Virus forces cancellation of iconic events like Oktoberfest

ATLANTA (AP) — Spain called off the Running of the Bulls in July, the U.S. scrapped the national spelling bee in June and Germany canceled Oktoberfest five months away, making it clear Tuesday that the effort to beat back the coronavirus and return to normal could be a long and dispiriting process.

Amid growing impatience over the shutdowns that have thrown tens of millions out of work, European countries continued to reopen in stages, while in the U.S., one state after another — mostly ones led by Republican governors — outlined plans to gradually get back to business.

All indications are that some businesses won’t necessarily spring back to life once they get the all-clear.Mark Lebos, owner of Strong Gym in Savannah, Georgia, where Gov. Brian Kemp announced plans to let gyms reopen this week, said it would be professional negligence to do so right now.

“We are not going to be a vector of death and suffering,” he said.

With deaths and infections still rising around the world, the push to reopen has set off warnings from health authorities that the crisis that has killed well over 170,000 people globally is far from over and that relaxing the stay-at-home restrictions too quickly could enable the virus to come surging back.

The economic damage mounted as stocks dropped around the world and oil prices suffered an epic collapse.

A barrel of U.S. oil to be delivered in May was $5.38 in morning trading, or a little more than the cost of a fancy latte. A day earlier, the price was negative for the first time ever, with the market so glutted with oil and running out of places to store it that sellers were essentially offering to pay buyers almost $38 a barrel just to take it off their hands.

Meanwhile, U.N. leaders called for efforts to ensure that all people have access to testing, medical supplies, drugs and future vaccines, especially in developing countries where virus cases are rising.

African officials have been outspoken about the need for medical supplies across the 54-nation continent, where health care systems are weak and could become overwhelmed.Even under a best-case scenario, Africa will need $44 billion for testing, personal protective equipment and treatment of coronavirus, according to a U.N. report. The worst-case scenario estimates $446 billion. The continent has recorded more than 1,100 deaths.

In Europe, Denmark, Austria, Spain and Germany began allowing some people back to work, including hairdressers, dentists and construction workers, and some stores were cleared to reopen or will soon get the OK.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said the government will be watching carefully and will “pull the emergency brake” if necessary.

Spain, among the worst-hit countries, will also begin allowing children out of their homes for brief periods next Monday. Denmark’s Tivoli Gardens, the Copenhagen amusement park that inspired Walt Disney, will reopen on May 11.

But in an indication that it will be a long time before life returns to normal, Spain canceled its Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, the more than 400-year-old event made world-famous by Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 novel “The Sun Also Rises.” It was also called off during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s.

The U.S. canceled the Scripps National Spelling Bee. The competition has been held since 1925 and was last scrubbed in 1945, during World War II.

“Our hearts go out to the spellers who won’t get their final shot at winning,” said Paige Kimble, executive director.

The U.S. has recorded more than 42,000 deaths — the highest in the world — and nearly 800,000 infections. according to a Johns Hopkins University count, though the true figures around the world are believed to be much higher, in part because of limited testing, difficulties in counting the dead and efforts by some governments to hide the extent of their outbreaks.

Germany called off the centuries-old Oktoberfest beer festival in Munich, which draws about 6 million visitors each year. It was previously canceled during the two world wars; during a period of hyperinflation in Germany in 1923; and because of cholera outbreaks in the 1800s.

“We agreed that the risk is simply too high,” Bavarian governor Markus Soeder said.

In Italy, Premier Giuseppe Conte confirmed that businesses can start reopening on May 4 but doused any hopes of a full end to the country’s strict lockdown.

“Many citizens are tired of the efforts that have been made so far and would like a significant loosening of these measures, or even their total abolition,” Conte said on Facebook. ”A decision of that kind would be irresponsible.’’

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In the U.S., some states, including South Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia and Colorado, announced plans to begin reopening in stages in the coming days. Governors and local officials from many other states said they need help from Washington in ramping up testing first, warning they could get hit by a second wave of infections.

Political tensions were high. Some sheriffs in Washington state, Michigan and Wisconsin said they won’t enforce stay-at-home orders. The governors of those states have faced mounting calls to ease restrictions and have been targeted by protesters egged on by President Donald Trump, frustrated over the tanking economy.

