hear how the politics of this all is playing out at the state level around the country. And so we've brought on a couple of our public radio friends who have very graciously agreed to join us here on the podcast. We've got Scott Shafer of KQED in San Francisco. Hey there, Scott.

SCOTT SHAFER, BYLINE: Hey. Good to be with you.

KHALID: And also we've got Emma Hurt of WABE in Atlanta. Hey there to you, Emma.

EMMA HURT, BYLINE: Hi, everybody.

KHALID: So, Emma, why don't we start with you? You're in Georgia, and it's really interesting to me because I was, you know, recently in both the Midwest and Florida, and both of these areas struck me as having kind of permissive policies with dealing with the pandemic. And in Georgia, it seems like you all have seen the number of deaths rise. So can you explain what the situation feels like there on the ground now?

HURT: Yeah. I think it's very true that our Republican Governor Brian Kemp has tried to make, you know, personal choice as much as possible a part of his coronavirus response and not mandating things where he doesn't think it's necessary. And the big thing recently that's caught a lot of headlines there would be masks. So he's repeatedly resisted calls for a mask mandate statewide. And so in terms of the numbers here, we have seen in the last month, couple weeks, a dramatic rise in cases and deaths and our hospitalization rate. Recently we're seeing those numbers plateau largely - plateau at this higher mark, though. So, I mean, if you look at our full year of coronavirus cases, we are far and away above where we were in March and April.

KHALID: And, Scott, California seems to have had a lot more stringent rules around how to deal with the pandemic than Georgia. But it also seems to have seen cases grow recently. So what's been going on there with you all?

SHAFER: Yeah. I mean, California was probably the first state in the nation to really lock down back in March, and Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom, you know, was pretty proud. He flatten the curve, the rate of positive testing was fairly low, low hospitalizations and all that. But then by Memorial Day, the state started relaxing restrictions. There were some political pressure in some of the more conservative parts of the state, and he allowed counties to reopen assuming that they promised to meet the guidelines, you know, that state health officials had set.

And then we began to see those numbers ticking up. And now, we have more than a half-million positive cases, and I think that's more than any other state in the country. We're approaching 10,000 deaths. We'll get to that point any day now. So clearly, it's not under control. And you've got local officials in places like even San Francisco and Santa Clara counties, which really were among the strictest, saying that they're now concerned about surging infections there. So it is, you know, as it is in Georgia, very much - I don't want to say out of control, but certainly not under control here in California.

SNELL: Scott, I'm wondering how the economic portion of this is playing out. I mean, are there high unemployment numbers in California related to this?

SHAFER: Absolutely. And, you know, we're continuing to see, you know, many, many people - millions of people - applying for unemployment insurance. I mean, just looking at the state budget, there are $14 billion - with a B - $14 billion in trigger cuts that are going to take effect if Congress doesn't act and get some money to the state and local governments. So we have a lot riding on what Congress does back here on the West Coast.

SNELL: But Georgia took a really different approach on this, and you guys opened up a lot more. Have you seen the same kind of impact on unemployment?

HURT: We've definitely seen an impact on unemployment. Our rate is over 7%. But as our governor has pointed out, he looks at California, for example, and says, you know, because we reopened earlier, because we've been trying to help businesses make this work during the pandemic, we're a lot better off than we could be.

KHALID: Emma, that's really interesting, and I will say it almost is kind of confusing because, you know, from afar it looks like Georgia and California are these two states that took radically different approaches, and yet they're both being hit pretty badly by the virus at this point in time. And it will, I should say, leaves me kind of, like, dumbfounded.

HURT: I think that you're right, Asma. It leaves people scratching their head a bit. At the same time, you know, a lot of people in Georgia still wish we were doing more, that the government was putting more restrictions on people overtly. But Governor Kemp would say this is something that has to happen by choice, and government isn't going to be the answer here. I can put in a mask mandate, but if people don't wear them, how can I possibly enforce that?

KHALID: All right. Well, let's take a quick break, and when we get back from the break, we'll have more to talk about.

All right, and we're back. And, Emma, we are now less than three months away from Election Day. And in Georgia, there are a lot of important races on the ballot. There's obviously the presidential election, which NPR actually now rates as a tossup there in Georgia, but there's also the Senate seats. Both of them are up. And you were, in fact, just out yesterday covering one of the Senate candidates. Is that right?

HURT: Yeah, I was up in north Georgia covering an event for Doug Collins in Ellijay. And so that's in our special election seat, the seat currently held by Senator Kelly Loeffler, and she's facing a free-for-all election in November with 20 other people on the ballot, including Doug Collins, who's her most formidable Republican opponent.