Kristin Allin, who with her husband owns Bread and Butterfly restaurant and Proof Bakeshop in Atlanta, said they were caught off guard when Georgia’s governor announced that restaurants could reopen for dine-in service within a week. They said they may remain closed for a month or more.

“I think most of our customers are not ready to venture out yet,” she said.

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said that governors easing off restrictions had better have the facts on their side or they could trigger a resurgence of the virus beyond their states’ borders.

“If some of these reopenings are done the wrong way, it’s going to affect all of us,” de Blasio said on CNN.


Pledge brings Ohio neighborhood together — at a distance

KETTERING, Ohio (AP) — The idea came about because Jennifer Stamper was trying to make her family’s “new normal” feel a little bit more like their old one.

Now, just before 9 a.m. on school days she and her children join others on their street who come to the end of their driveways — no closer because of social-distancing guidelines — and together, hands over hearts, recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

That’s how 9-year-old son Zach and 7-year-old daughter Juliette would start the day if they were in the classroom, but schools were ordered closed March 12 to try to stop the spread of COVID-19. Now the siblings take turns holding the flag at the end of the driveway.

The kids usually are out on the porch at 8:45, to see who’s joining them that day. Most days there are at least a couple dozen people.

“My kids, when this first started, they were having trouble sleeping at night,” said Stamper, 49. “The whole purpose of this fleeting thought of mine was let’s just have something that we do every morning at 9 o’clock that’ll be normal. And it wasn’t in any way going to be a platform, nothing political, nothing else. It was just, we love our kids and we want them to have some sense of normal.”

When schools first closed last month, Stamper floated the Pledge proposal via text to neighbors who also were establishing new routines and looking for ways to cope.


The average U.S. worker can no longer afford a family of four, says study

A conservative think tank’s latest report suggests that U.S. workers’ earnings aren’t keeping up with rising costs of living. The “Cost of  Thriving” report, published by the Manhattan Institute, states that the median U.S. male worker now has to earn more than a year’s salary to pay for just the basic annual expenses a family of four will require—i.e., housing, health care, education, and transportation.

Those four categories of expenses average $54,441 total. And an average male worker in 2018 had to work 53 weeks to earn that much, according to the report.

“This is a problem, as there are only 52 weeks in a year,” wrote Oren Cass, the report’s lead author. Cass based the index on U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates for the median weekly earnings of men who are working full-time and over 25 years of age.

By comparison, an average male worker in 1985 needed to work only 30 weeks to cover these basic costs. At that time, they added up to $13,227.

The average female worker is even more at a disadvantage, according to Cass. He found that whereas she needed to work 45 weeks to pay for the four basic expenses in 1985, she would have had to work 66 weeks in 2018.

Both men and women are accordingly below the “cost of thriving” line, the report finds, concluding that a single-earning household can no longer thrive on the median U.S. income.

Slow wage growth may be part of the problem, according to another study by SuperMoney. This report finds that workers ages 25 to 34 have seen only a $29 income increase, adjusted for inflation, since 1974; and adults ages 35-44 and 45-54 have made inflation-adjusted income increases of $2,900 and $5,400 in that time frame.


Justice Department Charges Chinese Military Officers With Hacking Into Equifax

The U.S. Justice Department has indicted four Chinese military officers with orchestrating a massive breach of credit agency Equifax’s private data on consumers and businesses. The indictments came about after a two-year investigation into what Justice officials said was the largest known theft of personally identifiable information in history.

“This was a deliberate and sweeping intrusion into the private information of the American people,” said Attorney General William Barr, releasing the indictment. “Today, we hold PLA hackers accountable for their criminal actions, and we remind the Chinese government that we have the capability to remove the Internet’s cloak of anonymity and find the hackers that nation repeatedly deploys against us.

The officers–Wu Zhiyong, Wang Qian, Xu Ke, and Liu Lei–serve in China’s People’s Liberation Army, according to the Justice Department.

Justice officials said in a press briefing that they are limited in the actions they can take against the four suspects. FBI Deputy Director David Bodich told reporters at a press briefing that Justice is unable to arrest them or put them in jail, for example.

Barr said that the hack is part of a pattern of state-sponsored cyber intrusions that China has been engaging in for purposes of gaining trade secrets and consumers’ personal information. He noted similar data breaches at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, Marriott hotels, and health insurer Anthem. The Chinese military might use the stolen consumer data to aid the development of artificial-intelligence tools and intelligence-targeting systems, he said.

Equifax first reported the data breach in September 2017, warning that the hackers had accessed the birth dates, Social Security numbers, physical addresses, and driver’s license numbers of 147 million Americans. The Federal Trade Commission announced in January that it has set aside $425 million to help those affected by the breach.


Scientists detect mysterious repeating radio signal from space

A mysterious radio signal from a distant galaxy has Canadian and U.S. researchers baffled. In a recently published paper, the researchers said that the radio signal, which repeats regularly every 16.35 days, is unlike any they have ever detected from an object in space.

The signal comes from a galaxy about 500 million light years away and consists of “fast radio bursts” that occurred about once an hour for four days, stopped, and started again 12 days later, according to the researchers. They said that this cycle repeated itself for more than a year. The bursts first appeared in analyses of data from the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment, a radio telescope that groups of Canadian scientists are collaboratively using to study space phenomena.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where several of the paper’s coauthors are based, said in a statement that the signal is probably a celestial object and not aliens. It’s too big for a civilization, even a spacefaring one, to be sending it, the statement said: “Even a highly intelligent species would be very unlikely to produce energies like this. And there is no detectable pattern so far that would suggest there’s a sentient hand at play.”

Some researchers speculate that the source is a planet or other object orbiting a star. The signals cease when the object moves behind the object it is orbiting and the signals are thereby obstructed from reaching Earth, they suggest. They do not know how the object would be sending out these signals on a regular basis, however.

Astronomers have detected fast radio bursts from objects in space before. Most last for only a few milliseconds, and it is thus difficult to determine where they come from.


Black voters shifting toward Bloomberg, away from Biden

New York billionaire Michael Bloomberg is chipping away at former vice-president Joe Biden’s strong support among black voters, a new Quinnipiac University Poll suggests. The poll found black support for Bloomberg rising to 22%, while Biden’s support is now down to 27%.

Black voters are considered a key base for the Democratic primaries in general and for Biden’s campaign in particular. Bloomberg’s rising numbers is therefore an ominous sign for the Biden campaign.

“This spells trouble for the VP,” said one Democratic strategist who is unaffiliated with any of the presidential campaigns.

Black voters will be a dominant bloc in the South Carolina primary, which takes place later this month. The Biden campaign cancelled some planned events in New Hampshire on Tuesday to head to South Carolina, in a sign that Biden sees reason to worry.

Biden finished fifth in New Hampshire’s primary Wednesday, which Senator Bernie Sanders won with 26% of the vote; and was the fourth-place candidate in Iowa. Democratic strategist Joel Payne said that these weak performances by Biden may be causing some black voters to peel away from him and toward other candidates who seem more likely to win.

Bloomberg has spent hundred of millions on ads in states that will host their primaries on Super Tuesday while completely foregoing New Hampshire and the other early primary states. Payne said that while Biden falters, Bloomberg’s message may look like “more of a sure thing.”

Bloomberg has faced questions about his record as mayor, in particular the city police’s disproportionate use of “stop-and-frisk” against residents of color. He defended himself in a statement Friday in which he said that he only “inherited” the practice and that he cut it back by 95% but regrets not having acted against it sooner.


Newly discovered secret chambers in King Tut’s tomb may hold Queen Nefertiti

King Tut’s tomb continues to surprise us. Nearly 80 years after its discovery, archaeologists have uncovered evidence of never-before-seen hidden chambers that may house the long-sought remains of Egyptian Queen Nefertiti.

The researchers, led by former Egyptian Minister of Antiquities Mamdouh Eldamaty, were scanning the walls of Tut’s tomb using radar technology that can reveal what lies behind opaque objects. According to the findings they shared with Nature Magazine, their scans indicated an unidentified space behind the burial chamber. This space appears to measure 33 feet long and 7 feet high, they said.

Eldamaty’s team speculates that this space, if it exists, may be part of a larger network of hidden chambers deep in the tomb. Some Egyptologists have speculated these chambers’ existence for years but never had the means to prove it.

The team said that within these chambers might lie the burial site of Nefertiti, Tut’s stepmother—she was the wife of Tut’s father, King Akhenaten. Her remains have never been found.

Some researchers have reached opposite conclusions. Italian physicist Francesco Porcelli, for example, examined the tomb in 2017 and concluded that there was no evidence of hidden chambers.