SNELL: Emma, we should say that this is a wild race that has been really interesting to watch.

HURT: Yeah. So it's been confusing and difficult, particularly for the Democrats on this side in this race, to get their message out when you have Senator Loeffler and Congressman Collins in this kind of all-out intraparty fight dramatically.

KHALID: So, Emma, there's all these races that are going to be occurring. How does the state intend to actually administer the elections in the midst of a pandemic?

HURT: Yeah, we had some bad press in June on our primary election with long lines and issues at the polling places. And so counties, you know, which administer elections are trying to figure out what to do differently in advance. We have a runoff next week for some races, and so that will give counties kind of a lower turnout election to work some of these kinks out.

But the big difference looking into November is that while the secretary of state made a really unprecedented decision to send absentee ballot applications to all registered voters for the June primary, they've decided not to do that in November, that it's too expensive and too much really for counties to handle. So given that there was record absentee turnout in Georgia, just like everywhere else in June, you know, you have to wonder how that step will affect accessibility in November.

KHALID: Yeah. And, Scott, what about California? I mean, I know that you all have a pretty extensive mail-in ballot registration program as it is, that you all have had for years.

SHAFER: Yeah, exactly. I mean, for many, many years, as long as I've been in California, you can request an absentee ballot, a mail-in ballot, without any excuse, and you can do it permanently so you don't have to keep redoing it every election. And so in 2018, for example, a majority of the votes cast in that midterm election were cast by mail. And so we're used to doing it that way. That said, in May, Governor Newsom issued an executive order saying to the registrar of voters in all the counties, please send a ballot to all voters, whether or not they asked for one. He was sued, so the legislature then passed legislation to codify that. So that is now the law in California.

And, of course, President Trump loves singling out California as a place where fraud is rampant, even though there is very little evidence of that. In fact, I have been talking with election officials in Republican, red counties that Trump won, to ask them if they share the president's concerns about voter fraud, and not a single one said that they did.

KHALID: Are there any concerns that because of the president's rhetoric, that actually might affect Republican participation in mail-in voting this year?

SHAFER: Yeah. There was actually a poll. It was conducted by a Democratic pollster, so you have to take it perhaps with a grain of salt, but it did indicate that there could be a slight disadvantage for Republican voters who feel perhaps that they can't trust mail-in ballots. And then, you know, if you live in a rural county, there aren't going to be these neighborhood, nearby polling places. They're going to go to these regional vote centers. And so if you're - if you don't have confidence in voting by mail but you're maybe a little concerned about or you can't get to a more distant voting center, it could reduce the number of Republicans who end up voting. But, of course, we haven't seen that yet. And counties are scrambling to find places that are big enough so you can have social distancing if people do want to vote in person. But, you know, in a lot of these smaller counties they don't have a lot of options for those kinds of facilities.

SNELL: You know, two of the things that are really holding up the coronavirus package in Congress right now are money for the Postal Service and money for elections. And I think that it's really interesting to see how this is playing out, both for you guys on the ground and the way Congress is debating it. You know, the other thing that they're kind of hung up on is money for schools. I'm wondering if your states are starting to grapple with the idea of getting kids back into classrooms.

SHAFER: Well, California definitely is. And there's a new poll out this week in California that shows only 14% of Californians want schools to do normal education, where you've got teachers in the classrooms with students. They prefer either a hybrid mix of in-school and remote or online only. So it's a real - both financial and a political and social mess, really.

HURT: It's the same here. It's a mess. But we did see this week some school districts actually start to open on Monday. So there are a few counties in kind of exurban Atlanta, one of which is called Cherokee County, and already on Tuesday, yesterday, an entire second-grade class had to quarantine because a student tested positive after attending the first day of school. And that's the kind of, you know, fear that is driving all of these decisions, right? And so across the metro area particularly and across the state, we've got a lot of virtual plans, some attempts to put together a phased approach. But it's a patchwork of some are mandating masks, some are strongly encouraging them. And it's wild to try to keep track of as a reporter. I can't even imagine being a parent.

KHALID: All right, well, let's leave it there for today. Emma, Scott, thank you both so much.

SHAFER: Thank you.

HURT: Thanks for having us.

KHALID: That's Emma Hurt of WABE in Atlanta and Scott Shafer of KQED in San Francisco. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the presidential election.

SNELL: And I'm Kelsey Snell. I cover Congress.

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

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIG TOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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