But Ray Johnson, an Egypt-based University of Chicago Egyptologist who was not involved in the research, said that he finds Eldamaty and colleagues’ results convincing and “tremendously exciting.” He told Nature that “Clearly there is something on the other side of the north wall of the burial chamber.”

Tut—short for Tutankhamen—became ruler of Egypt circa 1332 BCE as a chile but only reigned nine years before dying at the age of 19. British archaeologist Howard Carter first unearthed his tomb in 1922.


Atheists more likely than churchgoers to have cats

The more you go to church, the less likely you are to own a cat, according to a new article in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. The authors, Samuel Perry of the University of Oklahoma and Ryan Burge of Eastern Illinois University, reported finding a statistical correlation between rarely or never attending church and owning one or more cats.

There is “a strong, negative correlation between worship attendance and cat ownership,” they wrote. The authors based their findings on 2018 data of pet ownership nationwide.

They found that pet ownership in general trends downward in relation to church attendance. The average number of pets owned by a person who never goes to church is 1.96, according to their study. The average dips to 1.5 for a person who attends church almost weekly, and goes further down to 1.38 for a person who attends church more than once a week.

But cat ownership skews especially higher among those who do not attend church, they noted. Conversely, they found no significant difference in rates of dog ownership between churchgoers and those who do not go to church.

The authors posited that religious communities provide social connections, and frequent churchgoers feel less need for the companionship that pets provide–whereas someone who is not part of a church community may feel more of a need for pets. Also, frequent church attendance cuts into time that a person can commit to taking care of pets.

“Americans more deeply embedded within a religious community may have less need (or time) for pets generally, and specifically more independent “roommate pets,” like cats,” they wrote.


Hospital workers nationwide protest: “We can’t afford health care”

Health-care workers across the United States are launching union drives and organizing protests to demand better working conditions and pay. Worker unions and workers trying to form unions say that the hospital systems exploit them and that they themselves are often unable to afford adequate health care, even though they work in the sector.

“We’re overworked and underpaid,” said Bill Gentry, an EMT and CAN at Advocate Aurora Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, Illinois. “You would think because we take care of people, our benefits would reflect that, but I’m currently on my wife’s insurance because I can’t afford the health insurance offered by the hospital.”

Illinois unions are trying to jumpstart a new union at four local hospitals, including Aurora, where Gentry said that he makes just $18 an hour with unaffordable health insurance and is often forced to take on tasks outside his job description, despite having worked at the hospital for 23 years.

Other efforts to form a union are ongoing at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. Alexandria Cutler, a center food-service attendant who is leading the effort, said that she has $2,000 in medical debt from a work-related injury and is struggling to pay it due to the low wages.

Hospital workers in Las Vegas, meanwhile, are rallying to stop proposed cuts in their latest union contract with Valley Hospital Medical Center. The medical center is proposing to cut wages by $3 an hour and to eliminate pension and health benefits and a guaranteed 40-hour work week. And it fired three employees last November, all of whom were union stewards.


U.S. forces lost track of massive amounts of weapons behind in Syria, says Pentagon

Hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of U.S. weaponry may have been lost or stolen in war zones in Syria, warns a new Pentagon report. The report, released Tuesday by the Defense Department Inspector General, finds that U.S. forces failed to keep track of around $715 million of weapons that they had sent to U.S. allies during the fight against Islamic State militants.

Officials with Special Operations Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve (SOJTF-OIR) and the 1st Theater Sustainment Command (TSC) were responsible for accounting for the weapons and failed to do so, according to the report. The Military Times, a defense news publication, explained that SOJTF-OIR oversees a fund to train and equip Syrian forces to combat the Islamic State and decides which weapons and equipment these forces require. It said that the 1st TSC oversaw storage of the arms at a warehouse in Kuwait and their transfers to other warehouses near the Syrian border.

The inspector general’s report found that thousands of weapons were “vulnerable to loss or theft.” Officials could not say for certain if any hardware had been lost or stolen, however, due to improper accounting.

Accounting errors also caused cost duplicate orders, resulting in cost overruns and overflow of equipment into the warehouses, the report also said. It also stated that many weapons suffered damage due to improper storage in outside shipping containers as storage space ran low.

The report said that SOJTF-OIR and the 1st TSC will organize a new shared drive to establish a centralized inventory of all the equipment. All unserviceable gear and weapons will be disposed of to free up more warehouse space, it said.